Water control

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The exoticization of Chinese, yet again

This time it's the alleged, essential aqueousness of governance:

"The Water Book by Alok Jha review – this remarkable substance", by Rose George (5/14/15).  The first sentence:  "The Chinese symbol for 'political order' is made from the characters for river and dyke."

What a lame, wrongheaded way to begin a serious article!

This statement is reminiscent of the notorious formulation:  "The Chinese symbol / word for 'crisis' is composed of [the characters for] 'danger' and 'opportunity'."  (There are variations in how it is expressed, and I've tried to allow for several of them in the way I wrote it here.)

For a detailed debunking of this widespread claim, see "How a misunderstanding about Chinese characters has led many astray " (rev. September, 2009)  And, as a colleague said to me after reading the opening sentence of George's review, "It's right up there with all those fake Chinese proverbs'”.


"Fake proverbs at the Aspen Institute?" (7/12/06)

"May you live in interesting times"

"Proverbs commonly attributed to be Chinese"

"False Quotations and Fake Translations" (4/30/10)

The character Ms. George is talking about is this:

zhì 治 ("rule; govern; administer; run [a school, etc.]; regulate; control; harness / tame [a river!]; manage; punish; treat[ment]; cure; heal; wipe out; eliminate; exterminate; study; research; specialize / focus on [an academic field]; stable / prosperous and peaceful; seat of local government in former times; county seat; provincial capital; a surname")

This character, 治, first appears in the seal script about two thousand years ago, not among the earlier layers of the writing system.  There is no linguistic justification for stating that 治 is made up of the characters for "river" and "dyke".  In the first place, 治 itself is a single character, so it cannot be said to be composed of two other characters.  Even if we make allowance for the sloppy terminology, 治 cannot be said to be composed of two components meaning "river" and "dyke".

The part on the left, ⺡(full form 水, pronounced shuǐ), which we refer to as "three dots water", is the radical of the character, number 85 in the Kangxi system of radicals.  It signifies things related to water, liquids, immersion, and so on.

The part on the right, 台, by itself, is pronounced tái, and it has numerous possible meanings:  "terrace; stage; platform; stand; station; broadcasting station; table; desk; support; typhoon; special telephone service; Taiwan; fancy / polite word for 'your'; measure word for performances; measure word for machines".  I would have to say, though, that this mass of meanings that has agglomerated around 台 is a real mess, since 台 now has all of its original meanings (which I shall address below), it has also acquired all of the meanings for several other characters, namely, 臺, 檯, and 颱, all having the same pronunciation as 台, viz., tái.  This is not the place to straighten out all of the relationships of the meanings that have collapsed onto 台 and their origins in 臺, 檯, and 颱.  Here, since it is politically so important, I'll mention only that, when used for the first syllable of "Taiwan", tái 台 is actually functioning as a simplified character to replace the much more complicated character tái 臺.

The basic meaning of 臺 is "a high, level construction, i.e., a terrace, a tower, a lookout".  By extension, it can refer to things resembling a terrace, such as the base for a window, a lamp, or a well opening.  It can also serve as a respectful second person address or be used in reference to things belonging to a second person (someone who is "high; elevated").  As a measure word, it refers to the performance of a drama, since traditionally they were put on upon an elevated platform.  It may also be a surname.

When it occurs as the first syllable of the name "Taiwan", 臺 is being used purely for transcriptional purposes.  Táiwān 臺灣 does not mean "Terrace Bay", though many Chinese (and foreigners as well) will tell you that it does.  In actuality, "Taiwan" ultimately derives from the early Dutch transcription of an Austronesian tribal name.

For an eye-opening experiment on the writing of Táiwān 臺灣 (simplified 台湾), don't miss "The Opacity and Difficulty of the Chinese Script" (9/18/08).

Several of the other meanings for 台 that I mentioned in the previous paragraphs also come from 臺, but I won't sort them all out in this post.  Nor will I burden Language Log readers with the intricacies of a phonologically completely different set of readings for 台 that are separate from those related to the tái series, that is, yí 台 ("to speak; to express oneself"), yí 怡 ("harmony; concord; joyful"), and so on.  The graphic shape of yí 台 is customarily explained either as the mouth exhaling a breath or as a phonogram incorporating a mouth and a symbol for the sound yǐ 以 (early forms may be found here and here [earlier forms are toward the bottom]).

