Saving American Education in the 21st Century: Administrators

September 23rd, 2013

Administrators

 

E. N. Anderson

Professor Emeritus, Anthropology

University of California, Riverside

 

            In 47 years at UC Riverside, I have seen administrators come and go, and have learned a little about the world of higher-level university administration.  My own administrative duties have been low-level, but ongoing and educative.

            Administrators tend to be of two types.  One hopes for dedicated, competent, academically trained administrators who can and will deal with crises and keep the system running well.  I have served under many such.  Unfortunately, one often encounters career administrators, many of them trained in business or educational administration rather than in an academic subject, who are neither competent managers nor interested in becoming so.  They are driven by ambition to rise in the system, not by desire to help it.

            The two are easy to tell apart.  Administrators of the first type are rarely noticed by the wider public.  They show themselves through new books in the libraries, new labs in the science buildings, new hires who win the Nobel Prize a few years later, new donations from rich alumni, and new computers in the  computer labs.  Above all, they show themselves through making sure that teaching and research faculties are paid decently and not worked impossibly hard (but are not allowed to laze on the job either). 

Administrators of the second type are very visible.  They are seen in expensive suits and flashy ties, or female equivalents, at every high-level meeting, major social event, and public photo opp.  They are featured on all the university’s publicity fliers.  They are seen at sports events and at the openings of new gyms, stadiums, sports fan facilities, and student unions.  However, a university run by them is singularly lacking in new books, new labs, new research, and new (or even old) instructional improvement projects.

            Though some people are intermediate, administrators tend to cluster at one or the other pole of this continuum.  This is because a real scholar or scientist, even if also politically ambitious, finds it difficult to ignore the scholarly side of the university.  Only the academically hopeless or resentful will willingly trash the entire research and education functions of their universities. 

            Administrators of the first type manage the old way:  They allocate scarce resources for maximum overall benefit, and they inspire and encourage their workers, from senior professors to gardeners. 

Administrators of the second type manage according to the latest fad.  Today, that is the “business model.”  The businesses used for a model are Enron, Madoff, and Wal-Mart, however, not Costco, Subway, or even Starbuck’s.  (Lest you think I am exaggerating…one of the people I am using as a model for a Type II actually had us read a book on “successful” businesses that had become “great.”  By the time we finished the book, half the cases in the book were in court for illegal practices leading to financial disaster.)  Put another way, the businesses used are McDonald’s and Burger King rather than Chez Panisse and Spago; we are talking mass consumption with minimal nutritional (educational) value, not specialized top-quality experience. 

The business model is a model in which the goal is to process more bodies cheaper.  We of the faculty are under continual pressure to teach more students and get them through the system faster, and at less cost.  This, of course, drastically impacts the quality of education—but that is not a concern.  The ultimate in efficiency is the MOOC (Massive Open Online Course), in which thousands of students can tune in to a single course of lectures—ideally given by a world expert who is also a great teacher.  The rest of us are too inferior to be of use. 

Of course, no one would use a MOOC to teach anything they actually wanted people to know.  No one would be mad enough to teach driving, or nursing, or brain surgery, or the all-important sports by way of a MOOC.  Even administrators know that those things require actual one-on-one teaching, practice, apprenticeship, hands-on training, and feedback.  MOOC’s, like standardized tests, are used only for things nobody cares about, such as literature, philosophy, and basic science. 

Actually, in an ideal world the mindless rote side of driving, nursing, and so on would be taught by some such method, though with thoughtful essays rather than standardized tests as the evaluation tools.  This would leave real teachers free to concentrate on the hands-on side.  Some online courses and universities do teach this way, with great success.  But all that is far too expensive and complicated for the business model. 

The business model, as applied to academic employees, means, first of all, less power and less pay for the teaching staff.  (Ironically, this has led to unionization in many public universities, including mine, and thus to more confrontation and management problems.  But there is really no alternative: without unions, our lower-level teaching staff would be so poorly paid and overworked that they would frequently have to drop out, leaving us with even worse staffing levels than we have now.)  Second, it means more and more highly paid administrators.  My university went from one vice-chancellor to six in a few years, and is moving on up.  UC’s systemwide administration absorbs as many resources as a major campus, but does little to earn it (they do provide useful legal services).  Third, it means not wasting money on such inconspicuous things as labs, computers, or libraries.  Money must go into something visible to the public.  We at my university have lots of beautiful new signs, a lovely student union, all manner of sports activities, and even new and very expensive uniforms for the students who help with orientation at the end of summer…but no new books, no new labs, no instructional improvement, worse and worse faculty/student ratios, fewer remedial courses, more overcrowded classes, fewer classes in total.

This is not to say that universities can’t be cut, but the cutting should be entirely in upper-level management and their folly projects.  Spending on administration has soared in American universities in the last two decades—doubling in many—while everything else has been cut to the bone, and in the case of libraries even the bones are going fast.

For some reason, strange and unimaginable to most of our administrators, measures of quality such as student graduation rates (especially in the recommended four years instead of five or six) remain poor at most universities.  Cheating has increased.  The job market for graduates is not steller; students clearly know less than they used to, and their employment fates prove it.  In short, career administrators using the business model have succeeded as well as did their models in Enron and Lehman Brothers.  Like the latter, university administrators can always count on generous governments to bail them out.  Universities are “too big to fail,” and their administrators always make the case that higher-paid higher-level administrators are the only hope.  Legislators, being what they are, usually sympathize—especially those many legislators who depend on an ignorant and uninformed citizenry to stay in office.

A sure sign of Type II administrators at work is the proliferation of “centers” that accomplish little.  The easiest way for an ambitious but incompetent academic to move up is by starting a center—say, for the investigation of research on centers.  UCR has countless centers that either do nothing or duplicate existing faculties.  It also, to be sure, has some real centers that actually do work.  All the centers absorb considerable resources; they are supposed to get grants that more than offset the cost.  It would be interesting to see how many of our centers do that.

Type II administrators sometimes steal outright.  More often, they have final say over the budget, and can move funds according to discretion.  Thus, one of our chancellors once used the year’s book-buying budget to redecorate his office.  The library, and thus the university’s teaching and research mission, never recovered—but you should have seen the chancellor’s office door.

The problem, however, is not so much the business model as the type of administrator who invokes it.  They are the people who early-on decided that rising in power through social ability and political skill was the way to win in academia.  (A catty writer might say that they tend not to have the intellectual skills to rise any other way…but two of our very worst chancellors at UCR were quite eminent scientists.) 

Probably the biggest problem with Type II administrators is not their laziness—though most of them indeed do little except posture in public—but their constant scheming to get ahead.  A second-string university like UCR is merely a place to polish their vitas and jockey for a better position.  Often, they show their competence the same way that bad CEO’s do: by cutting the work force and shrinking the budget, no matter how much it damages education.  Since they had already risen to their Peter Principle “level of incompetence,” we of the faculty have often wondered how they did in their later postings.  Sometimes we hear, and reflect that our gain is the later postings’ loss.  (Modern readers may not remember Lawrence Peters’ classic work [1969], in which he pointed out that managers tend to rise till they reach a job level they can’t handle, and then stick there—leaving the world mismanaged.)

Since Type II administrators spend their time playing social and political games, they, not the Type I administrators, are the ones that are visible to politicians and donors.  Those politicians and donors who love game-playing, fancy suits, and sports events will be impressed, and will steer some money to the university.  Unfortunately, politicians and donors who actually care about education and research will go somewhere else.  I would like to know how many hundreds of millions UCR has lost this way over the years.  I do know that one gift to UCLA’s medical school in 2012 was almost a third of our entire annual budget.  UCLA’s medical school has competent administration.  (Very fortunately, we have managed to get a medical school with an extremely competent Type I dean here at UCR.  Maybe we have a chance at last.)

 

Modern universities are incredibly complicated, and face diverse political and legal challenges.  Therefore, they actually do need administrators.  We do not need six or eight vice-chancellors, but we do need one, probably more than one.  We may not need as many deans as we have now, but we need several.  We do not need the “business model,” but we do need some genuine business management: cutting waste (i.e. high-level administrative spending), inviting comments from employees, constantly upgrading quality, allocating resources where they are needed (rather than where they make a show), and attending to the final product above all.

The problem, then, becomes one of finding Type I administrators.  Currently, university administration is so difficult and demanding that people who seriously want to work at it are daunted.  We at UCR used to have a hard time getting competent people to apply for chancellor and vice-chancellor positions.  We had to “wash” a vice-chancellor search a few years ago for sheer lack of qualified applicants.  With rising prestige, we are currently fortunate in having found a number of really good people.  Still, the problem continues, and the Chronicle of Higher Education reveals we are not alone in this.  One important step would be to give “service” a much higher place in promotion.  Encouraging people to rise through the ranks—where their capability can be judged—would produce a cadre of competent, decent administrators, rising within each school.  We could then dispense with the need to hire Type II people from other schools.

A competent administrator will, first of all, listen to what people say: students, faculty, staff, public, everyone.  He or she will then think seriously about what’s the best thing to do—not just take the most widely popular suggestion.  He or she will then thank everybody for their input, whether or not it was adopted!  Nothing is more valuable than input, and if people aren’t thanked they won’t provide it. 

He or she will be perfectly clear about the core functions of a university:  Education and research.  These come first.  Other functions come last.  Sports are an unsavory, wasteful luxury—they do nothing for most universities except waste a lot of money.  (It has been repeatedly shown that only the places with major established programs make money off sports.)   Fine food, beautiful dorms, beautiful student union buildings, and the like have their place—but their place is elite private schools, not struggling public universities that have to starve the library and the computer bank even without such luxury spending.

He or she will recognize that faculty and staff are human beings, and deserve not only fair pay but also respect.  Even Type II administrators usually know enough to be civil to senior faculty, but they have a reflex need to cut pay and resources for teaching and research personnel, and to be arrogant about it whenever possible.  Type I administrators try to get fairer shares of the state’s money and the university’s money for the people who actually do the heavy lifting, especially the overworked and exploited temps, teaching assistants, and junior faculty.  But if they fail in getting more state money, they at least try to soften the blow by being respectful and listening to the faculty.

He or she will work seriously with the community, addressing local needs as well as possible and thus hopefully getting donations.  Type II administrators, if they work with the “town” at all, tend to work only with the high-level business community.

He or she will work with the state and other powers-that-be to focus on quality teaching and research, cut other expenses, and above all not allow universities to become top-heavy with highly paid administrators.

He or she will strategically build on the strengths of the campus, and will also try to fix obvious weaknesses.  Type II administrators, by contrast, often hate and fear strong units and programs.  The most insane thing done by administration in my 47 years at UCR was summarily terminating the agricultural research program and firing the entire research staff—because the chancellor in question “did not want UCR to be seen as a cow college.”  This gutted one of the three or four leading agricultural research programs in the world, a program that was making enormous differences in poorer nations.  Of course, the researchers were not cow tenders, but world-class geneticists, entomologists, plant pathologists, cell biologists, and soil and water scientists.  Quite apart from devastating the intellectual and academic life at UCR—it had depended heavily on the ag scientists—this move, and all too many similar cuts at other universities, contributed to millions of people starving to death in Africa and Asia.  Decline in agricultural research is one of the major reasons why one and a half billion people are hungry and about one to two million die of malnutrition every year.

Make no mistake:  Type II administrators kill.  At thousands of universities, they have run down cutting-edge medical research, agricultural research, environmental research, crime studies, war-and-peace research, and other life-and-death agendas—all to feed their egos by redirecting the money to sports, fancy nonacademic buildings, glossy brochures, country-club dorm facilities, and, above all, lavish parties for each other.  Their natural allies, the legislators and boards of directors who want only to save money in the short term, bear even more of the guilt.  In a world where forward knowledge is the most important way of saving lives, this mischief is murder.

The psychology of leadership is now becoming known, thanks to Mark Van Vugt (see Van Vugt and Ahuja 2010), Paul Pederson, and others.  From my own observations, leaders are naturally good with people, but have perfected their skills and learned self-confidence through leading small groups, and then increasingly large ones.  They have a good intuition about what is important, and they stay on top of that, even if it looks “unimportant” to outsiders; conversely, they know when to stop wasting time on trivia.  They have a real vision and stick to it; they are not just coordinating, keeping the place going, or marking time.  They can prioritize.  They are always courteous and civil, but do not waste time “suffering fools gladly.”  (The best leaders I have known were not always popular.  As Confucius said, “If the good people like him and the bad people hate him, he’s probably a good man.”)  They are fair and tolerant, but not tolerant of immoral or amoral behavior by those that report to them.  They don’t show raw emotions or tip their hand.  Also, they know how to relax.  Two of the very best managers and administrators I knew at UCR tragically died of overwork–they literally dropped dead from exhaustion.  Needless to say, no Type II administrator ever died that way.

Peter, Lawrence.  1969.  The Peter Principle: Why Things Always Go Wrong.  New York: Bantam.

Van Vugt, Mark, and Anjana Ahuja.  2010.  Selected: Why Some People Lead, Why Others Follow, and Why It Matters.  New York:  Profile Books/HarperBusiness.

 

           

Some poems

September 20th, 2013

Some Poems

 

Just a selection of poems I like.  This posting overlaps with Environment Poems

 

 

LEADING OFF

 

I Got the Key to the Highway

 

I got the key to the highway, I’m booked out and goin’ to go,

Gone to leave here running, walkin got too doggone slow.

Gone walk the cold highway, until the break of day,

You don’t do nothin but drive a good man away.

When the moon gets over the levee, I’ll be on my way,

Gone roam this cold highway until the break of day.

Traditional blues song

 

The train done gone, and the Greyhound bus is run,

But walkin’ ain’t crowded, and I won’t be here long.

Traditional blues

 

I been down on the river in the year nineteen and fo’,

You could see a dead man, Lord, at every turnrow.

Traditional blues

I lay down, trying to take my rest,

My mind got to rambling like the wild geese from the west.

Traditional blues verse

 

On the Birth of His Son

 

When you were born into this world, my child,

Loud you did weep while all around you smiled;

So live that, going into your last sleep,

Calm you may smile while all around you weep.

Abu Said ibn Abu ‘l Khayr, medieval Arabic; tr. William Jones, modernized; I thought of this a lot when my grandchildren were born.

 

 

EAST ASIAN

 

The Best Advice

 

The clever man wears himself out,

The wise man worries.

But the man of no ability

Has nothing he seeks.

He eats his fill and wanders idly about.

Drifting like an unmoored boat,

Emptily and idly he wanders along.

Zhuang Zi (tr. Burton Watson, 1968, p. 354)

 

 

Tao Yuanming on Nature

 

I built my hut in a zone of human habitation,

Yet near me there sounds no noise of horse or coach.

Would you know how that is possible?

A heart that is distant creates a wilderness round it.

I pluck chrysanthemums under the eastern hedge,

Then gaze long at the distant summer hills.

The mountain air is fresh at the dusk of day;

The flying birds two by two return.

In these things there lies a deep meaning;

Yet when we would express it, words suddenly fail us.  (Waley 1961:105)
The famous final line says, literally:

“Want speak   Can’t remember words.”

 

 

Liu Zongyuan:  The lonely boat

 

Thousand mountains     no bird flies

Ten thousand paths     no human track.

Solitary boat    old man, split-bamboo raincloak,

Fishing, alone   cold river snow.

My translation, to give some sense of the Chinese.  This poem is telegraphic and ambiguous even by classical Chinese standards, and I have tried to preserve that.  The anonymous figure (the poet?) is invisible; we see only his raincoat.  The doubled loneliness of “solitary” and “alone” is notably intense in the Chinese text. 

 

 

The Empty Room

 

In the morning I leave my empty room

And ride my horse to the censorate.

I spend the day there, working at trivial jobs,

Then return again to my empty room.

Bright moonlight glimmers through cracks in the dark wall.

My lamp burns down, the ashes crumble.

And I think of the road to Hsien-yang—

Her funeral hearse returning last night.

Yuan Zhen, tr. Jonathan Chaves

(Yuan Zhen is one of the most striking characters in Chinese history, a fearless defender of the right during a corrupt time.  He rose to very high position in government but was constantly in trouble for fearless and forthright criticism of the Emperor or anyone else who did wrong.  His devotion to his wife, and his poetry on losing her, stand as one of the emotional peaks in all world literature, and refute all the nonsense about the universality of Chinese male chauvinism.  This poem captures perfectly the complete devastation of having one’s whole life and world utterly destroyed.  One goes on automatic pilot, doing the “trivial jobs,” completely empty inside [the room is both real and metaphoric].  I’ve been there.  Believe me.  Some have asked how Yuan Zhen could write a perfect eight-line poem in that state.  The answer is: as one of the three or four greatest scholars in China in his time, he was so trained in poetry that it was like breathing.  He couldn’t not do it.)

 

Later, remembering, still devastated:

Remembering My Dead Wife

 

Oh youngest, best-loved daughter of Hsieh,

Who unluckily married this peniles scholr,

You patched my clothes from your own wicker basket,
and I coaxed off your hairpins of gold, to buy wine with;
for dinner we had to pick wild herbs

And to use dry locust-leaves for our kindling.

Today they are paying me a hundred thousand

And all that I can bring to you is a temple sacrifice.

Yuan Zhen, tr. Witter Bynner and Kiang Kang-hu

 

 

Checking on a painting

This time I think

I got it:  one pine real

As the real.

 

Think about it:

Search in memory, is it

Real, or not?

 

Guess I’ll have to go

Back up the mountain…

South past Stonebridge,

The third one on the right….

(Ching Yun, late 9th century, tr. Jerome P. Seaton; Seaton and Maloney 1994:76).

 

 

Life and Death

 

If you want an image of life and death,

Look to ice and water.

Water cools, turns to ice,

Ice melts and again becomes water.

Whatever dies must be reborn,

Whatever is born must then die.

Ice and water do each other no harm;

Life and death are both beautiful.

Han Shan, 8th century; my translation.

 

More Han Shan

 

The Tiantai Mountains are my home

Mist-shrouded paths keep guests away

Thousand-meter cliffs make hiding easy

Above a rocky ledge mid ten thousand streams

With bark hat and wooden clogs I walk along the banks

With hemp robe and pigweed staff I walk around the peaks

Once you see through transience and illusion

The joys of roaming free are wonderful indeed.

(Tr. Bill Porter, “Red Pine.”  Zhuang Zi mentioned the pigweed staff—a walking stick made from a pigweed [=goosefoot] stalk—as a symbol of poverty and noble rustic life; it was, inevitably, picked up and replayed as a symbol, not only by Han Shan but by Du Fu and others, and even by Basho in Japan and by a self-pitying Korean singer who said it was his “only friend” (O’Rourke 2002:132).  Of course I had to make one, and I have it by me right now, wrapped in a Mongolian blue sacred cloth.)

 

 

Passing through South Lake Again:  A Buddhist Prayer

 

Approaching South Lake, I already begin to dread the journey,

A place of old memories; each corner reopens a wound.

Watching plum blossoms in a small courtyard could be but a dream fulfilled;

Listening to rain in a quiet room is like entering another life.

Autumn waters are bluer for reflecting my graying temples;

The evening bells sound crisper for breaking a sorrowful heart.

Lord of Emptiness, take pity on this homeless soul—

Out of this incense smoke make me the City of Refuge.

Anonymous, 18th century Chinese, tr. Shirleen S. Wong

 

 

The Woodpecker

 

Where is the woodpecker?

Far in the high trees.

Fragile, he works so hard;

All day I hear his sound.

He works so the woods will flourish,

No worms gnawing trees away.

Woe to the crowds of humans—

Never a heart like this bird’s.

Ni Zan (a great Yuan Dynasty artist and writer)

 

This inspired a much more famous, but (sadly) anonymous, Korean poem:

 

Can tiny insects

devour a whole great spreading pine?

Where is the long-billed

woodpecker?  Why is he not here?

When I hear the sound of falling trees

I cannot contain myself for sorrow.

(Trans. Richard Rutt, 1971, poem 15.  In both poems the insects are symbols of evil courtiers, the trees are the country’s welfare.  This is not just metaphor, it is ganying, resonance or homology: the insects are exactly like the courtiers in their desires and actions, the trees really are valuable)

 

 

Planting Trees

 

Seventy, and still planting trees….

Don’t laugh at me, my friends.

I know I’m going to die.

I also know I’m not dead yet.   (Yuan Mei, 18th century; tr. J. P. Seaton, 1997:92; I planted an almond on my seventieth birthday, reciting this.)

 

Chan Master Whitecloud:

A fly drawn by the light bumps the window paper

Uanble to pass it tastes much suffering

Suddenly it chances on the route it came by

And knows its eyes have fooled it all through life.

cited by Yuan Mei; tr Denis Mair; V. Mair et al, p 571.

 

And by Li Xiaocun:

Garden Gone to Waste

 

Whose courtyard consummates its own spring?

Moss on windowsill, dust on desk

At least the dog next door still cares

Over the fence barks at a flower thief.

Denis Mair in V. Mair et al., p 570

(The first line means that the garden left to celebrate itself, no one else being there)

 

 

Japanese

 

Written on a Painting of the Chinese Zen Master Raisan (ca. 8th century)

 

Deep in the emerald cloud of Meng Peak

The recluse Raisan dwells alone.

Emperor Te-tsung himself addressed words to him

But the Zen master never even rose.

Imperial messengers came and urged him repeatedly;

Not once did he answer them.

His face glistening with cold tears,

His world was that of the wild yam;

Beyond that he did not seek enlightenment

Nor did he shun birth and death.

Nothing whatever bothered him,

No vexatious matter entered his ears.

There was no self and no others;

No troubles. No good.

No shouts issued form his mouth,

No blows from his fists.

He was one dark hard old man.

(Takuan Sōhō [1573-1645], tr. Stephen Addiss in notes to this painting in Los Angeles County Museum of Art)

 

 

On the Chinese proverb “A bird in a forest can perch on only one branch”:

 

Wren on a single branch:

fragrance of its apricot flowers

throughout the world  (Bashō 2005:101, translation slightly corrected).

 

 

Cherry blossom

Most loved when it falls

Nothing is meant in this world

To last forever

Medieval Japanese, from the Tales of Ise

 

The mountain wind

 

Akikaze ya!

Hyoro hyoro kama

no kageboshi

The mountain wind!

It shakes

the mountain’s shadow

Issa (my favorite haiku; my translation; the image is a symbol of worldly power and what it is worth)

 

 

Also from Barnhill, p. 58:

The Takekuma pine was a noble pine tree.  The monk Nōin saw it, came back to find it cut down by a boorish governor to use for bridge pilings, and wrote:

“Pine of Takekuma:

at this time 

there is no trace of it;

have a thousand years passed

since I last came?”

 

It was replanted, and Kyohaku wrote, thinking of Noin:

“The Takekuma Pine:

show it to him,

late-blooming cherries”

 

Which caused Basho to seek it out (it had probably been replanted yet again by then):

“Since the cherries bloomed,

I’ve longed to see this pine:  two trunks

after three month’s passage.”

 

This poem exhibits fūryū, “’all art,’…an extraordinarily complex term, including associations of high culture, art in general, poetry, and music, as well as ascetic wayfaring and Daoist eccentricity.”  Barnhill, Basho’s Journey¸ 159

 

 

Korean  (The Koreans adopted Chinese civilization but with a distinct and frequently cynical eye, evaluating, so that when they state Chinese goals they have thought harder and do better than the Chinese ever did; or they can be world-class skeptics about it all.  Many of the best poems are anonymous.  Remember these are really songs: they rhyme, have meter, and have beautiful tunes in the original.)

 

I live at the foot of the mountain;

Even the cuckoo embarrasses me.

It laughs at the size of my cooking pot when it peeks into my house.

Believe me, bird,

It’s plenty big in terms of my interest in the world.
Anonymous, tr. Kevin O’Rourke (2002:166.)

 

Red-necked mountain pheasant over there,

Duck hawk perched on the branch,

White egrets watching for the fish

In the watered paddy field out in front,

If you were not around my grass roof

It wouldn’t be easy for me to pass the days.

Anonymous, tr. Jaihiun Kim (1994:190.)

 

Night falls

 

Night in a mountain village;

A dog barks far away.

I open the window and look:

The moon is a bright leaf.

Be still, stop barking at the moon

Drifting alone over the face of the mountain.

-Chungum, unknown woman poet, ca 1568; redone from a couple of translations

 

Old age (a poem with a very personal ring these days….)

 

Bamboo stick, the sight of you

Fills me with trust and delight.

Ah, boyhood days when you were my horse!

Stand there now

Behind the window, and when we go out,

Let me stand behind you.

Kim Kwang’uk, tr. Peter Lee

 

And another:

Even fools can know and do

Is it not easy then?

Yet even sages cannot know all.

Is it not difficult then?

Pondering whether it’s easy or hard

Makes me forget I grow old.

Yi Hwang (16C), tr. Richard Rutt  (What is “it”?  The Way, the Meaning, the Answer?  Or maybe just the question?  The point is the last line.)

 

 

The Koreans are the only people who seriously explored old age in poetry—here’s another:

 

Wine, why do you redden a white face?

Instead of reddening a white face why not blacken white hair?

Should you really

Blacken white hair, I’ll drink and drink, I’ll never sober up again.

Tr. Kevin O’Rourke

 

 

Getting away from old age, here’ the world’s finest poem on tolerance:

Is the crow black because someone dyed it?

Is the heron white because someone washed it?

Are the crane’s legs long because someone pulled them out?  Are the duck’s legs short

because someone cut them off?

Black, white, long, short, what’s the point in endless wrangling?

Tr. Kevin O’Rourke

 

This anonymous woman’s poem just has to be the greatest love poem in the world:

 

Pass where the winds pause before going over,

Pass where the clouds pause before going over,

High pass of the peak of Changsong

Where wild-born falcons and hand-reared falcons,

Peregrine falcons and yearling hawks,

All pause before going over,

If I knew my love were across the pass

I would not pause a moment before I crossed.

Tr. Richard Rutt

 

Another anonymous love poem, so understated that it’s ten times as powerful for the low key:

 

In this world medicine is plentiful

And sharp knives abound, they say:

But there’s no knife to cut off affection, no medicines to forget true love.

So be it:

I’ll leave my cutting and forgetting till I go to the other world.

Tr. Kevin O’Rourke

 

Vietnamese

 

Love Poem

 

In our next life, we will take care to be born again as male and female,

But we will be two wildgeese flying high in heaven.

The blinding snow, the seas and waters, the mountains and clouds, the dust of the world

We will see from afar, but we will never fall.

Nguyen Khac Hieu   (early 20th C; from Huard, Pierre, and Maurice Durand.  1954.  Connaissance du Viet-Nam, p. 274.  Hanoi:  École Française de’Extrème-Orient; Paris: Imprimerie Nationale.  My trans. of their French trans.)

 

Ho Xuan Huong’s lament for her husband, who died after only a few months of marriage; tone marks left out, but the tone harmonies are as beautiful as the vowel sounds; together they make this one of the most devastatingly beautiful laments in the world.  Also, this gives you an idea of the incredibly complex and beautiful rhyme, internal rhyme, recurrent rhyme, rhythm, vowel harmony, and other poetic tricks that are lost in modern translations of classical Chinese and Korean songs.

 

Tram nam ong phu Vinh-Tuong oi

Cai no ba sinh da gia roi

Chon chat van chong ba thuoc dat

Nem tung ho thi bon phuong troi

Can can tao hoa roi dau mat

Mieng tui can khon that chat roi

Hai bay thang troi la may choc

Tram nam ong phu Vinh-Tuong oi

 

One hundred years.  Oh, prefect of Vinh-Tuong,

Now your love debt is all paid off.

Your poetic talents buried three feet down.

Your fine ambitions windstrewn.

The heavenly scales got dropped and lost.

The mouth of earth’s bag is cinched up.

Twenty-seven months seemed so short.

On hundred years.  Oh, prefect of Vinh-Tuong.

                        (Tr. John Balaban)

 

 

CELTIC

(As with the Asian poems, the translated ones below are masterpieces of rhyme, internal rhyme, off-rhyme, phoneme harmony, and so on in the original—If at all interested, pick up enough Celtic languages to get it)

 

Promise

 

Oh King of the starry sky,

Lest Thou from me withdraw Thy light,

Whether my house be dark or bright,

My door shall close on none tonight.

Irish, 9th century, tr. Sean O’Faolain

 

 

Creide’s lament for her husband Cael, drowned at sea:

 

The harbour roars out

over the fierce flow of Rin Dá Bharc.

The hero from Loch Dá Chonn drowned;

the wave mourns it against the shore.

 

The heron is crying

in the marsh of Druim Dá Thrén.

She cannot guard her young:

the two-colored fox is stalking them.

 

Mournful is the whistle

of the thrush on Druim Caín.

And no less mounrful is the call

of the blackbird on Leitir Laíg.

 

Mournful the music

of the stag on Druim Dáa Léis:

The doe of Druim Silenn is dead

and the great stag roars at her loss.

 

My grief

that hero dead, who lay with me,

that woman’s son from Doire Dá Dos

with a cross set at his head.

 

My grief that Cael

is fixed by my side in death,

that a wave has drowned his pale flank.

His great beauty drove me wild.

 

Mournful is the roar

the ebbing wave makes on the strand.

It has drowned a fine and noble man.

My grief Cael ever went near it.

 

Mournful the sound

the wave makes on the northern shore,
rough about the lovely rock,

lamenting Cael who is gone.

 

And mournful the fall

of the wave on the southern shore.

As for myself, my time is over,

my face the worse, for all to see.

 

There is unnatural music

in the heavy wave of Tulach Léis:

It is tellings its boastful tale

and all my wealth is as nothing.

 

Since Crimthann’s son was drowned

I will have no other love.

Many leaders fell at his hand

but his shield on the day of need was silent.

