Andrew Singer Talks About China
Vol. 1, Issue 19
Worldwide weather has been off the charts tempestuous and deadly this summer. Central China recently felt its wrath with torrential rains and widespread flooding. Floods and flood control have a long history in China’s Imperial past. The “sponge city” program has been put forth in China as an ecological response and adaptation to climate change.
The Yellow River Roars
Chinese Art: The Colorful Terracotta Warriors
One More Thought
The Yellow River Roars
The Yellow River,known through the generations as China’s Sorrow, has struck again. Unprecedented storms in Central China in late July flooded major parts of the capital city of Zhengzhou in Henan Province as well as cities and villages in the greater area. Eighty percent (80%) of the annual rainfall (25 of 29 inches) poured from the sky in three days, including up to eight inches during one particularly unbelievable hour.
The rains, which ultimately lasted several more days, caused the Yellow River, tributary rivers, and web-like drainage canals to breach their banks.Reservoirs burst. Stormwater systems failed. And all of this happened with heartless speed and ferocity.
In Zhengzhou, stalled subway cars full of passengers filled with water, a new highway tunnel full of passenger vehicles filled with water,the first floors of residential towers and schools and hospitals and businesses filled with water, power and communications went down, and roads and fields were submerged.
The region has been devastated. Many have died. All have been impacted. Trapped residents were saved by heroic individual and organized rescue efforts. The damage is catastrophic, including the destruction at a minimum of many tens of thousands of cars.
Clean-up, repairs, disruption, and suffering will last for a long time. There is also now a new (though by American standards minor) outbreak of Covid-19 cases that have caused the entire city of ten million to be retested and quarantines to be re-imposed. Salt on the wound.
Though the storms were epic, this cycle of flooding and aftermath are merely the most recent manifestation of China’s Yellow River legacy. Water is a major theme threaded throughout Chinese history, philosophy, religion, politics, military, art, literature, and culture.
Water is life giving and life ending. Two thousand years ago, the great Han Dynasty historian Sima Qian is quoted as saying, “Inconceivably great are the benefits and the destruction which water can produce.”
The Yellow River is the second longest river in China and the fourth longest in the world. It flows (along with the other great river of China, the Yangtze) generally west to east across the Chinese landmass, albeit with a gigantic north-south detour into Inner Mongolia before heading down into the Chinese heartland.Beginning in the northern mountains of the far west, the Yellow River travels approximately 3,000 miles before (currently) emptying into the Bo Hai Gulf leading to the Yellow Sea.
The legendary Yellow Emperor is reputed to be the founder of Chinese culture, and it is said that he did so some 5,000 years ago along the middle reaches of the Yellow River. The Yellow River earned its moniker because of the thick loess silt that gums the river and gradually and unendingly raises the river bed, turning the water a turbid, yellowish soup.
It and the thousands of rivers of China breach their banks with callous regularity. Untold millions of people have died as a result of flooding over the millennia. Ruined crops have repeatedly led to famine and disease. Military conflict and political movement have followed their courses, as has economic growth and nourishment.
Controlling the rivers, for good and bad, has thus traditionally been important in China. Since ancient times, the Chinese have devoted significant bureaucratic and organizational efforts to the planning, designing, constructing, maintaining, and restoring of waterworks.
Dredging opens up silted rivers. Almost 1,000 years ago, the Song Dynasty government created a Yellow River Dredging Commission (1073) that deployed boats equipped with dredging equipment including an “iron dragon-claw silt dispersing machine” and the “river-deepening harrow.”
Dikes and channels tame the river waters and provide drainage and irrigation. Seawalls and floodwalls keep the waters at bay. Canals provide transportation corridors. China today has more 22,000 dams and tens of thousands of reservoirs.
The Chinese Imperial capital was relocated during the early Ming Dynasty at the turn of the fifteenth century from the Yangtse River basin in the south to Beijing in the north. Canals became critical for supplying the new capital with grain and a north-south access route for commerce as well as military and government travel.
The most important canal was the Grand Canal leading from Hangzhou in the faraway south, crossing the Yangtse, Huai, and Yellow Rivers, and traversing lakes on its course northward. One of the stated goals of the Kangxi and Qianlong Emperors of the Qing Dynasty in venturing on their repeated Southern Inspection Tours down the Grand Canal was to inspect the waterworks and infrastructure that were key to protecting people, crops, and livelihoods from the ravages of flood waters.
For all of the above notwithstanding, this two-minute video shot two weeks ago on a high-speed train traveling through the Xinxiang city area about fifty miles north of Zhengzhou is a reminder that the work to tame China’s waterways is never-ending and will often not be successful. The smooth, murky yellow terrain in the video is not the ground, but rather the river waters that have inundated and covered the land. The family narrating the video comments that the damage in Xinxiang is worse than in Zhengzhou.
The Colorful Terracotta Warriors
Less than 500 kilometers (300 miles) west of Zhengzhou is the Chinese city of Xian. The 2,000-year-old, terracotta army of China’s first emperor were discovered just outside of Xian, the ancient Chinese capital of Chang’an, in 1974. This many-thousand-strong, life-size, clay army of military men--some kneeling, most standing, with individual faces and hairstyles, was staged in precision formation and buried in the earth to protect the Qin Emperor in the afterlife. Crushed under the weight of centuries, thousands have been painstakingly restored.
These men wore stone armor and carried bronze weapons. There are bronze chariots with leather harnesses being led by teams of horses. Today, we are used to seeing the warriors in a drab, gray or tan clay. In actuality, however, each of the warriors was originally painted in vibrant colors.
“They [the statues] were lacquered, and bright with reds and blues and greens and purples – not just the uniforms, but the faces too.”The horses were painted white. The lacquer (made from tree sap) sealed the clay and made it receptive to hold paint. Unfortunately, the hard foundation substance suffered from age, fire, and looting, and once exposed to air, the paint and lacquer quickly flaked off, leaving the warriors as we know them today.
One More Thought
Can sponge cities make China an ecological civilization? This is one of Xi Jinping’s goals. The program (read more here) is an attempt to prepare a rapidly urbanized and urbanizing China to handle and respond to climate change.
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Photograph of Yellow River from en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Yellow_River#/
Photograph of flooded street from TNS
Photograph of highway tunnel from Associated Press
Photograph of damaged cars from AFP - Getty Images
Philip Ball, The Water Kingdom: A Secret History of China, University of Chicago Press, 2017, Page 22
Yellow River Map from en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Yellow_River#/
Philip Ball, The Water Kingdom: A Secret History of China, University of Chicago Press, 2017, Page 162
Photograph of Sanmenxia Dam by 周长武 - commons.wikimedia.org
Author’s personal photograph of warrior statues in formation
Author’s personal photograph of warrior statues being restored
Photograph of painted warrior statues from FB World History Group
John Man, The Terra Cotta Army, Da Capo Press, 2008, Page 148