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date: 17 January 2021

Meteorological History and Historical Climate of Chinafree

  • Jie FeiJie FeiInstitute of Chinese Historical Geography, Fudan University


The Chinese meteorological records could be traced back to the oracle-bone inscriptions of the Shang Dynasty (c. 1600 bcc. 1046 bc). For the past 3,000 years, continuous meteorological records are available in official histories, chronicles, local gazetteers, diaries, and other historical materials. Ever since the Qin Dynasty (221–207 bc), precipitation reports to the central government were officially organized; however, only those of the Qing Dynasty (1644–1912 ad) are extant, and they have been widely used to reconstruct precipitation variability.

Modern meteorological knowledge began to be introduced in China during the late Ming Dynasty (1368–1644 ad). Modern meteorological observation possibly began in the 17th century, whereas continuous meteorological observation records go back to the mid-19th century.

Previous researches have reconstructed the chronologies of the temperature change in China during the past 2,000 years, and the Medieval Warm Period and Little Ice Age were identified. With regard to precipitation variability, yearly charts of dryness/wetness in China for the past 500 years were produced. Several chronologies of dust storm, plum rain (Meiyu), and typhoon were also established. Large volcanic eruptions resulted in short scale abrupt cooling in China during the past 2,000 years. Climatic change was significantly related to the war occurrences and dynastic cycles in historical China.


Meteorology has a very long history in China. The Chinese kept meteorological records almost continuously for the past 3000 years, so a large amount of records scattered through various kinds of historical material. Modern meteorological science was gradually introduced to China from the late 16th century.

Historical climatology refers to the study of climate during the historical times (i.e., the past 2000–3000 years) using historical sources. The term is not expanded to the studies using tree ring, stalactites, lake sediments, ice core and other alternative paleo-climate indicators. Building on various kinds of historical meteorological record, laborious efforts were made to reconstruct historical climate variability and its effects.

Almost all of the Chinese meteorological records are in Chinese, and most of the researches concerning the meteorological history and historical climatology are published in Chinese and therefore are not well known internationally in academia. Here we conduct a comprehensive review of this field and introduce these unique resources to the world. The review begins with a few basic Chinese meteorological terms and the ideology of heaven human induction, and then we introduce the meteorological records, as well as premodern and modern meteorological observations. Lastly, the major subfields of Chinese historical climate studies are reviewed.

Terminology and Ideology

Terminology: Chinese Meteorological Terms

In modern Chinese, qihou (氣候‎) means “climate,” and qixiang (氣象‎) means “meteorology.” In classical Chinese, the meaning of qihou was somewhat different from climate but similar to season and phenology. Interestingly, the earliest definition of qihou likely appeared in an early Chinese medicine book Huangdi Neijing (黃帝內經‎) [Emperor Huangdi’s Canon of Internal Medicine]; Anonymous, c. 100 bc), which was composed over 2,000 years ago. In the book, qi (‎) and hou are units of time, and hou (‎) represents five days and qi equals three hou (Anonymous, 2013). Another ancient source Shi Xun Jie (時訓解‎) [Regulations of time and season], recorded that a year was composed of 72 hou, and every hou corresponded with a phenological phenomenon (Anonymous, 2017).

The meaning of qihou has undergone much change since it was born in ancient China. For example, qihou means climate in a poem of the Tang Dynasty (618–907 ad). The poem reads “Mo dao yan bo yi shui ge, he fang qi hou liang xiang shu (莫道煙波一水隔,何妨氣候兩相殊‎.)” (Bai, c. 1988), which means “although the two regions are just divided by a river, their climates are different.”

The meaning of qixiang in classical Chinese was similar to ambience and appearance and very different from meteorology. Until the early 20th century, the word qixiang was eventually chosen to refer to the academic term “meteorology” when Western meteorology textbooks were translated into Chinese (Zhang, 2001).

Ideology of Heaven Human Induction

During most of the periods in Chinese history, an ideology of “heaven human induction (天人感應‎)” partly dominated the governments’ attitudes toward meteorological anomalies. This ideology presumed that natural hazards, including meteorological anomalies, were warnings from heaven, and the sons of heaven (i.e., emperors) must exercise self-criticism and make amends.

This ideology originated early on and was formally proposed by a philosopher and thinker named Dong Zhongshu (董仲舒‎; 179–104 bc) during the Western Han Dynasty (202 bc8 ad; Dong, 134 bc).

