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The Retreat of the Elephants

The Retreat of the Elephants: An Environmental History of China

Mark Elvin
Copyright Date: 2004
Published by: Yale University Press
Pages: 592
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  • Book Info
    The Retreat of the Elephants
    Book Description:

    This is the first environmental history of China during the three thousand years for which there are written records. It is also a treasure trove of literary, political, aesthetic, scientific, and religious sources, which allow the reader direct access to the views and feelings of the Chinese people toward their environment and their landscape.Elvin chronicles the spread of the Chinese style of farming that eliminated the habitat of the elephants that populated the country alongside much of its original wildlife; the destruction of most of the forests; the impact of war on the environmental transformation of the landscape; and the re-engineering of the countryside through water-control systems, some of gigantic size. He documents the histories of three contrasting localities within China to show how ecological dynamics defined the lives of the inhabitants. And he shows that China in the eighteenth century, on the eve of the modern era, was probably more environmentally degraded than northwestern Europe around this time.Indispensable for its new perspective on long-term Chinese history and its explanation of the roots of China's present-day environmental crisis, this book opens a door into the Chinese past.

    eISBN: 978-0-300-13353-0
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-vii)
  3. List of Illustrations
    (pp. viii-viii)
  4. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-xii)
    Mark Elvin
  5. Permissions
    (pp. xiii-xiv)
  6. Conventions
    (pp. xv-xvi)
  7. Introductory Remarks
    (pp. xvii-xxviii)

    This book is an overview of the environmental history of China. The span covered is about four thousand years, but weighted toward the last thousand. The main reason for this is the greater availability of relevant materials for the more recent period.¹ It is based on the findings of other scholars, Chinese, Japanese, and Western, and on my own researches. These include historical geography, local histories, poetry touching the environment, systems of belief about and representations of nature, local demography, and water-control systems.

    The first aim is to sketch the factual record, so far as we know it at present....

  8. Patterns

    • 1 Landmarks and Time-marks
      (pp. 3-8)

      The environmental history of China covers a varied space. The core is about 1,000 miles east to west and 1,200 miles north to south. Readers not already familiar with Chinese geography need points of reference if they are to place stories and analyses in a context.

      A first approximation is given in the accompanying schematic map. This shows present-day China’s ten main regions simplified almost, but not quite, to the point of caricature. Readers who know China well should glance at it just long enough to note the definitions of the regions adopted here, as every important place-name is followed...

    • 2 Humans v. Elephants: The Three Thousand Years War
      (pp. 9-18)

      Four thousand years ago there were elephants in the area that was later to become Beijing (in the Northeast), and in most of the rest of what was later to be China. Today, the only wild elephants in the People’s Republic are those in a few protected enclaves in the Southwest, up against the border with Burma. The stages of this long retreat south and west are shown in Map 2, ‘The Retreat of the Elephants’, which is based on the research of the late Wen Huanran.¹

      That elephants were abundant in the Northeast, Northwest, and West during the archaic...

    • 3 The Great Deforestation: An Overview
      (pp. 19-39)

      The following poem was written by Liu Zongyuan, a philosopher and essayist who lived around the turn of the eighth and ninth centuries CE. It symbolizes the longest story in China’s environmental history:¹

      The official guardians’ axes have spread through a thousand hills,

      At the Works Department’s order hacking rafter-beams and billets.

      Of ten trunks cut in the woodlands’ depths, only one gets hauled away.

      Ox-teams strain at their traces — till the paired yoke-shafts break.

      Great-girthed trees of towering height lie blocking the forest tracks,

      A tumbled confusion of lumber, as flames on the hillside crackle.

      Not even the last...

    • 4 The Great Deforestation: Regions and Species
      (pp. 40-85)

      Let us be more systematic. At the coarsest focus, there would currently be three main zones of vegetation cover in China if there had been no human interference. The first is that where there is little or no cover, mostly various kinds of deserts in the Far West. The second is the world of grasses, meadows at the higher altitudes and steppes lower down. This covers western Manchuria, inner Mongolia, the western edges of the Northwest, and most of Tibet. The third is what would be mostly a domain of trees and substantial shrubs, had agriculture not become widespread.


    • 5 War and the Logic of Short-term Advantage
      (pp. 86-114)

      There is a problem. The three previous chapters have recounted a story that started after the process of Chinese-style premodern economic development was already under way. What was it, though, that set this process in motion in the first place? Or, at least,acceleratedit dramatically compared to what had been happening during the five or six thousand years immediately following the ending of the last ice age around ten thousand years ago?

      The truthful answer is that, currently, we don’t know. Broad perspectives are easier to survey here than detailed historical realities. For these latter, we have to push...

