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To build a portrait of environmental history on a canvas spanning 4000 years, in a large country with an extraordinary geographic and demographic profile like China, is no easy task Somehow, Mark Elvin, in this book, manages to pull it off, with engaging stories and compelling analysis of the historical record There have been many reviews of this book already, by historians, and they have made a better assessment than I can, in all honesty, make here But let me share straight off, as an ecologist who is no historian, some of the things I liked about this book and some of what I learnt The first aspect that I liked, which finds little mention in other reviews, is the author s extensive use of Chinese literature, especially period poetry, presented in translation often at length to build his narrative and arguments Some of the poetry is telling in detail Poets who recount the plight of farmers in an era of agricultural and demographic expansion, the harsh conditions of coal miners, the scarcity of fuelwood and food They write of floods and famine, of forests and rain, of nature as resource and as a force Not only do these evoke descriptions of the period, they also bring insights into people s perceptions of the environment This is particularly used by the author in the latter parts of the book.A second aspect, which was interesting is the comparison, of the history of landscapes and peoples in three different regions in China The author makes a convincing case for the strong influences that landscapes cast on history, and conversely, on how the historical changes in people, land use, and resource exploitation cast their sometimes indelible mark on the landscapes.Finally, it is good to see the comprehensive sweep of the analysis of Chinese environmental history, especially in the opening chapters The retreat of the elephants, mentioned in the title, is used as a defining marker of the decline in forests and wildlife with the expansion of farming and pre industrial development in China Deforestation is linked to erosion and rising river basins, and consequently to catastrophic floods In addition, the response in terms of hydraulic measures, of dykes and dams and canals, is clearly pinned down for the additional implications that these engineering measures have costly and constant repair and maintenance The importance of environmental buffers runs as a thread through the historical narrative.The flip side of the book is its length, the varying structure of narrative, and the lack of illustrative maps additionally problematic while reading on the Kindle edition It would have also helped if the author had presented a summary of key conclusions and concepts at the end of each section of the book The concluding remarks does a good job of setting out an analytical context and mentioning some broad conclusions, while highlighting the further work, comparisons, and empirical research that is required in future. I have to admit defeat on this it s academic than I was looking for and it addresses the modern era less than I d hoped I suspect the writing is denser than it needs to be, but since I might not be the target audience I won t leave a negative rating. Elephants in China Yes, and Forests TooEvery once in a while you come across a book so original and thought provoking that you make you gasp in admiration The Retreat of the Elephants An Environmental History of China by Mark Elvin is such a book It turned up when I was doing a search about the difficult relation between humans and forests over history as part of the research for my next non fiction project, Road through Time A little time trolling library catalogues and data bases and I came up with a fascinating reading list that I m currently working my through Another good one is Deforesting the Earth, From Prehistory to Global Crisis An Abridgement by Michael Williams, whose title has got to be an inside joke since it has 561 pages Elvin is from New Zealand, and perhaps that South Pacific vantage point has allowed him to write a history of the rise of intensive agriculture in China and the accompanying destruction of forests, water courses and grasslands He takes as his starting image the herds of elephants which five thousand years ago roamed woods around Beijing apparently there are many caches of the beasts bones in that part of China The huge herbivores were hunted by the elite, but that was not what did them in Rather, they were the type of pachyderms which could not survive outside forests, and as the Chinese vigorously deforested the land, they retreated until now there are only a few left on the border with Myanmar.What happened next, Elvin recounts with the same striking storyteller s skills What is he quotes extensively from Chinese poetry to bring the rest of his history to life While it appears that he greatly regrets what the Chinese have done to their land over the last five thousand years, he also shows much sympathy for the reasons that lie behind their desire to make every inch productive.I m no Asian scholar so I can not critique either his sources or his analysis, but the 50 pages or so of notes and bibliography at the end of the book attest to Elvin s seriousness and his academic credentials.If you are interested in China, the environment or Chinese literature, this book is a must read. I finished reading this just as Darren Aronofsky s Noah opened in theaters Quite appropriate, given the book s focus on hydrological disasters If you don t mind a spoiler can there be spoilers for history books Mark Elvin arrives at a somewhat pessimistic conclusion, casting