The emperors prayed, amnestied, and sometimes issued orders of recruiting talents when encountering severe meteorological anomalies during the Han dynasties (202 bc220 ad; Chen, 2004). However, the influence of this ideology weakened gradually in later eras, and it was criticized by other philosophers, including Wang Bi 王弼‎ (226–249 ad). Wang, 2003) and Liu Zongyuan 柳宗元‎ (773–819 ad). Min, 2011). With the fall of the Qing Dynasty (1644–1912 ad) and the founding of the Republic of China (1912–1949 ad), this ideology was eventually abandoned.

With regard to historical climate research, this ideology could have affected the completeness of the meteorological records in official histories and chronicles (Wang, 1999; You, 2006), as some of the meteorological anomalies would be omitted for the sake of proving that some emperors were wise and that heaven never issued warnings to them.

Meteorological History in China

Meteorological Records in Chinese Historical Materials

China is well known for its long history and abundant historical literature. There are innumerable meteorological records scattered through all kinds of Chinese historical materials.

The earliest Chinese textual meteorological records are those of oracle-bone inscriptions during the Shang Dynasty (c. 1600 bcc. 1046 bc). These weather records are usually fragmented and brief and also have not been systematically examined. However, some of them have been utilized to give factual support the warm climate experienced during the Shang Dynasty (Wittfogel, 1940; Hu, 1944).

Official histories are available for every dynasty for the past 3,000 years, and a number of chronicles and private dynastic histories have been recorded ever since the Western Han Dynasty (206 bc25 ad). China also possesses a series of books on regional history and geography: these are local gazetteers (difang zhi 地方志‎). There are over 8,000 extant historical local gazetteers in China. The earliest local gazetteer dates back 2,000 years, and since the early 15th century, it has been common practice for provinces, prefectures, and counties to compile such chronicles. There are specific volumes recording meteorological anomalies and other abnormal natural phenomena and disasters in dynastic histories and local gazetteers.

Historical diaries contain firsthand daily accounts of the weather and are effective in reconstructing decades-long chronologies of precipitation, temperature, and dust storms. There are thousands of historical diaries in China, and most of them contain weather accounts.

The meteorological records scattered through various kinds of historical material have been systematically collected and examined, and Zhang’s (2004) collection would be the most complete such collection. Some regional and thematic collections of meteorological events are also available (Yuan, 1994; Li, Zhu, & Feng, 2004; Xu, 2007; Cheng, 2012). Some ongoing international projects (e.g., the Atmospheric Circulation Reconstructions over the Earth—China) are promoting the data sharing of the historical meteorological records.

Note that there are a large number of meteorological records that have not been collected and examined yet: for example, the records in the historical diaries have not been included in any of the collections.

Premodern Meteorological Observations by the Government of the Qing Dynasty

Ever since the Qin Dynasty (221 bc207 bc), precipitation reports to the central government were officially organized (Ding & Leng, 2009), and later on this policy was carried out by the successive governments.

The premodern meteorological observations of the Qing Dynasty are significantly different from modern meteorological observations. However, they were affected in some way by early modern meteorological science (e.g., the style of rain gauge adopted by the Jesuit missionaries, who introduced modern meteorological science to China) (Wang, 1991).

Premodern meteorological observations were organized nationwide by the government of the Qing Dynasty. The original records were preserved in the Qing Dynasty archives, and many of them are still extant. The records have been systematically examined and were usually classified into two data sets.

One data set is commonly known as Qing yu lu (晴雨錄‎)(Records of weather), which is daily weather observation organized by the Qing government from the 1680s to 1900s. However, many of the original records are missing, except for those of Beijing and several cities in middle and eastern China. The data set has been used to reconstruct the precipitation variability of Beijing during the period 1724–1904 ad (Central Meteorological Bureau of China, 1975; Zhang & Liu, 1987). It is the most reliable one before continuous modern meteorological observation began in the mid-19th century.

The other data set is Yu xue fen cun 雨雪分寸‎ (Amount of rain and snow), which is the nationwide quasi-daily records of the amount of precipitation. This data set is less precise than Qing yu lu, but most of the archives are still extant. Therefore, it has been widely employed to reconstruct the precipitation variability of many regions during the past few centuries (Ge et al., 2005, 2011; Hao et al., 2009). In addition, the observation of the yearly first thunders was recently discovered in the Qing Dynasty archives (Chu & Lv, 2015).

