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.
Stated Yu: “The inundating waters seemed to assail the heavens, and in their vast extent embraced the mountains and overtopped the hills, so that people were bewildered and overwhelmed. I mounted my four conveyances, and all along the hills hewed down the woods. . . . I (also) opened the passages for the streams throughout the nine (provinces), and conducted them to the four seas. I deepened (moreover) the channels and canals, and conducted them to the streams, at the same time along with Ji sowing grain, and showing the multitudes how to procure the food of toil. . . . In this way all the people got grain to eat, and all the States began to come under good rule.” (Legge  1960, 3:77–78)
With two days and nights of concerted effort from the second and third regiments of our division, . . . we succeeded in releasing the water before 8 o'clock in the morning as planned. . . . At the beginning it flowed slowly, but at 1pm, a flood suddenly rushed out like ten thousand horses galloping forth. . . . Looking ahead was a vast expanse of water; from the west to the north of Jingshui town all became submerged. It is expected that within a few days [water] will spread to many counties in this area, which grieves the heart. But this action was taken only to hold back the enemy and save the overall situation. For this reason [we] did not hesitate to make this great sacrifice in order to strive for the final victory. (Xiong Xianyu, 1938, in Minguo dangan 1997, 3:10–11)
In June 1938, the leaders of China's beleaguered Nationalist government ordered soldiers to breach the Yellow River dike in a desperate attempt to “use water in place of soldiers” (yishui daibing) to slow the advance of the Japanese Imperial Army. The breach caused the Yellow River to undergo a major change in course that led to devastating flooding in three provinces, and kept nearly two million acres of cropland out of dependable production from 1938 until 1947 (Todd 1949, 39–45). The flood, as well as the epidemics and starvation that resulted from it—what I will henceforth call, with both immediate and long-term impact in mind, simply “the Yellow River disaster”—created four million refugees and killed as many as 900,000 people (Li et al. 1994, 249–54). The flooding also contributed in important ways to the severity of the Henan Famine of 1942–43, which resulted in an additional three million deaths (Song 2005, 2–4). Although the Chinese government tried to repair the breach, the chaos of war kept this goal out of reach until 1947. Because the river's new course took it through land unprotected by permanent dikes, those areas experienced serious flooding not only in 1938 itself but almost every summer for the next eight years.
At first glance, the Nationalist government's willingness to create a flood that threatened the livelihood and lives of so many people in rural North China looks like a shocking departure from what Elizabeth Perry has termed “a hallmark of Chinese political philosophy and practice from Mencius to Mao”—“the idea that good governance rests upon guaranteeing the livelihood of ordinary people” (Perry 2008, 39). As historian Diana Lary wrote when introducing the strategic breach, and flood to many English-language readers in 2001, “This was a tactic not used in Chinese history before. The frequent floods of the River in the past had been the product of natural forces or of government negligence (usually a combination of the two), but never of a deliberate act of opening the dykes. This was an act so drastic that it was virtually unthinkable” (Lary 2001, 196).
Chinese Communists writing during the Chinese Civil War of 1946–49, on the other hand, as well as some modern PRC scholars, depict the Nationalist state's use of strategic flooding against the Japanese as less a disturbing departure from policies employed in China's imperial past than an unwelcome return to them. In an editorial on the breach published by the Communist-run Xinhua ribao newspaper in May 1946, for instance, the editor accused the “reactionary” Guomindang of employing a method that had reaped uneven success at earlier points in China's history, and was certainly outdated for use in “modern warfare” (Xinhua ribao, May 30, 1946, 3; see also May 17, 1946, 2). Likewise the editors of the Fugou County gazetteer published in 1986 criticized the Guomindang for relying on “the same old trick” as Du Chong, a Northern Song (960–1127) official who breached a key Yellow River dike in 1128 in an unsuccessful attempt to use flooding to fend off the Jurchen Jin (1115–1234) armies that would soon conquer North China (Fugou xianzhi 1986, 89). Moreover, historian Ma Junya argues that Ming and Qing rulers, not unlike Nationalist leaders in 1938, chose to manipulate the Yellow River in ways that placed broader state interests over the well-being of people in a particular region. Ma finds that in their attempts to redirect the flow of the Yellow River into the Huai River, which shifted potential flooding south, both the Ming and Qing states prioritized such goals as protecting the transport of tribute grain via the Grand Canal over the livelihood of people in the Huaibei region, which includes parts of Henan, Anhui, and Jiangsu that were later inundated by the 1938 flood (Ma 2010, 75–84).
My argument here is that the Yellow River flood is best seen as an intriguing mix of new and old in terms of Chinese responses to disaster. To make the case for this idea, I draw heavily on connections between this event and what would seem, at first glance, the very different one of the North China Famine of 1876–79, the subject of my first book. There are of course significant differences between the two events, yet on closer inspection they are not so great, I am convinced, as to undermine the value of comparison. Take, for example, Paul Cohen's observation that the suffering brought about by drought is not identical to that triggered by flood (Cohen 1997, 70–75). This is true, but both the drought in the late 1870s and the flooding in the late 1930s resulted in famine conditions and epidemic disease, and both events led to such immense devastation that they are included among the “ten great disasters of China's modern period” (Li et al. 1994). Another important contrast, which matters but the significance of which should not be overstated, is that the crisis facing the wartime Nationalist state was more immediate and overwhelming than that faced by the Qing government in the 1870s. In spite of this difference, in both cases disaster forced an already weakened and beleaguered state to make excruciating choices about which of the multiple crises facing China was most urgent and could lay the strongest claim to scarce state resources. Differences in causation also matter, though perhaps not as much as some might assume. The catalyst for the North China Famine was a severe and prolonged drought, while the Yellow River disaster was a man-made catastrophe caused by the Nationalist government's decision to breach a dike for strategic reasons. And yet, the contrast here is less clear if one emphasizes how contemporary observers thought about the two events. In the 1870s, Qing observers believed that policy decisions, ranging from allowing the cultivation of the opium poppy in place of grain to wasting state funds on the promotion of Western science and technology, had contributed centrally to the severity of the famine (Edgerton-Tarpley 2008, 96–97, 107). And during the Yellow River disaster, many Chinese observers did not think of the event as one caused by domestic policy, since the Nationalist government initially insistently blamed the Japanese for damaging the dike with warplanes.1
What follows, then, is a paper that draws on research for both my first book and my ongoing investigation of the Yellow River disaster to map changes and continuities in Chinese responses to disaster between the late-imperial and Nationalist periods. Part of a larger project that explores ways in which Chinese interpretations of disaster changed due to the dramatic political and cultural shifts experienced between the late-Qing (1800–1912), Republican (1912–49), and Mao (1949–76) periods, it aims to spark a conversation about shifting conceptualizations of and responses to disaster under modernizing states. The Chinese state's decision to use flooding as an instrument of warfare was not new in 1938, nor was its attempt to mitigate the situation by helping flood refugees migrate west to reclaim “wasteland.” Other aspects of how the Nationalist state responded to the flood highlight important shifts in Chinese interpretations of disaster. Leading pro-Guomindang newspapers and Nationalist officials depicted the disaster as a moment for national sacrifice and as a problem that modern technology and international aid could solve. This was a marked departure from the long-held Confucian view, which dates back to the Chinese Classics, that disasters were Heaven's way of warning the ruler that he had offended Heaven by failing to act as a benevolent father and mother of the people, and should change course or risk losing the mandate to rule. After the war with Japan, Chinese Communist officials and newspapers denounced as cruel, ineffective, and “reactionary” the Guomindang's decision to use flooding instead of mass mobilization to stop the Japanese, and decried the human suffering that resulted (Xinhua ribao, January 8, 1947, 2). Ironically, only a little more than a decade later, during the Great Leap Famine of 1958–62, Chinese Communist leaders would themselves make policy decisions that sacrificed the lives of as many as thirty-six million people in a mad rush to “go all out, aim high, and build socialism with greater, faster, better, and more economical results” (Yang 2012, 3, 86–111).