Tr. Ann Dooley and Harry Roe.

Creide’s lament for her drowned husband is one of the truly great poems in the Irish (Gaelic) language, and it’s very well worth learning to read it in the original, pronouncing it more or less correctly—we aren’t quite clear how it was pronounced in its own time, but one can get the idea.  Of course it’s always interesting that she could spontaneously mourn in perfect, extremely complex and high-styled Irish prosody….

 

 

Muireadhach Albanach Ó Dálaigh’s lament for his wife, ca 1200 AD.

 

Last night my soul departed,

a pure body, most dear, in the grave,

her stately smooth bosom taken

from me in a linen sheet,

 

a lovely pale blossom plucked

from a limp downcurving stem,

my heart’s darling bowed low,

heavy branch of yonder house.

 

I am alone tonight, O God.

It is a crooked, bad world you see.

Lovely the weight of the young flank

I had here last night, my King.

 

That bed there, my grief,

The lively covers where we swam

–I have seen a fine lively body

and waved hair in your midst, my bed!

 

One of a gentle countenance

Lay and shared my pillow.

Only the hazel bloom is like

her womanly dark sweet shade.

 

Maol Mheadha of the dark brows,

my vessel of mead, by my side,

my heart, the shade who has left me,

a precious flower, planted and bowed.

 

My body is mine no longer.

It has fallen to her share:

a body in two pieces

since she left, fair, lovely and gentle

 

–one foot of mine, one flank

(her visage like the whitethorn;

nothing hers but it was mine):

one eye of mine, one hand;

 

half my body, a youthful blaze

(I am hjandled harshly, O King,

and I feel faint as I speak it)

and half of my very soul.

 

My first love her great slow gaze;

curved, ivory white her breast;

nor did her body, her dear side,

belong to another before me.

 

Twenty years we were as one

and sweeter our speech each year.

Eleven babies she bore me

–great slender-fingered fresh branch.

 

I am, but I do not live,

since my round hazel-nut has fallen.

Since my dear love has left me

the dark world is empty and bare.

 

From the day the smooth shaft was sunk

for my house I have not heard

that a guest has laid a spell

on her youthful brown dark hair.

 

Do not hinder me, you people.

What crime to hear my grief.

Bare ruin has entered my home

and the bright brown blaze is out.

 

The King of Hosts and Highways

took her away in His wrath.

Little those branched locks sinne,d

to die on her husband, young and fresh.

 

That soft hand I cherished,

King of the graves and bells,

that hand never forsworn

–my pain it is not beneath my head!

Tr. T. Kinsella , The New Oxford Book of Irish Verse (1989:95-97; note the level of passion after 20 years and eleven children).  The original Celtic of this poem is incredible—a torrent of rhyme, internal rhyme, half-rhyme, alliteration, sound progressions, and every other word-music device, all with an extremely lamenting sound.  Only a handful of the greatest poets can make their sounds unite in driving the full emotional message of the poem, and this poem does it to a supreme degree, unique in the world to my experience.

 

 

Mad Sweeney’s Song of the Wild

 

There was a time when I preferred

the turtle-dove’s soft jubilation

as it flitted round a pool

to the murmur of conversation.

 

There was a time when I preferred

the mountain grouse crying at dawn

to the voice and closeness

of a beautiful woman.

 

There was a time when I preferred

wolf-packs yelping and howling

to the sheepish voice of a cleric

bleating out plainsong.

 

You are welcome to pledge healths

and carouse in your drinking dens;

I will dip and steal water

from a well with my open palm.

 

You are welcome to that cloistered hush

of your students’ conversation;

I will study the pure chant

of hounds baying in Glen Bolcain.

 

You are welcome to your salt meat

and fresh meat in feasting-houses;

I will live content elsewhere

on tufts of green watercress.
(Tr. Seamus Heaney, 1983:72-73.)

Kenneth Jackson memorably translates the last two verses:

“Though you think sweet, yonder in your church, the gentle talk of your students, sweeter I think the splendid talking the wolves make in Glenn mBolcáin.

“Though you like the fat and meat which are eaten in the drinking-halls, I like better to eat a head of clean water-cress in a place without sorrow…”  (Jackson 1971:255).

The “wolves” are actually “hounds” in the text, as translated by Heaney, but I think Jackson is right in assuming that “hounds” here is used, as it is in some other texts, to refer to wolves.

 

 

Mt. Cua

 

Sliabh gCua, haunt of wolves, rugged and dark, the wind wails about its glens, wolves howl around its chasms; the fierce brown deer bells in autumn arund it, the crane screams over its crags.

Early medieval Irish; traditional; tr. Kenneth Jackson.  Sliabh gCua means “Mt. Cua” and is pronounced “sleeve cua” or “sleeve gua”

 

 

Love song

She’s the white flower of the blackberry, she’s the sweet flower of the raspberry, she’s the best herb in excellence for the sight of the eyes.

She’s my pulse, she’s my secret, she’s the scented flower of the apple, she’s summer in the cold time between Christmas and Easter.

Traditional song (rhyming in Irish), tr. Kenneth Jackson, A Celtic Miscellany (1971); this just has to be the most beautiful of men’s love songs

 

 

Mythic encounter

 

“Another beautiful shining island appeared to them.  Bright grass was there, with spangling of purple-headed flowers; many birds and ever-lovely bees singing a song from the heads of those flowers.  A grave gray-headed man was playing a harp in the island.  He was singing a wonderful song, the sweetest of the songs of the world.  They greeted each other, and the old man told them to go away.”  (again from Kenneth Jackson, 1971:162).

 

 

Now the holy lamp

 

Now the holy lamp of love

Or unholy if they will,

Lifes her amber light above

Cornamona’s hill.

Children playing round about

Decent doors at edge of dark

Long ago hve ceased to shout.

Now the fox begins to bark.

 

Cradling hands are all too small

And your hair is drenched with dew;
Love though strong can build no wall

From the hungry fox for you.

Holy men have said their say

And those holy men are right,

God’s own fox will have his way

This night or some other night.

Patrick MacDonogh (20th century)

 

The Ballad of Sir Patrick Spens

 

The king he sits in Dumferling town,

Drinking the blood-red wine;

“Oh where shall I get good sailors

To sail this ship of mine?”

 

Then up and spake an elder knight,

Sat at the king’s right knee:

“Sir Patrick Spens is the best sailor

That sails upon the sea.”

 

The king has written a broad letter,

And signed it with his hand,

And sent it to Sir Patrick Spens

Was walking on the sand.

 

The first line that Sir Patrick read

A loud laugh laughed he;

But the second line Sir Patrick read

The tear did blind his eye.

 

“Make haste, make haste, my merry men all,

Our ship it sails the morn.”

“Oh say not so, my master dear,

I fear a dead ly storm.

 

Last night I saw the elder moon

With the new moon in her arm,

And I fear, I fear, my master dear,

That we will come to harm.”

 

The Scottish nobles were ich laith                  [very loath]

To wet their cork-heeled shoon;

But long long e’er the play were played

Their hats did swim aboon.                             [above their bodies]

 

Oh long long may their ladies wait

With their fans into their hand,

Awaiting for Sir Patrick Spens

Come sailing to the land.

 

And long long may their ladies wait

With their gold combs into their hair,

Awaiting for their own dear lords,

For them they’ll see nae mair.

 

Half oer, half oer, to Aberdour,

It’s fifty fathom deep,

And there lies good Sir Patrick Spens

With the Scots lords at his feet.

 

(Scottish traditional.  According to legend—unconfirmed—the king wished to get rid of Sir Patrick Spens and other nobles, and was too cowardly to do it directly, so he sent them on a death-voyage to Norway in winter.  This ballad was supposedly composed to rebuke him.  The old sailor in Verse 6-7 knows that the only time it is clear enough to see “the old moon in the new moon’s arms” on the foggy North Sea is when a howling north wind is blowing; such a wind can easily raise 50-foot waves, and to put out in such conditions in medieval sailing craft was frank suicide.  Dumfermline Castle—“Dumferling town”—still exists, a darkly brooding medieval ruin, and you can actually stand there and see the hall where the king sent Sir Patrick to death.  The tune is magnificent and mournful.  See Child 2:17.)

 

 

The Unquiet Grave

 

The wind blows cold today, my love,

And a few small drops of rain.

I never had but one true love,

In cold grave she was lain.

 

I’ll do as much for my true love

As any young man may;

I’ll sit and mourn all on her grave

For twelve month and a day.

 

The twelve month and a day being o’er,

The dead began to speak:

“Oh who sits mourning all on my grave

And will not let me sleep?”

 

Tis I, my love, sits on your grave,

And will not let you sleep;

I crave one kiss of your clay-cold lips

And that is all I seek.

 

“You crave one kiss of my clay-cold lips

But my breath smells earthy strong;

If you had one kiss of my clay-cold lips

Your days would not be long.”

 

Tis down in yonder garden green,

Love, where we used to walk,

The finest flower that ever was seen

Is withered to a stalk.

 

“The stalk is withered dry, my love,

So will our hearts decay;

So many yourself content, my love,

Till God calls you away.”

 

(British Isles, traditional ballad, in many versions.  The tune to this one is sad and resigned, and incredibly beautiful.  See also Child 2:234.)

 

 

Poems by Edward Thomas (Welsh poet, early 20th century, died on the battlefield in WWI)

 

Adlestrop

 

Yes. I remember Adlestrop—

The name, because on afternoon

Of heat the express train drew up there

Unwontedly.  It was late June.

 

The steam hissed.  Someone cleared his throat.

No one left and no one came

On the bare platform.  What I saw

Was Adlestrop—only the name

 

And willows, willow-herb, and grass,

And meadowsweet, and haycocks dry,

No whit less still and lonely fair

Than the high cloudlets in the sky.

 

And for that minute a blackbird sang

Close by, and round him, mistier,

Farther and farther, all the birds

Of Oxfordshire and Gloucestershire.

(Note, for rhyme, the last word is pronounced “glostershur”)

 

 

The Ashgrove

 

Half of the grove stood dead, and those that yet lived made

Little more than the dead ones made of shade.

If they led to a house, long before they had seen its fall:

But they welcomed me; I was glad without cause and delayed.

 

Scarce a hundred paces under the trees was the interval—

Paces each sweeter than sweetest miles—but nothing at all,

Not even the spirits of memory and fear with restless wing,

Could climb down in to molest me over the wall

 

That I passed through at either end without noticing.

And now an ash grove far from those hills can bring

The same tranquillity in which I wander a ghost

With a ghostly gladness, as if I heard a girl sing

 

The song of the Ash Grove soft as love uncrossed,

And then in a crowd or in distance it were lost,

But the moment unveiled something unwilling to die

And I had what most I desered, without search or desert or cost.

 

 

Old Man

(The plant is southernwood,  Artemisia)

 

Old Man, or Lad’s-love: in the name there’s nothing

To one that knows not Lad’s-love, or Old Man,

The hoar-green feathery herb, almost a tree,

Growing with rosemary and lavender.

Even to one that knows it well, the names

Half decorate, half perplex, the thing it is:

At least, what that is clings not to the names

In spite of time.  And yet I like the names.

 

The herb itself I like not, but for certain

I love it, as some day the child will love it

Who plucks a feather from the door-side bush

Whenever she goes in or out of the house.

Often she waits there, snipping the tips and shrivelling

The shreds at last on to the path, perhaps

Thinking, perhaps of nothing, till she sniffs

Her fingers and runs off.  The bush is still

But half as tall as she, though it is as old;

So well she clips it.  Not a word she says;

And I can only wonder how much hereafter

She will remember, with that bitter scent,

Of garden rows, and ancient damson trees

Topping a hedge, a bent path to a door,

A low thick bush beside the door, and me

Forbidding her to pick.

As for myself,

Where first I met the bitter scent is lost.

I, too, often shrivel the grey shreds,

Sniff them and thin and sniff again and try

Once more to think what it is I am remembering,

Always in vain.  I cannot like the scent,

yet I would rather give up others more sweet,

With no meaning, than this bitter one.

I have mislaid the key. I sniff the spray

And think of nothing; I see and I hear nothing;

Yet seem, too, to be listening, lying in wait

For what I should, yet never can, remember:

No garden appears, no path, no hoar-green bush of lad’s-love, or Old Man, no child beside,

Neither father nor mother, nor any playmate;

Only an avenue, dark, nameless, without end.

These poems are from The Works of Edward Thomas (Thomas 1994), a book I treasure, and I hope it goes to someone who cares.  This particular poem is intensely personal for me; I have the same responses to the plant, and my daughters had the same early experiences with it as Thomas’ daughter—because I planted it by our door in honor of the poem.

 

 

 

The Last Kamassian Poem

The Kamassian language (distantly related to Finnish and spoken by a tiny group of reindeer herders) died out in the early 20th century.  In 1914 one old man was located who still spoke it fluently, in a tiny community of speakers in the arctic Yenisei River area of Russia.  He gave a few word lists, then sang this song and would say no more.  (The final lines refer to coverings of the traditional lodge; they curl when long abandoned.)  So this is all we have of Kamassian.  It is a lament not only for his language and his people, but for the entire world, as much as he knew it.

 

My black mountains

Where I used to wander

Have remained behind.

The soil I walked on grew

A belt of golden grass.

My black mountains

Have remained behind,

My white mountains

Have remained behind,

Our strength

Has remained behind.

From many families

Have I remained behind.

I have gone astray from my kinsmen,

And I am left alone.

My lakes where I was wont to fish

Have remained behind.

I do not see them now.

The poles in the middle of my tent

Have gone rotten,

The birch-bark slices that were sewn together

Have all curled up.

(Tr. T. Vuorela 1964)

 

 

SPIRITUAL

 

Easter

 

Most glorious Lord of life that on this day

Didst make thy triumph over death and sin,

And having harrowed hell didst bring away

Captivity thus captive, us to win:

This joyous day, dear Lord, with joy begin,

And grant that we for whom thou diddest die

Being with thy dear blood clean washed from sin

May live forever in felicity.

And that thy love we weighing worthily,

May likewise love thee for the same again;

And for thy sake that all life dear did buy

With love may one another entertain.

So let us love, dear love, like as we ought;

Love is the lesson that the Lord us taught.

Edmund Spenser
The Song of the Sky

I will sing the song of the sky.  This is the song of the tired salmon panting as they swim up the swift current.

I go around where the water runs into whirlpools.

They talk quickly, as if they are in a hurry.

The sky is turning over.  They call me.

Traditional Tsimshian song as sung by William Beynon (Tsimshian chief); tr. by Beynon and Benjamin Munroe, early 20th century.  Recall that the salmon give birth and die.  The sense of sacrificing life for one’s people is clear in the poem.

 

 

Education is all right, I’ll tell you before you start,

Before you educate the head, try to educate the heart.

Washington Phillips, Texas bluesman (recorded 1930)

 

 

Life and Death

 

My heart is a lamp, moving in the current,

Drifting to some landing-place I do not know.

Darkness moves before me on the river,

It moves again behind,

And in the moving darkness

Only ripples’ sounds are heard,

For underneath the ripples moves

The current of the quiet night.

My lamp, as if to seek a friend, goes drifting

By the shore.  Both day and night

My drifting lamp moves searching

By the shore.  My Friend is ocean to this river.

My friend is the shore to this shoreless river.

The current bends again.

At one such bending he will call to me,

And I will look upon his face,

And he will catch me up in his embrace,

And then my flame, my pain, will be extinguished.

And on his breast will be extinguished, in my joy,

My flame.

Bengal folk song (Tr. Dimock 1966)

 

 

On the story of how the tale of the Buddha’s conversion to religion got into the Christian world, and the Buddha and his charioteer wound up being considered Christian saints, Sts. Barlaam and Josaphat (saints’ day Nov. 27):

Was Barlaam truly Josaphat,

And Buddha truly each?

What better parable than that

The Unity to preach—

 

The simple brotherhood of souls

That seek the highest good:

He who in kingly chariot rolls,

O wears the hermit’s hood.

 

The Church mistook?  The heathen once

Among her saints to range?

The deed of that diviner dunce

Our wisdom would not change.

 

For Culture’s pantheon they grace

In catholic array.

Each saint hath had his hour and place

But now ‘tis All Saints Day.

Israel Zangwill (a great Jewish author), 1895 (quoted Lang1966:7)

(This is, in the end, my favorite religious poem)

 

 

The Slidin’ Delta

 

The Slidin’ Delta run right by my do’,

I’m leavin here, baby, honey don’t you want to go.

I’m leavin here, baby, honey don’t you want to go,

I’m goin somewhere I never been befo’.

My bag is packed, my trunk’s already gone,

I can’t see, baby, honey what you waitin on.

I’m leavin here, baby, don’t you want to go,

I’m goin up the country and I ain’t comin back no mo’.

John Hurt (blues singer; from traditional material, elaborated by him.  The Slidin’ Delta was a local train.  The train is a standard symbol in blues for parting, and thus for death, and thus for mystic experience—all of which are fully invoked here.  The Medieval “image, symbol, metaphor, and allegory” all perfectly captured.  Hurt’s performance of this song on his record “Worried Blues,” 1963, is surely the greatest blues performance ever recorded)

 

 

A Young Girl’s Tomb

 

Wir gedenkens noch.  Das ist, als muste

Alles dieses einmal wieder sein.

Wei ein Baum an der Limonenkuste

Trugst du deinen kleinen leichten Brüste

In deas Rauschen seines Bluts hinein:

 

–jenes Gottes.  Und es war der schlanke

Flüchtling, der verwöhnende der Fraun,

Süss und glühend, warm wie dein Gedanke,

überschattend deine frühe Flanke

Und geneigt wie deine Augenbrau’n.

 

(We think of it still.  It is as if

All of this must be again.

Like a tree on the lemon coast

You raised your small light breasts

Into the rushing of his blood—

That God.  And it was the slender

Fugitive, ravisher of girls,

Sweet and glowing, warm like your thought,

Overshadowing your free flank,

Arched above you like your eyebrows.)

Rainer Maria Rilke (my translation, but be sure to read the exquisitely beautiful German.  Compare “The Unquiet Grave” and the laments by Yuan Zhen and O’Dalaigh, above.  Love drives the hardest grief, and the greatest poems about it do not hide the sexual loss.)

 

 

Robinson Jeffers

 

Hooded Night   [at his house at the tip of Monterey Peninsula]

 

At night, toward dawn, all the lights of the shore have died,

And a wind moves.  Moves in the dark

The sleeping power of the ocean, no more beastlike than manlike,

Not to be compared; itself and itself.

Its breath blown shoreward huddles the world with a fog; no stars

Dance in heaven; no ship’s light glances.

I see the heavy granite bodies of the rocks of the headland,

That were ancient here before Egypt had pyramids,

Bulk on the gray of the sky, and beyond them the jets of the young trees

I planted the year of the Versailles peace.

Bnut here is the final unridiculous peace.  Before the first man

Here were the stones, the ocean, the cypresses,

And the pallid region in the stone-rough dome of fog where the mooon

Falls on the west.  Here is reality.

The other is a spectral episode; after the inquisitive animal’s

Amusements are quiet:  the dark glory.

 

Oh, Lovely Rock

 

We stayed the night in the pathless gorge of Ventana Creek, up the east fork.

The rock walls and the mountain ridges hung forest on forest above our heads, maple and redwood,

Laurel, oak, madrone, up to the high and slender Santa Lucian firs that stare up the cataracts

Of slide-rock to the star-color precipices.

We lay on gravel and kept a little camp-fire for warmth.

Past midnight only two or three coals glowed red in the cooling darkness; I laid a clutch of dead bay-leaves

On the ember ends and felted dry sticks across them and lay down again.  The revived flame

Lighted myh sleeping son’s face and his companion’s, and the vertical face of the great gorge-wall

Across the stream. Light leaves overhead danced in the fire’s breath, tree-trunks were seen:  it was the rock wall

That fascinated my eyes and mind.  Nothing strange:  light-gray diorite with two or three slanting seams in it,

Smooth-polished by the endless attrition of slides and floods; no fer nor lichen, pure naked rock…as if I were

Seeing rock for the first timde.  As if I were seeing through the flame-lit surface into the real and bodily

And living rock.  Nothing strange…I cannot

Tell you how strange:  the silent passionk the deep nobility and childlike loveliness:  this fate going on

Outside our fates.  It is here in the mountain like a grave smiling child.  I shall die, and my boys

Will live and die, our world will go on through its rapid agonies of change and discovery; this age will die,

And wolves have howled in the snow around a new Bethlehem: this rock will be here, grave, earnest, not passive:  the energies

That are its atoms will still be bearing the whole mountain above:  and I, many packed centuries ago,

Felt its intense reality with love and wonder, this lonely rock.

 

Robinson Jeffers (1937:124-125.)

 

One who sees giant Orion, the torches of winter midnight,

Enormously walking above the ocean in the west of heaven;

And watches the track of this age of time at its peak of flight

Waver like a spent rocket, wavering toward new discoveries,

Mortal examinations of darkness, soundings of depth;

And watches the long coast mountain vibrate from bronze to green,

Bronze to green, year after year, and all the stream

Dry and flooded, dry and flooded, in the racing seasons;

And knows that exactly this and not another is the world,

The ideal is phantoms for bait, the spirit is a flicker on a grave;

May serve, with a certain detachment, the fugitive human race,

Or his own people, his own household; but hardly himself;

And will not wind himself into hopes nor sicken with despairs.

He has found the peace and adored the God; he handles in autumn

The germs of far-future spring.

Sad sons of the stormy fall,

No escape, you have to inflict and endure; surely it is time for you

To learn to touch the diamond within to the diamond outside,

Thinning your humanity a little between the invulnerable diamonds,

Knowing that your angry choices and hopes and terrors are in vain,

But life and death not in vain; and the world is like a flight of swans.

1935

 

DOGS

 

How cruel it is, I think, that men will take the name of “dog” in vain,

When of all creatures dogs will least forget good deeds.

Surely, if some person makes you cross enough to curse,

The proper insult is “You man, son of a man”!

 

(and in another poem)

I set off with Qatmir, my dog, a fellow traveler

Whose presence warmed my heart along the way.

For every time I paused to rest, he’d pause by me,

Regarding me with looks of love and tenderness.

Fulfilling all the dues of good companionship,

As if he were of all friends the most true.

And this while my own people—of the human race—

All treat me with a meanness that’s insatiable….

Abu’l-Barakat al-Balafiqi, medieval Andalusian; tr. Tim Mackintosh-Smith (in Saudi Aramco World, 2013.  I have a big dog named Kitmir, a variant of Qatmir.  I didn’t know about this poem when I named him!)

 

 

FINAL CYNICISM

 

The good old days (Mexican folksong)

 

Este es un son que bailaba Carmelita

Aquellos tiempos, los tiempos de don Simón,

Que amarraban los perros con longaniza

Y ni siquiera les ponían atención.

(This is a song that Carmelita danced

Back in the days of Don Simón,

When they tied up the dogs with sausages

And they didn’t even pay attention.)

(My tr.  Times were so good the dogs didn’t even notice the sausages.  For exaggeration of the goodness of the old days, this is rivaled only by a line heard by Alan Beals in India:  “Yeah, back then if you needed rain you just reached up and pulled down the edge of a cloud.”)

 

She is more to be pitied than censured
She is more to be helped than despised
She is only a lassie [fair maiden] who ventured
On life’s stormy path [Or: Down life’s rugged road] ill-advised
Do not scorn her with words fierce and bitter
Do not laugh at her shame and downfall
For a moment stop and consider
That a man was the cause of it all.

1894 song by William B. Gray (I’ve known it all my life; Alan Beals helped with some words I forgot)

 

The World

 

I asked of the Sage the nature of this world.

He said:  “As long as you live it is wind and incantation.”

I said:  “What do you call him who sets his heart on it?”
He said:  “He is either intoxicated, or blind, or mad.”

Medieval Arabic (from a history of Oman in the old days)

 

Knowledge and wealth are like narcissus and rose,

They never blossom in one place together;

The man of knowledge possesses no wealth,

The wealthy man has scant store of knowledge.

Medieval Persian song verse, trans. A. J. Arberry (possibly from his Persian Poems)

 

Two poems on gratitude:  Great minds run in the same channels (no chance of mutual influence here)

 

Medieval India:

 

You gave me feet to tire of travel,

A wife to leave me, a voice for begging

And a body of decrepitude.

If you never are ashamed oh God,

Do you not at least grow weary of your gifts?

Rajasekhara (medieval India), tr. W. Ingalls (1968)

 

Nineteenth-Century Russia:

 

My thanks for all Thou gavest through the years:

For passion’s secret torments without end,

The poisoned kiss, the bitterness of tears,

The vengeful enemy, the slanderous friend,

The spirit’s ardor in the desert spent,

Every deception, every wounding wrong;

My thanks for each dark gift that Thou has sent;

But heed Thou that I need not thank Thee long.

Mikhail Lermontov (tr. Babette Deutsch; in Creekmore 1952)

 

 

Anonymous Daoist Poem; the most absolutely cynical poem I know

 

The grain cart enters, the manure cart exits,

They take turns coming and going.

When will it come to an end?

Even if (people can) cause their life to span over a hundred years,

That is only 36,000 days.

Tr. Erlandson 2004

 

 

Partial List of Sources (for this and Environment Poetry; many of my sources are long lost and range from personal communications to field recordings)

 

Balaban, John. 2000.  Spring Essence: The Poetry of Ho Xuan Hong.  Port Townsend, WA:  Copper Canyon Press.

Bashō, tr. David Landis Barnhill.  2005.  Bashō’s Journey.  Albany:  SUNY Press.

Basho, Matsuo.  2008.  Basho:  The Complete Haiku.  Tr. Jane Reichhold.  Tokyo:  Kodansha.

Bynner, Witter, and Kiang Kang-Hu.  1929.  The Jade Mountain.  New York:  Knopf.

Child, Francis James.  1965 (orig. 1885).  The English and Scottish Popular Ballads.  Vol. 2 (of 5 v).  New York:  Dover.

Creekmore, Hubert (ed.).  1952.  A Little Treasury of World Poetry.  New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons.

Dimock, Edward.  1966.  The Place of the Hidden Moon.  Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

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

Erlandson 2004:  God only knows where I found this one.  Some anthology of Chinese writing.

Han-shan.  2000.  The Collected Songs of Cold Mountain.  Tr. Red Pine (Bill Porter).  Revised edn.  Port Townsend, WA:  Copper Canyon Press.

Hoagland, Kathleen.  1947.  1000 Years of Irish Poetry. New York: Welcome Rain.

Huard, Pierre, and Maurice Durand.  1954.  Connaissance du Viet-Nam, p. 274.  Hanoi:  École Française de’Extrème-Orient; Paris: Imprimerie Nationale.

Ingalls, W. H.  1968.  Sanskrit Poems.  Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Jackson, Kenneth Hurlstone.  1935.  Studies in Early Celtic Nature Poetry.  Cambridge:  Cambridge University Press.

—ururls  1971.  A Celtic Miscellany.  Harmondsworth, Middlesex:  Penguin.

Jay, Peter (ed.).  1981.  The Greek Anthology.  Rev. edn.  Harmondsworth (England):  Penguin.

Jeffers, Robinson.  1937.  Such Counsels You Gave to Me.  New York:  Random House.

Karlgren, Bernhard.  1950.  The Book of Odes.  Stockholm:  Museum of Far Eastern Antiquities.

Kim Jaihiun.  1994.  Classical Korean Poetry.  Fremont, CA:  Asian Humanities Press.

Kinsella, Thomas.  1989.  The New Oxford Book of Irish Verse.  Oxford:  Oxford University Press.

Lang, David M.  1966.  The Balavariani (Barlaam and Josaphat): A Tale from the Christian East.  Berkeley:  University of California Press.

Lee, Peter.  1974.  Poems from Korea.  Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press.

Mackintosh-Smith, Tim.  2013.  “A Menagerie.”  Saudi Aramco World, Jan.-Feb., 10-13.

Mair, Victor; Nancy Steinhardt; Paul R. Goldin (eds.).  2005.  Hawai’i Reader in Traditional Chinese Culture.  Honolulu:  University of Hawai’i Press.

Nguyen Ngoc Bich.  1975.  A Thousand Years of Vietnamese Poetry.  New York: Knopf.

O’Rourke, Kevin.  2002.  The Book of Korean Shijo.  Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Rutt, Richard.  1971.  The Bamboo Grove:  An Introduction to Sijo.  Berkeley:  University of California Press.

Seaton, J. P.  1997.  I Don’t Bow to Buddhas: Selected Poems of Yuan Mei.  Port Townsend, WA:  Copper Canyon Press.

Seaton, Jerome P., and Dennis Maloney.  1994.  A Drifting Boat:  Chinese Zen Poetry.  Fredonia, NY:  White Pine Press.

Thomas, Edward.  1994.  The Works of Edward Thomas.  Ware, Hertfordshire, England: Wordsworth Editions.

Vuorela, Toivo.  1964.  Finno-Ugric Peoples.  Tr. John Atkinson.  Ind. U. Res Center, Uralic and Altaic Series, Vol. 39.

Waley, Arthur.  1961.  Chinese Poems.  London: George Allen and Unwin.

Wong, Shirleen (alas, lost the ref, an obscure article years ago)

Zenith, Richard.  1995.  113 Galician-Portuguese Troubadour Poems.  Manchester, England:  Carcanet is association with Calouste Gulbenkain Foundation and Instituto Camões.

Zhang, Cong Ellen.  2011.  Transformative Journals:  Travel and Culture in Song China.  Honolulu:  University of Hawai’i Press.

Zhuang Zi.  1968.  The Complete Works of Chuang Tzu.  Tr. Burton Watson.  New York: Columbia University Press.

