What the Ancients Got Right

Lawndale News Chicago's Bilingual Newspaper - Commentary

by Daniel Nardini

Recently, there was massive flooding in Beijing, China’s capital. An estimated 37 people died. Many modern buildings and homes were flooded and destroyed. Whole streets were deep rivers. However, the Forbidden Palace complex, built for China’s emperors 600 years ago, remained flood-free. Why? It seems that the Forbidden Palace’s complex water system was able to drain away the excess water in 20 minutes—leaving the palace grounds unharmed. In fact, some of Beijing’s residents had to take shelter in the palace complex. No one in China is exactly sure how the ancient palace’s water system has been able to remain flood-free. Two things are known, however. First, the palace’s water system has an intricate tunnel system that draws water away as much as it draws water into its spring system for those people who used to live in the palace to get fresh water. Second, the stone masonry that makes up the courtyards and open spaces are angled in a way that seems to drain water down.

We have to keep in mind that the Chinese have faced flooding for a couple of thousand years, and for their royalty they may have developed a very sophisticated water drainage system that works. The present day Chinese government might call the time of China’s imperial past “feudal” and “backward,” but one should never underestimate the science, technology, architecture and engineering that went into building many of China great historic palaces and temples that still stand today despite flooding and earthquakes. The Forbidden Palace’s water system reminds me of the great Native Amerindian discovery and use of artificial islands in Mexico called chinampas. The chinampas were islands that had been built up gradually to create not only land for growing crops and for living space, but these helped to prevent massive flooding that would have destroyed many buildings and homes in the Aztec civilization. These days, many agriculturalists as well as scientists in Mexico are looking into the promise of chinampas as a means to correct the mistakes made by the conquering Spanish in the 16th Century. Sometimes the ancients had it right where our modern experts have it wrong.

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