‘Climate’ Wars in China?: A Historical Reflection to Predict Future Outcomes

This article employs a historiographical methodology to examine the role of the climate in so far as dynastic shifts in China were concerned write Dushyant Kishan Kaul.

  • Dushyant Kishan Kaul


This article seeks to argue that the trajectory seen in China is reflective of the dominant role that the climate played in the regime shifts witnessed there. Having said that, it recognizes the limitations of attributing a decisive role to climatic variations. Taking the peculiar context into account, it suggests a careful appraisal of the extent of this role, given how the same conditions did not yield the same results in other areas.

The Little Ice Age is used to refer to a period of extreme cooling (15th century till the end of the 19th century) before the onset of warmer climates. In China, cooler and warmer periods within this Age were observed. Precipitation patterns showed variability, with periods of both high and low rainfall, leading to floods and droughts respectively.1 The moot question is the social impact of these phenomena on the dynastic changes that took place, during the course of this ‘general crisis’.2

Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie does not attribute a large role to the climate.3 However, Geoffrey Parker, in his historiography, examines how societies adapted to the various calamities of the time.4 While Ladurie wanted to focus on the ‘human history of climate’, Parker argued against “painting bull’s-eyes around bullet holes” and links those upheavals mostly to the climate. In other words, he is against ignoring the unique climatic conditions of that period, despite the presence of other contingent factors.5

Based on empirical observations of a relatively cool period, this article seeks to bridge the gap between ‘climate in history’6 and ‘history in climate’7 (as proposed by Malm) when it considers the bio-physical impact of this period. The significant role of the climate has once again attained relevance (without getting entrapped in climate determinism), given the gargantuan impact of abiotic variables on the socio-economic developments. In that era, agriculture was crucial for economic sustenance, and was greatly impacted with these variations.

1. John F. Richards, Climate and Early Modern World Environmental History in The Unending Frontier: An Environmental History of the Early Modern World, (University of California Press, 2003), 58-9, 76-8
2. William Atwell, ‘A Seventeenth-Century ‘General Crisis’ in East Asia?’, (1990) 24(4) Modern Asian Studies 661-682
3. It is averred that Ladurie was one of the earliest and few historians to even engage with the climate-society nexus. (see Mike Hulme, ‘Reducing the Future to Climate: A Story of Climate Determinism and Reductionism’, Kilma (2011) 26(1) Osiris 256
4. Geoffrey Parker, Prologue: Did Someone Say Climate Change in Global Crisis: War, Climate Change and Catastrophe in the Seventeenth Century, (Yale University Press, 2013) xv-xviii
5. Geoffrey Parker, ‘Crisis and Catastrophe: The Global Crisis of the Seventeenth Century Reconsidered’, (2008) 113(4) The American Historical Review 1073,1077
6. Dipesh Chakrabarty, ‘The Climate of History; Four Theses’, (2009) 35(2) Critical Inquiry 197-222
7. Andreas Malm, Fossil Capital: the rise of steam power and the roots of global warming, (London; New York: Verso, 2016) 37-57

This approach is criticized by those who argue that human interactions were not shaped by the climate. Despite the significant flashpoints in the history of climate change, these were mere coincidences. If at all, the role of the climate should be looked at in the context of the society.8

It would be ideal to see read these two theories in conjunction. We can reconcile these two seemingly incongruous strands by seeing how the climate certainly shaped human life, and with the latter playing an equally important role in influencing future climatic events. A holistic understanding of this relationship in cumulation is the ideal balance.