Some controversies about agriculture and change in late Imperial China

August 3rd, 2013

Some Controversies about Agriculture and Change in Late Imperial China

 

E. N. Anderson

 

WARNING:  Preliminary draft, not all checked out thoroughly.  I’m confident enough of it to allow quotation with proper citation, but be warned.  I would deeply appreciate corrections, commentary, and discussion!

 

Population Growth

The great drama of late imperial China was the steady growth of population.  Ming reached about 150 million by 1600 (Brook 2010:44-45; see his excellent short discussion of rival estimates).  Then growth was interrupted by the enormous crash in the Ming-Qing transition, when population fell by at least 25% and possibly more.  Qing population soon bounced back:  to “313 million in 1794 and an estimated 430 million by 1840” (Brook 2010:45).  A side note is that with the rapid expansion of the educational system in this period, “lower degree holders…increased from around 40,000 in 1400 to…well over 1,000,000” around 1800 (Rowe 2009:151).  Of course this led to a crisis familiar today:  far more educated people than the system could absorb. 

Population growth put unprecedented stress on the production system.  Agricultural land per capita declined 43% between 1753 and 1812 alone (Rowe 2009:150; the dates are set by the availability of fairly reliable figures).   This was in spite of steady, rapid opening of new farmland on all frontiers.  William Rowe (2009:150) believes labor had previously limited the ability of the system to intensify, but now land was the limit, and labor was poured into making it yield more.  (In fact, the system had been intensifying for centuries, so labor was not a very dramatic limit, if it was a limit at all.)  This is a variant of Ester Boserup’s famous theory of agricultural intensification (1965) and is also related to Elvin’s high-level equilibrium trap (1973; discussed in detail in Anderson 1988).  Rowe also notes Elvin’s further development of a technological lock-in model (Rowe 2009:212; cf. Elvin 2004a).  China was stuck with a labor-intensive organic model and could not switch overnight to anything like a western plan. 

Supporting so many people on so little land took a level of skill, innovativeness, and hard work that has not been adequately appreciated.  Most of the literature (e.g. Elvin 2004a; Elvin and Liu 1998) stresses the grim Malthusian crisis, with deforestation, unsustainable conversion of wetlands, desertification, “retreat of the elephants” (Elvin 2004a), and so on, as the inevitable toll.  All these and more did indeed occur and were horrific, and conditions by the early 20th century were awful beyond modern imagination (Li 2007), but the real news was that somehow those 400 million usually managed to eat.  Superior water management (Zhang 2006), famine relief, forest control, ricefield protection, the New World crops, and many other creative and dynamic innovations were responsible.

As we have seen, Li Bozhong has pointed out that the effects of the new crops and cropping patterns introduced in Song and Yuan were not widely felt till Ming, and thus Ming population and wealth could grow steadily in spite of the poor governance of that troubled dynasty.  The Yangzi Delta and neighboring areas flourished especially.  Evidently this was one reason the dynasty survived so long.

Yields stayed about the same in shi per mu in Ming, but the shi measure became larger than it had been in Song (when it was ca. 145 lb.).  In Ming it was some 220 lb or more (Li 2003:170).  Thus, though landholdings shrank, the combination of higher yields and higher measures meant tha people were, on average, not desperate—though of course the plight of the least fortunate was dreadful.      

Population grew, but the idea that China “always” had a huge, fast-growing population is a myth.  China’s population, and its increase rate, remained comparable to Europe’s through most of this period (Lavely and Wong 1998; Lee and Wang 1999; Pomerantz 2000).  In fact, until the late 19th century, China’s population was less dense than that of the United States today.  Only when China’s 18th century brought peace, and Europe’s birth rate declined (and declined more in the 19th and 20th centuries), did China forge ahead.  Moreover, the rebellions of the 19th century reduced China’s population so much that whole regions were left labor-short (see e.g. Rowe 2009:198), leading to much more favorable terms for farmers and workers.  The effect was like that of the bubonic plague in 14th-century Europe.  This released land and capital for development, especially in the lower Yangzi region, China’s richest and one of the hardest hit by the Taipings.

Population pressure is not a valid explanation for differences between China and Europe.  In fact, I have yet to see a case in which “population pressure” by itself explains anything.  One must always explain why the population pressure builds up in the first place.  One must then explain why people picked one particular method of dealing with it as opposed to the infinite list of other possible ways.  Rising population drove ecological degradation in China (Elvin 2004a; Marks 1998), but other choices were possible, and were locally adopted.  The Chinese were fully aware of the environmental problems (Myers and Wang 2002:640), and did a great deal to prevent them—planting trees, maintaining forests, keeping dykes maintained and when possible keeping them low and letting the rivers run.  True remedies were, however, beyond China’s administrative power.  There simply was not enough government expertise or enforcement capability.

James Lee and Wang Feng (1999) have argued that China was not up against true Malthusian pressures, even in the late 19th century.  Infanticide was widely practised—especially, perhaps, in the most densely populated areas.  Even the imperial family practiced it, the poorer nobles more than the high elites.  In some areas up to a quarter or more of girls were killed, and toward the end of a completed family—when the mother was too old for much further hope of a son—even higher rates were observed (Lee and Wang 48 ff).  Since it was selective, eliminating female babies, it disproportionately reduced overall birth rates.  Lee and Wang also mention abortion, but Matthew Sommer has pointed out that abortion was rare in traditional China (Sommer 2011), which accords with my findings 40-50 years ago.  Today, abortion is common, especially abortion of female fetuses—thanks to ultrasound making sex determination possible.  South Korea has had to outlaw ultrasound to prevent mass abortion of girls.  Before ultrasound, however, people had to wait till the child was born, after which selective infanticide of girls was common.

 China may have had, over its history, 20% fewer people than it would have had if everyone had as many children as they possibly could.  A Chinese woman married at 20 and living to menopause could expect to have six children—Lee and Wang find the figure remarkably consistent over history—as opposed to 7 to 9 in the west in the old days (Lee and Wang 1999:86ff).  The figure of six, however, has been challenged, however, because it refers to registered children, not including those that died at birth.  Lee and Wang explain the lower figure (compared to the west) by sexual restraint of Chinese men—rather oddly, since they had just finished showing that infanticide eliminated exactly enough children to explain 100% of the difference: they conclude that it reduced birth rates by 20%.  Folklore, novels, and medical literature all agree that Chinese men were no more sexually restrained than any other men.  In reality, it was infanticide, poor diet, rampant disease and trauma, and chronic banditry that led to high child deaths in China.  Also, Lee’s and Wang’s high figures for “the west” are for relatively well-to-do countries in the early modern period.  Figures from the Balkans or Ukraine or Russia would show lower rates.

Lee and Wang, however, note a striking shortage of descendants even in noble lineages, where there was every pressure to have children (Lee and Wang 1999:105ff.).  They also note high adoption rates.  Less credibly, they allege that male heads of households had total authority, though qualified by heavy responsibilities (Lee and Wang 1999:125ff.).  This traditional view of the family was always the ideal, but in practice a paterfamilias could not exercise anything of the sort.  Research in Chinese communities confirms what Chinese novels, from The Story of the Stone (Cao and Gao 1973-1986) to Ba Jin’s Family, show:  a strong paterfamilias resorted to consultation and to empathetic listening, while a petty tyrant was invariably a weak man.  In the latter case, any coalition of strong women was enough to run rings around him; they kept him busy with outside matters (men’s proper sphere!) and ran the household more or less as they wanted; The Story of the Stone provides some 4000 pages of detailed proof of this point.  Either way, a man’s authority over his household seems not to have been greater than that found in America in my childhood, when father’s word really was law. 

The importance of this is that Lee and Wang make a case that fathers could both abstain from sex themselves and make sure their sons and sons-in-law did—thus keeping fertility rates low:  “Not only did married couples wait a substantially longer time to initiate reproduction than their European counterparts; they also ended their reproductive life much earlier.  Influenced by a different culture of sexuality, and under the close supervision of the collective family, Chinese couples were able to control the ‘passion between the sexes’” (Lee and Wang 1999:105).  A great deal of further attention is devoted to this saintly abstinence.  This also runs true to stereotype but against all evidence.  Chinese men were often away from home and usually worked terribly hard, often with little nourishing food, all of which militates against their having inordinate amounts of sex.  However, once again, my long stays in Chinese households in traditional times certainly did not reveal any sexual deficiencies.  (My sample was small, but we knew them well.)  And, once again, the novels are far better evidence.  One may also note (as Lee and Wang do not!) the enormous number of prostitutes, singing girls, and other hospitality workers in old China, available often for very small sums.

In fact there were plenty of men, and plenty of male sex drive, but relatively few women to bear children.  Selective infanticide and neglect kept sex ratios imbalanced, though to highly variable degrees in different parts of the country.  Thus men often married late or not at all.  Polygamy made it even harder, though Lee and Wang note that polygamy was rare—one in ten among the high elite, but only one in a thousand marriages among rural poor.  (My surveys 40-50 years ago found a bit fewer than one in a hundred.  These surveys were among middling people—some rich, some poor, most making an adequate but not good living.  Only the rich could afford two wives, and most of the rich actually remained monogamous.) 

Also, chronic disease, malnutrition, and other killers took a heavy toll.  On the other hand, public health was known, and new child care manuals devoted increasing attention to the values of breastfeeding, the proper introduction of solid foods, and other issues of care; in addition, smallpox vaccination was practiced widely (Lee and Feng 1999:45, 91; readers will recall that the Chinese, not Jenner, invented smallpox inoculation; he learned it from them).  Breastfeeding was indeed normal and kept on for two years or more; I found it extending even beyond three years in some cases, on the Hong Kong waterfront in the 1960s and 1970s. 

In all:  “As a result of China’s long history as the largest national population and the most densely settled nation, the Chinese evolved a demographic system early on of low marital fertility, moderate mortality, but high rates of female infanticide, and consequently of persistent male celibacy” (Lee and Wang 1999:105).  Of course this conclusion is debatable, and has been debated.

By the mid-18th century there may have been 500 persons per square kilometer of cultivated land in the densely populated areas of China.  Western Europe had only about 70 per square km at the time (Lee and Wang 1999:168).  The Chinese figure misses a lot of cultivated land in back regions and with low population densities, however.  Meanwhile, cultivated acreage increased considerably (contrary to earlier views; see Lee and Wang 1999:169-170), especially in the remote regions of Manchuria and the montane southwest.  Population grew rapidly here, slowly in most of China, and not at all in the desperately crowded central-east (Lee and Wang 1999:117).  The central-east became an enormous sender area; migrants moved to the other parts of China, but also to Southeast Asia and even farther afield.

China’s population increased from 150 million in 1700 to 300 million in 1800, perhaps 450 million by 1840.  It dropped back sharply because of the Taiping and other rebellions, but rose again to the famous “400 million”—a figure proverbial in the western world in those days—by 1900.  Rowe also stresses the importance of  “the period when Chinese civilization moved decisively uphill” (Rowe 2009:93), the 18h and 19th centuries; this again was due largely to the New World crops, especially potatoes and corn, which flourish on slopes.  Constant problems with servile and exploited labor and underclass populations, as well as ethnic minorities, followed (Rowe 2009:97ff.). 

There is doubt about population figures, since we have no believable figures from late Ming or the Ming-Qing transition, but the general trends are clear (see Lavely and Wong 1998; Myers and Wang 2002; Rowe 2002.)  The problem was certainly not lack of food or lack of ability to feed a growing, increasingly urbanized population. 

 

The Survival of Ming

Even the infamous “strike” by the Wan Li Emperor, who refused to sign edicts for decades, did not bring the dynasty down (Huang 1982).

No other Chinese dynasty came even close to this record of continued tranquility without interruption by coups or near-fatal rebellions.  The Yi Dynasty in Korea lasted longer, but faced continual crises and rebellions.  The Tokugawa in Japan lasted almost as long, but the shoguns were highly competent and assertive, and ruled during a period of expanding economy.

How Ming did it remains a mystery.  Apparently a major part of the reason was the incredible success of Ming at maintaining what political scientists call a perception of “legitimacy.”  People were truly loyal to Ming.  Nothing impresses more in this regard than the early Portuguese accounts, which emphasize the profound reverence—beyond mere loyalty—that common people in remote southeast China had for “Da Me.”  (This was the Portuguese transcription of the Hokkien pronunciation of da ming, “Great Ming”; Hokkien converts “ming” into “me,” which in both Hokkien and Portuguese has a strongly nasalized “e.”)  The Portuguese hoped for a local dissident movement that they could take advantage of—hence their concern and wonderment. 

The Dutch later ran into the same problem in Taiwan; they took the island, but were promptly expelled by Ming loyalists looking for a base to reconquer China from the Qing rulers!  The last Ming dynasts bestowed on Taiwan’s conqueror, Zheng Chenggong, the right to use the Imperial surname (Zhu), and he became immortalized in Hokkien slang as Coxinga (Hokkien kok seng a, “Imperial Surname Kid,” Mandarin guo xing zi; a is a Hokkien slangy diminutive with exactly the same extensions as “kid” in English).

Yet more:  even the 1911 revolution, which ended the Qing after almost 300 years of rule, was brought about by rebels chanting “Overthrow Qing and restore Ming!” In hundreds of years of persecution of Ming loyalists, this slogan not only survived, but several hand-gesture forms of it had developed to allow the faithful to communicate their sentiments even when there were Qing spies about.  Some of these morphed into criminal gang signs after Qing finally did fall.

Possibly the dynasty’s very eccentricity helped it.  When the emperor was on strike, or busy playing in a carpentery shop, or otherwise revealing all too well the dynastic family’s streak of mental instability, the country had to look after itself.  Bureaucrats and eunuchs were forced to act for the general good, because they knew they would all go if the system went down.  Ordinary people could be loyal to the Emperor, because he was doing nothing—thus giving no offense.  Obviously, however, this is an inadequate explanation of the fact, and we are left in wonderment.

Ming continued Yuan autocracy, and also Yuan’s repressive view of women.  (The Yuan view is itself surprising, given Mongol norms of female power; steppe women had to run the society when the men were off fighting, and had a great deal of independence and agency.)  Neo-Confucian influences and the development of the property-holding corporate lineage by Fan Chengda and other Song statesmen found fruition; the Ming regime imposed these as part of a comprehensive strategy of top-down, authoritarian control.  The status of women fell.  Widow remarriage, previously the rule, was discouraged.  Women lost many rights to dowry wealth if their marriages failed or husbands died.  Polygamy (as opposed to concubinage) was legitimized (Birge 2002).  Combining this with the property-holding lineage enormously increased not only male power but the power of corporate landholding entities ruled by central authority—the lineage elders in the case of lineages, the father in the case of families, the village leaders in the case of communities, and on up to the imperial court.

Some success was due to trade.   Ming trade with Japan was important, especially for silver.  Japan’s large silver mines were the source of most of this precious metal in Ming, at least until New World silver began flooding into the country—a process that began in Ming but did not become overwhelming till Qing, when Europeans paid in silver coins for Chinese goods.

Ordinary private voyaging, trade, contact, and settlement continued, and by the end of Ming, Southeast Asia—known as the Nanyang, “South Seas”—had large communities of Chinese, mercantile but involved in many extractive industries also.  This was the start of the large and well-educated southeast Asian Chinese communities that are so important in the world today.  The South China Sea, always a “Chinese lake” and heavily used for trade since Tang, became a crowded highway, with people constantly shuttling back and forth.

At first, it seemed that Ming was following in the tracks of earlier centuries.  The Ming government republished the Huihui Yaofang and other works.  It continued to release new books of research.  It opened more and more contacts with southeast Asia.  But after Zheng He’s voyages, China turned inward.  The Ming elite was not deeply concerned with foreign issues, especially of trade and expansion, though ties to southeast Asia and concerns with Japan continued.

 

The Rise of Qing

Qing came in with dynamism, and, initially, more open government than Ming.  This did not last long, as most Chinese resisted these non-Han invaders.  Rebellions flared everywhere, and, as we have seen, when Qing was finally overthrown in 1911 it was by people who still chanted the ancient line “overthrow Qing, restore Ming.” 

At first, the Manchus claimed to revert to their ancestors the Jurchen, who ruled the Qin Dynasty.  “In reality, [they] built their state partly from scratch and partly by liberal borrowing from…Ming….  In only several decades [before conquering China in 1644], they worked out not only a formidable mutiethnic miltary and political system but also a comprehensive ideology of mission that would put most modern corporations to shame” (Bronson 2006:140). 

Relevant is the wider context of peace; the core provinces were so calm that when a local rebellion finally occurred in Shandong in 1774 (Perry 1981), the local law enforcement personnel could not find their weapons.  When they finally located these in an old storeroom, they discovered that the weapons had rusted away!  I know of no comparable story anywhere else in the world.

In spite of such reign of peace, the Qing Dynasty was increasingly perceived as an unpopular reign of alien “barbarians,” especially after 1800 (Rowe 2009).  It found itself forced to become even more autocratic (see Peterson 2002, passim; also Elliott 2009, but that source is a bit more temperate).  Even their liberation of the (rather few) serfs and low-caste peoples was apparently a way to create a levelled, easily-ruled society, not as a blow for freedom (Rowe 2002).  Intellectuals protested and advocated small government in terms reminiscent of the American founding fathers, and were savagely repressed in consequence (Peterson 2002; see especially Woodside 2002).  Commerce greatly flourished, and capitalist-like firms and behaviors multiplied (Rowe 2002), but the oppression of all initiative crushed any chance of real development. 

            Qing had a surprisingly strong feminist streak in its early popular culture (see esp. Idema and Grant 2004).  Male writers like Cao Xueqin, Zheng Xie and Yuan Mei extolled the value of women, their intellectual equality with men, and their potential.  Yuan Mei not only advocated educating women along with men, but actually educated many of them himself, serving as tutor and mentor to over fifty women—a whole generation of brilliant female writers (Waley 1986).  Cao Xueqin’s great novel The Story of the Stone (Cao and Gao 1973-1986) portrays elite women who had the benefit of such education and turned out to be brighter and nobler than the men in their lives. (On these matters see Epstein 2011; Idema and Grant 2004; Widmer 2006.) 

There were various motives involved.  Cao and Zheng were intensely moral men, were concerned with fairness and ending abuses, but Yuan, who had the mores of a tomcat, made no secret of wanting lovers he could talk to.  Women themselves wrote countless poems, stories, and especially tanci, prose-poetic works thought to be largely a female medium; not surprisingly, tanci routinely portray women as “smart, learned, physically active, and the equal of any man in the examination field, imperial court, and sometimes even in physical combat” (Epstein 2011:7).  It will be recalled that women did not get this kind of fair shake in western literature until the late 18th and early 19th centuries.  (Sappho anticipated the trend by a few millennia, but one swallow does not make a summer.)  One wonders, as so often, why China did not go on to parallel the west.  Neo-Confucian morality reasserted itself.

 

Qing food

China’s cities were quite “modern,” having—among other things—a wealth of teashops, restaurants, and attendant food-related amenities (see e.g. Rowe 1989, esp. p. 86; Rowe 2002). 

            Business, trade and commerce enormously expanded through the 18th century (Rowe 2009:132ff.).  The old idea of international trade as “tribute”  and internal trade as minor and repressed is largely wrong.  Trade continued to expand after 1800, but, especially after 1840, trade with the west incurred increasing disadvantage.

This was in large measure because of opium, long known but explosively expanding its tentacles in the 19th century.  It was used moderately and reasonably before the 19th century, but then the British began “dumping” it on China in order to get silver and to get a local foothold on trade.  David Bello has recently updated the history of this drug (Bello 2003 and references therein—a comprehensive bibliography).  The Qing Dynasty tried, not without success, to prohibit it, but the western powers—finding little else they could sell at a profit—forced it on China anyway.  By the end of China’s last dynasty, in 1911, millions of Chinese were addicted to this debilitating curse.  The result of the British pressure was a rise in demand and in addiction, and eventually a serious problem, as I had plenty of opportunity to observe in Hong Kong in the 1960s.   The effect on food production was serious, as more and more laborers succumbed.  Attempts to eradicate opium in the early Communist years were quite successful, but, with the opening of the market after the 1970s, heroin and other hard drugs flooded in (Dikötter et al 2002; they are wrong in claiming the problem was not a large one earlier).

            Tea has its own stories.  Robert Gardella (1994) compared China’s smallholder production with the rise of plantations in the colonial world; Qin Shao (1998), in a fascinating article, showed that China vilified teahouses as dens of freethinking and other iniquities—just as Turkey and later Europe attacked coffeehouses, and just as “espresso joints” were attacked as hotbeds of “beatnikism” within my own memory.  Exports of tea to England “grew exponentially, from around 200 pounds eper year in the late seventeenth century…to over 28,000,000 pounds in the early nineteenth century” (Rowe 2009:166), with the average English household by then spending as much as 5% of its income on tea.  England at first paid in New World silver, but eventually only opium was valuable enough to trade to offset the buying of tea, porcelain, cloth, and so on.  So opium spawned the famous colonialist wars, which had much to do with “underdeveloping” China.

China kept developing more and more elaborate dishes, and became more and more committed to what we now recognize as “Chinese cuisine”—no more Central Asian and Near Eastern borrowings (Anderson 2005b). 

The great Chinese gourmet Yuan Mei (1716-1798) flourished in Qing (Anderson 1988; So 35-43; Waley  1956).  His birthday, set at March 25 in the western calendar, has recently been declared International Chinese Food Day.  It could be an arbor day, too; he planted a tree on his 70th birthday, saying:

“Seventy, and still planting trees….

Don’t laugh at me, my friends.

I know I’m going to die. 

I also know I’m not dead yet.”   (Tr. J. P. Seaton, 1997:92.)

His cookbook is thoroughly Chinese (Schmidt 2003; So 1986; Waley 1956).  No central Asian or western influences here.

The great novels, notably The Story of the Stone (Cao and Gao 1973-1986) and The Scholars (Wu 1957), are full of food images (Anderson 1988).  Classical cookbooks appeared, to be mined in our time (e.g. So 1992).  The Qianlong Emperor loved birds’ nests, though, oddly, Li Shizhen did not refer to them (Rosner 1999:7).

An odd sidelight into food in remote Taiwan comes from the career of He Bin, an outrageous rogue in the grand tradition of scoundrels (Andrade 2007).  Among other things, he misappropriated the taxes on mullet, very popular common fish that could be caught wild or farmed.  Working for (and simultaneously against) the Dutch, who occupied Taiwan in the 17th century, he managed, among other things, to channel a great deal of the mullet tax into his pockets.  A tax of 10% on mullet and their roe, during the season for fishing them, was charged, and little of it got past He Bin. 

 

In Qing, China revived its interests in Central Asia.  The dynasty conquered outward, not only bring China back to its classic Han and Tang borders, but extending these still further, in one of the great territorial upsweeps of history.  At its peak, China held what is now Mongolia and southern Siberia as well as all of contemporary Chinese territory.  Russia slowly pried away the Siberian lands, and then in 1921 the USSR “liberated” Mongolia, but England was never able to take Tibet, which remained Chinese territory.  (In spite of modern-day hopeful romanticism, Tibet was never independent after early Qing).

Qing became a cosmopolitan empire, after its fashion, by not only integrating these lands into Great Qing, but also respecting their cultures and giving them and their religions high status within the imperial framework (Elverskog 2013; Rowe 2009).  The Qing court, especially early on when Central Asian ideals of tolerance still held, was respectful of China’s minorities—rather more than some regimes since.  In Beijing they set up religious places of worship for all major faiths.  They patronized Buddhism of various forms, as well as piously continuing traditional imperial sacrifices.  Visitors to Beijing were treated respectfully.  A Muslim Uighur concubine in the court of the Emperor Qianlong in the 1760s and 1770s managed to avoid pork, eating mutton instead, and to eat sweets—probably with a Central Asian flavor (Millward 1994:435). 

 

Qing Agriculture

            Agriculture had, if anything, even higher prestige in Qing than in other eras.  The Manchus took seriously the Confucian worship of that activity.

            However, China’s (and perhaps the world’s) greatest novel, The Story of the Stone (Cao and Gao 1972-1986), shows that not all was well.  A recent and extremely insightful study (Zhou 2013) shows that Cao Xueqin, the author, consistently casts a sardonic eye on agriculture and farmers, and portrays his elite protagonists as holding it in varying degrees of scorn and ridicule.  This was noted and at least sometimes disliked by other Qing authors.  Evidently Cao touched a nerve (here as in almost everything else he wrote), and people were well aware of mixed attitudes toward farming.  This clearly goes far to explain Qing’s mix of policies favoring agriculture and lack of real energy about modernizing it.

Most careful observers of China’s food and population problems in the Qing and the early 20th century focus not on crude Malthusian stories but on the nature of growth.  China’s development before the Communist period was always “biological” in the terms of Yujiro Hayami and Vernon Ruttan (1985; cf. Elvin 1973; Huang 1990).  People applied more and more fertilizer, worked harder and harder, introduced new crops, learned better cultivation and management techniques—all of which increased output per acre, and output per factor input, much more than they increased output per worker.  It is doubtful whether output per work-hour increased at all.  Lee and Feng (1999) point out that individuals were more productive, and did eat better, but this appears to be the result of working both harder and smarter.  They note, for instance, that women “increasingly joined the main labor force” (p. 39). 

Qing for most of its time on earth had more area and people than Europe; it was continental in size.  By 1800, Europe had 180 million people; Qing had 250-300 million.  Feeding them was a challenge.

By mid-Qing, the borrowings from the New World—crops like maize and sweet potatoes came in the 16th century (Sinoda 1977:493)—were having a revolutionary effect.  Sucheta Mazumdar’s work dramatically confirms and extends our knowledge of this  (Mazumdar 1999).  Among other things, New World crops allowed Chinese cultivators to continue to live as small independent farmers.  The new crops also fed a sustained population increase that still continues.  As William Rowe points out, “New World food crops such as potatoes, sweet potatoes, and peanuts…served as brakes on starvation during harvest failures of the more preferred staples, rice and wheat” (Rowe 2009:91).  They also allowed cultivation of uplands and sandy soils. 

By contrast, increase in agricultural productivity in the western world was due largely to opening up new lands, to mechanization, and to industrial developments such as artificial chemical fertilizers.  Output per worker soared, but output per acre was stagnant until the rise of hybrid seed varieties and other biological improvements in the mid-20th century (Hayami and Ruttan 1985; local exceptions where both output per worker and output per acre increased included Denmark, the Low Countries, and parts of England and Italy.).  Thus, in Qing, China involuted (Geertz 1963; Huang 1990, 2002) while the west industrialized.

Modern authors like Kenneth Pomeranz (2000) and Bin Wong (1997) have stressed China’s many advantages in population, resources, productivity, learning, and organization, even as late as the 17th and 18th centuries.  They have done much to demolish the idea of European exceptionalism.  Li Bozhong (see above), also, emphasizes the enormous increases in agricultural production and productivity and the other economic gains in Ming.  Pomeranz feels that China was equal to Europe in production, productivity, and development until 1700, after which Europe forged ahead because of its maritime successes, its scientific tradition, and its cheap coal (at least in England—but China also has a great deal of coal). 

Against Pomeranz, however, Philip Huang (2002) reaffirms his arguments for agricultural involution, and argues that China was so trapped by its intensive agriculture and high person-to-farmland ratio that few resources (whether land, labor or capital) could be freed for development.  Huang argues from his work in the Yangzi delta (Huang 1990), without reference to pioneer fringes like Yunnan and Manchuria that produced more surplus.  Pomeranz has riposted to Huang (2002), and the debate has been joined by others (Lee et al 2002; Brenner and Isett 2002).  The argument came down to misplaced decimal points, misdrawn curves, and other minutiae, at which point it became beyond resolution with the data available at the time.  Recent work suggests rather strongly that per capita GDP in western Europe was about twice China’s—around $1200 in today’s dollars vs. $600—in 1700, and China remained at that level as late as 1820 (Bolt and van Zanden 2013:6-7).

Suffice it to say that China had a rich economy with a good deal of surplus that could have been invested, but west Europe had more, including a wealth of animals and a more easily accessible trove of coal (Morris 2010; Pomeranz 2000).  It is also clear that much of China was trapped in static situation of local lineage power, micro-farms, and razor-thin margins.  Change was impressive and important in Ming and Qing China, but much of it was driven by governmental desire to centralize and take ever more power, rather than by a real desire for development in the modern sense.  Local individuals and regions might resist, but they could, at best, slow down and dilute the rise of autocracy. 

“Taking grain as the key link”—an infamous campaign of Mao Zedong—had its ancestry in a Qing campaign launched by the Yongzheng Emperor.  In 1725 he wrote:

“I enjoy eating rice, and I never waste even a kernel.  Rice is a gift from Heaven and nourishes the people.  Because I love the people, I must respect heaven and take great pains to save and treasure rice….  If I…waste foodgrain, Heaven will be angry, and our people will suffer calamities.  I have heard that people in Kiangsi feed grain to the hogs.  This is not appropriate behavior….  Avoid waste and love grain!”  (Quoted Myers and Wang 2002:608.) 

Alas, China today feeds a great deal of its grain to the hogs, and in consequence has to import grain on a massive scale, driving up world prices and impacting the world’s poor.  The old Chinese line “Heaven will send calamities” is appropriate: the Chinese knew perfectly well that “acts of God” followed human mismanagement of the rural landscape.

Pomeranz, like other authors, has recently stressed the vulnerability of north China to floods, siltation, and other water problems, the rapid growth of population in Qing, the limits of agricultural intensification except in the very best habitats, and the problems of progressive forest destruction on the internal frontiers (Pomeranz 2010).  Pomeranz also follows others in noting that Qing government was thin on the ground, with one magistrate for every 300,000 people (as of 1840).  Things had been considerably better in earlier years.  In the mid-18th century: “Officials were few in number relative to the population—on average 1 per 100,000 in the mid eighteenth century” (Elliott 2009:152).  Still, even that is a very low ratio, and these government servants were paid little, reducing their capacity to do much.

