Rivers of Empire, Trees of Nation: Environment and State in China’s Inner Asian Frontiers
3: Water on Sand: Building Irrigation in Early Republican Xinjiang
Friday, March 25, 2022
9:30am – 11:00am EST
Virtual Paper Presenter(s)
Georgetown University, United States
This paper examines the two sets of reports produced by the Xinjiang Hydrology Council during Yang Zengxin’s administration. In the three years (1915-1917) covered by the reports, the Council worked on strengthening existing irrigation networks, restoring deserted canals, and building new water infrastructure. It supervised the construction of 11 dams, 17 main irrigation canals and 47 branch canals, 2 dikes, 8 karez, and the repair of 5,599 zhang (12 miles) of dikes. By examining the details of these water projects, this paper stresses historical continuities between late Qing and early Republican Xinjiang. I argue that the governance of early Republican Xinjiang relied upon local knowledge, workforce, financing, and the collaboration of local elites. The water management of the early Republican Xinjiang faced the same social and environmental challenges as did the late Qing administration. Building on the existing irrigation system, local knowledge, and past experiences from the Qing period, the Republican government continued to expand the water infrastructure in order to increase stable tax revenue and settle more migrants in this vast territory, as well as to support Yang’s isolationist goals. Moreover, this paper suggests that we often need to read these sources against the grain and not spotlight Han officials in our study of Xinjiang. We need to prioritize social networks, expertise, and environmental dynamics on the ground, and put them at the center of the narrative.