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Grant-in-Aid for Scientific Research(S): The Hydrosphere and Socioeconomics in Modern Asia - Exploring a New Regional History Using a Database and Spatial Analysis

Since the “Asian Trade Zone” theory of the 1980s, research results related to an intra-Asian merchant network and trade, as well as coastal cities, have been accumulating. However, given the lack of a framework for reciprocal studies on the diversity of the natural environment and social economy, research has not proceeded as far as building a “meta-narrative” of regional history uniting empirical research on each region. This group project, centering on the research projects outlined below, will clarify the long-term changes in the Asian region and its internal dynamism while cross-referencing both natural environment and socio-economic activities.

Spatial Analysis Unit

The Spatial Analysis Unit aims to elucidate the dynamism of Asian social economy during the 19th and 20th centuries by applying spatial analysis to a spatial information database built from materials and data aggregated by historians; this process focuses on each Asian region and on three problem clusters related to climate and the hydrosphere: 1. natural environment and phenomena, 2. production and livelihood, and 3. movement and distribution.

Spatial analysis is a method for analyzing the relationship between locations and the events associated with them. Location-associated information is information preserved as a single set, as shown by national populations, whereby information showing geographic location is linked to population values. This type of information, comprising location and the data linked to it as a single set, is spatial information.

Maps can be created from spatial information. Through describing a circle corresponding to population size in the country’s location, and applying this to nations globally, a map can be made indicating country-by-country populations according to respective circle size. Creating maps from spatial information in this way, and generating illustrations from original, alphanumeric values, is known as the visualization of spatial information. The analytical method that cross-references the positional and alphanumeric values of spatial information is spatial analysis.

The Spatial Analysis Unit, in collaboration with the Historical Analysis Unit, will tackle the following issues:

  1. Building a spatial information database: Taking up principal port cities and their hinterlands, latitudinal and longitudinal spatial IDs will be applied to quantitative and qualitative information related to the above three problem clusters, and all the information, whether chronological, geographical or representing regionally differing problems, will be used to build a cross-reference-capable spatial information database.
  2. Spatial analysis: For specific geographic points, various hypotheses will be established regarding the relationship between environmental phenomena such as topography, geological features, hydrology, and vegetation, and socio-economic phenomena such as facilities’ location, commercial activities, life actions, and population movements; layering of visualized information from a geographic information system (GIS), comparison, and statistical analysis methods will be brought into play; and estimation and verification performed. For example, by adding spatial analysis to problem cluster-related data (i.e., 1. environmental conditions such as the monsoon cycle, abnormal annual weather conditions, and long-term climatic fluctuations to which they are subordinate; 2. hydrological environment and irrigation formation of river basins, population, agricultural production, harbors, industrial concentration, and urbanization accompanying river development; and 3. the correlation between climate and crop prices, and the link to the entire regional economy observable in interregional relationships), the correlations between each region’s climate, hydrosphere, and social economy will be made clear.
  3. In particular, it has been rare for conventional, historical research, owing to data and analytic method limitations, to quantitatively grasp and analyze climatic and environmental changes. Proceeding to estimate and reproduce the natural environment and its changes in the Asian region through collaboration between the Spatial and Historical Analysis Units is an important issue for this project (see: “River Flood Analysis”).

In addition, through extracting weather- and hydrology-related observational records from materials and data aggregated by historians, and by verifying and correcting past climates recreated using numerical, climatic models, the research aims to contribute to the natural and geo-environmental science components of historical data.

River Flood Analysis – the 1931 Yangtze Flood as a Case Study

As a response to natural monsoon conditions, each Asian region, as the postulate for its own socio-economic activities, has conducted observations over a long period for air temperature and rainfall, and those records remain. Estimation and reproduction of climates and natural environments, using historical data, is one important objective of this project.