Only 3% of GDP went to national taxes (Pomeranz 2010:93); recall this was the ideal established by Emperor Jing, far back in early Han.  Taxes were thus low; figures for 1753 are quite comprehensive, and show levels around half a tael to a tael (about 1 1/3 oz silver) per mu (a bit less than 1/6 acre) (figures from Bernhardt 1992:45).  Silver is worth around $27 per ounce today, so taxes were around $36 per mu, or $216/acre.  A tael would buy rather more than a shi of rice.  Yields of good rice land were about 10-20 shi per acre per crop, with most areas double-cropped and some triple-cropped  So taxes were, at worst, a bit over a tenth of income, and at best a mere 1/30 or so: again that classical Chinese ideal figure of 3%.  Rent levels were similar. 

 Of course the farmers paid much more, thanks to local taxes and above all to illegal squeeze.  But it is still a tribute to the Chinese philosophy of light taxation.  Pomeranz stresses that, thanks to all the wise measures from river management to low taxation, China did not collapse in the 20th century, even with the appalling violence and devastation that accompanied the fall of Qing, the rise of the Republic, the Japanese invasion, the Communist takeover, and (perhaps worst of all) the horrific excesses of Communism in Mao Zedong’s old age.

Pomeranz, Wong, and Philip Huang, as well as other scholars, all agree that China was extremely productive agriculturally during this time, thanks to millions of farmers on postage-stamp farms exploiting their family labor.  Myers and Wang’s summary article (2002) describes a stunningly successful, rationalized, developed agriculture with highly sophisticated technology.  Farmers and writers realized that bean plants, plowed in, restored soil fertility, as did beancake fertilizer (see e.g. Myers and Wang 2002:610-611).  They knew the relative values of different kinds of dung.  Efficiency of production, transportation, and processing all increased, at the same time as leasing arrangements, banking, and government policy were making it ever easier to trade in foodstuffs.  On the other hand, rural wages (calculated in rice-buying power) declined as population rose (Myers and Wang 2002:637, citing Kang Chao).  The classic work of Ruddle and Zhong (1988) on the Pearl River delta is relevant here; it describes a system so impossibly sophisticated and fine-tuned that it seems beyond the reach of even modern computerized society.  Yet it flourished everywhere in the coastal deltas.

Victor Lieberman has recently addressed these issues (Lieberman 2009), agreeing to some extent with both sides.  Much of China was involuting by 1800, certainly, but the system was still generating much wealth and showing considerable dynamism.  The involutionists sometimes forget that cultivation was actively expanding in the southern and southwestern frontier, even as the old rice-growing areas were getting more and more congested.  China’s wealth continued to expand up until the 1840s, when rebellions and famines began a devastating course that was to destroy Qing in time. 

Lieberman sees the low taxation rates as emphatically bad.  They prevented China from having the resources to develop, rationalize, invest, and improve governance.  He quotes the truly depressing statistic that the ratio of government administrators to people reached 1:21,750 by 1850; France’s was 1:213 in 1825 and even the rest of Asia had far greater ratios (Lieberman 2009:614).  I share with Pomeranz the view that low taxes on the agrarian sector are basically a good thing, allowing farmers to flourish, but this sort of ratio of governors to governed is indeed a problem by any standards.  Lieberman also notes that the English agricultural worker had 45 times as much land as his Chinese equivalent in 1800 (Lieberman 2009:569), but of course China’s land was far more productive.

Lieberman sees many of China’s problems and successes as due to its military situation; this is part of his wider thesis that military challenges force states to improve the efficiency and competence of governance and revenue collection, but that constant warfare and violence inhibits development.  For Lieberman, the “protected zone”—the areas of Eurasia safe from Central Asian invasions—succeeded and developed rapidly, while the “exposed zone”—the area hopelessly exposed to Central Asian war—was constantly being devastated.  China and, for a long time, Russia were in an intermediate status.  China was open to Central Asian invaders, but too big and isolated to be constantly challenged but other types of threat.  It thus had advantages over some isolated areas, but on the whole tended to be conquered by any strong Central Asian force (to say nothing of the Manchus), rather than subjected to the constant pressures that drove France, Italy, and other states to modernize.  (Lieberman is aware that Tokugawa Japan presents an anomaly here, but notes that true modernization in Japan did not occur until the west challenged it in the 1850s.  This somewhat underestimates Tokugawa success, however.) 

Like others, Lieberman sees China as falling behind the west in technological and scientific advances by 1700; he is skeptical of the extreme ability of China to repress progress and independent thought, but takes a position that the Chinese government (more specifically, the Qing government) was strong enough to discourage it or coopt it (Lieberman 2009:622-623; this is similar to my position in Anderson 1988).

Yet another important point raised by Lieberman and Pomeranz is the extreme importance of the New World and Australia in providing food and other resources for western Europe, and thus for releasing the pressure on European food production.  Pomeranz and others have pointed out that Europe was expanding its own agriculture and basically feeding itself, so one cannot make too much of a point of this, but the fact is that Europe was flooded with cheap food, silver, timber, and all manner of goods from its colonial conquests.  A problem barely noted by these authors, but worthy of more attention, is why China did not take over the Philippines, Borneo, and other lands occupied only by small, scattered, technologically less sophisticated populations.  The spice islands, in particular, had been supplying China with spices for millennia, yet they were always left alone. 

That Qing could have conquered the islands is proved by the example of Taiwan.  But the Qing government never wanted such expansion, and was not even very active in opening its own southwest.  Taiwan was taken, after all, by Ming loyalists under Zheng Chenggong.  Taiwan was settled against Qing’s will.  Qing was stuck with it after a long period of trying to ignore it.  Apparently there was plenty of food at home; involution could always produce more.  No need to take over remote islands at untold military and strategic cost.  The Iberians and later the Dutch, of course, had no such qualms, and took over the islands as soon as they could get more than one or two ships to them.  It is a profoundly interesting contrast.  Especially interesting is the contrast with Qing’s obsessive fascination with the deserts and uninhabited mountains of Central Asia and Tibet, which it took over at great expense and with enormous drive and determination (Perdue 2005).  The reason is clear: China had always seen Central Asia as the zone of threat, opportunity, and interest—the “gate of war,” the Arabs would have said.  Also, the Manchus identified with the Central Asian peoples.  But by seeing the world thus, Ming and Qing missed their great opportunity.

In general, as pointed out by Pomeranz and Lieberman, Europe was always a much more maritime world than China, especially after 1420, in spite of the enormous and continuing trade between China and the Nanyang.  China simply did not see its interests lying there. Europe may have been forced to the sea by its desperate need for protein (see e.g. Morris 2010, citing a very long chain of sources); beans yield poorly in Europe, especially the native Near Eastern species, while fish was available and cheap before the fishing boom of the late 20th century wiped out the North Atlantic fisheries almost entirely.  Europe’s dependence on high-seas fishing contrasts with China’s conservation of inshore resources and development of aquaculture.  As in agriculture, China did the sensible thing by intensifying local sustainable production, but Europe’s strategy paid off in the long run. 

By the 1700s, intensive development had progressed especially far in the Yangzi and Pearl river deltas.  Agriculture was thoroughly commercialized.  Most people depended entirely or in part on cash cropping and on their own labor in spinning their cotton and silk production into thread and weaving it into cloth for sale.  Other local crafts, from basketmaking to embroidery, added to income.  Families depended on crafts as well as farming, and many would starve if either income stream was disrupted.  Labor productivity, however, increased; yields increased after the troubles; and wages even rose, such that there was more meat for the farm laborers (Lee and Feng 1999:34) and more people could be supported.

Of course many farmers were purely subsistence producers as far as rice went, and had to raise silk, cotton or the like, and/or carry out household craft production, to make money for taxes.  There were extortion, illegal rent-seeking, theft, and other ills to contend with.  These were backbreaking for poor farmers, but not unsupportable for most.  

Around 1800, environmental crises due to rapidly rising population and cultivation began to get more serious.  “Generations of encroachment on lakeshores and riverbanks of the middle Yangzi watershed, stimulated by the growing downriver demand for commercial risce, had rendered the Yangzi valley, likely for the first time in imperial history, a source of flooding of equal concern as the Yellow or Huai rivers to the north” (Rowe 2011:76).  Lakes and sloughs silted up, hills eroded, mountains were stripped bare, forests fell.  The Grand Canal silted up (again).  The beginnings of China’s ecological catastrophe, so immeasurably worse today, were at hand.

Encroachment on lakes and wetlands continued (e.g. Osborne 1998), though it was far less serious than what is going on today.  More serious, and perhaps the worst environmental problem of Qing, was the massive deforestation (Vermeer 1998)—though again it was nothing compared to today’s.   Reduction of minorities was often the cause (Vermeer 1998:246 describes this for the Miao).  Their forests were plundered.  Sometimes this was done on the excuse that “bandits and rebels” (Vermeer 1998:247), many of whom were actually desperate resistance fighters, were taking refuge there.  Other forests were cut by poverty-stricken people who invaded them in spite of rules and restrictions.  Vermeer quotes a number of contemporary sources, some pro-forest, some pro-deforestation.  Awareness of the devastating effects of deforestation was widespread, but not adequate to stop the combination of official fear and grassroots desperation.  Agroforestry was practiced widely (Menzies 1994; Vermeer 1998:251).  Tree plantations were, however, vulnerable to poaching and government takeover.  These acted as disincentives.  Government reserves fell apart and were given over to cultivation, continuing a trend established as early as the Han Dynasty.

Keith Schoppa (2002) has chronicled the fate of the Xiang Lake, across the Qiantang River from Hangzhou.  This study is important not only for itself—and it is excellent—but because it is fairly representative of what happened in the more densely populated parts of China.  This lake was created as a reservoir in Song times; it held excess water and released it later for irrigation.  It became famous for its water-shield plants (Brasenia schreberi, a small waterlily relative, famous for its crunchy and succulent texture), and for bricks and tiles made from its alluvial clay.  Local elite lineages constantly tried to encroach on it, being stopped off and on by heroic efforts of local activists and magistrates; Schoppa’s main point in the book is that only a few such individuals existed, and could turn the tide, while the vast majority lived in terror of the local elites and dared not combine to act against them.  However, the well-meaning citizens succeeded often enough, and had enough local support, to slow degradation and keep the lake viable until the end of imperial times.  In the 20th century, the Xiang Lake met the fate of most of rural China—it was trashed by the Nationalists and destroyed utterly by the Communists, to the enormous damage and impoverishment of the area.

The highlands were even more stresssed.  Thanks to overcutting and similar environmental problems, “a huge pool of late eighteenth-century mountaineers led rootless, impoverished,and desperate lives” (McMahon 2009:94).  Fortunately, some forests were well managed.  Menzies (1994) recounts temples and “clans” that preserved forest adequately; best preserved, however, were commercial plantings of China fir and pine.  Worst managed were the imperial reserves.  Mushrooms were abundantly produced. 

 

The lower Yangzi was the economic heart of China.  “In Qianlong’s day, Jiangnan accounted for 16 percent of the total agricultural land in the empire, but provided 29 percent of the government’s land tax revenue in cash (paid in silver) and 38 percent of its revenue in kind (paid in grain), as well as 64 percent of the tribute grain sent to feed the capital” (Elliott 2009:78-79).

 Kathryn Bernhardt, in Rents, Taxes, and Peasant Resistance, a thorough and detailed study of the lower Yangzi River area, provides full statistics.  In the Yangzi delta, cotton had largely replaced rice, forcing import of thousands of tons of rice per year from upriver (Bernhardt 1992:18).  Rents were high; rice in the mid-19th century was about 2-3 taels of silver per shi, and a shi per mu (about 1/6 acre) was a standard rent (Bernhardt 1992:24).  A tael of silver today is worth about $36.00, which would mean that rice cost almost a dollar a pound in modern terms—a good deal more than rice costs today.  Of course one would have to adjust all these prices for inflation and so forth, but by no standard was rice cheap or rents low in those days.  Mark Elliott adds:  “Popular wisdom had it that it required 4 mu of land (about two-thirds of an acre) to feed one person.  With rapid population growth, this ratio had worsened under Qianlong from 3.5 mu per person in 1766 to 3.33 mu per person in 1790” (Elliott 2009:148).

In contrast to the typical, and ideal, situation, small independent yeoman farmers were relatively few in this rich but heavily-populated area.  Most were tenants.  A few large landlords, mostly resident in towns and cities, owned thousands of hectares.  Rents were high.  A division had come about of actual ownership of land from rights to cultivate it; the suffering farmer often had to pay rent to both.  (These were confusingly and inaccurately called rents for “subsoil”—actually, actual ownership—and “topsoil”—actually, rights to cultivate, i.e. usufruct.)  In Taiwan, the aborigines often retained ownership, but had no control over cultivation and virtually no income, because aggressive ethnically-Chinese immigrants had managed to get control of the cultivation rights, and used those to maintain a stranglehold over both the cultivators and the actual owners.  This is a case in which actual ownership of the land (“subsoil rights”) meant virtually nothing; “topsoil rights” had taken over.  Never was Marx’ distinction between formal ownership and actual control more dramatically seen.

Tenants thus continually used every possible means to make more money and pay less rent, from working harder to cutting corners to resisting rent collectors to rebelling openly.  Both they and their landlords also resented and resisted taxes.  As water management deteriorated and population increased, tensions grew worse and worse, and increasingly large resistance movements arose. Bandits could work for themselves, for angry tenants, for landlords repressing tenants, for the government, or for social ends—the same groups doing all these things in rapid succession (Bernhardt 1992).  Violence and crime became common, ultimately resulting in total meltdown in the Taiping Rebellion, when various rebel armies, various pro-government forces, and many independent militias and bandit gangs all vied for local control.   Writing of his fellow locals, an anonymous villager commented in 1860:  “Some even follow the bandits.  They do not know shame” (Bernhardt 1992:90).  

The resulting chaos was partially resolved by government success in quelling the Taiping Rebellion; the war devastated thousands of square miles and eliminated a large percentage of the population.  However, imperial China never recovered.  Kathryn Bernhardt goes on to tell a depressing story of the decline of rural society.  The decline of Qing led to increasingly desperate attempts by the government to raise money by taxing more and more heavily.  The fall of Qing in 1911 merely unleashed lawless violence on all scales.  China was not at peace till after 1949.

Western colonialist pressure was increasingly a factor after 1842, leading to classic peripheralization (Wallerstein 1976).  As this continued, through the 19th and 20th centuries, the western world was almost unanimous in taking a supercilious, patronizing attitude toward China’s traditional food sector.  Only those who had intimate acquaintance with it, such as F. H. King (1911; and several others quoted in The Food of China), recognized what an accomplishment mere survival was, under the circumstances.  Now that the United States has as dense a population as late Qing China had, and now that the world food system is tottering toward collapse, we may be able to take a more properly humble attitude.

 

Qing and Famine

Famines took place constantly (Li 2007; Mallory 1926; Wu 1996, 1997—with comments on the fears of cannibalism; Lee and Wang minimize famine, but are contradicted by all other sources).  They were worse in China than in most of the world, including Europe (Li 2007).

Particularly dramatic was the expansion of food, famine relief, and—consequently—population in the Qing Dynasty, and the collapse when Qing failed.  Lillian Li, in her magistral study of famine in China, Fighting Famine in North China:  State, Market, and Environmental Decline, 1690s-1990s (2007), notes that population rose from 150 million around 1700 to 300 million in 1800 and 430 million by the late 19th century.  “The human impact on the forests, soils, and rivers of China was a centuries-old historical process, but by the eighteenth century, the effects of human encroachment on land, forest, and water resources was becoming evident to officials and local elites of many parts of China.  Increasing population size demanded greater agricultural productivity…” (Li 2007:3-4), and this put yet more pressure on resources. 

By the 20th century, China was in trouble, especially the dry north, where south China’s land-making and land-enriching strategies did not work well.  Li’s chronicle of the disasters of the Beijing area is harrowing indeed.  She gives whole classification schemes for different types and levels of disasters (Li 2007:30, etc.).  The North Chinese had about as many words for floods and droughts than the Inuit have for snow.  Extremely erratic rainfall at the margin of the monsoon led to frequent droughts.  Wheat, the staple, was one of the more susceptible crops, making one understand why more drought-tolerant millets, sorghum, and sweet potatoes were traditional staples of the poor (Li 2007:25).  Foxtail millet was more nutritious than wheat, but sweet potatoes—newly introduced from the Americas—were not, and dependence on them always made for problems.  (Unlike American varieties, the common Chinese varieties are not rich in vitamin A.)

However, the rest of the world had no shortage of famines in those times.  For the vast majority of humanity, freedom from want became a real possibility only with the rise of modern bulk transport of grain and perishable commodities, by rail and ship, in the late 19th century.  Of course, even today, over a billion people, including a quarter of American children, live in poverty and want.  We can hardly feel superior to the Qing bureaucrats.

A study by Deng Yunte (as summarized in Xu 2010:157) found a total of 5,258 recorded famines in China from 1766 BC to 1936 AD.  Of course the earliest were either legendary or actually later, since there was no writing in China in 1766 BC, but on the other hand local small-scale famines were not normally counted, so for actual historic periods this is an absolute minimal figure.  These famines involved 1074 droughts and 1058 floods. 

Pierre-Étienne Will and Bin Wong (Will and Wong 1991) carried out major studies of famine relief, amazingly effective in much of Qing.  They and others (see Myers and Wang 2002; Rowe 2002) have showed that the Qing Dynasty’s famine relief system was pervasive and effective, probably the best in the world in the 17th and 18th centuries.  Beijing’s food security, for instance, was guarded effectively by a range of institutions (Li and Dray-Novey 1999).  Few countries at that time were so well organized as China in making sure that people had some access to food.  Moreover, while Ming sent taxes skyrocketing (to around 9.1% of grain; Brook 2010:108), Qing, as we have seen, dropped them back to the historic 3%.  Low agricultural taxes meant life to the farmers and thus to the whole food system.

Stockpiles of grain for famine relief could be huge, overflowing granaries and rotting because there was simply not enough storage capacity (Li 2007:169).  Famines persisted, however, because the population was so dense and so fast-growing that a government with only premodern transportation methods at its disposal was handicapped.   Lillian Li (2007) investigates the problems of Beijing and the areas around it.  Beijing grew from 660,000 to over a million in Qing (p.a 146) and the region grew even more. 

Like other observers, Li describes a diet of wheat, millets, sorghum, and—increasingly—the New World crops, maize, peanuts, and sweet potatoes.  Many varieties of soybeans were grown; the black one was for horses or for the starving.  Cotton competed for land with food.  Rice was grown but never did well in that cold climate, and there was little water for it in many years.  Rice from the south tended to be old and probably bug-eaten.  The land was productive (far more so than most of Europe at the time).  However, the climate was changeable and official policies and practices were too.  The climate could produce droughts or floods; the region has a very high amplitude of variation in rainfall.  The officials could produce excellent policy in a good time (such as the early 18th century), but corruption was common, and in bad decades even minimal law enforcement was difficult. 

Unlike the north, however, southern and especially central-east China were doing well (Lee and Wang 1999; Li 1998).  The lower Yangzi region and the coast southward from it were well fed and productive, and continued to increase production and per capita consumption through much of the time period in question (Li 1998).  This was accompanied by true involution, but it was successful; an incredibly dense population survived, and even thrived during the more peaceful periods.

The grain tribute brought an enormous amount of food to the capital.  Up to “13-15 million shi” (Li 2007:148; a shi was 133 lb. in the early 20th century) were stored in the city at a time; that would be about 10,000 tons of grain.  One effect was linking prices over the empire; regionalism was inhibited and grain flowed throughout eastern China and to some extent through the center and west.  The nobility was given huge donations of grain (as well as silver and other items) and sold some of it.  As so often, the novel The Story of the Stone is a good source for the realities of this system.

The government tried to keep grain prices low, favoring the urban population but often hurting the farmers.  This is a practice familiar in the modern world, where many countries have done it, usually with unfortunate results for agriculture.

Soup kitchens and other aid facilities, as well as grain storage, helped the hungry.  The system functioned best in the 18th century, preventing mass deaths.  The dreadful tales of late Ming, and again of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, are singularly absent from the records (Elliott 2009; Li 2007:247)  We do not read of cannibalism, living on bark, selling of children for a few coins or scraps of food. 

In the 19th century, all this slowly unraveled.  Rising population led to want, which fueled rebellions that brought the Qing down in 1911.  The worst rebellion was the Taiping (1850-64), which led to tens of millions of deaths, mostly from starvation due to the scorched-earth tactics of all sides in this multi-sided civil war.  Soon after it came perhaps the worst peacetime famine in premodern history.  In 1876-79, some ten to thirteen million people died (Li 2007:272; Lee and Wang 1999:174).  Up to 90% of the population died in some districts in 1878 (Bohr 1972).  Then and throughout the early 20th century, people were reduced to eating chaff, bark, weeds, and corncobs.  Even the more edible weeds and tree barks were long gone.  Cannibalism from desperation was widespread in the 1876-79 famine, and was observed by sober outside observers, not merely reported by the Chinese sources.  (The latter are unreliable, since, like literary sources everywhere, they loved to exaggerate this horrific recourse.)  A great deal of this is summed up in a beautiful and heart-wrenching poem by Chen Wenshu (translated by Yan-Kit So, 1992:226, and well worth looking up).  Food relief failed because transportation and communication resources were simply overwhelmed. 

James Lee and Wang Feng (1999) make the case that south and east China had a great deal of economic growth in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.  They ignore the fact that these areas had been substantially depopulated a couple of decades before by rebellions and famines, and were rebounding economically.  They also ignore or minimize the effects of westernization, which brought new health and farming practices.  Perhaps most serious, they misconstrue the key arguments about growth vs. involution (a.k.a. high-level equilibrium trap).

 In the early 20th century, population growth and environmental deterioration reached a collision point (Anderson 1990; Bohr 1972; Li 2007; Mallory 1926).  Famines were appalling.  People were reduced to eating husks, roots, bark, and grass, until all the trees died because people had eaten not only the leaves but also the bark. 

By the early 20th century, however, China had a great deal of international help (Anderson 1990; Li 2007), which at least prevented cannibalism in most cases, though sale of children continued.  In the famines of the 1920s, death tolls were comparable to those of 1876-79 (Li 2007:304).  Even when it came, relief was slight; rations of 8 oz. of grain a day—i.e. 800 calories, 1/3 the needs of an adult—were given in 1921 (Li 2007:300).

By the 1930s, China, especially the north, was in the grip of chronic poverty, and people were reduced to near-starvation even in good times.  William Hinton (1966) reported people in the 1940s virtually hibernating in winter because there were not enough calories to allow any activity.  People simply lay down under wraps for days on end.  Maize had replaced more nourishing grains over much of China, with a resulting increase in malnutrition.  Life expectancy may have dropped to 25 in north China, with infant mortality running to 30 or 40% (Li 2007:315).  Modernization, trade, factory work, and other improvements stabilized matters, but the diet of the ordinary people remained one of coarse grain.  Banquets increased for the well-off, but very few were in that category.   The world depression of the 1930s and the Japanese invasion were utterly devastating.

 

Qing Fails to Modernize

This inevitably leads to the ancient question of why Qing failed to modernize—whatever that much-abused word may mean.  At the beginning, Qing China was in many ways ahead of Europe.  It had a much more productive agriculture and much more efficient food system, for one thing.  It had an outward-looking, tolerant policy toward its own varied peoples, and toward the rest of east and southeast Asia. 

As of 1100 A.D., anyone betting on different regions of the earth would probably have bet that China would be the unquestioned leader in all fields for the next many centuries. India, the Near East and perhaps southeast Europe would stay a strong second.  Any objective observer would have bet in 1100 that west Europe would remain a marginal backwater, except in so far as Muslim civilization brought Spain into the wider world.

By 1200 this was beginning to change.  India by 1100 was already beginning to suffer from Central Asian invasions that progressively restricted its cultural independence.  In the west, scientific progress had been dramatic in the Islamic world, but came to a brutal near-ending.  The Mongols ravaged the Near East in the 1250s, and the bubonic plague 90 years later (Dols 1977) completed the work of ruining the region economically and academically.  Our futurologist in 1100 could not possibly have predicted these two world-altering processes.  Science survived under the Mongols—one thinks of the brilliant polymath Nasīr of Tus, who covered everything from astronomy to ethical psychology—but significant scientific innovation almost ended with the plague epidemic.  In later centuries, the increasingly oppressive and violent competition and colonialism of Europe kept the Near East down.  The Ottomans succeeded to the Byzantine Empire, but unfortunately tended to continue its policies, which did not involve heavy investment in science and progress.

By 1300, China was also showing strains.  It had not only had the Mongol conquests, but, even earlier, the declining Song and its war-torn environment (Twitchett and Smith 2009). 

However, Kenneth Pomeranz (2000, 2010) has argued strongly that China did very well indeed through Ming and Qing, developing as fast as Europe and remaining as prosperous, until the Industrial Revolution pulled Europe far ahead.  He minimizes the importance of China’s turn away from sea travel in 1420, regarded by others as a critical retreat from what could have been a breakthrough to modernity, since it gave the seas to Portugal and Spain (cf. Anderson 1988).  Jared Diamond (1997, 2005) thus stresses 1420 as a key date. 

Pomeranz argues that Europe’s coal and farmland, and to a lesser extent metal ores and forests, gave it an advantage.  Pomeranz also argues that China was as developed as Europe, in technology and in capitalist economic forms, till the 18th century. Certainly the Middle East could not compete, but China had its own coal and soil, and Bin Wong and Philip Huang have proposed alternative formulations that make the situation more complex (Huang 2002; Wong 1997).  They show that Europe lacked a huge lead in resources, and they reaffirm the conventional wisdom that Europe had pulled ahead of China well before the 18th century.  Huang, like Morris (see below), points out that Europe’s sparser population allowed more feeding of and thus use of animals, and so productivity per person was greater.  One must add, here, that productivity per acre was correspondingly less—a real problem.  Europe could export its excess population to the colonies.  Further, Huang shows that the price of labor was low, especially in the 19th century in China.  The vast majority of Chinese lived on a bare subsistence wage.  Starvation was by far the commonest cause of death.  Pomeranz is on very shaky ground in maintaining that China still had parity and a good shot at the brass ring as late as the 18th century. 

It was much easier for Europe to develop economically.  But China could have risen, had it been ready.  Not all areas were poor and densely populated.  Surplus could be, and was, extracted.  Some people were well paid, and levels of living were not abysmal for everyone.  Also, capitalism, science, and technology require a mind-set rather than a rich peasantry.

As noted above, most scholars today would probably accept the conclusion that, while China failed to expand into global sea trade, Europe was forced to expand in that direction, and profited greatly.  Portugal in particular had nowhere to go but out into the Atlantic, and the Dutch too had little option but to take to seafaring.  These nations were, successively, the leaders of long-range voyaging and trade.  The Dutch are sometimes credited with, or accused of, inventing capitalism as a result.  (On all these matters, Wallerstein 1976 remains classic.)  Thus the Europeans became, in Victor Lieberman’s striking and insightful phrase, “white Inner Asians” in their relations with southeast Asia, especially the islands; they came as overwhelming conquerors who appeared out of the blue and swept over the region with devastating effect, like the Mongol hordes (Lieberman 2009:857-894).

China was ahead in maritime matters until the early 1400s, but then turned against government sponsorship of large-scale marine trade and voyaging.  Ming tried to ban sea trade, and Qing fought piracy in ways that damaged the seafaring economy.  Sea trade actually continued, and even flourished, but was largely confined to trade with southeast Asia and other nearby points, and remained largely a trade in luxuries rather than staples—though pottery and other useful goods were exported in industrial quantities.  Ventures did not stop, but the lack of major voyaging gave the west a chance to catch up and then forge ahead, to take a commanding lead by 1500.

China’s turn from world trade after 1420 contrasted with Europe’s dependence on it.  The effects of long-range seafaring and trade on west Europe have been stressed far too often to need repetition here (see e.g. Wallerstein 1976).  It seems clear that world trade forced science and development.  China’s exceedingly active trade with southeast Asia just was not the same thing.  Southeast Asia, always a realm of small trader states, was never a world leader in change or development, though the people are among the most dynamic and enterprising in the world.  Apparently the old southeast Asian states were always land-based and tributary enough, and sufficiently oppressed by bigger empires, to prevent them from taking full advantage of their situation.

A key date with much symbolic significance is 1593.  That was the year of publication of Li Shizhen’s Bencao Gangmu, the climax of Chinese herbal writing and a truly stunning achievement.  But it was also just slightly later than Rembert Dodoens’ Flemish herbal of 1554, which represented a similar breakthrough for herbals in Europe.  Soon after, in 1597, came Gerard’s Herball (1975 [1633], originally written 1597; based heavily on Dodoens), the first great modern herbal in English.   In 1593 there was every reason to believe that Li would stimulate a major breakthrough in Chinese herbal and botanical science, as Dodoens and his colleagues and followers did in Europe.  But Li remained unexcelled.  The Ming Dynasty fell, the Qing showed no interest in advancing the science, and Li is still the standard text in traditional Chinese herbalism.  By contrast, Gerard was almost immediately eclipsed by John Parkinson’s incredible achievement Paradisi in Sole (1976 [1629]), and then by John Ray’s development of taxonomy.  After that botany exploded in the west.  One could tell similar stories about medicine, zoology, geology, nutrition, weaving technology, and other natural sciences.  China lost the spirit at the same time the west got it.

