The Water Shops of Republican Tianjin

Cao, Mu. “The Water Shops of Republican Tianjin”. Environment & Society Portal, Arcadia, n° 20 (Summer 2019). Rachel Carson Center for Environment and Society.

Cao Mu (Université normale de Tianjin) est historienne, spécialiste d’histoire environnementale.

The city of Tianjin was one of China’s treaty ports with foreign concessions in the second half of the nineteenth and the early twentieth centuries. Located on the China Sea and 75 miles from the inland capital of Beijing, Tianjin had around 200,000 residents in 1900, and all of them needed fresh water. The city solved this problem by turning to local water entrepreneurs, before eventually creating a public water supply system.

A British traveler and author who visited Tianjin in 1858, Laurence Oliphant, noted that the most common commodities sold on the street were water and firewood. Water selling had long been one of the most common businesses in Tianjin, and was also one of the oldest, dating back to 1404 when the city was officially founded. Tianjin suffered from a brackish water problem due to its high underground water level and seawater mixing with its rivers. Back in the eighteenth century, most of the city’s old wells that had offered potable water failed, such that the main supply had to come from a single stretch of the Southern Canal (南运河), which lay to the north, outside the city walls. For those who lived far from that source, the most convenient way to get fresh drinking water was to buy it daily from water shops.

Shopkeepers hired water carriers to transport water from the bank of the Southern Canal to their shops. A folk poem, The Zhu Zhi Poem of Tianjin (津门竹枝词), depicted men carrying water in buckets suspended from shoulder poles or in wheelbarrows, racing along a road that was slippery from recent rain.

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A Chinese hot water shop, c. 1902.

A Chinese hot water shop, c. 1902.

Monique Abud

Centre d'études sur la Chine moderne et contemporaine, EHESS, Paris, France

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