Three Thousand Years of Exploitation
The Retreat of the Elephants: An Environmental History of
China. Mark Elvin. xxviii + 564 pp. Yale University Press,
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
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