Adopting the unprecedented 1931 flooding of the Yangtze basin as a pilot study on this issue, this project is proceeding with flood analysis. Flood analysis is a technique that uses rainfall distribution, topographical data such as elevation and land usage, and river cross-sectional data as input data to calculate the excess of rainfall, effluence and flooding within the river basis. The elevation data used here is HydroSHEDS provided by the United States Geological Survey (USGS). As precipitation data, weather observation data measured by Chinese maritime customs at the time was added to 2º grid rainfall data over the last 150 years provided by the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

『气象月刊』第四巻第八期 (1931年8月) page 57

The diagram below is an attempt to simulate, using the above-mentioned elevation and rainfall data, the flooding that occurred in 1931 in China’s Yangtze river. The brown and gray areas against a green background indicate elevation data, while the blue represents areas where flooding occurred. The degree of density of the blue areas represents water depth.

Since the mid-19th century, Chinese marine customs have regularly and continuously observed air temperature and water levels for the Yangtze, and records remain in customs authorities’ reports. From the above simulation date of September 1 extrapolated from the 10-year report included in Chinese marine customs statistics shown below, water can be seen as continuing to decline from a level of 52 feet. With subsequent layering of comparisons between simulation results and historical materials, the research will raise the accuracy of data regarding flood range and water levels.


Through applying analytical methods developed over a long period in the civil and hydro-engineering fields to historical analysis of the wide-ranging Yangtze basin, the research will offer new knowledge concerning the impact of natural disasters. Moreover, it is possible that models built adopting periods of emergency due to river flooding will drive developments in river basin analysis in normal times as well. Using this case study as a starting point, we may hope to advance research into a longer Yangtze hydrologic cycle in the future, and into the problems of floods and droughts in other regions of Asia.

Historical Analysis Unit: China Team

The eastern side of the land mass of China faces the ocean, while major rivers such as the Yellow River, Yangtze River, and Pearl River and their tributaries extend across the nation. Under such conditions, the importance of access to the ocean along the seacoast has been a topic raised in discussions of the Asian trade area and in maritime-Asian history since the 1980s. Other topics of great concern include the problems of flood control and administration in agricultural societies and the relationship of rivers to distribution inside and outside the region. With a background in research on production, distribution, and mobility related to the ocean and rivers, the China Team will cooperate with the Spatial Analysis Unit to clarify the form of China’s society and economy since the nineteenth century in terms of how people related themselves by quantitatively estimating the impact of rainfall and flowing water.

As the team carefully reads sets of documents representative of China in that period and processes them to build a database, the challenge facing the team will be to study the question from a new perspective. As an example, let us take the Chinese customs clearance procedures that came under the purview of foreign technical advisors in government service beginning in the second half of the nineteenth century. They performed customs clearance work comparable to that in Europe and America, resulting in the compilation of detailed trade statistics at the same time as they participated in and left relevant records on port improvements and river transport. An analysis now underway of inundations by the Yangtze River has provided valuable information about water levels at a number of points in its watershed in reports regularly compiled in the process of customs clearance activities. The team will conduct interrelated studies of such analysis results, medical reports through customs clearance work by port trading companies, and reports of surveys by other organizations and individuals.

History Analysis Unit: South Asia Team

In South Asia, the nineteenth century and the first half of the twentieth century was an era of economic growth. This growth was driven mainly by strong exports of primary commodities, caused by the expansion of world trade, accompanied by starvation and epidemics of contagious diseases on an unprecedented scale. In the 1920s the economy stagnated, but a period of starvation and epidemics was terminated. The relationship of economic growth to starvation and epidemics has been discussed in the past. However, many aspects of the relationship between agricultural production, distribution, and consumption between and within regions with these two issues, and the relationship of macroscopic trends with microscopic states by region, remain unclear. So based on the concept “nexus of water,” this unit will attempt a comprehensive analysis of the dynamics of South Asian economies during the period under study by approaching the issue from two directions: corroborative research based on documentary sources, and quantitative analysis performed in cooperation with the Spatial Analysis Team.

