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The Yellow River’s Shifting Course and its Impact on 11th Century Northern Song China

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In this podcast, Professor Ling Zhang (Boston College, USA) unravels the multi-layered and multi-faceted impact of a major climatic anomaly in northern Song China in the 11th-century shift of the Yellow River’s course north to the Hebei province (1048-1128 CE). She tells us her initial impressions of northern China as a desolate region compared to the prosperous south made her question a crucial and under-explored issue of the Tang-Song transition in China during the medieval economic boom (7th-13th centuries): In a time when China experienced an economic revolution, what happened to northern China? Why did it fall behind?

Prof. Zhang’s research to answer this question confronted her with the devastating shift of the Yellow River to Hebei (1048CE), and the long-term underbelly of socio-economic and enviro-political processes that preceded and followed the river’s shift to Hebei. The Song state prioritised the south, the seat of the empire, against the north to manage the Yellow River’s floods – a phenomenon that had been precluded by warmer temperatures and more humidity in the preceding two centuries to facilitate massive agricultural expansion in northern China. This had resulted in long-term soil erosion and increased sedimentation in the Yellow River which, coupled with the state’s hydraulic projects, produced the disaster of 1048 CE. If its instant impact had been unexpectedly shocking to Hebei, the longue durée of this climatic anomaly meant a slow death for northern China. As farming became increasingly difficult due to rapidly eroding silt and the river’s repetitive floods in the north, farmers could not sustain their previous sedentary lifestyle in the face of decreasing food security and either migrated as refugees or turned to banditry. The government, in its bid to tackle famine among the disaster refugees, turned to conscripting adult males into the army and encouraged richer sections of the society to adopt refugees, in effect leading to famine-induced bondage of women and children. When conscripted soldiers deserted to join bandits in north China, the impact of a climatic crisis eventually snowballed into political and moral bankruptcy for the state in the north. The Song state donned an interventionist avatar and bought foodstuff from other parts to feed the consumer market in north China. Although this boosted production and had a positive economic impact as a corollary, it was founded on the enviro-economic collapse of northern China – a divergence which, Zhang argues, helps us rethink the question of Tang-Song transition and a medieval economic revolution in China. Finally, Prof. Ling Zhang concludes that in dealing with contemporary climate change, humans should learn from their past mistakes, when their profound arrogance in the belief of providing a single solution to conquer nature has repeatedly foundered. In so doing, Prof. Zhang argues in favour of a more inclusive model of knowledge that combines the diversity of local knowledge of environment(s) with social science-based, humanistic-and-eco systematic understandings of environmental issues.

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This podcast was produced with the help of Renée Manderville (Project Manager, IOWC), Archisman Chaudhuri and Philip Gooding (both postdoctoral fellows, IOWC, McGill).