In discussing the history of natural disasters in China, one thing should be understood: natural disasters in China are strongly related to the political contexts and social orders in the society. Consequently a discussion on the history of natural disasters in China, it is clear, needs an evaluation of how Chinese society responds and interprets them and the natural disasters’ influences. That evaluation needs concepts about natural disasters within the important paradigms that natural disasters are not merely meteorological and seismic phenomena separated from social and cultural contexts. This paper will discuss natural disasters in two contexts, those of the Chinese traditional power and of the Communist Party under the regime of Mao Zedong.
Some Concepts of Natural Disasters
There are some important concepts which need to be understood in the history of natural disasters in China. The first is natural disasters as Acts of God or fate. This means that natural disasters such as earthquakes and floods are viewed as God’s retribution for human faults and failings (White et al. 2001:87). Such concepts tend to imply fatalistic behaviours and actions and no one can prevent them. Keith Smith explains that this concept has fatalistic characteristics which means that people have no responsibility to respond to dangers but only keep away from a loss resulting from disasters (Smith 1996:70).
Second, a natural disaster is a purely physical agent/event i.e.-Act of Nature. Quarantelli (1978:8) says that over time, nature increasingly changes the supernatural and ‘a natural disaster term’ becomes a standard term. Meanwhile, Russell Dynes claims that the notion of natural disaster as an Act of Nature came following the Lisbon earthquake of 1755 (Dynes 1977:24). He tells the story of Marques de Pombal who had the responsibility to conduct the response and reconstruction following the earthquake in Lisbon (Dynes 1997:6) but who made political attempts to reduce the traditional interpretation that an earthquake is an Act of God. Pombal viewed the repentance in mass public worship becoming a reason for why people restrained themselves whereas the city needed all the people to conduct a number of reconstruction activities. He saw religious practices as obstruction to reconstruction processes (Dynes 1997:16). Dynes argues that the Lisbon earthquake was the first modern earthquake in which a state accepted responsibility to create an emergency response and also to develop and to apply a collective attempt to overcome that disaster.
The third concept in disaster is social action. Dombrowsky mentions Carr (1932) as the first man to understand natural disasters as such a concept (1998:24) by his personal argument in 1932:
Not every windstorm, earth-tremor, or rush of water is a catastrophe. A catastrophe is known by its works; that is to say, by the occurrence of disaster. So long as the ship rides out the storm, so long as the city resists the earth-shocks, so long as the levees hold, there is no disaster. It is the collapse of the cultural protections that constitutes the disaster proper.
Carr explains that natural disasters result from human activities, not natural or supernatural phenomena.. This means that natural disasters are the collapse of cultural protection and thus are principally created by human actions and deductively people have responsibility for their actions and carelessness (Dombrowsky 1998: 24-25).
Encrico Quarantelli continues Carr’s notion by removing focus from events of natural disaster to interaction of natural disasters and society. Gilbert (1998:13) explains that at the conceptual level, he triggers off an increasingly new model in natural disaster approaches based on an analysis of a society and not merely as an external demolition agent. A partial consequence from this conceptual approach, demolition agents have not been viewed as a source, but as an initial cause of crisis and an indication of natural disaster directly related to social contexts. Meanwhile, Tobin and Montz (1997:11-12) explain that Hewitt (1983) condemns researchers focusing all their attention on geophysical processes and ignoring social forces. Hewitt stresses three points: 1.Natural disasters cannot be explained specifically and merely as geophysical conditions that might be the start of catastrophes and damage; 2.Human awareness and response to natural disaster do not merely depend on the attention to purpose, aim and risk from society. Causes, characters and effects of the disasters have not been explained by conditions and indications of deadly events; 3.Important parameters are social order in daily life with habitat and historical conditions also shaping a society.
Study of Natural Disaster in China
Even though natural disasters are a reality in the modern history of China, a historical study of natural disasters is a relatively new study in that country (Andrea Janku 2009:237). Interestingly, famine has become a starting point for scholars in outer China (ibid.). Perhaps the symbolic reading on natural disasters prevents the conduct of such research and the very strong theory of dynastic-cycle effectively prevents the writing of a social history of natural disasters. In any case, a social history of natural disasters is a sensitive field. Disaster studies are also complex studies requiring an inter disciplinary approach. This study requires different disciplines such as sociology, economics and institutional history, history of the environment and epidemiology, demography and historical geography, study of philology and relations between the state and society and the study of modernity. It also needs an openness to an anthropological approach and a perspective consideration in socio-physiological aspects to natural disasters including memory and collective and individual trauma.
An important research describes an institutional history and official management of natural disasters in: Buraucratie et famine en Chine au 18e siecle by Pierre Etienne Will. This is a study of famine and famine relief in China in 1743 in the capital of Zhili Province which shows that the management of famine relief during the Qing Dynasty was excellent. Giving food or nourishment to people was one of the important ways for the Qing Dynasty to support its political legitimacy. The civil granary system in the administration of the Qing Dynasty was a sophisticated means by which the administration equalized the rice price and reduced the consequences of a food shortage. The study illustrates the story of food, famine, and the Chinese state focusing on political legitimacy, social security and economic stability. Later, social and economic historians continued this study and played important roles. Their studies focused on market developments, rice prices and relations between the state and society. A study on famine relief in the Ming era (1368-1644) observes the state’s responsibility to people until the end of the Dynasty.
