Asia Time Online - Daily News
Asia Times Chinese
AT Chinese

    Greater China
     Feb 15, 2012

Page 1 of 2
China's timeless tussle with nature

The Great Way is easy
but people are forever taken down sideroads
they look after the palaces
but ignore the fields!
The granaries are empty/but they wear wonderful clothes!

Dao De Jing

Will the march of China's material progress trample the tiger into oblivion? Professor Robert B Marks reviews the Middle Kingdom's environmental history - farming, defeating rivals, disease and taming the Yellow River - as a prelude to calling for measures that protect the big cat in this exclusive interview with Asia Times Online contributor Victor Fic.

Deihl Professor of History at Whittier College in California, Marks


is the author of China: Its Environment and History (World Social Change), which examines the evolution of China's relationship with nature from ancient times to the present day. Fluent in Mandarin, he holds a BA, MA and PhD from the University of Wisconsin, Madison.

Victor Fic: Is your book unique?

Robert B Marks: My new book is trailblazing. Other scholars have done major environmental studies of imperial or modern China, but mine is the first to cover all of China's 10,000-year-long environmental history from the emergence of farming to now.

Robert B Marks in his Whittier College office, October 2009.

How did you prepare to write it?

RM: I received my Phd in Chinese history from the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 1978 and have been at Whittier College since. Now I hold the post of Richard and Billie Deihl Professor of History. I spent a year in Hong Kong doing my dissertation research before Americans could travel in China. I first went to China in 1980, and then every other year through 1989. I've done field research in south China, archival research at the Number One Historical Archives in Beijing at the Imperial Palace and have traveled to many of the places discussed in my book.

VF: Did the Chinese achieve Daoist harmony with nature?

RM: The Chinese have radically altered their environment over several thousand years. Agriculture especially has stripped the natural vegetation. Daoist ideals that there should be "harmony" between people and nature arose during extraordinary environmental change around 300 BC, when there was little "harmony". Confucianism did not directly address what "nature" was, but various philosophers did think deeply about what human nature was - good, perfectible or evil. Regardless of their position, they felt people should be constrained by social customs, leading to the notion that natural systems like the Yellow River should also be constrained.

VF: We often read that the north's "loess" soil was ideal for farming ... why?

RM: In China, one driving force for long-term change combined small family farms, a powerful central state and a market economy. The imperial state made farms the empire's basic taxable unit. Small family farms predominated in part because of the loess soils in north China and rice farming in the south. The soil brings essential nutrients up to the root zone through capillary action.

VF: You skilfully link strategy and ecology. How did the Chinese defeat the pesky Xiongnu?

RM: One cardinal theme in China's environmental history is the relations between Chinese and others. The Xiongnu were pastoralists who exploited the ecological niche of the vast steppe grasslands running across central Asia from Russia to Mongolia.

Their herds of goats, sheep, and horses grazed there, transforming grass, which humans cannot digest, into a form they could, meaning milk and meat. So the Xiongnu way of life depended on grassland ecologies. Rulers in the Han-era (206 BC-220 AD) understood that to defeat them, the ecological basis of their lifestyle must be changed. The Han turned the grasslands into farms. Tun-tian are military agricultural colonies. To conquer and rule new areas, the imperial state used military force, but then first settled soldiers on these new lands to create both the environmental and political infrastructure for additional Chinese migrants to move to these new lands.

VF: Disease also arises in Chinese history. Cite some major examples.

RM: Two thousand years ago, China had many different peoples living and working there. They had different relations to the various local ecologies - nearly 600 different ecosystems ranging from alpine mountains to tropical forests. That ecological diversity, in fact, is a main source of state power because the state could tap a vast array of natural resources like metal and timber. The Han Chinese group migrated from the north around the Yellow River's bend southward into the Yangzi River valley and Lingnan starting around 200 BC. These wetter, warmer climates had different micro organisms and "disease pools", in particular malaria, that killed many Han people. They feared those diseases, and so moved south in large numbers in the 4th and 13th centuries because of invasions from northern grasslands by nomadic peoples.

VF: Why do you assert that China reached its ecological limits in the 1300 AD-1800 AD period?

RM: Both the Ming (1271 AD - 1368 AG) and the Qing (1644 AD - 1911 AD) states expanded their control over areas to the north, the northwest, and the southwest. The Ming, for instance, used the tun-tian to better incorporate Yunnan and Guizhou into their empire. The Qing actively extended control over Tibet and the northwest, all very different environments than China's farmed areas. But the Ming state confronted a northern limit in the Mongolian grasslands and built a wall to demarcate the extent of the former's influence. When the Qing state in the mid-18th century tried to invade Burma [now Myanmar] from Yunnan, malaria turned back its armies.

VF: What explains China's huge population?