The word we started out with, zhì 治 ("rule; govern; administer; control"; etc.) belongs in the yí 台 series, not the tái 台 series.  Its Old Sinitic (OS) pronunciation would have been something like this:  drə, drəh < r-lə, r-ləh.  Cf. the OS pronunciation of yí 怡:  lə.  OS reconstructions from Axel Schuessler, Minimal Old Chinese and Later Han Chinese:  A Companion to Grammata Serica Recensa, p. 98.

For the tái 台 series, the basic, original meaning of 台 was "rounded back (of old age)" (in Western Zhou bronzes about three thousand years ago).  It seems that the tái 台 series very early on borrowed the graphic form of the yí 台 series.

Suffice it to say that, for the purposes of this greatly abbreviated discussion on zhì 治, tái 台, and yí 台, the right side of zhì 治 never meant "dyke".  Its function in the character 治 was as a phonetic component (a phonophore), not as a semantophore.  As for where the sound and meaning of zhì 治 came from, there may be an Austro-Asiatic root, for which see Axel Schuessler, ABC Etymological Dictionary of Old Chinese, pp. 350 and 619.

Still and all, why did the Chinese choose to write this morpheme with a character that has the water radical?  The original meaning of zhì 治, which is composed of the氵(shuǐ 水 ["water"]) radical and the yí 台 phonophore, was to harness / tame / control / regulate the flow of water.  Now, of course, it has taken on all of those meanings without reference to water, plus other related meanings such as "govern, administer, manage", and so forth.  Maybe there really is a kernel (perhaps I should say "a drop") of truth to what George says at the beginning of her review.  But where did she get this idea, and why did she acquire it in such a distorted fashion?

If you do a Google search on the following, you will get a flood of misinformation about Chinese characters and philosophy centering on this canard about:  chinese symbol political order water dyke.  Take Jerome Delli Priscoli and Aaron T. Wolf, Managing and Transforming Water Conflicts, p. 30a (it will probably turn up first in your search), where they butcher the character 治 and give a long, suspect quotation that Lao Tze allegedly wrote "[m]any years ago".

Maybe people who dreamed up this explanation of zhì 治 (that it is made up of "river" + "dyke") were inspired by Wittfogel's famous thesis on "Oriental Despotism".

The paramount concern of the first four rulers we know by name in Chinese history — Yao, Gun, Shun, and Yu — albeit mythological, was to control the Great Flood.

In essence, they were hydraulic engineers.  This preoccupation with harnessing the rivers of China, especially the Yellow River ("China's Sorrow"), remained a chief concern of all later emperors who took government seriously.  This tradition persisted into the 21st century, when Supreme Leader Hu Jintao was a hydraulic engineer with a degree in that subject from Tsinghua University, China's top science university, and many other leading Chinese communist officials have also been hydraulic engineers.  Indeed, from the massive Three Gorges dam to the overbuilding of what I call "damn dams" on all the major rivers of Asia that originate in Tibet and in many parts of the People's Republic of China, hydraulic engineering is still one of the primary foci of the government.

Here I will add a special note for Language Log readers about the writer, politician, and archeologist, Liu E (Liu Tieyun [1857-1909).  His celebrated novel, The Travels of Lao Can (or Old Derelict) (Lǎo Cán Yóujì 老殘遊記), was a thinly disguised autobiographical work.  In it, Liu E decries the incompetence of the bureaucracy, one of the main consequences of which was the deterioration of the Yellow River Flood Control system.  In his travels and discussions, Old Derelict presents various analyses and proposals for how to deal with river control.  It will undoubtedly be of interest to Language Log readers to learn that Liu E was one of the first scholars of oracle bone inscriptions.  Because of his dealings in grain that were intended to save starving peasants but were not sanctioned by the government, as well as for accusations of other types of misconduct, Liu was exiled to Xinjiang (China's Siberia) in 1908 and died there the next year in the city of Dihua (now called Ürümchi).

CAVEAT:  If one doesn't know Chinese language and writing, one should avoid pontificating about the esoteric meaning and complex construction of characters.  If one doesn't know Chinese literature, one should refrain from quoting Chinese proverbs, unless one has proof that they really originated in China, and one should avoid attributing a quotation to such-and-such a Chinese sage unless one knows the source of that quotation in the actual works of that particular sage.  Otherwise, one is liable to make a fool of oneself and undercut one's own argument.