In the People’s Republic of China a study of history and famine is relatively new because it was a sensitive topic until the political situation became more open after 1979 (Andrea Janku 2009:237). Two basic aims are addressed in the research. First, a study of natural disasters, particularly of floods, droughts and earthquakes, in order to develop an adequate policy of management and the prevention of natural disasters in the present (Andrea Janku 2009:238). In the 1990s, the International Decade of United Nations for Disaster Reduction is important to intensify research and to strengthen international cooperation particularly in natural science. Second, in the PRC natural disaster research is didactic, meaning, the study the past is an admonition to the future. One of the publications of the Research Group for the Study of Disasters in Modern China, founded in 1985 at the People’s University, Beijing, is a text book for middle school made explicitly to introduce to pupils the ancestors’ suffering so that they never forget (ibid.). It aims to change the memory of the past natural disasters into spiritual powers needed to build a new and future China. Subsequent research conducted by the same group explores the relation between natural disasters and the last era of the Qing Dynasty.
Research that analyses a study of disasters and famine relief in China concentrates on the Qing Dynasty. Richard Bohr and He Hanwei did the pioneering work in a study of the Great Famine in north China between 1876 and-1879 with famine becoming the main focus in the research. Bohr’s study based on missionary documents, points to famine and the role of Timothy Richard, an important figure in missionary relief. Richard’s experience in this famine relief encouraged his reformatory and political thought. In response to Bohr’s study, He Hanwai conducted research on extensive measures of relief taken by Chinese administrations. In the 1990s, a big achievement of the Beijing research group was the introduction of issues of personal relief in a Chinese discourse about famine relief and discussion of the missionary contribution from foreign countries in positive thinking. This group also concentrates on famine as a motivating factor to conduct modernization. The Centre of Historical Geography at Fudan University in Shanghai, in contrast, focuses on the history of the environment and the history of demography in their analysis of the history of disasters.
Kathryn Edgerton adds an important other dimension of the study of disaster in her study of the Great Famine in north China in the late 1870s. Her study about the social response to the famine, inspired by the potato famine in Ireland, is based on new local sources including small notes, local historical documents and even interviewing of old people who could tell stories about their ancestors during the famine. She explores whether and how responses to the famine are culturally determined.
Natural Disasters as Acts of God: the theory of the Mandate of Heaven
No other country has had the same fate as China in cases of natural disaster. China is a country that often and routinely experiences catastrophe. Deng Yunte writes, in his comprehensive study about the history of famine relief in China, that in China since the eighteen hundreds BCE until the twentieth century CE there was hardly a year without a catastrophe (zai) and there was hardly a year without famine (huang) (Andrea Janku 2009:233). Deng Yunte tries to investigate the ingrained natural disasters in Chinese culture by counting one by one the great disasters in the Myth era told about in the Chinese classical literature such as the Great Floods in the Yao and Shun epic in which the Great Yu, the first ruler in the Xia Dynasty, (2100 BCE until 1600 BCE), in the end conquered the Great Flood (ibid.). The most gigantic earthquake for years occurred in the late Shang Dynasty (1600 BCE to 1100 BCE). The excessive flood pushed the Shang Dynasty to move its capital five times. The gigantic earthquake in the late Shang Dynasty brought to an end the power of the evil Zhou, the last emperor of the Shang Dynasty.
A moral interpretation of the floods mentioned above was really revered at the time of the West Han Dynasty (206 BCE-8 CE). Floods and droughts were interpreted as ‘catastrophes sent by Heaven’ (tianzai), that could be understood by the theory of the Mandate of Heaven (tianming), that gave legitimacy to the rulers (ibid.). The history of disasters presented in the paradigm of a dynastic circle means that the increase of disasters would encourage a cosmic sign declaring a loss of the dynasty’s mandate. In the early times of Chinese historiography, natural disasters concerned chroniclers (Andrea Janku 2007:267-268).
In the Preface to the Record of Auspicious and Inauspicious Phenomena of a local history of China it is said that in the past, when Kongzi wrote the Annals of the State of Lu (722–484 B.C.E.), whenever there was a calamitous phenomenon, he certainly would record it, in order to take heed of the Heavenly warnings. For the demons are evoked by man; only virtue can excel.... In ancient times, there have been many earthquakes in Linfen, and droughts and floods have also happened at unforeseen times. How could this have happened without reason?
The chroniclers in China in the ancient times gave full attention to calamitous phenomena (Andrea Janku 2007:268). They recorded calamitous phenomena, that at present are called natural disasters as political signs that meant that a phenomenon was a reflection of people’s behaviour (Andrea Janku 2007:268).