Ming progress was slender enough, but the collapse of Ming seems to have truly blown out a light.  Only medicine slightly breaks the pattern, developing strongly in late Ming and staying dynamic in early Qing (see e.g. Furth 1999; Wu 2010).  Otherwise, in the sciences, the Qing Dynasty republished old works and added to encyclopedias and agricultural manuals, but really did very little creative work.  Recent works on Qing (e.g. Elliott 2009, Rowe 2009) are cautious about explaining this, but recognize the continuing growth of autocracy. They also point out the increasing woes of Qing as population grew, Europeans took over trade and then invaded, and the environment deteriorated.  Under a despotic but floundering government, China was in no position to innovate.

A fateful episode, probably more symptom than cause but still a very significant block on progress, was the Qianlong Emperor’s “literary inquisition.”  Plagued by increasing fears of disloyalty, he launched in the late 18th century a comprehensive attack on the literati.  It is reminiscent of, though far less extensive than, Stalin’s purges in the 1930s and 1940s. 

The inquisition came at the same time as the European Enlightenment.  As the Qianlong Emperor was turning the clock back to autocracy, the west was discovering human rights, democracy, nonviolence, liberation, and free trade.   Steven Pinker (2011) has conclusively shown how extremely transformative the Enlightenment and its values eventually were in the west; slavery was outlawed, wars gradually declined, feuds and duels ended, and eventually even ordinary murder and robbery became less common.  China had long eliminated chattel slavery, had no cult of the duel, and was relatively peaceful in most of Qing, so there was not so much to change.  In China the rise of the middle classes went on peacefully and was rather unproblematic though woefully slow.  In the west, the middle class rose fast, came into conflict with the nobility, and pushed hard for more rights.

One direct effect of Qing’s overextended autocracy was that corruption was rampant, and the victims had little recourse.  The fantastic levels of “squeeze” certainly prove that lack of capital was not China’s limiting problem!  Of course the west, and the rest of the world, did not lack for corruption, but in the west the ill-gotten gains were often invested in trade and industry.  The problem in China was that the spare capital was all going into someone’s pocket, to be spent ultimately on luxuries or on acquiring land.  This bid the price of land up to distressingly high figures, among other things, and thus created yet another wealth sink.  The corrupt officials did not do as America’s robber barons did, and invest their ill-gotten gains in progressive schemes.  (A few in China did, in such areas as irrigation improvement, but not on any scale until well into the 20th century.)  One cannot help noting that today’s American robber barons are investing in luxuries and land….

Finally, while Japan was frantically playing catch-up after 1868, China—with the same opportunities—was caught in a form of political paralysis, following Qing’s near-death experience in the Taiping Rebellion.  The Tongzhi Restoration of 1862 saved the dynasty, but it was dominated thereafter by the wily and foxy but increasingly conservative Empress Dowager Cixi.  China did not, of course, ignore the west.  The treaty ports and other imperialist impositions saw to that.  But such impositions (including, alas, many missionaries) showed the west in its worst light, and rarely led to much beneficial change.  All the revisionist literature cannot stand against the testimony of the Chinese themselves, who in the last decades of Qing were the first to admit that they were falling far behind Japan in adopting western industry, military technology, governmental management, media, educational innovations, and other “modern” developments.

The food economy was increasingly impacted by western technology and imports.  It did not suffer as much or as directly as the iron industry, of which Donald Wagner reports that  “up to about 1700 China had the world’s largest and most efficient iron industry” (Wagner 2008:74) but after 1850 the west flooded China with cheap imports, and ruined the old metal industries.  “It hit hardest precisely in the places where the most technically sophisticated and capital-intensive techniques were in use” (p. 78).  They were the most in need of skills, capital, and markets, and they were most directly competed by high-quality imports. 

Agriculture did not suffer that much, but comparable if less devastating impact occurred.  Then much greater damage was done when the Communists invoked Soviet-style westernization after 1958.  Everything old, whether sophisticated or rough, went down.  The result, with ironworking and agriculture, was that western observers and western-educated Chinese ones developed very low estimations of traditional technology.  They not only had the biases of their training; they had only the bare survivors of the traditional system to observe. This point has not been made for agriculture—we have, rather, F. H. King’s famous and wonderful exposition of the successes and strengths of the traditional system (King 1911).  But Wagner’s generalizations about the iron industry clearly apply to other aspects of technology, including much of agriculture.  This led to widespread ignoring of the successes of the old ways.

 

Europe and Qing Compared

In southern and western Europe, conversely, the coming of Aristotelianism from the Near East (Gaukroger 2006) led to a steady rise in scientific thinking and knowledge collecting.  Stephen Gaukroger thinks the “scientific revolution” of the 1600s was more or less a smooth continuum from this medieval and early Renaissance revolution.  He and other historians have cut the “scientific revolution”  of the 17th century down to size, pointing out that it had long antecedents (Gaukroger 2006; Osler 2010), and that it did not revolutionize everything, either.  Copernicus and Galileo genuinely revolutionized astronomy, Vesalius really changed anatomy, but progress in chemistry and biology was much slower.  Even Newton’s epochal contributions took a long time to be worked out, propagated, and adopted. 

Thus, revisionists now deny the existence of the scientific revolution.  I must respectfully disagree.  It seems to me that without the burst of sea trade and the religious wars, Europe would simply have kept developing slowly along very traditional lines.  The breakthroughs represented by Bacon and Descartes when they advocated experience above received wisdom were real.  They were related to the triumph of observation over tradition in the work of Galileo in astronomy, Harvey in anatomy and physiology, Boyle in chemistry, Sydenham in medicine, and others, including early agricultural and herbalist experts.  What is distinctive about the 17th century “scientific revolution” in Europe is that scholars throughout western Europe, throughout all the scholarly disciplines, kicked over the traces of received wisdom.  They looked with fresh eyes at the enormous masses of data being revealed by exploration and experiment.  Galileo, John Ray, Linnaeus, Boyle, Harvey, and their contemporaries were not only willing to break with tradition, but also—thanks to new instrumentation from microscopes to telescopes—they had the necessary data to do it successfully. 

They then came up with entirely new paradigms—not just new theories—based on that observation.  Francis Bacon and René Descartes were the spokesmen for all this, but not the inventors of it nor the most active in actually doing it. 

The 17th-century revolution was real.  Certainly, it built on a steady increase in knowledge and in original thinking, which came at a time when those were stagnating or decreasing in other areas of the world.  But so does any revolution.

Comparing China’s relatively slow progress with the west’s breakthrough certainly revitalizes the old idea of a “scientific revolution”!  China had the same slow development from traditional ideas through the period from 1200 to 1900.  After 1600, China did not stagnate, and did not ignore western learning; it simply did not match the frenetic pace of Europe in changing basic knowledge.  China did have the advantage of some European science (out-of-date and thin in many cases), thanks to the Jesuit missionaries.  Contrary to frequent western claims, the Chinese welcomed, adopted, and used the more valuable of the Jesuit introductions (Elman 2005).  This makes the problem more thorny; it seems that China could, at any time before 1700, have overtaken and passed the west. 

What really happened, to give an architectural metaphor with some “resonance,” was that the Chinese kept adding bricks to their old structure.  The Europeans tore down their old structure (or most of it) and built a whole new one, from different and superior materials.  We see this in medicine, for instance.  The Han and Tang Dynasty classics not only were still the textbooks in the 1700s, but they still are the textbooks for Chinese traditional medicine in the 21st century!  In medicine, the great Song, Yuan and Ming works are competitive with anything western before 1500 or even 1600, but then the explosion of medical innovation by Vesalius, Sydenham, Harvey and others coincided in time with the final shut-down of Chinese medical innovation.  Not only were there no revolutions, but the Song and Yuan breakthroughs became neglected.

Joseph Needham held in his early work that the eclipse of Daoism by Confucianism was the problem; Daoism was science-oriented and nature-oriented, Confucianism dry and moralistic.  The truth is otherwise.  China’s strong tradition of pragmatic conservation of resources found its home in Confucianism, not Daoism (Anderson 2001).  The Song Confucians were more similar to modern scientists than most Daoists.  Confucianism animated scholars like Song Yingxing and Li Shizhen.  Daoism did indeed represent and encourage Chinese love for nature and desire for unity with it.  It did indeed inspire a great deal of science.  However, it was the creativeness of the Chinese people and the union of the two philosophies (not to speak of other schools, absorbed by the two dominants) that led to the rise and glory of early Chinese science, food, and development. 

Needham wrote that China had equivalents to da Vinci (I assume he was thinking of Tao Hongjing and Shen Gua) but not of Galileo (Needham 2004).  Mark Elvin, in his introduction to Needham’s work, agrees (Elvin 2004b:xlii). China had polymaths, but no one who dramatically smashed a reigning paradigm and established a new and more accurate one.  Of course Galileo did not do that as cleanly and single-handedly as the old-fashioned books of my childhood said, but he did do it, and no one in China did anything comparable until the 19th century.

In chemistry, China had its alchemists but no equivalent to Robert Boyle.  In mining and mineralogy, China had been the leader for centuries, but Agricola’s work eclipsed it.  We have seen that in general technology, Song Yingxing’s Tiangong Kaiwu was similar to a number of contemporary western works, but the latter stimulated more and better, while Song had no followers.  We have also noted that Li Shizhen was ahead of the west in botany in the 1590s, but had already lost the lead by the 1640s.  The list could go on. 

 

Thoughts on Change, 1700-2100 

Marshall Sahlins (1993) said that speculations on why China didn’t develop capitalism when “they came so close” are like the speculations the Fijians might have made when first seeing missionaries explain Holy Communion:  why didn’t they develop true ritual cannibalism when “they came so close”?

Well, fair enough; the west has never been into ritual cannibalism, but it did have human sacrifice as an institution, very widespread from Denmark to Ukraine.  But its disappearance is easily explained:  the western world needed the labor power, and thus ended human sacrifices as cities and farms got large and absorbed more workers.  Forget “evolving morality” as an explanation; we are talking about the civilization that gave us the Inquisition and the African slave trade. 

Richard von Glahn (2003) and Victor Lieberman (2009:2-8) have reviewed a vast number of theories, ranging from the sublime to the ridiculous.  The ridiculous ones are those that essentialize Europe, making it either racially superior or else a homogeneous realm characterized by a single political-economic framework that somehow unites early Renaissance Italy and modern England.  One mentioned by von Glahn, and going back to Marx and earlier, is that Europeans were more ruthless than anyone else.  Anyone who has studied Chinese and Mongol history will have doubts.

Ian Morris (2010) sees largely a geographic determinism (partly following Jared Diamond 1997).  Morris finds in particular that the west had more energy resources, from animal traction to coal (recall Pomeranz’ point, of which Morris is well aware).  Also, the west had more diversity both ethnically and ecologically.  It had more farmland, more different kinds of habitat and thus more different kinds of farming systems, more mines and mineral resources.  It had more opportunities for trade.  The Mediterranean Sea, for instance, was indeed “medi-terranean,” in the midst of the lands, and thus a perfect place to develop trade and shipping; the China Sea was comparable but not enough to be equivalent.  China’s great trade route for most of history was the Silk Road, which did more to lay China open to predatory nomadic raiders than it did for serious trade in staple goods.   

Geography is not destiny; much of Europe never developed, and much of the Mediterranean shorelands were less developed in 1900 than anywhere on the continental shores of the China Sea.  Morris has to admit that China was generally ahead of the west in technical, economic, and scientific progress from about 400 to 900.  (I would see 400 to 1300 as more reasonable, and Morris considerably underestimates the successes of Han, too.)   Morris’ history founders on the rock of his belief that “it was not emperors and intellectuals who made history but millions of lazy, greedy, and frightened people looking for easier, more profitable, and safer ways to do things” (Morris 2010:359).  This is exactly wrong.  Emperors may not matter, but intellectuals and other people who are not at all lazy, greedy, or frightened are the ones that make progress.  Laziness and fear motivate people to crawl in a hole, do as little as possible, and above all change as little as possible.  This is well demonstrated in psychology and in common experience.  Change comes in moments of confidence, hope, and hard work for the group.  Any reasonable history of China proves this, but one may call particular attention to Johanna Smith’s study of charity in Ming, cited above (Smith 2009).

This matters, because if people really created out of laziness and fear, we would see creativity enriched and increased by poverty and insecurity.  As with Boserup’s theory of intensification, this would predict that Haiti would be leading the world; the United States would be the least innovative society.  Obviously, the opposite is true.  The way to get creative, proactive societies is to provide them with the most resources and the best security available.  In history, it was individuals and societies who were on the way up—who were doing well and fully expected to do better if they worked harder—who did the innovating.  (This also explains the purported “industrious revolution” in Europe—if it really happened, which I doubt.)  Max Weber traced the resulting feedback loops long ago.

The question is not explaining why “the west” won.  There was never a time when “the west” won.  The west always consisted, and consists today, of a few winners and a lot of losers.  In the 19th century, China was ahead in every way of much of eastern Europe, and it is today also.  The question is why a fast-moving, fast-changing subset of western polities kept replacing each other as winners.

A much more important point noted by Morris (among others) is the reliance in the west on extensive grazing, which forced the west to expand continually.  I have noted the importance of this above.  The New World was looted by those hungry for gold, but European settlement was largely about finding land to raise livestock, and to a lesser extent grain, sugar and cotton.  China’s agriculture, maximizing land productivity, tended to make people stay where they were, developing their home landscape more and more intensively.  Morris and others have thought the added animal power and meat in the diet mattered, and made that extensive land use worthwhile, but I doubt it; Chinese had plenty of protein from grain and soybeans, and had an intensive cultivation system that made maximal use of a few animals, rather than minimal use of a vast number. 

The scientific revolution was not only restricted to Europe, but to a handful of countries there:  Italy, the German realms, the Low Countries, France, and Britain.  Most obviously, its rise followed the rise of commerce and capitalism, a point not missed by Needham (2004) or others.  It was precisely in those countries that had gone from commerce to seafaring to full capitalism that science developed.  Moreover, countries developed science in the order in which they had achieved the (dubious?) status of capitalism:  Italy first, northwest Europe last.  Needham and most others have made the obvious inference. 

In fact, the great difference was not between “Europe” and “China,” but between the fast–changing trade-based states and the dinosauric tributary empires.  In Europe, this was an old and familiar story.  The Greeks had already told it, comparing themselves with the Persians.  Then the Greeks succumbed, and the Byzantine Empire ossified while Genoa and Venice rose and eventually made mincemeat of the Byzantines.  Then the Ottomans took over Byzantium’s territory, but did little to blast eastern Europe forward; the Ottomans remained more innovative than Byzantium, but hardly a force for rapid change.  Meanwhile, the Hanseatic League and later states in west and central Europe peripheralized the Polish-Lithuanian empire (Wallerstein 1976).  Then France, the Low Countries, and Britain entered the trading stakes in a serious way, reaping the benefits from the increasingly ossified and tribute-based Spanish and Portuguese empires.  The rise and fall of states in Europe, then and since, has always perfectly tracked the difference between small, innovative trading states—and then, later, democratic republics—and the great land-based empires. In fact, the great tributary empires of Europe—Byzantium, Poland, early Russia, and even the Spanish and Portuguese empires in their expansive days—were far less scientific-oriented and progressive than China.

The popular literature is still full of sweeping claims about the innate superiority of “Europeans” or of “Western civilization” from the ancient Greeks onward.  These conveniently overlook the Dark Ages, the Counter-Reformation, and the hapless state of eastern Europe throughout most of history—today included.  I have always wondered why “the west” never seems to include places like Rumania or Russia.  They remained backward as long as China did, if not longer.  Even today, the smaller Balkan and ex-Soviet nations are far behind China, let alone Japan or Singapore, in every respect.  Some, such as Moldova and Byelorus, are behind even the better-off African states on many statistics.  These failed European nations certainly disprove the classic racist and civilizationist arguments! 

By contrast, if the lower Yangzi or the Guangzhou area or central Sichuan were independent countries, they would have been consistently among the richest and most forward-looking ones for the last several hundred years, and they would be today.

The Chinese found it possible to “think outside the box,” but they needed to break out of the box entirely.  Essentializing claims such as Chinese lack of individuality, or slavery to tradition, are wrong.  The Chinese had come up with highly original and individualist philosophies and ideas in the Warring States and Han periods, and to some extent in mid-Tang and Song; why did they not in Qing?  Basically, the reason is that they were constrained by a repressive government that could coopt any fresh new thinkers into its bureaucracy.  The ancient ideas remained powerful and compelling. 

It should be remembered that people do not normally innovate.  Revolutionary new ideas are usually wrong and always disturbing.  People realize this.  They fear change—above all, revolutionary change in basic ideas.  This is especially true if they are aging emperors unsure of their thrones.  But it is true of humans in general, as psychologists have found.  Moreover, Chinese children were raised in a highly traditional educational system, and saw no great reason to challenge it. 

Europe—or, rather, France—adopted Chinese ideas, or what they thought were Chinese ideas, in the 18th century.  Montesquieu, Say, Voltaire, and others idealized China, and introduced such concepts as China’s rule of law (rather than by men), agriculture as the foundation of the state, and many others.  (Ironically, it was the Legalist ideas that inspired these radical critics of European autocracy.)  Of course printing, paper, gunpowder, and other innovations had already had their effect. 

Thus, not only did China fail to beat Europe, not only did it fail even to imitate Europe (before the 19th century), but it even wound up losing its best ideas to Europe.  Europe, not China, profited most from China’s own institutional inventions. “Fortune favors the prepared mind,” and only a mind ready for a new idea will accept it.    The European radical intellectuals needed new ideas about the rule of law and the development of a rationalized bureaucracy.  The European elites did not need Chinese religion or medicine, and found the religion (at least) too challenging to be acceptable.

In so far as China had brilliant, dynamic people anxious to improve the world—such people sprout in every country, and certainly China had many—those people went into religiosity, or arts, or developing more farmland, or government.  They did not create modern science or innovate new political-economic institutions.  The Neo-Confucians in China had the same high ideals and high hopes as the Enlightenment sages of Europe, but felt that hopes could best be realized by going back to the past—or, with Wang Yangming, the most original and driving Confucian thinker of the Ming Dynasty, into mystical escape. 

This shows a critical point.  A regime naturally attracts opposition, and the have-nots generally coalesce behind a particular ideology, as Marx pointed out.  The elites’ position is always quite clear:  We are on top; we want to stay there; therefore we oppose all disruptive change, whether progress or regress.  The have-nots can then take what they feel is the opposite position.  In Marx’ theory, they will simply oppose the haves, and a third, new class will appear between the two and take over.  The feudal lords escaped the master/slave opposition when Rome fell.  The capitalists escaped the feudal lord/peasant and serf opposition.  The proletariat was supposed to take over, led by Communist intellectuals. 

What really happens is that a number of possible ideologies can unite those who are out of power but want to take it.  In Ming, those who were not bandits tended all too often to Wang’s type of escapism.  In Qing, Han chauvinism and scholarly Confucianism fused to produce a different but equally regressive anti-elite ideology.  In the west, increasingly after 1500, the scientific and proto-Enlightenment ideology gained ground steadily, in spite of regressive religious movements.  The latter either went along with the scientific program or were too other-worldly to attract many elites or middle-class people.

The fact that ideology was the final, proximate cause of modernization is shown by the very rapid changes in Japan, Korea, and the Chinese polities once they accepted a western-type ideology that favored moderizing science and production.  They did not even abandon Neo-Confucianism or Buddhism; they simply added western attitudes toward material progress.  The transition happened in only a generation in Japan, and not much longer in Korea.  Economics, military contingencies, and other real-world matters forced the change, but in the end the ideology had to change with them.

The autocratic, backward-looking state created incentive issues. For an upwardly mobile Chinese in imperial times, getting into government service was always a major goal.  Families diversified their portfolios by investing in land, trade, and education for government service, rather than focusing on economic development.  China had large cities but rather few large towns, and the population was scattered and rural, in a vast network of marketing areas.  Myers (Myers and Wang 2002:579) contrasts this with the highly urban-centric (“plexus”) economy of Europe.

Moreover, if they did think outside the box, they had nowhere to go to escape inquisitions like Qianlong’s.  In Europe, an original thinker could flee persecution in his homeland by going to the Netherlands (as Descartes did), or England, or whatever other realm might tolerate him.  In China, one could become a mountain hermit, but there was no other real option.  Japan and Vietnam were regarded as unthinkably barbarous, and if a Chinese thinker did go there he had little opportunity to publish and be read at home. 

Thus, Europe’s geography of small states into which one could easily escape, while keeping contact with friends just over the border, was certainly a factor.  Europe benefited from lack of unity; geography made unification under an autocratic emperor almost impossible (Lieberman, Morris and Pomeranz are among many who have discussed this idea).  It was not for lack of trying.  From the Romans to Napoleon and Hitler, conquerors attempted to unite Europe.  The mountains always got in the way, saving Europe from unity and stagnation.  The European Union might theoretically have ended European progress, but by 2012, it was already showing strains that threatened to dismantle it. 

However, an exactly comparable disunity did not work for southeast Asia (Lieberman 2009).  It was apparently locked in a luxury-trade pattern, supplying unmodified primary products, mostly luxuries, to more developed realms.  It was, in short, a classic periphery (or at best semi-periphery).  It was kept down by the logic of trade.  Traditional rulers drew strength from keeping the system backward; they profited from selling primary products, and were threatened by innovation.  They did try hard to get into the modern world of manufacturing and industry when it came calling, as Lieberman shows, but by then it was too late; they were taken over outright by European powers, or, in the case of Siam (Thailand), forced to do a complex and difficult dance to keep from that fate (Lieberman 2009).  In short, southeast Asia was exactly comparable to eastern Europe in Wallerstein’s model (Wallerstein 1976).  It had all the geographic and cultural advantages, but its position in the military-economic order of the times kept it down.

Conversely, if Japan had been a continent with several conflicting polities, it might have parlayed its rather striking parallels with Europe (see von Glahn 2003) into equally rapid and impressive development.  It too was split by mountains into several different local regions.

Another major component in Europe was religious pluralism.  The Jews were always at the forefront of thought and innovation.  So were the Muslims on the tense frontiers in Syria and Persia, and later in Italy and Spain, in the early medieval period.  Later, certain radical Catholic monastic orders took over some of the function of being dissident innovators.  Then, finally, the Protestant explosion in the 1500s led to both violent and intractable conflict and a whole new way of thinking.  The importance of this for the development of science is well known (Merton 1970; Morton 1981).  Particularly critical was the idea that one could be in a minority and still absolutely right—a bearer of God’s truth.  This led people to argue, defend, and stick to their principles and perceptions, rather than accommodating.  Such arguing over truth began on the Muslim frontiers, driving science there, among both Muslims and Christians.  This suggests a reason why the Jews were among the most important thinkers: they were minorities on both sides. 

The Protestant reformation wrote a whole new book, one in which forward thought, new ideas, and innovative perceptions were argued with dogmatic stubbornness.  It is certainly no accident that so many of the greatest early scientists—including John Ray, Robert Boyle, Rene Descartes, and Baruch Spinoza—were major religious thinkers.  By contrast, the Chinese fondness for accommodating all worldviews into one harmonious bureaucratic order was fatal to sustained argument.  The exceptions prove the rule:  new and exciting currents of thought (such as Song medicine, mathematics, and philosophy) were accepted all too easily, and swallowed up into a vast blur of ideas, where they were diluted into innocuousness rather than sharpened into revolution.

Interestingly and significantly, China remained ahead of the west in agriculture, forestry, nutrition, silk work, and certain other practical fields until rather later.  Chinese nutritional science was ahead of the west’s until the discovery of vitamins around 1900.  Forestry was better in China and Japan than in most of the west until the late 19th century, though a few forests in northwest Europe were at least as well-managed as anything in China.  We must beware of bland stereotypes.  But the fact remains that China did not have a scientific revolution or an Enlightenment until later times.

It should be remembered that science—in the sense of discovering new knowledge—is rarely popular.  In general, people like the familiar and are wary of anything new and different.  In particular, science is notoriously challenging to orthodoxy, not only in religion but in politics, land management, water use, forestry, everything.  Scientists are constantly finding things that are at least embarrassing and often devastating to the interests of big landlords and giant firms.  This was perhaps more true in the Renaissance than at any time before or since, but it is a general finding.  China and the Near East lost their early and commanding lead in science because the elites not only ceased to back it; they actively opposed anything that rocked the boat.  Even today in the United States, there are only a few tens of thousands of research scientists, while 40% of the country actively disbelieves in evolution, while even more disbelieve in global warming.  A large number (some estimates run to 20%) do not even realize the earth circles the sun.  Science is hated, feared and distrusted by the millions that hang on every word of Fox News. 

Now, of course, the importance of trade and commerce is proved by the fact that as the east Asian countries moved into it, they quickly adopted European science and technology, and soon made themselves leaders and innovators in what is now a truly global scientific enterprise.

As they became democratic and trade-based, the small East Asian countries have explosively modernized, become prosperous, and become world leaders in education and science.  Merchants in Hong Kong and Japan held their own from the 19th century onward, and eventually outcompeted the west at its own games.  Slowly, Vietnam is coming on board today.

Even dinosauric China is waking from the Maoist nightmare.  However, it can be confidently predicted on the basis of past experience that China’s hopeful beginnings in science and education will come to a bitter end if repression and corruption continue.  China is developing an even more bureaucratic, dictatorial, and corrupt government than that of Qing.  It is also eating its seed corn:  destroying its resource base and overworking its people.  Also, it is copying the west, not innovating or developing new paradigms. 

 

William Rowe (2009:216-218) lists four main possibilities for China’s failure to industrialize and modernize in the 19th and early 20th centuries:  political failure of will, traditionalism and Confucian scholarly reaction, the high-level equilibrium trap (however phrased), and deliberate Western suppression through colonialism, war, unequal treaties, industrial policies, and general terms of trade.  One may note that these are not mutually exclusive, but, in fact, would be mutually reinforcing if they were all true.

As he points out, the traditionalist argument is probably the weakest.  Confucian traditionalism not only singularly failed to halt the explosive development of Japan in the 19th century and the various Chinese-majority nations in the late 20th; it is actually claimed by the latter as their secret of success.  Singapore, currently by some measures the best-off and best-educated nation in the world, has been explicitly neo-Confucian in policy since its independence.   Japan transitioned from an extremely “traditional” frame of mind to a very modernizing one in a few years in the late 19th century; the change of “mentalité” seems to have been real enough, but did not displace, or even much affect, the basic Buddhist-Confucian character of Japanese culture.  It is now clear that broad religious and philosophical traditions can all accommodate modernization perfectly easily—or they can justify stagnation and reaction.  Even within American Christianity, we have the gap between classic Weberian Protestantism and the extreme reaction and anti-modernity of the fundamentalist sects.  Islam has its range from the educated elite of Lebanon and Turkey to the Taliban of Afghanistan. 

The same could be said for the high-level equilibrium trap.  China was indeed trapped in a biointensive agriculture.  So were France, Denmark, the Netherlands, and, in east Asia, Japan.  Enough said.

Rowe’s book confirms my long-standing opinion that autocratic repression coupled with weak local rule was the main problem.  In fact, it is so overwhelmingly the obvious cause that I cannot help wondering what the debate is about.  The government could not even control bandit gangs, yet it could and did shut down free enquiry.  Autocracy in China vs. relative openness in Europe was already visible in the days of ancient Greece—though China’s Warring States period came close to Greek openness—and more visible by 1200 (Lieberman 2009:2). 

The key here is not so much autocracy per se.  Most modern success stories begin with autocratic governments that aggressively modernized.  This applies not only to east Asia from Japan to Singapore, but also to France, Germany, Sweden, and some other western states (though not England or America).  France in particular got its major and dramatic intellectual and scientific revolution before it had its famous (or infamous) political one.  But even earlier than that was France’s commitment to trade, commerce, and nascent capitalism. The connection of commerce and revolution seemed obvious to contemporaries, whether they liked the changes (as Smith generally did) or hated them (as Edmund Burke did). 

The problem is with huge imperial bureaucracies that have the power to suppress change over vast areas and populations.  There is no case anywhere in the world of an agrarian tributary empire successfully modernizing; the Chinese came fairly close, and so did the Ottomans, but both collapsed when change became really rapid.

Also incompatible with rapid change are weak, incompetent autocracies that are threatened by modernization and change.  They are effective at suppressing, terrorizing and disuniting progressive forces of any sort, but are ineffective at controlling corruption, local violence, or local rapacity.  This was the story of Ming and Qing.  It was a problem with the late Ottoman and Mughal and other empires (Dale 2010; Streusand 2010).  It is the story of Myanmar, Congo and Sudan today.  To some extent it was and is the story in the Old South of the United States.

Such states can even be “democracies,” if the democracy is not backed up by meaningful legal protection for the weak; Indonesia today is one eastern Asian example (though, after the overthrow of Suharto’s fascist regime, even it is economically progressing—somewhat—thanks to what democracy it has). 

A strong, modernizing autocracy can give way easily to a strong, modernizing democracy, as in Korea and Taiwan, but a corrupt, ineffectual autocracy tends to give way to a corrupt, ineffectual “democracy,” as in Indonesia and several post-Soviet states.  What matters is whether the government feels threatened by change and can effectively crush it.  Most autocracies think this way, but the exceptions are striking.  Conversely, even slightly democratic states usually prefer dynamism, but here too there are striking exceptions.

It seems clear to me—though I recognize there can be debate on this—that if Europe had continued on the path to autocracy from 1600 onward (P. Anderson 1974), Europe would have had the same sluggish development as China, if not even more sluggish.  It would have had the same involutional tendencies.  We may point yet again to eastern Europe, ruined by autocracy and by peripheralization (Wallerstein 1976).  The Ottoman Empire, like the Byzantine before it, proves that large tributary empires are hopelessly stagnant, even when they are the heirs of the ancient Greeks.  The fate of the Spanish Empire in the 17th and 18th centuries provides another example.  In short, and this cannot be said often enough, the contrast is not between Europe and Asia but between small, relatively open countries and autocratic empires.  The European exceptionalism (or racism) of authors like Samuel Huntington and David Landes always founders on this rock (Morris 2010).  It simply cannot explain Byzantium and Russia on the one hand or Japan and contemporary Taiwan, South Korea, or Singapore on the other.

