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PostPosted: Mon Aug 22, 2011 10:16 pm 
Avisaru
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So I've been reading about the neolithic at the library while I'm avoiding school work. I keep running into an interesting question about China. By all accounts, agriculture started there very early, perhaps as early as 8000 BC, and certainly no later than 7000 BC. This is roughly comparable to the Near East. But then something weird happens. Specifically, nothing happens. In Meso-America, in Mesopotamia, in Ethiopia, nowhere in the world did it take so long for civilization to get under way once people invented agriculture. It usually only takes three or four thousand years to get towns, for example. That's just the average, of course it won't be the same everywhere. But in China we don't have any evidence of towns before about 2000 BC, and real cities don't pop up until the Shang dynasty! Here's a civilization that's a good two and a half millennia behind Mesopotamia, even though they started about the same time. And it gets even weirder. Even though they hadn't gotten around to inventing states or cities or anything like that, they still invented bronze around 2800 BC. No other civilization anywhere developed bronze (on their own, that is) with no urbanization and no archaeologically visible polities above the level of a chiefdom. It's bizarre! Some of you may be thinking that I'm making something out of nothing, that anything can happen in any order on any time table, but that's just not born out by the data elsewhere in the world. And how did China manage to come out ahead by the beginning of the common era, after such a massive disadvantage? It's quite a conundrum.

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PostPosted: Tue Aug 23, 2011 6:31 am 
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I've got two suggestions.

First, there's more randomnity in this than you think. We just don't have enough examples to draw really powerful statistical conclusions. And you're ignoring one: Papua has had agriculture for quite a while now, but has never developed civilisation, even when it was in contact with other civilisations.

Second, if there are specific factors, I'd suggest that crop yields may be a big one. In Ye Olden Days, China was a wheat-and-millet culture. Wheat and millet are not particularly well-suited to the Chinese climate, which meant that a) overall yields were a fraction of what they were in, say, Greece, and b) nowhere were there yields as high and as concentrated as they were in the Nile Delta, or in Mesopotamia. Less food, and less concentrated food = fewer cities.

Iirc, the big change (adoption of rice, which allowed population densities up to ten times higher than millet) came during the Han Dynasty, so it doesn't entirely explain why they had come good by then. but perhaps there's no mystery there: eventually their low-density crop did yield large populations and urbanisation, it just took a lot longer than higher-density crops did elsewhere.

----

A bigger objection might be: how sure are you of your pattern that you think China breaks? North America took 5000 years to develop the rudiments of civilisation, and arguably never developed cities. Papua New Guinea has had agriculture for 9000 years - towns developed eventually, but never cities. Central America - more than 5000 years from agriculture to the first known civilisation. Peru took less than 4000 years it now seems - but that first civilisation appears to have been a dead end, with continuous civilisation needing another 2000 years. Egyptian agriculture never produced civilisation - it died out and was later replaced by mesopotamian agriculture. Ethiopian civilisation developed only under contact with other civilisations.

Remember also: records so long ago are scant and rely on luck in finding them. Maybe we haven't found the earlier Chinese towns. Or maybe chinese towns just didn't leave such obvious marks - in many places it's only the big projects, the canals and the earthworks and so on, that are the surviving signs of early towns. Maybe chinese towns just didn't have convenient ring-ditches around them and burnt the wood of their houses when the houses fell down.

-----

A final suggestion: russia famously had no towns for a long time. Or it did, obviously, but they were extremely rare: it had a few big trading cities, and everyone else lived in a network of small villages - far more densely packed than european villages, but without the bigger towns that europe had. It may simply be that certain terrains and climates tend to favour dense populations and other terrains and climates tend to favour spread-out populations.

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PostPosted: Tue Aug 23, 2011 6:36 am 
Avisaru
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Really? I had never heard about there being no evidence for towns before 2000 BC in China. I'm quite sure they had the beginnings of writing before that time (oracle bone script). One thing to consider is that they may have built their homes at that time from materials that were not preserved well. A similar effect seems to occur far earlier with tool making -- Homo erectus left numerous tools in other regions, but none in Asia, so archaeologists have theorized that they made tools from wood or other materials instead. The same could occur with towns, probably their houses were built of wood or bamboo, which rotted away and left no trace, especially in places where later settlements were built on top of the old ones.

