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Reviewed by:
  • Tears from Iron: Cultural Responses to Famine in Nineteenth-Century China
  • Joan Judge
Tears from Iron: Cultural Responses to Famine in Nineteenth-Century China by Kathryn Edgerton-Tarpley. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2008. Pp. xxiii + 332. $39.95.

Kathryn Edgerton-Tarpley uses a relatively delimited topic, the Incredible Famine that resulted in 9.5 to 13 million deaths in Shanxi, Shaanxi, Zhili, Henan, and Shandong provinces in 1877 and 1878, to reflect on a number of larger topics. These include the disintegration of the late Qing state, the gendered effects of social trauma, cannibalism as metaphor, and the uses of history in Maoist and post-Maoist China. The book is based on an impressive range of primary sources on the famine, particularly from Shanxi, the epicenter of the famine: thirty-two gazetteers from the southwestern part of the province, interviews with twenty local historians and thirty-one elderly villagers, stone stele inscriptions, famine folktales, and famine songs—among them a privately held text to which a manuscript collector in a Shanxi village gave her access. At the same time, the author has successfully digested and integrated a variety of secondary literatures including theoretical works on famine studies, studies of famine and demography in late imperial China, and scholarship on the late Qing newspaper Shenbao. [End Page 463] Following such fine historians as Gail Hershatter, who charted the multiple meanings of prostitution in twentieth century China, and Paul Cohen, who examined the Boxer rebellion as event, experience, and myth, Edgerton- Tarpley traces the myriad ways the famine has been understood, represented, and used.1 She examines accounts recorded at the imperial and county levels by Shanxi villagers, Shanghai reformers, and British merchants; and by local officials and commentators of the late nineteenth century, Great Leap Forward era, and early twenty-first century.

In the introduction the author explains why the Incredible Famine—known in Chinese as Dingwu qihuang 丁戊奇荒 or Guangxu sannian 光緒三年—is an important window onto the crises confronting China in the late nineteenth century. Invoking the work of the historian of India Paul Greenough, she emphasizes how disasters like famines force societies to define and defend their culture’s ultimate values.

Before directly examining how the Incredible Famine refracts the multifaceted late Qing political and cultural crisis, Edgerton-Tarpley “sets the scene” in the first of the book’s three parts. She describes the geography of grain-poor Shanxi province, where only about 20 percent of the land is cultivatable. She explains that, despite this natural disadvantage and in contrast to received wisdom, the province before the famine was the locus of prosperous trade and banking networks—networks that never fully recovered after the province lost between onethird and one-half of its population (roughly 5.5 million people) to the disaster (and after its lucrative trade was further diminished by Mongolian independence and the Russian revolution). She also delineates the decline of the Qing granary system over the course of the conflict-ridden nineteenth century. Relatively resilient to natural calamities in the eighteenth century, the granary system had been weakened by rebellion, foreign imperialism, fiscal problems, and transportation difficulties. The court’s inability to overcome these problems reflects a lack of effective leadership as high officials vacillated between defending prioritizing China against foreign incursions—whether from the [End Page 464] eastern seacoast or the northwestern frontier—and providing famine relief for the northern provinces, which had suffered a severe drought during the summer of 1876.

Edgerton-Tarpley further sets the scene by drawing her readers into the experience of the drought as narrated by one of its witnesses, Liu Xing of southern Shanxi province. Some twenty years after the event, Liu wrote a record of the disaster in the form of a famine song. Liu describes the onset of the drought, the scores of women who were forced to beg on the streets from the fall of 1877 on, the consumption of famine foods—from cats and dogs to roots and bark—the closure of businesses, and the pawning of goods. The famine’s devastation was compounded by the outbreak of epidemics in 1878 and, perhaps most horrifically, by attacks by wolves and rats in that...


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