[Thanks to Robert Ramsey]


  1. K Chang said,

    May 30, 2015 @ 3:41 pm

    When I saw who wrote it, I was not too surprised. Alok Jha thinks of himself as science writer for The Guardian in UK, but he often falls victim to false balance and reports a bit too much on the pseudoscience. I'm sure he "researched" just enough to make his case, without delving into the "weeds"… like asking a real Chinese scholar.

  2. shubert said,

    May 30, 2015 @ 6:02 pm

    Yes, the right side of zhì 治 never meant "dyke".
    大禹治水疏导重于围堵 天道治水涵养更甚于疏导

  3. Jeff W said,

    May 30, 2015 @ 8:35 pm

    @K Chang

    When I saw who wrote it, I was not too surprised. Alok Jha thinks of himself…

    Yes, the review doesn’t make it exactly clear but the reviewer Rose George is (partially) quoting a sentence from the introduction: “The Chinese symbol for ‘political order’ is made from the characters for ‘river’ and ‘dyke’ and the meaning is clear: whoever controls water controls society.” That the reviewer is unhesitatingly accepting the author’s misstatement doesn’t exactly inspire confidence in either.

    With regard to harnessing the rivers of China, in addition to the Yellow River:

    One stunning example is the irrigation system at Dujiangyan, 60 km north of Chengdu. In ancient Sichuan, the Min River was very prone to flooding. Starting in 268 BC, administrator/engineer Li Bing (李冰), after studying the topography of the region for several years, using tens of thousands of workers, had an artificial levee constructed in the center of the river, separating the waters to an inner and an outer river. The inner waters would go for irrigation; the outer would go on their original path. But the inner waters were blocked by Jian Mountain (or Yulei Mountain, depending on whom you read). So Li had a channel cut through the mountain. Without dynamite, the workmen poured cold water (or vinegar) on the rocks that had been heated up, helping to crack them; eight years later, the channel cut was 20 meters wide, 40 meters high, and 80 meters long, allowing water to flow to the plain on the other side. (Legend has it that Li's daughter broke the last layer of rock in the cut, knowing she would perish in the process.) The project was completed in 254 BC— and, with regular dredging per Li Beng's instructions, has functioned perfectly for over 2000 years until the present.

    The Dujiangyan irrigation system had a powerful impact on Sichuan and on China. The Chengdu Plain enjoyed unprecedented prosperity. The irrigation system, along with Sichuan's fertile soil and mild climate allowed the farmers not only good harvests but also plenty of time for leisure, according to Tan Jihe, a researcher at Sichuan Provincial Academy of Social Sciences—which, even today, is evidenced by the relatively laidback lifestyle found in Chengdu.

    As this site notes, "This project greatly strengthened the Qin Kingdom because the expanded agricultural output helped to sustain the kingdom’s large army. Within a few decades, a Qin king named Qin Shi Huang used their large army to become the Emperor of China." It was Qin Shi Huang who built the famous Terracotta Army in Xian. directed the building of the original Great Wall and first unified China. So Dujiangyan made the terra cotta warriors, the Great Wall, China's unification, and Sichuan's present-day laid-back atmosphere all possible. (I think it really should be better known as one of the ancient engineering wonders of the world.)

    (And, incidentally, as a bonus—for those decrying the “damn dams”—the Dujiangyan system has the distinction of being “the world's oldest and only damless project that is still functioning.”)

  4. Joshua said,

    May 30, 2015 @ 9:47 pm

    Would it be fair to say that saying that "Taiwan" means "terrace bay" is like saying that "Tacoma" means "folded tortilla mother" or "Chicago" means "fashionable in the past"?

  5. Yosemite Semite said,

    May 30, 2015 @ 10:34 pm

    If you look at Dujiangyan with Google Earth, there are a number of structures on the river(s) these days that certainly look like dams to me. Maybe those aren't in the scope of "the Dujiangyan system," as described by Jeff W., however.

  6. K. Chang said,

    May 30, 2015 @ 10:37 pm

    @Joshua — hahaha, those are pretty good. I can't think of anything that good, but here is another little anecdote about San Francisco. Any one care to guess what's the Chinese name of Grant Ave in SF Chinatown?

    都版 (du-ban)

    Now you're wondering, WTF?! I'll remind you that Grant Ave was originally Dupont St, named after the US Navy Admiral Samuel Francis DuPont (with a capital D, the only one in duPont family to do so) in overall command of USS Portsmouth that sailed into San Francisco Bay and told the local Mexican government that San Francisco is now US territory.

