In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Water Management

  • Introduction
  • General Overview

Chinese Studies Water Management
James E. Nickum
  • LAST REVIEWED: 24 April 2019
  • LAST MODIFIED: 24 April 2019
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199920082-0174


Nature did China few favors in its allocation of water, either spatially or seasonally. The South has abundant water but little land that is easy to cultivate, while the much drier North and Northwest have extensive plains but limited rainfall, which when it comes is concentrated strongly in the summer months, followed by long dry winters. Under these circumstances, water management in China is a holding company of wicked problems, including floods, droughts, pollution, climate impacts, hydropower development, environmental degradation, urbanization on an unprecedented scale, and, recently, international waters. It is fair to conclude that the nature and fate of the Chinese state has been linked in large degree to extensive and continuous intervention in the hydraulic cycle, both to prevent harm (shuihai 水害) and to make beneficial use of water (shuili水利). Methods adopted for that intervention, discussed in separate entries in this chapter, have included dikes, irrigation, dams, interbasin transfers from water-abundant to water-scarce areas, and institutional reform. Attempts at institutional reform can themselves confront wicked problems of implementation in a polity of the size and complexity of China, with a governing system that, while changing in many ways under the People’s Republic, and especially in the recent reform period, remains one that is perhaps best characterized as one of “fragmented authoritarianism.” In the 21st century, the water needs of a globalized market economy and the growth of megacities, the exploitation of international waters (notably for hydropower), gigantic interbasin transfers, and water pollution have added to the complexity of water management, and to a fragmentation of scholarship on what falls under the expanding rubric of water management. An entrée to this expanding literature may be found in the individual sections of this bibliography.

General Overview

Ball 2016 provides a readable overview of the centrality of water in Chinese history, politics, and culture. The three volume set Zhongguo shuili shigao is a good introduction to the evolution of critical water management problems over time and how they were addressed, with a focus on the engineering. Nearly all discussions of the relationship between water management and the nature of the state begin with Wittfogel 1957 and its provocative assertion that the imperatives of the former determined the despotism of the latter. Later works, such as Elvin 2004, have a more nuanced, and usually more dynamic (often “environmental”), take on the relationship between water management and the imperial state. Lieberthal and Oksenberg 1988 provided us with the influential lens of “fragmented authoritarianism” for viewing post-1949 governance. For the current state of play, Magee 2013 provides a useful introduction the English-language political geography literature on China’s water issues, and Moore 2014 is a good exploration of the enduring and perhaps intensifying dilemmas of trying to address collective action problems plaguing water management in a centralized political system.

  • Ball, Phillip. The Water Kingdom. London: Bodley Head, 2016.

    A well-regarded science writer finds water flows through everything Chinese, including history, religion, and fine arts. An engaging overview, and a good place to start in understanding the centrality of water management in China.

  • Elvin, Mark. The Retreat of the Elephants: An Environmental History of China. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2004.

    Chapter 6, “Water and the Costs of System Sustainability” (pp. 115–164), finds hydraulic despotism “inadequate” in capturing “the unending battle between natural and human forces” (p. 128). It provides detailed discussions of the Yellow River from the 12th to 19th centuries, when it flowed south into the Huai River basin, and how the evolution of Hangzhou Bay from the Tang era illustrates the unending battle.

  • Lieberthal, Kenneth, and Michel Oksenberg. Policy Making in China: Leaders, Structures, and Processes. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1988.

    A seminal study arguing that China’s policymaking process is “fragmented authoritarianism,” characterized not by totalitarianism but the pursuit of self-interest by different political actors at different levels. Chapter 6, “The Three Gorges Dam” (pp. 269–338), focuses specifically on hydropower, in particular the history of the debate from the 1950s to 1986 on whether to construct the dam.

  • Magee, Darrin. “The Politics of Water in Rural China: A Review of English-Language Scholarship.” Journal of Peasant Studies 40 (2013): 1189–1208.

    DOI: 10.1080/03066150.2013.860135

    A good introduction to selected recent literature on the topic, with insights from non-China political geography literature and an overview of key problems, notably the South-North transfers, irrigation and drainage, hydropower, and industrial water pollution.

  • Moore, Scott. “Hydropolitics and Inter-jurisdictional Relationships in China: The Pursuit of Localized Preferences in a Centralized System.” China Quarterly 219 (2014): 760–780.

    DOI: 10.1017/S0305741014000721

    Using three different domains (dam construction, water allocation, and pollution), stresses that the centralized nature of China’s political system encourages strategic behavior on the part of local decision makers and makes interjurisdictional collective action problems, already severe, increasingly challenging.

  • Wittfogel, Karl A. Oriental Despotism. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1957.

    Elaborating Marx’s suggestion that there is an “Asiatic mode of production,” asserts that, at a certain level of economic development, a “hydraulic society” such as found in the Mideast, India, and China is governed by a state with totalitarian control over that society.

  • Zhongguo shuili shigao (中国水利史稿). Beijing: Shuili Dianli Chubanshe (水利电力出版社), 1977–1989.

    A well-illustrated, multiyear, multiauthor overview of water resources development, focusing on irrigation, river control, and canals, from the beginnings to the founding of the People’s Republic. Vol. 1 (上冊), 1977; Vol. 2 (中冊), 1979; Vol. 3 (下冊), 1989. Vol. 1 (上冊) available online.

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