The Retreat of the Elephants: An Environmental History of China

  • Mark Elvin
Yale University Press: 2004. 547 pp. $39.95, £25 0300101112 | ISBN: 0-300-10111-2
Stacking the odds: Chinese farmers shaped the environment to suit them by building rice terraces. Credit: K. SU/CORBIS

Pity the poor elephants! Over more than 4,000 years they were gradually forced from living all over China to a few protected enclaves near the border with Burma. The main reason was the destruction of their habitat as humans cut down forests and introduced agriculture. Farmers found the dwindling elephant herds a nuisance, as crops were trampled and plundered. Others came to value elephants for military, transport and ceremonial purposes: their ivory was prized and their trunks became a gourmet delicacy. Elephant numbers shrank until they were little more than a memory for most Chinese. Mark Elvin uses the decline of the elephant as an allegory to illustrate the transformation of the Chinese environment to the end of pre-industrial times. Some of the same story can be seen in Africa today.

Elvin's book is not so much an environmental history of China as a collection of its fragments. With copious quotations from Chinese written sources of all kinds, he shows what happened in different places and why. Even if we can see from archaeology that comparable events took place elsewhere, only in China are there such written records, giving a unique account of how it felt to live through them. It was not always a pleasant or edifying process, and as usual the voices of those worst affected will never be heard.

In broad terms, the transformation of the Chinese environment, which was faster in some areas than others, had certain characteristics. First, deforestation made way for agriculture. There was then a bonanza as resources were exploited, species were lost and human numbers rose. This triggered the growth of towns, cities and states with social stratification, followed by increasing competition between them, with war as the spur and the environment sometimes used as a weapon. Better technology was mitigated by mismanagement of resources. Entrapment in limited local circumstances left people vulnerable to change. Finally, there was a greater risk of social and economic collapse affecting society as a whole. Elvin shows the differences clearly in three areas: Jiaxing to the south of the Yangzi river; Guizhou in the south, where the Han people gradually displaced the indigenous Miao; and Zunhua in the mountainous northeast.

Everywhere, control of water was essential. ‘Hydraulic despotism’ may tell only part of the story, but communities and even states grew partly out of the need to manage this precious and sometimes capricious resource. The struggle to run irrigation systems, limit marine incursions, maintain banks and walls, undertake dredging, cope with floods and storms, and adapt to ever-changing weather patterns is as difficult today as it ever was. With huge populations dependent on particular systems, any change can become increasingly difficult to cope with.

The complexity of Chinese attempts to manage human effects on the environment is remarkable. Even more special are the Chinese beliefs and attitudes towards the environment that have existed over the millennia. Generalizations are bound to be misleading but, in general terms, the Chinese were driven, in Elvin's words, by a desire for rational mastery of the world. They had little hesitation in uprooting forests, redirecting and polluting rivers, destroying natural landscapes and giving political and military needs absolute priority. They had remarkable powers of organization, and ran projects far beyond European capacities at the time. But in doing so, the Chinese paid scant regard to the environment and unwittingly created many long-term problems.

On the other hand, the Chinese had a particularly sensitive respect for nature and natural beauty in all its forms. Even as forests were destroyed, individual trees were singled out for admiration. Heaven and Earth were closely linked, and the line between the natural and the supernatural was blurred. There was a confluence of matter leading to energy, and energy leading to life, each a product of Bright Force and Dark Force. Dragons and spirits were sometimes seen above the surface in thunder and lightning, and sometimes below it in earthquakes. They formed part of a living world that sustained and punished humans. They even related the behaviour of the weather to human activity, so there was morality in meteorology.

In such a world, it was crucial to divine what the invisible forces felt or did. This could involve sacrificing animals or humans, or burning cracks in the shoulder blades of mammals or the undershells of turtles. In Shang times, such practices had political significance as the ruler was the intermediary between the visible and the invisible world. This was also true in other epochs when the apparatus of authority was given almost divine attributes.

It is as difficult for us to enter into this mental cosmology as into that of our own ancestors in pre-scientific times. Elvin shows that searching for observable and verifiable facts about the world, and putting them to use in programmes of thought, was almost entirely alien to the Chinese. As a result, the shock of change was more abrupt in China than it was in Europe, where the scientific revolution began earlier. Traces of the old thinking may have survived Mao Zedong and persist in fundamental ways today.

The Retreat of the Elephants is not an easy book to read. Some of the quotations seem scarcely relevant, and the whole text could have been usefully pruned. At the end there is an unilluminating venture into equations, as if sustainability could be reduced to an algorithm. Yet taken as a whole, the book is a fascinating, scholarly miscellany of stories, poetry and ideas from the history of the longest continuous civilization on Earth. The relationship of that civilization with its fragile and often tortured surroundings contains lessons for others — particularly at a time when industrial society in China, as elsewhere, is pressing harder than ever on the environment. This will be a source book, elephants and all, for generations to come.