Sandwiched between the mighty Ming and Qing empires is perhaps the most ephemeral, obscure and equivocal of all Chinese dynasties. For the single ‘emperor’ of the so-called Shun dynasty, a rebel commander named Li Zicheng, never meaningfully ruled China at all.
In the mid-seventeenth century a series of drought-induced crop failures and an outbreak of plague stirred up social unrest, and disenchanted peasants began to band together to contest Ming rule. These rebels coalesced into two great armies, and Li Zicheng led one of them. Even as he besieged and captured the ancient capital of Xi’an, he maintained the pretense that he was a loyal subject trying to liberate the Ming Chongzhen Emperor from the malign influence of officials. That fiction became harder to sustain once Li took Luoyang and then Kaifeng, at which point his victory seemed assured.
Now styling himself the ‘Prince of Shun’, in 1644 Li advanced on the capital of Beijing. Recognizing that defeat was inevitable, the Chongzhen Emperor committed suicide and the glorious Ming dynasty was brought to a close. Yet Li occupied Beijing for barely a month before his army was defeated by the former Ming general Wu Sangui and his allies, the Qing from Manchuria. The rebel chief only just had time to proclaim himself the first Shun Emperor before fleeing to the west and disappearing from history, presumed dead by 1645. A humble peasant of Sha’anxi who proved to be a skilful military strategist, Li learnt that it is easier to end a dynasty than to found one.
Li’s campaign saw one of the most devastating uses of water as a military weapon. In 1642 his forces surrounded Kaifeng (then known as Bianjing) and laid siege for many months. Li tried everything. He built a great tower higher than the city wall, armed with cannons, but his opponents responded by building an even taller one overnight to return the fire. He tried tunnelling through the 35-metre-thick walls, but was repelled. He filled the excavations with gunpowder to blast down the walls, but the explosions blew outwards, killing his troops as they rushed forward in anticipation of a breach.
Although these assaults were repulsed, the Ming governor of Kaifeng was getting desperate, and in the summer of 1642 he issued a fateful command. The dykes of the Yellow River, which was swollen and raging in the flood season, were to be broken down so that the deluge would disperse the rebel troops. Having run out of other ideas, Li had already hatched the same scheme: he planned to flood Kaifeng to end the resistance. Neither side seemed to consider that the floodwaters would harm them too, believing that only their opponents would be damaged.
Kaifeng had been the capital of the Song dynasty, and its proximity to the Yellow River had made it a major centre of commerce; in the eleventh century it may have been the largest city in the world. But the Mongol invaders had besieged it and destroyed the hydraulic network that sustained it, and then the Yellow River itself had shifted course, leaving Kaifeng stranded and marginal on the floodplain. Repeated flooding had gradually raised the level of the surrounding land above that inside the city walls, so that Kaifeng was a basin ready to be filled if the river broke its banks.
It was the citizens of Kaifeng who came off worse from the governor’s plans to use the river as a weapon against Li Zicheng. The city was drowned to its rooftops. The waters rampaged through the walls and into the streets, destroying homes and sweeping people to their death. The death toll seems hardly credible: allegedly, around 300,000 of the 378,000 inhabitants of Kaifeng perished in this human-made catastrophe. The once great city was reduced to ruins, making Li’s victory a hollow one. Devastating famine and pestilence followed the 1642 flood, which has been ranked as the seventh greatest ‘natural’ disaster in history. Kaifeng was abandoned until it was rebuilt by the Qing Emperor twenty years later, and it never recovered its former glory.
In war, water is a dangerous and unreliable ally. That has rarely deterred Chinese leaders from thinking that they can command its power: a belief all too often proved delusive.
The famous sixth-century-BC martial strategist Sun Tzu (Sunzi), whose treatise Sunzi bingfa (The Art of War) was allegedly an influence on leaders ranging from Mao Zedong to Norman Schwarzkopf, regarded water’s military significance to be primarily metaphorical. ‘Military tactics’, he wrote,
are like unto water; for water in its natural course runs away from high places and hastens downwards. So in war, the way is to avoid what is strong and to strike at what is weak.
Water shapes its course according to the nature of the ground over which it flows; the soldier works out his victory in relation to the foe whom he is facing.
Therefore, just as water retains no constant shape, so in warfare there are no constant conditions.