RM: Over the past 2,000 years, China's population has been between 25-40% of the world's. That high number occured in both the Song (960 AD - 1279 AD) and the Qing (1644 AD - 1911 AD) era in the 18th century. A large population signals people can extract sufficient energy from their environment to grow through efficient agriculture. China's population growth means that for over 2,000 years it had the world's most productive farms and farmers. Productivity surged from the 16th to the 19th century as they added New World food crops, in particular maize, peanuts, and sweet potatoes. Then Chinese began exploiting the central and southern high lands, causing significant environmental damage such as erosion of hillsides.

VF: For the 1800 AD - 1949 AD stretch, why do you judge it as an "especially complex ... acute crisis?"

RM: In the 19th century, China faced numerous political, economic, and social crises. The Qing (1644 AD - 1911 AD) government failed to fend off Britian's imperialism and lost two Opium Wars. But I argue that China's widespread ecological problems heightened the crisis. It made a massive, very long-term effort to create farming practices like using human waste to recycle critical nutrients into the soil. But evidence shows the soil lacked nitrogen. The Chinese pushed farms into upland areas eroded and denuded hillsides. Vast quantities of sand washed from high ground into the low-lying fields and river valleys. Silt clogged waterways and contributed to floods. The cardinal example was when the Yellow River's lower reaches and the Grand Canal became very silted beyond Qing control. The river changed course in the mid-1850s, reverting to its current northerly route.

Landsat photograph from space showing the ongoing flow of silt into the Pearl River Estuary, December 1975.

VF: World history enters here because of many disasters ...

RM: Complicating it all, the entire globe experienced some of the most powerful El Nino phenomenon of the previous five centuries, bringing drought to north China.

VF: How did it generate tension and famine, for example in Honan in 1876, as a legacy that the communists inherited?

RM: The Chinese communists seized power in 1949 because of many interlocking causes including the Japanese invasion, the Kuomintang regime's shortcomings and rural poverty. That last item did not emerge overnight, but from longer-term social, economic, and increasingly environmental processes. My book surveys environmental conditions in the 19th century's first half. I present evidence of ecological degradation such as deforestation, land and wind erosion and silted waterways nearly every where, possibly excepting Sichuan province. It contributed to the rural poverty that was provided fertile ground for communist organizers.

VF: How did imperialism harm the ecology?

RM: The Western and Japanese "scramble for concessions" at the end of the 19th century made China a "semi-colony" as the powers carved out "spheres of influence" often to extract resources. In Manchuria between the 1930s and 1945, Japan took out an estimated 70 million cubic meters of timber, one-tenth of all of China's timber reserves.

VF: But you underscore that the Chinese also spread at other's expense ... .

RM: Chinese states from the Shang (1600 BC - 1100 BC) and Zhou (1027 BC - 221 BC) expanded forward. The Shang and especially the Zhou established colonies on the North China plain to increase agricultural lands. The Qin (221 BC - 206 BC) and Han (206 BC - 220 AD) expanded to the northwest and into the south as far as present day Vietnam. Tang dynasty (618 AD - 907 AD) colonization projects included Lingnan and the southeast. The Ming (1271 AD - 1368 AD) and Qing (1644 AD - 1911 AD) had the colonial projects I already mentioned.

The complex causes vary, but the state's strategic interests and vision were significant, plus their sense that the population in the empire's core regions would not suffer if Han Chinese settled the frontier.

VF: And the Chinese changed them?

RM: The frontier natives were there probably longer than the Han Chinese were in the north. The former inhabited environments that spanned arid grasslands, forests, swamps, lowland river valleys, and upland forests included with various ways of government. In much of China's history, people already changing the environment became incorporated into the Chinese empire. Their environments were remade in the particularly Chinese way - settled agriculture based on farming families tilling land now considered private property and paying taxes to a central state. 

Continued 1 2  

China tries again at green planning
(May 10, '11)

Syria, the new Libya

2. A Chongqing man walks into a consulate ...

3. Russian wrinkle in the South China Sea

4. India plays fighter catch-up

5. The princeling and the police chief

6. Lincoln's fatalism and American faith

7. Leaked report belies Afghan surge 'success'

8. Was Saudi Arabia involved?

9. The return of the Keyboard Warriors

Kashmir: the mental price of conflict

(24 hours to 11:59pm ET, Feb 13, 2012)


All material on this website is copyright and may not be republished in any form without written permission.
Copyright 1999 - 2012 Asia Times Online (Holdings), Ltd.
Head Office: Unit B, 16/F, Li Dong Building, No. 9 Li Yuen Street East, Central, Hong Kong
Thailand Bureau: 11/13 Petchkasem Road, Hua Hin, Prachuab Kirikhan, Thailand 77110