Controlling the Waters; Nourishing the People
The Communists' postwar claim that harnessing the power of the masses was the best way to defend China drew in interesting ways from older, Confucian ideas about the role of the state during times of disaster. In ancient and imperial China, “controlling the waters” (zhishui) and “nourishing the people” (yangmin) were key ways for a ruler to demonstrate his moral legitimacy and win the people's hearts. The Great Yu, for instance, the legendary sage emperor said to be the founder of the Xia dynasty (roughly 2070–1600 BCE), demonstrated his ability to rule by taming China's rivers after others had failed (Dodgen 2001, 1). The account of Yu's deeds recorded in the Classic of History and cited above emphasizes the close connection between managing the rivers, nourishing the people, and gaining political legitimacy. Once Yu “deepened the channels and canals,” the people were able to obtain enough grain to eat, and the different states “began to come under good rule” (Legge  1960, 77–78).
The Chinese tradition of holding the state responsible for famine relief and water control was rooted in the Confucian classics. The Confucian philosopher Mencius (372–289 BCE) insisted that a benevolent ruler should guard against famine by storing grain during times of plenty and distributing it during times of dearth. Blaming poor harvests for bringing starvation to the people, taught Mencius, was no less wrongheaded than “killing a man by running him through, while saying all the time, ‘It is none of my doing. It is the fault of the weapon.’” It was also Mencius who popularized the idea that a ruler's Heaven-granted mandate to rule (tianming) was not immutable, and could be revoked if the ruler ignored Heaven and “lost the people's hearts” by failing to practice benevolence (Mencius 1970, I.A.52, IV.A.7–9). Disasters, such as droughts and floods, were viewed as portents that a dynasty had angered Heaven and was in danger of losing its mandate. This “Heaven-centered mode of political criticism” was elaborated on by the Han dynasty Confucian scholar Dong Zhongshu (195–105 BCE), and continued to be important into the Qing period (1644–1912) (De Bary and Bloom 1999, 305–6; Li and Zhou 1991, 13–14). “Rainfall and sunshine were thought to be seasonal or unseasonal, appropriate or excessive, according to whether human behavior was moral or immoral,” states Mark Elvin in his study of “moral meteorology” in late imperial China. Moreover, “some [individuals] counted for more than others. The emperor's conduct was of preeminent importance; bureaucrats came in second place; and the common people ranked last” (Elvin 1998, 213).
In China the principle that major calamities were connected to the ruler's conduct went far beyond the symbolic, and indeed “shaped expectations of imperial and bureaucratic responsibility” in important ways (Li 2007, 2–3). “In comparative perspective,” writes J. R. McNeill, the Chinese state “appears remarkable for its ecological role.” There more than elsewhere “the state took primary responsibility for building and maintaining many big waterworks” (McNeill 1998, 36–37). In the case of the Yellow River, erosion and the deposition of sediment caused the bed of the river to rise above the surrounding plain, so it was necessary to build huge embankments in order to keep the river in its place. During the period from 1194 to 1852–55 when the Yellow River ran into the sea south instead of north of the Shandong peninsula (as the strategic breach would force it to do again from 1938 to 1947), argues Elvin, the scale of the man-made effects that resulted from the herculean efforts that China's “river tamers” made to control the merged flows of the Yellow and Huai rivers “was probably unequalled anywhere in premodern history” (Elvin 2004, 24, 128, 131–40).
The Chinese state's commitment to nourishing the people during times of famine also has a long history. Formative famine-relief measures were codified in China's first imperial dynasty, the Qin (221–206 BCE), and the importance assigned to famine relief increased in the late imperial era (Li 2007, 3). The Qing state in particular devoted an extraordinary amount of bureaucratic attention and financial resources to famine relief. During a disaster, officials and rulers carried out rituals that aimed to move the heart of Heaven by displaying their sincerity and their concern for the people's distress. As detailed by Jeffrey Snyder-Reinke, ritual steps taken by Qing officials during times of drought included prohibiting the slaughter of animals, instituting community-wide fasts, praying at temples, exposing themselves in the hot sun, using their own blood to write rain prayers, or even threatening or actually committing suicide to demonstrate their willingness to suffer for the people (Snyder-Reinke 2009, 20, chap. 4). Concrete relief measures were important as well. As Pierre-Etienne Will, R. Bin Wong, and Lillian M. Li have demonstrated, during the eighteenth-century “golden age of late imperial famine administration” (Will 1990, 188), the high-Qing state aimed to prevent natural disasters from resulting in famines in the first place by selling state grain at below-market prices (pingtiao) in stricken areas in order to stabilize food prices, and by reducing or cancelling taxes for those areas. When famine conditions did ensue, officials tried to rebuild agricultural production and avert social unrest by investigating affected areas in order to classify households according to their degree of disaster, working with local elites to open soup kitchens and shelters, and most crucially, distributing large allotments of grain from massive state-run granaries to the starving free of charge (Li 2007, chap. 8; Will 1990, chap. 7–8; Will and Wong 1991, chap. 3).
The degree of state activism employed by the Qing state during subsistence crises dwarfed that found in early modern Europe or South Asia. In Northwest Europe, argues R. Bin Wong, states generally relied on commercial exchange to supply needed grain imports, rather than establishing public grain reserves. “European states often lacked both the capacity and the commitment necessary to establish and sustain granary reserves,” he continues. “Their state-making agenda did not include the kind of paternalistic concern that repeatedly motivated the Chinese” (Will and Wong 1991, 516–22). Adds South Asianist Paul Greenough, “in India expectations of the state were more limited. . . . The fundamental political theme running through Chinese subsistence concerns is largely missing” (Greenough 1982, 794–95).
