Writing Disaster: A Chinese Earthquake and the Pitfalls of Historical Investigation

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Abstract

Gansu was an especially remote section of China for an earthquake to strike and 1920 a particularly chaotic time in the country’s history; consequently, one of the deadliest earthquakes of the twentieth century remains hardly known. In this recounting of his search for materials on the Haiyuan earthquake of December 1920, the author discusses the challenges and risks of piecing together a major event with only fragmentary evidence. When comparing reports produced in the wake of the disaster it became clear that reformist ‘New Culture movement’ intellectuals in Beijing sought to cut from the record local military and gentry relief efforts described in eye witness accounts from Gansu. The New Culture movement, bent on casting Chinese governance at the time as inept and morally bankrupt, was soon coopted by the Nationalist and Communist parties and shaped official versions of China’s past, including understandings of the 1920 quake. What emerges is a cautionary tale of how the historical record itself is formed, in this case in service of revolutionary goals.

Bibliographical metadata

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)201-217
Number of pages16
JournalHistory Workshop Journal
Volume80
DOIs
Publication statusPublished - Oct 2015

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