Ph.D. in History, Senior Lecturer
Faculty of Asian and African Studies
St.Petersburg State University
Донская Александра Евгеньевна
Кандидат исторических наук
Санкт-Петербургский Государственный университет
History of natural disasters and the initial stage of environmental history in the People’s Republic of China
Summary: The article is based on historical and historiographical works of Chinese authors and devoted to the genesis of the Chinese environmental history. In 1985 special research group on the problem of natural disasters and famine in the Chinese modern history was organised on the basis of Renmin University of China and the Institute of Qing History. Books and articles written by its participants not only laid the foundation for the history of disasters and famine in China, but also opened new way for historical research, proposed new approach which emphasizes mutual influence of natural and social phenomena. Continuing deterioration of the Chinese environment and an introduction into China of the key works of Western environmentalists played stimulating role in the further development of this sub discipline and its transformation into environmental history. One of the important features of environmental studies in China is great attention to historical aspects.
Key words: history of China, historiography, natural disasters and famine, environmental history, ecological history
The great economic reform, launched by the People’s Republic of China 40 years ago, affected not only its politics and economics, but also the sphere of science, including the historical science. During this revision of Chinese history some new approaches to history of the Chinese revolution and the Communist Party of China were developed, and also the nature of historical researches was changed. Research focus began to move from political history (with the main attention paid on the problems of class fight) to economic and social history. A lot of new sources were introduced for scientific use, the research sphere was expanded and its limits became more flexible, that resulted in the growth of interest in related subjects, introduction of integrated approaches, including socio-ecological, economical-ecological, political-ecological, etc. History of natural disasters began to develop in China in this period. The global growth of attention to similar problems and disciplines also became an essential incentive to more active development of this sphere of historical researches.
Strictly speaking, this subject was not absolutely new to the Chinese historical science. Direct predecessors of modern literature on history of natural disasters and related topics could be found first of all in 1920-30s. Some of them contained reports of disasters for this or that period, statistical calculations, but also made attempts to formulate the reasons of frequent disasters and also to understand the structure and characteristics of related policy in traditional China. The most representative work on this subject — «China’s History of Disaster Relief » Deng Tuo . Deng Tuo (or Deng Yunte, 1912-1966) was a historian, writer and journalist, a veteran cadre of the Communist Party since 1930s, served as the editor-in-chief of the Renmin Zhibao (People’s Daily) in 1948 – 1958, Chairman of the Chinese Association of journalists. In 1965 he was the Secretary for culture and education in the Beijing Party Committee. When the Cultural Revolution started in late 1965, Deng became one of its first targets, he was given by the labels of a «black hand», a «poisonous weed» and a «class enemy», committed suicide in 1966 and was rehabilitated in 1979. His book on the history of natural disasters and famine was first published in Shanghai in 1937, then republished in 1986 as a part of the Deng Tuo’s collected works and by separate volume in 1998. This work is distinguished by its width, systematic approach, logical structure, the bulk of the historical sources used (it was generally the reports and practical instructions written by the Chinese officials). This work was however of the Chinese «traditional» kind – literal reproduction of historical sources prevailed on the analysis and formulation of own conclusions. Actually some chapters represent lists of quotations with very small parts of the author’s text. Many concepts and schemes developed by her author have been used for a long time.
After the PRC was founded in 1949, especially in the 50-60th, a lot of works on the history of natural disasters appeared — mostly the reviews of the concrete facts collected. There were also works within natural science caused by the real need to cope with natural calamities. There was also the line of researches starting with the famous article of Zhu Kezhen «Preliminary investigations into the changes in China’s climate during the last 5,000 years», published in 1972 . Zhu Kezhen (1890-1974) was a geographer, climatologist, teacher, one of founders of the Geographical Society of the People’s Republic of China, the founder of the modern Chinese geographical science, the Chinese meteorology and phenology, the member of Academy of Sciences of the People’s Republic of China. Author’s conclusions on the climate change were based on the analysis of the data about temporary and spatial distribution of natural disasters found in the historical sources of different kinds. New projects on irrigation, repair of reservoirs, construction of dams, needs of the regional planning of economic development in the first years of the People’s Republic of China demanded to understand more clearly the environmental constraints, including natural disasters, in the historical prospect. As a result, purely historical researches of natural disasters at that time were practically interrupted, but the researches of these phenomena by the methods of natural sciences were developed dramatically. Unfortunately, these two lines practically did not adjoin for a long time.
