The Retreat of the Elephants: An Environmental History of China by Mark Elwin - review by Jonathan Mirsky

Jonathan Mirsky

Elephants, Never Forget

The Retreat of the Elephants: An Environmental History of China


Yale University Press 592pp £25 order from our bookshop

THE ASSAULT ON China’s natural environment has been going on for dennia. Even the most casual traveller notices how few trees, animals and birds remain; and yet a glance at Chinese poems or paintings will reveal constant references to the beauties of Nature. As in the West – although here the environment has not, yet, been so utterly damaged as in China – devastation and ‘development’ have coexisted with a love of Nature and a poignant sense of loss. This dichotomy between destruction and reverence is the great theme of Mark Elvin’s magnificently titled The Retreat of the Elephants, by far the best history of the interaction between the traditional Chinese and their surroundings. It is a mighty work, stupendously learned, often entertaining, and frequently difficult. It stops well before the modern period (several good studies of recent environmental degradation already exist), which Elvin says he will tackle next.

A professor of Chinese history at the Australian National Universiy in Canberra. Elvin is another one of the grievous losies to British Chinese scholarship. Glasgow, Cambridge, and Oxford, where he once taught, could not find the chair he deserved. Over thirty years ago, when still a very young man, Elvin published The Pattern of the Chinese Past, which, as the bold title suggests, is the kind of book usually attempted by established scholars late in their careers. Elvin thinks big, and that book attempted nothing less than an explanation of why China. so advanced for so many centuries. failed to develop a modern society. Since ;hen he has’ published much more, often focusing on technology; this book incorporates material from some of those earlier publications. As may be imagined, his theories aroused much debate, and in his Acknowledgements, along with the usual colleagues, institutions and money-providers, Elvin thanks his ‘opponents’ and ‘enemies’.

I would suggest only slightly mischievously that the book’s second subtitle could be ‘Elvin’s Miscellany of Curious Chinese Facts’. He tackles, inter alia, ‘cartography, shrines and temples, myths, legends, epidemics and diseases, tigers, raptors, patterns of war and criminal activity’. One of its unique and absolutely necessary aspects is his voluminous use of poems, which he has translated from difficult, often murky, classical Chinese with considerable panache. His knowledge of botany, geology, zoology, mechanics, hydraulics and much besides is staggering.

I keep several dictionaries on my desk and seldom open them. I needed them when reading The Retreat of the Elephants. Do you know what septs are? How about polder, theriomorphic, smirr, anadromous, and frith? Elvin’s style is quaint, orotund, and he tends to sum things up in truncated throwaway sentences in the manner of the clever lecturers at Cambridge where he was once a brilliant History student. How’s your maths? Did you know you can calculate the real value of a tree (and then, by deducting the cost of caring for it and of protecting it from theft, its worth as an investment)? Elvin takes two pages of equations and graphs to demonstrate that early felling is the only way to recover some profit from the wood. While they furnish wood, obviously useful in many ways, trees are an obstruction to the spread of intensive agriculture, although the real crisis in forest destruction is only about 300 years old. This difficult, discursive book, which sometimes tells us more than we want to know, is a wonderful thing. I felt much smarter when I got to the end.

‘What were the original social driving forces,’ Elvin wonders, ‘and then the economic forces, behind the long-term environmental transformations of China, both constructive and destructive?’ He thinks part of the answer is that in the earlv millennia of recorded Chinese history, states (ancient China had many) that exploited nature tended to defeat their enemies. Later on, investing money in natural resources led to wealth. Part of the secret of success was the increasingly extensive Chmese control of water for irrigation and flood control. This led, however (and this has long been one of Elvin’s Big Ideas), to a ‘premodern technological lock-in’, a system of great complexity requiring enormous inputs of money and labour which could not be reformed or abandoned ‘because of the threat to livelihood and even lives’.

A word or two about the elephants. Four thousand years ago they roamed all over-China, including the region around what is now Beijing. Nowadays only a few exist, in protected enclaves along the Burmese border. By 2000 BC there were none left in the North and by AD 1500 they were everywhere on their way to extinction. Part of the reason is climate change. ‘But the most obvious explanation is that it was the result of a protracted war with human beings which the elephants lost. The Dattern of their withdrawal in time and space was, so to speak, the reverse image of the expansion and intensification of Chinese settlement.’ Elephants cannot long survive heat. Cutting down trees to thwart them as predators and to increase farming land removes shade and the elephants he. In the twelfth century AD, it was recorded, farmers cleared the land to ‘make a settlement. Ninety-nine times out of a hundred these places were once elevhants’ hideouts.’ But already in the fourth century BC, Elvin notes, Mencius, the second most important Confucian thinker, wrote that 750 years earlier, a Duke of Zhou ‘drove the elephants far away, and the world was delighted’.

So wildlife was largely destroyed in favour of China’s intensive agriculture, which so much resembled gardening. But is this sad, if inevitable, trajectory an essentially Chinese one? Is there something unique about China’s godless nature-stripping on one hand and nature-admiring on the other? Elvin thinks not. It is true that Chinese agriculture needed more intensive creation and maintenance, especially of a hydraulic kind, than that of any other country except perhaps Holland, and on a huge scale too. Intensive farming also required mountains of fertiliser and river mud – as it still does – to secure China’s very high seed-to-yield ratios. Chinese farmers almost never let their fields lie fallow; as Elvin eloquently says, ‘human effort had to do here a part of what nature did in the West in restoring vitality to fields7.

But although Chinese culture is different from ours, Elvin believes that those differences – which he so richly and brilliantly lays out for us – do not, in themselves, explain what happened to China’s environment. The key factors, he suggests, were ‘the pursuit of power and profit in the area provided by the possibilities and limitations of the Chinese natural world’. That sounds ‘ familiar. China, despite all its unique fascination, is a flashing amber light for the rest of us. Elvin does not mindlessly long for a past world teeming with lions and tigers and bears – and elephants. Much, he says, has been won by ‘victories . . . against our predators’. But in one of his grand observations he says, ‘Human beings grew up for several hundreds of thousands of years with animals all around them. A strange silence has fallen. An emptiness. One cannot help wondering what the long-term implications of this are for the balance of our minds..’

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