The Lesson of Emperor Yu

FRANZ SCHURMANN

July 16, 1993|By FRANZ SCHURMANN

Berkeley, California. -- Great floods in history generally come in heartlands. And heartlands are where the food is grown. But who in the U.S. remembers this gliding down the aisle of a fully stocked supermarket?

In ancient times prideful empires often forgot their heartlands and, as a result, fell.

The Hebrew Bible tells of a great flood which inundated the entire earth save for one family and the animals and plants it salvaged on an ark. The story is a warning to humans who develop the pride of overweening power.

An almost identical story in the Mesopotamian epic of Gilgamesh, composed about 2000 B.C., tells how a great Sumerian empire fell when the dikes holding back the Tigris and Euphrates rivers gave way, destroying its agricultural heartland.

China became aware early of the power of floods to undermine empires. And that is a major reason China is the oldest continuous civilization in the world.

Even today Chinese school children know about the Emperor Yu who ''managed waters.'' For centuries before Yu's reign China already had a prosperous irrigation-based agriculture. But it was not until the time of Emperor Yu that civilization arose.

Yu was a talented man but he refused to marry and assume his responsibilities. As the flood crisis worsened he finally consented. At that point he assumed not only the responsibilities of family but also stewardship of the entire realm. He worked tirelessly to build dikes and dig diversionary channels for the country's many rivers.

But there were unending difficulties, which he could forget only when he went home to eat and be with his bride. Then an adviser suggested that his wife bring the food out to the work site. The work quickened and soon the floods were contained.

Centuries of commentators have interpreted this as signifying that when a people faces crisis they all plunge in to help.

In the summer of 1991, China's richest agricultural province, Anhui, experienced tremendous floods. Older Chinese were reminded of the floods of 1938, which were deliberately created by the then ruling Nationalists to halt the onrush of the invading Japanese. Millions died in those floods.

But in 1991, though over a million people lost their homes and many more were forced to flee, the death toll was only around 1,000. No epidemics or starvation occurred and, miraculously, Anhui still managed to bring in a good crop. Chinese throughout the world, whether supporters or critics of the Beijing government, credited it with that achievement.

The moral of the Emperor Yu's achievement was that government and people must work together for a society to survive and have hope.

Among Americans living outside the heartland, TV footage of vast tracts of inhabited land submerged beneath water causes little anxiety. Sure, people will have some problems cleaning up the muck in their cellars, and then the insurance hassles will begin. Surely the corn, wheat, soybean, sorghum, oats, barley and pea crops will not be seriously damaged. And the supermarkets from Portland, Maine, to Portland, Oregon, will remain full.

But a comparison between Mesopotamian and Chinese history may offer some lessons. Four thousand years ago the vast desert that now stretches from the Western Sahara to India's Rajasthan was thickly forested and agriculture flourished. As desertification spread, farmers had to resort to irrigation. Irrigation required a lot of work and care which meant governments and people always had to work closely together. The flood-control systems of the river dikes were the heart of ancient Mesopotamian and Chinese agriculture.

But in Mesopotamia political troubles got worse and worse over the centuries. In 1258 when the Mongols destroyed Baghdad, Mesopotamia also died.

Despite the lesson of the Gilgamesh epic, imperial governments and subject peoples drifted farther and farther apart. And now modern Iraq struggles to find some semblance of its ancient glory.

On the other hand, despite enormous suffering endured often in its 4,000 years of history, China is now strong, unified and newly prosperous. It understands the lesson of Emperor Yu.

This is a good time for Americans from one coast to the other to start thinking about heartlands and their tremendous significance for the health and welfare of the nation.

Franz Schurmann, author of numerous books on China, teaches history and sociology at the University of California. He wrote this commentary for Pacific News Service.

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