Science China Earth Sciences

, Volume 58, Issue 8, pp 1427–1439 | Cite as

Transmission of climate change impacts from temperature change to grain harvests, famines and peasant uprisings in the historical China

  • XiuQi Fang
  • Yun Su
  • Jun Yin
  • JingChao Teng
Research Paper


Because of the complexity of social responses to climate change, as well as limitations of proxy data concerning interactions between climate change and human responses, the social impacts of past climate change and associated response mechanisms, thus, require further investigation. To shed light on the transmission of climate change impacts within historical Chinese society, we selected 30-year resolution sequences of temperature anomalies in eastern China and 10-year resolution sequences of grain harvest grades, famine indices, and frequencies of peasant uprisings in China over the past 2000 years. Using a food security perspective, we analyzed the impacts of temperature changes historically transmitted through Chinese production, population, and social subsystems, and differences in transmission characteristics between cold and warm units. Our results were as follows. (1) From 210 BC to 1910 AD, temperature changes in China were significantly positively correlated with grain harvest grades (correlation coefficient, 0.338), and significantly negatively correlated with famine indices, and frequencies of peasant uprisings (correlation coefficients, −0.301 and −0.277, respectively).The correlation coefficients between famine indices and grain harvest grades or frequencies of peasant uprisings were very low. (2) There was a higher proportion of bumper or normal harvests (86.5% of the total decades), more moderate and mild famines (76%), and a lower proportion of peasant uprisings (33.3%) in the 30-year warm units. Conversely, there was a higher proportion of poor or normal harvests (70.7%), a greater proportion of moderate and severe famines (77.6%), and more peasant uprisings (51.7%) in the 30-year cold units. (3) Of the 23 main transmission pathways extending from temperature change to the social subsystem, 13 occurred in cold units, of which 7 had an endpoint of peasant uprisings, and 10 occurred in warm units of which 3 had an endpoint of peasant uprisings. The main transmission pathways that were more likely to be associated with the impacts of temperature change were: Cold → poor harvests → severe famines → more uprisings; cold → poor harvests → moderate famines → more uprisings; warm → bumper harvests → mild famines → no uprisings; warm → bumper harvests → moderate harvests → no uprisings; warm → normal harvests → mild famines → no uprisings; and warm → normal harvests → moderate famines → no uprisings. (4) The transmission of the impacts of temperature change was a complex process. Within this process, famine was most prone to being modulated by human society. In the transmission pathways from the production to the social subsystem, there was a stepwise decrease in the occurrence rate of decades that were probably affected by climate change. In all cold units, 10.4% of decades ending in more uprisings were most likely to be associated with the impacts of temperature change. In all warm units, 47.9% of decades ending in no uprisings were most likely to be associated with the impacts of temperature change. This research can contribute a better understanding on the past interaction mechanisms and processes within the human-climate-ecosystem complex, as well as a better response to the impacts of the ongoing climate change.


chain of climate change impacts grain harvests famines peasant uprisings historical Chinese society 


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Copyright information

© Science China Press and Springer-Verlag Berlin Heidelberg 2015

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.School of GeographyBeijing Normal UniversityBeijingChina

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