However, importantly, most of the reflections about natural disasters were not addressed to people’s behaviour but to the performance of a dynasty. A dynasty, particularly an emperor, has the traditional duty to respond to the disasters. In the concept of the Mandate of Heaven, that is a political tradition of power, Tian (Heaven) gives a blessing to an emperor to rule. The rule will be kept in his hand if he has the capacity to maintain harmony between heaven and earth and do justice. On the contrary, if a ruler acts out an oppressive deed as a tyrant and does not do justice there will occur calamitous phenomena or natural disasters that might be a sign that an emperor has lost the mandate. As Burton Watson writes:
Like the Greeks and Romans, the early Chinese firmly believed in the portentous significance of usual or freakish occurrences in the natural world. The belief formed the basis for the Han theory that evil actions or misgovernment in high places invites dislocations in the natural order, causing the appearance of comets, eclipses, drought, locusts, weird animals etc…..However interpreted, this theory of portents and omens had a tremendous influence upon Han political thought, for it gave the bureaucracy a method of indirectly censuring the throne when direct criticism was impolitic. (William Theodore Debary)
Yeat (2001, 193)says:
During the Zhow Dynasty in the first millennium B.C., the Chinese came to believe that heaven gives wise and virtuous leaders a mandate to rule, and removes this mandate if the leaders are evil or corrupt. This became incorporated into the Taoist view that heaven expresses its disapproval of bad rule through natural disasters such as floods, plagues, or earthquakes
In the examples above, the punishments from heaven do not mean for all time a sign of the end of a dynasty (Andrea Janku 2009:234).A disaster could be also viewed as an examination that is sent by Heaven to check the ruler’s ability to cope with a crisis, or as an admonition for him to examine his moral integrity and personal responsibility for the prosperity of the people (ibid.). In this case, a disaster offers some rulers a chance to assert legitimacy and to consolidate their administration. A successful overcoming of disasters is one of the elements that might produce a cultural hero such as the Great Yu Yang. Even though sometimes there emerges a skeptical voice. This interpretation is really useful and applicable in the modern era, such as in the high reluctance of the Chinese regime to publish ‘the Silent Famine’ in the 1960s and the Chinese administration censorship in informing of the Tangshan earthquake of 1976.
A legend is told frequently in many ancient sources about the seven year famine in the era of Emperor Tang and his solution to offer himself as a sacrifice for the prosperity of the people as a paradigm about the ruler’s responsibilities to respond to disasters (Andrea Janku 2009:234). Tang is a cultural hero who overthrew Jie at the end of the Xia Dynasty. But, his reign was signified by a famine. After five years when the harvest failed, Tang revealed his willingness to sacrifice himself to calm the anger of heaven and to absolve his people (ibid.): ‘Just myself who is at fault, the people must not be affected. If the people did anything wrong, this is because of me. Do not ask the spirits and the devil to destroy the people’s lives because the fault is only with one person. In a small wood with a variety of plants and fruit, he prepared his offering of himself, cutting his hair, fingernails and looking for an altar. According to the story he prayed to Heaven with these questions:
Has my rule been immoderate? Have I brought distress to the people? Why do the rains fail to such a severe extent? Is my palace too lofty? Have the visits of women been too plenteous? Why do the rains fail to such a severe extent? Have presents and bribes been common? Has slander been flourishing? Why do the rains fail to such a severe extent?
Before he could kill himself, heaven gave him blessing. Heavy rains occurred and were abundant. Then people were happy. The commentators describe droughts as the power of Jie’s Ghost. Tang was actually difficult to fault because in all the faults he had mentioned, he had shown full honesty and pious behaviour in his honest pursuance to heaven (Andrea Janku 2009:235).
By looking back to natural disasters in the past which happened in all parts in the country in the last Manchu-Qing Dynasty(1644-1911), it is clear, that it can encourage signs and be interpreted as the collapse of a dynasty. A series of floods, droughts, epidemics, earthquakes and typhoons, coincided with famines that happened in all parts of China in 1840-1899, showed how terrifying were the catastrophes in this period.
The Yongding River in Zhili (Hubai Province at this time) flooded for eight years sequentially from 1867 to 1874 and took a great toll of many people, because of the ignoring of working control. A drought followed in 1875-1876 initiating the Great Drought. The drought created suffering in most parts of north China from 1876 till 1879. A series of floods beginning in 1885 came to an end in 1898, once again, followed by the great droughts in 1899-1900.
The southern parts of the country were also influenced. In 1876 when the first wave of famine refugees came from the north, namely to the rich Jiangnan (Yanzte lowland), the bad floods influenced Jianxi, Fujian and Zhejiang Provinces. The heavy rains, tsunamis and typhoons struck the coastal provinces and Taiwan. An earthquake was recorded in the hinterland of Yunnan and Guizhou. A series of catastrophes, also related to the food riots, continued to the Wuchang Rebellion that encouraged the founding of the Republic of China in 1912. Disintegration was continually taking place in the political power and traditional social structure and the economic riots had a big effect in the multiple disasters of the people. These events seemed to reinforce the sense that the kingdom was in a dreadful condition.
Even though it is interesting to write about the collapse of a dynasty in an attempt to form a historical concept in the last era of the Chinese dynasties, it is clear that it can become a trap and lead to a superficial reading of historical documents and obscure the subtlety of human history (Andrea Janku 2009). Response to disasters and the long term consequences are complex and should be examined historically (Andrea Janku 2009). Geographic conditions and climates in China constantly make this country susceptible to floods, droughts, earthquakes and other catastrophes. But, this situation also encourages a sophisticated development of culture to cope with these disasters. These cultures can be powerfully seen in a number of references, both personal and formal, to famine relief and disaster prevention. People in flood areas have found ways to adapt and get advantage from the catastrophe which happens routinely. There is a popular response to ‘daily disasters’ in conventional historical sources. On the contrary, the terrifying disasters influencing vast areas over a long period and the suffering of great damage resulting in numerous victims are relatively rare. The terrifying disasters which are also relatively rare could influence seriously social and political arrangements in China.
