Beastly memories haunt the landscape

The Retreat of the Elephants

September 3, 2004

This absorbing but difficult book offers a history of the relationship between the Chinese and their environment over the past 3,000 years. Mark Elvin focuses on the three contrasting regions and shows how in each of them the development and growing intensification of Chinese farming methods ultimately resulted in the disappearance of forests and fauna, including the elephants of the title. This was a gradual process. He points out that in the world of the early farmers, surrounded by forests, deer were such a threat to growing grain that tigers could be seen as beneficial in keeping their numbers down. This, of course, did not last. Not only have large animals such as tigers, elephants and rhinoceroses disappeared or been driven to the most remote parts of China, even small mammals and birds are surprisingly rare in much of the countryside.

Elvin traces this process from its earliest beginnings. He believes that those who worked the land did not necessarily welcome the development of cereal farming. It involved farmers in backbreaking toil and laid them open to the exaction of rents, taxes and corvee and to raids by less settled neighbours. For Chinese rulers, however, increasingly productive cereal cultivation offered the prospect of control over considerable surpluses and large settled populations. Elvin suggests that these rulers strove to prevent farmers slipping back to hunting and gathering.

Later, no such option was available. The success of Chinese farming produced a density of population that could be supported only by increasingly intensive farming. Across the centuries, as the population grew, mixed farming systems almost disappeared as cereal production became more dominant. Draught animals were rare or even unknown in many regions - there was no land to spare for them. Human beings drew ploughs, pulled carts and boats, propelled grindstones and carried sedan chairs. Grain supplied an ever-greater proportion of the calories consumed by ordinary people, and pigs and poultry supplied meat, which became increasingly scarce in their diet.

Like other observers before him, Elvin recognises that Chinese agriculture, with its high yields and intensive use of land, depended on the constant renewal of the fertility of the soil. This was achieved by the application of all possible forms of organic material: green manure, bird dung, animal dung and, above all, human excrement. Yet he presents the Chinese farming system not as one in harmony with nature, restoring what it takes from the soil, but as one engaged in a constant struggle against nature. It is generally agreed that until the 18th century, Chinese pre-modern growth was already close in many respects to that of its Western counterparts on the eve of the Industrial Revolution. Elvin asserts that, as a result of the intensive cereal culture, on which China's economy was based, most of the country was also more environmentally degraded than northwestern Europe in the same era. He argues: "In complete contradiction to what Max Weber maintained, more than any pre-modern northwestern Europeans, the Chinese were driven by a desire for rational mastery of the world."

The control of water was necessary to their farming system. The Chinese built dykes and canals, attempted to control or even change the course of rivers, and turned river deltas into polders. Lowland farming always implied deforestation. Land had to be cleared for cultivation. Settlement also meant a demand for wood that resulted in further deforestation. It was important as a fuel, as a building material for houses and for the construction of dykes, sluices and sea walls vital for water control. Huge trunks for important projects were transported thousands of miles.

Non-Chinese peoples whose cultures allowed them to live among the trees were either assimilated or driven back to marginal terrain by the destruction of their habitat. As the pressure on land grew and, especially in the past three centuries, the deforested and cultivated hillsides suffered severe erosion, and the soil that washed down caused waterways and dams to silt up and gave rise to catastrophic floods. Despite impressive skill and ingenuity, China's hydraulic engineers often created problems as they intervened to bring nature back under control.

Elvin was easily recognisable as an outstanding and original scholar of China's economic history from the publication of his first important book, The Pattern of the Chinese Past (1973). He has held posts at Glasgow, Cambridge and Oxford, and has taught at Paris, Heidelberg and Harvard universities. It is a sad comment on the state of British universities that he has ended up at the Australian National University.

This book demonstrates his extraordinary erudition. Elvin writes as a renaissance man, from a knowledge base that encompasses chemistry, physics, biology and hydraulic engineering as well as the social sciences. He is comfortable with debates over the development of the ancient civilisations of the Near East and Europe as well as those of China. He engages with not only scholarship in Chinese, both modern and classical, but with work in French, German and Japanese. His Chinese sources are diverse. They include descriptive poems written over the past two or three millennia by officials and travellers about the strange sights and practices of different parts of the growing Chinese empire. Elvin has translated extracts from these classical texts to reconstruct the landscapes of different eras.

He calls his book an introductory survey. A survey it certainly is, with a vast coverage in terms of geographical area and historical time. But as an introduction it has its deficiencies. It will be accessible only to the general reader who is prepared to make a considerable effort. In part, this is inevitable: the book covers dynasties, events, developments and historical figures that will be new to nonspecialists, and introduces complex ideas and interpretations. But Elvin makes few concessions. He often employs obscure or archaic vocabulary and loads the text with more detail than is necessary. At times, it reads like a compendium of curious facts. It employs a quirky, idiosyncratic style that may annoy some readers. Moreover, though Elvin is quick to admit that many of his ideas and interpretations are speculative, he puts them forward in so authoritative a tone that this reader, at least, longed to catch him out.

It is to his credit that I was unable to do so.

Whatever its faults, The Retreat of the Elephants is an important study, relevant not only to China's environmental history, but also to our understanding of the impact of economic development on the environment globally. This volume hardly deals with the 20th century. Elvin intends to produce a separate study for the modern era. It will be interesting to see how he judges Maoist China, in which propaganda often referred to the effort to raise production as a battle or a struggle against nature, and post-Mao China, in which environmental degradation and pollution are officially recognised and deplored but remain intractable problems.

Delia Davin is professor of Chinese social studies, Leeds University.

The Retreat of the Elephants: Mark Elvin

Publisher - Yale University Press
Pages - 564
Price - £25.00
ISBN - 0 300 10111 2

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