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In Session: Technology and the Everyday across Post-War Asia
1: Everyday Hydraulics in 1950s China
Friday, March 26, 2021
3:00pm – 4:30pm EDT
Harvard University, United States
In 1959, Zhang Hanying (张含英; 1900-2002), Vice-Minister for Water Conservancy, told a team of visiting Indian water and soil experts that during the first five-year plan period (1953-57), the Chinese had constructed over 40,000 small reservoirs. This startling figure immediately calls into question the received wisdom that it was the Great Leap Forward (1958-1962) that marked the first concerted push toward building hydraulic infrastructure in the People’s Republic. Even more significantly, it focuses attention on the vast number of smaller scale hydraulic projects that were initiated at the village- and county-level. Unlike mega dams, which evoke grand technocratic plans and visions of cutting-edge engineering, these smaller scale projects are suggestive of the importance of everyday technologies centered on local knowledge and local labor. In this paper, I use a handful of manuals on water conservancy (《水利工作手册》) that were published in the mid-1950s to understand the nature of this smaller scale activity—what kinds of dams and reservoirs were built? With what kinds of technology, skills, expertise, and materials? How were they maintained? Exploring these questions at the local level will, it his hoped, add to our understanding of the history of water management in modern China.