    • 6 Water and the Costs of System Sustainability
      (pp. 115-164)

      Control of water has long been at the heart of farming—especially irrigated rice production—and of bulk transport in the most densely populated parts of China. Hence at the center of its later premodern economic history. Over the long run, and moving up an extended learning curve with many failures, it was by world-historical standards both successful and sustained.¹ The eventual price was high: commitment to a system that required incessant and expensive maintenance and that, after a certain point had been reached, was all but impossible to expand further. The environment imposed limitations on the availability of suitable...

  9. Particularities

    • 7 Richness to Riches: The Story of Jiaxing
      (pp. 167-215)

      Jiaxing is to the south of the lower Yangzi delta, on the coast of the east region. In many ways its story over the last two millennia can be taken as a model for most of China. It was far from being one of the earliest areas of traditional Chinese intensive urban–agricultural growth. The major centers of this were in the Northeast, the Northwest, and a part of the West. But because it was something of a latecomer, compared to these cultural heartlands, it had the advantage that we can glean a notion of what it was likebefore...

    • 8 Chinese Colonialism: Guizhou and the Miao
      (pp. 216-272)

      Guizhou province was another world. Guiyang, the capital prefecture, perched at 1250 meters atop the headwaters of four river basins.¹ Its peach trees and plum trees were famous for a “beauty and fragrance that dazzled the eyes” when in blossom, and its climate was without extremes of hot or cold.² Around it spread a subtropical labyrinth of mountains and plunging river valleys. Snakes, monkeys, tigers, deer, and many other animals and birds flourished in its forests. Malaria lay in wait in some places, though not in others. Metallic ores like cinnabar, from which quicksilver is extracted, lured in Chinese merchants...

    • 9 The Riddle of Longevity: Why Zunhua?
      (pp. 273-318)

      People lived longer in the late-imperial department of Zunhua in the mountains along the old Ming northern frontier (on the border between the Northeast and Manchuria). The expectation of life at birth for a woman was in the high forties, twice as long as in Jiaxing.¹ Ferreting out possible reasons for these differences is the most important question underlying this chapter on an area that came by Qing times to flourish even though its development was limited by environmental restraints.

      Was Zunhua somehow healthier? If so, why?

      Let us begin with a negative. The latest local gazetteer from imperial times,...

  10. Perceptions

    • 10 Nature as Revelation
      (pp. 321-368)

      Through more than three thousand years, the Chinese refashioned China. They cleared the forests and the original vegetation cover, terraced its hillslopes, and partitioned its valley floors into fields. They diked, dammed, and diverted its rivers and lakes. They hunted or domesticated its animals and birds; or else destroyed their habitats as a by-product of the pursuit of economic improvements. By late-imperial times there was little that could be called ‘natural’ left untouched by this process of exploitation and adaptation.

      At the same time there developed among the elite an artistic and philosophical attitude toward the landscape that saw it...

    • 11 Science and Superfauna
      (pp. 369-412)

      The medieval Chinese poets’ perceptions of their environment need to be compared with what was observed and imagined by those of a scientific cast of mind. In other words, their insights need to be complemented by an examination of the styles ofobservationand conceptions oftruthas these affected the understanding of their environment by the Chinese in historical times. Since ideas and perceptions are subtly but indissolubly linked in two-way interaction, what did theythinkthey saw? And why? How did they evaluate thecredibilityof their information and theoretical constructs?

      The richest material for this inquiry comes...

    • 12 Imperial Dogma and Personal Perspectives
      (pp. 413-453)

      There was no one view of nature that can be calledthe‘Chinese’ view. There was not even a spectrum. Rather a kaleidoscope of fragments most of which reflected something of most of the other fragments. The demonstration of this for the final centuries of the empire is the task of the present chapter. It falls into two contrasting parts: the imperial ideology and the multiple personal perspectives of poetry. Considerable investments in prestige and publicity in official circles went for about a century into maintaining the state orthodoxy, but it seems to have had a surprisingly limited impact. The...

  11. Concluding Remarks
    (pp. 454-471)

    It is clear from the foregoing pages that by late-imperial times, and in some cases much earlier, the Chinese environment was under significant ‘pressure’ from human economic activities. But was this ‘pressure’ any more intense than that on Europe’s environment around 1800? Or was it even conceivablylessintense, as Ken Pomeranz, focusing above all on England and the Netherlands, has suggested?¹ If an answer could be given to this question it would help us to make an intelligent guess as to at least one aspect of the role played by environmental factors in Europe’s pioneering breakthrough into early modern...

  12. Notes
    (pp. 472-529)
  13. Bibliography
    (pp. 530-547)
  14. Index
    (pp. 548-564)