The Many Values of Night Soil in Wartime China

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<jats:title>Abstract</jats:title> <jats:p>In March 1940, leaders of the Chongqing night-soil trade union sent a petition to the governor of China’s Sichuan province to contest health officials’ attempts to seize the night-soil industry. Cleanliness in Chongqing, the national capital during the War of Resistance against Japan (1937–45), held profound significance for China’s hygienic modernity, but Nationalist authorities failed to ensure it. On their part, the petitioners failed to recognize the centrality of odour in health officials’ agenda. These joint failures left the wartime capital mired in muck. This article employs microhistorical analysis of the 1940 petition to highlight a significant shift in olfactory sensibility. Comparison with a similar instance in nearby Hankou eleven years later, when Communist cadres succeeded in breaking the local night-soil gang, elucidates key distinctions between the Nationalist and Communist states. The conclusion considers what might be possible if we imagine using night soil to fertilize soils not as an anti-modern practice but as a sustainable means of processing waste and caring for our planet. To regain a portion of night soil’s many values, we must conquer the obstacles of disease transmission and disgust. The former is a technical problem for which solutions already exist; the latter is a formidable social problem.</jats:p>






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Barnes, Nicole Elizabeth (2023). The Many Values of Night Soil in Wartime China. Past and Present, 259(1). pp. 194–228. 10.1093/pastj/gtac021 Retrieved from

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Nicole Elizabeth Barnes

Associate Professor of History

I research public health and medicine in twentieth-century China from a gendered perspective, incorporating the changing life stories of men and women into my analysis of how health regulations and medical practices reflect Chinese society's principal values as well as the assumptions and political goals of state actors. 

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