In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Environmental Issues in Pre-Modern China

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Reference Resources
  • Anthologies
  • Ecological Contexts
  • Thought and Expression
  • Agriculture and Related Practices
  • Water Control
  • Climate Change
  • Disasters
  • Food Security
  • Disease
  • Demographic Change and Environmental Transformation
  • Environmental Preservation
  • Animals
  • Borderlands

Chinese Studies Environmental Issues in Pre-Modern China
David Bello
  • LAST REVIEWED: 25 September 2018
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 September 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199920082-0087


The current scholarly discourse on pre-modern Chinese environmental history, in both the western and Chinese literatures, has only been developing since the 1990s. While there are certainly studies, especially numerous in Chinese, that long predate this period, they were not conducted within a systematic framework of explicitly environmental history, but rather in relative isolation or as components of other approaches—mainly institutional, political, or economic. In many respects the new emergence of environmental history is a product of China’s market reforms begun in the 1980s, both in terms of opportunities provided by new technologies and foreign exchanges as well as problems produced by some of the highest rates of industrial development in world history within one of the globe’s largest populations. Indeed, Chinese authors often expressly cite concern over the very palpable environmental consequences of this development as a main motivation for their work in environmental history. While some of these patterns recapitulate the rise of environmental history in the west during the 1960s and 1970s, they differ significantly because of China’s immense scale and the profound depth of its historical record. Broadly speaking, China has always maintained an environmental historical awareness (the long official record of “water control” (shuili 水利) being one classic example) but the specific nature of this awareness has changed over time. It can be asserted, with an unquestionable degree of oversimplification, that pre-modern (here meaning primarily pre-industrial) China as a society understood its environmental relations mainly in terms of maximizing cereal cultivation. During the modernization of the 20th century, these relations were re-understood in terms of totalizing industrial exploitation. While neither concept has disappeared, there is in the early 21st century an emerging reconceptualization of environmental relations as a dynamic and critical interdependency between human culture and its ecological surroundings, rather than as simply active human exploitation of passive ecology for purposes of economic development. This trend has even become “officially” visible. Most recently the Third Plenum of the Central Committee of the Communist Party, in November 2013, expressed commitment to a program of sustainable development under intensifying pubic pressure arising from serious ecological degradation by virtually unrestrained industrialization. Historical work in China certainly cannot isolate itself from this pressure, which has now openly influenced the highest levels of state. So there are a number of consequent divergences between the concerns of the English-language and Chinese-language literatures that form the bulk of the works cited in this article, which in turn may be radically simplified as differences between people actually living with the historical consequences of the society under study and those living outside of it. Among other distinctive results, this means that some work done by scholars in China may have implications for contemporary policy or that contemporary policy may directly influence such work. This probably contributes to the proliferation of Chinese-language work on disaster, for example. Both literatures, however, tend to focus on the last six hundred years (out of a dynastic period ranging from 221 BCE to 1912 CE) partly because of source abundance, and the citations herein inevitably reflect this tendency. Given the diverse range of inquiry required for even a single study of an environmental issue, many works could easily have been cited across several categories here. This sort of excessive duplication has been avoided to provide the greatest diversity possible within editorial constraints.

General Overviews

The majority of these works have made major contributions, over roughly 1993 to 2013, to articulating the foundations and concerns of pre-modern Chinese environmental history as it is currently practiced. Given the field’s own relatively recent history and the considerable range of its subject matter—in terms of chronological reach, geographic scale, intellectual interdisciplinarity, and global diversity—a discrete set of voices, even one arguing around a consensus, has had no real opportunity to emerge. These works, nevertheless, tend to share a not-always-latent conviction that pre-modern China’s unquestionably impressive management of its environment was generally precarious. Instability peaked in the 19th century because of the escalating tempo and scale of change under considerable population pressure. The Chinese Environmental History Newsletter can represent this quasi-consensus at its earliest stages, for which Elvin 1993 presents perhaps the most fully articulated version. Menzies 1994 exemplifies an extended study of a primary specialized topic at this early point. Elvin 2004 may represent the discourse’s most recent iteration as a selective overview, “weighted toward the last thousand [years] [11th to 21st century]” and broadly centered on a particular subject—deforestation (p. xvii)—while Marks 2012 is much the most ambitious and comprehensive representation to date. Pomeranz 1995 provides a stimulating contrast to this quasi-consensus, the implications of which have yet to be fully worked out. With a focus on the key transitional period of the Qing, Zhu 2007 explains why the Chinese-language scholarship has not yet been in a position to contribute substantially to this debate, although this is changing rapidly. The one chronologically outlying work, Keightley 1983, has been included for its strong environmental focus on the period before the environmental turn of the 1990s. It also triggered controversy over the nature of the north China paleoenvironment in which classical agriculture originated, as well as over the possibly swiddening character of that agriculture. Controversy aside, in many respects work on early China, a period that largely predates written records, may be considered the most extensive application of environmental historical methods prior to their more formal emergence in the 1990s. In recognition of this fact, Elvin and Liu 1998, cited under Anthologies, has tried to define environmental history as based on a more extensive written record than the more archaeologically driven work on China’s mainly unwritten “prehistory.” Finally, Zhao 2016 may stand as an emerging example of works devoted to a particular dynasty’s comprehensive environmental relations.