    The street was renamed after Ulysses S. Grant after the 1906 Great San Francisco Earthquake and rebuilding. There are lores that claimed street was renamed to make sure the Chinese don't find there way back, but obviously it made no sense.

  7. Jeff W said,

    May 31, 2015 @ 4:19 am

    Maybe those aren't in the scope of "the Dujiangyan system," as described by Jeff W., however.

    Those aren’t typically considered part of the irrigation system, which still uses the principles embodied in the original, nearly 2300-year old design. The irrigation system, designated as a World Heritage Site, is described by UNESCO as follows:

    The Dujiangyan irrigation system, located in the western portion of the Chengdu flatlands at the junction between the Sichuan basin and the Qinghai-Tibet plateau, is an ecological engineering feat originally constructed around 256 BC. Modified and enlarged during the Tang, Song, Yuan and Ming dynasties, it uses natural topographic and hydrological features to solve problems of diverting water for irrigation, draining sediment, flood control, and flow control without the use of dams.

    [Emphasis added.]

    The navigability of the waterway to Chengdu, which would militate against the presence of dams, was actually, it seems, an essential part of Li Bing’s mandate. This site says

    Li Bing was commissioned to conduct an extensive hydraulic survey to regulate the unpredictable course of the swiftly flowing spring-thaw waters of the Min River that regularly flooded areas and settlements on the plains around Chengdu, and simultaneously ensure that the Min River had a fairway flow through Chengdu, facilitating navigation by military vessels that could service Qin's logistical supply lines.

    By 270 BCE he had drawn up plans to mitigate the Min River's floodwaters for year-round irrigation on the Chengdu Plain and navigability to Chengdu.

    Following the completion of the project [in 256 BCE], the fairway was navigable and timber from the upper reaches of the Min River was transported along its waters to Chengdu where warships were constructed and armies were assembled. The new water source was utilised through a radial irrigation system to transform the Chengdu Plain into fertile farmlands. From 230 BCE onwards, 100,000 people from the northern part of the State of Qin moved to the Prefecture of Shu, and the prefecture became one of China's largest granaries. The national strength of the State of Qin increased rapidly, and the state became the strongest of China's Warring States. In 223 BC, Qin troops sailed from Chengdu down the Min River and into the Yangtze, ultimately defeating the state of Chu. Two years later, the whole of China was unified under the Qin, China's first centralised imperial dynasty.

    (My underlying point, BTW, augmenting Victor Mair’s, was that, the spurious meaning of the character ascribed to it by Mr Jha and repeated by Ms Rose notwithstanding, the connection between hydraulic engineering and governance—and maybe even the rise of imperial China—was quite real, as evidenced by Dujiangyan and its role in Chinese history.)

    @ K Chang:

    It seems like the signs say 都板 (see here and here)—but, anyway, thanks for the comment because I always thought that’s what Cantonese speakers called it, not that that was the name on the official street signs. (And maybe more surprisingly, to me, since I’ve never heard it—Sacramento Street is designated as 唐人街 [tong4 jan4 gaai1 in Cantonese] (see here and here) which is translated on Cantodict simply as “Chinatown.”)

  8. Observation said,

    May 31, 2015 @ 5:26 am

    This theory of mine will probably sound far-fetched, but I think I may know how this misunderstanding originated…

    堤 is pronounced tai4 in Cantonese, and that's the same as the letters in the pinyin transcription of 台.

    As for the bizarre Laozi quote, it might be the 上善若水 passage after going through 以訛傳訛 ten times and being mixed with Confucian elements… It does not seem to be consistent with the principles of 無為而治 or 'returning to the natural state' that Laozi would have probably preferred.

    I'm making really wild guesses, though I thought I might put them forward here anyway…

  9. Observation said,

    May 31, 2015 @ 6:16 am

    I tried posting a comment just now, but it disappeared after I reloaded the page. It must be the spam filter, I guess.

    I was wildly guessing that the confusion arose because 堤 is pronounced tai4 in Cantonese, which has the same letters as 台's pinyin transcription, and that the water quote may be a severe mistranslation of the 上善若水 quote with Confucian elements mixed in.

