Reviewed in the United States on December 8, 2017
The book was an enjoyable read. The author has done a great deal of research in the ancient Chinese literature. Anyone who is at least casually interested in art, literature, philosophy and politics in Chinese history will find the book informative. In some places, the rather subtle translations were off (e.g., "all rivers weir" for the Dujiangyan hydraulic system, or "Dream Pool Sketches" for the title of Shen Kuo's book Mengxi Bitan), but they didn't hinder the reading and messages weren't lost in translation.
Navigating China's long and complex past to come back with a modern perspective is not an easy task. "Water Kingdom" brings water management in historic and modern China as the nexus to understand the Chinese approach to the nature, humanity, and the world. It's intuitive and reasonable. As a sedentism civilization, Chinese were historically obligated to manage waterways for irrigation, flood control and long distance transportation. However, there was little comparative analysis in the book that demonstrated other regions and cultures approach water differently, in philosophy, social organization, or art and literature. It's hard to conceive that any other civilization could have treated resources as vital as water with any less attention. The Yellow River and the Yangtze to the Chinese are as much as the Ganges to the Indians, the Nile to the Egyptians, and the Mississippi and the Colorado Rivers to the Americans.
The Chinese often says: "History is a mirror," indicating the tendency to consult the past in order to understand the current events. But history has been unfolded as one single series of more or less haphazard episodes, which limits the rigor of generalization and prediction. More seriously, history was often inaccurately recorded, and even systematically deleted or fabricated by scholars who either served for the pleasure of rulers or were indulged in their own narratives. It is a peril of over-interpreting the ancient history that itself is data of sparsity and questionable quality.
For science-oriented readers, the book's analysis was casual. The writing tended to meander while the author was trying to make sense as much information as what the research came across and struggling to feed the narrative with uncorrelated sub-themes and sometimes unsubstantial materials. The presentation mingled facts, myths, and anecdotes, which obscured the boundary between serious and leisure reading. Many stories---each one may have a multitude of renditions in Chinese literature---can be better read elsewhere. The author extensively cited Chinese poetry that reflected on waters, from the mystic Qu Yuan to the unrestrained Li Bai. Mixing art and literature with science and politics can provide an interesting reading and can also be easily misleading. The author argued that the ancient Chinese art and poetry depicted the nature with a focus on self-reflections and therefore failed to appreciate the nature of its own right. This anthropocentric view implies the historic and cultural underpinning of the ongoing environmental damages. The reasoning is a bit stretched. The author nevertheless cited the textbook excerpt from Laozi's Dao De Jing: "Humanity follows the Earth, the Earth follows the Heaven, the Heaven follows the Dao, and the Dao follows the Nature", as an evidence that Chinese philosophy did respect the environment after all. But the meaning of "the Nature" is ambiguous, as in many ancient Chinese writings that valued compact premises and bypassed elaborations. It could mean the natural environment or the laws of nature. In the latter case, understanding the laws of nature doesn't have to lead to environmental conservation as we have witnessed that scientific knowledge had unleashed devastating forces (from gunpowder to nuclear warheads to mass production and consumption). Again, overreaching to the ancient literature is interesting but not necessarily insightful. Massive human-inflicted damage to the environment is largely a post-industrial revolution phenomenon, which are now accelerated by the economy model that encourages per capita growth and trusts market forces. Multinationals globalize labor markets and transcontinental trades at an unprecedented scale, stressing the ecosystem to its limit. Neither industrialization nor market economy originated from Chinese philosophy or was implicated in the ancient Chinese art and literature. In China, serious environment degradation started in 1950s when Mao wanted to industrialize the country overnight, aggravated after Deng started the economic reform in 80s, and went haywire when China became the world's factory.
Most man-made environmental disasters have been caused by poor policies due to ignorance in science. To identify a sensible human-nature relationship, a fundamental question might be what is required to develop a science-driven civilization. In hindsight, the well-known "Needham question" effectively asked what had been missing for China in the recent history to develop modern science. One Chinese saying has it: "Another emperor, another group of sycophants". Often times in dynastic transitions, scholars collectively suffered as they were more inclined to criticize the new regime and its policies. Records and documents were lost in bulk or intentionally destroyed during the process (as in Qin Shihuang's "burning of books and burying of scholars", and in Mao's "Destroy the Four Olds"). This resetting of intellectual progress is effectively an authoritarian proofreading mechanism that only allows scholarly works to be preserved and inherited as long as they serve the ruler. Some science sifted through and survived the censorship in the forms of sporadic ideas and documents and didn't become a continuously accumulative process. During the Northern Song Dynasty, Bi Sheng (AD 990-1051), a commoner, pioneered the movable type printing using porcelain. As described by a single paragraph in the chapter of "Crafts" in Sheng Kuo's Mengxi Bitan, "Characters carved on gluey clay, ..., and then burnt to toughen". It would take another five centuries for the method to evolve from using clay to wood then to bronze, not for the lack of ingenuity but by self-inflicted restrictions in printing. Science and engineering were also looked down upon as mere utilitarian crafts that didn't match up with the "true" intellects in art, literature and philosophy.
