1931 China Floods: Facts, Causes & Aftermath

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  • 0:05 The Chinese Floods of 1931
  • 1:00 Causes
  • 2:41 The Flood
  • 3:51 Aftermath
  • 5:51 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

The year 1931 was a big one in Chinese history. In this lesson, we're going to explore one of the worst natural disasters in all of human history and see how it impacted China for decades to come.

The Chinese Floods of 1931

Many of the world's oldest civilizations were built next to rivers. It makes sense; rivers provide fresh water for drinking, fish for food, irrigation for farming, and natural protection from attack. But can you imagine why living next to a river could be a problem? Rivers flood.

China is an example of a very old civilization, and many of China's oldest cities are built near rivers. These rivers have flooded throughout Chinese history, but no year was as bad as 1931. In this year, three of China's biggest rivers (the Yellow, Yangtze, and Huai) all flooded. Between the actual floods and the problems they created, somewhere between 1 and 4 million people were killed. Even in a civilization as ancient as China, this was one of the worst natural disasters ever recorded.


Humans have lived along the Yellow, Yangtze, and Huai rivers for millennia, so why was 1931 such a disastrous year? There were several reasons, starting with the weather. From 1928-1930, China went through a bad drought. The lack of rainfall made the rivers lower, and the soils dried up. Then, the winter of 1930 experienced huge snowstorms, followed by extremely heavy rains in the spring. These rains melted the remaining snow and added even more water to the rivers. As a final nail in the coffin, China was hit by strong cyclones (Pacific Ocean hurricanes). In a normal year, China had roughly 2 cyclones. In 1931, China had 7 cyclones during July alone.

Clearly the weather was a problem. However, even those cyclones weren't the most significant cause of the floods in 1931. Over the last several decades, China had developed more modern farming technologies, resulting in a large increase in agriculture. Unfortunately, China also went through rebellions, wars, and political instability. The government programs in charge of monitoring the river and keeping the river healthy weren't able to do their jobs. As a result, the land near the river was overused, dykes and dams meant to control the river were built incorrectly, and forests and wetlands, which usually regulated the river, were destroyed. Thus, when the crazy weather on 1931 happened, the rivers overflowed their banks, the dams broke, and water rushed across central China.

The Flood

By August of 1931, the Yellow, Yangtze, and Huai Rivers had all flooded so badly that most of central China was submerged. Over 100,000 people were killed in the immediate floods, but the survivors had problems of their own. The floods killed crops, washed out grain storage facilities, leveled houses, and destroyed roads. Many rural communities were homeless and stranded without food, and without any way for aid to reach them. The flooding was so bad that the ground was still underwater when fall arrived, which meant that farmers couldn't even plant crops for the next year. To make matters worse, the government of China was so disorganized and weak from the wars of the last decades, that they couldn't gather together the resources and people needed to save the stranded villages.

Ultimately, this is why the death toll was so high. Millions of people starved to death, disease swept through weakened communities, and homeless refugees were stuck without shelter. In some cases, the situation was so bad that people resorted to cannibalism, eating the dead just to survive.

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