Tears from Iron: Cultural Responses to Famine in Nineteenth-Century China

Tears from Iron: Cultural Responses to Famine in Nineteenth-Century China

Tears from Iron: Cultural Responses to Famine in Nineteenth-Century China

Tears from Iron: Cultural Responses to Famine in Nineteenth-Century China

Synopsis

This multi-layered history of a horrific famine that took place in late-nineteenth-century China focuses on cultural responses to trauma. The massive drought/famine that killed at least ten million people in north China during the late 1870s remains one of China's most severe disasters and provides a vivid window through which to study the social side of a nation's tragedy. Kathryn Edgerton-Tarpley's original approach explores an array of new source materials, including songs, poems, stele inscriptions, folklore, and oral accounts of the famine from Shanxi Province, its epicenter. She juxtaposes these narratives with central government, treaty-port, and foreign debates over the meaning of the events and shows how the famine, which occurred during a period of deepening national crisis, elicited widely divergent reactions from different levels of Chinese society.

Excerpt

Most readers of this book will know the famine that devastated China during the Great Leap Forward (1959–61) as the greatest of all time. Not all will know that the North China famine of 1876–79 (known in China at the time and for long afterward as the Incredible Famine) that is the subject of this book may have been the second greatest ever. Curiously, estimates of excess mortality in 1959–61 (from 15 million to over 30 million), range much more widely than those in 1876–79—when between 9.5 million and 13 million are supposed to have died. Specialist estimates of mortality during the Great Leap Forward famine have tended to fall over time, and a figure of 15 to 18 million now seems the most plausible. On that reckoning, the relative human cost of the earlier famine was considerably greater, given that China’s population was 650 million in the late 1950s but little more than half that (365 million) on the eve of the Incredible Famine. Thus the claim by American socialist

1. This estimate, originally suggested by the China Famine Relief Fund, has been widely recycled since. See, e.g., R. H. Tawney, Land and Labour in China (London: G. Allen and Unwin, 1932), 76; Lillian Li, “Introduction: Food, Famine, and the Chinese State,” Journal of Asian Studies, 41(4), August 1982, 687; Mike Davis, Late Victorian Holocausts (London: Verso, 2001), 113.

2. Daniel Houser, Barbara Sands, and Erte Xiao, “Three Parts Natural, Seven Parts Man-made: Bayesian Analysis of China’s Great Leap Forward Demographic Disaster,” www.sas.upenn.edu/~exiao/china.pdf, downloaded 12 October 2006; C. Ó Gráda, “Making Famine History,” Journal of Economic Literature, XLV(1) March 2007, 5–38. This figure does not include “missing” or delayed births.

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