With the fall of the Qing Dynasty in 1912, the premodern meteorological observations were abandoned, and a modern meteorological observation network was gradually established with the founding of the Republic of China (1912–1949).

Missionaries and Early Modern Meteorological Observations

About 140 bc, a hygrometer was invented by Liu An 劉安‎ (c. 140 bc), a prince of the Western Han Dynasty (207 bc25 ad). Huainan Zi (淮南子‎) (The Book of the Prince of Huainan) recorded the mechanism as follows: a feather was hung and placed with charcoal on both sides of a balance; when the atmosphere is wet/dry, the charcoal becomes heavier/lighter, thus gauging the humidity of the atmosphere (Liu, 1998). However, it remains unknown whether this hygrometer had ever actually been used for humidity observation, since no records are available.

Modern meteorology began to be introduced to China by the Jesuit missionaries in the 17th century. Jesuit missionary Ferdinand Verbiest (b. 1623–d. 1688) had for some time been considered the first person to have introduced the Renaissance air thermometer and hygrometer to China in the 1660s (Needham, 1959; Pan, 1993; Liu, 2011). However, there is a description of temperature in a book entitled Novus Atlas Sinensis (New Atlas of China) by Jesuit missionary Martino Martini (b. 1614–d. 1661), which recorded that the temperature in Beijing was rarely above 42 degrees (Martini, 1655). The date of this record should be considered when studying Martini’s stay in China during the 1640s (Martini, 1655). With this in mind, Martino Martini could have taken a thermometer and conducted temperature observations in the 1640s. Several other Western missionaries continued to introduce these sorts of instruments to China in the 1680s (Pan, 1993; Shi, 2012). These instruments were implemented and used in Beijing to observe temperature and moisture, but no observational records are extant. However, the relationship between the Catholic missionaries and the Chinese government worsened in the early 18th century, resulting in the expulsion of all missionaries and the dissolution of the Society of Jesuit in China. The introduction of new knowledge was by in large suspended for about a century.

According to the extant observation records, continuous modern meteorological observations were not carried out in China until the 19th century. The Russian Orthodox missionaries carried out continuous meteorological observation in Beijing from 1841 (Chu, 1936; Liu, 2011; Wu, 2014). These observations began in Shanghai in 1872 at Xujiahui (also known as Zikawei; 徐家匯) by Catholic missionaries (Liu, 2011; Wu, 2014). Observations in Hong Kong commenced in 1884 by the British Colonial Government (Liu, 2011; Wu, 2014). In Taiwan, several meteorological observatories were established in 1885 by the government of the Qing Dynasty (Liu, 2011). Observational activity began to be carried out in Qingdao (Tsingtau) in 1898 by the German Concession Municipality (Shen et al., 2016).

The early meteorological observations in China were organized by various authorities and institutions, including Orthodox and Catholic missionaries, European colonial governments, the Chinese central government, maritime customs, universities, and air forces. The criteria and regulations of observations were different, and the qualities were thus uneven (Wu, 2005). More original archives began to be discovered over the past 20 years. For example, the Qingdao archives of meteorological observation during the German occupation (1898–1914) were uncovered in the Hamburg Weather Station and handed over to Qingdao Municipal Meteorological Bureau in 2014 (Zhang et al., 2014). However, there are more archives to be collated and digitalized. In particular, many observation records in the newly discovered late-19th-century and early-20th-century maritime custom archives are awaiting a systematic collation and examination (Wu, 2011).

As early as the 1930s, Chu Ko-chen examined the early modern meteorological observations in Beijing during the Qing Dynasty (1644–1912). He reported the Russian missionary meteorological observations in Beijing during the mid- to late 19th century (Chu, 1936). He even discovered the 18th-century modern meteorological observation archives, which were organized by the French missionaries in Beijing during the period 1743 to 1762. A small fraction of these invaluable archives are still extant (Chu, 1936), which are the earliest modern meteorological observation archives of China. They have been used to study the extremely hot summer of 1743 in Beijing (Zhang, 2004).

Introduction of the Literatures on Modern Meteorological Science to China

As early as the late Ming Dynasty (1368–1644), Jesuit missionary Alfonso Vagnone (b. 1568–d. 1640) composed a book titled Kong Ji Ge Zhi (空際格致‎), and introduced modern meteorology to China (Vagnone, 2013; Chen, 2014). This 17th-century treatise is actually a translation and adaptation of some Renaissance-era scientific literature (Standaert, 2003), and the title Kong ji ge zhi means “sciences of sky and space” (Liu, 1993). However, very few Chinese noticed how groundbreaking and important the book was; thus, its effect on Chinese society was minimal (Shi et al., 2016).

It was not until the late 19th century that the translation of modern meteorological books became more common, and the latest ones were introduced to China. Among them, the most influential one would be the Ce hou cong tan (測候叢談‎), which was translated from the Meteorology from the Encyclopedia Britannica (8th ed.) (see Herschel, 1861).

Dong xi yang kao mei yue tong ji zhuan (東西洋考每月統計傳‎) (Eastern Western monthly magazine) was a Chinese magazine based in Guangzhou and Singapore and edited by protestant missionary Karl Friedrich August Gutzlaff (b. 1803–d. 1851) (Gutzlaff, 1997). This magazine contributed significantly to the introduction of modern Western sciences to China, and many articles introducing the knowledge of modern meteorological science were published in it (Yao & Wang, 2001; Luo, 2008).

Development of Chinese Meteorological Cause in the Early 20th Century

Meteorology in China developed steadily after the founding of the Republic of China in 1912. The first Chinese academic journal on meteorology is the Qixiang Yuekan (氣象月刊‎) [Meteorological monthly magazine], which was founded in 1913, and renamed Guanxiang Congbao (觀象叢報‎) [the Astronomical and meteorological magazine] in 1915. More than a hundred articles on meteorology were published in this journal during 1915 and 1921, thus contributing greatly to the introduction of modern meteorology science to China (Wan, 2013).

A more influential meteorological journal is the Zhongguo Qixiang Xuehui Huikan (中國氣象學會會刊‎) (the French title is Bulletin de la Societe Meteorologque de Chine), which was founded in 1925. It was renamed Qixiang Zazhi (氣象雜誌‎) [Meteorological magazine] and renamed again later as Qixiang Xuebao (氣象學報‎) [the Latin title is Acta Meteorologica Sinica] (Wang & Shao, 2007).

The first modern meteorological institution, Central Observatory, was founded in Beijing in 1912. The Chinese Meteorological Society was founded in Qingdao in 1924, and the Institute of Meteorology of the Academia Sinica was founded in Nanjing in 1928 (Liu, 2011). The number of meteorological stations increased quickly, and a network of more than a hundred stations was established by 1937 (Wang & Ding, 2014).

However, this process was interrupted by the Japanese invasion and the outbreak of the Second Sino-Japanese War (1937–1945). China’s meteorological observation network suffered great losses. A great many observation stations were destroyed and abandoned (Wu, 2014). Significant gaps therefore existed in the meteorological data of almost all the observation stations in eastern and middle China during the period 1937 to 1945, including Beijing, Shanghai, Qingdao and other famous stations with extensive observation records (Shen et al., 2016; Wu, 1999; Dong, 1994; Liu, 2011).

In addition, the earliest meteorological observation station in the South China Sea was constructed on the Dongsha Islands (also known as the Pratas Islands) in 1926 by the Chinese government (Guo, 2015). Official meteorological observations on the Nansha Islands (also known as the Spratly Islands) commenced in 1946 (Zheng, 1947).

The founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949 began a new era for meteorology in China. A nationwide and uniform meteorological observation network was soon established. Since then continuous observations never ceased, including during the chaotic period of the Cultural Revolution (1966–1976).

Chinese Historical Climate Researches

Early Historical Climate Researches

Distinguished Chinese meteorologist Chu Ko-chen (also spelled “Co-chin Chu” and “Zhu Kezhen”) (竺可楨‎) was the pioneer of Chinese historical climatology, and this research field is usually considered to be built upon the foundation he laid (Lv et al., 1984; Ge, Fang, & Zheng, 2002).

However, Chinese historical climatology may actually be traced back to Ellsworth Huntington’s pioneering research in the 1900s. Huntington, an American geographer at Yale University, explored the ruins of civilizations and dried lakes in the Xinjiang area of Northwest China; he suggested there was a causal relationship between climatic change and the collapse of oasis civilizations in this region (Huntington, 1901).

In the mid-1920s, Chu Ko-chen finished a series of preliminarily researches of the climate evolution and the droughts in China in the previous 2,000 years, with special focus on the climate during the Southern Song Dynasty (1127–1279) (Chu, 1925a, 1925b, 1925c). More researches on this topic were published during the 1930s and 1940s. For example, historians Meng Wentong and Hu Houxuan interpreted the archaeological evidence and oracle bone scripts and suggested that the climate of northern China in ancient times (ca. 2,000 to 3,000 years ago) was warmer than that of the 20th century (Meng, 1930, 1934; Hu, 1944).

A few decades later, Chu Ko-chen finished a more detailed research project concerning the climate change history of China and published a paper entitled “A Preliminary Study of the Climatic Fluctuations During the Past 5000 Years in China” (Chu, 1972). The paper is widely accepted as a monumental work in this field (Shi, 1994; Ge et al., 2002), although it is somewhat problematic in terms of its interpretations of some historical sources (Mou, 1996).

Reconstruction of Chronologies of Temperature and Precipitation

Reconstruction of lengthy chronologies of major climate indexes, in particular temperature and precipitation, is of key importance for climate research. Although Chinese historical records are quite extensive, they vary widely by region and time periods, thus hampering the reconstruction of lengthy chronologies of China.

Chu (1972) preliminarily reconstructed the chronology of temperature change in China for the previous 5,000 years. Ge et al. (2003) synthesized the different kinds of meteorological records in Chinese historical sources as well as the meteorological observation archives of the Qing Dynasty (1644–1912). This study also reconstructed the chronology of winter half-year temperature change in China over the past 2,000 years.

With regard to precipitation, chronologies of relatively small regions are more effective, as the areal differentiation of precipitation is significant. The central Meteorological Administration of China systematically examined the records from past local gazettes, and they compiled the yearly charts of dryness/wetness in China for the past 500 years. This data set has been widely used to study the precipitation variability of China. For example, Shen et al. (2007, 2008) investigated the anomalous precipitation events in the valleys of the Yellow and Yangtze rivers during the past 500 years and found that coherent floods dominated the 18th and 19th centuries, whereas coherent droughts occurred frequently in the 17th and 20th centuries.

Another type of historical source of precipitation would be the Qing Dynasty archives Qing yu lu and Yu xue fen cun. As stated above, they have been used to analyze the precipitation variability since around the early 18th century.

The Medieval Warm Period and Little Ice Age Studies

The Medieval Warm Period (ca. 1000–1300) and Little Ice Age (ca. 1600–1900) are two typical periods of climate history (Crowley & Lowery, 2000; Bradley et al., 2003; Jones & Briffa, 2001).

Chu Ko-chen suggested that the Medieval Warm Period did not exist in China, and the Song Dynasty (960–1279) was a cold period, whereas the climate during the Sui and Tang dynasties (581–907) was warm (Chu, 1972). However, Zhang (1994) examined the historical records of the northern limits of the plantation of a few subtropical crops and argued that the 13th century was warm in China. The existence of the Little Ice Age in China has long been recognized (Chu, 1972; Zheng, 1982; Wang & Wang, 1991).

Climatic Effects of Volcanic Eruptions

Large-scale volcanic eruptions significantly affected China’s climate during the past 2,000 years and were related to abrupt cooling and other meteorological hazards.

There were abrupt cooling and dimmed sun in China after the c. 40 bc volcanic eruption (Bicknell, 1993). Fei et al. (2007) discussed the relationship between the large c. 620 volcanic eruption and abrupt cooling in 626–629 in China and adjacent areas, which further resulted in the collapse of the Eastern Turkic Khanate on the Mongolian Plateau. The ca. 930 Eldgjá eruption in Iceland was the volcanic event with the largest SO2 emission of the past 2,000 years. It was followed by an abrupt cooling in 939–942 in China (Fei & Zhou, 2006, 2015). The 1600 Huaynaputina eruption in Peru was followed by an abnormally cool summer, a hard winter, as well as epidemic outbreaks in 1601–1602 in China and Korea (Fei & Zhou, 2009; Fei et al., 2016). Abrupt cooling and economic crises hit China after the 1815 Indonesian Tambora eruption (Zhang et al., 1992; Huang, 1992). Southwest China was hit especially hard, and there were cool summers, extreme frosts, and crop failures in the late 1810s (Yang et al., 2005).

Volcanic eruptions also affected precipitation variability in China. Shen et al. (2007, 2008) discovered that many of the extreme droughts in China during the past 500 years were related to volcanic eruptions. In addition, Zhang (2007) examined the documentary records about vivid sunrise/sunset, dimmed sun, and other volcanism-related atmospheric phenomena in China since the early 16th century.

Dust Storm Studies

Dust storms are major meteorological hazards in northern China. The dust storms in China were first investigated utilizing the relevant records in official histories and local gazetteers (Di fang zhi) (Zhang, 1983, 1984). A total of 1,156 records were identified in China in the period 1150 bc1933 ad (Zhang, 1983, 1984), which indicated that the data source of the dust storms was far from complete. Scholars made considerable efforts to find more records (Chen, 2002; Deng & Jiang, 2006); however, the incomplete recording of dust storms was the inherent limitation of these sources. Official histories and local gazetteers proved to be more effective in case studies than in reconstruction of chronologies (Zhang & Sun, 2001; Wang, 2008; Fei et al., 2012).

The daily and quasi-daily dust-related weather observations in some historical diaries are promising sources. Such records in most of the diaries are scattershot, but the diary of Weng Tonghe was found to contain daily dust-related weather observations in Beijing during the period 1860–1898 (Fei et al., 2005). Interestingly, Weng Xincun, Weng Tonghe’s father, also kept daily dust-related weather observations in Beijing during the mid-19th century (Yang et al., 2013).

Plum Rain (Meiyu) Study

Plum rain (Meiyu, meaning “continuous rain in early summer”) is a unique meteorological phenomenon in middle-eastern China, South Korea, and southern Japan. About 1,800 years ago, the definition of plum rain (Meiyu) began to appear in some geographical literatures. The earliest one is possibly the Fengsu Tongyi (風俗通義‎) [Introduction of customs] by a scholar named Ying Shao (應劭‎) (ca. 153–196), and it was recorded that Wu yue luo mei feng, jianghuai yiwei xinfeng, you you linyin, hao wei meiyu (五月落梅風江淮以為信風又有霖霪號為梅雨‎). The English translation is as follows: “The wind in the fifth month ripened the plum, and it was a trade wind in the valleys of the Huaihe River and the lower reaches of the Yangtze River. At the same time, it rained continuously, and was called meiyu” (Ying, 2010). A book titled Jing Chu Sui Shi Ji (荊楚歲時記‎. Records of time and seasons in the Jing and Chu areas) by Zong Lin 宗懍‎ (502–565 ad) recorded that Xiazhi qian ming huangmei yu (夏至前名黃梅雨‎. The English translation is as follows: “the rain prior to the summer solstice was called plum rain.” Zong, 1987, ca. 550 ad).

The Qing Dynasty archives (e.g. Qing yu lu and Yu xue fen cun) are particularly helpful for the reconstruction of plum rain variability during the past 300 years (Zhang & Wang, 1991; Ge et al., 2007). Daily weather records in some historical diaries were also employed to reconstruct plum rain variability of some selected periods during the past 400 years (Man et al., 2007; Liu et al., 2011).

Typhoon Study

Typhoon is a major meteorological hazard in eastern and southern China. As early as the 5th century, typhoon was recognized by people of southern China as a distinct meteorological phenomenon (Institute of Natural History, Chinese Academy of Sciences, 1984). A specific term, ju or jufeng (‎. 颶風‎), was accordingly coined, with rather accurate specifications given to it. A typhoon that struck Shandong Province of eastern China in 816 would be the earliest recorded tropical cyclone landfall in China, and perhaps also in the world (Louie & Liu, 2003). The variability and pattern of typhoon landfalls in China during the past 1,000 years have been intensively studied. During cold periods, the tracks of typhoon shifted to the south, resulting in fewer landfalls in eastern China, and more typhoons hit southern China (Liu et al., 2001; Fogarty et al., 2006).

Social Effects of Climate Change

Hsu (1998) discussed the relationship between abrupt climatic cooling and population collapse in Chinese history. Lee et al. (2008) statistically verified that temperature change correlated positively with population growth in China. Case study is another perspective for the climate-population interrelation researches. Fei and Zhou (2015) identified that extreme drought and locust plague could be responsible for the population collapse and decline of the Later Jin Dynasty (936–947) in northern China. During the 17th to 19th centuries, frequent drought and other extreme climatic events caused famine, and further resulting in immigration from northern China (Hebei and Shandong provinces) to northeastern China (Manchuria) (Fang et al., 2007, 2013). Lee and Zhang (2013) suggested that population pressure and climatic deterioration together caused rebellions and further resulted in population collapses during the late Ming Dynasty (1368–1644 ad) and the Taiping Rebellion (1850–1860s).

