Dr. Christopher K. Tong, Assistant Professor in the Department of Modern Languages, Linguistics & Intercultural Communication (MLLI) and affiliate faculty in the Asian Studies Program, is one of eleven recipients of the China Studies Early Career Fellowship from the American Council of Learned Societies (ACLS) and the Henry Luce Foundation in 2021. His project, Torrents of Revolution: Representation and Environmental Disasters in Early 20th-Century China, analyzes how modern Chinese narratives about environmental disasters shift along the axis of truth-telling versus partisanship. As the Dust Bowl drove millions of Americans out of the Great Plains in the 1930s, China saw some of the worst environmental disasters, especially floods, in its history. Death tolls from environmental disasters in Republican China are estimated to be as high as 21 million. However, these events are difficult to narrate due to their politicized nature. As the China historian Lillian M. Li observes, "The first half of the twentieth century remains the most difficult challenge for historians, with both facts and interpretation in contention." As a work of textual analysis, political theory, and environmental history, Dr. Tong's project takes on the challenge in two ways: by contributing rare archival materials to the existing body of evidence, and by analyzing the dynamics between truth-telling and partisanship in extant narratives. Dr. Tong draws on research conducted in Nanjing and Wuhan in the People's Republic of China, where he collected rare, first-person accounts of floods along the Yellow and Yangzi Rivers from national and provincial repositories of government documents. He argues that these archival materials, along with literary and historical narratives, shape the meaning of environmental disasters by emphasizing a spectrum of political rhetorics and practices. Whereas Mainland Chinese scholarship tends to interpret environmental disasters as narratives of political revolution, Dr. Tong shows how self-organized collective action by survivors is not limited to revolution only, but also includes a broad range of civic activities providing relief to individuals and communities. His project thereby fills an important gap in our empirical knowledge of these floods and Chinese history, more broadly. In addition to the fields of modern Chinese literature and history, this project engages larger theoretical debates about political revolutions and democratic state-building.
Posted: August 17, 2021, 1:38 PM