Popular Science Monthly/Volume 37/October 1890/Irrigation in China

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I PURPOSE to describe what has been accomplished in utilizing the natural waters in our country, where for four thousand years we have sought to get all we could out of them. By means of economical utilization our lands, notwithstanding the extraordinary multiplication of our people, have furnished us ample supplies of food. One of our proverbs says, "Always have children; Providence, which brings them to light, will not let them die of hunger." You never see insects, creatures of nature as we are, dying of hunger; why should men suffer more from it than these little ones? Every one, therefore, ought to find support on the ground he lives upon; but to do this we must take advantage of all the circumstances. If the ground is not sufficient for our wants, we should add to it the fruitfulness of water, subjected to our use. While the Western people have done much to utilize water wherever it seems available, there are, to my view, many defects in their management. I believe water is made to be used everywhere, and yet, notwithstanding the progress of science, this rule is not always conformed to in the West. With all their engineering works, well-water fails in the large cities, and that from the rivers has to be used. It is impure, and consequently un-wholesome. In China, where we have had the same difficulty to contend with, we applied the remedy long ago by always boiling such water previous to using it—applying the anti-microbic remedy before the existence of microbes had been scientifically determined.

The efforts of our ancestors to subject the waters to their use date from an enormous antiquity; I have documents that show how this was done forty centuries ago. Notwithstanding the numerous modern inventions to facilitate the labor and manipulation, we have resolved the most difficult problems in such a manner that nothing can be shown to this day that surpasses what has been accomplished among us by the most primitive methods. By virtue of our system of irrigation our fields give us three crops a year without asking for any intervals of rest. Our liberally watered land is like a peasant woman ignorant of the refinements and weariness of the society woman, whose children follow one after another in the regular order of nature. This comparison may seem a little vague; but in China we believe that the sky is masculine and the earth feminine; that the one acts and the other produces; and that all fertility is the result of the close union of these two constituent elements of our world. That is the fundamental idea of our agricultural and hydraulic philosophy.

The distribution of water by canals dates, in China, from the fabulous epoch. Having been carried on before letters and literature existed, we do not know what method was at first employed. In the year 2300 b. c., according to our annals, in the reign of the Emperor Yao, China was visited by a deluge extending over the whole empire. It lasted nine years, during which the whole country was a submarine domain. The waters of this flood were drained away by the enterprise of the Emperor Yu, our Noah, who employed seven years in dividing the country into nine regions, separated from one another by artificial water-courses which were like natural frontiers. After the water had been withdrawn he had the qualities of the lands of each province examined, and the products ascertained which they could afford; established the unit of land measure, and fixed nine classes of imposts, graduated according to the fertility of the lands and their situation. The conditions thus established lasted ten centuries.

In 1100 b. c. the prime minister of the Emperor Wou-Weng, Tcheou-Kung, constructed norias, or hydraulic machines of simple design and working, by which water was raised to a height to which it had never been carried before, and made reservoirs and canals for irrigation. Water was conducted, by means of machinery, from the wells to the dry hill-tops, and water provision was assured for times of drought. Agriculture, in consequence, flourished. Other measures of Tcheou-Kung comprised the promulgation of laws respecting the boundaries of properties and the prevention of trespasses. The fields were divided into squares called wells, from their resemblance to the Chinese character signifying a well, surrounded and furrowed by ditches so arranged that eight farmers, each tilling his own tract, united in cultivating the ninth, interior tract, which belonged to the state, and the produce of which paid their rent.

