Research Project


The Ethological Theodicy of Locust Infestation in Early Modern China

Prof. Dr. David A. Bello

At its current stage, my project now includes a consideration of the role of past experience in attempts to account for what might be called “definite uncertainties” as exhibited in aspects of the environmental history of East Asia’s early modern and modern periods. In early modern Qing Dynasty China locust infestations were recognized as inevitable, but could not be precisely predicted as to time, location, scale and frequency. Qing society responded to the unpredictable elements of these recurring disasters by resorting to an examination of the past in order to establish a pattern of predictability. Locust control manuals were published containing advice on how to anticipate and deal with potential infestations based on responses to previous infestations contained both in the historical record, which in some cases stretched back centuries, as well as in the immediate past and present, in the form of official reports, especially those on weather patterns like drought and flood.
The most important development, arising from my IKGF research is the analytical insight that Chen’s locust control manual, which is the focus of my project, does not really depict “control” of plants and soil (as in agriculture), but a conversion of these sources of diversity into a “dead certain” monoculture that would not require comparable maintenance or vigilance. This monoculture is finally realized not primarily through the construction of an intensively cultivated space, but also through “scorched earth” tactics that unselectively eliminate the habitat for locusts and for the plants on which they depend to render the soil surrounding cultivated spaces barren. The textual authorities Chen cites from across the whole of China’s dynastic period provide the requisite “distance from nature” for Chen’s imaginative presentation of an almost metaphysical dynastic certainty that cannot be disturbed by nature if humans act to control it via its substantial eradication. It is unclear, but very unlikely whether Chen’s prescriptions were fully realized anywhere in the Qing empire. However, his ability to conceptualize and publicly advocate such extreme measures are a testament to the power of locusts, whose behaviors evoked his response.

back to "Techniques and Practices" Overview