Famine Relief in Warlord China

A review of Struggling with Famine in Warlord China: Social Networks, Achievements, and Limitations, 1920-21, by Pierre Emery Fuller.

Pierre Fuller’s dissertation, Struggling with Famine in Warlord China, is a rich and detailed study of Chinese relief efforts during the great north China famine of 1920-21, efforts which have received little attention in prior works that focus instead on the more publicized international relief campaign. Fuller draws on county gazetteers, periodicals published by native relief agencies, and Republican newspapers to present “an alternative understanding of disaster response in modern China” (p. 16). He focuses on rural and urban communities in inland north China instead of treaty-port elites, highlights continuities rather than ruptures with late imperial relief practices, and argues that China’s descent into full-blown “warlordism” (p. 5) did not take place until roughly 1925, considerably later than has been assumed. After outlining these “historiographic interventions” (p. 4) in his introduction, Fuller divides his study into six chapters, each of which addresses, from a different angle, the question of why so many fewer people died (500,000) in the 1920-21 famine than might have been expected in light of both the severity of the harvest failures suffered in five northern provinces, and the much larger death tolls (9-13 million and 10 million, respectively), that resulted from the north China drought-famines of 1876-79 and 1928-30.

Chapter 1 first introduces readers to the diverse array of relief groups that responded to the 1920-21 disaster with such alacrity, as well as to the key Chinese publications that covered the disaster, and concludes with a case study of how relief efforts played out in one stricken county. Fuller traces the formation of major Chinese relief organization such as the North China Relief Society and the Buddhist Relief Society, and identifies four other types of native relief mobilization important during the disaster: benevolence halls, syncretic religious groups, native-place organizations, and county, prefectural, and provincial societies. In 1920 formal state stewardship of relief “took a backseat to that carried out by hybrid organs composed of officials, military men, gentry, Buddhist or Christian churchmen, or other members of the public” he finds, but the “surprisingly willing, if weak” state apparatus played an important role in facilitating and subsidizing relief efforts (p. 54).

In Chapter 2 Fuller draws on county gazetteers from famine districts in Zhili and Shanxi to explore the type of relief activities people in rural north China engaged in, and to “demonstrate the limits of the notion of dynastic decline” by proving that communities in north China were “significantly more viable and attentive to social welfare needs than previously recognized” (pp. 70, 21). Taking issue with the emphasis that Lillian M. Li places on state food policy and the dominance of government-sponsored relief in Fighting Famine in North China: State, Market, and Environmental Decline, 1690s-1990s (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2007), Fuller finds that relief works such as soup kitchens “operated without explicit state involvement,” and were often associated with individuals “who were acting privately in their home districts where they were prohibited by law from serving in most official posts” (p. 88).

Chapter 3 offers a detailed snapshot of poor relief in Beijing over a nine-month period in 1920-21. Beijing, posits Fuller, provides a more representative example of poor relief in Chinese urban communities than treaty-port cities that have received greater scholarly attention. Fuller’s examination of the pingtiao (grain-price leveling) centers, soup kitchens, shelters, and distribution of grain, cash, and clothing that helped people survive the 1920-21 famine highlights continuities between late imperial and Republican-era urban poor relief, and leads him to qualify Janet Chen’s argument that the criminalization of poverty and the increasing popularity of workhouses in the early twentieth century marked an important shift in policies towards China’s urban poor (Guilty of Indigence: the Urban Poor in China, 1900-1953, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2012). “The sheer diversity of relief agents and types over the year suggest that the case for a dramatic rupture from traditional forms of charity in the early Republic is overstated,” he writes (p. 143). Chapter 3 also includes an eye-opening discussion of the relief activities of prominent figures in Beijing’s military establishment. General Wang Huaiqing, for instance, the commander of the Beijing gendarmerie, donated $20,000 for the establishment of pingtiao centers in Beijing, opened numerous soup kitchens and shelters for famine refugees, personally handed out relief to them, sent agents to purchase additional rice in south China, secured 10,000 used army uniforms for distribution to the needy, hired artisans to teach trade skills to refugees, and set up five schools for poor children. “These paternalistic acts produce a very different composite picture than one that might be expected of a high-level figure in the country’s military establishment in 1920,” observes Fuller (p. 212).