Climatic change and dynastic transitions in Chinese history has long attracted the interests of researchers (Hinsch, 1988; Fan, 2010). Zhang et al. (2005, 2006) quantitatively evaluated the relationship between climatic change, war occurrences, and dynastic transitions in China and statistically verified the connection between them. A widely known case is the cause-effect relationship between climate deterioration in 1620s to 1640s and the collapse of the Ming Dynasty, and a recent study quantitatively verified the cause-effect relation (Mote & Twitchett, 1998; Zheng et al., 2014). The collapse of the Xin Dynasty (8–23 ad) would also be related to the famines that were caused by frequent meteorological disasters (Li, 2015; Zeng, 2010). Besides, climatic deteriorations would also be partially responsible for the collapses of the nomadic tribes in northern China and the adjacent areas (e.g., the fall of the Hun tribes in the 1st century (Wang, 2012) and the sudden collapses of the Turkic and Uyghur Khanates in the 7th and 9th centuries (Fei et al., 2007; Ding, 2001).

In the desert regions of northwest China, climatic change could be a major cause of the evolution of oases, and oases were usually abandoned during dry periods (Wang et al., 2003; Li & Xu, 2008). The temperature change correlated significantly with the fluctuations of the snowlines of the mountains in northwestern China and southwestern China (Yu, 1996; Qu & Wang, 2006).

Agriculture was significantly affected by climatic change, particularly precipitation change, during the past 2,000 years. Precipitation correlates positively with crop harvests near Xi’an during the past 300 years (Hao et al., 2003). Long-term temperature change has significant effects on the distribution of some crops, in particular, the subtropical crops. Oranges are sensitive to winter temperatures, and the and the northern limit of orange planting moved south/north during cold/warm periods (Man, 1999). The evolution of the distribution of many other subtropical crops, trees, and animals were also affected in various ways by long-term temperature change during the past 2,000 years (Lan, 1991, 1995; Wen, 2006). Historically, locust plague was a major type of agricultural hazard in China. Drought and abnormally hot weather were major meteorological factors that could trigger locust outbreaks throughout China’s history (Zhang, 2008; Yu et al., 2009). Temperature change on decadal scale was found to be also positively correlated with the frequency of locust outbreaks (Stige et al., 2007; Qiu, 2009; Yu et al., 2009).

Concluding Remarks

There are a large amount of meteorological records available in Chinese historical sources over the past 3,000 years. Precipitation reports to the central government were officially organized for the past 2,000 years, whereas only those of the Qing Dynasty are extant. Modern meteorological observations were introduced to China by the Western missionaries in the 17th century, and continuous meteorological observation records have been available since the 19th century.

Modern meteorological science in China began in in the late 19th century. Following the founding of the Republic of China, modern meteorological cause officially commenced. The national meteorological observatory was founded, and meteorological journals were issued beginning in the 1910s.

Historical climate researches began in the early 20th century. Several chronologies of the temperature change in China during the past 2,000 years have been reworked. Chronologies of dust storms, plum rain (Meiyu), and typhoons were also established. Researches indicated the existence of typical periods, including the Medieval Warm Period and Little Ice Age. Researchers have discovered short-scale significant abrupt cooling following large volcanic eruptions. Climatic change was found to be significantly correlated with the war occurrences and dynastic cycles in historical China.

All in all, previous researches have achieved dramatic progress in the fields of meteorological history and historical climate of China. Future researches could further examine the anecdotal meteorological records scattered through all kinds of historical sources, such as the oracle-bones and historical diaries. The early modern meteorological observation archives, particularly those in the imperial maritime custom archives, also need systematic examinations. Discovery of new meteorological records is crucial for improving the understanding of China’s historical climate. Most of the previous researches on the social effects of climatic change focus on the statistical relationship, and case studies will be particularly helpful to verify the cause-effect relationship.


This research was supported by the Grant of Key Research Institute in University (No. 16JJD770010) and the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD) Scholarship. The constructive suggestions of Professors Hans von Storch and Andrea L. Balbo are much appreciated.


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