This article seeks to spark a conversation about shifting conceptualizations of disaster under modernizing states. It employs case studies of two major disasters, the North China Famine of 1876–79 and the Yellow River flood of 1938–47, to map changes and continuities in Chinese responses to disaster. State approaches to the late-Qing famine both drew on a millennium of Chinese thinking about disaster causation and anticipated new issues that would become increasingly important in twentieth-century China. The catastrophic Yellow River flood occurred when China's Nationalist government deliberately breached a major dike in a desperate attempt to “use water instead of soldiers” to slow the brutal Japanese invasion. The Nationalist state's technologization of disaster, its rejection of cosmological interpretations of calamity, and its depiction of flood victims as heroes sacrificing for the nation mark departures from late-imperial responses to disaster, but foreshadow features of the devastating Mao-era Great Leap Famine of 1958–62.

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