The Retreat of the Elephants: An Environmental History of China

By Paton, Michael | The China Journal, July 2006 | Go to article overview

The Retreat of the Elephants: An Environmental History of China


Paton, Michael, The China Journal


The Retreat of the Elephants: An Environmental History of China, by Mark Elvin. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2004. xxviii + 564 pp. US$39.95 (hardcover), US$22.00 (paperback).

In the first lecture of an environmental geology course at the University of New South Wales in 1974, Dr Alberto Albani drew his finger along the coastline of a map of Italy and stated quite dramatically that all of it was dead and that he wanted to use the course to provide his students with the knowledge and skills to enable them to be at the forefront in not allowing such a situation to occur here in Australia. It is in this context of the destruction of the environment by enduring northern hemisphere communities that I wish to review Mark Elvin's recent offering on the environmental history of China.

The Retreat of the Elephants is a particularly apt title for a historical description of humanity's steady competition with and negation of the "wild" in China, the "Three Thousand Years War" as Elvin dubs it. He attempts to understand this process through translations of various religious, political, philosophical, literary and historical Chinese sources, including gazetteers, poems, imperial decrees and private reflections. Such sources enable us to comprehend both the changes wrought on the environment through economic necessity and the changing attitudes in China to the environment over time.

The structuring of Elvin's argument into sections entitled "Patterns", "Particularities" and "Perceptions" enhances this dual purpose of describing the process of environmental change as well as humanity's conception of it. "Patterns" describes the process in terms of both space and time, particularly focusing on the deforestation of China and the foibles of maintaining man-made irrigation and water transport systems over the long term. "Particularities" offers three case studies on very different areas: Jiaxing, on the coast south of the lower Yangzi delta; Guizhou Province in the subtropical southwest and its relationship to the Miao people; and Zunhua in the north on the border with Manchuria. These case studies reinforce the folly of trying to think of a country as large as China as having one generalizable environment or one general approach to the environment. "Perceptions" describes in greater detail thoughts and feelings about nature in China over time from the personal experiences of former officials retired to the countryside to the imperial belief in the relationship between morality (or lack of) and its effect on the environment.

What is particularly poignant is Elvin's conclusion that perceptions or beliefs that were characteristically Chinese had comparatively minimal effect on interaction between humanity and the environment compared to the short-term struggle for power and profit, what Elvin dubs "war and the logic of short-term advantage". I would go so far as to argue that the chapter with this title should be compulsory reading for all those who consider that chauvinism and comparative military advantage can be equated with progress or who think that orthodox economics is the basis of history. …

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