Shift in Regimes

Environmental history in China has been gathered using narratives9 and regional studies, since examining a pattern of events took local characteristics and niches into account.10 Maximum number of revolts, uprisings and wars took place during this period, most notably the Ming to Qing shift (the empires from the thirteenth till the twentieth century ruled over “complex multi-ethnic identities”11).12

While reforms and measures were initiated by the feudalistic Ming empire, it was criticized as being reactionary, with the direct and centralized state apparatus (with no self-regulation) being plagued with corruption. Despite their overthrow, the Qing found it harder to contain the empire due to resistant elements that restored earlier rule.13

8. Sam White, Chapter 22: Climate Change in Global Environmental History (In J.R. McNeill and E.S. Mauldin (eds), A Companion to Global Environmental History) (Oxford, Wiley-Blackwell, 2012) 394-410
9. Qing Pei and Philippe Foret, ‘Source Note: Introduction to the Climate Records of Imperial China’, (2018) 23 Environmental History, 866-9. They included official and non-official records. The former comprised of government-released records, while the latter included lore based on oral history that the government did not endorse. In describing patterns, the veracity of soil moisture measurements in the Qing dynasty is questioned due to ineluctable biases and influences. Inconsistencies would be prevalent in all annals (primary sources in particular) if we were to analyze them today, given the different interpretation and review processes when compared to days of yore.
10. BaoMaohong, ‘Environmental History in China’, (2004) 10(4) Environment and History 488-9
11. Hugh R. Clark, ‘What’s the Matter with China? A Critique of Teleological History’, (2018) 77(2) The Journal of Asian History 303,308
12. Parker (n 5) 1053-6
13. ShenDingping, ‘Review of Cambridge History of China, Volume 7: The Ming Dynasty, 1386-1644, Part 1’, (2000) 43 Society for Ming Studies 57-76

The Ming dynasty restricted its style of governance to old ways and means.14 Extensive attention was placed in building military strengthening in the form of garrisons in military towns along the Great Wall. This led to development in the region through education and health infrastructure. With the Qing takeover, these towns and villages initially remained important nodal points of transport due to this bustling market hub. Even for the Qing dynasty, the fortified camps were ultimately abandoned due to a suffering economy and the eventual loss of power.15 Nonetheless, there were positives in this takeover with the advent of colonialism. Inter-cropping and crop rotation were popular trends during the Ming rule, which were consequently developed by the succeeding Qing dynasty.16 With a focus on grains and legumes, there was full use and maintenance of land in this form of intensive farming.17

Climate Change: The Foremost Catalyst

While both these empires had their peaks and troughs, the role of the climate in these events has to be underscored.

Climate fluctuations did affect crop cultivation. Lower elevation, a truncated growing season and the inability of certain grains to withstand cooler temperatures led to a shrinkage in the total yield of food supply. This reduction in fecundity levels had tangible human impacts. Evidence of cold springs leading to delayed rice harvests18, with farmers in the regions of Guangxi and Guangdong planting a single set of rice crop, instead of the double that they usually planted.19 Cold weather brought sharp vicissitudes in fortune in the north. In contrast, in the south wheat cultivation became possible despite the inability to grow rice in. Double cropping with intensive cultivation of economic crops helped the economy. It even helped surplus labor from farming engage in developing the handicrafts industry.20

The particular effect of the moisture gradient on vegetation and the types of trees was noteworthy. It influenced the temperature increase as one moved from the north to south (from coniferous forests to tropic rainforests). This, in turn, led to a large portion of vegetation being converted into arable land. Overall, the warming was conducive for agricultural growth due to the range of crops that could be planted on those swathes of arable land.21 This was testament to the fallacy in the attempted climate-vegetation cover linkage.

14. Kwangmin Kim, ‘Timothy Brook, The Troubled Empire: China in the Yuan and Ming dynasties’, (2011) 36(3) Social History 383-4
15. Zhang Ping, ‘Rise and Fall: Deciphering Urban Sites and their Environment in Overlapping Agrarian/Pastoral Regions – Based on Examination of the Border Fortified Camps along the Yansui Section of the Great Wall during the Ming Dynasty’, (2010) 31(3) Social Sciences in China 90-8
16. However, peasants could not get a good price on cash crops due to a lack of debt-clearance owing to the collapse of the silver trade. This led to increased banditry and other crime. To handle this uncontrollable rebellion, administrators even cut deals with bandits and allowed them to operate.
17. Zitong Gong et al., ‘Classical Farming Systems of China’, (2008) 3(1) Journal of Crop Production 16-8
18. At times, spring freezes, and even snow, killed the rice crop (Richards (n 1) 79)
19. Richards (n 1) 79. Also see Harry F. Lee, ‘Measuring the effect of climate change on wars in history’, (2018) 35(2) Asian Geographer 128
20. Ts’ui-jung Liu, ‘A Retrospection of Climate Changes and their Impacts on Chinese History’, (2013) Nature, Environment and Culture in East Asia, Leiden: Brill 22
21. Wang Futang and Zhao Zong-ci, ‘Impact of Climate Change on Natural Vegetation in China and its Implication for Agriculture’, (1995) 22(4-5) Journal of Biogeography 661

