“The Water Kingdom: A Secret History of China” by Philip Ball

Chinese Internet companies are uniquely innovative but are perceived by outsiders as mere copycats: Baidu is the “Chinese Google”, Alibaba is the “Chinese Amazon”. Yet this simple picture does not capture the reality of how Chinese internet companies have become intrinsic people’s lives. To call WeChat a messaging service, as if it is merely a WhatsApp knockoff, is to misunderstand it. WeChat is WhatsApp plus Facebook plus Instagram plus Paypal plus Apple Pay plus Wattpad plus Uber plus Visa plus Fidelity Investments.

But there may be another reason for these companies’ success other than circumstance: simply, they are Chinese.


The Water Kingdom: A Secret History of China, Philip Ball (Bodley Head, August 2016; University of Chicago Press, March 2017)
The Water Kingdom: A Secret History of China, Philip Ball (Bodley Head, August 2016; University of Chicago Press, March 2017)

There are two things that perhaps most distinguish Chinese civilization from others: its scale, and its integration of elements. Reading Philip Ball’s The Water Kingdom made me wonder if the emergence of WeChat and its ilk is simply the latest manifestation of how, in China, so many concepts, practices and habits are linked.

In discussing the way Chinese water management drew on both practical and spiritual inspiration, Ball writes:


Not only did daily experience of water provide metaphors for philosophical thought, but the philosophy in turn influenced practical affairs; there evolved an intimate connection between hydraulic engineering, governance, moral rectitude and metaphysical speculation that has no parallel anywhere in the world.


Ball is hardly the first foreigner to realize this, but cultural misunderstandings or prejudices can often obscure the point. To pluck one other example at hand, Austin Coates wrote in his 1968 memoir Myself a Mandarin:


The thought and reasoning in Chinese civilization are complete. It is simply that there are certain points on which Chinese thought remains deliberately indefinite; and to seek to define what is there in those interstices is as foolish as to try to see through the blind spot in your own eye.


This holism identified by Coates is also at the heart of Ball’s contention that water—and specifically the management of China’s rivers—was foundational to the state and the Chinese psyche.

The Yellow River gave life to the earliest Chinese civilizations, yet its tendency to flood and shift capriciously earned it the sobriquet “China’s Sorrow”; the Yangtze behaved similarly. Emperors could be found wanting in the face of a disastrous flood, so efforts were made to control the rivers. Arguments over how best to do so intersected with the rise of different thoughts—Confucian impulses to steer the water, Daoist preferences to let the water find its natural course—and the need for a powerful, central authority able to command legions of corvée labor, administered by a capable bureaucracy.

The rivers were dangerous, but they irrigated China’s wheat fields and rice paddies. They became transportation links indispensable to linking a vast, diverse nation. And when these rivers and lakes were connected by canals, they enhanced commerce, military control and communications. The rivers even became weapons: there is a long tradition of desperate rulers breaching dams to flood the enemy. Ball describes how this brought the capital of Kaifeng to ruin. He also briefly mentions Chiang Kai-shek’s unleashing the waters to stop the Japanese.


This tragic episode is described with far more verve by Rana Mitter’s China’s War With Japan, 1937-1945, which argues the destruction ultimately undermined Chiang’s legitimacy.The Water Kingdom is unfortunately not as exciting a read.

While enjoyable and enlightening, Ball’s book feels too ambitious. It tries to be like China, attempting scale and holism, but it doesn’t manage it. Some chapters, in attempting to convey various themes, end up as unrelated series of historical events, in chronological order. After a while this wearies the reader.

Ball might, for example, have focused on China’s history as a ‘hydraulic kingdom’, its state and its identity founded on water management. This would have narrowed the book but allowed plenty of scope to incorporate other elements along the way, without sacrificing literary elan and surprise. But I can imagine the publishers shaking their heads. Too dry, they’d say; sex it up. Thus we have the problematic subtitle, “A secret history of China”. No serious book can deliver on that. In the event, Ball makes no mention of any secret history. It’s a publisher’s stunt.

The Water Kingdom’s title is fair as metaphor, but in some chapters Ball seems to strive for us to take it literally. He ends up going down certain paths that don’t stack up. For example, he devotes a chapter to the treasure ships commanded by the eunuch Zheng He. It’s a great tale, but not relevant. It takes place on the ocean—water!—but this is a universe removed from China’s rivers; the expeditions were not followed up and had little to no lasting impact.

There is also the question of whether China is truly as uniquely a “water kingdom” as Ball claims. He makes no mention of medieval Angkor, which was also a city whose governance, religion and infrastructure was based on water management; Angkor’s decline has been linked to breakdowns in its irrigation system of canals and reservoirs. China’s hydraulic history is much longer, and its physical sweep far greater, but it was not the only water kingdom in Asia.

That said, The Water Kingdom is a healthy reminder that China is a land of mighty rivers as well as mountains and plains, and that these waterways have shaped the civilization, from the origins of writing to the development of technology, bureaucracy, philosophy and art.


Polymath Ball has written many books on chemistry, physics, music and the mind. In this he resembles Joseph Needham, the groundbreaking researcher of the history of Chinese science, and a figure whom Ball quotes regularly. It takes someone capable of multiple fields of talent to attempt a book like this.

It is therefore a mark of Ball’s success that it made me think of Chinese Internet companies in a different way: not just as innovators in a unique environment, but as Chinese innovators that connect the dots differently.

If the mindset that created China’s ‘water kingdom’ endures, however, what of the water itself?

Modern engineering and megaprojects such as the Three Gorges Dam have tamed the rivers. Today the problem with the Yellow River isn’t that it rages: the crisis is the siphoning of the waters by industry to such an extent that in some years the river fails to reach the ocean.

Mao Zedong was the last ruler to heroically battle the waters. Since then “China’s Sorrow” has come to be represented by deforestation, desertification, soil erosion, falling water tables, pollution and tainted food. The mandate of heaven may no longer be endangered by floods, but rather by particle emissions.

The better, more capable Chinese rulers and administrators worked tirelessly to prevent flooding and to keep waterways open. That effort has echoes in the current leadership’s apparent commitment to countering pollution, symbolized by Xi Jinping’s agreement with the US to drastically cut emissions (a deal now imperiled by a change in US political leadership). This should give rise to hope. But China’s history is also replete with bureaucratic failures due to corruption and the Sisyphean nature of the task. The role of water may have changed but, as the example of its Internet companies suggests, Chinese civilization has not.

Jame DiBiasio is the author of The Story of Angkor (Silkworm Books, 2014).