The system succeeded to a marvel. Each tenant was proprietor of about fifteen acres, the whole product of which belonged to him, while the state was really proprietor of the whole, and had, as a landlord, the income of the ninth tract. Besides this, each farmer had some 3,350 square metres of ground for his farm-yard and his mulberry-trees. Thus he always enjoyed a surplus of provision, of pork and poultry for food, and silk for clothing. No one at this time was richer or poorer than another, but a complete social equality existed, and every one, they say, was satisfied. The dynasty under which this system was established fell into decay about 600 b. c., when a period of feudal oppression set in that lasted for two hundred years. At the end of that time Prince Houan-Kung, having obtained the supremacy in the kingdom of Tchi, returned to the system of Tcheou-Kung in a modified form. He appointed a minister and other officers of waters, who visited all parts of the country and attended to the execution of the works needed to prevent the visitation of the two great scourges of drought and floods. By these energetic measures the kingdom of Tchi was made the richest state of the time. When the Emperor Tsing-Tse-Houang, b. c. 250, reunited the Chinese Empire, he made the lands free to all, and imposed a tax instead of the cultivation of the ninth for the state. Previous to this he had constructed the Tcheng-Ko Canal, to conduct water from the King River to the Pe Mountain, by the aid of which some nine hundred thousand or one million acres of formerly sterile land were made fertile, so as by its increased wealth greatly to aid him in transforming his kingdom into an empire. Unhappily, he was dazzled by his great success. He allowed the canals to be neglected, and the country in consequence fell from its high estate of prosperity; and, as it is related in one of our historical books, "the dynasty of Tcheou, who founded the method of well-lands, survived for eight hundred years, with a happy people and prosperous landholders. Tsing followed an opposite policy, neglecting the canals; and his family only reigned for two generations, because so many of his people were ruined and their hearts were turned away from it." Thus the utilization of the waters had become a great political factor. This is not strange, because the Chinese are eminently an agricultural people. The system of Tsing was continued, except that the rate of taxation was reduced, under the Han dynasty, which arose 202 B. c. But after about three hundred and fifty years a series of inundations—the first that had occurred in two thousand years, or since Yu's time—began in the Yellow River and resisted all attempts to check them until a thorough method was adopted, under the direction of a special minister of hydraulic works. At the same time the productiveness of the land reached by the new canals was greatly increased. In the regions distant from the rivers irrigating wells were dug, and a period set in of activity in hydraulic works and general use of water which has not been surpassed.

The success of the proprietors who enjoyed the advantages of the irrigation works encouraged others to construct similar ones, each according to his means and for the advantage of his tenants. This method differed from that of Tcheou. The distribution of the lands was more unequal, but the regulation of the waters had been so perfected that the agriculture of the kingdom received a decided impulse; and China still has reason to thank the authors of the transformation for the permanent benefits it has conferred. The works were extended and added to from time to time, and the construction of the canal Pé gave origin to a popular song celebrating the benefits derived from canalization. The transportation of rice by these artificial channels dates from the third century, when the Emperor Min-Te had a canal constructed which added more than 300,000 acres of land to cultivation and was used for the transportation of arms and provision. From this time there was more than enough food in China.

The efforts of the Thangs in the sixth century were less remarkable than those of their predecessors, because the more important enterprises had already been executed. The most noteworthy of these was the excavation of a lake in 624 a. d. by the celebrated poet Pe Ku I, who was also a prefect. It was supplied by the Tsien Tang River, and watered a space of between 90,000 and 100,000 acres. The dam was solidly built, but permitted the water to filter through in such a way as to fall slowly on the land below the level of the lake. The bank, planted with peach-trees and weeping willows, became a favorite promenade for literati and poets. The lake was crossed by six bridges, beneath which the flowers of the lotus waved, and the promenade was the first water-side pleasure-walk that existed in China. This lake was enlarged under the Sung dynasty by the poet Sou-Tong-Pao, who added what is called the outer lake. New dams were built, and travelers who resort to the lake are still able to admire the beautiful as well as useful work of the two great poets, who enjoyed also the rare privilege of being great engineers.

The Sung dynasty, in the ninth century, desiring largely to extend the system of canals, created a new department, at the head of which was placed a minister called the Governor of the Waters. Besides this, a superintendent of the transportation of rice was appointed to administer the northern provinces of the Yellow River, to whom were assigned the study of the regimen of the waters and the food-needs of the provinces, the classification of productive lands according to their value and position, and the supervision of the mulberry culture. This was the second period of Chinese agricultural prosperity. Another improvement was introduced in the tenth century, when sluice-dikes were invented which could be closed in times of flood and opened in dry seasons.

An overflow of the Tai Hu River in the province of Su Chiu, in 1160, moved the censor Li Kie to propose three projects to the throne: To make sluices and dams; to establish competitions among officers and others in plans for hydraulic works; and to take advantage of the fall and winter seasons of low water, when the people were not engaged on their farms, to employ them in constructing the works. The propositions were accepted, and the works constructed in pursuance, of them proved to be of great practical value.

The first emperor of the Ming dynasty, in 1360, gave orders to have the obstructed canals restored and reopened, so as to show that his first act was to think of the food and clothing of his people. When another flood occurred in the reign of Yung Lo, the work of repairing damages and providing permanently against future disaster was carried on day and night under the direction of the Minister of Finance, who mingled with the people and shared their labors. Under another emperor the very difficult and expensive works of what is called the "canal of multiple benefits" were completed, so as to furnish water to more than a million acres. The present dynasty, besides continuing the work of maintaining the canals, has published,-under the Emperor Kien Lung, in 1737, a grand encyclopaedia of agriculture and horticulture in seventy-eight volumes. The preparation of the work was intrusted to agriculturists and literati, who were careful to announce in the introduction that they had no intention of promulgating new ideas, but only to collate the most valuable methods and observations contained in the former works of the wise men of the empire. This cyclopædia is a store-house of valuable information concerning the utilization of water, and demonstrates the advance which the Chinese had made in extreme antiquity in that important branch of agriculture.

