Lapham’s Quarterly excerpts a bit of Philip Ball’s The Water Kingdom:
"To the perplexity of Western observers (not least when confronted with Chinese maps), the innate mental compass of the Chinese points not north–south, but east–west. The Chinese people articulate and imagine space differently from Westerners—and no wonder.
All of China’s great rivers respect this axis. But two in particular are symbols of the nation and the keys to its fate: the Yangtze and the Yellow River. These great waterways orient China’s efforts to comprehend itself, and they explain a great deal about the social, economic, and geographical organization of its culture and trade. The rivers are where Confucius and Lao Tzu went to think, where poets like Li Bai and Du Fu went to find words to fit their melancholy, where painters discerned in the many moods of water a language of political commentary, where China’s pivotal battles were fought, where rulers from the first Qin Emperor to Mao and his successors demonstrated their authority. They are where life happens, and there is really nothing much to be said about China that does not start with a river."
And: “The Yü Ji Tu (“Tracks of Yü” Map), carved in stone sometime before the twelfth century, shows how Chinese cartography was far ahead of anything in Christendom or classical Greece. In medieval maps of Europe the rivers are schematic ribbons, serpents’ tails encroaching from the coast in rather random wiggles. But the Yü Ji Tu could almost be the work of a Victorian surveyor, depicting the known extent of the kingdom with extraordinary fidelity and measured on a very modern-looking grid.”