World History Connected Home    
Home List journal issues Table of contents
Printer-friendly format          

Book Review


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 the rule. 1
     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. 2
     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. 3
     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. 4
     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 lifespans.  5
     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'.  6
     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. 7
     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.  8
     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"). 9
     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.  10
Jerome Klena
University of Hawaii-Manoa

Home | List Journal Issues | Table of Contents
© 2008 by the Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois
Content in World History Connected is intended for personal, noncommercial use only. You may not reproduce, publish, distribute, transmit, participate in the transfer or sale of, modify, create derivative works from, display, or in any way exploit the World History Connected database in whole or in part without the written permission of the copyright holder.

Terms and Conditions of Use