Book Review: China’s Land and Waters

Marks, Robert D.   China: Its Environment and History (Rowman and Littlefield, 2011) Kindle Edition

Robert Marks’s excellent survey history of China’s relationship with its lands and waters provides a one-volume reference for anyone interested in the country’s past and in how non-Western peoples approached their environment. It serves as a much-needed corrective to some misperceptions about non-Westerners and their surroundings as well as showing how different cultural values lead to different approaches in landscape management.

Marks begins with an overview of the geology and topography of what is now China, focusing on the great rivers. He follows the Han from the earliest known archaeological evidence through the development of the empires and into the Communist period. From the very beginnings of grain agriculture, deforestation and soil loss have pushed Han settlers out, away from their northern homelands and into the rest of modern China. By the turn of the millennium rice-silk agriculture joined wheat and small grains as a vital survival practice. At the same time, taming the rivers to better serve farming became a key part of Imperial China, leading to seemingly impossible feats such as the construction of the Grand Canal, linking watersheds and cultures, and removing entire mountains to redirect rivers to better serve Han needs. With a few notable exceptions, each expansion and acquisition of a new environment led to a decrease in species richness and a retreat of native plants and large animals as Han farmers pushed into the uplands and south into the  tropical rainforests. They absorbed other peoples in the process, or were blocked and rebuffed by environment and resistance to assimilation.

The book is not short. It covers three thousand and more years of the history of a very large and varied landscape, in enough detail to give the reader a good sense of what and where. Marks is careful not to tell the story as a “fall-from-paradise” narrative, and points out how different cultural groups viewed and used their environments, in contrast (and sometimes complimenting) the Han system. For example, the Mongols depopulated the northern grasslands of farmers, not out of an innate bloodthirstiness, but because they did not value agriculture. Farms interfered with herding and moving their flocks, and were an offense to the Mongol sense of the proper relationship between man, land, and deities.

A few caveats. As the author says from the beginning of the book, this is not a straight history of China. His end notes and bibliography provide multiple sources for those interested in a political and cultural framework, a more traditional historical narrative. It helps to be familiar with the broad history of Imperial China before launching into the book, although it is not necessary. And the book does not go into as much detail about certain practices and cultural features as this reviewer would have liked, but again, this is an environmental history, not an Encyclopedia of Land Use in Asia. The chapters are very long, and are subdivided into mini-chapters. The maps are excellent, and (as is a constant plaint with e-books) it would have been nice to 1) have hot links back to them within the text for easier “flipping,” and 2) to be able to enlarge them. Later generation e-readers may be able to do this, but a first generation Paperwhite lacks the ability.

For general readers looking for a well-written, enjoyable overview history of the Han Chinese relationship with their landscapes, I highly recommend this book. Ditto for people looking for a comparison of Western land use practices with those of non-Western peoples. Any reader who comes into the book thinking that traditional Asian land use is gentler on the native species, or that only Western influence led to the destruction of habitats in Asia, will be greatly surprised. Humans are human, and humans expand to fill every available niche, often with great creativity and skill. And have done so for thousands of years. That may be the most important lesson from Dr. Marks’s work.

I rarely recommend the electronic edition, but for readers who do not want to have this available for frequent reference, the e-book is less expensive than the print editions, even used. It does have hot end notes, so readers can go to the notes and return with some ease. The notes are useful and worth skimming through, especially for those readers interested in more detail about certain sub topics.

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