AAS Annual Meeting

China and Inner Asia Session 83

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Session 83: Chinese Perceptions and Manipulations of the Environment: A Historical Perspective

Organizer: Ling Zhang, Boston College, USA

Chair: Robert B. Marks, Whittier College, USA

Discussant: Robert B. Marks, Whittier College, USA

Heaven, Earth, various matters in between, and their intricate relations with people have nurtured multifaceted, changing perceptions of nature and the environment in Chinese minds. These perceptions serve as criteria to Chinese evaluation of the benefits and constraints that nature provides and as guidelines with which people make judgments on how to behave under certain environmental conditions. Representing the ideal of the ‘integration of Heaven and people (tian ren he yi)’ to some extent, these perceptions also signify in changing circumstances different human desires on how a benign environment should be and how an unfavorable environment can be improved. Such desires, when social, cultural, political or economic conditions allow, can inspire state polices, local solutions, collective efforts, or individual responses that lead to heavy manipulations of the environment. This panel investigates: first, how do the Chinese perceive nature and environmental factors in different regions and different time? Second, whether or not and in what ways do these perceptions function actively in Chinese dealing with nature or with their own society that, either with or without intentions, results in diverse environmental consequences? The four papers explore these questions through historical analyses on the cases that cover a wide temporal and geographic range, each from a distinct perspective. As a whole, the panel articulates the complexity of ideological and practical interplays between people and their environment. It introduces a variety of new sources and materials, and demonstrates its strength in employing interdisciplinary approaches in the study of Chinese environmental history.

Representing and Remaking Hangzhou’s West Lake in Ming China
Desmond Cheung, Portland State University, USA

West Lake had by Ming times become the most famous feature of Hangzhou’s landscape, the very projection of literati refinement. But while the lake had long been celebrated for its scenic beauty and its rich literary evocations, it was just as importantly an embodiment of effective administration. Bai Juyi and Su Shi, the famous poet-officials who administered Hangzhou during the Tang and Song periods, had carried out major hydrological work at the lake as well as written verses praising its beauty. This paper will analyze these dual representations of West Lake and focus on the efforts of Hangzhou Prefect Yang Mengying to dredge and remake the lake in 1508. Finding West Lake taken over by powerful local families and converted to fields and ponds for their private use, Yang argued that the lake was a natural resource that was vital for the area’s water management. Invoking the examples of his predecessors, Yang vowed to restore the lake to its former state and to protect it from future human encroachment and thereby ensure the area’s irrigation and agricultural needs. In this way an activist official employed different images of West Lake to promote its benefits for the local people at large.

Rocks, Trees and Grassland on the Borderlands: Tibetan and Chinese Perceptions and Manipulations of the Environment along Ecotone Frontiers, 1911-1992
Jack P. Hayes, University of British Columbia, USA

This paper discusses Tibetan and Chinese perceptions and manipulations of nature and environment in northern Sichuan between 1911 and 1992. It analyses three basic kinds of “environmental” perceptions—particularly trees, grassland, and minerals—and how both the perceptions toward and use of natural materials have changed over time. In northern Sichuan, two of the chief ecotones are the shift from grasslands to forest areas, and forest areas to riparian or high-altitude montane tundra. Using case studies of pine-spruce stands, grassland-larch ecotone shifts, and rare mineral deposits, the rhetoric and reality of markets, technology, degradation, and land tenure during successive political regimes are put into ecological, historical and cultural perspective. The causes and potential consequences of successive, shifting perceptions of local Sino-Tibetan environments are also considered and, based on these trends, the paper speculates on some future developments of the environmental and economic perceptions of “nature” in northern Sichuan.

Labor and the Late Qing Extraction of the "Profits of Nature"
Peter Lavelle, Temple University, USA

Agricultural labor was at the forefront of Qing efforts to reconstruct society after the wave of rebellions in the midnineteenth century. In many provinces, governors issued guidelines to entice refugees to settle on abandoned farmland or tracts of uncultivated soil. In principle, greater agricultural output translated into higher tax revenues, one of the underlying motivations for these resettlement policies. Yet the ideology of Qing officials was not concerned solely with the economic equation between agricultural labor, land, and tax revenue. The "profits of nature" (ziran zhi li) were also integral to their thinking, and they assumed these profits to be intrinsic to almost any parcel of land and a wide range of cultivars. Inasmuch as labor was themechanism by which these intrinsic profits were to be extracted, officials deemed one of their primary duties to be guiding labor to the right places and to the proper activities. This guidance was particularly important for sending new settlers to cultivate lands on the frontiers, where the "profits of nature" also lay. The ideology of nature thus had a role to play in Qing settlement and economic exploitation of frontier landscapes like Xinjiang toward the end of the century. This paper analyzes the ideology of nature as it related to agricultural labor and frontier resettlement in the second half of the nineteenth century.

Manipulating the Yellow River and the State Building of the Northern Song Dynasty
Ling Zhang, Boston College, USA

In the tenth and eleventh centuries the lower reaches of the Yellow River inflicted bank ruptures and floods nearly once every four years. In 983, 1000, 1019 and 1020 its floods submerged most of present Henan and part of Shandong and Jiangsu, and affected as south as the Huai River. In 1048 its course shifted northward into central Hebei and reached modern Tianjin, plaguing this region for the following eighty years. Without denying climatic and environmental factors that facilitated these river problems, the present paper seeks to explore the roles that the Northern Song government played in the changing circumstances of the river. It argues that while striving to survive the flooding crises, the early Song government attempted to incorporate different hydraulic strategies within its geopolitical blueprint, in which the river and different regions of north China were designated new ideological and strategic significance. By manipulating the river’s direction to the north and reshaping the natural geography in north China, the Song redefined the regionality of the empire and centralized the state power. This achievement, however, incurred long-term environmental deterioration in north China and imposed heavy financial burden on the government, which reversely led to dissolution of the state power in the rest course of the Song rule.