Disasters — Acts of Heaven? Official Records of Disasters in the Draft History of Qing

Oliver Corff

Disasters — Acts of Heaven?
Official Records of Disasters in the Draft History of Qing

(62nd Meeting Friedensau, 2019)

The Great Lisbon Earthquake of 1755 was one of the deadliest earthquakes in history. Accompanied by fire and a tsunami, it almost totally destroyed the capital of the Kingdom of Portugal. The disaster caused a major debate among philosophers whether it could be interpreted as a manifestation of evil permitted by God (Theodicy by Gottfried Leibniz) or whether it should be understood to solely have natural causes, a view upheld by Immanuel Kant. The dispute between a religious interpretation of a disaster and its rational interpretation based on the study of science can be seen as fundamental to how state and society deal with disasters.

Earthquakes with a death toll of comparable magnitude occurred also in China during the Qing dynasty, like the Kangding-Luding earthquake of 1786. In Chinese historical records, e.g. the Draft History of Qing, there are meticulous records of every notable natural disaster, like earthquakes, storms, locust plagues etc. The records are terse and do not offer any information beyond date, place and nature of disaster. Yet, the systematic collection of thousands of events in the Draft History of Qing shows that a detailed list of events can be interpreted as the first stage of analysis even though the response of the state is far from clear.

In China, the question of whether disasters should be interpreted as having natural or supernatural causes continued into the early 20th century when the Draft History of Qing was compiled.

This paper presents a statistical survey of all records of disasters in the Draft History of Qing, together with a reflection on the motivation and perceived world outlook behind the collection of records.