FROM LAWS TO LEVEES

Methods of water control in the Qing dynasty

Andrew Scheineson, Columbia University

ABSTRACT


This article examines the governmental and social structures that supervised and ultimately failed to maintain the large and complex infrastructure of waterworks projects during the Qing dynasty. Water management has both historical and practical importance in China, as regime legitimacy was partially tied to ensuring the people's safety from natural disasters, like floods, and rivers were also vital for irrigation and transportation. With countless numbers of dikes, dams, and canals to maintain, the central and local governments, as well as local subjects, shared responsibility in a number of innovative ways, including democratic selection of managers in Shanghai County. Some systems worked, but in many others, conflicts between local and national interests and between public and self-interest arose, and weak central supervisory powers led to endemic corruption. As similar problems appear to exist in China today, this article will examine overarching themes of conflict of interests, bureaucratic inefficiency, corruption, and the difficulties inherent in managing water as a public good for lessons in the past that can inform the present.

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