A Chinese Magistrate’s Solution to Plagues of Locusts – 1699


Huang Liu-Hung’s work: A Complete Book Concerning Happiness and Benevolence is a fascinating handbook for local magistrates in Ch’ing China. It covers almost every sort of eventuality from how to an official should introduce himself to his new posting to cadastral surveys, choosing horses for the post service and prohibiting the maltreatment of servants. Surprisingly, it says nothing about epidemics or disease prevention, in spite of the fact that there had been serious epidemics in the 1640s and the state had involved itself by providing medicines and medical personnel, offering subsidies in particularly affected areas and subsidising coffins and help with funeral expenses – always of great importance in Chinese culture. Huang Liu-hung only mentions what to do in the case of a plague of locusts, such as is now threatening East Africa and the west coast of the Sub-Continent. It is possible that the relevant sections of his work have been omitted. His advice, given the sound good sense of most of the book is, to the modern reader, somewhat surprising.

A Sacrificial Address to the City God for the Avoidance of the Locust Disaster

It is the duty of the city god to harmonize the yin and yang elements in the universe, to protect the livelihood of the people, to prevent natural calamities, and to bestow blessings on the land.

Now it is the second month of summer, the locust larvae are climbing everywhere, moving slowly across the furrows and ridges. Soon they will flap their wings and the affliction they can cause will be grave indeed. They are like a gang of rebels breaking out in a vicious uprising. A superior magic force is needed to stamp them out at this moment. If we wait until the spread over a large area, it will be difficult to exterminate them all. They should be either captured or buried. The people will do their best, but this is not a man-made calamity. Only the power of the god can prevail. If the crop can be saved, it will be by the grace of the god; if the affliction can be averted, it will be done only under his authority. The god’s grace and authority are the only hope we can depend upon. We make this request sincerely in the hope the god will respond.

A Second Sacrificial Address on the Same Subject

The city god and the magistrate, my humble self, share the responsibility of ruling over this district. When there is a calamity, we must try to prevent it. When there is trouble, we must protect the people from its harmful effects. Such efforts are within the god’s spiritual authority and the magistrate’s official responsibility.

Now, while the people are busy working in the fields and the crops have not yet been harvested, the eggs of last year’s locusts have hatched out and spread on the ground. Half of the second wheat crop in the fields has already suffered devastation.

In the past ten days large swarms of locusts have arrived from the neighbouring district to the southwest. They flap their wings, climb over the furrows and relentlessly inundate the fields. The people scurry about and wail with sorrow, thinking that doomsday has arrived.

I humbly presented a request to the god earlier, but as yet no favourable response has been received. Could this natural calamity be so irrevocable that even the god has encountered difficulty in averting it? Could it be that the spring festival time is approaching and that the god is too busy with other matters? Or is it because I myself have failed in my duty that I lack the sincerity to evoke the god’s sympathy? When the people cannot prevent disaster, they appeal to the magistrate. When the magistrate cannot avert calamity for the people, he appeals to the god. The god is awe-inspiring and dwells in the spiritual world; can he not transmit the requests of the people and their officials to the Lord on High?

Of course, we understand the inevitability of natural calamities. When the locusts spread, they cover a thousand square li in which T’an-ch’eng is only a tiny spot. It is impossible for us to avoid the affliction. We believe this because we have exhausted our human effort to no avail. But the god should maintain a different view. In your infinite wisdom, you should be able to detect the onslaught of impending disaster before ordinary mortals can perceive such happenings.

Oh god, please exterminate this plague quickly so that they will not do harm to our grain. Prevent them from laying eggs in the field so that the people may have the hope of an autumn harvest! Please bestow upon us this favour! Please heed our request!

Eradication of Locusts and Their Larvae

During a drought following a flood, the locust larvae deposited in the fields are hatched by the hot sun. The locusts develop rapidly and fly all over the place, destroying grain plants everywhere the alight. Although locusts are only insects, they are controlled by the god. If the magistrate prays with utmost sincerity, they will fly away with the wind. Even if they alight in the field, they will not bring harm to the crop. That was my experience when I was magistrate of T’an-ch’eng. My prayers have always been answered.

If the locusts come from a neighbouring district, they can be driven away by appealing to the city god. If locust larvae are found in the district, however, it will be difficult even for the city god to drive them away. The people should be mobilized to bury or burn the larvae, before they reach the locust stage. As an incentive, when people collect a certain amount of locust larvae they should be rewarded with the same amount of grain. Thus even if a locust disaster cannot be entirely avoided, its intensity can be reduced. It is my humble wish that all magistrates will take such precautionary measures in the interest of the people.

Huang Liu-hung, A Complete Book Concerning Happiness and Benevolence, ed. and tr. Djang Chu, University of Arzona Press, Tucson, 1984, pp.513-5 and 613

N.B. In case I have infringed copyright on any occasion, please notify me and I will immediately delete the post.

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