1877: A House Divided—Defending China's Borders versus Winning the People's Hearts
As demonstrated in Tears from Iron, Chinese responses to the North China Famine of 1876–79 both drew on a millennium of traditional Chinese thinking about famine causation and anticipated new issues that would become increasingly important in the Republican and PRC eras. Important continuities with high-Qing disasters include the assumption that it was the state's responsibility to relieve the starving, a strong rhetoric of paternalistic dismay, and an explicit focus on the suffering of famine victims. Due to the decline caused by major internal rebellions, fiscal crisis, and imperialist aggression, the late-Qing state proved unable to prevent the severe and geographically extensive drought-famine from killing between nine and thirteen million people in five northern provinces (Edgerton-Tarpley 2008, chap. 1). Nevertheless, during the North China Famine, Qing officials and commoners continued to expect the state to provide substantive relief, and the beleaguered state did distribute significant, though far from sufficient, amounts of cash and grain relief. For example, in Shanxi Province, where the famine was most severe, government relief offices dispensed a total of 10.7 million taels of relief silver and 1 million shi of relief grain during the famine, allowing more than 3.4 million people to receive some state relief (Shanxi tongzhi 1892, juan 82, 18b–19a). The strong sense of responsibility articulated by Qing officials in the late 1870s stemmed in part from the long-established Chinese practice of attributing the occurrence of famine to an interaction between humans, Heaven, and natural forces (Li 2007, 2, 13). “Why have calamities been added successively like this?” asked the censor Ouyang Yun in an 1878 memorial urging the Court to fund additional famine relief. “I fear that recently human affairs must have offended and angered Heaven; I quietly seek the cause” (“Chouban ge sheng huangzheng an” 2003, 38:18678–81). Ouyang and many other Qing observers believed that when Heaven did send drought, it could be prevented from escalating into a major famine if the emperor and his officials reflected on their policies, confessed misdeeds that may have offended Heaven, and organized relief efforts (Edgerton-Tarpley 2008, chap. 3–4).
During the North China Famine, imperial edicts and official memorials about the famine were characterized by an emotional rhetoric of dismay that depicted rulers and officials as grief-stricken parents of the people. Shanxi's famine-era governor, Zeng Guoquan, described in familial terms the pain that Shanxi officials felt when they saw people starving to death. Because they were unable to help their “children” and could only look at each other and weep, reported Zeng, “the local officials feel ashamed to be the father and mother of the people (Jingbao, reprinted in Shenbao, July 28, 1877). Moreover, the misery of the starving people in North China was a central focus in media coverage of the famine, something that would not hold true during the 1938 flood. The Shanghai-based Shenbao newspaper, which covered the famine on an almost daily basis in 1877 and 1878, and a series of woodblock print famine illustrations distributed by philanthropists in the wealthy lower-Yangzi region, for instance, tried to motivate people to donate to relief efforts by describing in excruciating detail the torments experienced by starving women, men, and children. Both highlighted stories about intra-familial cannibalism and the plight of women sold to human traders by their famished families (Edgerton-Tarpley 2008, chap. 6 and 8).2
By the late 1870s, internal unrest coupled with the presence and power of foreign enemies in the form of the imperialist West and Japan brought new concerns to the forefront in discussions of what the enfeebled late-Qing state's response to famine should entail. These issues would become increasingly central in the twentieth-century disasters that followed. The Taiping, Nian, and Muslim rebellions that came close to toppling the empire in the 1850s and 60s not only damaged beyond repair the nationwide granary system so crucial to high-Qing famine campaigns, but also precipitated a change in emphasis. “The food supply priorities of the state shifted to provisioning large numbers of troops,” write Will and Wong. “Feeding the military had always been an important part of the state's overall food supply concerns. But not until the mid-century rebellions did Qing military needs eclipse state efforts across the empire to manage the civilian food supply” (Will and Wong 1991, 91–92).
The contemporaneous foreign onslaught made upper-level debates over how best to allocate the state's increasingly limited funds all the more urgent. A series of foreign policy crises in the years preceding the famine, in particular China's humiliating defeat at the hands of the British and French in the Arrow War of 1856–60, the Russian occupation of the rich Ili Valley of Xinjiang in 1871, and the “punitive expedition” that Japan landed on Taiwan in 1874, convinced some powerful officials that funding coastal defense was of critical importance for the survival of the empire. Viewing foreign aggression as an even greater threat than famine, in the late 1870s key proponents of China's self-strengthening movement, most notably Li Hongzhang, fought hard to dissuade the Qing Court from using money allocated for coastal defense to relieve the famine (Edgerton-Tarpley 2008, chap. 4). In contrast, members of a particularly outspoken coterie of metropolitan officials known as the Qingliu (pure stream) insisted that the ever-worsening famine in North China was the most urgent crisis facing the country. Qingliu officials emphasized the Confucian idea that the people were the foundation of the state, and asserted that “regarding the people's lives as important” would enable the dynasty to “win the hearts of the people” (zhong min ming, shou min xin). The failure to relieve the people, they warned, might lead to the kind of domestic unrest that had fueled the devastating mid-nineteenth-century rebellions (Chen 2003, 105; Edgerton-Tarpley 2008, 94–98). Qingliu supporters deliberately placed self-strengthening projects in competition with famine relief. “Compare manufacturing weapons to protecting the people,” wrote Qingliu official Zhang Guanzhun in a memorial petitioning the Court to order coastal provinces to temporarily halt the work of machinery and ship-building bureaus in order to use the funds for relief. “Which can be delayed and which is urgent? This has long been that which the imperial wisdom sees clearly” (“Chouban ge sheng huangzheng an” 2003, 38:18486–90).
China's new treaty-port press, which provided extensive coverage of the North China Famine, agreed with the Qingliu perspective that the famine was a wake-up call for the Qing state, but saw reform along Western lines as a cure for rather than a cause of famine. By the 1870s, Shanghai boasted several Western-style newspapers, most importantly the Shenbao, that were owned and managed by foreigners but written in Chinese for a Chinese audience. Because the Shenbao was located in Shanghai's International Settlement, which was neither under the control of the Qing government nor ruled as a colony by one particular foreign power, the newspaper operated fairly independently of both Qing and British authorities (Wagner 1995, 426). Its relative independence enabled the Shenbao to critique the state's handling of catastrophe to an extent that proved impossible for the more tightly controlled wartime media that covered the Yellow River flood. During the famine, Shenbao editorials called on the government to make greater use of Western inventions, such as steamships, telegraph wires, and more effective weapons, to save China from poverty and famine. They also lambasted conservative Qing officials for opposing the adoption of railroads, which they argued could have helped the state transport grain to drought-stricken inland areas more quickly (Shenbao, November 22, 1877, 1; June 29, 1878, 1). Unlike the wartime Chinese media of the 1930s and 40s, the Shenbao also at times joined the Qingliu in criticizing the state for prioritizing military campaigns and coastal defense over disaster relief. In an editorial published in March 1877, for instance, the Shenbao editor took issue with the claim that the government simply did not have the huge amount of money required to relieve the famine. The previous year, he pointed out, the state had borrowed five million taels from Western countries to fund the costly military campaign to retake Xinjiang, the inner-Asian frontier area that had fallen under Russian and Muslim rule in 1871, and to pay for manufacturing bureaus in Fuzhou and elsewhere along China's coast. “How can we ask for a loan from the Western countries for these affairs,” he railed, “but find it inadvisable to also borrow money to save the lives of the famished people of our country?” (Shenbao, March 13, 1877, 1; May 2, 1877, 1; Edgerton-Tarpley 2008, 36–39, 153–55).