It is true that the effects of disasters increased drastically especially in the last two centuries of Qing power (Andrea Janku 2009). The increase in population to the level that had never occurred before, in the eighteenth century, caused tensions in the ecology and economic sources that grew bigger.(Andrea Janku 2009). Most of the rural people lived at a subsistence and very vulnerable level. At the same time, remarkable combat troops could still be mobilized to support the regions that were regarded important strategically, economically and politically. In peace time, a wide preparation limits the scope of the numerous catastrophes. Besides, a long time strategy has been created in disaster management, continually adapting to change in the circumstances, particularly to disasters with great power that had not been ever seen before. Even though there are adaptations, one principle that has never changed at least at the political discourse level: the conviction that the prosperity of people finally depends on the State. Here, indeed, is maintained the political myth alongside with the empowering of political control.
This principle was challenged for the first time during the Great Famine in north China in the 1870s, when foreign people were involved in the administration of famine relief. An evaluation of famine and official relief by the south China elites, foreign missionaries and their reports to the world changed the perception of famine inside the state (Andrea Janku 2009: 236). In relation to the use of the modern press that emerged in the treaty ports in the extra territorial areas in the nineteenth century, was a crisis growing from one region to national and even international levels. Thus the consequences went outside the scope and control of the imperial state (ibid.).
Natural Disasters as Acts of Nature : the Communist Regime’s Role
The Communist era faced different political and economic situations from those of the imperial era. But, like the administration in the imperial era, the Communists tried to give full attention to support the prosperity of the people. In the first decade of the People’s Republic of China until the death of Mao Zedong in 1976, the Communist regime had limited power to create awareness of and policy regarding natural disasters. Thus, the regime placed little focus on relief and reconstruction (Lester Ross 1984:776). Because the regime recentralized authority, relief was established relying only on the armed forces, which were trained to contribute in civilian economic activity (ibid.). The regime also increased grain reserves, promised agricultural tax concessions and other relief in areas influenced by earthquakes and other natural disasters.
According to Lester Ross, the Communist regime had made a modest scientific effort to increase the understanding of natural disasters particularly of earthquakes (Lester Ross 1984). Its purpose is prevention and protection. To understand the characteristics of earthquakes they founded seismic monitoring stations, although the number was only slightly increased from two to two dozen by 1958 (Lester Ross). The interesting fact in China in relation to seismic study and earthquakes is the Chinese scholar developed indigenous twelve-degree scale of earthquake intensity with application for architecture and engineering. Although these activities confirm that some research was ongoing, in retrospect it appears that the geosciences were used in mineral exploration while engineering focused on construction in a nascent scientific effort that was handicapped by low funding levels and political controls. The only applied geoscience item included among the twelve scientific priorities established in the mid 1950s was exploration for petroleum and strategic minerals. Use of the seismic intensity scale in planning and construction was hampered by inadequate seismic mapping data for most areas of the country and by weak institutional controls. Seismic intensity classifications were advisory in nature and apparently were usually disregarded by the capital construction authorities when they authorized new projects.
The Communist regime placed little focus on natural hazard policy (Lester Ross 1984). This was because it placed more focus on the pressure of other programs in economic development. In the 1950s, the Communist regime emphasized heavy industry and volume of output at the expense of infrastructure and quality control with massive Soviet-style industrialization. However, even heavy industrial projects generally failed to incorporate modern safety and engineering measures as shown by the widespread and total destruction in Tangshan.
Thus, in 1958-60 the Communist regime with the Maoist Great Leap Forward emphasized shortcuts to modernization, but, it did not improve conditions. It was a failed political program. One of the principal features of the Great Leap Forward was a major campaign to construct water conservancy projects, many of which were improperly designed and constructed. In one prominent instance, the Xinfengjiang Reservoir, northeast of Guangzhou, (Canton) was built in a fault area and began to experience shocks within months after filling commenced. A major shock of magnitude 6.1 on the Richter scale eventually occurred on March 19, 1962, necessitating extensive repairs.
Thus, because of the Chinese low level of economic and scientific development, according to Lester Ross, the Chinese regime did not consider natural disasters, particularly earthquakes, as the most important problem (Lester Ross 1984). Earthquakes in China appear to occur in waves of increasing seismic activity interspersed with periods of relative quiescence. Although activity generally had been increasing since the early 1800s, earthquake activity in the early years of the People’s Republic of China tended to be either not severe or confined to very remote areas. Seven of the most severe earthquakes in China in the period 1950-66 occurred in Tibet or the mountains of Sichuan. North China is an area of high seismic activity but was relatively quiescent from 1945 to 1954 before activity began to increase again.
