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Science and Politics in China’s Official Water System: the Management of the Qiantang River (1927-1949)

Haijing Li, Sally K. Church


Western water science and technology were introduced to upgrade China’s traditional water management methods and strategies during the Nanjing decade (1927-1937) under the Nationalist government. The engineering efforts expended to control the Qiantang River were typical examples of such initiatives. The primary strategy to protect areas surrounding the river from the destruction caused by the Qiantang bore was for centuries one of “passive defence”, with the construction of defensive seawalls featuring prominently among the methods used. However, the Qiantang tide consistently broke through these defences, and caused devastation. After 1927, while the old defensive methods were not completely discarded, more active strategies of river regulation were introduced, under the combined influence of Western methods, materials and expertise, and Western-trained Chinese engineers who stepped forward to tackle the problem. These activities were interrupted during the war years (1937-1945), but resumed again after the war. During the 22 years from 1927 to 1949, in four discrete stages, different technological solutions were devised, priorities identified, guidelines developed and strategies attempted, with each stage championed by a different engineer in charge. Gradually these efforts formed into what can be called the Qiantang River Project, a concerted effort to apply the knowledge of Western science and technology to change previous “passive defence” methods to “active governance” strategies for river regulation that combined both prevention and control. Efforts at each stage were influenced by factional struggles at the top of the government, and also affected by Western competition for Chinese interests. These developments were all part of the complex interaction of science and politics that took place in the management of the Qiantang River between 1927 and 1949.

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