Study of disaster history through national governance

By ZHAN LONG / 10-14-2020 / (Chinese Social Sciences Today)

A painting that illustrates when disaster struck, the government of Tang Dynasty offered food to farmers by interest-free loan to ease the living pressure caused by the disaster. Photo: FILE

In recent years, the study of disaster history has deepened and improved, but with increasingly obvious challenges. Academia mostly pays attention to natural disasters, while man-made disasters and catastrophes caused by both natural and human factors have been ignored. Most research focuses on disaster relief and disaster response, but holistic research from interdisciplinary perspectives has not been formed. These academic approaches not only ignore the fact that disasters are easily spread, volatile, and complex, but also ignore the fact that disasters carry social and political features. In this regard, theoretical perspectives of national governance may be a way to innovate the study of disaster history in China.
Once a disaster occurs, its destructive power and impact will trigger strong political reactions. Throughout the evolving disaster process there is collective participation on the national, social, and individual levels, this can be seen during emergency handling, disaster relief, rehabilitation and post-disaster reconstruction. The joint operation of national governance mechanisms and the power of social governance are found throughout the process. It can be said that disaster governance is a complex political process, which is both the typical embodiment of national governance and a test of the governance abilities. 
For the study of disaster governance history in China, disaster prevention, social relief, system adjustments, information communication, legal guarantees, resource allocation, officer personnel management, public mobilization, and post-disaster reconstruction in each dynasty should be examined in a multi-dimensional way. The purpose is to observe the overall national performance and its actual effect in coping with disasters during different historical periods. In this way, the historical phenomenon that “calamity leads to social chaos and disorder, and social chaos and disorder instead motivates governance and prosperity” can be revealed. 
Examining the complex interactions between national governance and disasters that struck during different dynasties through history, three major issues should be clarified.
The first problem is how to track the evolution of disaster governance through past dynasties. With the research approach of historiography, the dynamic picture of disaster governance within these dynasties and the distinctive features of each dynasty can be quantified. With a series of indices and systems that evaluate governance behaviors of disaster management, the disaster governance ability of each dynasty can be judged. 
The second issue relates to the comprehensive nature of disaster governance systems. Timely and effective national policies are a strong guarantee for effective disaster governance. Throughout past dynasties in China, a centralized political system with supporting social and political organizations gradually formed a comprehensive disaster governance system which covered a variety of sectors including political, social, economic, ecological and cultural governance. This system was the key to consolidating political rule, maintaining social stability, and guaranteeing people’s livelihoods. However, it sometimes exposed the nation’s limited capability to prevent disasters, mobilize emergency responses, offer disaster relief and support post-disaster reconstruction at the time. 
The third issue is the relationship between disaster governance and national governance. Researching the history of disaster governance in China should highlight the role and utility of the state’s action, government power and social forces, and reflect the institutional design, legal guarantees and policy responses to the disaster process. In this way, the great influence of disasters on the ups and downs of the nation and supersedence of dynasties can be interpreted. 
Since ancient times, the idea that “governing a disaster is like governing the country” has existed. This mentality provides an important basis for placing natural and man-made disasters in the context of national governance and re-interpreting the relationship between the two. 
Zhan Long is a professor from the School of History and Culture and Research Center of Yellow River Civilization at Henan University. 
Edite by BAI LE