According to Lester Ross, the Communist regime may have chosen a passive strategy because of the absence of better knowledge (Lester Ross 1984). Although precautionary measures to reduce damage in the event of an earthquake were possible, the global scientific community had yet to predict earthquakes. The commitment of additional resources to the frontiers of research by a country engaged in scientific catch-up may have been considered an unaffordable luxury.
A Preventive Policy Regarding Earthquakes in the Cultural Revolution.
In the 1960s and 1970s, China experienced a series of major earthquakes in various provinces that culminated with the Tangshan earthquake in 1976, which killed a quarter of a million people. One of the earthquakes was the Xingtai earthquake. At 5:29 am local time on March 8, 1996, while most people were still asleep, a severe M7.2 earthquake rocked the foothills of the Taihang Mountains in the vicinity of Xingtai in western Hebei Province. Xingtai is about 300 kilometres from Beijing along the trunk railway between Shijiazhuang and Zhengzhou. Damage apparently was most severe in the rural areas where 350 production brigades reportedly were affected. Substantial loss of life and property occurred although no official estimates were published.
It must be noted here that the series of earthquakes largely overlapped with the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), a decade of political and social upheavals and thus, Lester Ross says, the Xingtai earthquake’s significance for natural disaster policy is related more to its timing and perhaps its proximity to Beijing than the damage sustained (Lester Ross:778). China in 1966 was on the verge of the Cultural Revolution, a momentous political upheaval led by Chairman Mao Zedong against the Communist Party itself and Chinese intellectuals. Leading officials like President Liu Shaoqi and Party Secretary General Deng Xiaoping were hounded out of office as alleged ‘capitalist roaders’. Virtually all educational institutions were closed and teaching and research ceased until new open door forms of science and education could be created based on the concept of service to the people. Tens of thousands of people including many intellectuals are believed to have died during the Cultural Revolution.
It means that the occurrence so close to Beijing, caused the need for a positive earthquake policy while the ongoing political turmoil helped to shape the policy that emerged. Amid intense political competition, the severe quake helped to invoke the Communist regime response akin to the Mandate of Heaven, beyond rescue and reconstruction (Lester Ross 1984)
Control of human settlement patterns was not a viable option, however, not only because of the absence of reliable seismic data but also because of the enormous expense involved in making millions of structures earthquake resistance. Higher standards for new construction were more feasible but still would be expensive and retard economic growth (Lester Ross 1984)
Therefore, the Chinese Communist regime particularly the Chinese leaders regarded earthquake prediction as an important science project (Lester Ross 1984). They decided to enhance Chinese forecast and warning capabilities in order to evacuate the population at risk in advance of an earthquake. This was an extraordinary course of action given the inability of scientists anywhere in the world to predict earthquakes. But, earthquake prediction proved to be politically popular. The left soon embraced earthquake prediction as a scientific endeavour beyond the control of bourgeois professional scientists in which the left’s preferred mass-campaign style of science serving the people could be applied. China was not alone in trying to develop methods of earthquake prediction. At the time, Japan, the Soviet Union, and the United States invested much effort in earthquake prediction in seismological research. Many of their research activities were directed to work on geodetic measurements, foreshock sequences and electromagnetic fields (Fa-ti fan 2007:533).
When the Cultural Revolution wound down, seismology was one of the first scientific sectors to rebound. The first national seismological work conference had been convened in 1970 to disseminate initial findings and set directions for future research. In 1971 a New State Seismological Bureau was established to administer earthquake research and the seismological monitoring (Lester Ross 1984). Several research institutes, especially the Institute of Geophysics in Beijing and the Institute of Mechanical Engineering in Harbin, were directed to focus on earthquake-related research. A second national seismological work conference was convened in 1974. Soon 10,000 professional and scientific personnel and perhaps ten times that number of amateurs was involved (Lester Ross 1984). China engaged large numbers of amateur earthquake watchers to observe according to either traditional beliefs or modern science so the people as a whole would be educated about the earthquakes and precautionary measures and then evacuated once predictions were made.
The focus of the stepped-up monitoring and research work was earthquake forecasting. The State Bureau of Statistics operated this objective in terms of four goals: 1). To forecast all earthquakes of M 5 or greater intensity; 2). To forecast the epicentres of all such earthquakes within a range of 50 kilometres; 3). To forecast the occurrence of such earthquakes within two or three days; and 4). To estimate the magnitude of such earthquakes within one degree of their Richter scale value.
It is an interesting fact of the policy on earthquakes in the period that the Communist regime mobilized the masses in the national project of earthquake monitoring in the name of ‘collective monitoring, collective prevention’ (Fa-ti fan 2007). Fa-ti Fan says that the lack of seismological stations and a belief in the possibility of short term earthquake prediction explain a part of the ambition behind this program (Fa-ti Fan 2007). The background of this was the political content of the Maoist programs of mass science, such as earthquake prediction, barefoot doctors, and various attacks on elite science, based on the doctrine of integrating experts and the masses and combining indigenous and Western science. The underlying political doctrine asserted the class character of science. It projected a utopian vision of science and political modernity. According to Fa-ti Fan, the program of earthquake prediction incorporated folk wisdom and everyday observations that described abnormal natural phenomena that might indicate the coming of an earthquake—cloud formation, unseasonable weather, unusual animal behaviour, well-water variations and so forth. According to Fa-ti fan, the central and local governments gathered and spread the information, educated the people and organized them into earthquake warning systems based on the principle of collective monitoring, collective prevention (Fa-ti fan 2007). In this vision, the traditional folk practice changed into something radically modern in its political meaning and science application (Fa-ti fan 2007).
