Chinese elites and commoners use city gods and direct action to hasten flood relief, Qing China, 1742

Printer-friendly versionPrinter-friendly versionPDF versionPDF version
Time Period:  
Time period notes: 
Mid-Qing Dynasty. Exact timing is not known
Location and Goals
Location City/State/Province: 
Gaoyou and Baoying counties and Huai'an city
Location Description: 
These areas were the most devastated by a 1742 summer flood
1. Termination of the slow government survey.

2. Universal famine relief for all the local residents.


During the 1740s, early modern China was undergoing a profound transformation. After decades trying to recover from the turbulent transition from the Ming dynasty to the Qing dynasty, a new era of stability was descending upon the empire, allowing for healthy growth of the economy and the expansion of the market economy. The newly ascended Qianlong emperor was also building on his father’s legacy by earnestly continuing to strengthen centralized state power. And, in order to bolster the moral legitimacy of this increased consolidation of power, the government headed a major resurgence in neo-Confucian orthodoxy, especially the highly respected value of filial piety (the loyalty and reverence a child shows one’s parents).

At the end of the seventeenth century, Qianlong’s predecessors had decided to make the Book of Filial Piety the state’s most widely printed Confucian treatise, a treatise that opens by explaining, “The gentleman’s service of his parents with filial piety produces a loyalty that can be transferred to the ruler.” By the 1740s, measures such as that, which enhanced loyalty and legitimacy of the state, combined with the state’s increasing power, helped diminish the many state-resisting protests China endured during the seventeenth and early eighteenth century. But this redefined relationship between the people and state also led to a rise in protests seeking redress from the government, given that neo-Confucian filial piety was coupled with the expectation of benevolent governance. It became common practice for subjects aggrieved by local officials to travel all the way to Beijing to appeal directly to the emperor for relief. This “process was often emotionally charged and involved dramatic displays of desolation, such as kneeling upon both knees, collective public weeping, and knocking one’s head upon the ground.” Not all protests were so dramatic, but as the power and legitimacy of the state had risen, more citizens sought to influence government decisions and expected the government to intervene in times of turbulence or crisis on behalf of its loyal subjects.

One such protest seeking government relief occurred during 1742. In the summer of that year, enormous rainfall caused vast flooding in much of Yangzhou region. The Gaoyou and Baoying counties, along with the city of Huai’an, where especially devastated by the disaster. The local governments responded by conducting surveys to assess the damage and drawing up plans for famine-relief and flood-diversion.

But the process was too slow for the anxious population; so local scholars and members of the upper class began organizing protests in Gaoyou, Baoying, and Huai’an. The demonstrators, drawn from all sections of society, appealed to the government to end its survey and immediately begin “universal relief,” which would provide grain to all residents in the area, regardless of how much they were affected by the flood (typically, local governments distributed relief according to how much a home was affected by a disaster). When their requests were rebuffed, the merchants began to go on strike and refused to open their shops.

They also began rallying in front of government offices, carrying the statue of a local city god from the temple and conducting religious rites. According to researcher Ho-fung Hung, invoking the city god in protest was profoundly significant: “In Qing times, local city gods occupied a special place in the symbolic universe of the political hierarchy. These gods were all sanctioned by the emperor, and they were symbols of the highest imperial authorities in the local area.” Thus, the protesters were, in effect, invoking imperial authority through their use of the city god statue and religious rites. Both local residents and officials alike accorded great meaning and reverence to the city god, with officials leading residents to pay tribute to the deity at various festivals during the year. In addition, the magistrates used the city god’s temple to announce the most important policies, hear the most important criminal cases, and consult with local scholars.

Eventually, the Qianlong emperor intervened on behalf of the protesters, and the local government declared universal famine relief. However, the emperor was deeply bothered by the role of the local elite and scholars in the affair, stating, “if this kind of action was initiated by common residents, it is understandable, as they can claim their action is urged by hunger and ignorance, but now it is the wealthy, well-educated literati families with no urgent needs who mobilized the malicious commoners to contend…It is definitely unforgivable.” But his condemnation extended beyond just the elites, as he faulted the local officials for improperly educating them. In addition to a local academician who was demoted for his family’s role in agitating the protests, several local officials in charge of overseeing education and examination affairs were also demoted.

Research Notes

The use of local-god statues and religious rites in protest was fairly common during the period.

Hung, Ho-fung. Protest with Chinese Characteristics: Demonstrations, Riots, and Petitions in the Mid-Qing Dynasty. New York: Columbia University Press, 2011. Print.
Name of researcher, and date dd/mm/yyyy: 
Thomas Fortuna, 13/12/2011