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PostPosted: Tue Aug 23, 2011 11:21 am 
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Ollock wrote:
Really? I had never heard about there being no evidence for towns before 2000 BC in China. I'm quite sure they had the beginnings of writing before that time (oracle bone script). One thing to consider is that they may have built their homes at that time from materials that were not preserved well. A similar effect seems to occur far earlier with tool making -- Homo erectus left numerous tools in other regions, but none in Asia, so archaeologists have theorized that they made tools from wood or other materials instead. The same could occur with towns, probably their houses were built of wood or bamboo, which rotted away and left no trace, especially in places where later settlements were built on top of the old ones.

The earliest undeniable oracle bone script comes from a Shang Dynasty site around 1200 BC. Presumably, based on its sophistication, its development began somewhat earlier. But this is still far later than the estimated date of 3100 BC, when Mesopotamian writing reached a similar level of complexity.

Also keep in mind my definition of "cities" here is not "big town." A large town of maybe a couple thousand farmers may be called a city in some contexts, but when I say city here, following Timothy Earle et al, I'm talking about population centers of at least 10,000, which a large number of specialists, existing in a network of other specialist centers. As for materials not being preserved, archaeologists have found wooden structures that are almost ten thousand years old. Just building homes out of non-durable materials doesn't mean you are archaeologically invisible, especially in northern China where dry conditions will preserve almost anything. In Malaya, yes wooden structures are hard to find and date. Not in China.

Good points, though.

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PostPosted: Tue Aug 23, 2011 11:43 am 
Avisaru
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Salmoneus wrote:
I've got two suggestions.

First, there's more randomnity in this than you think. We just don't have enough examples to draw really powerful statistical conclusions. And you're ignoring one: Papua has had agriculture for quite a while now, but has never developed civilisation, even when it was in contact with other civilisations.
I understand what you're saying about multiple data points, but that doesn't have much to do with "randomness." We know why Papua New Guinea never developed cities; if we can just find the clues, and assuming we live in a deterministic universe, then we should be able to figure out why China deviates from the other examples (or why they deviate from China).

Quote:
Second, if there are specific factors, I'd suggest that crop yields may be a big one. In Ye Olden Days, China was a wheat-and-millet culture. Wheat and millet are not particularly well-suited to the Chinese climate, which meant that a) overall yields were a fraction of what they were in, say, Greece, and b) nowhere were there yields as high and as concentrated as they were in the Nile Delta, or in Mesopotamia. Less food, and less concentrated food = fewer cities.

Iirc, the big change (adoption of rice, which allowed population densities up to ten times higher than millet) came during the Han Dynasty, so it doesn't entirely explain why they had come good by then. but perhaps there's no mystery there: eventually their low-density crop did yield large populations and urbanisation, it just took a lot longer than higher-density crops did elsewhere.
This is an intriguing idea that I hadn't thought of. Evidence of rice cultivation is quite old in China, and predates the Han dynasty by quite a bit, but some sites, especially in the north, continued to rely on millet for some time. I'll look into this and see if it makes sense as an explanation.

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A bigger objection might be: how sure are you of your pattern that you think China breaks? North America took 5000 years to develop the rudiments of civilisation, and arguably never developed cities. Papua New Guinea has had agriculture for 9000 years - towns developed eventually, but never cities. Central America - more than 5000 years from agriculture to the first known civilisation. Peru took less than 4000 years it now seems - but that first civilisation appears to have been a dead end, with continuous civilisation needing another 2000 years. Egyptian agriculture never produced civilisation - it died out and was later replaced by mesopotamian agriculture. Ethiopian civilisation developed only under contact with other civilisations.
A lot of this will depend on your accepted earliest date of agriculture, cities, and so on. But from agriculture to the first sizable towns took no time at all in the Near East, as their precursors existed from the late Mesolithic, and large cities took only about 4000 years, unless you adopt the 9000 BC mark as the beginnings of agriculture in the Levant, which I find a bit unconvincing from what I've read. Meso-America took a similar length of time, although there the dates of earliest agriculture are far more controversial, ranging from 6000 BC to 3500 BC. Meanwhile in China it takes 6000 years just to get towns, and another half millennium before large cities show up. Of course there is no perfect formula that every regions is expected to follow. But it seems to be that China developed urbanization later than other civilizations (excepting those who never got that far, as you said), and yet still managed to turn out alright in the end. As I mentioned before, the real shocker is that they went ahead and invented bronze, even without civilization. No other society on Earth had large scale bronze production without civilization, unless it was imported. It's almost as if China developed right on schedule, inventing agriculture, bronze metallurgy, silk production, irrigation networks, and so on, and then at the last minute remembered "Oh wait, I'm supposed to have complex states! Quick, where did I put my Shang Dynasty?"