doubt on the hope that we can escape from our present environmental difficulties by means of a transformation of consciousness.Using the vast expanse of Chinese history as a source of examples, he finds that the pursuit of profit and military advantage tends to trump any enlightened view about the environment a culture might have A heightened appreciation of Nature may come about as a reaction to its very destruction, but not prevent such destruction in the long run.The book contains a surprising insight about technological and economic development even if they allow greater control over nature and huge increases in population, they may in fact worsen the average quality of life in some cases I was reminded of Derek Parfit s thorny dilemma of population ethics, the repugnant conclusion How can we adjudicate ethically between a small population and a much larger population with worse quality of life Jared Diamond argues in his essay The Worst Mistake in the History of the Human Race that agriculturalists lived shorter lives and were less healthy than hunter gatherers Elvin sees to agree He recounts that ancient rulers often had to force their subjects to take on agriculture And see this quote from the book Are Diamond and Elvin perhaps over romanticizing pre agricultural times There s a lot to this book, for example how Elvin corrects Max Weber s misconceptions about Chinese culture It can get a bit heavy going at times, but I recommend it. A great, if dry in points, environmental approach to the broad sweep of Chinese history, countering the common assumption that traditional Chinese philosophy Daoism etc leads to a way of life somehow in harmony with nature than the dominant philosophies and religions of the West. Enormous, disjointed, and a dense read, The Retreat of the Elephants is nonetheless an extraordinary work of scholarship, even if its final form is not easily digested Mark Elvin looks at four thousand years of Chinese history to show the gap between the Chinese people s love of nature and the simultaneous destruction of the environment for the sake of commerce and political power By the 1800s, China had undertaken environmentally intensive projects than the West China s environmental degradation was also becoming severe by the present day, that degradation has become catastrophic and unsustainable The book wanders over much ground, covering religion, poetry, hydraulics and watershed management, imperial politics, superstition, legends, comparative studies of different provinces, warfare, the use of nature in war, longevity, and food In many ways, this book reads like the summary of a pathbreaking conference it lays out the parameters of a field and gives other historians topics to write about However, I do disagree with Elvin s contention that environmental history only applies to the period for which we have written sources about the environment I and quite a few biologists geologists would contend that we can use natural evidence to tell us about the Earth s history and mankind s relationship with nature before writing was invented. interesting stuff Isabel Hilton, editor of the website China Dialogue has chosen to discuss The Retreat of the Elephants by Mark Elvinon FiveBooks as one of the top five on her subject China s Environmental Crisis, saying that The most comprehensive and scholarly history of the Han people s relationship to their environment The environmental history of China is a very interesting one, and there is this mythology that Chinese peasants are somehow in tune with nature But if you read Elvin you realise that in China there has actually been 2,000 years of unsustainable development and environmental degradation The full interview is available here {FREE EBOOK} ð The Retreat of the Elephants: An Environmental History of China · A Landmark Account Of China S Environmental History By An Internationally Pre Eminent China Specialist This Is The First Environmental History Of China During The Three Thousand Years For Which There Are Written Records It Is Also A Treasure Trove Of Literary, Political, Aesthetic, Scientific, And Religious Sources, Which Allow The Reader Direct Access To The Views And Feelings Of The Chinese People Toward Their Environment And Their Landscape Elvin Chronicles The Spread Of The Chinese Style Of Farming That Eliminated The Habitat Of The Elephants That Populated The Country Alongside Much Of Its Original Wildlife The Destruction Of Most Of The Forests The Impact Of War On The Environmental Transformation Of The Landscape And The Re Engineering Of The Countryside Through Water Control Systems, Some Of Gigantic Size He Documents The Histories Of Three Contrasting Localities Within China To Show How Ecological Dynamics Defined The Lives Of The Inhabitants And He Shows That China In The Eighteenth Century, On The Eve Of The Modern Era, Was Probably Environmentally Degraded Than Northwestern Europe Around This Time Indispensable For Its New Perspective On Long Term Chinese History And Its Explanation Of The Roots Of China S Present Day Environmental Crisis, This Book Opens A Door Into The Chinese Past As a Chinese I am amazed by the quality and quantity of quoted poemschorographies It is interesting to read the poems and think which one they were in Chinese Actually many poems are new to me, I often find my self surprised to find Ah I did not expect that poet ever wrote something like that and Never heard those poems in that dynasty before.As the environmental part, I do not have the position to judge since it is not my major But the detailed descriptions, convincing facts are unquestionably authoritative and intriguing.