    I was able to think of possible origins for some of the quotes in the old posts as well (I didn't include the obviously correct ones):

    When is the best time to plant a tree? A hundred years ago. When is the second-best time to plant a tree? Yesterday. <–十年樹木,百年樹人 plus 前人種樹,後人乘涼

    In China, they say tall flowers are cut down. <– 木秀於林 / 風必摧之, 樹大招風 / The passage from Zhuangzi with the trees and roosters

    Be not ashamed of mistakes and thus make them crimes. <– 過則勿憚改

    Everything has its beauty but not everyone sees it. <– 人人有貴於己者,弗思耳

    Respect yourself and others will respect you. <– 敬人者,人恆敬之

    To see what is right and not to do it is want of courage. <– 見義不為,無勇也

    When anger rises, think of the consequences. <– 忿思難

    The superior man is modest in his speech, but exceeds in his actions. <– 君子恥其言而過其行

    I find it interesting that in the Confucius quotes page, most quotes on the first page – presumably the most popular quotes – are made up, mistranslated or misattributed Mencius quotes, while most of the quotes starting from the second page are real…

  10. Observation said,

    May 31, 2015 @ 6:18 am

    I changed the wrong comma to a slash:

    木秀於林,風必摧之 / 樹大招風

  11. Victor Mair said,

    May 31, 2015 @ 8:37 am

    Throughout Chinese history, there have been two main schools of flood control:

    1. containing and constraining — dams and dykes

    2. releasing, running off — channels and diversions

  12. K Chang said,

    May 31, 2015 @ 12:12 pm

    @Jeff W — and if you use Google Street View, you may notice that the Chinese signs ONLY exist ON Grant, from Pine to Washington… with exception of California. :)

    Tang Ren Jie literally means "street of the Tang (Dynasty) people" . Chinese always had a multiple names for "the people", depending on which political leaning. Han Ren (racial emphasis), Tang Ren (cultural emphasis), and so on. The Chinese immigrants that established Chinatown (mostly from Canton) apparently picked a cultural name rather than racial name. Wonder who made that choice back then?

  13. Joseph Williams said,

    May 31, 2015 @ 12:39 pm

    This was a very interesting post to read!

    I think that Observation's connection of the Cantonese pronunciation of the character for dike is very interesting but that Professor Mair has really hit the nail on the read with his speculation that this misinterpretation of the meaning of the character 治 is related to Karl Wittfogel's famous thesis on the hydraulic/oriental society and despotism. With all of the criticism this idea has brought in the wake of Edward Said's critique of Orientalism over the last 30 years I do think there is a drop of truth here. In his paper "Development Aspects of Hydraulic Societies," Wittfogel comments how Chinese creativity had been crystallized in the beginning of the imperial period the as the hydraulic society "tends to give the initiative for experiment and change to a single center." Of course there are many counter examples, tremendous creativity can be seen in the unique Chinese adaptations of Buddhism and of course the famous inventions of printing, gunpowder, compass etc. but in some sense still there is something to his idea. I wonder if the weak cultural production of the modern PRC and the common lament of the modern Chinese student of a lack of creativity in education follow a similar principle with all the 21st century hydraulic engineering going on that Professor Mair has pointed out.

  14. K Chang said,

    May 31, 2015 @ 3:01 pm

    @Joseph Williams — I agree with Prof Mair in that there's often an air of exoticization of all things Orient / Chinese. Wonder if there is a scholarly term for that? We know the colloquial term for Western men preferring oriental girlfriends as "yellow fever" (da-da-dum!)

    I wonder where did this misinterpretation got started. I am NOT a scholar of any sort and I often find that I was guilty of passing down the wrong information. When I worked part-time as a tour guide about 20 years back I was guilty of telling the the Chinese tourists back then that DuPont St. was renamed Grant Ave in SF Chinatown so the Chinese residents of Chinatown can't find their way back. I propagated the myth back then and played into the "China was a victim" mentality. I wonder if some informal advisors to the author came up with that interpretation that zhì 治 mean water / dyke, i.e. he asked the closest guy who understands written Chinese without doing further contextual research. It seems to be something that someone with non-scholarly study of Chinese would do… decades ago.

  15. J.W. Brewer said,

    May 31, 2015 @ 3:02 pm

    Just re the SF street-name saga above, I learn from the Mandarin Wikipedia that "du Pont" as in the name of the chemical company is 杜邦, which is apparently Dùbāng in hanyu pinyin and different characters for those used for Dupont St. Not sure about standard Chinese versions (if any) of various members of the prominent family, nor do I know the origin/vintage of this Sinifying of the corporate name. (When I lived in Tokyo as a boy 40 years ago, my dad was working for DUFE, formally du Pont Far East, Ltd., which was probably katakanafied in Japanese but might have been hanzified for ROC/HK business dealings even if the mainland was still terra incognita for US-based companies at that time.)

