cover image The Water Kingdom: A Secret History of China

The Water Kingdom: A Secret History of China

Philip Ball. Univ. of Chicago, $30 (320p) ISBN 978-0-226-36920-4

Science writer Ball (Patterns in Nature), whose Life’s Matrix is a biography of water, detours into history to examine the place of water in Chinese culture, as both real substance and metaphorical ideal. The work is structured quasi-chronologically, and after an introductory chapter on China’s two great rivers—Yellow and Yangtze—Ball delves into the myths and legends of the Middle Kingdom. Working his way forward, he covers various hydrological events, which are often linked to dynastic change, and addresses myriad water-related topics, including the treasure fleets of Admiral Zheng He and a survey of warfare via water. Noting water’s centrality to Chinese culture, Ball discusses water imagery and symbolism in Confucianism and Daoism, and in painting and poetry. Reaching the modern era, Ball grants due attention to Mao’s symbolic swimming of the Yangtze and the construction of the Three Gorges Dam. Though every nation’s culture, politics, and intellectual life are interrelated, Ball makes clear that it’s impossible to fully understand China’s without incorporating the effect of water on each of those elements, to the point where “water management becomes a moral issue” and the basis of an “orderly and ‘good’ ” society. This is a one-stop examination of water’s primacy in Chinese history, and a well-written one at that. (Apr.)