A social and environmental history of the 1931 central China flood
PublisherUniversity of Manchester
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This thesis provides an analysis of the 1931 Central China Flood, making two key contributions to the study of Chinese disasters. Firstly, it questions the emphasis most historians place upon official prevention and relief strategies. Through exploring the particular case of the 1931 flood, it argues that, although the failure of dykes was of crucial importance, a number of additional factors need to be considered in order to understand patterns of mortality. These included the variable location and physical security of housing, the regime of entitlements governing subsistence, and the interaction between infectious disease and malnutrition. Through highlighting the importance of these additional sources of vulnerability, this thesis not only presents a more comprehensive analysis of flood mortality, but also demonstrates how the 1931 disaster impacted disproportionately upon economically marginal members of the community. It then describes how official relief policies had an ambiguous impact upon the outcome of the flood. Whilst decreasing the immediate effect of subsistence crisis, relief also exacerbated the transmission of infectious diseases and contributed ultimately to the economic problems faced by Chinese agriculture. Relief organisations ignored such ambiguities, choosing to use dyke reconstruction rather than mortality as the index to measure effectiveness of their efforts. This not only distorted contemporary representations, but has also influenced the way most historians have subsequently understood the flood. Developing upon this critique of relief, this thesis then demonstrates how members of the flood-affected population acted as agents of their own survival. It extends the understanding of indigenous coping mechanisms to include flood specific practices, and describes how supposed social problems such as begging, prostitution and crime, may have actually helped refugees to survive.Secondly, this thesis aims to contribute a greater understanding of the experience of disasters in China. In order to do so, it narrows its focus to explore how the flood impacted upon Wuhan and its rural hinterland. It provides a detailed description of the sensory world created by the flood, highlighting the smells, sights, and physical experiences it engendered. It suggests that the concept of “embodied experience” offers historians an original approach to analyse ground-level understandings of disasters. The discussion then turns to the experience of refugees, describing how Wuhan’s municipal authorities used the flood as a pretext for carrying out a violent campaign against suspected criminals and Communists. It shows how refugees were reluctant to be institutionalised by official relief policies, often having to be forced at gunpoint into camps. To conclude, this thesis examines how the flood interacted with three coterminous social conflicts. Firstly it shows how the disaster became a key symbol for the British in the treaty port of Hankou, who co-opted the event into their critique of Chinese nationalism. Secondly it examines how proponents of popular religion used the flood to question urban modernisation, by tracing its genesis to the destruction of a Dragon King Temple. Thirdly it describes the role the flood played in the conflict between the Guomindang and the Communists, arguing that more attention should be paid to the interaction of ecological disasters and warfare.