In the 1990s a group of Chinese and French scholars collected—and then in 2003 published—several texts regarding water management in Sanyuan 三原 and Jingyang 涇陽 counties. These two counties are located north of Xi’an and in the foothills which border the Wei valley in Shaanxi. Many rivers there have been managed and manipulated since antiquity. The most famous and important of these hydraulic systems is the Jinghui canal 涇惠渠, which is the 1932 version of the ancient Zhengguo canal 鄭國渠. According to Sima Qian, this canal was dug and connected by the Qin kingdom to the Jing river 涇水in 246 BC, that is before the establishment of the first imperial dynasty.
Among the collected texts, there is one manuscript清峪河各渠記事簿, which was compiled by a canal deputy named Liu Pingshan 劉屏山 (d. 1935) and is interesting for shedding light on small canals connected to two rivers located to the east of the Jingshui valley: the Qingyu River 清峪河 and its tributary, the Yeyu River 冶峪河. In early 20th century, a water conservancy association (shuili xiehui 水利協會) managed the water of the canals which was used by several villages since at least the Ming dynasty. These canals are no longer extant today due to the construction of several upstream dams.
According to the operating rules of this Agreement, all villages with fields irrigated by the same canal, for instance the Yuancheng canal 源澄渠 of which Liu Pingshan was the delegate, were to cooperate in managing and enjoying fair use of the canal’s water. Yet, the entire system invariably produced tensions and conflicts, not least among the six canals connected to the Qingyu River. We can summarize the origin of these ongoing conflicts as follows:
– The strict maintenance of water rights by the upstream canals, when the quantity of the river water was reduced due to changes in the system especially in droughts, resulted in regular demands from downstream canals for the negotiation of a new deal.
– The use of water by upstream canals which have not registered to be in the Agreement. These canals’ access to the upstream water was regarded as illegal viewed by downstream villagers who still had to pay tax on land officially registered as “irrigated.,” Meanwhile, the upstream villagers “illegally” were free-riding the Agreement to use canal water but paying lower rates of taxes for fields that were officially registered as “dry.”.
– The ability of some groups, whom we can view as local elites, to mobilize social resources and their knowledge of the bureaucratic organization, in order to draw private benefits in ambiguous situations. For instance, any lawsuit or legal proceeding invariably involved two or three administrative jurisdictions, given that the Qingyu river was the border between Jingyang and Sanyuan counties; or the Yeyu water irrigated lands located in Jingyang, while the connections of the canals were located on Sanyuan territory. Moreover, because of ongoing political changes, the water conservancy organization was itself undergoing changes that Liu Pingshan himself looked on unfavorably.
We can add that the role of the water conservancy association and the way it operated appear mainly through the resolution of conflicts. Moreover, because of the small scale of the operations regarding canals, which were only a few kilometers distant from each other, just before the entry of the Qingyu river into the Wei plain, we are in a position to access the ideas and reactions of the groups of users, the families and even some persons, like Liu Pingshan or his opponents. In other words, Liu Pingshan’s texts give access to the categories used by the users themselves in their demands to assert their rights. Hence, by paying attention to tensions, conflicts, and the language used by different parties to make these claims, we can try to understand the ceaseless process of the creation of norms by the canals’ users, and more generally to reconstruct their idea of “the public good.” Or, to quote Liu Pingshan’s own wording, we can fathom how “common principles are naturally in all the hearts” (公理自在人心).