I guess this won't seem as interesting to some as it does to me, but oh well. Thanks for the thoughtful reply either way.

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PostPosted: Tue Aug 23, 2011 2:30 pm 
Avisaru
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brandrinn wrote:
Ollock wrote:
Really? I had never heard about there being no evidence for towns before 2000 BC in China. I'm quite sure they had the beginnings of writing before that time (oracle bone script). One thing to consider is that they may have built their homes at that time from materials that were not preserved well. A similar effect seems to occur far earlier with tool making -- Homo erectus left numerous tools in other regions, but none in Asia, so archaeologists have theorized that they made tools from wood or other materials instead. The same could occur with towns, probably their houses were built of wood or bamboo, which rotted away and left no trace, especially in places where later settlements were built on top of the old ones.

The earliest undeniable oracle bone script comes from a Shang Dynasty site around 1200 BC. Presumably, based on its sophistication, its development began somewhat earlier. But this is still far later than the estimated date of 3100 BC, when Mesopotamian writing reached a similar level of complexity.


I really should look these things up before I write them.

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PostPosted: Tue Aug 23, 2011 2:58 pm 
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Ollock wrote:
brandrinn wrote:
Ollock wrote:
Really? I had never heard about there being no evidence for towns before 2000 BC in China. I'm quite sure they had the beginnings of writing before that time (oracle bone script). One thing to consider is that they may have built their homes at that time from materials that were not preserved well. A similar effect seems to occur far earlier with tool making -- Homo erectus left numerous tools in other regions, but none in Asia, so archaeologists have theorized that they made tools from wood or other materials instead. The same could occur with towns, probably their houses were built of wood or bamboo, which rotted away and left no trace, especially in places where later settlements were built on top of the old ones.

The earliest undeniable oracle bone script comes from a Shang Dynasty site around 1200 BC. Presumably, based on its sophistication, its development began somewhat earlier. But this is still far later than the estimated date of 3100 BC, when Mesopotamian writing reached a similar level of complexity.


I really should look these things up before I write them.

There are tantalizing hints of earlier "writing" in the form of pictorgraphic symbols going back to as early as 8000 BC, but like the Vinca symbols of Europe, there is no solid evidence that a full writing system existed at this time.

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PostPosted: Tue Aug 23, 2011 9:31 pm 
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I always thought that one factor leading to "civilization" was a dry climate. In the middle east, egypt, and pakistan a great deal of central planning was required in order to irrigate - and this was perhaps a driving factor towards civilization. In China, no worries, it would rain on your field. So no need for a central authority regulating water supply.

For what its worth.


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PostPosted: Tue Aug 23, 2011 10:21 pm 
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HandsomeRob wrote:
I always thought that one factor leading to "civilization" was a dry climate. In the middle east, egypt, and pakistan a great deal of central planning was required in order to irrigate - and this was perhaps a driving factor towards civilization. In China, no worries, it would rain on your field. So no need for a central authority regulating water supply.

For what its worth.


I have often heard that China did have a central authority regulating the water supply and also that this accounts for its tight centralization and strict government compared to Europe (the hydraulic empire theory).

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PostPosted: Tue Aug 23, 2011 10:31 pm 
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HandsomeRob wrote:
I always thought that one factor leading to "civilization" was a dry climate. In the middle east, egypt, and pakistan a great deal of central planning was required in order to irrigate - and this was perhaps a driving factor towards civilization. In China, no worries, it would rain on your field. So no need for a central authority regulating water supply.

For what its worth.
Well, yeah, urbanization seems to arise when a steady supply of water meets an arid climate, though it doesn't always seem to work that way in the tropics. But northern China can be fairly dry. And any settlement directly on the Huang He would need some large-scale flood containment strategies. Especially after wet rice became common, large scale irrigation took lots of organized labor.

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PostPosted: Tue Aug 23, 2011 11:45 pm 
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Eddy wrote:
I have often heard that China did have a central authority regulating the water supply and also that this accounts for its tight centralization and strict government compared to Europe.

