- The Nature of Disaster in China: The 1931 Yangzi River Flood by Chris Courtney
In the summer of 1931, excessive snowmelt, torrential rains, and successive storms soaked China and engorged its rivers until they burst their banks. West to east from Sichuan to Shanghai and north to south from Manchuria to Guangdong, water covered vast tracts of land. Affecting more than 50 million people and claiming 2 million lives, the 1931 China flood was one of the greatest disasters in human history. Despite its magnitude, the flood has received surprisingly little attention. Chris Courtney’s The Nature of Disaster in China is the first book to immerse itself thoroughly in the subject.
Riding a recent tide of scholarship on the Yellow River,1 Courtney’s book refreshingly turns its attention to China’s other great river, the Yangzi. Courtney focuses on the history of the flood in Wuhan and its environs. Of late, environmental historians have taken interest in Hubei, with its intersecting waterways and intensive land reclamation via dikes and polders. Zhang Jiayan has convincingly argued that peasant agriculture in Hubei was more responsive to its aquatic environment than to market forces or class exploitation.2 Courtney fashions an original vision of a familiar terrain by combining environmental, regional, and urban history into an analysis of the “disaster regime” that prevailed when floods inundated the streets of Wuhan in 1931. Courtney is well aware that disasters are neither wholly natural nor only socially determined but are produced from a combination of many interlocking human and ecological factors that change across time and space. To capture this complexity, Courtney proposes that we look at the 1931 flood as the product of a specific disaster regime or a “configuration of human-environmental relations that conditions the humanitarian impact of a hazard in a particular geographic region and time period” (11).
The disaster regime that led to the 1931 flood in Wuhan was centuries in the making. Chapter 1 tells a longue-durée environmental history of Hubei’s settlement from about 7500 BCE to 1931. Early settlers learned to live in tune with the rhythms of the pulsating floods, exploiting both wet rice agriculture and the abundant aquatic wildlife. Where others have only skimmed the surface, Courtney dives deep into the watery world to uncover a culture well adapted to flooding.3 Both wildlife diversity and a culture adapted to flooding diminished as more wetlands were reclaimed to support more paddy fields. Disease-carrying mosquitoes and snails thrived in these anthropogenic semiaquatic landscapes. Water slowly lost its natural outlets as larger dikes were built to contain it, culminating in the construction of the Great Jingjiang Dike. This dike system supported human life but also magnified the possible casualties when it failed. Fail it did in 1465, 1788, 1831, 1849, and 1910. By “fostering the development of an agro-ecosystem, the population of Hubei had laid the foundations of a disaster regime” (26). [End Page E-1]
Chapter 2 shows how the unprecedented flooding of 1931 unleashed the full potential of the disaster regime. While many domestic plants and animals that people relied on perished, some people lived off the wild animals and plants that thrived in the flood. Most people, especially the poorest, were displaced and forced to gather in the few remaining patches of dry land. Dense congregations of refugees weakened by starvation were highly susceptible to disease. The floods had greatly expanded the environment where lethal microbes that caused cholera, measles, dysentery, typhoid, snail fever, and malaria flourished. More people succumbed to disease than to drowning or starvation.
Surviving the flood entailed not only nourishing health but also coming to terms with one’s misfortune. Chapter 3 discusses the role that dragons played in a region prone to floods. In early times, dragons were symbols of fertility, but as the disaster regime became established they became gods of uncertainty, bringers of devastating floods who needed to be appeased. Worship of the Dragon King served...