Rainfall brought by the monsoon takes diverse forms on the ground (joining irrigation use water, rivers, the ocean, etc.), resulting in agricultural production, internal commerce, external trade, and consumption and the mutual linking of these activities. These are not static; impacted by the monsoons and the topography characteristic of South Asia, they diversify regionally and fluctuate seasonally. This unit calls this the “nexus of water” and will study the above challenges. To do so, it will conduct broad discussions of this point: modern control of the “nexus of water” in order to advance conventional technologies and systems that will restore the analysis of the “nexus of water” (flooding and drought, resulting in starvation and epidemics) and represent it in the modernization of modes of transport, construction of bridges, and building of embankments in the nineteenth century.

The main regions under study will be regions with contrasting hydrological environments: the Bengal Plain and the Deccan Plateau. The former is a moist region that experiences tropical monsoon weather, and the latter is part of steppe climate in a dry zone. The two regions are production areas whose major products are rice and raw cotton, respectively, and both are closely linked to world markets through the ports of Kolkata and Mumbai. In this sense, they are thought to be highly suitable for comparison.

Historical Analysis Unit: Southeast Asia Team

Southeast Asia consists of topographically and hydrologically diverse regions on a continental land mass with several deltas of large river basins, including the Chao Phraya River and the Mekong River, plus island groups consisting of many islands in a wide range of sizes. During the nineteenth century and twentieth century, many parts of the region, except for Thailand, fell under the rule and the influence of various Western powers, including the United Kingdom, France, the Netherlands, and Spain. Though Southeast Asia has diverse natural and political conditions, all of it is basically an agricultural region. Therefore, information on the climate, rainfall, and river water levels is needed; these are monitored and recorded by governments and other organizations. The Southeast Asia Team will, with the cooperation of members specializing in Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, Vietnam, and Singapore, conduct research focused on comparison with inter-regional links based on differences between and features common to all regions while collecting climatic, industrial, and trade-related data for each region.

Turning to the island groups, concerning Sarawak in Malaysia, for example, the Sarawak Gazette records not only meteorological information but also statistical information about trade and commodity prices, permitting analysis of their mutual relationships. Sarawak has, through the growth of modern trade, been linked with the world economy through the export of primary commodities. At the same time, complex distribution networks linking marine trade, coastal trade, and continental river commerce have been formed, and while this process has played a role in accelerating the growth of trade, these networks are typically fragile in that climatic conditions can block distribution. Of course, the production of primary commodities is probably also impacted in some way by abnormal climatic conditions. The team’s aim will be to clarify quantitatively (with statistical data) and qualitatively (with descriptive documents) the direct and indirect effects of such trade and distribution and climatic conditions.

Further, in Indonesia, the colonial government monitored the weather in various parts of the region such as Batavia beginning in the mid-nineteenth century. As the team collects weather records published in the document “Regen waarnemingen in Nedenlandsch-Indië” (Observations of Rainfall in the Dutch East Indies), it will attempt to perform an interrelational analysis of climatic conditions and the microhistory—population, agriculture, trade, and epidemics—of Minahasa on Sulawesi Island.

Regarding continental Thailand, the team will, using the Statistical Year Book of the Kingdom of Siam as a basic source, comprehensively input climate data (air temperature, rainfall, flow rate of rivers), agricultural data (rice cultivation, rice exports), and economic and financial data (stocks, mortgages, rice-paddy tax) as it performs an analysis focused on the interrelationships of these categories of data. Doctor Punnee Bualek of Thailand referred to primary documents and conducted interviews to try to clarify the dynamic development of the Chao Phraya River Delta, focusing on the excavation of canals and change of agricultural land in the Bang Khen district of Bangkok. With respect to Vietnam, the team will obtain comprehensive data, including meteorological data about average rainfalls in various cities and the air temperature in Saigon, and about trade (imports and exports) and agriculture (rice production, area under cultivation by crop, and so on) based on the Annuaire statistique de l’Indochine, which is a source of basic statistics during the period of French colonial rule. The team plans to input these data and to perform an analysis focused on their interrelationships, taking into account the distinctive climatic characteristics of the north (then called Tonkin), central (then called Annam), and southern (then called Cochinchina) regions of Vietnam. During the nineteenth and twentieth centuries in particular, in the Mekong Delta in the south, land was reclaimed and canals excavated; so the team will probably pay close attention to an evaluation based on the framework of development and the river systems in the region.

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