Sun Tzu was rather wary of real water, however (‘After crossing a river, you should get far away from it’, he advised), and the image of warfare generally presented in The Art of War – great armies manoeuvring over open tracts of land – gives a very incomplete view of how military affairs were conducted in China. Very often the key conflicts involved rivers, lakes and marshes. They were about dominating the water routes, and often took place on the water itself. Great fleets clashed on lakes and rivers in naval engagements comparable in size and significance to any taking place in the seas of Western Europe, or later in the open Atlantic and Pacific. China was a kingdom contested on water, with water, and for water.
For the issues haven’t changed through the ages; the strategic importance of waterways was as great for the Qin conquering Wei and Shu as it was for the Communists and Nationalists fighting the Japanese. (Only with the coming of the railways was their role for military transportation rivalled.) The decisive power of the Tang ‘tower ships’ and Song paddleboats was not so different from that of the imperial British gunships conquering the Yangtze in the nineteenth century. And attempting to harness water itself in battle was no less hazardous for Chiang Kai-shek in the 1930s than it was for Li Zicheng and the Ming in the 1640s. Aquatic warfare has been a constant determinant of China’s fate.
According to Niccolò Machiavelli, ‘The main foundations of every state . . . are good laws and good arms . . . you cannot have good laws without good arms, and where there are good arms, good laws inevitably follow.’ Few nations were as ready to face up to the realities of power and governance as Machiavelli would have had them do, which was of course why his unflinching view of political power won him many enemies. China is no exception. The Confucian political philosophy stressed that stability depended on the virtue of the emperor; if he was virtuous, ‘good laws’ would follow and the population would be content without coercion. But in fact the state was often created and maintained by military force: by organized violence and war. With a nation this vast, this vulnerable to uprising, rebellion and invasion, it is hard to see how it could have been otherwise. Time and again, discord and disobedience began far from the centres of power – if an emperor let down his guard or let himself be distracted in one quarter of the empire, trouble brewed in another. While some dynasties did fall through foreign invasion, such as the incursions of the Jurchens (Jin), Mongols (Yuan) and Manchurians (Qing), others failed because of poor leadership and bad policy decisions: the collapse came from within. That is really what the Communist Party of China fears today.
Leaders from the Han to the Maoist eras could affect an attitude of wu wei, of remote benevolence, only if in reality they possessed a formidable apparatus of state control. And to control China, you must control its rivers – whether that means recognizing their strategic military and economic importance, or literally restraining them as if nature itself were the enemy.
Waterways served two primary strategic functions. The first was as transportation conduits. The first Qin Emperor, Shi Huangdi, could not have contemplated conquest of Sichuan without relying on the Min, Yangtze and Han rivers to take his troops deep into the kingdom of Shu. The Han and Yangtze were also essential to the Qin campaign against the kingdom of Chu downstream to the east, prompting the Qin general Bai Qi to create amphibious military units around 280 BC. Military goals initially motivated the great Dujiangyan hydraulic waterworks masterminded by Li Bing (see here): the crops that it irrigated were needed to feed the troops in Sichuan.
The second strategic role of rivers was as natural barriers to conquest. When the Southern Song rulers in Hangzhou called the Yangtze its ‘Great Wall’, they were alluding to the obstacle it – and the other rivers in the perpetually contested region between the Yangtze and the Huai – presented to the equestrian forces of invaders such as the Jurchens and Mongols, who were all but invincible on the grassy plains of the north. As the Jurchens descended to create the Great Jin dynasty, pushing the Song into southern China in 1127, it was the Huai River that marked the boundary between them.
For these reasons, China’s wars were often waged on and around the rivers. They were the arteries of military conquest, the fluid arenas of dynastic change. Battles fought on rivers and lakes became the stuff of legend. The most famous of them is surely the Battle of the Red Cliff, the engagement in AD 208 that sealed the dissolution of the Han and marks the beginning of the Three Kingdoms period. This was possibly the largest naval conflict in history in terms of numbers of vessels, although the battle has been so romanticized – most famously in the early Ming classic Romance of the Three Kingdoms – that it is hard to distinguish fact from fantasy. Poets from Li Bai to Su Shi have composed odes in its memory; it is, in the historian Lyman van Slyke’s estimation, China’s Trojan War or Arthurian legend, a pageant of drama, pathos, comedy, loyalty and deceit. Everyone in the Yangtze valley will tell you these stories, which they know better than their own recent history.