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Modern China Lecture Series featuring Christopher Courtney – Heat and the Urban Environment of Modern China

March 19 @ 4:00 pm 5:30 pm

Speaker: Christopher Courtney, Associate Professor of Modern Chinese History, Durham University

Throughout history, people living in Chinese cities have often had to contend with extreme heat. Although this is natural feature of the climate, it has been exacerbated by anthropogenic processes, which have transformed cities into urban heat islands. Drawing upon a variety of sources, including oral histories collected in the “furnace city” of Wuhan, this paper examines how people have understood and sought to cope with the problem of extreme heat in China since the beginning of the twentieth century. It describes how, at the beginning of this era, traditional ideas about heat toxins and malign qi were challenged by biomedical theories about thermoregulation, eventually forming the syncretic blend of ideas about heat and health that exists in China today. This paper then examines how new technologies, such electric fans, air-conditioning, and refrigeration, promised to alleviate the effects of extreme heat. Yet it describes how these technologies met with resistance, from those who believed that unnatural forms of thermal comfort could injure your health. The paper continues by exploring how, in the austere years following 1949, bourgeois cooling technologies were rejected in favour of a new modes of heat governance. While the Maoist state promoted alternative technologies, such as the air raid shelter air-conditioning and earth refrigerators, most people relied upon even humbler technologies, such as bamboo beds and hand fans. Finally, this paper describes how, since the 1990s, China has witnessed the inexorable rise of cooling technologies. Air-conditioning and refrigeration have helped to reshape cities and transform lifestyles yet have had a dramatic effect upon the environment. 

Chris Courtney is an Associate Professor in Modern Chinese History at the University of Durham, UK. His research focusses largely upon the environmental and social history of Wuhan. His monograph The Nature of Disaster in China (published in Chinese as 龙王之怒)examined the history of the 1931 Central China Flood. He has also published on topics including the history of environmental religion, fire disasters, and Maoist flood (mis)management. Over the past few years, he has been collaborating with colleagues at the National University of Singapore on a project examining the historical and contemporary problem of heat in Asian cities. His next monograph is tentatively entitled A World History Wuhan


March 19
4:00 pm – 5:30 pm
Event Category:


Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies


CGIS Knafel K262

1737 Cambridge Street
Cambridge, MA 02138 United States

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