Logo IMG


Three Thousand Years of Exploitation

Vaclav Smil

The Retreat of the Elephants: An Environmental History of China. Mark Elvin. xxviii + 564 pp. Yale University Press, 2004. $39.95.

No other country offers the historian of environmental change so extended a period of written documentation or so great a variety of transformations (and degradations) as China. But actually studying that history is extraordinarily difficult. To begin with, one needs a highly competent knowledge of classical Chinese—a language with an exceedingly difficult script and ambiguous syntax—to access primary sources. The abundance of those sources dictates that a scholar probing the subject must process an enormous amount of information to ascertain with confidence the basic patterns and commonalities as well as the regional and county-specific peculiarities. The historian must also be familiar with critical concepts of modern environmental studies and, preferably, quite knowledgeable in at least one or two specific fields. And he or she must possess writing skills equal to the uncommon challenge posed by daunting integrative tasks.

Mark Elvin is a rare historian who meets, and beats, all of these qualifications. The Retreat of the Elephants is his second major foray into China's environmental history—the first was Sediments of Time, a volume of more than 800 pages published in 1998, which he coedited (with Liu Ts'ui-jung) and for which he coauthored (with Su Ninghu) an outstanding chapter on the Yellow River and Hangzhou Bay, reprinted here.

Knowing all of Elvin's previous work, I expected bold, sweeping treatments of many different topics, insights based on unmatched knowledge of primary materials, revealing analyses of environmental change on scales ranging from local to national, and conclusions offering economic and philosophical insights into history. I was not disappointed. Because the book has all of these components, it should stand for decades to come as a unique statement on motives, processes, perceptions and consequences of environmental change in China.

But the book is not quite what its subtitle promises. It is not a systematic, chronological history—it has nothing to say about the 20th century, when some of the most grievous transformations took place—and it covers only China proper, leaving out some two-thirds of the country's modern territory. Instead, Elvin deploys a dozen essays (many of them previously published, at least in part) that deal with different topics and cover far-flung regions of the country at different times in order to illuminate millennia of environmental change. Essays on China's Environmental History or Vignettes of Environmental Change in China would have been a more accurate subtitle.

The first of the book's three major subdivisions, "Patterns," consists of general essays. One deals with the 3,000-year retreat of elephants, which used to occupy most of the eastern third of China's landmass and now survive only in token numbers in a few locales along the southwest border with Myanmar. Other chapters are devoted to the devastating process of deforestation (illustrated by examples from different regions) and the constant challenge of controlling the country's water resources. The essays in the second part of the book, "Particularities," take closer regional looks at two millennia of changes in the relatively rich Jiaxing area south of the Yangzi delta; at China's colonization of the Miao people in Guizhou, in the poor, mountainous southwest; and at the riddle of longevity in Zunhua, a department in the northeast along the old imperial border with Manchuria. The last part, "Perceptions," deals with large philosophical questions about attitudes toward nature, policies and perspectives. Elvin points out that "There was no one view of nature that can be called the 'Chinese' view. There was not even a spectrum. Rather a kaleidoscope of fragments . . . ."

For many reasons all of this is interesting, revealing and often fascinating—but hard to read. These essays are frequently dominated by long excerpts from original sources rather than by Elvin's fine sentences. In the preface Elvin indicates why he included such extensive quotations: not just because classical Chinese is hard to translate and "a reliable translation is in itself a service," but also because he wished to illustrate the kind of evidence on which his analyses are based and to make it possible for the reader to enter into "the mental world of those who made the history examined in these pages."

I sympathize. (I am always pleased when I can quote somebody who, years, generations or centuries ago, said it better than I could, and I, too, like to present the authenticity of important sources.) But illustrating the evidence is one thing, and letting the quotations take over is another. They make up 50 to 80 percent of one section covering more than 100 pages, and in a few chapters they constitute 40 to 60 percent of the text. Not surprisingly, I am not the only reviewer who has found this excessive, distracting and sometimes rather frustrating—as when I encountered entire pages covered with the translations of poems whose content has only tenuous links (if any) to the subject at hand. (Elvin himself allows that much of the ancient evidence is thin by present standards.) I am sure Elvin knows the Chinese equivalent of the great Roman dictum that I wish he had followed in this case: non multa, sed multum ("not many, but much," or more loosely, "not quantity, but quality").—Vaclav Smil, University of Manitoba

comments powered by Disqus

Connect With Us:


Sigma Xi/Amazon Smile (SciNight)

Subscribe to Free eNewsletters!

RSS Feed Subscription

Receive notification when new content is posted from the entire website, or choose from the customized feeds available.

Read Past Issues on JSTOR

JSTOR, the online academic archive, contains complete back issues of American Scientist from 1913 (known then as the Sigma Xi Quarterly) through 2005.

The table of contents for each issue is freely available to all users; those with institutional access can read each complete issue.

View the full collection here.


Of Possible Interest

Book Review: On the Origin of Origin Stories

Book Review: O Pioneer

Book Excerpt: Cypherpunks Write Code

Subscribe to American Scientist