Active introduction of the new data from historical works, official reports and decrees, letters and diaries of officials, local gazetteers, genealogical documents, etc. became one of the significant results of the new tide in historical science in the 1980s. Various chronicles, reports, lists of disasters were created, these works were full of the concrete material, very informative. The majority of researches are characterized by the strict localization in time and space, the choice of the specific period and the specific area, careful investigation of the relevant data (in case of large-scale, complex reports the aforesaid is true for each separate chapter or a part, besides, that parts are mutually connected only by the general subject). Authors of these works did not set as their purpose formulation of theoretical problems and serious conclusions.
Very important phase in development of this field began in 1985, when the first special research group on the problem of natural disasters and famine in the Chinese modern history was organised on the basis of Renmin University of China and the Institute of Qing History. This research group was headed by Li Wenhai. Li Wenhai (1932 – 2013) was the famous historian, the President of Renmin University in 1994 – 2000. Li Wenhai believed that historical science had to be connected with the present, he always felt spirits of the times. Investigation of the the problems of natural disasters and famine in the Chinese history targeted the evaluation and solution of similar problems in modern China. This field became more and more popular around the world. Soon, in 1990, an International Decade for Natural Disaster Reduction was launched by the United Nations. Li Wenhai not only opened the new field of historical researches, he also offered new ways to cope with the crisis of historical science (connected, first of all, with dogmatic use of historical materialism). He hoped to incorporate the achievements of natural sciences into the humanitarian social science.
Researchers of different generations and different fields of interests took part in this research project. Cheng Xiao, Zhou Yuan, Gong Ming, Xia Mingfang, Lin Dunkui, Zhang Qixiang, Zhang Hong, etc. took part in work at different stages. «A Chronological Record of Disasters and Famines in Modern China» which collected the data on the natural disasters from 1840 to 1919  became the first fruit of this group activity. Then there was also published the sequel of the chronicle for the period from 1919 to 1949 . The main result of this work became the book «The Top Ten Disasters in Modern China», published in 1994 . After that the group was disbanded. Most of participants departed from the field subsequently, but some continued researches. At that time the history of natural disasters and famine began to be taught at Renmin University.
Gradually along with obvious quantitative growth of publications simple presentation of facts gave the way to an in-depth study of various aspects of the problem and went beyond the initial boundaries, researches attempted to establish the links between «the history of disasters» and political, economic, social, demographic history, the history of environment. Publications ranged from scientific in a strict sense to popular-scientific and educational, a genre variety increased.
Research group collected, organized and classified the huge actual data which was contained in official chronicles, historical works and documents, archives, diaries and other written sources. As much as possible original quotations were used, material was generalized chronologically and by regions. That created the base both for further development of this subject, and for scientific use of data for researches on other aspects of history. Many new sources were introduced for scientific use. Readers gained a fair idea of the facts, the reasons and consequences of natural disasters throughout a modern history of China. It became a substantial contribution to development of historical science.
The value of these publications however was even more considerable. Li Wenhai claimed: it is necessary to investigate not natural disasters in itself, but the links between natural disasters and the most important events in the Chinese modern history, mutual influence of natural and social phenomena. This approach was realized in the works of Li Wenhai, Xia Mingfang, Kang Peizhu, etc. [3, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11]. These works devoted to the interdependence of the natural disasters, on the one hand, and important events, connected with Opium Wars, policy of «Self-strengthening», the Taiping rebellion, the Boxer’s rebellion, the Xinhai revolution, — on the other. The new side of the research object appeared – not only contradictions between people (first of all involving ethnicity and class status) considered as the most significant factors of the social evolution, but also the conflict between the person, human society and the nature. Not all researchers involved in this field demonstrated such an innovative integrated approach, some of them still worked on the patterns laid down by Deng Tuo, but gradually research became more profound and innovative. Introduction of the foreign scientific literature also played a huge role.
One of the most prominent historian in this field, Xia Mingfang, believes that foundation for the ecological history in China was laid exactly by the history of disasters and famine. Xia Mingfang is Professor of Chinese History at the Institute of Qing History, Renmin University. He was a Visiting Scholar at the Harvard-Yenching Institute, Harvard University, in 2007 – 2008. He is currently Director of the Centre for Ecological History, Renmin University, and Deputy Director of the Institute of Qing History at the same University. He is also Chairman of the Committee of Disaster History, the Association for Disaster Prevention, China.
