Irrigation Society in China’s Northern Frontier, 1860s-1920s

Jingyuan Du, Sun Yat-Sen University
Max D. Woodworth, University of California, Berkeley
Map of Hetao region. Source unknown.
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In this article, the authors examine the social and spacial organization of irrigation systems in the Hetao region (in current-day western Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region) during the late Qing and early Republican periods. Counter to Karl Wittfogel’s thesis on the inevitability of centralized state bureaucracy in the formation and management of a “hydraulic civilization,” the authors suggest that non-state actors played a decisive role in the construction of irrigation systems in this region on the northern periphery of the Chinese empire and the frontier of agricultural expansion. Their findings are more closely in line with Clifford Geertz’s work in Bali and other more recent studies of irrigation societies, in that they demonstrate that the land-owning Mongol aristocracy, Han Chinese immigrant cultivators and traders, as well as the Catholic Church formed a network of land conversion agents, labor supply, construction management, and finance. These networks of non-state actors were decisive in building extensive hydraulic projects and shaping a multinucleated territorial politics in the northern frontier of the empire.