The first is a simple matter of the life and death of those who live beside it. The Yangtze provides in sufficient abundance nutrient-rich water and a means of transport to support a population that is now almost as big as America and Western Europe combined—nearly half a billion people crammed into one almighty watershed. All other southern Chinese rivers save two flow into the Yangtze and all crops are watered by her. All the trading barges, the sampans, the passenger ferries and the junks (and since the beginning of the last century, all of southern China’s powered boats) use the Yangtze as their principal interprovincial highway. The hundreds of millions who live between Chengdu and the east coast rely completely for produce grown in the fields watered by the Yangtze. To get this produce to them, or to get whatever they make to their customers, they rely on the boats that travel on the natural highway it provides. With no Yangtze there would be no practicable means of shipping coal or ore or hay or stone; there would be no water and no irrigation, and if not this, then no rice, wheat, sorghum, or soy. China’s Red Basin, today as fertile as Kansas, would be, sans Yangtze, as dry as Mongolia. The entirety of southern China would only be capable of supporting a population of nomads, wandering men answerable to no one, paying fealty to no central authority.
The second set of reasons concerns that very authority. It remains a fact that centralized command in China was established initially, and perhaps surprisingly, for one overarching reason: to exercise control over the annual and devastating flooding of the Yangtze, the one critical natural phenomenon that had long plagued the fledgling country.
Topographic and climatic realities ensure that every spring the Himalayan and Tibetan snowmelts cause the headwaters of the Yangtze to swell enormously. By the time the rolling waves of water reach the Red Basin, another environmental factor enters into the equation: the southwest monsoon sweeps in from the sea, dumping untold quantities of rain into the swelling rivers. The results are invariably spectacular, often catastrophic. The river floods, tears down villages, destroys bridges, and drowns thousands. It has been happening for scores of centuries; it is a problem that has never been properly solved. The construction of the Three Gorges Dam is one of the devices by which modern technology hopes to do so. Such an ambitious project was unsurprisingly supported by Chairman Mao, who wrote in 1956: “Walls of stone will stand upstream to the west / Till a smooth lake rises in the narrow Gorges.” The dam is scheduled to provide 10 percent of China’s electrical needs—the same output of ten to twenty coal-burning stations—but Mao didn’t anticipate his dam would be so ill-built, nor perhaps did he care that millions of people would face the same prospect of basin-flooding: not natural and seasonal this time, but state-sanctioned and permanent.
The regular summertime Yangtze flooding created the stimulus for a development in ancient China which has endured like little else: a supranational bureaucracy. Wise ancients realized that the problems caused by a wayward river, rolling as it does from one region to another, could never be addressed adequately by regional authorities alone. A transnational body would have to be created to meet the challenges of a river that is a truly transnational entity. And so, some four thousand years ago, an emperor named Da Yü—Yü the Great, a legendary figure still revered today, a heroic visionary who assumed the duty of harnessing and taming his country’s wilder streams—took the first steps.
According to myth, Yü built cofferdams, dug spillways, carved diversion channels, and crucially, helped establish the first all-China bureaucracy both to manage the construction and deal with the country’s yearly flooding problems. With this bureaucracy there came government, and with this there came consistent rule, and law, and sets of shared goals. In time, these processes led to the unification of all of China. Out of the great mass of confusions that is known to historians as the Warring States Period came a united China.
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