The Qing Court, like the wartime Nationalist state, struggled to balance between competing priorities. It generally protected self-strengthening projects from Qingliu attacks, and appropriated and borrowed enough funds to recover Xinjiang. At the same time, the Court also arranged for a considerable sum of coastal defense money to be diverted to pay for famine relief in Shanxi and Henan, and refused to stem the flow of Qingliu critiques (Edgerton-Tarpley 2008, 101–2). The debates between self-strengtheners and Qingliu proponents signified a breakdown of consensus over how to contextualize a major disaster. By the 1870s, the overall context in which praise and blame were negotiated was gradually changing from one in which the key issue for rulers was retaining the Mandate of Heaven by ensuring social stability, to one that highlighted protecting the country against the onslaught of Western or Japanese powers. The 1938 flood is a disturbing example of the impact of this shift.
Shifting Interpretations of Disaster: The Loss of Heaven
The fall of the Qing and the birth of China's new Republican government in 1912 did not reduce either the number or the severity of famines and other disasters. Between 1912 and 1949, major drought disasters killed approximately 15.7 million people, while another 2.5 million people perished as a result of floods (Xia 2000, 395–99). The collapse of the imperial political and cosmological order did, however, call into question the holistic explanation for famine provided by the traditional discourse of Heaven, and bring to the forefront new factors introduced by foreign ideas and enemies. Writes Rebecca Nedostup, “With the rise of revolution and republicanism and the fall of the Qing, the link between cosmos and ruler was severed. Sovereignty was meant to originate not from the balance of Heaven, Earth, and Man but from human agency alone” (Nedostup 2009, 9).
During the Republican period, modernizers from a broad array of political and cultural persuasions echoed Chen Duxiu's call to choose “the bright road of republicanism, science, and atheism” over “the dark one of autocracy, superstition, and divine authority” (Chen Duxiu 1918, as cited in Nedostup 2009, 15). Many Republican reformers were drawn to that strand of modern Western scientific thought that regarded nature as a “simple mechanism entirely accessible to scientific and technical rationalism,” and a force that “would no longer be a source of praise or blame, but simply of observation and mastery” (Zaoui 2005, 126; see also Buck 1980, 190). This encouraged reformers to view droughts and floods as natural disasters that occurred when rulers failed, not so much to control themselves, but to control nature by using modern science and technology. In an article published in 1926, for instance, Zhu Kezhen, a scientist and educator who served as president of the influential Science Society in the late 1920s and became vice president of the new Chinese Academy of Sciences in 1949, disparaged government officials for responding to a severe drought by praying for rain and banning the slaughter of animals. Calling such remedies a policy of “fooling the people,” Zhu asserted that “[the best way to deal with] disastrous droughts or floods is to prepare for them before they come, by reforestation, by water conservancy, and by the establishment of a large number of meteorological stations” (Wang 2002, 304–8). Thus Republican-era Chinese modernizers, like their counterparts in early nineteenth-century Europe, began to view disasters, such as famines, as “technical problems that modern social and natural science will eventually resolve” (Edkins 2000, xv, 15–18). In doing so, they at times discarded not only rainmaking rituals, but also the long-held belief that “‘examining and blaming oneself,’ and adjusting policies accordingly,” was a crucial part of responding to calamity (Li and Zhou 1991, 14).
The rejection of the imperial cosmological order became more strident during the Nanjing Decade (1927–37), which began when the Guomindang defeated warlord armies and reunified China under Nationalist control. The forceful anti-superstition campaigns launched from within the Nationalist Party aimed to create a modern nation by “cleansing society of its deleterious aspects and fundamentally reordering it.” The focus of campaigns ranged from temple seizures to unpopular attempts to substitute national ceremonies and modern public cemeteries for banned temple festivals and end-of-life rituals (Nedostup 2009, 15, 229). The drive to rid Chinese society of superstition also influenced wartime relief efforts. When a serious locust infestation exacerbated famine conditions in Henan in 1943, for instance, one of the orders the Henan provincial government sent to all county authorities required them to “eradicate superstition” (pochu mixin) by teaching “ignorant people” to hunt for and kill locusts rather than viewing them as “divine insects” that should not be harmed (Henan Minguo ribao, August 15, 1943). In short, like the French and Bolshevik “high-modernist” states examined by James C. Scott, the Nationalist state tried to unify and transform China by replacing the local with the national, and by creating a “new man” shaped by modern science and rationality (Scott 1998, 29–33, 195). The assault on “feudal superstition” reached new levels of violence in the first few decades of PRC rule. During the Great Leap Famine of 1958–62, everything from ancestor worship and religious institutions to temples and graveyards fell under attack. “Thousands of years of tradition and superstition must be wiped out completely; turn the dead people's graveyard into a mountain full of potatoes,” urged a slogan introduced by a commune in Guizhou Province early in the Great Leap (Zhou 2012, 91, 94). When looking at state responses to disaster in China, then, the attempt to replace cosmological with secular authority brought with it some unexpected consequences. The 1938 flood and the Mao-era Great Leap Famine suggest that the rejection of long-held moral and cosmological interpretations of disaster made it easier for the Chinese state to engineer disasters in the name of a supposedly greater good, and harder for leaders to accept blame for and deal with calamities once they occurred.
A Necessary Sacrifice? The Breach and the Flood, 1938–47
The Yellow River flood of 1938–47 provides an intriguing case study of the wartime Nationalist state's construction of disaster. This flood, a self-inflicted catastrophe of epic proportions, began during the Japanese invasion of China during World War II, and extended into the Chinese civil war between the Nationalists and the Communists. As Diana Lary has narrated, nearly a year after the Japanese Imperial Army invaded China in July 1937, China's military situation was dire. During the previous winter, Nanjing, the Nationalist capital, had fallen, and residents had been slaughtered by Japanese troops. The Nationalist government relocated to Wuhan, but by late May 1938 that city was also in peril. The Japanese were racing westward along the Longhai Railway in order to capture Zhengzhou, the capital of Henan Province and the locus of the key railway junction between the Longhai and Pinghan lines, so that they could use the north-south Pinghan line to transport troops directly to Wuhan before the Chinese government had time to evacuate further west (Lary 2001, 196–98; 2004, 144). The loss of Wuhan in the spring of 1938, argues Rana Mitter, could have had dangerous political and economic repercussions for the Nationalists. Not only would the immediate fall of the city have meant the loss of the largest industrial center left under Nationalist control and all of the customs revenue that flowed through the city, but influential American observers viewed Chiang's ability to hold the city as an important marker of the seriousness of Chinese resistance. “If the Japanese had taken Wuhan in the spring,” writes Mitter, “then the Chinese Army would have had to retreat at high speed, giving an even greater impression of disintegration” (Mitter 2013, 157–58). This alarming situation convinced Chiang Kai-shek and the Chinese military command in Wuhan to use strategic flooding to buy time.
