The images of a torrent of muddy water engulfing the wide avenues of Zhengzhou, China, it can look like a scene from an apocalyptic sci-fi movie. But for China’s leaders, these images speak not only of a dystopian future, but also of past struggles and the question of the Chinese Communist Party’s mandate to rule.
Zhengzhou, a city of more than 10 million people, sits on the southern bank of the Yellow River, once known as China’s Pain for its catastrophic and recurring floods. Spring downpours and melting snow upriver in remote Qinghai province regularly broke the river banks. For millennia, China’s rulers tried to contain the deluge with hand-built levees that stretched thousands of kilometers, mostly without success.
Some historians argue that the administrative demands to coordinate manual labor on such a tremendous scale are what made China such a centralized, bureaucratic, and authoritarian state. For the German-American historian Karl Wittfogel, imperial China was the archetype “hydraulic civilization”, In which the dangers created by a precarious water situation justified a rigid social control.
As an account of how China came to be the way it is, Wittfogel’s thesis is too simplistic. But surely there is some truth to it, as the mythology of China attests. Like many cultures, China has the myth of a great flood in which a torrent of water threatens the entire civilization. However, in the myth of the floods of China, this problem was not solved by divine grace, but by a feat of civil engineering.
According to myth, an engineer named Da Yu supervised the carving of passages through the mountains and the dredging of sediment from the rivers to allow the flood water to drain into the sea. His success, the story goes, paved the way for him to found the Xia dynasty around 2100 BC. C. and succeed the legendary Five Emperors of China, the pantheon of the great rulers of prehistory.
The message of the flood myth was that the ability to manage China’s dangerous waters legitimizes the rulers of the state, while not doing so justifies their expulsion. As David Pietz, a historian of China, wrote, “The sanctioning power of myths, adapted and recounted to legitimize political authority, was expressed in a number of water management projects throughout history.” A ruler who can dominate the waterways as Da Yu did has the “mandate from heaven,” the divine right to rule.
No story better illustrates the hydraulic dimensions of China’s political history than efforts to control the floods of the Yellow River. Conceived during the Ming dynasty in the 15th century, the Yellow River Administration became the prototype of the Mandarin bureaucracy: an expensive monster burdened with petty officials and opportunistic parasites. When the ancient city of Kaifeng, downstream from Zhengzhou, was flooded by a breach in the levees in 1841, the cost to the Qing Emperor, already besieged by the opium wars with Great Britain, was unbearable. A second major flood two years later caused the dissolution of the water bureaucracy. With the levees neglected, another great flood in 1886-87 near Zhengzhou itself killed between 1 and 2.5 million and left the Qing dynasty dying. China came to be regarded internationally as a hopelessly backward state, ready to be exploited by Western powers.
Although Mao Zedong pretended to reject all ancient beliefs and superstitions in building the communist state of modern China, he could not ignore the powerful message that good water management conveyed about the right to rule. Its famous nothing in the yangtze They were not mere demonstrations of Putin-style machismo, but political theater that meant dominance over the waters. It’s also why Mao made flood control a priority, ordering the construction of hundreds of dams along China’s unruly waterways. Many were hastily (and poorly) built to impress party officials by coming under budget and ahead of schedule. Some have since collapsed.
Controlling the Yellow River was particularly symbolic. The first major dam on the river, built in the late 1950s in Sanmenxia, 200 km upstream from Zhengzhou, had the motto “When the Yellow River is at peace, the nation is at peace.” The mythical resonance is emphasized by a gigantic statue of Da Yu that stands guard on the cliff overlooking the dam.
Sanmenxia was poorly designed and never performed as it should, undermined by the heavy load of silt that gives the Yellow River its name. Today it serves as a perfect symbol of the Maoist era – neglected and loveless as huge machines slowly rust on its walls.
But China’s continuing obsession with big water projects shows that the Communist Party remains as determined as ever to claim the “mandate from heaven.” The Three Gorges Dam on the Yangtze, opened in 2003, is both a showcase for state power and an exercise in flood control and hydroelectric power generation.
So, then, the Zhengzhou flood will cause alarm in Beijing beyond the economic damage and loss of life. It serves as a reminder to the Xi Jinping administration that the consequences of the climate crisis, which will make extreme weather events more frequent, could shake the foundations of the Chinese state. The tribulations of China’s past give its leaders better reasons than most to appreciate how such troubles could lead to deep social unrest. For the sake of the world, we must expect them to heed the warning.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism