Chris Courtney (Associate Professor of Modern Chinese History, Durham University)
In early January 1927, crowds of protestors stormed into the British Concession in Hankou, a treaty port in the city of Wuhan. Anti-imperialist protests were not uncommon at the time, but this was the first in China to prove successful. The surrendering of the concession in Wuhan marked a key shift in Britain's power in China, and also an important symbolic defeat for the British Empire in Asia. Though usually examined through the prism of national and international revolutionary politics, to fully comprehend these events we need to understand the complex and cosmopolitan city in which they occurred. This paper plunges us into the streets of Wuhan, examining the various communities whose politics and personalities clashed in 1927. It explores the lives of Chinese workers, whose strikes brought the city to a standstill, with everyone from factory workers to dockers, from domestic servants to sex workers, all withdrawing their labour. It next examines the British community, who, alongside other Europeans and Americans, inflicted forms of racial discrimination that enflamed nationalist sensibilities. Finally, we examine the lives of the Indian population of Wuhan, a community who have received very little attention from historians, yet whose members played a vital role in the events that unfolded in 1927.
About the speaker: Prof. Courtney is a social and environmental historian of modern China. His research focusses upon the city of Wuhan and its rural hinterland, a region where he has lived and conducted research for over five years. His monograph, entitled The Nature of Disaster in China, was the first major study of the 1931 Central China Flood, a largely forgotten catastrophe that killed in excess of two million people. In 2019 the American Historical Association awarded this monograph the John K. Fairbanks Prize for an outstanding book in East Asian History. He has also published on a range of other topics including the (mis)management of disasters under Mao Zedong, the fate of environmental religion in modern China, and the impact of industrialisation on urban fire. His current research focusses on the problem of heat in modern Chinese cities. He explores how emergent technologies such as ice factories, electic fans, and air conditioning transformed the cultural and social landscape of Wuhan.