Revolution, colonization, the labor movement, and other processes saved the western nations (P. Anderson 1974).  It was a near thing.  It was not automatic.  It would never have happened without the massive injection of wealth from oveseas trade, and probably the advantage of cheap and easily available fuel (such as England’s coal; Morris 2010), but these were not enough.  They did not do much for Spain or Poland, or China.

One further refinement is provided by the failure of southeast Asia to take advantage of its trade centrality and small, diverse states.  Southeast Asia had trading city-states comparable to Venice and Genoa:  Melaka, Aceh, Palembang, and others.  These followed in the footsteps of earlier trading cities from Oc Eo onward.  The great empires of Majapahit and Mataram were trade-based and urban.  But these trading city-states were all run  more or less as the agrarian states were.  Thomas Raffles and other early western observers (Marsden 1966; Raffles 1965—both originally early 19th century)  compared them with Europe in this light, noting the autocratic and closed nature of southeast Asian society as opposed to European openness.  Even allowing for the huge doses of racist and colonialist distortion in these sources, the point is hard to deny after reading them.

Thus, in the end, I personally continue to accept the hoary, time-honored view that China’s autocratic centralism inhibited change, while the ferment and competition of multinational western Europe’s small nations and feuding religions forced change.  The rise of science tracked the rise of capitalism and ran ahead of the rise of Enlightenment politics.  The coincidence here is not “mere” coincidence.  This is why Adam Smith (1910 [1776]) envisioned a fourth age, that of commerce, following the classic Greek ages of hunting-gathering, pastoralism, and farming.

After all, and this book exists to prove the point, China did not refuse to westernize.  During earlier centuries, Central Asian cuisine had penetrated north and especially northwest China, where it is still robustly evident in the cuisine.  Such items as mantou and shaobing recall the centuries of Silk Road contact.  We have seen that mantou comes from the Turkish root mantu, a word found throughout the Turkic languages in various forms (Eren 1999:286; Paul Buell, pers. comm.). Then later, since the mid-sixteenth century, western food crops totally revolutionized China, as shown long ago by Ping-ti Ho (Ho 1955).  Some medical and other influences crept in too.  But they were not addressed by scholars on any major scale.  Ho had to comb local gazetteers for the first mentions of crops, and even then it is clear that many crops had been established for years or decades before making it into the gazetteers, let alone the more elite sources.  But on these matters I defer to those more expert than I (e.g. Elman 2005).

 

 

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Wagner, Donald.  2008.  Science and Civilisation in China.  Vol. V:  Chemistry and Chemical Technology.  Part 11:  Ferrous Metallurgy.  Cambridge:  Cambridge University Press.

 

Waley, Arthur.  1956. Yuan Mei.  London:  George Allen & Unwin.

 

Wallerstein, Immanuel. 1976.  The Modern World-System:  Capitalist Agriculture and the Origins of the European World-Economy in the Sixteenth Century.  New York:  Academic Press.

 

Wong, R. Bin.  1997.  China Transformed:  Historical Change and the Limits of European Experience.  Ithaca:  Cornell University Press.

 

Woodside, Alexander.  2002.  “The Ch’ien-lung Reign.”  In The Cambridge History of China, vol. 9, part 1, The Ch’ing Dynasty to 1800.”  Willard Peterson (ed.).  Cambridge:  Cambridge University Press.  Pp. 230-309.

 

Wu, Yenna.  1996.  “Morality and Cannibalism in Ming-Qing Fiction.  Tamkang Review 27:23-46.

 

—  1997.  From History to Allegory:  Surviving Famine in the Xingshi Yinyuan Zhuan.”  Chinese Culture.

 

Zhang Jiayan.  2006.  “Water Calamities and Dike Management in the Jianghan Plain in the Qing and the Republic.”  Late Imperial China 27:66-108.

 

Zhou, Yichun.  2013.  “Honglou Meng and Agrarian Values.”  Late Imperial China 34:28-66.

 

Environment Poetry

August 2nd, 2013

Environment Poetry

 

Poems about “nature” in the broad sense

 

Ancient Greek:  Small farms immortalized

 

Here is Klito’s little shack.

Here is his little cornpatch.

Here is his tiny vineyard.

Here is his little woodlot.

Here Klito spent eighty years.

(Translated by Kenneth Rexroth; in Jay 1981:102.)

 

Dear earth, take old Amyntichus to your heart,

Remembering how he toiled upon you once:

Fixing in olive-stocks, and slips of vine,

And corn, and channels where the water runs.

He made you rich with herbs and fruit: in turn

Lie soft on his grey head; and bloom for him.

(Anonymous epitaph, trans. Alistair Elliot, in Jay 1981:327; “corn” means “any grain” here, the possibilities being wheat and barley, not maize.) 

 

Spare the mother of acorns, man.  Cut down some paliurus,

old mountain pine or sea-pine, or ilex or dry arbutus.

But keep your axe out of the oak: remember our forefathers

said that once upon a time the oaks were our first mothers.

(Diodoros Zonas, ca. 100 BCE; trans. Alistair Elliot; Jay 1981:169.)

 

Medieval Provençal

In the late 12th century, the Provençal troubadour Bernart de Ventadorn perfectly summarized the new mood in a transcendently impulsive outburst of song:

 

Ca l’erba fresch’ e.lh folha par

E la flors boton’ el verjan,

E.l rossinhols autet e clar

Leva sa votz e mou so chan,

Joi ai de lui, e joi ai de la flor

E joi de me e de midons major;

Daus totas partz sui de joi claus e sens,

Mas sel es jois que totz autres jois vens.

 

(When fresh gass-blades and leaves appear

And flowers bud the branching plants,

And the nightingale most loud and clear

Uplifts its voice and song descants,

I joy in it, and in the flowered air

And take joy in my self and lady fair;

All round I’m wrapped with joy and girt indeed,

But this is a joy all other joys exceed.

                        Translation by Hubert Creekmore (1952:578.)

 

Celtic

An Irish poem from the 18th century uses a dead bittern as a symbol for the poet, Cathal Buidhe MacElgun.  The bittern is more than metaphor; it is an alter ego.  This is no raffish drinking song.  The poet is destroying himself by drink and he knows it.  He is trapped in grief—for the bittern, for himself, and and for a great deal of unspecified tragedy that the bittern symbolizes. The poet drinks in a notably unsuccessful attempt to drown the sorrow.  One reason to quote this poem here is that the translator successfully approximates the complex internal rhyme and alliteration of the original, thus giving readers a sense of what Irish poetry really sounds like.

 

The yellow bittern that never broke out

   In a drinking-bout, might well have drunk;

His bones are thrown on a naked stone

   Where he lived alone like a hermit monk.

O yellow bittern!  I pity your lot,

   Though they say that a sot like myself is curst—

I was sober a while, but I’ll drink and be wise

   For fear I should die in the end of thirst.

 

It’s not for the common birds that I’d mourn,

   The blackbird, the corncrake or the crane,

But for the bittern that’s shy and apart

   And drinks in the marsh from the lone bog-drain.

Oh! If I had known you were near your death,

   While my breath held out I’d have run to you,

Till a splash from the Lake of the Son of the Bird

   Your soul would have stirred and waked anew.

 

My darling told me to drink no more

   Or my life would be o’er in a little short while;

But I told her ‘tis drink gives me health and strength,

   And will lengthen my road by many a mile.

You see how the bird of the long smooth neck,

   Could get his death from the thirst at last-

Come, son of my soul, and drain your cup,

   You’ll get no sup when your life is past.

 

In a wintering island by Constantine’s halls,

   A bittern calls from a wineless place,

And tells me that hither he cannot come

   Till the summer is here and the sunny days.

When he crosses the stream there and wings o’er the sea,

   Then a fear comes to me he may fail in his flight—

Well, the milk and the ale are drunk every drop,

  And a dram won’t stop our thirst this night.

                        (trans. Thomas MacDonagh; Kathleen Hoagland 1947:235-236.  This is a song, sung in both Irish and English today.)

 

The medieval Scots were Irish.  In ancient times Scotland was inhabited by the Picts, who spoke a Briton-type Celtic language.  The Scoti, an Irish tribe, invaded and took over in the early middle ages.  So their early Gaelic poetry was thoroughly Irish in background and quality.  This has persisted, in attenuated form, and much folk material demonstrating it has been collected.  Notable is Alexander Carmichael’s huge collection of folk charms (1992).  Carmichael provides countless charms involving plants, animals, and natural phenomena, and showing close relationships with them.  The sun, plants, and the sea are addressed personally (as St. Francis of Assisi did).  Carmichael notes that a young man going hunting was consecrated, and instructed not to kill wantonly or unnecessarily, nor “to kill a bird sitting, nor a beast lying down,…the mother of a brood, nor the mother of a suckling,” or young animals in general (Carmichael 1992:601).

Early Welsh poetry known to us is largely battle verse, rather thin on natural images, but in the high middle ages Welsh nature poetry explodes in pyrotechnic variety and virtuosity.  Usually, nature is merely a backdrop for light love.  However, wisdom literature, teaching texts, passages in long narratives, and sharp images in historical sources all indicate that Wales must not have been very different from Ireland in its early concern with forests and waters.  We have several early poems indicating this quite strongly (Jackson 1935).

            In the meantime, there is one medieval Galician poem that sums it all up.  Galician (Gallego) is a language very close to Portuguese.  The word“Galician” is, however, cognate with Gaul, Gallic, Gaelic, and Galatian.  The language resulted from Celts learning proto-Spanish; it carries over Spanish innovations like borrowing the German plural –s from the Visigoths in place of Latin plurals.  But Galician and Portuguese maintained the Celtic fondness for complex vowel systems and for nasalization.  Also, they maintained a number of Celtic words, many of which—specifically tree names—migrated into Spanish.  A great deal of beautiful romantic poetry was written in Galician, which in fact became the language for romantic songs throughout the Iberian Peninsula.  Richard Zenith (1995) has given us a study of this phenomenon, with translations.  The one that captures the spirit of Celtic poetry best, for me, is a brief, simple song (alas, we have lost the melody) titled “Song about a Girl’s Beloved Who Hunts.”  Most readers of the present work will be familiar enough with one or another Romance language to appreciate the wonderful prosody and rhyme of this work.  Since, alas, Gaelic poetry is impossible to read or sound out without some knowledge of the language, this is probably the reader’s best chance to get some sense of  Celtic word-music.  The poem is by Fernand’ Esquio, around 1300.

 

Vayamos, hirmana, vayamos dormir

Nas ribas do lago, hu eu andar vi

A las aves, meu amigo.

 

Vaiamos, hirmana, vaiamos folgar

Nas ribas do lago, hu eu vi andar

A las aves, meu amigo.

 

E nas ribas do lago, hu eu andar vi,

Seu arco na mano as aves ferir,

A las aves, meu amigo.

 

E nas ribas do lago, hu eu vi andar,

Seu arco na mano a las aves tirar,

A las aves, meu amigo.

 

Seu arco na mano as aves ferir,

E las que cantavan leixa las guarir,

A las aves, meu amigo.

 

Seu arco na mano a las aves tirar,

E las que cantavan non nas quer matar, a las aves, meu amigo.

 

(Come with me, sister, and we’ll go sit

Alongside the lake where I have seen

My beloved hunting for birds.

 

Come with me, sister, and we will walk

Alongside the lake where I have watched

My beloved hunting for birds.

 

Alongside the lake where I have seen

His arrows shooting birds in the trees,

My beloved hunting for birds.

 

His arrows shooting birds in the trees,

But he never aims at birds that sing,

My beloved hunting for birds.

 

His arrows shooting birds on the water,

But he never aims at birds that warble,

My beloved hunting for birds.

            Tr. Richard Zenith, 1995:234-235.)

This poem perfectly captures, in very short space, three pillars of medieval Celtic life:  love, hunting, and song.  The focus on love and nature, the love of hunting, and the implied equation of all three, is pure Celt.  The equation of birds and young women is a standard Celtic and Germanic linguistic trope, seen in “bride”—originally the same word as “bird”—and of course in the endless slang uses of “bird” and “chick.”  Hunting for birds is still a metaphor in English.  The lover’s sparing of songbirds is also very Celtic.    The Irish and other medieval poems speak of hunting deer and other game, but never of killing a songbird. By contrast, many European peoples hunted songbirds assiduously.  Mediterranean people still do.  North Europeans such as the French and English did also, in the middle ages, and indeed until quite recently.

 

Poems by Edward Thomas (Welsh poet, early 20th century, died on the battlefield in WWI)

 

Adlestrop

 

Yes. I remember Adlestrop—

The name, because on afternoon

Of heat the express train drew up there

Unwontedly.  It was late June.

 

The steam hissed.  Someone cleared his throat.

No one left and no one came

On the bare platform.  What I saw

Was Adlestrop—only the name

 

And willows, willow-herb, and grass,

And meadowsweet, and haycocks dry,

No whit less still and lonely fair

Than the high cloudlets in the sky.

 

And for that minute a blackbird sang

Close by, and round him, mistier,

Farther and farther, all the birds

Of Oxfordshire and Gloucestershire.

                        (Note, for rhyme, the last word is pronounced “glostershur”)

 

 

The Ashgrove

 

Half of the grove stood dead, and those that yet lived made

Little more than the dead ones made of shade.

If they led to a house, long before they had seen its fall:

But they welcomed me; I was glad without cause and delayed.

 

Scarce a hundred paces under the trees was the interval—

Paces each sweeter than sweetest miles—but nothing at all,

Not even the spirits of memory and fear with restless wing,

Could climb down in to molest me over the wall

 

That I passed through at either end without noticing.

And now an ash grove far from those hills can bring

The same tranquillity in which I wander a ghost

With a ghostly gladness, as if I heard a girl sing

 

The song of the Ash Grove soft as love uncrossed,

And then in a crowd or in distance it were lost,

But the moment unveiled something unwilling to die

And I had what most I desered, without search or desert or cost.

 

 

Old Man

(The plant is southernwood,  Artemisia)

 

Old Man, or Lad’s-love: in the name there’s nothing

To one that knows not Lad’s-love, or Old Man,

The hoar-green feathery herb, almost a tree,

Growing with rosemary and lavender.

Even to one that knows it well, the names

Half decorate, half perplex, the thing it is:

At least, what that is clings not to the names

In spite of time.  And yet I like the names.

 

The herb itself I like not, but for certain

I love it, as some day the child will love it

Who plucks a feather from the door-side bush

Whenever she goes in or out of the house.

Often she waits there, snipping the tips and shrivelling

The shreds at last on to the path, perhaps

Thinking, perhaps of nothing, till she sniffs

Her fingers and runs off.  The bush is still

But half as tall as she, though it is as old;

So well she clips it.  Not a word she says;

And I can only wonder how much hereafter

She will remember, with that bitter scent,

Of garden rows, and ancient damson trees

Topping a hedge, a bent path to a door,

A low thick bush beside the door, and me

Forbidding her to pick. 

                        As for myself,

Where first I met the bitter scent is lost.

I, too, often shrivel the grey shreds,

Sniff them and thin and sniff again and try

Once more to think what it is I am remembering,

Always in vain.  I cannot like the scent,

yet I would rather give up others more sweet,

With no meaning, than this bitter one.

I have mislaid the key. I sniff the spray

And think of nothing; I see and I hear nothing;

Yet seem, too, to be listening, lying in wait

For what I should, yet never can, remember:

No garden appears, no path, no hoar-green bush of lad’s-love, or Old Man, no child beside,

Neither father nor mother, nor any playmate;

Only an avenue, dark, nameless, without end.

                        These poems are from The Works of Edward Thomas.  This particular poem is intensely personal for me; I have the same responses to the plant, and my daughters had the same early experiences with it as Thomas’ daughter—because I planted it by our door in honor of the poem.

 

 

 

Robinson Jeffers:  with Thomas my favorite 20th century poet

 

Hooded Night [at his house at the tip of Monterey Peninsula]

 

At night, toward dawn, all the lights of the shore have died,

And a wind moves.  Moves in the dark

The sleeping power of the ocean, no more beastlike than manlike,

Not to be compared; itself and itself.

Its breath blown shoreward huddles the world with a fog; no stars

Dance in heaven; no ship’s light glances.

I see the heavy granite bodies of the rocks of the headland,

That were ancient here before Egypt had pyramids,

Bulk on the gray of the sky, and beyond them the jets of the young trees

I planted the year of the Versailles peace.

Bnut here is the final unridiculous peace. B efore the first man

Here were the stones, the ocean, the cypresses,

And the pallid region in the stone-rough dome of fog where the mooon

Falls on the west. Here is reality.

The other is a spectral episode; after the inquisitive animal’s

Amusements are quiet:  the dark glory.

 

It is worth quoting one more poem, by Jeffers, because he not only reaches the old unbarriered clear sight of the world, he also knows it is something quite different from ordinary experience, and he can describe the difference far better than I can.  He is writing of a camping trip in the coast range of northern Monterey County, California:

            We stayed the night in the pathless gorge of Ventana Creek, up the east fork.

The rock walls and the mountain ridges hung forest on forest above our heads, maple and redwood,

Laurel, oak, madrone, up to the high and slender Santa Lucian firs that stare up the cataracts

Of slide-rock to the star-color precipices.

                                                                        We lay on gravel and kept a little camp-fire for warmth.

Past midnight only two or three coals glowed red in the cooling darkness; I laid a clutch of dead bay-leaves

On the ember ends and felted dry sticks across them and lay down again.  The revived flame

Lighted my sleeping son’s face and his companion’s, and the vertical face of the great gorge-wall

Across the stream. Light leaves overhead danced in the fire’s breath, tree-trunks were seen:  it was the rock wall

That fascinated my eyes and mind.  Nothing strange:  light-gray diorite with two or three slanting seams in it,

Smooth-polished by the endless attrition of slides and floods; no fer nor lichen, pure naked rock…as if I were

Seeing rock for the first timde.  As if I were seeing through the flame-lit surface into the real and bodily

And living rock.  Nothing strange…I cannot

Tell you how strange:  the silent passionk the deep nobility and childlike loveliness:  this fate going on

Outside our fates.  It is here in the mountain like a grave smiling child.  I shall die, and my boys

Will live and die, our world will go on through its rapid agonies of change and discovery; this age will die,

And wolves have howled in the snow around a new Bethlehem: this rock will be here, grave, earnest, not passive:  the energies

That are its atoms will still be bearing the whole mountain above:  and I, many packed centuries ago,

Felt its intense reality with love and wonder, this lonely rock.

 

                                    (Jeffers 1937:124-125.)

Jeffers, Robinson.  1937.  Such Counsels You Gave to Me.  New York:  Random House.

 

 

Chinese Poetry

Probably most of the landscape and environment poetry in the world is in Chinese.

 

From the Book of Songs (ca 500 BCE):

The brown-pepper plant’s fruits

            Spread and go out so far;

            That gentleman over there,

            He is great without equal.

                                    (Karlgren 1950:75, 76, again retranslated; the brown-pepper plant’s fruits look exactly like miniature male genitalia, and were a standard euphemism for same in old China.  This type of gently erotic poetry, using natural symbols, is extremely common in Chinese tradition, far more so than the very proper translated anthologies suggest!)

On the Book of Songs: See Karlgren 1950 for scholarship and literal but hard-to-read translations.  It is worth explaining the actual title, Shi Jing.  “Shi” means a short lyric poem that is sung or chanted.  “Jing” means a basic text; the root meaning of the word is the warp of a fabric.  “Warp” books were the foundational classics in a given area of literature.  “Weft” books were commentaries and secondary literature.

 

Tao Yuanming on Nature (ca 400 CE)

 

I built my hut in a zone of human habitation,

Yet near me there sounds no noise of horse or coach.

  Would you know how that is possible?

A heart that is distant creates a wilderness round it.

I pluck chrysanthemums under the eastern hedge,

Then gaze long at the distant summer hills.

The mountain air is fresh at the dusk of day;

The flying birds two by two return.

In these things there lies a deep meaning;

Yet when we would express it, words suddenly fail us.  (Waley 1961:105)

 

Literal translation: I built my hut     among people’s dwellings,

Yet lack     horse coach sounds.

You ask    how can this be?

My heart is distanced     from the world.

I pick chrysanthemums    under the east fence,

Look far     to the south mountain.

Mountain air     freshens with evening,

Flying birds     together come home.

In this     lie thoughts of truth;

Want speak   Can’t remember words.

 

Here are a few of the “Three Hundred Tang Poems,” a set of classical verses memorized by every educated Chinese, and some other Tang poems.  (The Tang Dynasty ran from 618 to 907 CE.  Westerners never realize just how widely known Chinese “elite” culture was.  I heard a semi-literate fisherman chant one of the 300 in Hong Kong in 1966, and the audience, most of them totally illiterate, recognized the poem and saw nothing unusual in the feat.)

The monk from Shu [Sichuan] with his green silk lute-case,

Walking west down O-mei Mountain,

Has brought me by one touch of the strings

The breath of pines in a thousand valleys.

I hear him in the cleansing brook,

I hear him in the icy bells,

And I feel no change thought he mountain darkens

And cloudy autumn heaps the sky.                         (Tr. Witter Bynner and Kiang Kang-hu, 1929:57; free—“thousand” should be “myriad,” for instance—but captures the spirit better than other translations).

 

Liu Zongyuan:  The lonely boat

 

Thousand mountains     no bird flies

Ten thousand paths     no human track.

Solitary boat    old man, split-bamboo raincloak,

Fishing, alone   cold river snow.

My translation, to give some sense of the Chinese.  This poem is telegraphic and ambiguous even by classical Chinese standards, and I have tried to preserve that.  The anonymous figure (the poet?) is invisible; we see only his raincoat.  The doubled loneliness of “solitary” and “alone” is notably intense in the Chinese text. 

Liu was a great statesman, a major reformer of the Tang Dynasty.  Here is a longer poem by him, explicitly political—and the bad governance of the forest is intended to stand for the whole system:

“The official guardians’ axes have spread through a thousand hills,

At the Works Department’s order hacking rafter-beams and billets.

Of ten trunks cut in the woodlands’ depths, only one gets hauled away.

Ox-teams strain at their traces—till the paired yoke-shafts break.

Great-girthed trees of towering height lie blocking the forest tracks,

A tumbled confusion of lumber, as flames on the hillside crackle.

Not even the last remaining shrubs are safeguarded from destruction;

Where once the mountain torrents leapt—nothing but rutted gullies.

Timber, not yet seasoned or used, left immature to rot;

Proud summits and deep-sunk gorges—now brief hummocks of naked rock.” (Elvin 2004:18).

 

Checking on a painting

 

This time I think

I got it:  one pine real

As the real.

 

Think about it:

Search in memory, is it

Real, or not?

 

Guess I’ll have to go

Back up the mountain…

South past Stonebridge,

The third one on the right….

            (Ching Yun, late 9th century, tr. Jerome P. Seaton; Seaton and Maloney 1994:76).

 

 

            Life and Death

 

            If you want an image of life and death,

            Look to ice and water.

            Water cools, turns to ice,

            Ice melts, turns back to water.

            Whatever dies must be reborn,

            What emerges in birth must then die.

            Ice and water do each other no harm;

            Life and death are both beautiful.

                        Han Shan, 8th century; my translation. 

 

More Han Shan:

 

            The Tiantai Mountains are my home

            Mist-shrouded paths keep guests away

            Thousand-meter cliffs make hiding easy

            Above a rocky ledge mid ten thousand streams

            With bark hat and wooden clogs I walk along the banks

With hemp robe and pigweed staff I walk around the peaks

Once you see through transience and illusion

The joys of roaming free are wonderful indeed.

                        (Tr. Bill Porter, “Red Pine”; poem 207, p. 179.)

Or, more literally (but not literally enough, because I have to add pronouns, and because I can’t catch the multiple meanings of several characters—quite deliberately invoked; for instance, “sharp” [kuai] usually means “quick” [as in kuaizi, chopsticks] and can also mean “in the future,” and probably means all of them here):

My home base is in Heaven’s Terrace;

Misty paths, foggy depths, cut short guests’ arrival.

Thousand-foot cliffs and crags, where I can hide deep inside,

Ten thousand streams and torrents, stone towers and ledges.

In bark hat and wooden clogs I walk beside brooks,

With hemp robe and pigweed staff, I go round the mountain and return.

Once you see through floating reality, illusion and change in all,

The sharp joys of roaming the Way are truly marvelous indeed.

 

 Zhuang Zi mentioned the pigweed staff—a walking stick made from a pigweed stalk—as a symbol of poverty and noble rustic life; it was, inevitably, picked up and replayed as a symbol, not only by Han Shan but by Du Fu and others, and even by Bashō in Japan.  Of course I had to make one, and I have it by me right now.  I have tied a Mongolian blue silk scarf around it for reverence.)

 

Later Chinese poetry

 

Passing through South Lake Again:  A Buddhist Prayer

 

Approaching South Lake, I already begin to dread the journey,

A place of old memories; each corner reopens a wound.

Watching plum blossoms in a small courtyard could be but a dream fulfilled;

Listening to rain in a quiet room is like entering another life.

Autumn waters are bluer for reflecting my graying temples;

The evening bells sound crisper for breaking a sorrowful heart.

Lord of Emptiness, take pity on this homeless soul—

Out of this incense smoke make me the City of Refuge.

                        Anonymous, 18th century Chinese, tr. Shirleen S. Wong

 

 

            The Woodpecker

 

Where is the woodpecker?

Far in the high trees.

Fragile, he works so hard;

All day I hear his sound.

He works so the woods will flourish,

No worms gnawing trees away.

Woe to the crowds of humans—

Never a heart like this bird’s.

                        Ni Zan (a great Yuan Dynasty artist and writer)

 

This inspired a much more famous, but (sadly) anonymous, Korean poem:

 

Can tiny insects

            devour a whole great spreading pine?

Where is the long-billed

            woodpecker?  Why is he not here?

When I hear the sound of falling trees

            I cannot contain myself for sorrow.

(Trans. Richard Rutt, 1971, poem 15.  In both poems the insects are symbols of evil courtiers, the trees are the country’s welfare.  This is not just metaphor, it is ganying, resonance or homology: the insects are exactly like the courtiers in their desires and actions, the trees really are valuable)

 

 

Planting Trees

 

Seventy, and still planting trees….

Don’t laugh at me, my friends.

I know I’m going to die. 

I also know I’m not dead yet.   (Yuan Mei, 18th century; tr. J. P. Seaton, 1997:92; I planted an almond on my seventieth birthday, reciting this.)

 

Chan Master Whitecloud:

A fly drawn by the light bumps the window paper

Unable to pass it tastes much suffering

Suddenly it chances on the route it came by

And knows its eyes have fooled it all through life.

cited by Yuan Mei; tr Denis Mair; V. Mair et al’s 2005:571.

 

And by Li Xiaocun:

Garden Gone to Waste

 

Whose courtyard consummates its own spring? 

Moss on windowsill, dust on desk

At least the dog next door still cares

Over the fence barks at a flower thief.  – p 570

(The first line means that the garden left to celebrate itself, no one else being there)

 

The Song Dynasty (960-1279) produced enormous amounts of superb nature poetry, but it broadly followed Tang patterns.  Song travel literature has been beautifully described and translated by Cong Ellen Zhang (2011).  Chinese loved to travel and enjoy the scenery, and especially to visit places made famous by earlier poets, to share the experience.  Chinese officials were reassigned to new posts every three years or so, and also were subject to exile for being too outspoken.  They thus had many opportunities to travel—more than they wanted, since going to a remote and isolated post could take months and could be dangerous.  Most of our information on Song travel comes from poems and accompanying literary accounts, which gives a skewed but still revealing view. 

Interestingly, the most productive poets were also some of the greatest moral teachers in Song.  Let Su Shi, generally considered the greatest poet Song, sum it up:

            The old monk has already died, they’ve already built a new pagoda.

There is no way to see the old poem on the ruined wall.

The rough going of that past day, do you still recall?

The road was long, the people in difficulty, and the lame donkey brayed. 

(Zhang 1997, p. 97.)

The old monk’s poem is lost, the rough trail forgotten.  What remains is Su’s warm and compassionate identification with the suffering people and the suffering donkey, the latter a symbol for Su himself.  (Su’s compassion morality came from Buddhism and Confucianism, but went well beyond the usual teachings.  He may, in fact, be recording here one of his exiles for emphasizing the costs of imperial policy in terms of the sufferings of the common people.)

 

Vietnam also produced great environmental poetry, usually but not always in Chinese style. 

 

Less Chinese than most is a farmers’ folk song:

            “Some folks transplant rice for wages,

But I have other reasons.

I watch the sky, the earth, the clouds,

Observe the rain, the nights, the days,

Keep track, stand guard till my legs

Are stone, till the stone melts,

Till the sky is clear and the sea calm.

Then I feel at peace.”

                        Tr. Nguyen Ngoc Bich (1975:40).

 

            The Vietnamese were freed from the archaic, long-forgotten ancient pronunciations of Chinese.  Writing in Vietnamese, women could revive rhyme and tone schemes that actually sounded as they were supposed to sound, and they created world-class poetry.  Thus Ho Xuan Hu’o’ng in the early 19th century:

Dung cheo trong ra canh hat hiu

Du’o’ng di thien theo quan cheo leo

Lo’p leu mai co gianh xo xac

X ke keo tre dot khang khiu

Ba gac cay xanh hinh uon eo

Mot giong nu’o’c biec co leo teo

Thu vui quen ca niem lo cu

Kia cai dieu ai gio lon leo.

