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China and Inner Asia
In Session: Local Histories of the Yellow River
3: Beyond Hydraulic Failure: River, State, and City in Late Qing Jinan
Wednesday, March 24, 2021
8:30am – 10:00am EDT
University of Cambridge, United Kingdom
In existing accounts, the inability of the Qing government to prevent or respond effectively to the northward shift of the Yellow River in 1855 encapsulates the weakness of the state at that time. Because of the river’s tremendous size, millions of people were affected by flooding both in the immediate aftermath and for decades afterwards. However, the scale and complexity of the Yellow River drainage system also produced diverse local effects, which this paper explores through the history of Jinan, the capital of Shandong Province, which lay immediately south of the river’s new course. Although Jinan’s new neighbor proved unruly and destructive, Jinan enjoyed several advantages that helped it avoid the even greater damage suffered by both rural areas and cities elsewhere on the river: endemic flooding upriver (in western Shandong) from 1855 to the late 1870s drained off floodwaters before they could reach Jinan; topographical features shielded the city itself even when flooding on the river’s lower reaches become much more frequent and severe starting in the 1880s; and the government invested considerably in hydraulic projects around Jinan in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. Jinan’s local history of the Yellow River thus offers a story of state resilience and robust cooperation between the government and local elites that confounds narratives of North China in the late Qing that suggest inexorable political, social, and environmental deterioration. Although Jinan’s history is distinctive, it suggests we need a more nuanced understanding of state effectiveness in North China as a whole.