On June 4, 1938, Chiang Kai-shek sent a telegraph ordering Chinese troops in the 53rd army group to breach the Yellow River dike near Zhengzhou. Over the next six days, Chinese soldiers from several regiments attempted to dig through the dike in three different places. Their feverish efforts are vividly described in the diary of Xiong Xianyu, a staff captain in the 8th Division responsible for defending the area, and the records of Wei Rulin, the general in charge of supervising the project (Minguo dangan 1997, 3:9–14). After two failed attempts, on the morning of June 9 water finally flowed out of the river at Huayuankou, a small village just north of Zhengzhou and its coveted railway junction (Lary 2001, 198–99). The June 1938 entry from Xiong Xianyu's diary quoted at the beginning of this essay demonstrates that although Xiong was concerned about the devastation the flood would bring to counties in southeastern Henan, he justified the breach by focusing on what it could do for the country as a whole. “It is expected that within a few days [water] will spread to many counties in this area, which grieves the heart,” he wrote. “But this action was taken only to hold back the enemy and save the overall situation. For this reason [we] did not hesitate to make this great sacrifice in order to strive for the final victory” (Minguo dangan 1997, 3:10–11).
Once the dike was finally cut, the breach soon widened into a 5,000-foot-wide break, causing the Yellow River to depart from the northern course it had followed since 1852–55. In its new course, the river flowed southeast instead of northeast. It inundated large swaths of southeastern Henan, joined the Huai River in Anhui Province and flooded parts of northern Anhui, and finally entered northern Jiangsu Province, where it flowed in three streams towards the sea (Lary 2001, 199–201; Li et al. 1994, 249–50). The devastation caused by the breach could not have come as a complete surprise to those in charge. The flood path “took almost exactly the same route that flood waters had taken after the breach of 1887 in the same area” (Lary 2001, 201), and Xiong's diary entry shows that the course of the flood was predictable for those knowledgeable about the Yellow River. Nevertheless, the decision to breach the dike does not appear to have initiated the kind of controversies among the Nationalist leadership that the famine policy debates of the 1870s gave rise to. “There is no doubt that the decision came directly from Chiang Kai-shek,” writes Lary. “Nor is there any evidence of division or opposition within the upper echelons of the Chinese military” (Lary 2004, 147).
Chiang's willingness to bring about a major flood in order to slow the Japanese advance may have derived in part from his conflation of the people's livelihood and national defense. By the 1930s, explains Margherita Zanasi, Sun Yat-sen's trope of the people's livelihood, which in turn drew from the imperial trope of nourishing the people, “had come to be directly linked to national defense against Japanese imperialism” (Zanasi 2004, 29). As Chiang argued in 1947 in an essay on Chinese economic thought:
According to Chinese economic theory, the government's duties are to support the people on the one hand and to protect them on the other. National plans for the support of the people are plans for the people's livelihood. But since this livelihood must also be protected, plans for livelihood become plans for the national defense. The people's livelihood and national defense are thus inseparable. (Chiang 1947, 248; Zanasi 2004, 29)
If Chiang and other influential voices in the Nationalist government had come to see defending the nation as one and the same as protecting the people's livelihood, then it is somewhat easier to understand how they could justify causing a flood that destroyed the livelihood of so many people in rural North China in order to buy time to defend or evacuate Wuhan, and by extension, save the nation writ large.
In the end, the flood did not prove to be a terribly effective defensive weapon, which had been the case during the Song and Ming strategic breaches as well (Zhang 2011).3 It postponed but did not prevent the fall of Wuhan—the Japanese took the city in October 1938 by advancing west via the Yangzi River instead of south via the Pinghan railroad (Lary 2001, 201–2). The flood did buy the Chinese government time to retreat west from Wuhan, and “increased Japanese logistical difficulties (Van de Ven 2003, 226). It also kept some areas of Henan and Anhui out of Japanese hands until late in the war. General Wei Rulin's account of the breach, which he wrote in March 1939, provides an example of how those directly involved in breaching the dike made sense of their mission even after both the magnitude of the flood and its failure to save Wuhan were evident to all. “The torrent flooded down from Zhongmou to Weishi, Fugou, and Huaiyang, from Henan to Anhui and Jiangsu,” wrote Wei, “thus creating a great barrier to defend the country and protect the people (baoguo weimin), which was a great contribution to the Chinese nation” (Minguo dangan 1997, 3:14). Wei acknowledges that large swaths of land in three provinces had been flooded, but instead of discussing the disaster's impact on the people in those areas, he immediately jumps to the flood's strategic significance for the nation.
Reports from provincial newspapers, county gazetteers, wenshi ziliao (literary and historical materials), and missionary publications provide a sense of how the disaster was experienced by the predominately rural population of eastern Henan and northern Anhui, where the flooding was most severe. In Henan the Yellow River flood inundated 32 percent of the fields in the eastern side of the province and buried “vast tracts of cultivated land” with silt (Muscolino 2011, 296, 300). Journalists for one of Henan's major newspapers, the Henan Minguo ribao (Henan Republican daily), provided detailed coverage of the disaster. In August 1938, Guan Sheng, a correspondent for the newspaper, visited the inundated area and wrote a vivid two-part account of what he observed there. In Yanling County, people's houses had collapsed, and one could only get around by boat. Villagers were plagued by bandits and lamented that it was increasingly difficult to keep order (Henan Minguo ribao, August 25, 1938). Conditions in Fugou County, just east of Yanling, were “ten times more terrible.” Eighty percent of the county had been flooded, and both starvation and the spread of infectious diseases were driving even farmers who owned a significant amount of land to flee their homeland with their families (Henan Minguo ribao, August 26, 1938, 1).
