Thursday, October 16, 2008

Li Bing

Li Bing was a administrator and engineer of the Warring States period. He served the as an administrator, and has become renowned for his association with the , the construction of which he is traditionally said to have instigated and overseen. Because of the importance of this 2000 years old system to the development of Sichuan and the Yangtze River region, Li Bing became a great Chinese cultural icon, hailed as a great civil administrator and expert. In Chinese mythology, he is known as the vanquisher of the and is compared to the Great Yu.

Life and career

King Zhaoxiang of Qin dispatched Li Bing as joint military and civilian governor over , a recently defeated state in Sichuan province, Southwest China, just of Chengdu. According to the ''Records of the Grand Historian'', Li Bing was appointed governor of Shu in c. 277 BCE. However, the ''Annals of the Huayang Kingdom'', written by the , place Li Bing in Shu in 272 BCE. He arrived just as Zhang Ruo had put down the last of the marquis rebellions and moved out to engage the Chu city of Yan. Conveniently, Zhang Ruo did not leave any incumbent ministers. Therefore, Li Bing had complete control over . “When he arrived in , Li Bing witnessed the sufferings of local people from frequent flooding of Minjiang River.” Additionally, the monarchy had been sending its exiles to this state and the military needed food and infrastructure.

Li Bing then created “the largest, most carefully planned public works project yet seen anywhere on the eastern half of the Eurasian continent.” It would be called , . He conducted an extensive hydraulic survey of the in order to stabilize the waters from flooding settlements and plot out an extension into Chengdu. This extension would be a fairway to provide logistical military support to the Chengdu supply lines. This is standard practice for administrators who routinely combine their agricultural projects for both the civilian and military purposes. The is 735km long and it is the largest and the longest of the Yangtze .

Li Bing faced a number of daunting tasks. Firstly, the administration was more experienced working with arid lands than with wet rice . Additionally, by slowing the water current, this reduced the river’s ability to carry away large sediments. At peak discharge, the flows at about 5000 or even 6000 cubic meters per second. At low water, it lessens to about 500 cubic meters per second. On the other hand, the water diversion would have a positive effect and with the system of land distribution with wet paddy rice in the Chengdu plains.

But that was only half of the problem. The other half had to do with culture. The native people of believed that the was a deity. As recorded in the , “ relates the tale that, upon appointment as administrator of Po, a province of , Hsi-men Pao discouraged the superstition of the people about a bride for the god of the river and punished the local gentry and bureaucrats who took advantage of such superstitions.” This was the ordinary practice of Administrators across the region. But, His-men Pao did not succeed. Therefore, in order to avert a similar massive revolt, Li Bing set out to end this practice “by a combination of tact and showmanship”.

Steven Sage describes from the that the first thing Li Bing did was setup a temple to honor the Min deity. He then offered his own two daughters as brides to the deity. But first he set up a large nuptial banquet along the river. He offered a toast. But the deity did not drink his glass of wine. Deeply offended, Li Bing runs off sword drawn. Two bulls prepared in advance were then seen by the crowd fighting along the river bank. Symbolically, this was Li Bing in a duel with the deity. Li Bing returns to the scene sweating as if in battle and calls for assistance. One of his lieutenants ran up to the bull that Li Bing had pointed out was the deity and killed the bull. The river spirit was subdued. “Through the medium of the bull, Li Bing had won.”

“In 268 BCE, Li Bing is said to have personally led tens of thousands of workers in the initial stage of construction on the Min River banks.” These people were mostly exiles from lands conquered by the , as well as pioneers, and the local population.

External sources

*Chi, Ch‘ao-ting. Key Economic Areas in Chinese History as Revealed in the Development of Public Works for Water-Control. Ed. Relations, American Institute of Pacific. 2d ed. New York, Paragon Book Reprint Corp., 1963.
Cotterell, Arthur. First Emperor of China. London: MacMillan London Limited, 1981.
*Elvin, Mark. ''The Retreat of the Elephants: An Environmental History of China'' 1st ed. New Haven, Conn.; London: Yale University Press, 2004.
*Sage, Steven F., ''Ancient Sichuan and the Unification of China'', Albany, New York: State University of New York Press . ISBN 0791410382
*CHN ''“Taming the Floodwaters: The High Heritage Price of Massive Hydraulic Projects”'' China Heritage Newsletter China Heritage Project, Research School of Pacific and Asian Studies , The Australian National University No. 1, March 2005. ISSN 1833-8461.
08 April 2005. 27 June 2006.
*PRC “Li Bing” 2003. 27 June 2006.

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