Elvin, Mark. The Retreat of the Elephants: An Environmental History of
China (Yale University Press: New Haven, 2004). 564 pp., $39.95.
The publication of Alfred Crosby's The
Columbian Exchange opened a new field in the discipline of history.
Crosby's environmental history provided historians with an alternative to
the predominantly political, economic, and social metanarrative which privileged
Euro-American historical experience over those of other peoples. Crosby,
William McNeill, John McNeill, and more recently, Jared Diamond are among
those who have built on The Columbian Exchange to create this new
environmental history. Still, many works of environmental history examine
Western interaction with the non-West rather than focusing on non-Western
countries themselves. Non-Western environmental histories such as Judith
Shapiro's Mao's War Against Nature, remain the exception rather than
One important recent contribution to the field
of environmental history in this regard is Mark Elvin's The Retreat of
the Elephants: An Environmental History of China. Elvin's is a four-thousand-year
overview of Chinese environmental history. During this time, Chinese deforestation
gradually pushed elephants, once found roaming the vicinity of Beijing,
southwest, until they occupied only a few small areas on the China-Burma
border. Despite the title, elephants do not play a central role in Elvin's
narrative as much as they provide it with an overarching theme. That is,
the story of the elephants stands as the "reverse image in space and time
of that of the economic development and environmental transformation of
premodern China". To mark this transformation, Elvin draws on a myriad of
European, Japanese and Chinese sources, incorporating "historical geography,
local histories, poetry touching the environment, [Chinese] systems of belief
about the representations of nature, local demography, and water-control
systems" in his study.
Elvin's divides his study into three sections.
In the first, Patterns, he provides the reader with the big picture
of Chinese environmental history. Here Elvin places long term trends of
deforestation and water control engineering in the context of economic change.
Initially, the Chinese felled trees to clear arable land, and to provide
fuel and building materials. As the Chinese economic infrastructure evolved,
greater exploitation occurred. By the 17th century, the Chinese
economy was remarkably similar to that of Europe just prior to the industrial
revolution. At this time, rival groups struggled to control diminishing
resources, replacing long-term environmental management practices with strategies
aimed at securing more immediate gain.
As China became a more urbanized and militarized
state under the new Qing government, the state played a growing role in
the Chinese economy. This meant that relatively independent, privately owned
farms, craft workshops and businesses fell increasingly under the sway of
government monopolies. The Chinese government's efficient environmental
exploitation under the late Ming and early Qing made it distinctive in the
premodern world. However, the state's intervention helped create an economy
dependent upon large-scale infrastructure. Dredging rivers, maintaining
canals, and controlling floodwaters demanded a steady revenues. The Qing
were unable to "reinvent" their economic structure to meet these demands,
thus "straitjacketing" themselves into a premodern mode of development with
little ability to effect change.
In part two, Particularities,
Elvin provides three case studies to illustrate the consistencies and variations
within his larger model. He first he looks at Jiaxing, a region on the central
east coast that best represents the model. Part of the "advanced" Chinese
core, over-exploitation of natural resources nevertheless forced Jiaxing's
people into more labor-intensive activities. In times of drought, flooding
or locusts, Jiaxing tended to suffer much more than other areas because
the region had lost its "environmental resilience" – that is, forests
in which to hunt and gather food. In Guizhou, a region in the southwestern
interior, Elvin illustrates how Han colonialism worked on the environmental
frontier. Here, the Han government sought to bring the native Miao under
control by cutting down the forests in which the Miao lived. This environmental
warfare enabled the Han Chinese to incorporate the Miao into their colonial
empire. In short, "environmental conditions shaped the condition of warfare,
and warfare shaped the environment" in colonial Han China. Finally, in his
survey of Zunhua, a region on the northeastern border, which remained an
undeveloped area within China, Elvin draws a "negative correlation" between
premodern economic growth and the quality of life. Despite their underdevelopment,
the people of Zunhua enjoyed longer life spans than people in more advanced
regions. For example, the women in Zunhua had twice the life expectancy
as women in Jiaxing. Elvin cautiously attributes this to a "substantial
environmental buffer of wild foods and wild animals" that served to supplement
Zunhua's regular food supply. In short, it was underdevelopment which lengthened
Part three, Perceptions, explores
how the Chinese understood and valued the natural world in which they lived.
Elvin specifically addresses how an elite artistic tradition emerged which
identified the landscape as the "exemplification of the working of the deepest
forces of the cosmos" while simultaneously subjecting that same landscape
to a "process of exploitation and adaptation". Relying almost exclusively
on period poetry, he insists that there was no single, prevailing Chinese
view of nature but rather "a kaleidoscope of fragments most of which reflected
something of most of the other fragments'.
Due to the sheer scope of this work
(four thousand years of Chinese history), it is likely to draw criticism
from various scholars. The many translations of Chinese poetry included
in par three will likely seem excessive to all but the most dedicated Chinese
historians (who probably would have appreciated an appendix offering these
poems in the original Chinese). Further, there is a certain lack of continuity
among the three sections.
Though the book's sheer length will
make it difficult to use in all but graduate and advanced undergraduate
courses on world or environmental history, instructors can cull sections
for beginning students at the high school and college levels. For example,
chapter eight ("Chinese Colonialism: Guizhou and the Miao") could be presented
in tandem with chapter four ("The Fortunate Isles") of Alfred Crosby's Ecological
Imperialism to spark a discussion comparing and contrasting early Chinese
and European colonialism.
Instructors may be disappointed to
find that Elvin stops short of modern China. This can be remedied by adding
Judith Shapiro's Mao's War Against Nature to the syllabus. Chapter
one of Shapiro's book examines Mao's dogged eagerness to create hydroelectric
power, a point well suited to comparison with Elvin's chapter six ("Water
and the Costs of System Sustainability").
In a world history classroom The
Retreat of the Elephants can illustrate the long-term continuity of
Chinese environmental policy from the Grand Canal onward. Because of the
high costs of maintaining hydraulic systems and the greater intensity of
Chinese farming, Elvin argues, Chinese pressures on the environment
are, arguably, greater than those found in contemporary Western Europe.
This perspective puts Elvin at odds with such scholars as Kenneth Pomeranz
(who argues that European environmental pressures were greater). More importantly,
Elvin argues that this environmental decline slowed China's advance toward
modernity and ultimately weakened China's ability to respond to the challenges
posed by Western nations (and subsequently Japan) in the nineteenth century.
Whether or not one agrees with Elvin, his argument compels scholars to reassess
the impact environment has had not only on China's internal development
but also on China's relationships with the larger world.
University of Hawaii-Manoa