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Floods and droughts in world history

May 28, 2013

I’m back from a few days in what the Chinese call a “natural village” just outside Beijing, where I participated in an international workshop on the theme “Disasters wet and dry: Rivers, floods, and droughts in world history“, organized by Renmin University of China in Beijing and the omnipresent Rachel Carson Center in Munich. The organizers – mainly Donald Worster, Christof Mauch, Xia Mingfang, and in particular Hou Shen (though she is younger, and in China this means she must not be first on the list!) – had done a great job in bringing in excellent scholars from all continents to present their stories, often impressive in their empirical depth, of water-related disasters in different corners of the globe.

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The topic was perfectly chosen to enable intellectual interaction between Western and Chinese researchers. I was impressed by what the Chinese are actually doing in this field, in terms of archive- and interview-based studies both of concrete disaster experiences and of more long durée-style accounts of, for example, the Yellow River from an environmental history point of view. But there are also a number of Western – mainly British and North American – historians who master Chinese as a language and have used it to provide their own accounts of the same topics. My own favourite among these were Kathryn Edgerton-Tapley’s dramatic story of how in 1938, i.e. during the war between China and Japan, a major dike on the Yellow River was deliberately destroyed and the whole river changed its course, the result being hundreds of thousands of people falling vicitim to both floods and droughts.

Striking was also the presence of Western historians who actually study waters far away from their home, such as Nicholas Breyfogle’s research on Lake Baikal and the Angara River in Russia, Bradley Skopyk’s study of water in colonial Mexico, Steven Serels’s post-doc project on Sudan, and Dale Stahl’s research on disaster management in Baghdad in the Interwar period.

But there is still a linguistic and cultural divide between Western and Chinese historians. Some of the most interesting Chinese conference papers were available in English only in the form of a translated abstract, and during the conference simultaneous translation was partly organized, though mainly from Chinese into English only. English native speakers, this is my impression, often are not at all aware of the difficulty with which foreigners – not only Chinese! – listen to what is being said. Donald Worster eagearly encouraged the Chinese conference participants to become more active in the discussion,  but apart from a few US-based Chinese scholars, they still tended to remain silent. The will is already there, but more interaction between our respective communities will certainly be needed to bridge the divide.

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