Hydraulic Despotism; China's Long Fixation on the Three Gorges dam.(BOOKS)

The Washington Times (Washington, DC), December 1, 2002 | Go to article overview

Hydraulic Despotism; China's Long Fixation on the Three Gorges dam.(BOOKS)


Byline: John Derbyshire, SPECIAL TO THE WASHINGTON TIMES

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 sightseeing 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 with which to be acquainted. 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 100-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 100 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. …

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