Transformation of the Water Regime: State, Society and Ecology of the Jianghan Plain in Late Imperial and Modern China

Yan Gao, Carnegie Mellon University


This dissertation analyzes the interactions among the state, society and environment from late Ming to early Republican periods and shows the general trend of small, divided, self-contained hydraulic units being unified under the watershed management across centuries. By focusing on a type of hydraulic structure in the Jianghan plain, the yuan (a diked enclosure), and analyzing the yuan communities’ interactions with the state, I shall argue that the yuan became an arena for the state, society and ecology to interact. I also emphasize that the ecological exhaustion in late imperial and modern China was not caused principally by the state or the society, but by the interactions – the collaboration, negotiation, and competition – between the state and the hydraulic communities. It highlights various dynamisms of the triad interactions including minimal governance of the early Qing, the proto-conservationist efforts that were shadowed by the Manchu-Han tensions in the eighteenth century, the militarization agenda during the first half of the nineteenth century, and the unification efforts made by the early Republican and the Nationalist governments in the early twentieth century. Furthermore, it highlights the autonomous nature of the hydraulic communities and the liberal, though limited, attempts of the state in conserving the environment in late imperial and modern China