My country is essentially agricultural, and, in order that agriculture might prosper, we have applied ourselves, as you see, to give the land drink. The Emperor Yu, after he had delivered us from the flood, planned courses of water to flow over the land, as the Creator has furnished us with vein's carrying the blood through our bodies. Confucius, speaking of Yu, said that all his efforts could be summarized in the creation of the canals. They were the motive force of the empire, and also an effective means of diminishing the destructive action of torrents and avoiding inundations. These prosperous times have continued the model and the ideal of China. The successors of Yu, whenever they deviated from the road that he marked out, saw all their dynasties extinguished in consequence of disasters caused by their neglect. The people have contributed their part to the depreciation of the water system. They have set water-plants on the water-sides to strengthen the marshy soil and gain new tracts of land, whereby the fields have been enlarged at the expense of the canals, while the farmers have not taken heed of the contraction of the liquid arteries. Then, in time, the water, not having sufficient outlet, would overflow. Our efforts are now devoted to making such things impossible, and to preventing the canals being obstructed by the encroachments of the land.

But while our farmer has the fault of trying to get too much out of water's-edge plantations, he is distinguished by many economical qualities. He has infinitely multiplied the tranches of the artificial rivers that the wisdom of our emperors and their ministers has created; rich in numerous children, he has used their hands to subdivide the ditches and drain them through thousands of irrigating rills; and, in consequence of the constant presence of the precious liquid, he has realized prodigies in crops. Water permits him to Use natural manure diluted to the fifteenth, according to the precepts of our sages, and to return to the land what man has taken from it. Water, always abundant, has furnished the means of applying the method of transplanting to the cultivation of wheat, and thereby getting larger returns; and it has made the constitution of small properties possible, and extreme subdivision of the land by which an intensive cultivation is secured for the smallest parcel. It is true that other factors, the patience of our peasantry, the wise organization of our mutual banks, and our inveterate habit of spending our money on the ground, have contributed much to our agricultural prosperity; but all these would have amounted to little in comparison if they had not been supplemented by the vast irrigating works.

I will add that without these gigantic works the Chinese could never have reached the high degree of perfection they have attained in one of the most important of their industries—pisciculture. Through the abundance of water everywhere, my countrymen, instead of being satisfied to cover the sea, rivers, and lakes with their fishing-boats, have been able to devote themselves extensively to the raising of fish. The spawn is carefully collected wherever it is found; instead of abandoning it to the channels of the rivers, the watchful shore-dweller puts it under protection wherever a suitable supply of water is to be found. The irrigation reservoirs are swarming with young fish. The fallow rice-fields, dammed and flooded in winter, are alive with wriggling carps; and even the rain-water cistern is turned into a breeding-pond.

This economical management permits us, without piscicultural societies, to stock the rivers with millions of fry, and to add a considerable variety of fish to our bills of fare, a part of which is consumed fresh, while the rest, salted or dried, is dispatched into all parts of the empire and sold at a moderate but always remunerative price.

As a whole, our system of water regulation may be regarded as one of the greatest achievements of the intelligence and labor of men. To it China owes very largely the comfortable condition of its innumerable inhabitants. It is not perfect, for it still leaves much to be desired; but we know well what is wanting, and what must be done to supply it. If we had fancied that there were no defects in it, recent events, including the irresistible and disastrous overflows of Yellow River, would have demonstrated the contrary. They teach us that unceasing vigilance must be exercised in keeping the artificial waterways open, and that additional works are needed to make the system complete.

A difficulty resulting from the special character of our social organization stands in the way of the execution of new works. The whole of our territory is under cultivation. There is not a corner of the land capable of producing a crop that has not been devoted to some profitable occupation. To construct new canals, enormous sums additional to the expense of labor—very considerable at the cheapest wages—would have to be applied to the indemnification of dispossessed proprietors. There is also considerable diversity in the plans that are under consideration. Some favor the addition of new canals to the old ones. Others prefer vast basins, artificial lakes for the storage of the water of freshets, whence it may be drawn when wanted, to distribute over the country fertility instead of desolation. Formidable as the obstacles to immediate execution may be, we can foresee the time when these great works, indispensable to the completeness of our hydraulic system, shall have been brought to a good end. Then China, endowed with the grandest system of water distribution that the world has ever seen, will have nothing to do but to keep up the good condition of the work of the ancients with its modern additions.—Translated for the Popular Science Monthly from the Revue Scientifique.


  1. An address, delivered July 26, 1889, before the Congress for the Utilization of Waters.