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Rivers on Fire: Industrialising Conflagrations in Modern Wuhan Seminar

18 October 2017
Lecture Theatre C, Building 65, Avenue Campus SO17 1BF

For more information regarding this seminar, please email Mary Andrew at .

Event details

Part of the CIPCS Seminar Series for 2017-18. All welcome, no need to register.

This paper examines the persistence of fire disasters in the Chinese city of Wuhan between the nineteenth and mid-twentieth centuries. At the beginning of this period, Wuhan was notorious for its frequent catastrophic conflagrations. Narrow streets lined with wooden buildings, dense squatter settlements, and ports choked with junks and sampans, caused blazes so intense that on occasions they crossed rivers to burn down neighbouring cities. The urban landscape transformed profoundly during the twentieth century, yet for some reason Wuhan failed to cross the “fire-gap,” and continued to suffer regular conflagrations. Contrary to what some foreign observers suggested, this was not because the local community lacked the skills and knowledge to tackle urban fires. It was, rather, due to rapid influx of highly combustible industrial materials through foreign trade. Standard Oil flooded the wooden streets of Wuhan first with kerosene and later petroleum. These fuels caused conflagrations that that defied the capacity of local fire fighters. Chinese politicians who sought to safeguard their communities by rejecting dangerous foreign products, were traduced in the foreign press as opponents of progress. The persistence of conflagrations in Wuhan was not, therefore, due to the lamentable absence of modernity amongst local population. During this era the city experienced thoroughly modern fires, stoked by novel products and new patterns of international trade.


Speaker information

Dr Chris Courtney, University of Southampton. Lecturer in Modern Chinese History

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