Another version of the genesis of ecological (or environmental) history in China was proposed by Bao Maohong in his article «Environmental History in China»  and also some articles in Chinese language. Bao Maohong is Professor of environmental history at the History Department of the Peking University. Bao Maohun notes that it was he who first introduced in 2000 the term «environmental history» into the scientific circulation of the PRC in his work on the history, theory and methods of this discipline which emerged in the USA in the 1960-70s. He uses only the term «environmental history» (or «huanjing shi» in Chinese).
Professor Bao expresses the opinion that studies that can be attributed to the environmental history started in the PRC only in the second half of the 1990s, on the basis of Chinese historical geography. There are two main reasons: continuing deterioration of the Chinese environment and an introduction into China of the key works of Western environmentalists. However, he says: «although environmental history studies started in the late 1990s, and was a newcomer to Chinese historiography, the achievements of environmental history studies were not limited to this period» [1, 477]. It allows the author to include in his review a number of much earlier works.
Xia Minfang, recognizing the importance of the fact, that at the end of 1990s Chinese researchers became more familiar with Western works, see the main prerequisites for the environmental history in the PRC inside the process of development of Chinese historical science. He makes sharp distinction between «huanjing shi» (environmental history) and «shengtai shi» (ecological history). Professor Xia emphases this distinction because, in his opinion, the concept of «environment» in the eyes of most Chinese scientists does not include a man, it is the environment «outside» of a man, and the term «ecology» largely reflects the unity and pervasive interdependence of man and the environment. Xia Minfan recalls that in 2012 a professor the University of Kansas, Donald Worster, was invited to the Renmin University. D.Worster (1941 — ) is one of the founders of, and leading figures in, the field of environmental history. He was Hall Distinguished Professor of American History at the University of Kansas. After retirement from University of Kansas, he became Distinguished Foreign Expert and senior professor in the School of History of Renmin University of China. It was decided to create a joint Research Centre at the Renmin University of China. The question of the name of the centre caused discussions in scientific community. The majority of Chinese specialist in environmental history supported the name Centre for Environmental History. Ecological History, but Xia Mingfang eventually managed to insist on his proposal — the Centre for Ecological History. For him, this name emphasizes that nature, society and man will be studied not separately, but in a close relationship.
Professor Xia traces the understanding of interrelation and interdependence of natural and social processes to the achievements of Li Wenhai and his colleagues in the field of disasters history. He considers that environment history (at that time this term in China was not used yet) grew from the history of disasters and famine. According to a remark Xia Mingfang, in the Chinese historical science «environmental history has undoubtedly originated from the problem of natural disasters; if there were no problems in the environment, if a series of crisis or dangerous, destructive events had not occurred, in my opinion, no one would be interested in studying it» . In the field of Chinese history studying of natural disasters and famine laid a way to development of a new view on past events. The nature ceased to be perceived as «background» for events, natural processes began to be considered in close interrelation with processes political, economic and social that allowed to offer explanations for a number of phenomena unclear earlier.
Bao Maohong pointed out that «in comparison with other related sub disciplines and environmental history studies in foreign countries, the environmental history studies in China have their own characteristics, which include practicality and a stress on the past, not the present» [1, 489].
Now the history in this way (i.e. history of the environment and ecological history) is studied in a number educational and research establishments of the People’s Republic of China, international conferences are regularly held. Environmental historians in their humanitarian studies can use the achievements and methods of the natural sciences, work in collaboration. Scrupulous research of historical data conducted by historians allows experts in the natural sciences to deepen their understanding of the causes of natural phenomena, environmental changes. Cooperation benefits both parties. Ecological history implies interdisciplinary research, the participation of representatives of different sciences, different specialties, dialogue between them is necessary, thus a new historical understanding will be formed. It seems convincing enough that roots of this popular and quickly developing discipline – Chinese ecological history – can be traced to the history of natural disasters and famine and, more deeply, in the Chinese traditional historical geography.
- Bao Maohong. Environmental History in China // Environment and History. – Vol. 10. – No. 4. – 2004.
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- Kang Peizhu. Zaihuang yu taiping tianguo geming de shibai (Disasters, Famine and the Defeat of the Taiping Rebellion) // Beifang luncun. – 1995. – No. 6.
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- Zhu Kezhen. Zhongguo jin wu qian nian lai qihou bianqian de chubu yanjiu (Preliminary investigations into the changes in China’s climate during the last 5,000 years) // Kaogu xuebao, 1972. – No. 1.