The History of the Fankou Dam Controversy, 1876-1883
Water is the basic of life – China, with such dependence on agriculture and irrigation, the allocation of water services would have been of high importance to local and national politics. However, the Fankou Dam has been a matter of some debate amongst the general public and scholars alike.
The Fankou Dam was built in 1876 during the Qing Dynasty in Hubei’s Echeng County (formerly Wuchang County). “The dike is some 30 feet wide and an equal height above ground level. To the left, the visitor sees a strip of paddy fields perhaps 200 yards wide, then a much smaller embankment separating this farmland from the channel of the Yangzi River. To the right lie more paddy fields, scattered peasant cottages, and a latticework of backwater streams, pools, and lakes. Just before reaching the county seat, the visitor crosses a medium-sized river, the road passing over the top of a dam bearing in huge characters the legend “Great Fankou Sluicegate” (Fankou dazha)”. Here, a struggle broke out not only between the local people, but some of the greatest Qing officials in the empire.
In 1862, several Wuchang County gentrymen petitioned for a dam to be built. At first it was rejected; two years later they tried again. Once more, the plans were rejected on the grounds that an obstruction would not allow the Yangzi backwater lakes to drain efficiently. The third attempt was also rejected and for several years the issue remained dormant.
“In 1876, however, Governor Weng Tongjue received a formal letter (gong han) from several metropolitan officials of Hubei origin sug-gesting that he look once again into the possibility of building a dam or sluicegate (zha) at Fankou. Governor Weng apparently did not bow to this pressure from above, though he did in fact send a private secretary to have a look at the area. When the secretary reported that construction of a floodgate would be counterproductive, potentially causing even greater flooding to most of the surrounding lakeshore lands, Weng too forbade the project”.
At this time, some locals took matters into their own hands, raising funds and even building an illegal dam. “The leaders of the movement were Guo Ruilin and Hu Shutian of Wuchang County, Pi Zhoufu of Daye, and Liu Yudian of Huanggang. All four were gentry members: Guo and Liu were shengyuan, Hu a military juren, and Pi an expectant county director of studies. The project managers determined to recover the costs of the construction by means of a likin toll imposed on merchant boats at a “private market” (sili butou) that they established adjacent to the new dam”.
It is not sure what happened next – one account says that Hu Binglu “tearfully” counseled resistance as the only possible course. The other states that ten thousand local militiamen marched to the site of the dam, then watched as if paralyzed while Li’s gunboat blew it up. However, neither side opened fire nor was anyone was hurt.
Rowe, William T. (1988) Water Control and the Qing Political Process: The Fankou Dam Controversy, 1876-1883, Modern China, Sage Publications, Inc.