Water and Power in Twentieth-Century North China

Kenneth Pomeranz, University of Chicago

Micah Muscolino. The Ecology of War in China: Henan Province, the Yellow River, and Beyond, 1939–1950. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014. 310 pp. $88 (cloth); $44 (e-book); $30 (paper).

David A. Pietz. The Yellow River: The Problem of Water in Modern China. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2015. 384 pp. $40 (cloth).

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Where do the stories of attempted Yellow River control told by Pietz and Muscolino leave us? On one level, Pietz’s tale of long-run transformation clearly takes us to the present, with the technocrats very much in charge, but not necessarily in control. Muscolino’s story seems at first to belong more firmly to the past. On today’s Yellow River, water shortages and water pollution have clearly become more pressing than the imperatives of flood control that were dominant for so many centuries; threats from foreign invaders or civil war have become remote; and even the symbolic centrality of the Yellow River and the North China peasantry in Chinese nationality and culture are much reduced in an era focused on cities, technology, and “blue water” links to the world beyond China’s borders (Friedman 1994). Yet, in an age in which human decisions—often based on the short-term pursuit of power—may shape even the broadest long-standing background conditions of human societies, Muscolino’s account of unintended consequences, incomplete reversibility, and destabilized environments is also a story of more than just historical interest.