"Burning Flying Locusts" (焚飛蝗圖), Chen Chongdi (陳崇砥), Locust Control Manual (治蝗書), Banxi zhai, (1847) 1880 ed.

Project (2016-2017)

The Ethological Theodicy of Locust Infestation in Early Modern China

My project is concerned with the environmental consequences of human interpretations of locust infestation as human behavior (or culture) is conditioned by locust behavior (or ecology) under conditions of early modern uncertainty. Illustrations in Chinese locust control manuals published in the nineteenth century are critical to this approach. They are unambiguous displays of the cultural effects of locust phenotypic plasticity, "density-determined phase polymorphism" (that is, the physical and behavioral transformations of normally solitary grasshoppers into swarming, voracious locusts). These illustrations include images of the regimentation of agriculturalists into pest controllers to exterminate immature locusts before they can sprout wings to become more voracious and harder to catch. These images also show the construction of deforested "niches" around vulnerable agricultural spaces to eradicate locust reproductive habitat preemptively. Here, deforestation reduces the uncertainties of locust reproduction through the deliberate formation of a more predictable, "dead" landscape. The science of animal behavior (ethology) can show how cultural interpretations of locusts as manifestations of divine presence (theodicy) were influenced by locust behavior, which in turn moved humans to transform their environmental spaces.