Wuhan and China: the Pandemic and its Past

China’s history presents an interesting counterpoint to the West, revealing as much about our prejudices as another’s past. Often presented, from a Western perspective, as a place with continuous history until Western intervention in the form of the Opium Wars and Communist ideology, it is intriguing to see how China presents its own history in political situations. Does it return to this supposed stability to prove its historic greatness, as Britain does with the World Wars? Or, instead, does it focus on the future, using its technological shifts to ignore aspects of the past, such as Mao’s famines, or the 1931 Central China Flood, unknown inside and outside China but the cause of over two million deaths? As Dr. Chris Courtney, who has researched the Flood, was keen to emphasise when answering these questions in our podcast Dead Current, it is often hard to gain access to these histories given the Communist Party’s policy of preventing historians’ archival access or the liberty to criticise. Dr. Courtney’s claim for the need to dismantle the monolithic historical narrative that the Party promotes feels relevant to all strands of history, but especially the construction of Wuhan during the pandemic. 

Aerial view of Wuhan, the capital of Hubei Province. (Credit: sleepingpanda, via Shutterstock.)

Of course, we could not interview Dr. Courtney without relating his specialism of Wuhan to the current global pandemic. Wuhan is a vibrant city; an industrial and financial hub with a vast cultural heritage, serving briefly as China’s war-time capital in both 1927 and 1937. The Wuchang Uprising in 1911 – which catalysed the collapse of the Qing Dynasty, starting the Xinhai Revolution – occurred in the Wuchang District of Wuhan. Yet, its spotlight on the global stage roots the pandemic in its wet markets.

Wet markets are not unique to Wuhan or China. Spread across much of Asia, the name comes from how perishable goods are sold, in contrast to dry markets’ electronics or clothes. Whilst the food in wet markets may not always resemble a local farmers’ market, they have more similarities to these than the health code violation they are presented as. When discussing this with Dr. Courtney, it was clear that there needs to be an acknowledgement that food practices in China are not perfect – the 2002 SARS outbreak began in Guandong’s food industry. However, as he emphasised, this should not allow a return to racist stereotypes. Passively accepting these concepts can lead to a reinforcement of racist stereotypes about China’s eating patterns from the twentieth century. 

Our food patterns reflect our history. For example, many in Britain find eating dogs abhorrent; biologically edible, their role as our ‘best friend’ means they are not, to use Poon’s term, ‘culturally edible’. Likewise, at the beginning of the twentieth century, few in China ate beef, as oxen played a central role in agriculture. Yet, as industry rose and agricultural techniques shifted, so that someone would not be spending all day with one animal, the taboo no longer exists and China’s beef consumption per capita has risen to rates equal to Britain or the USA. 

These shifting food patterns emphasise the mutability of what is deemed acceptable to eat, and how it is not a universal standard, but a reflection of personal history. Criticism can be made to the stalling in China’s post-SARS food reforms, but this should not be couched in racist rhetoric, which is a sign of ignorance that weakens the argument.

To hear more about how the Chinese Communist Party utilises history, how this compares to Britain, and how Covid-19 reflects and is changing this, listen to our new podcast with Dr. Chris Courtney, Durham University’s Assistant Professor in Modern Chinese History, available on Spotify on Dead Current.

Eleanor Williams-Brown, Senior Editor, History in Politics

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