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

Kathryn Edgerton-Tarpley
With a Foreword by Cormac Ó Gráda
Copyright Date: 2008
Edition: 1
Pages: 360
https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.1525/j.ctt1pnzzs
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  • Book Info
    Tears from Iron
    Book Description:

    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.

    eISBN: 978-0-520-93422-1
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. List of Illustrations
    (pp. vii-viii)
  4. Explanation of Commonly Used Chinese Terms
    (pp. ix-xii)
  5. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xiii-xvi)
  6. Foreword
    (pp. xvii-xxiv)
    Cormac Ó Gráda

    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 thesecondgreatest 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...

  7. Introduction
    (pp. 1-12)

    Between 1876 and 1879, the most lethal drought-famine in imperial China’s long history of famines and disasters struck the five northern provinces of Shanxi, Henan, Shandong, Zhili, and Shaanxi. The drought in the Yellow River basin began in 1876 and worsened dramatically with the almost total failure of rain in 1877. By the time the rains returned late in 1878, 9 to 13 million of the affected area’s population of about 108 million people had perished.¹ In Shanxi Province, the epicenter of the famine, mountainous terrain and transportation difficulties made relief work especially difficult. Over a third of the province’s...

  8. PART I Setting the Scene

    • CHAPTER 1 Shanxi, Greater China, and the Famine
      (pp. 15-41)

      It was in Shanxi Province that the Incredible Famine threw its longest shadow. The province lost between one-third and one-half of its prefamine population of between fifteen and seventeen million people to starvation, disease, and flight. Even today elderly villagers recall terrifying stories of how starving family members killed and ate one another during the disaster. Before the famine struck, however, Shanxi had been thriving. As one of the few parts of China not severely affected by one of the three gigantic mid-nineteenth-century rebellions, in the early 1870s the province was home to the lucrative Hedong saltworks, an impressive banking...

    • CHAPTER 2 Experiencing the Famine: The Hierarchy of Suffering in a Famine Song from Xiezhou
      (pp. 42-66)

      Two decades after the North China Famine, an educated man from Xie Department in southern Shanxi wrote a vivid account of the disaster titledHuangnian ge(Song of the famine years).This man, whose pen name was Liu Xing, experienced the famine firsthand and felt compelled to record the events of those years in detail so that later generations would not forget the horror of Guangxu 3. Through Liu Xing’s famine song and other local sources, one may examine the famine as experienced by literate survivors who daily witnessed the famine’s effects for three years. AlthoughHuangnian geis a personal...

  9. PART II Praise and Blame:: Interpretive Frameworks of Famine Causation

    • CHAPTER 3 The Wrath of Heaven versus Human Greed
      (pp. 71-89)

      Local literati who struggled to understand why the Incredible Famine had befallen Shanxi expressed a set of concerns different from those put forth in official memorials, treaty-port newspapers, or missionary journals. Their discussions of the human and cosmic forces that interacted to bring about the famine’s horrors demonstrate the complexity of late-Qing understandings of famine causation. During and after the famine, a key concern among authors of county gazetteers and local famine songs was providing a cosmic and moralistic framework and defining the famine’s heroes and villains.

      Liu Xing’s narrative is repeatedly interrupted by his struggles to explain why disaster...

    • CHAPTER 4 Qing Officialdom and the Politics of Famine
      (pp. 90-113)

      During the North China Famine the Qing court and officialdom repeatedly proclaimed the necessity of rescuing famine victims regardless of cost, thus upholding the faith that local observers had in the Qing government’s good intentions. In practice if not in rhetoric, however, Qing officials were deeply divided over the importance of famine relief relative to other crises faced by the embattled state. In the capital the famine intensified an ongoing debate about whether to strengthen China by using Western military and transport technology. High-level officials stationed in the famine-stricken northern provinces, on the other hand, focused less on the benefits...

    • CHAPTER 5 Views from the Outside: Science, Railroads, and Laissez-Faire Economics
      (pp. 114-130)

      Western observers also witnessed the devastation in North China firsthand. Vivid descriptions of the famine written by Anglo-American missionary relief workers stationed in Shanxi and other stricken provinces were published in the Shanghai-basedNorth China Heraldas well as in missionary journals in England and the United States.¹ Unlike earlier famines in China, the Incredible Famine was thus transformed from a wholly Chinese concern to an internationally recognized disaster that motivated people from Europe, North America, and several countries

      Western observers who sought to make sense of the disaster were just as quick as local survivors and Qingliu spokesmen to...

