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River control and the evolution of knowledge: a comparison between regions in China and Europe, c. 1400–1850

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  13 March 2006

Karel Davids
Afdeling Geschiednis, Faculteit Der Letteren, Vrije Universiteit, De Boelelaan 1105, 1081 HV Amsterdam, The Netherlands E-mail:


This article examines the similarities and divergences in the evolution of knowledge concerning river control in China and Europe, between about 1400 and 1850. The analysis concentrates on four densely populated and relatively prosperous regions, which were faced with comparable problems caused by unruly rivers: the coastal plains of the Yellow River, the basin of the middle Yangzi, the coastal area of Northern Italy, and the Rhine delta in the Netherlands. During the period under discussion, Northern Italy was the first region to witness a ‘cognitive leap’ in knowledge of river hydraulics. The author analyses why this particular transformation in the body of knowledge took place in Northern Italy, rather than in any of the regions in China. He also examines why the Netherlands, in contrast to regions in China, offered a receptive environment to this new approach in river hydraulics from c. 1770. He suggests that differences in the development of knowledge can be explained primarily in terms of underlying socio-political structures.

© London School of Economics and Political Science

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An earlier version of this essay was presented at the Global Economic History Network Conference in the Netherlands Institute of Advanced Studies, Wassenaar, The Netherlands, September 2004. I am grateful to the participants of this conference and the referees of this journal for their very helpful comments and to Jaap Fokkema for drawing the maps.