Focusing on this climate-population binary, Galloway shows how mortality rates increased due to starvation and increased susceptibility to contagions (by a reduction in nutrition levels) induced by increased regional migrations in search of food. Low harvests impacted society directly, with increased birth-control measures and abortion. This continued deficiency in productivity also led to a decrease in marriages.22

With the decline in agricultural output (approximated at a decrease of 10-25% between 1840-189023 [this is worth mentioning despite being outside the ‘Little Ice Age’ period]) from the Qing takeover, there was a demographic loss in the form of a decline in the number of able-bodied males and inhabited settlements due to the killings and exterminations.24 The famines woke the Qing dynasty out of its slumber and reliance on the occult (based on Confucian beliefs), steering them into science and technology-based action to address the disaster.25

There were intermittent floods and droughts26 in this period of fluctuations.27 In this backdrop, the period concurred with a major regime change. These ravages generated starvation and hunger, which incited the peasant rebellion. Nomadic invasion by the Manchus led to the collapse of the Ming dynasty and kickstarting the rule of its successor, the Qing dynasty. In fact, even the warm spells in this period were only relative and were cooler than regular periods. While the rise in grain prices was due to population explosion over a long period, damage to crops was a significant reason for the short-term price rise.28 The fall in grain prices was mainly due to the climate fluctuations, although other factors (such as technological levels, social stability, government policies and commercialization levels) also contributed. In addition to the power-tussle between warring regimes, nomadic tribes brought in communicable diseases, fueling conflict among the populace. The epidemic levels (reaching almost 58% of all epidemics in the 669-years recorded) due to increasing population density and mobility, along with increased human interactions.29 Lastly, there was the added problem of locusts, who multiplied in warm-winter seasons when lakes, after heavy rainfall, dried up.30

22. Patrick R. Galloway, ‘Long-Term Fluctuations in Climate and Population in the Pre-Industrial Era’, (1986) 12(1) Population and Development Review 9-13
23. Lee (n 19) 128
24. Parker (n 5) 1059
25. Sabine Dabringhaus, ‘Perspectives on the Environmental History of China’, (2018) 2 Journal of Chinese History, 289
26. The years of 1640 and 1641 were recorded as the driest years in five centuries. It even resulted in the drying up of the Grand Canal, because of which trade came to a halt as transport was not possible (see Parker (n 5) 1069). Also see Lee (n 19) 131
27. Jiacheng Zhang and Thomas J. Crowley, ‘Historical Climate Records in China and Reconstruction of Past Climates’, (1989) 2(8) Journal of Climate 842, 848
28. Bret Hinsch, ‘Climate Change and History in China’, (1988) 22(2) Journal of Asian History 155-7
29. Liu (n 20) 22-6
30. Ge Yu et al., ‘Impact of Climate Change on Historical Locus Outbreaks in China’, (2009) 114(D-18) Journal of Geophysical Research Atmospheres 2, 8-9

In an agriculture-heavy economy, the diminished economic surplus due to low production (almost a 50% dip between 1604 and 1684) affected all aspects of Chinese society. In spite of the presence of other factors, the impact of climate-triggered phenomena would be impossible to ignore, given the primitive technology in traditional societies. An example of this would be the devastating impact of the southern move of Westerly winds.31 Climate variations influenced agricultural yield and food prices, which in turn led to less revenue from taxes and a reduction in funds available for administration.

