»  The Washington Times

January 24th, 2003

  Hydraulic Despotism


Before the Deluge
by Dierdre Chetham
Palgrave; 272 pp. $24.95

Fifty years ago the sinologist, political scientist and recovering Marxist Karl Wittfogel gave us his theory of "hydraulic despotism." Surveying the great imperial systems of the pre-industrial world, Wittfogel argued that their centralized, bureaucratic nature was a consequence of their having to organize great masses of manpower for water-management projects — dams, dikes, canals, and so on — in regions where rainfall was uneven or unreliable. He then suggested that this "hydraulic" mentality lingered on in the great totalitarian empires of the 20th century, and cited the Soviet passion for dam building as evidence.

Wittfogel's theories did not gain much acceptance and have now been pretty much forgotten. The building of great dams continues to be an obsession in at least one part of the world, though, a place whose rulers perceive themselves, quite consciously, to be the heirs of one of the oldest and greatest imperial despotisms of all. That place is China, where Wittfogel's inquiries began. The latest fruit of China's hydraulic fixation is the Three Gorges dam across the Yangtze River. The dam, which will be the biggest in the world when complete in 2009, is currently under construction at Sandouping, a few miles upstream from the town of Yichang in Hubei Province.

The Three Gorges dam has been the subject of fierce controversy — even, despite recurrent governmental attempts to smother the topic, in China herself. Environmentalists, human-rights activists, proponents of alternative power sources, economists, archeologists, and even military strategists (a large dam is an awfully tempting wartime target, as the inhabitants of the Ruhr valley discovered in 1943), have all raised their voices, bringing up strong arguments both for and against. These arguments can be inspected on numerous Internet sites devoted to them.

In Before the Deluge, Dierdre Chetham writes about the Three Gorges project not from the point of view of a participant in this controversy — it is not even clear, by the end of the book, whether she is a "pro" or an "anti" — as from a human and historical perspective. Currently director of Harvard's Asia Center, Ms. Chetham knows the Three Gorges region very well, having worked as a tour guide on Yangtze sight-seeing boats in the early 1980s. She seems to be almost as well acquainted with the affected part of the river as Mark Twain was with the stretch of the Mississippi he piloted.

This makes for a fascinating book, as there is a great deal to be acquainted with. The characteristics of the Three Gorges region are: sensational scenic beauty, long and very colorful history, and economic backwardness. The term "Three Gorges" refers to a hundred-mile stretch of the Yangtze between the towns of Fengjie, in Chongqing municipality, and the aforementioned Yichang, just downriver from the new dam. In this hundred miles, the river passes through three deep, narrow gorges. The physical consequences of so much water flowing through such narrow spaces have been fast, treacherous currents, and sudden dramatic changes in water level. These have made the three gorges dangerous both for those traveling the river and for those who live on its banks.

At the same time, the sheer cliffs rising up into the mists, appearing and then disappearing as you travel the twisting course of the river, offer a spectacle that has inspired poets and painters for centuries. Traveling the Gorges myself last year in company with some educated Chinese people, I soon began to feel that every peak, every whirlpool, every riverside temple, had some poem or story associated with it, a large proportion of them known to — and, in the case of the poems, enthusiastically recited by — everyone on board but myself. Here is Chinese history and Chinese literature in all its deep, somewhat claustrophobic richness.

The people who actually lived along the gorges had a different point of view, of course. Since the river is a main thoroughfare into the Chinese interior, they suffered from the attentions of every warlord army that wanted to control that interior, from the much-storied Three Kingdoms period (early 3rd century) to the civil war of the late 1940s. The neighboring terrain is wild and difficult, the soil poor, so that local peasants had lives even harder and more precarious than the Chinese average.

Lu You [an 11th-century traveler] was not impressed. He wrote: "The town [Badong, in the middle of the gorges] is unimaginably bleak and desolate. There are hardly more than a hundred houses, and from the magistrate's office on down, every building has a thatched roof — there's not a trace of tile." Lu reported that official posts in the gorges were often vacant for years because officials refused to serve in the impoverished region, and when they did, they extorted every cent from the struggling population … A thousand years later, Badong, like many other cities in the gorges, still struggles with unemployment and corruption.

Badong, like other river towns, now has to struggle with a more dire problem: it will soon be several hundred feet under water. A new town has been built above the high-water mark, and funds have been allocated for relocation, but of course a huge population-transfer problem of this kind offers endless scope for financial and political shenanigans of the kind that will be familiar to anyone who follows Chinese affairs. On the whole, though, from Ms. Chetham's account, the local people are accepting it all in a spirit of passivity. Among the peasants, there is even some enthusiasm, based apparently in the belief that their lives could not possibly be any worse than they have been this past two thousand years. The author quotes a survey in Badong County, in which 87 percent of respondents declared themselves willing to leave.

I enjoyed this book and learned a lot from it. Even the duller stretches of historical exposition are excellent reference material. Where Ms. Chetham gets personally involved, she gives us penetrating insights into current Chinese attitudes and policies. It has been a while since I read anything as revealingly and hilariously "Chinese" as her story of how she acquired a county gazetteer — a book that in theory is available to anyone who cares to inquire, but which the author obtained at last only through much scheming, subterfuge and audacity. Before the Deluge is a fascinating journey through little-known regions of time and space, with a reliable and entertaining guide.