Locusts Made Simple: Holding Humans Responsible for Insect Behavior in China in the 18th and 19th Centuries

Saturday, January 6, 2018: 8:50 AM
Calvert Room (Omni Shoreham)
David Bello, Washington and Lee University
The greatest predator threatening pre-industrial agrarian China was the locust, especially Locusta migratoria manilensis. Prevailing official opinion associated the emergence of locust swarms with drought that would transform normally inundated spaces into damp ones. It was believed that any fish eggs deposited in these comparatively dry, but not too dry, spaces would eventually mutate into locusts. Consequently, early detection was critical before immature locusts could sprout wings to ravage crops long-distance. This early modern (or, in Chinese terms, late imperial) conceptualization of locust reproduction fundamentally informed resulting human behavior, which was complicated by the need to consider the overlapping lifecycles of both locusts and cereals in the management of both. The consequent pressure exerted by locust behavior on imperial socio-political institutions designed to concentrate agricultural biomass as sustenance and revenue could bring out contradictions within those institutions as locusts blithely ignored administrative boundaries and agricultural peak seasons. Imperial Chinese administrators tended to respond to these contradictions by further regimentation of human behavior. In this way, they sought to simplify complex and substantially unpredictable locust behavior into a manageable problem, ideally one of personnel management, which their bureaucracy was best prepared to address. Consequently, the state tended to over-simplify environmental complexity in an anthropocentric way.