There was a decrease in population in the transition from Ming to Qing rule. Liu bases this dominant climate role on a retrospective inquiry to show how it was a foundational component, which coincided with other changes that took place under this rubric.32 Even so, with a rapidly rising population during Qing dynasty, the lack of subsistence resources fueled social tensions and ultimately led to war and edged the civilization to the verge of collapse.33 Most wars in northern and central China were witnessed during these cool periods.34 The climate thus influenced this historical development (including its course, rate and the process) and the shifting of political and economic power-center to the north and south respectively.35

The geographic variation across these “core areas” ensured that agricultural changes impacted the socio-economic matrix. The social impact of climate change occurred due to its effect on the agricultural sector. Although the trappings of direct causality are avoided, policies on grain harvest visibly impacted human behaviors. Food security, in terms of production, supply and consumption, became an uncertainty with the shift in power. Bringing in the climate, there was less population growth, expansion of territory and improvements in social and economic health during the cooler periods across time scales. Conversely, warm weather brought with it more resources and increased utilization. This created shortage and consequent crises due to the ensuing struggles for goods and services. When we look at how the peasant uprising ultimately defeated the Ming dynasty, it was precisely the climate-induced impact of droughts that had led to the food crisis in the North. The Qing dynasty responded to these tense climate-human interactions by increasing the growth of high yield crops along the Yangtze river basin during warm periods. Thus, while migrations in the short-term (beyond the Great Wall regions in the North) were driven by droughts and floods, these too had the overarching influence of the climate on them. These claims do not preclude a synergistic reading of climate and socio-economic reasons as influencing human ecosystems (discussed in the next segment).36

31. Hinsch (n 28) 131-5
32. Liu (n 20) 2, 21, 26-7
33. Lee (n 19) 128-130
34. Liu (n 20) 19
35. Ibid [21]
36. Xiuqi Fang et al., Social Impacts of Climate Change in Historical China (In Yang L. (eds.), Socio-Environmental Dynamics Along along the Historical Silk Road) (Springer, Cham 2019)

Refutation of the Decisive Impact of Climate Change on Human Interactions

On the other hand, outcomes have not historically been shaped primarily by climate shifts alone, with the same dependent on the degree on societal resiliency.37 Irrespective of these causal chains being propounded, outcomes vary depending on spatial-temporal differences.38

Despite the resource deficit, the adaptive capacity of societies should not be overlooked. In northern China, procurement of subsistence resources was easy, since the nomadic tribes ruled towards the center-south, resulting in less wars. The cultural and religious norms were also conducive to the adaptation strategy. The nexus with the climate was stronger in the agriculturally dependent south. The ability to react was a critical factor and depended on the nature and type of society. Disregarding war, population and institutional variations in the examination of inter-region differences was problematic.39

Jan de Vries pertinently points out that what constitutes adverse weather conditions for one crop need not be apply for all others. In seeking to measure the strength of these linkages rather than simply assuming their importance, it is essential to test other influential variables when examining the role of the climate in economic life. Thus, taking climatic fluctuations into account, any form of risk aversion will ultimately would affect economic behavior.40 The gamble of attaching excessive and disproportionate importance to agriculture (that Parker proceeds on, in examining the social effects of cooling) has not paid off to that limited extent.

Predicting future vegetations patterns would be illogical, as the correlation could not be drawn based on past conditions. These depended on the types of species in the ecosystem at the time. The temperature and rainfall variations also influenced moisture levels and soil erosion, which affected the recycling power of organic life. These would change in the future, with new types of greenhouse gases and emissions. Ultimately, this complex cycle will determinately shape the biodiversity in an area.41 Even though weather changes affected agricultural production, their impact was not enough to shape societal evolution.42

Economic development could be plausibly imputed to socio-economic factors, especially when they are climate induced.43 In doing so, we must not assume future variations and complexities to remain similar in this socioecological system, as the same would amount to reductionism. The scope for error in using crop outputs, conflicts or economic performance as the metric to predict future occurrences is large, given with the lack of adequate, reliable data. Excessive focus on the climate as the main change-propelling factor would result in ignoring the effect of future variants (and the impact of human agency).44

