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Durham University

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Dr Chris Courtney, PhD

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Assistant Professor (Modern Chinese History) in the Department of History

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I am a social and environmental historian of modern China. My previous research has focussed upon environmental and anthropogenic disasters in the 19th and 20th centuries. I am particularly interested in the middle Yangzi region and the city of Wuhan, where I have lived and conducted research for over five years.

My monograph, entitled The Nature of Disaster in China, is the first major study of the 1931 Central China Flood, a largely forgotten catastrophe that killed in excess of two million people. I analyse this disaster from a variety of perspectives, seeking to explain why its humanitarian consequences were so devastating by examining the ecological, cultural, and political impact of floodwater. 

I have 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.

My current research focusses on the problem of heat in modern Chinese cities. Using a combination of archival and oral history I am examining how people coped with extreme temperatures through a period of rapid cultural, political and technological change. I explore how emergent technologies such as ice factories, electic fans, and air conditioning transformed the cultural and social landscape of urban China. This is part of a broader collaborative project with historians and other urban researchers in Singapore, India, and China, which is designed to examine the problem of urban heat islands in the past, present and future. 

Prior to my appointment at Durham, I held a lectureship in Modern Chinese History at the University of Southampton, and two research fellowships at Gonville and Caius College, University of Cambridge, and the Asia Research Institute, National University of Singapore. 

I welcome enquiries from students interested in studying the history of modern China or the environment at MA or PhD level. Durham boasts a wealth of material on these subjects across its library, archive and museum collections. 

Research Groups

Department of History

Research Projects

Department of History

Research Interests

  • China
  • Disasters
  • Environment
  • Wuhan

Selected Publications

Authored book

Chapter in book

Journal Article

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