Besides, ancient emperors and modern leaders, especially the confident and charismatic ones, were more than often deluded by their own competence. As Einstein said: "The attempt to combine wisdom and power has only rarely been successful and then only for a short while." This would apply to Mao. He experienced tough intra-party struggles, fought hard and competently in wars, and not only survived but achieved the indisputable status that couldn't be challenged. He emerged from struggles and believed in the value of constant struggles, which greatly affected his perception of both human-nature and human-human relationships. Mao was a self-regarded poet who loved to project the grandiose of the nature onto the powerful of man. But governance is not exactly a quixotic art, and being poetic doesn't always go hand-in-hand with solid science and careful engineering. Poeticizing policy making was proven constantly disastrous and eventually tragic in Mao's era. Li Bai could certainly get away with his freestyling and extreme exaggeration while downing a few drinks since he didn't have to manage a whole country. Mao's arrogance boiled over to unfamiliar areas such as science and economy. That precipitated the grand-scale economic and social "struggles": the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution. When you were entitled to manpower and resources on a whim, you may feel compelled to dissipate them.
The story of Yu Gong (literally, the foolish old man) was an interesting cite in the book, but was misinterpreted. The story is one of many fables from the mythology collection in Liezi Tangwen. As a transition between Laozi and Zhuangzi, Liezi (450-375 BC) had a major influence in the Taoism. Yu Gong, a rather ordinary story, became well-known because Mao Zedong singled it out in a party speech in 1945. Mao used the two mountains, Taixing (today's Taihang in Shanxi Province) and Wangwu (now in Henan Province), as metaphors to imperialism and feudalism, two enemies that had to be defeated no matter how overwhelming they were. Since then the fictitious old man has been serving as a propaganda tool to teach people to work hard for the "greater good" of the state. However, this was one of Mao's many misunderstandings or intentional twists of Chinese ancient philosophy. Studied more closely, the original fable might be read quite differently. At any time, with a few offsprings, the 90 years old Yu Gong didn't have much manpower in his plan and wasn't bothered by it, and he never thought about expanding his efforts by recruiting his fellow villagers either. A project of a grand scale also wasn't his mission. To the opposite, Mao was impatient and preferred a "shock-and-awe" kind of approach, as in his "Great Leap Forward" movement that collectively mobilized the whole country (so-called the human-ocean tactic) out of a fanatic wish of overnight miracle. Not as Ball suggested, Liezi didn't philosophize that man can change the nature to suit his own need or must "conquer the nature". It was Mao who advertised that. The often-ignored finishing touch of the Liezi's fable extended its moral, by which the mountains were preserved after all. The mountain god was distressed that Yu Gong's family might in the end remove the two peaks. He then pleaded to the God of the Heaven, who was impressed by the old man's determination and ordered the two sons of Kua E Shi (a herculean god) to move the two mountains away, Taihang to the east and Wangwu to the south. Mao, in his speech, replaced the mythological God of Heaven with "the people".
The story made an insightful observation: Despite the intuitive insignificance, small efforts accumulated in a long haul can produce remarkable outcome. And a bigger change takes a longer time without immediate or near-future gratification. Such a naturalistic principle could be found repeatedly in the Chinese literature. The Confucianism scholar Xunzi (313-238 BC) wrote: "One cannot travel a thousand miles without accumulating minuscule steps; Rivers and oceans cannot form without absorbing small tributaries." Luo Dajing (AD 1196-1252) of Song Dynasty wrote in his novel: “Sawing rope cuts wood, dripping water penetrates stone”. Many natural processes are also unnoticeable but lasting. It took the collision of India subcontinent and Asia Continent 80 million years to raise the Himalayas. Six million years for the Colorado River to carve out the Grand Canyon. Geological transformations undoubtedly challenge human perception of time, but failure to recognize long-term cause and effect has modern-day repercussions. Many are still incapable of making sense of slow (but not so slow) threats that evolves at a time scale of decades, such as the climate change due to industrial activities. The foolish old man might not be as idiotic.