Chapter 4 follows refugees as they fled the famine zone for places as far flung as large Yangzi-valley cities, the steppes north of the Great Wall, and Manchuria, and examines how this mass migration was made possible. Fuller demonstrates that in 1920, less than two years before they would go to war with each other, Zhang Zuolin, the governor general of the three northeastern provinces (Fengtian, Jilin and Heilongjiang), and Cao Kun, the military governor of Zhili, managed to coordinate and cover the expense of transporting and resettling in the Northeast roughly one million famine refugees. Enormous amounts of grain and relief supplies were also shipped free-of-charge from Manchuria to the famine zone on China’s state rail network. A particularly interesting point is the sacrifice provincial employees in the Northeast were expected to make on behalf of famine refugees. In October 1920 the Fengtian Province Disaster Relief Society announced a policy of docking 5 percent of the monthly salary of all provincial employees, while a relief society in Harbin arranged for staff of all provincial organs to contribute to famine relief by taking pay cuts of 20 percent for three months (pp. 244, 252, 264). Fuller posits that the native-place ties that Zhang Zuolin and many Northeasterners had with famine-stricken Zhili and Shandong, in addition to a possible concern on Zhang’s part that a humanitarian catastrophe in his jurisdiction could provide the Japanese with a pretext for a land-grab (p. 231), help explain the “remarkably smooth transfer of population into the sparsely settled Northeast” (pp. 231, 270).

Having examined in detail the relief activities spearheaded by Chinese actors in 1920, in Chapter 5 Fuller turns his attention to the more publicized second half of the famine, when the Peking United International Famine Relief Committee and other foreign relief groups became heavily involved. The chapter first sketches the broader fiscal and diplomatic context of the disaster by analyzing the cash-strapped Beiyang regime’s efforts to raise customs revenue to pay for relief, and the state-sponsored emigration program that encouraged refugees to resettle near the Russian border in Heilongjiang. Fuller then introduces the activities and assumptions of key international relief committees, mission groups, and the American Red Cross. He takes issue with the assumption that the Red Cross brought new and “modern” ideas to China in 1921 when it highlighted the benefits of work relief. Work relief on China’s rivers, he states, “had long been a key component to flood or famine relief programs” (p. 315). Foreign observers, he finds, were not only ignorant about China’s experience with work relief, but were either unable or unwilling to see the Chinese-led relief efforts going on all around them.

Chapter 6 explores why Chinese reformers as well as foreign observers were so blind to Chinese relief mobilization, and so dismissive of “the Chinese character” in general. Using the writings of missionaries in the field, as well as influential works that Bertrand Russell, Somerset Maugham, and Alexis Leger wrote when they toured China in 1920-21, Fuller argues that the “discursive climate” of the famine era contrasted a “flaccid, torpid, semi-comatose” China that lacked appreciation for the value of human life against an “energetic, dynamic West” with a strong humanitarian impulse (pp. 25, 333, 338). Leading Chinese intellectuals of the May Fourth generation were equally interested in identifying Chinese “character flaws,” Fuller continues, so Chinese as well as foreign reports on the famine published in prominent urban venues tended to contrast Western humanitarian initiative with assumed Chinese callousness and corruption. Modern scholars in both China and the West have relied heavily on such sources, he finds, so the one-sided “Chinese Characteristics” narrative of the 1920-21 famine has proved lamentably long-lived.

Fuller concludes by drawing on work by Prasenjit Duara and Henrietta Harrison to show how a combination of “militarization, political fragmentation, heightened state extractions, civil war, and rural social disintegration” (p. 384) eventually destroyed the reciprocal relationships and local leadership so important to rural communities, and meant that Chinese relief efforts during the 1928-30 famine would prove far less effective than those mobilized eight years earlier. Fuller’s dissertation is an important contribution to famine studies literature in the China field, and will be of interest to scholars focusing on migration, warlord politics, and philanthropy in Republican China as well. It goes a long way toward addressing what has been a problematic gap between influential scholarship on Qing-era famine relief and the recent flurry of publications on the Mao-era Great Leap Famine.

Kathryn Edgerton-Tarpley
San Diego State University
Department of History

Primary Sources

Periodicals published by Chinese relief societies. Most crucially: Jiuzai zhoukan, Qun bao, Yishi bao, and Zhenzai ribao.
Major Republican newspapers (especially papers based in North China). Most crucially: Chenbao, Da gongbao, Jichang ribao (Changchun), Shengjing shibao (Mukden), Shuntian shibao, Shihua, Xiao gongbao, Yuandong bao (Harbin), and Zhongguo minbao.
County gazetteers, most crucially Zhili’s Cang Xianzhi and Wanxian xinzhi.
Records of the Department of State relating to internal affairs of China, 1919-1929, microfilm. Also Foreign Office records, National Archives, Kew Gardens, London.
Sidney Gamble’s social survey. Peking: a Social Survey: Conducted under the Auspices of the Princeton University Center in China and the Peking Young Men’s Christian Association. New York: George H. Doran, 1921.

Dissertation Information

University of California, Irvine. 2011. 415 pp. Primary Advisors: Kenneth Pomeranz and Jeffrey Wasserstrom.

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