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China and Inner Asia
In Session: Local Histories of the Yellow River
1: Rethinking the "China's Sorrow" Paradigm of Yellow River History
Wednesday, March 24, 2021
8:30am – 10:00am EDT
University of Pittsburgh, United States
In contemporary popular and political imagination, the imperial and twentieth century Yellow River was “China’s Sorrow” since time immemorial. That is to say, it is generally envisioned as a river that has always been prone to breach or overtop its levees at unpredictable intervals and sometimes to change course altogether, killing and uprooting millions of people each time it does so. At best, according to this conceptualization, the river created an impoverished sandy and saline floodplain landscape while consuming extraordinary quantities of state funding for creating and maintaining embankments, drainage canals, and other types of infrastructure.
In this paper, I demonstrate that this version of the Yellow River floodplain landscape represented merely the final decades in a version of the engineered Yellow River; that people and the river coexisted effectively during the eighteenth century; that the effectiveness of river management only declined during the nineteenth century; and that even during the final decades of the imperial river, people continued to make effective decisions about infrastructure management.
This paper, focused on the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, will also situate those centuries in the longue durée of Yellow River history. The methodology that permits this relies on a database of spatially and temporally referenced events in Yellow River history. The paper will introduce that database as well as the historical narrative, and it will include discussion about how to use an event database to reason about both large and small scales in time and place.