Historical story

Flood in China. Millions of victims of water, disease and hunger

Last updated:2022-07-25

The flooding in China in 1931 was probably the greatest natural disaster in the history of the world. It took between 3.7 million and 4 million deaths.

China has been mired in various local wars that devastated the country for years. Many interests in particular intersected in the rich Yangtze Valley. In 1923, the local warlord Wu Pei Fu decided to expand his estates, which included the provinces of Hunan and Hubei. Soon, in the summer of 1924, Sichuan fell under his tutelage, whose governor was the capable general Yang Sen.

Two years later, in the spring of 1926, Chiang Kai-shek's troops prevented the growing strength of Wu. The warlord left his capital at Chungking with the army and headed north. He left power in the hands of the governor generals. To his misfortune, two of them, Tang and Peng, decided to go against the third, Yang. After short fighting, they took over Chungking .

Wu Pei Fu was forced to resign and imprisoned in a monastery

Wu Pei Fu was forced to step down and imprisoned in a monastery. The governors signed a surrender accord with Chiang Kai-shek, while Yang Sen withdrew his loyal troops along the Yangtze towards Wanhsien (now Wanzhou), which he had taken in the name of his principal. However, shortly after Wu's imprisonment in a monastery, he began to act on his own account.

The conflict devastated the river valley, but also the suppression of the riots strengthened Chiang Kai-shek's position not only inside the country, but also internationally. Western leaders began to see him as a man who was able to control the political situation in China . Another effect of the events in Wanhsien was the strengthening of Western contingents on the rivers of the Middle Kingdom - new, modern and well-armed ships appeared. And the governments of France, Italy and Japan decided to send their own units to the Yangtze.

Hard years

As the country seemed to be back on track, a drought lasting from 1928 to 1930 began, which caused severe food shortage problems. The winter of 1930, on the other hand, was particularly severe, creating large layers of snow and ice in the mountainous areas. In early 1931, the melting snow and ice flowed down the Yangtze and reached the middle reaches of the river during the heavy spring rains .

Victims awaiting help from the International Red Cross, August 1931

Typically, the Yangtze Valley had three periods of high water in spring, summer and fall, respectively; however, in early 1931 there was one continuous deluge that could not be contained. In June, people living in the lowlands were forced to leave their homes.

As if there weren't enough misfortunes, only in July nine cyclones hit the region, though usually no more than two a year . During the month, four weather stations built by Western countries reported rainfall with a total height of over 600 mm. The water flowing through the Yangtze has reached its highest level since record keeping began in the mid-19th century.

Representatives of Western countries closed their trading posts, and ships and ships were evacuated to Shanghai. A flood wave 16 meters high was coming from the top of the river.

High Wave

The flood flooded approximately 180,000 square kilometers. For comparison, the flood of the millennium in 1997 caused the flooding of 6,658 sq. Km. It is as if nine out of sixteen Polish provinces were completely flooded! At the time, the Chinese government estimated that 25 million people were affected by the flood. However, it is estimated that the true number of victims could have been as high as 53 million .

The flood destroyed huge amounts of houses and farmland. About 15 percent of the entire Yangtze Valley has been destroyed. wheat and rice crops. Added to this were the effects of the earlier drought. The combined ecological and economic effects have caused many areas to go into hunger.

People have been forced to eat tree bark, weeds, and earth. Some sold their children to survive, others resorted to cannibalism . The long-term effect of the floods was disease that swept the country. The Chinese were hit by epidemics of cholera, measles, malaria and dysentery.

Millions of victims

Already in the first weeks of the flood, some 150,000 people drowned, and another hundreds of thousands died of starvation and disease in the following months as a result of starvation and disease. The then authorities and later communist researchers established the death toll at 422,420.

However, Western government officials who took care of the Yangtze security and provided humanitarian aid argued that the death toll could be as high as 3.7 to 4 million people.

However, it is estimated that the true number of victims could have been as high as 53 million

Humanitarian aid came from all over the world. Although it was not easy. The people of China have accused the government of the disaster which, as part of the campaign against superstition, ordered the destruction of the Temple of the Dragon King in Wuhan shortly before the flood. . This coincidence led to riots. Many locals linked the catastrophe to the wrath of the Dragon King, the rain god. It was a serious test for the new government.

Chiang Kai-shek established the National Flood Relief Commission under the auspices of Ziwen Soong. It was composed of world-renowned experts:epidemiologist Wu Liande, health minister Liu Ruiheng, British health worker John Grant, hydrologist Oliver Todd and John Hope Simpson, British refugee expert. Help was also provided by the usually inefficient League of Nations.

We managed to obtain huge humanitarian aid in the form of grains, flour and meat. Countries with trading posts along the Yangtze offered materials to rebuild the devastated villages. Then another disaster struck China. In the fall of 1931, the Japanese invaded Manchuria, starting the war that lasted until 1945 . It made it difficult to deliver aid and resulted in many more victims of the floods. Soon the world also forgot about the tragic catastrophe.

Until today there has been no more tragic flood.


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  2. Konstam A., Yangtze River Gunboats 1900-49 ', Osprey Publishing 2011
  3. Tolley K., Yangtze Patrol:The U.S. Navy in China , Naval Institute Press 2013