In Henan, the destruction of rural infrastructure caused by the flood, in combination with a severe drought and heavy military tax and grain levies for the nearly one million soldiers stationed in the province, ultimately resulted in the famine of 1942–43, which killed as many as three million people (Muscolino 2011, 299–301; Song 2005, 3–5). “The sacrifice of the common people in the Yellow River flood zone was the greatest,” writes Song Zhixin in her study of the Henan Famine. Flood refugees had already lost their homes and farmland in 1938, she explains, so they had little to fall back on when the drought struck in 1942. Many of them were also conscripted by the government to conduct labor-intensive dike-repair work (Song 2005, 187, 201–3). The “precipitous drop in agricultural acreage and grain output” caused by the flood “produced crushing poverty in the rural areas,” adds Odoric Y. K. Wou. “There were reportedly ten thousand hungry flood victims gathered in major cities every day” (Wou 2007, 177–78). Henan-based missionaries drew connections between flooding and famine conditions as well. Dr. Catherine Simmons, a China Inland Mission missionary stationed in Xihua County during the famine, explained in vivid terms the crushing impact of the summer flooding of 1943: “The urgent need for rain then was that the next year's wheat might be planted: only a month to planting time; only three weeks; only two – and then the dykes of the Yellow River gave way and the waters swept over the plain, right into the outskirts of the city, and the last hope of planting wheat was gone! (China's Millions, July-August 1943, 32). The situation was also grim in northern Anhui. According to a Taihe County local history, in 1938 94 percent of Taihe's total cultivated land was flooded, and 98 percent of the county's population was affected. During the eight years of the flood, as many as 100,000 people fled Taihe each year to escape flooding and famine conditions. Zhaozhuang village had 112 people before the flood, state the editors, but only 60 of them remained after eight years of flooding, while of 1,180 households in Hongshan, 1,008 of them had to take to the roads to beg in order to survive, and 112 households sold their sons or daughters (“Kang Ri shiqi Taihe” 1986, 67–68).
During the war with Japan, the Nationalist state failed to repair the breach and adequately relieve those affected by the flood and famine. The wartime state did, however, join its late-imperial and early-Republican predecessors in attempting to “resettle uprooted people and reopen abandoned land” during a time of crisis. As noted by Peter Perdue, the early Ming and Qing states used land reclamation to promote agricultural recovery and increase production (Perdue 1987, 16–21). Moreover, Qing officials at times addressed the famine-induced “threat of an aimlessly wandering peasantry” by providing famine refugees with food and money to make the journey back home (Will 1990, 49, 229–33). The weak early-Republican state also played an active if less centralized role in channeling the movement of famine refugees. As detailed by Pierre Fuller, during the severe North China Famine of 1920–21, “various levels of the state” coordinated and subsidized the transport—by railroad, steamship, and cart—and resettlement of an officially estimated one million refugees from the drought-stricken zone of north China to three provinces in the northeast, and also ensured that “relief supplies crisscrossed the country free-of-charge on the state rail network” (Fuller 2011, 222, 270–74, 290). Likewise, Micah Muscolino demonstrates that, beginning in October 1938, the wartime Nationalist government relocated refugees from the Yellow River flood zone to reclaim land elsewhere, and provided them with some funds for food, shelter, and farming supplies. By 1939, over 900,000 refugees from Henan had moved west into less densely populated areas of Shaanxi Province. “Expanding cultivated acreage through land reclamation was critical for the wartime economy,” he explains (Muscolino 2011, 300, 303–4).
Some of the Nationalist government's strategies for dealing with the flood led to unintended consequences. While the resettlement program undoubtedly helped some flood refugees, in Henan the displacement of the population “contributed to a total disruption of Henan's hydraulic and agricultural systems,” which in turn “crippled agricultural production” and made it almost impossible for counties to recruit enough laborers to protect villages and farmland from the flooding (Muscolino 2011, 294–98). The state's efforts to mobilize local populations to build protective dikes to contain the flooding along the river's new course in Henan and Anhui also had mixed results. In northern Anhui's Taihe County, the dike-construction project that began in the spring of 1939 required the labor of more than 150,000 local people, and by 1943 there were twelve major embankment projects in existence in Taihe alone. “The huge dike building projects brought a heavy burden to the people,” state the editors of a Taihe local history. “In the winter and spring of every year, 60 percent of the labor force of our entire county had to be thrown into constructing new dikes or reinforcing old dikes” (“Banian Huangfan” 1987, 46–51).
A Sacred Sacrifice: Wartime Rhetoric of Disaster
Aware of the drastic implications of its actions, during the war the Nationalist government did not publicly take responsibility for unleashing the flood. Instead, official accounts claimed that the Japanese military had deliberately caused the breach by bombing the Yellow River dike with warplanes during the battle for Zhengzhou. The Japanese government immediately refuted that charge (Dagongbao, June 12, 1938, 1; June 13, 1938, 1; Lary 2001, 199, 205). The international press was also skeptical of the Chinese claim almost from the beginning, largely because the flood was so obviously a boon to the Chinese army (New York Times, June 13, 1938, 1). On June 26, 1938, the New York Times printed a lengthy article by O. J. Todd, who had served as a consulting engineer to the Yellow River Commission before the war. “It is a man-made flood this time for there seems little doubt that the Chinese broke the dikes to check their Japanese enemies who have been mired and many of them drowned in the inundated areas,” asserted Todd (New York Times, June 26, 1938, 6). By the time the international media covered Japan's second campaign to take Zhengzhou in 1941, it routinely attributed the 1938 breach to the Chinese (New York Times, October 3, 1941, 9).
China's major newspapers, on the contrary, strongly supported the Chinese government's explanation of the breach in the flurry of articles they printed about the flood over the summer of 1938.4 Some publications directly engaged Japan's denial of responsibility. In the past, Yellow River floods had always been natural disasters (tianzai), asserted the leading Shanghai-based journal Dongfang zazhi roughly six weeks after the breach, but this time the calamity was caused by Japanese bombings. The Japanese had used all possible means to “subjugate our nation and exterminate our race,” charged the journal, but none defied human reason as much as their use of the Yellow River. Yet rather than admit their guilt, the Japanese were actually reporting that the Chinese themselves had destroyed the dike. “We believe and hope this kind of false accusation won't mislead the world,” it concluded (Dongfang zazhi 1938).
Even in the freewheeling atmosphere of Wuhan in 1938, where under the newly formed Guomindang-Communist united front government no one party or warlord was able to exert strict control over the Chinese press (MacKinnon 1995, 174–78; 2008, chap. 5), newspapers from across the political spectrum upheld the government's account. The influential and relatively pro-Guomindang Dagongbao (The impartial) directly blamed the Japanese for the breach during the summer of 1938. It then gradually dropped all attempts to explain who had breached the dike, and simply used the passive voice whenever it mentioned the genesis of the flood (Dagongbao, June 13, 1938; July 5, 1938; July 29, 1938; July 4, 1946). Even the Xinhua ribao (New China daily), the only Communist-run newspaper to be openly published in Guomindang territory during the war, followed the government's line on the breach. It was not until 1946, well after Japan's defeat, that the Xinhua ribao first accused the Nationalists of breaching the dike (Xinhua ribao, June 12, 1938; May 14, 1946). Most likely a patriotic unwillingness to criticize the government in the heat of war, coupled with a desire to use the flood to mobilize people against the Japanese, best explains the Chinese media's decision not to question the rapidly discredited government account.