Jared Diamond, in Guns, Germs and Steel, opines that China was TOO centralised - the lack of competition from rival nation-states meant that entire industrial endeavours could be scuppered overnight by imperial edict. The example he gives is naval tradition and exploration.

(I need to go read that book cover to cover sometime, it's good.)


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PostPosted: Wed Aug 24, 2011 6:04 am 
Avisaru
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brandrinn wrote:
HandsomeRob wrote:
I always thought that one factor leading to "civilization" was a dry climate. In the middle east, egypt, and pakistan a great deal of central planning was required in order to irrigate - and this was perhaps a driving factor towards civilization. In China, no worries, it would rain on your field. So no need for a central authority regulating water supply.

For what its worth.
Well, yeah, urbanization seems to arise when a steady supply of water meets an arid climate, though it doesn't always seem to work that way in the tropics. But northern China can be fairly dry. And any settlement directly on the Huang He would need some large-scale flood containment strategies. Especially after wet rice became common, large scale irrigation took lots of organized labor.


Might we point to the fact that the early Han expansion came from the north. But yeah, northern China is a bit dry, and the northwest is basically a desert (though that was not part of China Proper and wasn't subsumed until later). The south, however, is swimming in water, though in some regions mountainous terrain led to terrace farming, which may require a good deal of organization in its own right.

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PostPosted: Wed Aug 24, 2011 9:43 am 
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XinuX wrote:
Eddy wrote:
I have often heard that China did have a central authority regulating the water supply and also that this accounts for its tight centralization and strict government compared to Europe.

Jared Diamond, in Guns, Germs and Steel, opines that China was TOO centralised - the lack of competition from rival nation-states meant that entire industrial endeavours could be scuppered overnight by imperial edict. The example he gives is naval tradition and exploration.

(I need to go read that book cover to cover sometime, it's good.)
That's actually the epilogue, and it's generally understood to be unsupported pap, straight out of the Zapp Branegin's Big Book of Stereotypes. The rest of the book is great, but the epilogue is like a shit sandwich.

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PostPosted: Wed Aug 24, 2011 11:59 am 
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Hidraulic Empires? What about the Early civilizations that are not that well known? the Indus valley is hardly arid, nor is mexico, where the Olmecs and the Zapotecs developped. The genesis of complex states and other civilizatory structures doesn't seem correlated with aridness of terrain for me, outside a certain range: its likely the deep amazon basin isn't amicable to development of agriculture and states, and its even more likely that the deep Sahara isn't either. *buuuut* no, I don't see hydraulic empires.

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PostPosted: Wed Aug 24, 2011 1:15 pm 
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Torco wrote:
the Indus valley is hardly arid


Sure it is... Makran desert on one side, Thar desert on the other. Many of the Harappan ruins are covered with sand dunes these days.

The parts of Mexico which developed civilization early were not arid, though; I'm not saying it's the only driving factor.


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PostPosted: Wed Aug 24, 2011 1:48 pm 
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point taken, which leaves mesoamericans. Mesoamerican civilization is the only one that can be considered to have evolved independently from the others [there's evidence of contact between china india, india and persia, persia and egypt, egypt and greece -duh- and greece and everywhere else that isn't mesoamerica] hell, the rigveda is written with letters invented by lebanese people.

This impedes the conclusion that different civs emerge from different climates of development... sooo yeah, I don't see it as a factor beyond, perhaps, that eurasian cereals are better at semiarid grassland, while corn, cassava and cotton are better at semitropical climate... though that might be reversing the thing; maybe mesoamericans domesticated corn because they were already semitropical dudes.

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PostPosted: Wed Aug 24, 2011 8:37 pm 
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Torco wrote:
point taken, which leaves mesoamericans. Mesoamerican civilization is the only one that can be considered to have evolved independently from the others [there's evidence of contact between china india, india and persia, persia and egypt, egypt and greece -duh- and greece and everywhere else that isn't mesoamerica] hell, the rigveda is written with letters invented by lebanese people.

This impedes the conclusion that different civs emerge from different climates of development... sooo yeah, I don't see it as a factor beyond, perhaps, that eurasian cereals are better at semiarid grassland, while corn, cassava and cotton are better at semitropical climate... though that might be reversing the thing; maybe mesoamericans domesticated corn because they were already semitropical dudes.