 

Leaning out, I look down on the valley,

path winding to a deserted inn,

thatch roof tattered and decayed.

Bamboo poles on gnarled pilings

bridge the green stream uncurling

little tufts in the wavering current. Happy, I forget old worries.

Someone’s kite is struggling up.

            (Tr. John Balaban, 2000, 40-41)

            Tone marks are left out here, because they are simply too confusing to a non-Vietnamese-speaker, but tone patterning was as complex and effective as the rhyme and alliteration visible in the transcription above.       

Ho Xuan Hong, after her husband died, was supposedly reduced to being a high-class courtesan for a while, and seems to have taken to the role.  The double meaning of this poem should be easily penetrated (if you get my drift).  Again the tones carry half the beauty of the sound-poem, especially in the spectacular sound-cascade of the last line, but sadly must be ignored here.

Mot deo, mot deo, lai mot deo,

Khen ai kheo tac canh cheo leo.

Ccua son do loet tum hum noc,

Hon da xanh ri lun phun reu.

Lat leo canh thong con gio thoc,

Dam dia la leiu giot suong gieo.

Hien nhan, quan tu ai ma chang…

Moi goi, cho chan van muon treo.

 

A cliff face.  Another.  And still a third.

Who was so skilled to carve this craggy scene:

The cavern’s red door, the ridge’s narrow cleft,

The black knoll bearded with little mosses?

A twisting pine bough plunges in the wind,

Showering a willow’s leaves with glistening drops.

Gentlemen, lords, who could refuse, though weary

And shaky in his knees, to mount once more?

                        (Tr. John Balaban, 2000:46-47.  I do not know Vietnamese, but the poem is in Chinese characters, and I might respectfully suggest that the second line could read “Who could be so skilled as to delineate this craggy scene?”)

 

A Vietnamese Love Poem:

 

In our next life, we will take care to be born again as male and female,

But we will be two wildgeese flying high in heaven.

The blinding snow, the seas and waters, the mountains and clouds, the dust of the world

We will see from afar, but we will never fall.

Nguyen Khac Hieu   (early 20th C; from  My trans. of Huard and Durand’s French trans.  My second favorite love poem in the world, after the one below.)

 

 

Japan followed Chinese conventions in much of its poetry, but from the beginning there was a split between Chinese poetry—written in Chinese and imitating Tang styles—and Japanese poetry, often in much less regular patterns.  The Japanese developed an even more direct, fresh, intense way of viewing nature than the Chinese usually achieved.  Contemporary with the Song poets of China, Saigyö, hearing a cricket when he was in a sad mood, combined Japanese love of insects with recognition of the brevity of life:

“At that time

on my pillow

under roots of mugwort

then too may these insects

cheer me with friendly notes”

(tr. Burton Watson, Saigyō: Poems of a Mountain Home, Columbia University Press, 1991, p. 129).  This poem requires some ecological unpacking; medieval Japanese would have known that mugwort is edible but intensely bitter, and that it grows on ground that has been disturbed and then abandoned—such as neglected graves.

However, ossification occurred in Japan as in China.  Tanka, haiku and other poetic forms became so forced into conventional modes that they could be, and were, endlessly generated by formulas like those of modern computer-generated music.  The cherry blossoms signal spring, the hawk-cuckoo cries for sorrow.  Bush-clover, miscanthus grass and spring rain are even commoner in haiku than in reality.  Possibly the greatest haiku writer, Matsuō Bashō, wrote in 1686:  “Like a rootless plant without flower or fruit, [poetry] today is merely vulgar banter and sporting with words” (Bashō 2005:103).  He was able to bring real originality to it, but even his work sometimes gives us layer on layer of references to older poets and shopworn images.  Still, his genius in turning a cliché into a spark for a striking new image revived poetry for another century.  The old Chinese proverb, “a bird in a whole forest can perch on only one branch,” inspired him:

“Wren on a single branch:

fragrance of its apricot flowers

throughout the world” 

(Bashō 2005:101, tr. David Barnhill, slightly corrected).

Landscape art and poetry came together in paintings with poems inscribed on them, and here the philosophy of Buddhism, nature mysticism, and nature appreciation was combined.  A Japanese example in the Los Angeles Museum of Art shows a Chinese Buddhist sage meditating in mountains, with the verse (in Chinese, though by a Japanese author): “Deep in the emerald cloud of Meng Peak

The recluse Raisan dwells alone.

Emperor Te-tsung [of Tang] himself addressed words to him

But the Zen master never even rose.

Imperial messengers came and urged him repeatedly;

Not once did he answer them.

His face glistening with cold tears,

His world was that of the wild yam;

Beyond that he did not seek enlightenment

Nor did he shun birth and death.

Nothing whatever bothered him,

No vexatious matter entered his ears.

There was no self and no others;

No troubles. No good.

No shouts issued form his mouth,

No blows from his fists.

He was one dark hard old man.”

(Takuan Sōhō [1573-1645], tr. apparently by the LACMA museum staff)

This is one of the best statements of the nature-mystic ideals of eastern Asia. 

 

 

Cherry blossom

Most loved when it falls

Nothing is meant in this world

To last forever

                        Medieval Japanese, from the Tales of Ise

 

           

The mountain wind

 

            Akikaze ya!

            Hyoro hyoro kama

            no kageboshi

            (The mountain wind!

            It shakes

            the mountain’s shadow)

                                    Issa (my favorite haiku; the image is a symbol of worldly power and what it is worth.  My translation.)

 

 

Also from Barnhill, p. 58: 

The Takekuma pine was a noble pine tree.  The monk Nōin saw it, came back to find it cut down by a boorish governor to use for bridge pilings, and wrote: 

“Pine of Takekuma:

at this time 

there is no trace of it;

have a thousand years passed

since I last came?”

 

It was replanted, and Kyohaku wrote, thinking of Noin:

“The Takekuma Pine:

show it to him,

late-blooming cherries”

 

Which caused Basho to seek it out (it had probably been replanted yet again by then):

“Since the cherries bloomed,

 I’ve longed to see this pine:  two trunks

 after three month’s passage.”

 

This poem exhibits fūryū, “’all art,’…an extraordinarily complex term, including associations of high culture, art in general, poetry, and music, as well as ascetic wayfaring and Daoist eccentricity.”  Barnhill, Basho’s Journey¸ 159

 

 

Korean 

The Koreans adopted Chinese civilization but with a distinct and frequently cynical eye, evaluating, so that when they state Chinese goals they have thought harder and do better than the Chinese ever did; or they can be world-class skeptics about it all.  Many of the best poems are anonymous.  Remember these are really songs: they rhyme, have meter, and have beautiful tunes in the original.

 

            I live at the foot of the mountain;

            Even the cuckoo embarrasses me.

            It laughs at the size of my cooking pot when it peeks into my house.

            Believe me, bird,

            It’s plenty big in terms of my interest in the world.                                     Anonymous, tr. Kevin O’Rourke, The Book of Korean Shijo, Harvard University Press, 2002, p. 166.

 

Red-necked mountain pheasant over there,

            Duck hawk perched on the branch,

            White egrets watching for the fish

            In the watered paddy field out in front,

            If you were not around my grass roof

            It wouldn’t be easy for me to pass the days.

                        Anonymous, tr. Jaihiun Kim (1994:190.)

 

            Night falls

 

            Night in a mountain village;

            A dog barks far away.

            I open the window and look:

            The moon is a bright leaf.

            Be still, stop barking at the moon

            Drifting alone over the face of the mountain.

                                    -Chungum, unknown woman poet, ca 1568; redone from several translations

 

Old age (a poem with a very personal ring these days….)

 

            Bamboo stick, the sight of you

Fills me with trust and delight.

Ah, boyhood days when you were my horse!

Stand there now

Behind the window, and when we go out,

Let me stand behind you.

                                    Kim Kwang’uk, tr. Peter Lee

 

And another:

            Even fools can know and do

            Is it not easy then?

            Yet even sages cannot know all.

            Is it not difficult then?

            Pondering whether it’s easy or hard

            Makes me forget I grow old.

                                    Yi Hwang (16C), tr. Richard Rutt  (What is “it”?  The Way, the Meaning, the Answer?  Or maybe just the question?  The point is the last line.)

 

 

The Koreans are almost the only people who seriously explored old age in poetry—here’s another:

 

            Wine, why do you redden a white face?

            Instead of reddening a white face why not blacken white hair?

            Should you really

Blacken white hair, I’ll drink and drink, I’ll never sober up again.

                        Tr. Kevin O’Rourke

 

 

Getting away from old age, here’ the world’s finest poem on tolerance:

            Is the crow black because someone dyed it?

            Is the heron white because someone washed it?

            Are the crane’s legs long because someone pulled them out?  Are the duck’s legs short

 because someone cut them off?        

Black, white, long, short, what’s the point in endless wrangling?

                                    Tr. Kevin O’Rourke

 

This anonymous woman’s poem just has to be the greatest love poem in the world:

 

Pass where the winds pause before going over,

Pass where the clouds pause before going over,

High pass of the peak of Changsong

Where wild-born falcons and hand-reared falcons,

Peregrine falcons and yearling hawks,

All pause before going over,

If I knew my love were across the pass

I would not pause a moment before I crossed.

                        Tr. Richard Rutt

 

Another anonymous love poem, so understated that it’s ten times as powerful for the low key:

 

In this world medicine is plentiful

And sharp knives abound, they say:

But there’s no knife to cut off affection, no medicines to forget true love.

So be it:

I’ll leave my cutting and forgetting till I go to the other world.

                        Tr. Kevin O’Rourke

 

 

Kamassian

           

The Last Kamassian Poem

            The Kamassian language (distantly related to Finnish and spoken by a tiny group of reindeer herders) died out in the early 20th century.  In 1914 one old man was located who still spoke it fluently, in a tiny community of speakers in the arctic Yenisei River area of Russia.  He gave a few word lists, then sang this song and would say no more.  (The final lines refer to coverings of the traditional lodge; they curl when long abandoned.)  It is a lament not only for his language and his people, but for the entire world, as much as he knew it. 

 

My black mountains

Where I used to wander

Have remained behind.

The soil I walked on grew

A belt of golden grass.

My black mountains

Have remained behind,

My white mountains

Have remained behind,

Our strength

Has remained behind.

From many families

Have I remained behind.

I have gone astray from my kinsmen,

And I am left alone.

My lakes where I was wont to fish

Have remained behind.

I do not see them now.

The poles in the middle of my tent

Have gone rotten,

The birch-bark slices that were sewn together

Have all curled up.

                        Tr. Tuovo Vuorela, 1964

 

 

 

References

 

Balaban, John. 2000.  Spring Essence: The Poetry of Ho Xuan Hong.  Port Townsend, WA:  Copper Canyon Press.

 

Bashō, tr. David Landis Barnhill.  2005.  Bashō’s Journey.  Albany:  SUNY Press.

 

Bynner, Witter, and Kiang Kang-Hu.  1929.  The Jade Mountain.  New York:  Knopf.

 

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

 

Han-shan.  2000.  The Collected Songs of Cold Mountain.  Tr. Red Pine (Bill Porter).  Revised edn.  Port Townsend, WA:  Copper Canyon Press.

 

Hoagland, Kathleen.  1947.  1000 Years of Irish Poetry. New York: Welcome Rain.

 

Huard, Pierre, and Maurice Durand.  1954.  Connaissance du Viet-Nam, p. 274.  Hanoi:  École Française de’Extrème-Orient; Paris: Imprimerie Nationale.

 

Jackson, Kenneth Hurlstone.  1935.  Studies in Early Celtic Nature Poetry.  Cambridge:  Cambridge University Press.

 

—ururls  1971.  A Celtic Miscellany.  Harmondsworth, Middlesex:  Penguin.

 

Jay, Peter (ed.).  1981.  The Greek Anthology.  Rev. edn.  Harmondsworth (England):  Penguin.

 

Jeffers, Robinson.  1937.  Such Counsels You Gave to Me.  New York:  Random House.

 

Karlgren, Bernhard.  1950.  The Book of Odes.  Stockholm:  Museum of Far Eastern Antiquities.

 

Kim Jaihiun.  1994.  Classical Korean Poetry.  Fremont, CA:  Asian Humanities Press.

 

Kinsella, Thomas.  1989.  The New Oxford Book of Irish Verse.  Oxford:  Oxford University Press.

 

Lee, Peter.  1974.  Poems from Korea.  Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press.

 

Mair, Victor; Nancy Steinhardt; Paul R. Goldin (eds.).  2005.  Hawai’i Reader in Traditional Chinese Culture.  Honolulu:  University of Hawai’i Press. 

 

Nguyen Ngoc Bich.  1975.  A Thousand Years of Vietnamese Poetry.  New York: Knopf.

 

O’Rourke, Kevin.  2002.  The Book of Korean Shijo.  Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

 

Rutt, Richard.  1971.  The Bamboo Grove:  An Introduction to Sijo.  Berkeley:  University of California Press.

 

Seaton, J. P.  1997.  I Don’t Bow to Buddhas: Selected Poems of Yuan Mei.  Port Townsend, WA:  Copper Canyon Press.

 

Seaton, Jerome P., and Dennis Maloney.  1994.  A Drifting Boat:  Chinese Zen Poetry.  Fredonia, NY:  White Pine Press.

 

Thomas, Edward.  1994.  The Works of Edward Thomas.  Ware, Hertfordshire, England: Wordsworth Editions.

 

Vuorela, Toivo.  1964.  Finno-Ugric Peoples.  Tr. John Atkinson.  Ind. U. Res Center, Uralic and Altaic Series, Vol. 39. 

 

Waley, Arthur.  1961.  Chinese Poems.  London: George Allen and Unwin.

 

Wong, Shirleen (alas, lost the ref, an obscure article years ago)

 

Zenith, Richard.  1995.  113 Galician-Portuguese Troubadour Poems.  Manchester, England:  Carcanet is association with Calouste Gulbenkain Foundation and Instituto Camões.

 

Zhang, Cong Ellen.  2011.  Transformative Journals:  Travel and Culture in Song China.  Honolulu:  University of Hawai’i Press. 

Methodology

August 2nd, 2013

Methodology

E. N. Anderson, 2013

 

Introduction

            Anthropology has developed some excellent methods over time, and so have other social sciences.  Not using these is comparable to an astronomer using a spyglass instead of computer-integrated information from modern telescopes, or an anatomist using a paleolithic handaxe instead of a scalpel and microscope.  There is simply no excuse for doing poor work, especially on a genuinely valuable project, because of failure to learn a few simple methods.

 

1.  General Background

 

Technically, a methodology is a suite of methods entailed by a particular theory.  One uses these methods because they are the proper or best way to test hypotheses generated by the theory.

A theory, in turn, is a general assumption (or set of interconnected assumptions) about how things work.  (The best account of such matters is Kitcher 1993).  The theory may be just guesses, like string theory, or may be very obvious statements that need formalization and extension, like the theory of gravity. Newton did not discover that things fall down instead of up; his genius was to explain why they did, as well as could be done at the time, and to state it mathematically. 

A theory should lead to hypotheses (predictions or similar bets) that can be tested; otherwise it’s too vague to count.  Many theories get along without making clear testatble statements, though, in spite of positivism.  Still, if the theory doesn’t make you formulate some sort of testable hypotheses, it’s a waste of time.  Marxism and capitalist economics are both famously untestable bodies of theory, but do lead to testable statements.  The failures of the USSR and Mao’s China show that, whatever Marxism-in-general has to offer, some orthodox Marxisms don’t work.  The Great Depression and the world recession of 2008 show that capitalism doesn’t always work, either.  Many do not count Marxism as a body of theory, however.

Some theories are disproved and are essentially dead.  The most famous of these is Galen’s theory of humoral medicine, which guided medical science throughout the Old World for centuries.  Usually, however, a theory does not totally die; it generates a few useful formulations that go on and on.  And even a bad theory can generate useful hypotheses and conclusions.  Galen’s ideas about moderation in diet and exercise are still with us, since he was perfectly right about them, though for the wrong theoretical reasons.

A theory differs from several theory-like formulations, all of which can be useful but are not really theories.  Orienting statements are one type.  An orienting statement gives you a general way of looking at things, but is too general and abstract to test or to suggest testable statements.  Recent “theories” about globalization, for instance, direct us to look at global-scale phenomena, but usually do not make testable claims about those.  Often an orienting statement is a moral claim, and therefore untestable because it is about what we should do, rather than what we do. 

Another shaky type of “theory” is the banal, trivial sort of statement for which certain branches of sociology are infamous (Mills 1959).  Saying that humans are social, that society requires organization, and that organization requires leadership is too bland to be worthy of the name “theory.”  Theory begins when we make claims about how organizations form, how leaders come on board, and what form leadership structures take under given social circumstances.

Another, and much worthier, alternative to true theory is interpretation (Geertz 1973).  Interpretation is, by definition, unprovable.  It can range from my idiosyncratic take on something to a generally accepted understanding, but it is not provable in the scientific sense.  We find it most frequently in literary studies.  Science cannot prove that one or another understanding of the Bible or Hamlet is the “right” one, or that Beethoven’s Ninth is noble and imposing, or that Dutch still-life paintings were comments on the transience of life.  We do not have the creators of these works around to ask.  Yet, it is well worth while to talk of such matters and speculate about them, and anthropology would be immeasurably poorer without such discourse. 

One goal of theory and interpretation is to “tell the story behind the story”—i.e., to figure out what is actually causing the events we see.  In social science, theories often divide into broad categories according to what is assumed to be the main cause of action.  Economists tend to assume people want money or material goods.  Sociologists often assume social solidarity or social position are especially important.  Political theorists, including “critical” thinkers like Foucault, often assume power is the most basic thing (though they often have a hard time defining it).  There are other possibilities.  The wise social scientist will keep an open mind, and see how all factors play in a given situation.

Finally, we have philosophy, classically defined by Plato as the study of “the true, the good and the beautiful.”  Neither science nor interpretation will ever tell us what those are, but the human race cannot stop speculating and arguing about them.  We are better and nobler for doing so, in spite of the ultimate hopelessness of the task.

Hopefully, all this will save readers from the all-too-common tendency in anthropology to write a fun story about one’s field work, and then—after the fact—hang some sort of “theory” on it because an editor demanded same.  A decent anthropologist goes to the field with a body of theories, or interpretive ideas, or philosophic concepts, and expects to test them, or at least learn something important that is relevant to them. 

 

Methodology comes in as a way of testing the hypotheses and examining the theory.  It can also greatly sharpen, expand, and improve the quality of interpretation and philosophy.

            Usually, we in anthropology do not follow the rigorous positivist rule that a given theory must call forth a specific methodology and a given method-set must be theory-driven.  (Some anthropologists, especially in archaeology, do follow the positivist rules on this.)  We use the term “methodology” to refer to methods in general.  Moreover, all the methods I describe below can be used with almost any theory, though a particular mix of them may be appropriate to only one body of theory.  However, it is well to remember the connection with theory.  Most current cultural anthropology is weakly theorized; at worst, it is mere travel writing.  So-called “theory” is often no more than a positive attitude toward the people studied and a negative attitude toward outsiders that have an effect on their lives.  This is bias, not theory.  

Physical anthropology uses Darwinian theory, archaeology often uses ecological or processual or post-processual theories, but cultural anthropology currently uses actual theory rather sporadically.  Theories of the past (Boasian, Durkheimian, Marxian, etc.) are now used only in a rather loose or general way.  Some ecological, linguistic, and economic theories are still used, but are often dated by now.  The theories of mid-20th-century writers like Michel Foucault remain valuable, but often used vaguely or loosely.  This has produced a situation in which much of anthropology reads like poor-quality journalism—a situation in serious need of correction.

 

            It is extremely valuable to go into the field with a full tool kit of theories and methods.  No theory is adequate by itself.  Even the most comprehensive social-science theories need major supplementation.  The more you reject theories, the more limited and hard to use your results will be.  Both the “postmodern” anthropology that rejected science or even systematic data collecting and the hyper-“scientific” work of the early optimal-foraging-theory days have turned out to be too limited to use for any purpose except stimulating others to go beyond them.  A simple theory is always a good starting point, but anthropology by 100 years ago had reached a stage where truly simplistic theories were known to be inadequate (see e.g. Lowie 1937).

            Many anthropologists over the years have found great consolation in T. C. Chamberlin’s classic essay “The Method of Multiple Working Hypotheses,” originally published in Science in 1890 (republished 1965) and now available online on many websites—just search the title.  Chamberlin, a geologist, learned to go into the field with multiple theories and hypotheses available for every observed event.  His explanation of how and why to do this has never been surpassed.  I have actually found this method the most valuable I have ever used.  It means you have to be familiar with the widest possible range of high-level and mid-range theories, from functionalism and structuralism to Foucaultian ideas and Darwinian biology.

            Thus, you might think of using some or all of the methods below, so as to get at least some real control on data.

 

            Anthropology is based on a methodology consisting of three fundamental approaches: 

            –Extended field work, usually lasting at least a year, with a particular community.  The preferred method is “participant observation,” in which one lives as much as possible in the way the local people do.  Of course, really living as the locals do is possible only if one is a local; many anthropologists study their homelands, but most go to some less familiar group, which involves adjustment and makes participant observation a rather qualified matter.

            –A holistic approach, which involves taking into account ecological, economic, technological, social, psychological, and political factors. 

            –Cross-cultural comparison, which involves comparing as many different cultures as possible, to establish or disprove generalizations about people.

            This methodology was devised by Lewis Henry Morgan, the father of American anthropology, in the 1850s and 1860s.  I think of it as the three stones that hold up the cooking pot— a metaphor used for social categories (rather than anthropological methods!) by indigenous peoples from the Toba Batak of Sumatera to the Maya of Quintana Roo.

 

The leading methods book for anthropology is Russell Bernard’s classic Research Methods in Anthropology (now in its 4th edition, 2006).  This is a genuinely great work, a real Bible, and must be kept at hand in field work and analysis.

The only other work I consider indispensable for all ethnographers is Charles Frake’s Language and Cultural Description (1980), which contains several essays on methods that are vitally important.  These essays include especially the classic descriptions of frame elicitation (see below)

There are specialized journals devoted to field work and methods. 

 

2.  The Question of Interpretation and Reality

 

            The key thing anthropologists can do is find out about the local culture.  This does not mean “getting inside the heads” of the locals or “finding out what they think”; it means finding out about what they share.  As an outsider, you will not have the level of access to that shared knowledge and behavior that an insider has, but by using specialized anthropological techniques you can get very close.  You can learn just as well as any immigrant and almost as well as any child.  Frake gives excellent discussions of what the ethnographer can and cannot do.  You can’t read the local minds, but neither can the locals; they have to infer rules, structures, and understandings, just as you do.  The goal of the field worker should be what Frake (1980) calls “appropriate anticipation”—be able to predict, more or less as well as the locals do, what will happen in a given situation.  The goals of the ethnographer, again following Frake, should include telling the reader enough that the reader could act appropriately if s/he were there.  Think of a language textbook:  it should, at the very least, tell you what to say in given situations.  Similarly, an ethnography of local religion should at least tell you how to act and what to expect if you go there and are asked to a ceremony.  (Of course, a work on general theory, or on comparative mythology, or on demographic history, will probably not have such instructions.  We are discussing ethnography, specifically, in this case.) 

On the one hand, this means you can learn the culture, and claims that the locals have some mystic telepathic sharing denied to you are just silly.  On the other hand, it means you should be exceedingly modest about “interpretation”—even if you are a local!  Geertzian “interpretive anthropology” (Geertz 1973) and its ancestors (“national character” studies, etc.) have a dubious record.  Unless you are a cultural insider, you will not normally share individual or collective experiences of war, genocide, bias, or for that matter the joys of good harvests or religious ceremonies.  It is wise to simply quote the locals, extensively, on such matters.  Let them do the sophisticated interpreting.

            In short, you should do everything possible to find out shared knowledge and shared behavior, but you should be appropriately modest about your ability to understand personal experiences of particularly intense, evocative states and situations.

            There was a major debate within anthropology in the 1960s over whether we can get at “what people think.”  Marvin Harris (1968) took an extreme view on the “no” side.  He maintained that we can record only behavior, and cannot trust what people say, let alone our interpretations.  People lie, misrepresent, misunderstand their own motives, etc.  At the other end of the scale, interpretivists like Geertz and cultural psychologists like Rick Shweder (1991), without making a huge point of it (as Harris did), took relatively strong “yes” positions.  Geertz and Shweder implied that understanding what is in people’s heads is relatively unproblematic, at least if one uses modern methods of finding out.   Geertz is modest about his interpretations, leaving the possibility of other interpretations quite open.  Shweder, and  others, have been more assertive.

The field basically solved the problem by voting with their feet for the latter position.  I do not know of anyone maintaining Harris’ position today.  All anthropologists now infer, to varying degrees, “what people think.”  All anthropologists admit that people do sometimes say what they think, and that by careful cross-verification and other techniques (see below) one can get at, or at least approximate, truth.  Even archaeologists are increasingly confident in their ability to infer at least some simple, straightforward ideas from material remains and ethnographic parallels, though this is a tricky game.

There is, however, a huge range.  Some extremely careful anthropologists use a whole armamentarium of techniques to establish meticulously a few rather simple understandings; this would include many cognitivists, who work hard to find the meanings of “simple” plant and animal names, food lore, kinterms, landscape terms, and other straightforward terms that can be grounded in visible reality.  (I am in this category.)  Others make really quite wild assumptions about their ability to understand in depth the most arcane and abstruse religious and philosophical ideas.  This is obviously a dangerous game, since even the locals may not share abstruse ideas very widely.

            One necessary part of this is getting a thorough sense of what words mean.  You don’t have to be totally fluent in the local language, though it helps.  Systematic questioning, coupled with lots of listening and observation of how words are used in actual conversations, is necessary.  (See Frake, again.)  Using the words yourself is obviously desirable—you’re sure to misuse them in interesting ways, thus producing innnocent amusement for your subjects as well as a learning experience for yourself.  (Every ethnographer has a favorite story.  Mine is:  when first in Hong Kong I had to buy water from a local standpipe.  People would give me the standard greeting, “Where are you going?”  I would answer “I’m going to buy water.”  After a couple of shocked looks, I realized something was wrong, and found out that the phrase “buy water” is used only when you are getting water to wash the corpse of a family member!  Just one of those idioms….)

 

3.  Techniques

 

Field work by cultural anthropologists usually involves participant observation (DeWalt and DeWalt 2001; Spradley 1980), lasting at least six months and usually a year or more.  Serious comprehensive ethnographic research requires this.  However, for many reasons, we also do quick visits, long-distance studies (using other people’s findings), straight interviews, visual studies, library and documentary research, and cross-cultural comparative studies, among other things.  Limited projects (e.g. to find out about one narrow subject—say, fish names or vegetable marketing) can be completed in a few weeks, especially if one is familiar with the area and people.

One valuable technique is rapid rural assessment (RRA), which is a specialized interview-and-observation technique that allows very rapid discovery of a lot of data (Gladwin 1989 covers it; there are more up-to-date, complete sources).  Related is participatory rural assessment, which involves organizing local people to do their own fact-finding and synthesis.  In participatory rural assessment, local people set their own goals, map their communities, figure out what they need by way of development or problem-solving, figure out what resources they have, and so on; the anthropologist guides the approach and sets the tasks.     

 

            Getting started:  Every community has somebody who knows everybody.  Frequently, this individual is a minor government functionary in a “helping” role (as opposed to a person keeping the place in line).  The local postmaster filled the role in American small towns.   So did the waitresses at the local coffee shop.  Sometimes the village storekeeper is a contact person, but sometimes he is seen as the village skinflint.  Check around! 

            Then, wander around the community being very nice to everyone, greeting them, learning their names, introducing and explaining yourself.  Become a local fixture to the point where you are semi-invisible—just the local foreigner. 

            A census is a good way to start serious work and get to know everyone.  Ask very nonthreatening questions on an initial census!  See below on finding out about local question etiquette.

            There is a whole literature on field notes (Canfield 2011 provides perspectives from all field sciences, not just anthropology).  Suffice it to say that recording everything is impossible, but getting as near as you can is a good idea at first, till you figure out what is really important. 

 

Interviewing is the basic technique in ethnography.  This can mean anything from applying a set questionnaire (closed-ended interviewing) to free-ranging questions and discussion (open-ended interviewing).  I get best results with a semi-structured questionnaire, one that you memorize thoroughly before the interview and then apply in a rather improvisational manner—not letting the interviewee escape without getting all the questions answered, but letting some free play happen, so the interviewee can get clear about meanings, discuss points, clear up ambiguities, etc.  See any good book on social interviewing, as well as Bernard.

Keep working on the language—we could all use better fluency.  I am a terrible linguist, but I try.

The whole issue of how to interview and ask questions is the first thing to address when you get to the field.  Cultures differ dramatically as to what types of question are acceptable.  Many Americans are astonishingly open about sex but hate to disclose their income.  Chinese (at least the ones I worked with) are the reverse.  Americans also hate to admit they are racist.  A colleague of mine was amazed at how little racism his students found in our city of residence.  I asked him if it had occurred to him that having bright young university students doing the interviewing might possibly bias the responses.  “Why, no….”  Another colleague was similarly surprised by how carefully people were shopping in the supermarket—I was less surprised, since he and his co-worker had followed shoppers around with a videocamera.  Having (again) bright young university students watch every move would make anyone more careful!  Such examples are so obvious as to be funny, but the danger is in far more subtle matters, especially when one is translating a perfectly innocent question in English into what may be a subtly leading question in Spanish or Chinese.