Media reports about the flood suggest an intriguing shift in the language of sacrifice. In the 1870s, the intense suffering experienced by famished commoners—and the urgent need to relieve that suffering—took center stage in coverage of the North China Famine. It was officials who were expected to sacrifice on behalf of their starving “children” by weeping, fasting, or threatening suicide to move the heart of Heaven. In contrast, during the Yellow River disaster it was the extent to which flood refugees themselves were laying down their lives for the country, as well as the need to redeem that sacrifice, that caught the attention of the Chinese press. “We should say, it is for the nation that the disaster victims in eastern Henan endure suffering. Their sacrifice (xisheng) is a sacrifice borne for the nation,” announced the Xinhua ribao soon after the breach (Xinhua ribao, June 25, 1938). “All ordinary countrymen should do all they can to contribute,” urged a Dagongbao editorial about flood relief. “Rescuing these suffering compatriots establishes them in productive land, and increases the power to resist and to build up the country. Everyone should be aware that to give money for the Yellow River disaster is not only charitable, but is in fact a fee for expelling the invader” (Dagongbao, July 29, 1938). The Chinese media's focus on sacrifice was to some extent shaped by the Nationalist government's wartime rhetoric. In a message Chiang Kai-shek delivered to the nation in July 1943, for instance, he urged all Chinese to strengthen their will to resist and fight the Japanese. “If by so doing we can hold back such a demon from the world,” he continued, “even if we endure sacrifices and sufferings ten times our present sacrifices and sufferings it will be a contribution well worth the price” (Chiang 1946, 745, 747–48).
Even correspondents for the Henan Minguo ribao, which devoted considerably more attention to the situation of flood refugees than did national newspapers, often highlighted the national and military implications of their suffering. The common people (laobaixing) devastated by the Yellow River flood resented no one except the invading enemy who had caused all the misery, wrote Guan Sheng after his tour through the flooded counties in eastern Henan. “Our disaster-stricken compatriots of the Chinese nation will arise and summon up their courage to resist,” he predicted (Henan Minguo ribao, August 25, 1938). Guan suggested that young men from the inundated area should be encouraged to join the army to fight against the Japanese, and asked the government to organize cultivating teams that would send refugees to reclaim land and foster agricultural production in Shaanxi, Gansu, and Qinghai. “If we want to strive for the survival and well-being of the entire Chinese nation,” he concluded, “we cannot fail to arise at once to rescue these disaster victim compatriots” (Henan Minguo ribao, August 26, 1938). An unnamed Henan Minguo ribao editorialist writing in July 1943, when the still unrepaired breach resulted in devastating summer flooding in Henan, went so far as to describe the flood's contribution to the country as “sacred” (shensheng), thus underscoring a shift in the locus of the sacred from Heaven to the nation-state. “I have already explained the great harm the Yellow River flooding brings to Henan,” he wrote, “but the contribution of the flood to the Resistance War and the establishment of the country is important and sacred.” Without the shield offered by the flood, he explained, the situation of the war and the province would be unimaginable (Henan Minguo ribao, July 22, 1943).
In part because the Japanese occupation of much of China posed a more immediate and all-consuming threat than the crises faced by Qing China in the 1870s, the Henan Minguo ribao, unlike Qingliu proponents and Shenbao editors during the North China Famine, sought to justify the government's decision to prioritize the war effort over disaster relief. “Now that the river course has been damaged, it is difficult to attend to both military affairs and the people's livelihood,” explained another editorial published in 1943. “Due to battling the enemy invaders, all of the government's financial resources are exhausted for the Resistance War, so funds for dike repair cannot but come second” (Henan Minguo ribao, September 2, 1943).
The Nationalist state's framing of the Henan Famine of 1942–43 was quite similar to its narrative of the flood, even though drought rather than human action precipitated that disaster. An influential editorial published in February 1943 in the Zhongyang ribao (Central daily news), the mouthpiece of the Guomindang, praised the people of Henan for sacrificially choosing to hand in their full quota of grain to the state even in the midst of the famine in order to feed the Resistance War troops and support the war effort. “This kind of commendable conduct really merits the honor of having volumes written about it,” exclaimed the editor. The Zhongyang ribao also depicted the famine not as a warning for those in charge, but as a trial that would temper both China's government and its citizens in preparation for China's future greatness (Zhongyang ribao, February 4, 1943, 2; Edgerton-Tarpley, forthcoming) In sum, during the war with Japan, nationalist sentiments allowed both the Guomindang government and newspapers across the political spectrum to justify the sacrifices and suffering of the rural population most profoundly affected by the Yellow River disaster and the related Henan Famine.
The Technologization of Disaster versus Mobilizing the Masses
Rather than calling on policy makers to “examine and blame themselves” and demonstrate a willingness to change course in order to move the heart of Heaven, as was expected of officials in the 1870s, during the war with Japan the Chinese press and government often looked to modern technology and international aid to bring the flood to an end. For example, a newspaper article authored by Zi Qiang, a teacher from central Henan, advocated the use of irrigation and water conservancy to eliminate drought and flood disasters altogether. Zi Qiang made the point that although the Great Yu, the “master of water control,” was born in Henan and did much of his lauded flood control work there, in recent years Henan had been stricken by a horrific drought and famine, and significant parts of the province had been flooded. By digging canals akin to those in developed Western countries, he argued, and employing pumps, siphons, and trenches for irrigation, China could transform the flood-prone Yellow River into something beneficial to all (Henan Minguo ribao, June 12, 1943, 2).
Reports filled with precise measurements, technological solutions, and descriptions of international aid dominated the Nationalist state's postwar narrative about controlling the Yellow River. When the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration was established late in 1943, the Chinese government requested hundreds of millions of dollars of aid. Foreign engineers and staff were invited to help administer postwar relief initiatives, in particular the massive Yellow River Project that aimed to plug the breach and return the river to its pre-1938 northern course (Green 1951; Todd 1949, 38–51). The campaign to repair the breach received positive coverage in relatively pro-government newspapers. “The breach plugging work in Huayuankou is a very great project,” wrote a Dagongbao correspondent in the summer of 1946. After explaining that closing the 1,460-foot breach required building temporary bridges on either side of it, digging diversion canals for the excess water, and gradually filling in the breach with tons of stones, the correspondent described in detail the bridge stakes shipped in from the United States, as well as the giant cranes, pumps, excavators, and electric generators scattered all over the work site. Since the project commenced on March 1, he continued, “with the help of international friends and owing to the hard labor of tens of thousands of workers,” 1,000 feet of the western dike had already been built (Dagongbao, July 4, 1946; see also Shenbao, January 12, 1947).
As the Nationalists and the Chinese Communists descended into civil war, the rush to plug the breach became a major bone of contention between them. When the breach caused the Yellow River to change course in 1938, as many as 500,000 people gradually moved into the dry bed of the river's old course and began farming there. The Chinese Communists took control over many of those areas during the war. After the war, the Nationalists aimed to plug the breach and restore the river to its old course within roughly six months. In contrast, representatives of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) wanted to delay the process to ensure the safety of those people living in the old course (Dagongbao, May 12, 1946; May 18, 1946; June 2, 1946; June 9, 1946).