I would say don't focus so much on the aridity as a deterministic aspect of climate. Instead think of aridity as the catalyst of a process. The highlands of New Guinea, for example, are anything but arid. But agriculture developed there. Why? It might be because edible wild plant and animals species are uncommon there. That's a catalyst. Agriculture didn't develop in Mesopotamia, and in fact we know that hunter-gatherers enjoyed very good hunting there. It spread to the region from the Levant, via the upper Tigris and Euphrates. Why did small-scale agriculture lead to urbanization there? Well, maybe because you have the sunshine of an arid climate plus the reliable water source of major rivers. Maybe it's because irrigation requires lots of organization. Maybe it's because of something else. Whatever it is, we see it happen in numerous other arid climates around the world as well, from Peru to China. But it's not ultimately the aridity that's causing it, it's some aspect of the climate that is having a catalytic effect on civilization.

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PostPosted: Wed Aug 24, 2011 8:46 pm 
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China was slower to develop than Mesopotamia because there was less geographical containment of the population.

The big trigger for the development of civilization in Mesopotamia and Egypt was the desertification of Arabia and the Sahara around 4000BC, when your survival depends on irrigation from rivers it is much harder to run away from developing state hierarchies.

The ancient Yellow River valley was much different, agriculture there was rain-watered and instead of a rather sudden centralization there was a slow but steady centralization from about 4000BC to when true bureaucratic states emerged around 500BC. The Shang and Zhou kings were not really monarchs as we understand the term, they were the "sacral kings" presiding over a loose agglomeration of tribal elites.


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PostPosted: Wed Aug 24, 2011 9:07 pm 
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But the Sumerians were already practicing irrigation by 5000 BC.

And the neolithic Chinese also practiced some irrigation and wet-paddy rice cultivation.

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PostPosted: Thu Sep 01, 2011 3:36 pm 
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The hydraulic engineering theory has a lot of merit, and not merely as a correlate to aridity.

So in Sumeria, the official histories are rife with stories about kings building irrigation ditches, political disputes over irrigation ditches, invaders destroying irrigation ditches. You look at pictures of these places, and today they're arid deserts in which agriculture would be impossible without irrigation. OTOH Sumeria proper was centered on the marshy southern region of Mesopotamia, although the later Akkadian and Assyrian power centers were in the more arid north.

Mesoamerica is not arid, but hydraulic engineering was vital to the agricultural economy as a way of maintaining soil fertility in weathered, nutrient-poor soils. So, one of the theories for why Classical Maya civilization supported higher-than-expected population densities was that they used a system somewhat different than contemporary milpa agriculture: they would use raised fields separated by canals, which were raised and fertilized by vegetation and rich sediment harvested from the canals. The chinampa system in the Aztec region similarly used aquatic vegetation and sediment to increase agricultural output, albeit in a different way.

IIRC in China, agriculture began in the north with millet, and wheat came later (from the Middle East?). Rice came from the south, and rice agriculture is dominant in southern China while wheat agriculture is dominant in northern China. Maybe there's a nutritional explanation: rice produces more calories IIRC, but wheat has more protein. There's a pretty significant difference between south and north in Chinese history: Chinese civilization colonized the south long after the dynastic eras began, and the Chinese empires didn't fully integrate southern and western China until Ming and Qing times.


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PostPosted: Thu Sep 01, 2011 4:19 pm 
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Gojera wrote:
IIRC in China, agriculture began in the north with millet, and wheat came later (from the Middle East?). Rice came from the south, and rice agriculture is dominant in southern China while wheat agriculture is dominant in northern China. Maybe there's a nutritional explanation: rice produces more calories IIRC, but wheat has more protein. There's a pretty significant difference between south and north in Chinese history: Chinese civilization colonized the south long after the dynastic eras began, and the Chinese empires didn't fully integrate southern and western China until Ming and Qing times.


Rice grows better in the south, mainly because more availability of water. But yeah, China tends to be broadly divided into five distinct regions: north, south, northeast, west, and southwest -- all with significant cultural differences and different history (particularly in the west and southwest, which were added later and are dominated by minorities).

I'm not sure on all the facts about Chinese irrigation, but I know it has been a significant issue historically, inspiring a legend of an emperor digging irrigation channels himself, and the massive South-North Water Project today.

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