However, the Chinese Communist regime had a different focus on short-term and imminent earthquake prediction, within a few months to a few days, whereas most seismologists in other countries were less bold in assessing the possibility of short-term earthquake prediction and the Chinese mobilized the masses to participate in earthquake prediction (Fa-ti fan 2007). On the first point, according to Fa-ti fan, this approach strongly related to several factors: pressure from the political leadership; the relative isolation of Chinese scientists from the international science community; the conﬁdence and inﬂuence of the science leader, the geologist Li Siguang; a sense of urgency among the scientists who sought to combat earthquakes; and so on (Fa-ti fan 2007). In the process, the Chinese developed certain areas of their own research, notably animal behaviour and earthquakes.
This episode also points to another kind of participation namely lay participation in science. Although Maoist mass science, with its close ties to the state and its didactic political function, cannot be compared to popular science in democratic societies, it to some extent resembled what might be called citizen science (Fa-ti fan 2007). One clear difference is the generous inclusion of folk knowledge in Maoist mass science (Fa-ti fan 2007). And this particular feature is reminiscent not so much of ‘amateur science’ as of ‘vernacular science’ or ‘grassroots lay science’ for example, the lay science in the Love Canal incident and the non-elite versions of antievolutionary theories (Fa-ti fan 2007). Unlike these cases, however, Maoist mass science was officially sanctioned and enforced with the might of the state. In any event, this episode suggests new directions for studying science in Communist China in international and comparative contexts. It also encourages us to examine certain topics and themes in American or European contexts such as lay participation in science and the relationships among government, the scientiﬁc establishment and the public from a comparative perspective.
This program was successful in the Haicheng earthquake. On February 4, 1975, a 7.3-magnitude earthquake hit Haicheng, a town with about 100,000 inhabitants, in Liaoning Province, northeast China (Fa-ti fan 2007). Based on studies of precursor events and on observing animal abnormal behaviours, the local authorities issued an earthquake warning on February 3 (Fa-ti fan 2007). Early in the morning of February 4, most inhabitants were evacuated to comparatively safer places but 1,328 people lost their lives when the earthquake hit the town at 7:36 in the evening. Thanks to the quake warning, the death toll was relatively smaller than what could have been without prediction and warning (Fa-ti fan 2007).
The successful prediction of the Haicheng earthquake in 1975 caught the attention of the international seismological community and delegations from Japan, Canada and the United States took note of what the Chinese had done (Fa-ti fan 2007). Both sides in this science contact were concerned with more than seismology. The Chinese Communist regime used it to raise the international status and visibility of Chinese science when China was breaking through its international isolation (Fa-ti fan 2007). They were eager to gain recognition and membership in the international science community. The foreign visitors used it to advance their research agenda on earthquake prediction and to promote their science and social visions at home with regard to public participation in disaster management.
This poster shows a group of people who participated in the program of ‘collective monitoring, collective prevention’. The message on the poster reads: ‘Under the sole leadership of the Party, and concentrating on prevention, we combine the experts and the masses as well as indigenous [science] and foreign [science]. Rely on the masses and do well the task of pre-monitoring and prevention.’ (Fa-ti Fan 2007)
Moreover, certain Chinese research, notably on earthquakes and animal behaviour, did inspire American and European scientists to pursue similar lines of investigation (Fa-ti fan 2007). Although the Chinese impact on international seismology proved to be limited and short lived, the episode does raise interesting questions about science in an international context—for example, about status and membership in the international science community; the global geopolitical map of science production.
The Reconstruction of Tangshan
The Communist regime in 1953 under Chairman Mao Zedong launched the ﬁrst Five-Year Plan. The regime followed the Stalinist model focusing on the wide development of the central economy, collectivization and heavy industry. The regime established many state-owned factories in Tangshan. Until the earthquake in 1976, Tangshan’s industrial output grew gradually each year and the annual coal output increased from 3.3 million tons in 1953 to 26.9 million tons in 1975 (Beatrice Chen 2009).
The socio spatial organization of Tangshan in this period reﬂected typical Maoist urban development (Beatrice Chen 2009, 238). The main units of urban form in the Maoist city were the work units called danwei. Each was a compound akin to a miniature, self-contained city with its own factories, residential areas, recreational and medical facilities schools and communal meeting and dining spaces (ibid.). While work and residential areas were housed in diﬀerent buildings, these were typically adjacent to each other. Workers enjoyed the convenience of a minute’s walk to their workbench or desk though a small number of people commuted to work.