  16. Jeff W said,

    May 31, 2015 @ 3:51 pm

    @ K Chang

    Chinese signs ONLY exist ON Grant, from Pine to Washington…with exception of California.

    Nope, not exactly: they’re also on Clay and Stockton (see here)—and real mystery there is how Clay manages to have two sets of signs, one on the southwest corner and the other on the northeast corner, which might be unique in the city—and on Grant they go one more block to Jackson, which is itself transliterated prosaically as 昃臣街 [zak1 san4 gaai1 in Cantonese]. The question there is why don’t the Chinese signs for Grant go a few more blocks to Columbus or, at least to Broadway, two blocks up? Budget issues at the SFMTA? It’s all very arbitrary.

    Maybe there was just a preference in Cantonese for the cultural name over the racial one. But why was Tang Ren Jie/Tong Jan Gaai applied to Sacramento Street? (I’m not expecting an answer—all of the topic is very OT, anyway—just curious.) Thanks for the translation, which is way more elegant than the very rough “Chinese people’s street” I was thinking of.

  17. Joseph Williams said,

    May 31, 2015 @ 8:29 pm

    @ K Chang

    "I agree with Prof Mair in that there's often an air of exoticization of all things Orient / Chinese. Wonder if there is a scholarly term for that?"

    Yes, of course the term is orientalism. I speculated that because Wittfogel used this term it may have contributed to his ideas not being widely accepted as other theories of the unique development of Eurasian geographical regions have become more popular but that to any degree that his theory have been in to something that there would be some drop of truth in George's statement as Prof. Mair has written.

    Rather than this being a misinterpretation of the character zhi 治 as has been focused on above, the problem here it seems to me is that the idea comes from the word zhi shui 治水, which is translated as "maintain water control" and the common misconception in the west that all Chinese words are individual characters rather than the often binome.

    I am pasting an example of the usage of this word from the Mencius with James Legge's English translation-


    Bai Gui said: "My management of the waters is superior to that of Yu."

    That the character for zhi 治 when used in this word could come to have the extended meaning to carry out the dredging and improvement of waterways through projects it's not hard to see how the mistake of the article comes to the character=word misunderstanding. Then I think Wittfogel's ideas and all of the famous great waterwork projects in Chinese history from the past to present play a role too.

  18. Dave Cragin said,

    May 31, 2015 @ 9:21 pm

    Jeff W – thanks for the interesting history of water control. It will be even more interesting to see the future of the 3 Gorges dam.

    The American Heritage dictionary definitions of “exotic” include 1) from another part of the world, foreign, 2) intriguingly unusual or different, excitingly strange.

    Hence, that there is an exoticization of things Orient/Chinese is certainly in keeping with the meanings of the word.

    I find in China there is an equal interest in Westerners, particularly those who speak Chinese. People are intrigued as to why I learned to speak Chinese, sometimes in an excited way, i.e., also fitting the definition of exotic. Some could view this curiosity as a negative, but I think it’s one of the very enjoyable aspects of visiting China and interacting with Chinese colleagues here.

  19. Dave Cragin said,

    May 31, 2015 @ 9:23 pm

    I should point out my comment on Chinese & Americans seeing each other as "exotic" was targeted to the discussion in general, not Jeff W.

  20. K Chang said,

    June 1, 2015 @ 1:41 am

    I know I'm going way off topic here, so I'll just do a brief mention that exoticization of other cultures is prevalent in popular media. There's a whole podcast about how modern media often describe non-white stars, such as Lupita Nyong'o, and other non-white stars as "exotic". And I'll just leave this link here:


  21. Jeff W said,

    June 1, 2015 @ 3:01 am

    Thank you, Dave Cragin.

    Victor’s mention of hydraulic engineering and the interest Chinese rulers took in it prompted my disquisition. People know, of course, of ancient wonders like the Pyramids and modern engineering feats like the building of the Panama Canal but the Dujiangyan irrigation system was certainly more “transformative” than the former and possibly even the latter. It is an outstanding example of the “releasing, running off” school of flood control mentioned above.

