Famine relief, public order, and revolts: interaction between government and refugees as a result of drought/flood during 1790–1911 in the North China Plain


As a direct result of climate change and extreme weather events, refugee migration has attracted worldwide concern. In this study, we select the North China Plain (NCP) as the case area, where the capital (Beijing) is located during the late Qing dynasty (1790–1911). Based on records of porridge charity, public order (inside Beijing), and revolt events (outside Beijing) in ancient official documents, the interaction between behavior of refugees and the governmental management after floods and droughts is analyzed. The main conclusions can be summarized as follows. (1) Flood/drought has become an important triggering factor of refugee migration during 1790–1911 besides the social factors (e.g., man-land contradiction, fiscal crisis). (2) A negative interaction has existed between the government and refugees throughout the late nineteenth century, which leads to social disorder in the mid-1890s in Beijing and large-scale revolt (the Boxers Movement) in 1900 in the NCP. (3) The negative interaction has been finally ended by the adjustment of migration policy at the beginning of the twentieth century, which officially permits the refugees from the NCP to emigrate to Manchuria and Mongolia outside the Great Wall. The historical case study may provide valuable lessons for the successful adaptation of human societies to future similar occurrences, and will enhance our understanding of the interactions between climate change and social vulnerability.

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Supported by National Natural Science Foundation of China (Grant No. 41501207, 41771572, 41701219).

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Correspondence to Lingbo Xiao.

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Editor: Robbert Biesbroek.

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Xiao, L., Fang, X. & Zhao, W. Famine relief, public order, and revolts: interaction between government and refugees as a result of drought/flood during 1790–1911 in the North China Plain. Reg Environ Change 18, 1721–1730 (2018). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10113-018-1298-6

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  • Flood/drought
  • Refugee migration
  • Governance mechanisms
  • Late Qing dynasty (1790–1911)
  • North China Plain