37. Daniel Zizzamia, ‘Climate Change in Human History: Prehistory to the Present. By Benjamin Lieberman and Elizabeth Gordon’, (2018) 23(4) Environmental History 913
38. Lee (n 19) 134
39. Lee (n 19) 131-2,135-8
40. Jan de Vries, ‘Measuring the Impact of Climate in History: The Search for Appropriate Methodologies’, (1980) 10(4) The Journal of Interdisciplinary History 602-8, 626
41. Futang and Zong-ci (n 21) 663
42. Richards (n 1) 84
43. Patrick R. Galloway, ‘Long-Term Fluctuations in Climate and Population in the Pre-Industrial Era’, (1986) 12(1) Population and Development Review 18
44. Hulme (n 3) 264-5

Conclusion: Opting for A Middle Path

The ideal approach would be to escape the clutches of both determinism and indeterminism. The former treats the climate as the common cause for all changes in the dynamics of society, while the latter undermines the role of human interactions in a particular setting.45 We must weigh these opposing arguments in charting causation. There are difficulties with this approach, given the temporal oscillatory irregularities and the problem with applying a constant cause cutting across spatially areas. Jan de Vries has argued against linking cooler periods with economic distress, since the same ignores other socio-economic changes.46 Richards rightly argues that the variations in spatially different regions (through anecdotal evidence) shows how climate had only a contributary role that was not strong enough to independently shape evolutionary change.47

For instance, a certain period of flooding cannot be an indicator of the overall climate. However, it would be untenable to say that irrigation work repairs caused flooding. In that sense, the role of the climate cannot be undermined. Having said that, the socio-political events of an era were crucial in the occurrences.48 Hinsch draws the chain of climate variations leading to more agriculture, which influenced population growth and distribution. Given how cooler weather in Northern China was conducive for certain vegetation, (like Chinese orange trees49 ), climate change was a catalyst along with other factors.

Quantitative evidence shows how the climate spurred nomadic conquests of dynasties through conflict. Most empires were trounced by these invasions, which increased in periods of low rainfall.50 Having said that, the enormous role played by human beings cannot be discounted.51 In this macroscopic observation based on the cumulative effects, there have been criticisms of the undermining of the role that ineffective state action played.52

We can see how sporadic changes occurred in the past. It may seem a bit facile, but these changes had more to do than just the climate. However, they did set the tone for the developments that ensued. Weather patterns, precipitation levels and all other factors eventually link to these climate variations.

Parker ascribes these cooler periods to a change in global climatic history; due to factors like fewer sunspots (that led to more El Nino occurrences, decline in mean temperatures in the Northern hemisphere and a sharp plummeting of average global temperatures) and increasing dust veils, that were consequences of major volcanic eruptions.53 Equally, it is possible for certain climatic factors to have played no role (such as the absence of any effect of ice caps or dust-fall records).54

We must use history to look at the outcomes of past global cataclysms and learn lessons for the future catastrophes that will undoubtedly occur.55 In our complex societies, climate change can thus be linked with economic slowdown, reduction in crop output and increased violence. This can, in turn, be used to organize and cope with future events.56

45. Ibid [246]
46. Richards (n 1) 67-8
47. Richards (n 1) 67, 84-5
48. Hinsch (n 28) 158-9
49. Hinsch (n 28) 141-3
50. Qiang Chen, ‘Climate shocks, dynastic cycles and nomadic conquests: evidence from historical China, (2015) 67(2) Oxford Economic Papers 201
51. Ka-wai Fan, ‘Climate change and dynastic cycles in Chinese history: a review essay’, (2010) 101 Climatic Change 567
52. ibid [570-1]
53. Parker (n 5) 1070-2
54. P.N. Lin et al., ‘1000 years of climate change in China: ice-core 818O evidence’, (1995) 21 Annals of Glaciology 194
55. Parker (n 5) 1078-9
56. Peter Walker, ‘How to Think about the Future: History, Climate Change and Conflict’, (2009) 24 Keynote Address to the 2009 Humanitarian Action Summit, Cambridge, Massachusetts (March 28, 2009) Suppl.2 244-5
DUSHYANT KISHAN KAUL is a student of law at Jindal Global Law School, Sonipat. He is also an Assistant Editor with India Law Journal and can be reached at