    (And, as a side note, prompted by your mention of Three Gorges: a proposed dam at Yangliuhu, only 1300 meters upstream from the uppermost area of the Dujiangyan system and part of the Zipingpu hydropower/dam project that had been started in 2001 as one of China’s “Ten Key Projects,” was canceled in 2003, through action by some members of the Dujiangyan government and Chinese media, who played, in part, on the status of the irrigation system as a World Heritage Site. One paper, which recounts the saga, said it was “the first time in the history of the People’s Republic of China that a decision on an engineering project of such magnitude – a decision that had already been reached – was reversed.” Whatever it says about environmental/water politics in China in the mid-2000s, the incident speaks to, as the authors mention in a modified reprinted book version of the paper, “the resonance of Dujiangyan in the Chinese psyche.”)

  22. K Chang said,

    June 1, 2015 @ 12:28 pm

    @Dave Cragin — While Western scholars seem to have a bit of Orientialism (i.e. Orient exoticization) the reverse seem to be NOT true going the other way, that Chinese scholars don't seem to exoticize Western stuff much (if at all). Was it repressed psyche from the Opium Wars era and the Eight Nations Combined Army? Who knows?

    In China and Chinese, foreign thoughts were looked down upon for a very long time. Maxine Hong Kingston's "The Woman Warrior" was a required-read for Asian studies, and she mentioned all the time "ghosts"… which is the term for "non-Chinese" 鬼 in Cantonese, somewhat derogatory, of course. 白鬼 (white ghost), 黑鬼 (black ghost), blah blah blah. Being a Cantonese speaker, I often do use those words with fellow Cantonese.

    But the part I was most surprised is that Chinese don't seem to like Orientalism either. One such example was Gavin Menzie's "1421" where he proposed that Zheng He 鄭和 had discovered America and circumnavigated the globe, and reached Australia long before the Europeans did. The Chinese reaction to the book was "mostly negative". I know it's meant to be a popular book and wasn't a scholarly book (and yes, I've read it). Here's a commentary I got from a Zheng He studies newsletter:


    (my rough translation) In the past year ( 2003) the historical world have commented on Mr. Menzie's new book (1421). In the West it is mostly the media that's generating buzz, and there was little reaction from the serious Eastern studies journals. Our (historians) have brought up huge numbers of questions. Menzies is not a historian. The book is mostly in the domain of popular literature written by amateurs. The points brought up lacks reliable, clear, and corroborating historical evidence. The book is full of large suppositions and small (attempts at) verifications, and thus is well outside the acceptable standards of scholarly authorship.

    The author went on to claim that scholarly studies should not be affected by these "bestsellers" and "(don't) waste time and walk the wrong path" (浪費時間,走上歧途)

    Zheng He Studies and Activities Newsletter, 2003, page 3

    I understand a bit of this is basically the divide between the real scholars and the amateurs playing historian nose-thumbing (at each other), but it's also interesting to observe such anti-Orientalism in action.

  23. Mark said,

    June 3, 2015 @ 7:44 am

    I visited Dujiangyan and was lucky enough to stand right at the top, it stretches out to the horizon in all directions if I remember rightly. There is a memorial to the engineer at the top which along with the works was damaged in the horrible earthquake a few years ago.

  24. Jeff W said,

    June 4, 2015 @ 4:12 am

    @ Mark

    When I was at Dujiangyan, exactly two years and a week after the earthquake, I had no idea what I was seeing—obviously, it was some sort of irrigation system and there was a cut through the mountain and the temples were honoring the engineer who masterminded the whole thing and…well, that was all I got. Only later did I know more of the story—which is one reason why I related it above. I feel like the site and its story should be far better known.

    And there is speculation about a causal connection between the dam/hydropower plant built at Zipingu in 2001 and the 2008 Sichuan (Wenchuan) earthquake. In fact, Li Youcai, a retired senior engineer from the provincial seismological authorities, had written an article before the quake, warning that the weight of the water in the reservoir at the dam site, situated at the meeting point of three active faults, might trigger such an event. Others have preliminarily concluded that, given that the Sichuan quake was “very different” from known prior reservoir quakes, the Zipingu reservoir did not play a role in triggering the quake.

  25. Chas Belov said,

    June 6, 2015 @ 4:11 am

    A Chinese friend once explained to me that the Cantonese prefer to be thought of as Tong (from Tong — or Tang) Dynasty, and that Tong Yan Gaai (Tong people's street) is considered a Chinatown's main street, hardly a reality in SF's Chinatown. The street which deserves that honor is Stockton, yet that got the transliteration Sai Tok Tun Gai. Can't speak to why there might be spotty signage, though.

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