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East Asia

Semi-legendary Chinese emperor, renowned as an hydraulic engineer. According to the Shu Ching (Book of History), Yu was asked to contain the deluge by Shun, a divine monarch. ‘The inundating waters seemed to assail the heavens’, Yu said, ‘and in their extent embraced the hills and over-topped the great mounds, so that the people were bewildered and overwhelmed. … I opened the passages for the streams throughout the nine provinces and conducted them to the seas.’ Thirteen years Yu spent ‘mastering the waters’ without once returning home to see his wife and children. By his skill he brought ‘water benefits’ to the people—floods ceased and fields were irrigated; to his own family came the privilege of founding the first dynasty, the Hsia. The Yellow River valley permitted irrigation on a small scale and then encouraged not only irrigation but schemes of drainage and flood prevention on an increasingly larger scale. For Confucians, Yu was a paragon of virtue, the ancient standard of public duty: but the Taoists were certain that his organization of labour in hydraulic engineering had represented a divergence from the natural way of doing things. They feared the inhibition of feudal relationships.

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