  • Chinese Environmental History Newsletter. 1994–1996.

    Although it published only six issues, this newsletter, edited by Helen Dunstan and originating from Indiana State University in Bloomington, embodies the early stages of western scholarly activity in Chinese environmental history as it is now practiced. All issues can be downloaded from the “publications” page of the Association for East Asian Environmental History, online.

  • Elvin, Mark. “Three Thousand Years of Unsustainable Growth: China’s Environment from Archaic Times to the Present.” East Asian History 6 (1993): 7–46.

    Pioneering attempt to integrate human agency with surrounding ecological systems more comprehensively. Political, economic, and environmental interactions, periodized in three phases, are linked to the intensively agrarian dynastic state and its “social structure of power,” which nevertheless remains constrained by its own legacy of “technological lock-ins” instrumental for maintaining order (pp. 11–12).

  • Elvin, Mark. The Retreat of the Elephants: An Environmental History of China. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2004.

    This somewhat eclectic summation of the author’s previous work reveals—through a sampling of general patterns, regional case studies, and traditional ideologies—the environmental pressure exerted by 3,000 years of imperial agriculture, particularly in terms of deforestation. Extended translations from Primary Sources, especially poetry, open previously inaccessible reaches of the Chinese record to nonspecialist study.

  • Keightley, David N., ed. “Part I: Environment and Agriculture.” In The Origins of Chinese Civilization. By David Keightley, 3–115. Studies on China 1. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1983.

    Part 1 of this interdisciplinary volume of conference papers presented in 1978 mainly concerns plant domestication, including a chapter on contrasting Taiwan indigenous swidden agriculture (pp. 95–115), but there is also a more general chapter on “the evolution of the Chinese environment” (pp. 3–19). Sections of Part 2 are also useful for metallurgy. For a version of the conflict over China’s paleoenviornment engendered by the volume, see Ping-ti Ho. “The Paleoenvironment of North China—A Review Article.” Journal of Asian Studies 43.4 (August 1984), pp. 723–733.

  • Marks, Robert B. China: Its Environment and History. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2012.

    The only book-length monograph in English comprehensively covering pre-modern China in five of six chapters chronologically and thematically. Accessibly based on English secondary scholarship, it is the field’s main comprehensive introduction, informed by the view that China’s current predicament arises directly from environmental exploitation during the past 4,000 years.

  • Menzies, Nicholas K. Forest and Land Management in Imperial China. New York: St. Martin’s, 1994.

    DOI: 10.1057/9780230372870

    Centered on the late imperial period, the study surveys the types of forest and evaluates the sustainability of various forms of forest use, including preserves, temple groves, siviculture, and communal ownership. Sociological categories, based on the work of Weber and Etzioni, are employed to analyze diverse and complex methods of management.

  • Pomeranz, Kenneth. “How Exhausted an Earth? Some Thoughts on Qing (1644–1911) Environmental History.” Chinese Environmental History Newsletter 2.2 (November 1995): 6–10.

    Explicitly environmental meditation on some of the fundamental issues of demographic and economic development during the critical period of China’s transition to modernity. Argues for a more nuanced evaluation of China’s enormous regional variation by questioning the conventional and overgeneralized connections between 18th century population growth and subsequent ecological degradation.

  • Zhao Yanfeng 赵彦风. “Yuandai huanjing shi zhuanti yanjiu” (元代环境史专题研究). PhD diss., Shaanxi Normal University 陕西师范大学, 2016.

    Covers a wide range of environmental issues, including tuntian (屯田) and clearance, Water Control and related Yellow River problems, febrile diseases, ocean dikes, seaborne grain transport, urbanization, and resource exploitation during the Yuan dynasty (covered herein from 1206 to 1368). Issues are approached regionally as interactions between society and ecology. Concludes that Yuan practices were sustainable in terms of exploitation—especially in regards to wildlife—on a historically unprecedented scale that extended into borderland areas.

  • Zhu Shiguang 朱士光. “Qingdai shengtai huanjing yanjiu chulun” (清代生态环境研究刍论). Shaanxi Shifan Daxue Xuebao 陕西师范大学学报 1 (January 2007): 51–54.

    Survey of environmental literature on the Qing dynasty. Concludes that existing Chinese language work remains underdeveloped, while providing an important literature review. Limitations noted include shortage of studies, and excessive geographical focus on the lower Yangtze delta and the northwest, as well as on agriculture.

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