Jonathan Mirsky

Flow Country

The Water Kingdom: A Secret History of China

By Philip Ball

The Bodley Head 316pp £25 order from our bookshop

In the mid-1950s, when I was studying Chinese and Chinese history at Columbia University, professors had ground-floor offices. But upstairs, where the toilets were, we occasionally glimpsed an elderly man who slipped quickly out of sight. This apparition, rarely mentioned by our teachers, was Karl August Wittfogel, a German ex-Marxist (or perhaps ex-communist), now very anti-Mao, which in those days most China scholars weren’t. In his book Oriental Despotism – not on our reading lists – Wittfogel put forward the ‘hydraulic state’ theory of Chinese history, which held that imperial control in China lay in its management of water – rivers, irrigation and dams – and that disorder usually arose from individuals who fought either the emperor or each other over water control, or from rebels who emerged because of droughts or bad management of floods.

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