Cities under Siege: Flood in 1931 and Environmental Challenges of Chinese Urban Modernization


  • Zhiguo Ye Seattle Pacific University



The paper explores the connection between China’s urban modernization and the resulted environmental vulnerabilities revealed in the 1931 flood. The flood in 1931 is believed to be the deadliest disaster in 20th century China with one-fourth of China’s population affected. The paper challenges the conventional view that the flood was an “unavoidable” natural disaster mainly caused by bad weather conditions (namely heavy rain, a historic high water level, and low-lying ground of the Jianghan plain). The explanation does not address why key urban centers along the Yangzi appeared unusually vulnerable and suffered great loss in the flood of 1931. 

The paper takes the worst affected urban region in 1931—Wuchang, Hankou and Hanyang as focus of the study. Flood prevention was historically important to the three riverine cities. In traditional China the walled cities with designed hydraulic schemes often provided shelters for people from rural hinterland during the time of flooding. However the three cities were only found defenseless in 1931 after experiencing the rapid urban modernization since the late 19th century. The study specifically examines the urban reconstruction efforts made in the Qing and the Republic and their impacts on the urban flood protection prior to 1931. It explores how the shifting focus of the government from agriculture to trade prioritized urban developmental pattern incompatible with the traditional water-control design. For instance, the rapid urban sprawl since the late Qing caused the reclamation of wetlands and lakes outside city walls preserved as high-water discharge zone. The dismantling of the flood-resistant city walls, locks and moat seriously weakened the traditional urban drains system. In addition, the birth of “the developmental state” in the Republic era marked a new chapter of the Chinese centralized urban modernization with technocratic confidence and industrial ambition. After 1927 the urban social reform reflected a drastic rupture in the government’s policy and societal practice in water control. The concentration of power on the revolutionary government in the cities resulted in the decline of local organizations used to assume water control responsibility at the community level. They were replaced by centrally appointed modernist urban planners who were often ignorant about local condition and traditional wisdom and practice of water control.


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How to Cite

Ye, Z. (2016). Cities under Siege: Flood in 1931 and Environmental Challenges of Chinese Urban Modernization. International Planning History Society Proceedings, 17(2).