Tigers, Rice, Silk, and Silt: Environment and Economy in Late Imperial South China

By Robert B. Marks | Go to book overview

1
"FIRS AND PINES A HUNDRED
SPANS ROUND":
THE NATURAL ENVIRONMENT OF LINGNAN

To begin this study with a chapter subtitled "the natural environment" followed by one on "human settlement" presents something of a false dichotomy between nature on the one hand and people on the other, for as ecologists have insisted, human beings are a part of a broader ecosystem. Moreover, people are "in" the environment in another sense as well: as the observers. To describe the natural environment of south China requires looking through two lenses, one of which has been crafted in our times, the other of which is provided by Chinese sources. Our times focus the description in a particular way. Historians have only lately begun to locate their work within the context of "environmental history," and with good reason, for it was in the 1960s and 1970s that scientists' warning bells about the dangers of environmental degradation began to be heard. Historians cannot be blamed too much for creating the field of environmental history only in the context of these contemporary concerns about pollution of the land and air, depletion of energy sources, deforestation of the tropics, and global warming. Given this context, the kinds of questions environmental historians have been asking about the past have been conditioned by these contemporary concerns. I too have been concerned about global warming, the destruction of forests and wetlands, and the fate of the large cats, and these concerns have found their way into this book, certainly opening up some avenues of investigation, but just as surely closing down others.

Just as the issues of our times filter the ways in which we perceive the environment, so too did the concerns and views of the people who left written records select out what they saw and reported in their documents, whether these observers lived in the tenth or the eighteenth century. For better or worse, these observers were mostly Chinese, with all of the literary and organizational skills they possessed, but also with beliefs, biases, and prejudices about other peoples and about nature. Thus, even if we want to know more about forests and the way of life of non-Chinese inhabitants, for instance, we have to do so through the eyes of people who placed the highest value on settled agriculture. Sometimes we might learn what we want to know, but at other times the Chinese observers may have been blinded by their value system

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