    • CHAPTER 6 Hybrid Voices: The Famine and Jiangnan Activism
      (pp. 131-156)

      Among all the observers of the Incredible Famine, it was Chinese philanthropists and journalists in Shanghai and other cities in the wealthy Jiangnan region whose perspectives on the disaster were most significantly shaped by cross-cultural conversation. Local observers in Shanxi made no mention of missionary relief efforts or the foreign presence in China in their discussions of the disaster. Relying on Confucian definitions of moral and immoral behavior, they viewed imperial benevolence and filiality, chasteness, and thrift rather than railroads or free trade as the most effective guards against famine. By the 1870s, Qing officials in the capital could no...

  10. PART III Icons of Starvation:: Images, Myths, and Illusions

    • [PART III Introduction]
      (pp. 157-160)

      Individuals and social groups struggled to describe the unspeakable misery of the Incredible Famine and to grasp why such a terrible disaster had befallen the northern provinces. Haunting images that Chinese observers repeatedly selected to describe and symbolize the horror of mass starvation include the starving woman sold into prostitution by her desperate family, the woman who sells herself in order to survive, and the famished person who kills and devours a family member. These “icons of starvation” were employed for diverse purposes by Chinese observers from different levels of Qing society, as well as by twentieth-century Chinese educators who...

    • CHAPTER 7 Family and Gender in Famine
      (pp. 161-188)

      The image of the starving young woman in Liang Peicai’s “Essay on Grain” epitomizes the dangers, fears, and the pathos brought by famine.¹ The woman by the roadside cries out to readers as well as to passing gentlemen. Her desperation brings the vast and horrible social phenomenon of famine into bold relief and powerfully symbolizes the destructive effect the famine had on familial and social norms in Shanxi and other drought-stricken northern provinces.²

      Observers of the North China Famine were not unique in selecting images of women to represent the horror of mass starvation. In her work on literary representations...

    • CHAPTER 8 The “Feminization of Famine” and the Feminization of Nationalism
      (pp. 189-210)

      During the Incredible Famine not only local literati in Shanxi but also Chinese journalists and philanthropists in treaty-port Shanghai engaged in what Margaret Kelleher calls a “feminization of famine,” or “the representation of famine and its effects through images of women.”¹ While the sale of starving women was an important trope in all levels of famine-related sources, the nature of the crisis that Chinese observers tried to represent by using female icons of starvation varied dramatically. Provincial officials and local-level observers of the catastrophe in North China viewed the famine as yet another challenge to the Qing Dynasty and, most...

    • CHAPTER 9 Eating Culture: Cannibalism and the Semiotics of Starvation, 1870–2001
      (pp. 211-234)

      All levels of famine writings from the Incredible Famine abound with images of famine-related cannibalism as well as images of suffering women. The cannibalistic methods of punishment recorded by Liu Xing in the terrifying passage cited above are unique to his account, as is his claim to have witnessed instances of intrafamilial cannibalism with his own eyes.¹ The emotional tone, however, as well as several of the specific images in his depiction, are common to many of the more detailed local descriptions of cannibalism during the famine. The claim that human flesh was sold in shops and markets during the...

  11. Epilogue: New Tears for New Times: The Famine Revisited
    (pp. 235-244)

    The Incredible Famine drew tears from all audiences, from local observers in late-Qing Shanxi to high officials in Beijing, philanthropists in the Jiangnan region, nineteenth-century European and American visitors, and twentieth-century Chinese officials, villagers, teachers, and schoolchildren faced with yet another severe famine. As I have shown, the meaning of the famine, as well as the images used to capture its horror, varied tremendously according to the observer. In contemporary Shanxi elderly villagers continue to associate the famine with tales of intrafamilial cannibalism and, to a lesser degree, the sale of women. In the central-Shanxi city of Pingyao, on the...

  12. Glossary of Chinese Characters
    (pp. 245-250)
  13. Notes
    (pp. 251-300)
  14. Bibliography
    (pp. 301-318)
  15. Index
    (pp. 319-332)
  16. Back Matter
    (pp. 333-333)