As relations between the two parties deteriorated in the spring of 1946, the Communist-operated Xinhua ribao insisted that the old riverbed must be repaired before the breach could be closed, and that villagers living in and alongside it must receive compensation (Xinhua ribao, April 1, 1946, 2). In May 1946, roughly nine months after Japan's defeat, the paper finally broke with the official narrative and directly accused the Guomindang of having breached the dike in the first place. The paper published a Communist Party spokesman's claim that the Guomindang had dispatched troops to breach the dike in 1938 in order to stop the enemy's invasion, and countless compatriots had lost their lives and possessions as a result (Xinhua ribao, May 14, 1946, 2).
The CCP's rhetoric escalated rapidly after its initial accusation. By January 1947, when the Communist-versus-Nationalist struggle over plugging the breach was most intense, the Communists had developed a broader argument about the Yellow River breach. The Xinhua ribao emphasized the human suffering caused by the flood, and the reactionary and ineffective character of using water as a weapon of war. By relying on flooding to slow the Japanese advance instead of “raising morale and organizing the masses,” charged the paper, the Guomindang had both failed militarily and brought extreme suffering on the common people. “If the Guomindang authorities really wanted to take into consideration the people's interests, they could never have breached the dike in the first place,” asserted one editorial on the disaster (Xinhua ribao, January 21, 1947, 2). “What a great debt of blood is owed by the Guomindang!” exclaimed another (Xinhua ribao, January 8, 1947, 2).
In spite of Communist opposition, the Nationalists succeeded in closing the breach on March 15, 1947. The Yellow River began flowing back into its original course in full the following day (Dagongbao, March 16, 1947; March 17, 1947). That May, on the anniversary of the May Fourth movement, a ceremony was held at Huayuankou to celebrate the closure, and Chiang Kai-shek gave a speech commending the workers and officials who plugged the breach (Lary 2004, 156; Shenbao, May 5, 1947). Communist representatives were not present at the ceremony, but only two and a half years later they were in control of the country, and Chiang and many of the officials he commended had fled to Taiwan. Upon taking power, the Communists quickly adopted many of the Nationalists' modernizing goals, among them controlling and harnessing the Yellow River.
The Yellow River flood of 1938 provides an instructive mid-way point between late-Qing and Maoist responses to and coverage of major catastrophes. Some aspects of state and media responses to the disaster—in particular the rejection of cosmological interpretations, the emphasis on sacrificing for the nation, the militarization of the language of disaster relief, and the muted attention to victims of the catastrophe—mark a departure from late-imperial responses, but foreshadow in interesting ways features of the Great Leap Famine of 1958–62, which killed roughly thirty-six million people.5 Unlike the North China Famine but like the even more devastating Great Leap disaster, the 1938 flood was directly precipitated by the policy decisions of the Chinese government. Like the PRC government during the Great Leap, in 1938 the Nationalist government refused to take responsibility for causing the flood disaster. Yet akin to their Qing predecessors and quite distinct from PRC leaders, the Guomindang admitted the extent of the disaster, allowed some media coverage of it, and sought nongovernmental donations and foreign assistance to bolster the limited amount of relief the state could provide.
During the Chinese civil war, the Guomindang's focus on modern technology and foreign assistance proved to be less appealing to many Chinese than the Communist Party's promise to “safeguard the people's interests” (baozhang renmin liyi) and rely on their power (Xinhua ribao, January 21, 1947, 2). This can be explained in part by the fact that the CCP's focus on human suffering over technology, and on the power of the Chinese masses rather than international assistance, resonated with and drew power from much older, Confucian/Qingliu understandings of a benevolent government as one that both protects and depends upon the people for its survival. The fact that the Chinese Communists envisioned a more active role for “the people” than their late-Qing or Nationalist counterparts may also have had a certain appeal. Late imperial rhetoric of disaster expected people in stricken areas to remain loyal to the state as long as it provided relief, but it was primarily officials and rulers who were called to practical and ritual action during a major calamity. During the Yellow River flood, Chinese newspapers occasionally called on male flood refugees to enter the military to fight against Japan, but for the most part flood refugees were depicted as admirable but largely passive sufferers. For the Chinese Communists, on the other hand, mobilizing as well as feeding the rural masses was crucial. According to Maoist ideology, writes Lillian Li, unequal distribution of wealth rather than technological backwardness was the root cause of poverty, so awakening class consciousness and harnessing the power of the peasantry was seen as the surest route to a strong new China (Li 2007, 342). Hence the Party's contempt for the Guomindang's decision to use flooding instead of “the power of the people” to defend China from invaders (Xinhua ribao, January 21, 1947, 2). Yet only a decade after denouncing the Guomindang for ignoring the people's interests by causing the flood, the Maoist state would mobilize China's rural population on such a massive scale and in such a coercive manner that the country would undergo the most lethal famine in both Chinese and world history. The valorization of sacrificing one's life for the nation that ran throughout discussions of the Yellow River flood, as well as the rejection of the long-held belief that disasters were Heaven's way of warning those in leadership positions to examine their actions and change course, helps to contextualize state responses (or lack thereof) to both catastrophes.
Portions of this essay were presented at the Yale Program in Agrarian Studies colloquium series in 2012, and at two Association for Asian Studies annual meetings. I would like to express appreciation for the helpful suggestions made by colleagues at these events, and offer a special note of thanks to Henrietta Harrison, Peter Perdue, Felix Wemheuer, and Margherita Zanasi for their insightful reading of earlier drafts.
It is also important to note that a presumed contrast between natural catalyst for one event and human catalyst for the other cannot adequately explain the differences between late-Qing and Nationalist-era interpretations of disaster. State and media discussions of the meaning of the Henan Famine of 1942–43, which like the 1877 famine was precipitated by a severe drought, were similar to Nationalist narratives of the Yellow River flood, and quite distinct from late-Qing perspectives on the North China Famine. Like media coverage of the flood, articles about the wartime famine highlighted the suffering that famine refugees patiently endured and the sacrifices they made for the sake of the Chinese nation (Henan Minguo ribao, February 10, 1943, 1; Zhongyang ribao, February 4, 1943, 2).
For more on the Shenbao newspaper's important role during the North China Famine, see Rankin (1986, 142–47) and Edgerton-Tarpley (2008, 142–55).
For an example of Song attempts to use water in place of soldiers, see Zhang (2011). Zhang finds that the ponds that the Northern Song government painstakingly constructed in Hebei in an attempt to thwart northern invaders ultimately brought to the Song empire “no more than a century of wishful thinking,” since few obstacles stood in the way of the Jurchen who marched into Hebei in 1126 (Zhang 2011, 32). Late-Ming attempts to use flooding to stop rebels also failed (Elvin 2004, 139).
Although leading provincial newspapers in the flood-stricken provinces covered the disaster throughout the war, in-depth coverage of the flood in national newspapers largely petered out in the fall of 1938, when attention shifted to war news from the Yangzi region. Frequent national coverage resumed in 1946, when plugging the breach became a sticking point between the Nationalists and Communists.
For important recent studies of the Great Leap Famine, see Yang (2008, 2012), Manning and Wemheuer (2011), Thaxton (2008), and Dikötter (2010).