Most of the housing stock in Tangshan before the earthquake consisted of single-story houses made from brick and stone. During the late 1950s and 1960s, new multistory concrete buildings for resident and office uses were added in the western part of the city (Beatrice Chen 2009). But even then, Tangshan remained a mainly low-rise city. An emphasis on low-cost construction also meant that none of the new multistory buildings had appropriately reinforced steel structures, nor were other measures taken to ensure resistance to earthquakes. Moreover, the political chaos in the Cultural Revolution during the 1960s and 1970s led to the ignoring of any control over urban construction; buildings could be constructed on any available site, with almost no supervision by relevant authorities. Unlike Beijing, with its imperial complex and dense mat of ancient neighbourhoods, Tangshan lacked the form or fabric of a traditional Chinese city. As Beijing was shaped by centuries of dynastic rule, Tangshan was crafted in the image of doctrinaire Maoist industrialization.
The Tangshan earthquake in China was catastrophic to many people in northern China on July 27, 1976. Tangshan is an industrial city with one million inhabitants in the Province of Hebei. It is about 95 miles east and slightly south of Beijing. Although the region had experienced moderate seismic activity in the past, there were no foreshocks this time and no warning.
The earthquake with a magnitude reportedly ranging from 7.5 to 8.0 struck at 3:42 in the early morning, the worst time, when the city was asleep. What made matters worse, was the fact that this city is located in the centre of an area with major crustal faults on four sides and most structures had been built on unstable, alluvial soils with only a few earthquake-resistant. The earthquake, with its epicentre right in Tangshan, broke a five-mile section of a 25-mile long fault that passes through the city. Along the west side of this fault the land moved five feet northward in relation to the land on the east side. The east block tipped downward at the northern end of the break and upward toward the southern end.
Ground motions lasted for about 90 seconds. During this time interval about 90 per cent of the houses and buildings in Tangshan collapsed. Over a four-by-five mile area the devastation of the city was nearly total. The force of the ground motions were so strong that people reported being thrown in the air. Within seconds, thousands died. Property destruction was unbelievable. Bridges, railroads, homes and factories were completely leveled.
In the harbour city of Tientsin, 60 miles to the southwest and in Beijing to the west, the strong ground motions forced thousands of frightened people into the streets seeking refuge from the aftershocks. The extent of the destruction and number of deaths in Tangshan and elsewhere in the region has been uncertain. According to official reports a total of 242,769 people died and 169,851 were severely injured. However, based on the density of population, it is fairly accurately estimated that there were at least 655,000 people dead and 780,000 injured.
The Communist regime, particularly the Communist Party, according to Beatrice Chen, not only controlled the design and reconstruction of Tangshan but also the people’s behaviour and perceptions about the recovery (Beatrice Chen 2009) . The reconstruction process mirrored larger changes in the Chinese political agenda. Without the Chinese Communist Party, today’s Tangshan would be a very diﬀerent city. Tangshan has been an important industrial centre of Hebei Province since the late Qing Dynasty. It is blessed with an abundance of natural resources, including coal, iron, gold, oil and natural gas. Its growth into a densely populated city prior to the earthquake can largely be attributed to industrial development and the exploitation of these resources. Hailed as the ‘Cradle of China’s modern industry’, Tangshan was the home of China’s ﬁrst modern coal pit, ﬁrst standard-gauge railway, ﬁrst steam locomotive and ﬁrst cement works.
The Tangshan earthquake was an inauspicious event in an extraordinarily inauspicious year. The year, 1976, had scarcely begun when the Chinese people learned of the death from cancer of their revered premier, Zhou En-Lai. The so-called Gang of Four, fearful that Zhou and his chosen successor, Deng Xiaoping, were looming in popularity even above Mao, prohibited any public mourning for the dead man. Meanwhile, Mao’s own health was failing fast and rumours began to ﬂy of the helmsman’s imminent passing. An internal power struggle among senior Party members was already under way, pitting the Gang of Four and other Maoist ideologues against a reform-oriented opposition. Despite Mao’s fading power and declining health, he and his followers were still eﬀectively in control at the time of the earthquake and its immediate aftermath. Hua Guofeng, whom Mao had designated as his successor, managed the Tangshan disaster largely in accordance with the Chairman’s wishes, promoting national self reliance and mobilizing the masses. Then, on September 9, only weeks after one of the greatest earthquakes in Chinese history, Mao Zedong was dead. The rebuilding of Tangshan would now proceed without him (Beatrice Chen 2009).
The Communist regime decided to refuse all foreign aid of earthquake rescue and recovery operations and this policy caused a shock to the world community. (Beatrice Chen 2005:239). Three days after the disaster, the Ministry of Foreign Aﬀairs issued a statement: ‘Under the leadership of Chairman Mao and the Chinese Communist Party, the people of China are eagerly participating in the earthquake relief attempts. The Chinese have decided to rely on themselves to overcome this disaster’. Mao and his supporters believed that to accept foreign assistance in any form would ruin the dignity of the Chinese. Given China’s closed door policy during the Cultural Revolution, it is not surprising that rescue and recovery attempts were conducted in such a highly secretive atmosphere.
The Regime with Maoists, obtained the opportunity to spread the Chairman’s ideology of national self reliance by launching the recovery campaign: ‘Resist the Earthquake and Rescue Ourselves’ (Beatrice Chen 2005: 239). The masses were still Mao’s strongest political weapon. He had spent his time in life ﬁnessing the art of manipulating the popular sentiment. His strategy of indoctrinating people into scrutinizing each other and reporting on corrupt behaviour ensured mass participation and self-regulation. Anyone who dared to drift from Mao’s ideologies would be exposed to public scrutiny and penalized. Under his rule, millions of people had to follow his orders.
