China is a river civilization, and European and North American countries are marine civilizations.
River civilization is good at dealing with extreme disasters, while ocean civilization is good at exploiting and expanding.
River civilization is based on farming, and river-taming is a major challenge in preventing floods and saving arable lands. River-taming calls for uniting the masses, so the core of river civilization is collectivism, and individual freedom has to submit to the collective interest.
After all, if an individual’s act of freedom sabotaged the public’s entire effort against floods, the consequence could be disastrous.
Chinese civilization spreads along the Yangtze River and the Yellow River. Rivers deeply imprinted on the Chinese culture by farming and river-taming.
Marine civilization is based on trade, and value is realized through exploration, which requires courage and adventure. Therefore, the core of marine civilization is individualism and the associated personal freedom.
Western civilization originated in Greece and Rome in the Mediterranean. The trade among Mediterranean countries imprinted an ocean mark on Western civilization.
River civilization relies on cultivated land, a fixed asset that can only be protected but not transferred. Therefore, the first response of river civilization against disasters is to stand up to them regardless of the cost.
Marine civilization relies on currency, a liquid asset that can be easily carried and transferred at any time. Therefore, the first response of marine civilization in the face of a disaster is to weigh the costs and benefits:
If benefits far exceed costs, it is worth putting up a fight; otherwise, it may be wiser to sneak away, even if it means leaving devastating flooding behind.
Throughout China’s history, records of ancient river-taming by Dayu, the Dujiangyan Irrigation System by Li Bing, modern Yangtze River flood fighting, Wenchuan earthquake rescue, and the COVID-19 are all cases of standing up to natural disasters.
When facing a calamity, from leaders of the country to the grassroots, all people make a concerted effort to contain the outbreak at all costs.
There is a strong contrast between river civilization and ocean civilization in dealing with disasters; the COVID-19 is the only the latest example.
Let’s compare the Black Death in the Middle Ages and the Northeast Pestilence in the early 1900s.
The Black Death in medieval Europe is also a plague spread mainly by rats. It reduced the European population by 1/3 and killed 25 million people.
Facing the Black Death, the nobles and officials with large amounts of wealth and resources fled overseas and the countryside together with their servants and vessels of gold and silver and left behind the civilians’ plight in the city. Isn’t this a familiar scene in New York at the beginning of the pandemic?
Although monarchs of various countries understood the severity of the plague and were determined to fight it, they were just the larger lords of many.
They did not have a top-down, sound administrative system or the ability to mobilize personnel and resources to fight the plague quickly.
So they could only watch their subjects die in masses and do nothing about it.
A similar plague broke out in Northeast China in the late Qing Dynasty, one of China’s weakest eras in history.
On October 25, 1910, a plague broke out in Manzhouli and quickly spread to Harbin, the center of Northeast China, on November 8. The epidemic soon spread like a river bursting its banks; it swept across the Northeast Plain and spread to several neighboring provinces.
People with critical conditions often had their entire family infected and killed. The prevention measure was to burn houses of those infected and died, and the soldiers and police officers who performed this duty also died afterward. For a while, all places were shrouded in the shadow of death, from the city to the countryside.
This plague happened a year before the Qing government was overthrown, and the dynasty’s at its weakest. Even so, this rotten government still managed to contain this horrible plague, with only 60,000 people died in the end.
A large part of the credit goes to a man named Wu Liande, appointed by the Qing government as the chief medical officer to take charge of the epidemic prevention.
Wu was a doctoral medical expert and public health expert at the University of Cambridge at 31.
Wu first requested all patients and those who had been in contact with them to be quarantined. The Qing government provided full support to all of Wu’s requirements.
According to Wu’s plan, the government transferred 1,160 soldiers from a nearby city to implement traffic control in the affected area and zoning.
The area was divided into four zones: white, red, yellow, and blue. All residents were strictly confined to their zones and forbidden to cross the line.
Initially, the Qing government provided the deceased a crude coffin for burial; but as the death toll increased, the corpses were placed directly in the cemetery. Wu believed the only way to dispose of these bodies safely is centralized cremation, which was taboo at the time.
Wu knew only a decree from the Emperor could make this happen. He took the local officials and squires to the cemetery for a walk and let them understand the condition’s gravity.
While Wu pleaded to the Emperor, local officials and squires also jointly applied to the province’s governor and implored cremation approval. In the end, the Qing government agreed to this request and issued an Emperor’s decree.
As Wu organized mass burning of corpses, the Tsarist Russia epidemic prevention department also sent people for observation and later followed the same approach.
Dr. Wu Liande made an outstanding contribution to the containment of this plague. Still, without the support of the Qing government’s administrative system from top to bottom, Dr. Wu would not be able to exert his great ability.
Back to the current epidemic, a large part of the credit why COVID-19 was contained in China so quickly goes to China being a river civilization, which comes with concerted disaster response in its gene.
In the maritime civilization, in the face of extreme disasters, the powerful are more likely to flee and leave the civilians behind.