'Barren soil, fertile minds': north China famine and visions of the 'callous Chinese' Circa 1920

Pierre Fuller

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5 Citations (Scopus)


Famine threatened the lives of over twenty million residents of north China in 1920, prompting a massive, and ultimately successful, relief effort. Scholarship on the famine has largely credited China's foreign and coastal, cosmopolitan Chinese circles with this humanitarian feat at the expense of what was in fact a surprisingly effective Chinese state apparatus that year, as well as local relief operations by many famine-stricken communities themselves. This study captures a very specific moment of US and European cultural production on 'China' and 'the Chinese' in which the great north China famine of 1920-1 occurred, to argue that our current understanding of Chinese relief culture circa 1920 remains largely a product of foreign characterization (by the celebrated likes of Somerset Maugham and Bertrand Russell) and political commentary by reformist Chinese during a period of post-May Fourth cultural turmoil. If we hold the output of these writers up to alternative original sources on events that year, it becomes clear that the historiography on China's greatest humanitarian crisis of the first quarter of the twentieth century remains insufficiently insulated from the raw discursive climate in which the crisis unfolded.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)453-472
Number of pages20
JournalInternational History Review
Issue number3
Publication statusPublished - 1 Sept 2011


  • 'national characteristics'
  • China
  • Famine
  • Humanitarianism
  • Missionaries

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