The Communist government continued using the Party propaganda to exert Mao’s inﬂuence and did not seek a new strategy to tackle a disaster on such a great scale. The post earthquake events on the domestic front were heavily publicized on Mao’s terms and this is in contrast to China’s guarded response to the international community. He chose what to reveal and what not to reveal based on his political agenda of building a strong and self reliant nation (Beatrice Chen 2005:239). What made possible the reign of fear during the Cultural Revolution also allowed Tangshan’s recovery process to develop eﬃciently.
The Communist regime with the authority of Mao’s political leadership supported Chinese post disaster management (Beatrice Chen 2005:240). It was basically coordinated from the top down. There was no long discussion process to reach a consensus and develop a strategy. This was because relevant parties were mobilized on command. No disobedience was tolerated from below. The central government sent in the People’s Liberation Army as soon as it was informed about the level of the earthquake damage. A number of physicians arrived the next day from Beijing and other cities in Hebei Province. The Communist Party issued a statement requesting all provinces to deliver medical supplies, food, clothing and lights. They demanded that anyone participating in the rescue and recovery mission have his own vehicle and provide his own food.
The central government even coordinated the distribution of aid (Beatrice Chen 2005: 240). The Central Party Committee directed each province as to which supplies it should provide for Tangshan. Inner Mongolia donated 1.8 million Yuan in food, Shanghai delivered 2.4 million Yuan in medication, and Shanxi Province sent thousands of cooking utensils. The eﬃcient communication among Chinese Communist Party members throughout China ensured that the orders were distributed within a day.
Without Mao’s legacy in organizing and mobilizing the masses, disaster relief would have been disordered and slow (Beatrice Chen 2005:240). His supporters in the Party were aware that the Chinese must present a united front if they were to overcome this disaster unassisted. Thus they continued to advance Mao’s doctrine of the ‘mass line’ through ‘education’. Many of the stories that emerged from post-disaster Tangshan were about the strength and selﬂessness of the people (ibid.). In one story, a man went to save the officials of the local Communist Party before he began to look for his wife in the rubble. A mother carted the body of her nineteen year old son to the airﬁeld and asked the doctor, ‘Can my son be saved? If not, I’m going to go save others’. The narratives often referred to the Party as their saviour: people who had been buried for days would declare, ‘Long live the PLA!’ when pulled out of the rubble and would inform everyone that contemplating Mao’s teachings had helped them endure and survive (Beatrice Chen 2005: 41).
Many of the stories present the Tangshan people as almost superhuman (Beatrice Chen 2005:241). They were endowed with such strength and forbearance that they could carry on with their lives unaﬀected by the physical and psychological trauma of a terrible disaster (ibid.). These narratives of heroic resilience were intended to be both inspiring and didactic, instructing the people on how a model Chinese citizen might cope with sudden disaster and underscoring the wisdom and glory of the Maoist way (ibid.). The stories also attempted to cultivate what the Chinese call the ability to ‘eat bitterness’, or withstand great suﬀering stoically. It is a notion that Mao’s political regime believed to be crucial to the sustainability of China as a great nation. The underlying message was that the Chinese could survive this disaster only because they followed Mao’s teachings of self reliance and resilience (idid.).
The Communist regime had the power to control information. Their imposition of particular thought on the population was an easy task. The regime ensured that only approved Party narratives dominated China (Beatrice Chen 2005:242). Moreover, because the government was considered really powerful, when it issued a command, the people felt obliged to follow state directives (ibid.). It is not surprising that the only published personal account of the earthquake at that time was penned by a People’s Liberation Army cadre, Qian Gang, who praised the Maoist regime’s disaster relief (Beatrice Chen 2005:241). ‘When a disaster strikes’, wrote Qian of Communist China:
Help pours in from all over the country. The people unite, get organized and conquer nature. Our socialist system has fully demonstrated its superiority. The people in the disaster area put it well: “The new and the old societies are as diﬀerent as day and night. We cannot ﬁnd enough words to express our gratitude to Chairman Mao and the Communist Party! Earthquakes cannot subdue a heroic people. We’ll keep on working energetically in building socialism.”
Natural disasters in China are not merely natural disasters. From the cultural side particularly from the human and theoretical perspectives, natural disasters in China are regarded as Acts of God. Natural disaster is sent by Heaven. It is a punishment from Heaven. Thus, in Chinese tradition, natural disasters are strongly related to the theory of the Mandate of Heaven. It means that Heaven would revoke the mandate to an emperor by sending natural disasters such as floods, droughts and earthquakes. But, natural disasters also give a chance to an administration of a dynasty to show its political abilities to cope with disasters. Then, when a disaster occurs, the administration will immediately assist the people, nourish and save them. Natural disasters in China have a strong relation with the legitimacy of a regime so it can be explained why the Communist Party is really aware of natural disasters. The Communist regime takes measures immediately to cope with a disaster to maintain its legitimacy. From the theoretical perspective and from the Communist regime’s view, natural disasters are Acts of Nature which the Communists try to tackle.
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