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State and irrigation: archeological and textual evidence of water management in late Bronze Age China

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Ancient China remains an important case to investigate the relationship between statecraft development and ‘total power.’ While important economic and social developments were achieved in the late Neolithic, it was not until the late Bronze Age (first millennium BC) that state‐run irrigation systems began to be built. Construction of large‐scale irrigation projects, along with walls and defensive facilities, became vital to regional states who were frequently involved in chaotic warfare and desperate to increase food production to feed the growing population. Some of the irrigation infrastructures were brought into light by recent archeological surveys. We scrutinize fast accumulating archeological evidence and review rich historical accounts on late Bronze Age irrigation systems. While the credibility of historical documents is often questioned, with a robust integration with archeological data, they provide important information to understand functions and maintenance of the irrigation projects. We investigate structure and organization of large‐scale irrigation systems built and run by states and their importance to understanding dynamic trajectories to social power in late Bronze Age China. Cleverly designed based on local environmental and hydrological conditions, these projects fundamentally changed water management and farming patterns, with dramatic ecological consequences in different states. Special bureaucratic divisions were created and laws were made to further enhance the functioning of these large‐scale irrigation systems. We argue that they significantly increased productivity by converting previously unoccupied land into fertile ground and pushed population threshold to a new level. A hypothesis should be tested in further archeological research. WIREs Water 2017, 4:e1217. doi: 10.1002/wat2.1217

Distribution of the Zhengguo Canal in the Guanzhong Plain, with locations of major and secondary rivers and cities it flows through.
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Major rivers, modern cities, and Warring States regional powers mentioned in the text.
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Structure of the Dujiangyan irrigation system. (Reprinted with permission from Ref . Copyright 2002 Science Press)
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Cross‐section of the Zhengguo Canal and its weir; with later period canals also shown in the section. (Reprinted with permission from Ref . Copyright 2006)
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Geographic location and structure of the Zhengguo Canal weir. (Reprinted with permission from Ref . Copyright 2006)
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Science of Water > Water and Environmental Change
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