See also The Long Interview (McCracken 1988) and James Spradley’s The Ethnographic Interview (1979)Others recommend (but I have not seen) a book by Charles Briggs called Learning How to Ask (1986), one by Meyer and Booker (1991) on interpreting interview data, and a book on “active interviewing” by Holstein and Gubrium (1995).  It is also very worthwhile to spend a while with reporters finding out about journalistic methods of interviewing and getting data.

One absolutely critical interviewing technique that nobody covers well is depth interviewing.  This is a 2- to 4-hour interview in which the ethnographer probes deeper and deeper into the interviewee’s emotions, feelings, and personal stories.  A good interviewer tries to keep questions down to a minimum, and usually just makes encouraging noises (“and then…?”  “mm-hm?”).  The interviewer must appear relaxed but thoroughly engaged—completely present, interested, and supportive.  A good interviewer will appear not to “pry” or “apply pressure” but will be sympathetic and concerned and genuinely interested.  This involves being comfortable with silences—Native American informants in particular often remain silent for a minute or even several minutes during such conversations.  On the other hand, very gentle questioning of the type “How did you feel about that?” and “are you comfortable talking with me about that?” is necessary.  In such cases, DO take “no” for an answer; be comfortable with letting the interviewee set limits. 

Almost anyone loves to talk about almost any subject, if they are given this level of genuine concern.  (Be prepared for tears and other emotional releases.)  Such interviewing is an art form, though it is basically developed from what close and empathetic friends and family members do for each other all the time.  It is also so intensely personal that unless you are genuinely concerned and caring about the interviewee, YOU SHOULD NOT ATTEMPT IT. 

            Depth interviewing is necessary in many, many ethnographic cases, especially in interviewing about tragedy and major stress.  It is astonishingly rarely taught or used.  Psychotherapists are supposed to learn it but often do not.  The literature that alleges lack of mother love and lack of regret for dead infants in certain societies is evidently based on lack of familiarity with this interviewing technique.  I know this not only from the literature but more directly from my own field work in at least one society where such lack was widely alleged by superficial ethnographers, but instantly disappeared under depth interviewing, when grief could come out openly.

 

Finally, never underestimate the value of “deep hanging out”—an excellent phrase used by Clifford Geertz to describe everyday ethnography.  Just hanging around keeping your eyes and ears open remains the best of all field techniques.  I have found I talk less and look more every time I do field work.

 

            Etics and emics:  Kenneth Pike liberated the linguistic endings from “phonetic” and “phonemic.”  He meant something really creative:  Etics involve studying a system by applying a universal metric or analytic system—in the case of phonetics, the international methods of studying sounds, via the sonagram and other mechanical/impersonal techniques.  Emics involves studying a system by finding its internal structure and the units that make that up—in the case of phonemics, the sounds recognized by speakers of the language as making meaningful contrasts. 

            Etics does not mean “outsider’s view” and emics does not mean “insider’s view,” contra the sloppy usage in many anthro books (including Conrad Kottak’s widely-used textbooks).  Using the terms this way loses all their value.  Both emics and etics can be done by either outsiders or insiders, but only when trained in structural analysis. In language, for example, any trained insider can use a sonagram as well as any outsider; conversely, most people cannot provide a phonemic analysis of their own language—only trained linguists do that.

            A good ethnographer, whether outsider or insider, will study both etics and emics, just as any decent linguist will record both the phonetics and the phonemics of a language.  Consider food:  a good ethnographer will do a nutritional analysis and some kind of optimal foraging model or Bayesian-optimizing model (all these are etic), but will also find out what the locals call their foods, how they classify them, how they structure them in terms of nutrition and social use, and other emic matters.  Neither of these has anything to do with outsider vs insider per se.  (The typical outsider’s view of local foodways is “yuck!”  The typical insider’s view is “yum!”  This does not get us far analytically.)

 

            Stories and texts:   These were the bread-and-butter of old-time ethnographers, and often is to this day.  Nothing beats collecting stories—personal stories, stories about the community, about the origin of the world, about the economy, anything.  People love telling stories.  In most cultures, stories are teaching devices; people teach their children and each other through this medium.  Any and all texts and accounts are valuable.  Record them and transcribe them.  A particularly good authority on working with stories is Julie Cruikshank (1998, 2005).

 

Decision-making is also a very important, basic approach, best introduced in Christina Gladwin’s little booklet Ethnographic Decision Tree Modeling (1989, Sage) is basic.  A classic study, with methodological reflections (especially in the 2nd edn., 1994) is James Young and Linda Garro: Medical Choice in a Mexican Village.  Shankar Aswani has done some good work on decision-making in fisheries, and thoughtfully related that to more purely economic and biological methods (e.g. Aswani and Weiant 2004).  Basically, the idea is to ask people in detail about the steps that they went through to make a particular decision—what crop to plant (Gladwin), what to do when someone in the family is sick (Young and Garro), what to do about fishing and fish conservation (Aswani), and so on.  This technique assumes that decisions can be broken down into ordered sequences of yes/no answers:  Can I get the seed for this crop?  Can I get fertilizer for it? Can I get enough water for it?  And so on.  People usually do decide that way, at least in clear-cut matters like crop choice, and even if they don’t you can break down decisions into yes/no or more-versus-less choices.  But sometimes people decide on impulse, or subconsciously integrate several factors at once.  Careful questioning allows you to deal with such cases, and continue to use decision tree analysis.  It is a particularly powerful technique, especially for decisions that are important but that involve well-known, rather routine choices, like agricultural decisions.  A farmer or gardener normally knows exactly what crops she can plant and how to grow them, and how to get information if she does not know enough about something.  Decisions about what to do in an unforeseen new emergency are less clear-cut and consequently harder to analyze, but in principle can be covered the same way.

            Decision-making studies have led to looking at cultural models, but so far little methodology has been developed for this; for a major exception that gets us fairly far in doing comparable analyses of this difficult realm, see Victor de Munck (2011) on romantic love.

 

            Another absolutely essential technique is the focus group, in which the interviewer recruits 4-6 people or so and gets them to talk about the specific subject under investigation.  This has turned out to be a major winner as a research method for political researchers and marketers as well as for anthropologists.  See David Morgan (1996).

 

Another universally used technique is the Likert scale, that little scale where you get to rank things from “agree strongly” to “disagree strongly” or “most liked” to “most disliked,” as on student evaluations, political surveys, etc.   It works well only if you use 5 or 7 cells.  5 is generally better.

 

A large range of personality tests and other psychological tests is available.  In general, I advise against using these, because they rarely work in local conditions—the local worldview and language are probably too different from the testmakers’.  But they may be useful where this does not apply and where you can get a psychologist to help administer them.

 

Other formal techniques include frame elicitation.  This is best explained by Frake (see above), but basically it consists of looking around and asking everyone “what’s that?”  When you have names, you sit down with a consultant and ask “what kinds of X are there?” till there are no more divisions.  Then you can work up:  “Is X a kind of…?”  Beware, though; this can force a spurious level of systematization on your consultants.  Better to do all this informally in the field, one question at a time, and to use focus groups to get people talking about how they conceptualize things.  Carefully used—with much asking, pointing, and walking around, rather than mechanical frame interviewing in a house—this is the most valuable of all the analytic or specialized techniques.

Related are card-sorts and pile-sorts, in which names of things are written on cards and sorted into piles according to whatever criteria you want to study.

On all these formal methods, and on basic statistics, see, in addition to Bernard’s book, the superb article by W. Penn Handwerker in A Companion to Cognitive Anthropology (2011).  Handwerker manages to get into a few pages more solid advice and reference material on methodology than many authors get into whole books.

 

Walking around in the fields and woods, asking about everything, remains the best of all techniques for finding out about names, categories, and ethnobiological knowledge.  A formalization is a “nature trail,” in which the investigator lays out a short set course with known plants along it.  Then the investigator can walk this trail with different subjects, seeing how many plants they can name.  This is particularly useful with children—one can see how much they know at what age.  (Brian Stross, Gene Hunn, Rebecca Zarger, and J. R. Stepp, studying children in the south Mexican highlands, have worked particularly with this technique.) 

            Child-following is used to advantage in such situations, and in nutrition research.  You just follow a child around, seeing what she does.  It’s the only way to find out what children actually eat, as memorably shown by the late Christine Wilson in her field work.

For that matter, following adults is necessary too, but has to be done with more circumspection.

 

There are also censusing, surveying, survey design, optimal foraging study and modeling, GIS and GPS, statistics, economic data management, and other formal techniques; Bernard covers all of them adequately, though if seriously interested in optimal foraging or in economics you will need supplementary reading on these (they have a large, specialized literature). 

Surveys often involve poorly designed questions that lead to misleading results.  Most people agree with both “Individuals are more to blame than social conditions for crime” and “Social conditions are more to blame than individuals for crime”—depending on which one you ask (Radwin 2009:B9).  In other words, people love to agree with any old statement.  It’s all in the way you phrase it.  Question order, bias words, and so forth all influence the result.  Some questions are so poorly worded that a large percentage of the respondents cannot figure out what is being asked.  This is particularly common when a questionnaire is translated from one language to another, as very often happens in anthropological research, so watch out; pre-test questionnaires for comprehensibility.

Remember to avoid leading questions (now often called “push questions”):  questions that imply you want a certain answer.  Indeed, avoid everything that might be taken as implying you want to hear a particular kind of answer.  Find out what counts as leading questions in the culture you are studying.  Many questions that are perfectly innocent and non-leading in English turn out to be strongly leading when translated into Chinese.  I found out the hard way—but at least I learned it fast—that “how are you?” was interpreted as “you look sick, what’s wrong?”  Similar pitfalls occur in other languages. 

Response bias can enter quite dramatically.  Surveys of food consumption in the United States correlate very well with sales figures at stores, but sales figures of liquor consumption can be up to five times what the surveys show!  People may understate consumption, but more important here is the fact that an extremely high percentage of liquor is drunk by relatively few people, and those few are rarely in any condition to answer a survey.

Finally, people lie, almost always to give the socially “correct” response.  Many more people say they voted in the last election than could actually have done so (Radwin 2009:B9).  And almost no racists exist in the United States—if you believe the survey results! 

Anthropologists also do a great deal of visual anthropology: photography, recording, film and videotape work, and other methods of making a permanent and more-or-less-objective record of what we find.  There is also ethnomusicological recording to worry about.  There are specialized works on this.   My experience is that it is difficult to do quality visual work and quality interviewing or other talking-ethnography at the same time.  One can work as a team, or do the interviewing first and visuals later.  Some geniuses can do both at the same time, but I am far from this level.

I’m not an expert, and will not push this one, but a useful tip from Douglas Medin (presentation at Society for Anthropological Sciences, 2010) is that there are four general ways to do a picture:  directly on (the usual approach—“voyeur”), embodied (shows hands working, from the viewpoint of the worker—as if you and the camera are doing the work with your hands), over the shoulder (of your main subject—so you are standing behind her and seeing what she sees), and “fourth wall” or “breaking the wall,” in which case the people in the photo are all looking at you (as in a standard group shot).  Doug showed that Native American children’s book illustrations (drawings, not photos) have much more of the last three types of pictures than Anglo ones, a culturally very interesting observation. 

This brings home the point that interpreting others’ photos and pictures is a major part of visual anthro.  Both interpreting cultural representations (pictures, etc.) and getting your subjects to take photos for you are standard techniques and very effective if well done.

 

Another under-taught topic is historical research–documentary, archival, and text work.  Historians learn as a kind of second nature how to evaluate a document—how much to trust it, how to cross-check, how to allow for biases, etc.  The best way to find out about this is to ask a historian.  They have their own books, but an hour with a seasoned historian will give you a good enough start.

            At the very least, read the major anthropological and historical works on your area!  I am appalled at the illiteracy of some graduate students.  What were their professors thinking?  Egregious mistakes even get into the published literature.  This is inexcusable.  Much more common is the field worker who misses a great deal for lack of knowing the questions to ask, the deeper matters to look for, and the contexts to use in interpretation. 

 

            How to take and keep field notes is the subject of Roger Sanjek’s Fieldnotes and a lot of journal articles.  Some other useful lore is in Tony Robben’s Ethnographic Fieldwork:  An Anthropological Reader; Joseph Casagrande’s marvelous and far too neglected anthology, In the Company of Man; and Michael Agar’s classic The Professional Stranger.  See also LeCompte and Schensul, Designing and Conducting Ethnographic Research (2nd edn. 2010).

 

            Multi-sited ethnography:  this has been advocated by George Marcus and many others.  Obviously it’s appropriate if you’re studying mobile, transnational, or migrant populations.  It isn’t if you’re studying people who stay put, unless you want to do systematic or controlled comparisons (very valuable, but a different issue).  Use common sense and don’t feel compelled to do it just because it was a buzz word for a while.  If you have only a year, as most of us do, it’s better to stay put.  Finding out much about even a very small community in a year is already challenging enough.  The great transnational studies, like Michael Kearney’s (see Kearney 1996—a “must read” if you’re working with this), were 30-year or 40-year projects.

 

            Teamwork:  The day of the lone field worker who found out “everything” about the Trobriands or the Nuer is most emphatically gone.  Do what you do best, and collaborate with other people who do what they do best.

Work with biologists, political scientists, photographers, anyone that has expertise you need.  Many ethnographers go in as part of a team.  I find it more useful to work with people on the ground.  Local scholars generally need and appreciate the opportunities.  (On the other hand, many see outside scholars as a threat to their monopoly and their status.  Be careful about this.)   

            One type of “teamwork” is working as a family.  Fortunate is the anthropologist who has a spouse who can work with him or her.  Alas, field work is not always the easiest posting, and some spouses do not adjust well.  Most valuable of all is working as a family with children.  Children disarm suspicion, attract friendly and solicitous attention, evoke stories, and allow study of child-training practices.  Also, when they are old enough, they are born ethnographers.  They are curious about everything and are amazingly quick with social cues and social learning. (They are wired for it.  The human animal evolved as a social creature, and social learning is a child’s main occupation.)  However, working with children is reasonable only if you are near a good hospital.  Children have died in remote field situations. 

 

            “Studying up”:  Laura Nader and others have advocated studying the rich and powerful.  Unfortunately, I could never get a million-dollar grant for subsistence.  More seriously, most anthropologists don’t have the tools and training to do this effectively.  If you want to study up, work with and learn from political scientists and sociologists!  They have the methods and tools!  When faced with the need to find out what the powerful were up to, I have worked with political scientists, and have also picked the brains of anthropologists who had done that type of work and had learned the techniques and methods. 

There are lots of political scientists, sociologists, historians, and others studying elites, but only anthropologists study the people low on the political hierarchy.  We thus best use our talents and training in the latter cause.  We are generally the only people that can bring their words and concerns to a wide audience.  Now and then we get the chance to help them bring their own voices or causes to the wide arena—a blessed and wonderful chance if carefully done.  I thus strongly recommend studying ordinary people and especially neglected and oppressed ones.

 

4.  General Philosophical Concerns

           

            Completeness and comparability are major concerns, and major problems with many field projects.  Be sure to get all the data possible on the subjects under study.  Be sure that interviews, forms, and data recording makes findings strictly comparable between subjects and situations.  The same information has to be collected in the same way.

 

One word of philosophical guidance about culture in general:  Only real people (or animals) do things.  This should be obvious, but anthropologists all too often fall into the social science trap of saying that Capitalism, or The State, or the Flying Spaghetti Monster did such-and-such a thing.  No.  They didn’t.  People did.  Capitalism and the Flying Spaghetti Monster don’t exist (the former is an analytical abstraction that bears only some resemblance to any current real-world referent).  The State exists, but if you think it acts or is real by itself, look at Somalia, DR Congo, or Afghanistan.  The State functions because the people in it have decided that preserving it and working for it will best accomplish their human goals.  It becomes a true emergent, like a kinship system or a myth, and thus has a genuine reality (unlike capitalism).  However—again like a kinship system—it exists only as long as a lot of people buy into it and don’t question it too strongly.  Always study emergents and recognize their reality, but remember they don’t really act by themselves.  The ability of people to believe in such things, and to believe they act on their own, is fascinating, and related to the belief in supernatural beings.

 

As Andrew “Pete” Vayda has been insisting for years (Vayda 2008), some background in the philosophy and history of science (specifically, epistemology) is absolutely essential.  This would include, at least, Thomas Kuhn’s classic The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962) and Philip Kitcher’s The Advancement of Science (1993).  See also Ian Hacking (1999), Bruno Latour’s work (esp. 2004, 2005), Alison Wylie’s work (2002, 2004), and Pete Vayda’s and others’ relevant writings.  Some background in the history of anthropology is essential (see many books by Adam Kuper and by George Stocking).  Theory and history are not covered adequately in many anthro graduate programs, so read these on your own.

            Perhaps the most valuable thing one learns from these works is how to avoid mindless use of current buzzwords.  Buzzwords usually start out as useful concepts, but lose it all when they become too widely used.  Go back to the original source and read the full, properly qualified story.  Those of us who have checked are always astonished at how wrong even the best secondary sources get the classic writers, to say nothing of slapdash textbooks.  Reading Durkheim, for example, is a real revelation if you knew him only from even the best histories of anthropology.

 

Ethics:  Here again, one can start with Bernard, but an excellent practical guide to working ethics has now appeared (Whiteford and Trotter 2004)  Many ethical questions have been treated in detail in Anthropology News over many decades.  The American Anthropological Association’s Code of Ethics is easily available online from the Association, and is basic.

Always be meticulous about touching bases in the field area.  Contact local scholars, and promise to help and work with them if possible.  Go through all the bureaucratic hoops uncomplainingly.  Find people you can work with, institutes you can collaborate with, and universities you can hang out at.  Be humble; First World investigators are threatening to many Third World bureaucrats and scholars.  Many—if not all—Third World and indigenous scholars have encountered arrogant, overbearing, and inconsiderate First Worlders.  These were not usually anthropologists, but you will pay the price even if it was a diplomat or an agricultural advisor that dissed the local scholars.  Bear it and be genuinely polite.  Save your hate for the diplomat or advisor, not the locals. 

In your community, similarly, get the official cooperation of the local authorities—complete with signed permission to workShare your results, in so far as possible, when you do any writing up.

Questions that permanently concern anthropologists include:  Are we really somehow ripping off the “natives” by finding out things?  How does one collaborate?  Coauthor?  How does one “represent the other” without being a mental colonialist?  How to get honest responses and publish them?  How much can one publish the local dirt—corruption, conflict, sordid tales?  (My recommendation is simple:  don’t unless you have to.)   How to be tactful?  How much to get involved in local matters?  How to avoid factions?  How to avoid local entanglements? One would, for instance, think it unnecessary to warn people NOT EVER to get sexually involved with people one is doing field work with!  But I hear that some people do this—a good way to get killed.

Err on the side of caution.  Remember the first clause in the AAA’s Code is that your most immediate duty is to the people you are working with.  It is not acceptable to put them at serious risk.  It is not acceptable to exploit them for money, e.g. by selling photos or writing a bestseller without cutting them in on the profits.  It is not acceptable to use their words and information without giving full credit, including coauthorship if their input is really significant.  It is not acceptable to refrain from helping them with medicines, etc., if you have the knowledge or connections; if it messes up your medical anthro research a bit, too bad; their lives are more important than any dreams of intellectual purity.  Do not let yourself be exploited or “used,” but be as helpful as possible when help is needed.

Avoid involvement with local factions, no matter how right your favorite one seems to be.  Involvement ruins your field work, endangers your safety, and inevitably makes local politics worse.  Let them sort it out.

The wider question of advocacy is more serious.  Anthropologists almost always find that their groups are getting a raw deal, because we usually study small, less-than-affluent communities who are low on the political hierarchy.  Serious advocacy is often desirable, but should take the form of “speaking truth to power” as the phrase goes.  It is not usually appropriate to get off into strong statements or political action in the field site  On the other hand, it sometimes is appropriate, e.g. in cases of outright genocide.  Generally, the very best thing is to carry local voices to the wide world—if you can do it without endangering your subjects.  For example, giving quotes that can be traced to an individual is not a good idea in a state that is persecuting that community.  Confidential reports to trusted government people who can really help your community are sometimes desirable.  The best thing is usually to do the best job you can at getting the facts right and producing a scholarly book.  Do what is morally right, but in the most cautious and least overstated way. 

Think seriously about who can hear your message and use it.  I did one substantial piece of field work in a really dangerous situation.  I never published or disclosed the worst and most hidden material.  I got the rest of the really touchy material to people in the government whom I knew I could trust and whom I knew would use the information wisely.  I kept everything else on ice for years, until the situation changed and I could safely publish the less touchy chunks of it. 

            Anthropologists are driven almost mad by the steadily increasing obsessiveness of institutional review boards (IRB’s, a.k.a. Human Subjects Review Committees).  They exist to prevent lawsuits over problems arising in sensitive, invasive, or dangerous medical and psychological research.  Thus they are often inappropriately restrictive for anthropological field work.  We cannot always get signed, detailed protocols proving that our subjects know every possible risk they are incurring.  And we may have to take photographs and films of large ritual or market situations where we cannot possibly get signed permissions from every man, woman and child. 

And we rarely do anything that puts subjects at any real risk.  The main exception, and it is an important one, is research in or on military, criminal, or other genuinely dangerous matters.  For these, the investigator does need to worry about the full IRB panoply of concerns.  For the full story, see the fall 2007 issue of American Ethnologist, which has a whole excellent section on IRB’s. 

 

            Applied anthropology is a whole separate area that I do not want to cover here; suffice it to say that the same general moral rules apply.  Do what will actually help and what will actually not be undercut by someone else.

            Collaboration with local communities in getting particular projects done is another enormously complex and involved topic, beyond my range here.  See the journal Human Organization—just search back through it.

 

            The question of objectivity always surfaces.  No, you aren’t totally objective; you’re involved with your subjects.  But, as one anthropologist wrote, “just because you can’t maintain pure asepsis doesn’t mean you can do surgical operations in a sewer” (Geertz 1973).  Be solidly grounded in facts and establish everything as solidly as possible.  I once worked with an anthropologist, a superb field worker, who collected over 50 detailed stories of the same event—and stayed perfectly neutral and calm through it all, properly writing down everything, though the stories wildly disagreed about basic details!  Then we sat down to analyze why the stories were so different. 

            The idea is to be as factual, or objective, as possible, but be open about your biases, too.  Self-awareness is important.       

 

5.  Final Tips  

 

Field work is lots of fun, but one thing we face is culture shock, a useful term coined by the Finnish-Canadian anthropologist Kalervo Oberg.  This condition is not confined to anthropologists.  What typically happens, when Person A goes to live in Society B, is that the first 3 to 6 months are a sort of honeymoon period.  After that, Reality hits, and it can hit pretty hard.  A period of painful adjustment follows—the 6th month is usually the hardest!  It’s good to plan a brief vacation from your field work at that time.  After the 6th month, things get easier.  Students are familiar with a mild form of this from adjusting to college (dorms, roommates, classes…).  Adjusting to marriage or any other life-and-residence change is comparable.  There is a honeymoon period, a let-down period, and then adjustment, hopefully peaceful and contented. 

Once you have adjusted to a new community, adjusting back to your own home typically involves some “reverse culture shock.”  Do not be surprised at this; it’s normal.

 

Field work is normally one of the least dangerous activities on earth.  I have always been healthier in the field than at home.  Forget the poisonous snakes and scorpions of the travel books—you won’t see any, or if you do they will be the least of your worries.  (I have had to kill more than one cobra in my field dwellings.  They don’t usually strike.) 

However, don’t take insane chances.  Take a first-aid kit and standard first-aid medications, notably general antibiotics that will quickly knock out skin infections, traveler’s diarrhea and food poisoning (Salmonella, Shigella, etc.), and the like.  Be sure to take the proper anti-malarial medicine in malarial areas; the medicine of choice varies from region to region.

Use tough, sturdy shoes or boots if in a literal “field” situation.  Today, the “field” is often an urban neighborhood, but some of us still work in actual fields.  You are far more likely to come to grief from wearing inadequate shoes than from all those poisonous critters put together.  Take sunblock and suchlike things as appropriate.  DO ask people who have been in the area you are going, and DO read the Lonely Planet guides, or similar guides for active and enterprising travelers. 

Don’t worry about the local food, including “street food.”  It’s safe enough if cooked at high heat.  Any fruit or veg with a tough peel (bananas, mangoes…) is safe if the peel isn’t broken.  In most of the tropics, the water is still dubious, however, and so is raw seafood.  The only time I got really sick in 2 years of field work in Mexico was from eating undercooked oysters in a fancy restaurant.   

 

The fad for “reflexive” ethnography a few years ago gives you lots of accounts to learn from.  Many are far from exemplary.  One particularly candid account of a particularly intelligent, sensitive researcher’s first taste of the field is found in Eric Mueggler’s The Age of Wild Ghosts (2001).  I could name many others.  A nice balance of self-revelation with consultant’s own stories is Zapotec Women by Lynn Stephen (1991).  She has her opinions and experiences; she also gives the facts; and she gives the women’s own testimonies, which often disagree with her interpretation.  Stephen makes their lot sound very bleak, but the women she quotes sound decidedly more happy.  I visited her field site and did some field work myself to understand this.  It turned out that Stephen emphasizes the hardship which is indeed the lot of most Zapotec women, but the women she quoted in the book were a relatively more successful group who were generally more upbeat on their situation.  Also, Mexican women are taught to aguantar—bear uncomplainingly.  They don’t expect as much from life as an elite American academic does.

 

This shows the advantages of field-checking anything one reads, if one possibly can.  More:  it shows how much perspective and outlook matter, and how they can color analysis by even the best anthropologists.  Always double-check.  Always look for alternative views.  Always try to find someone else from a different perspective and training who can study your area and hopefully validate your work.

 

 

References

 

Agar, Michael.  1985.  Speaking of Ethnography.   Newbury Park, CA:  Sage.

 

—   1996.  The Professional Stranger:  An Informal Introduction to Ethnography.  2nd edn.  New York:  Academic Press.

 

Aswani, Shankar, and Pam Weiant.  2004.  “Scientific Evaluation in Women’s Participatory Management:  Monitoring Marine Invertebrate Refugia in the Solomon Islands.”  Human Organization 63:301-319.

 

Bernard, H. Russell.  2006.  Research Methods in Anthropology.  Lanham, MD:  AltaMira (Rowman and Littlefield).

 

Bernard, H. Russell (ed.).  2000.  Handbook of Methods in Cultural Anthropology.  Walnut Creek, CA:  AltaMira.

 

Briggs, Charles.  1986.  Learning How to Ask.  Cambridge:  Cambridge University Press.

 

Canfield, Michael (ed.).  2011.  Field Notes on Science and Nature.  Cambridge, MA:  Harvard University Press.

 

Casagrande, Joseph (ed.).  1960.  In the Company of Man:  Twenty Portraits by Anthropologists.  New York:  Harper.

 

Chamberlin, T. C.  1965 (orig. in Science, 7 Feb. 1890).  “The Method of Multiple Working Hypotheses.”  Science 148:748-759.

 

Cruikshank, Julie.  1998.  The Social Life of Stories:  Narrative and Knowledge in the Yukon Territory.  Lincoln:  University of Nebraska Press.

 

Cruikshank, Julie.  2005.  Do Glaciers Listen?  Local Knowledge, Colonial Encouinters, and Social Imagination.  Vancouver:  University of British Columbia Press.

 

De Munck, Victor C.  2011.  “Cognitive Approaches to the Study of Romantic Love:  Semantic, Cross-Cultural, and as a Process.”  In  A Companion to Cognitive Anthropology, David Kronenfeld, Giovanni Bennardo, Victor de Munck, and Michael D. Fischer, eds.  Chichester, West Sussex:  Wiley-Blackwell.  Pp. 513-530.

 

De Munck, Victor C., and Elisa J. Sobo (eds.).  1998.  Using Methods in the Field:  A Practical Introduction and Casebook.  AltaMira.

 

Denzin, Norman, and Yvonna Lincoln (eds.).  2005.  The SAGE Handbook of Qualitative Research.  Sage.

 

DeWalt, Kathleen, and Billie DeWalt.  2001.  Participant Observation:  A Guide for Fieldworkers.  Walnut Creek, CA:  AltaMira.

 

Frake, Charles.  1980.  Language and Cultural Description.  Ed. Anwar S. Dil.  Stanford:  Stanford University Press.

 

Geertz, Clifford.  1973.  The Interpretation of Cultures.  New York: Basic Books.

 

Gladwin, Christina.  1989.  Ethnographic Decision Tree Modeling.  Newbury Park, CA:  Sage.

 

Hacking, Ian.  1999.  The Social Construction of What?  Cambridge, MA:  Harvard University Press.

 
Handwerker, W. Penn.  2011.  “How to Collect data that Warrant Analysis.” In  A Companion to Cognitive Anthropology, David Kronenfeld, Giovanni Bennardo, Victor de Munck, and Michael D. Fischer, eds.  Chichester, West Sussex:  Wiley-Blackwell.  Pp. 117-130.
 
Holstein, J., and J. Gubrium.  1995.   The Active Interview.  Newbury Park, CA:  Sage.

 

Kearney, Michael.  1996.  Reconceptualizing the Peasantry:  Anthropology in Global Perspective.  Boulder, CO:  Westview.

 

Kitcher, Philip.  1993.  The Advancement of Science.  New York: Oxford University Press.

 

Kuhn, Thomas.  1962.  The Structure of Scientific Revolutions.  Chicago:  University of Chicago Press.

 

Latour, Bruno.  2004.  Politics of Nature: How to Bring the Sciences into Democracy.  Tr. Catherine Porter.  Cambridge, MA:  Harvard University Press.

 

Latour, Bruno.  2005.  Reassembling the Social:  An Introduction to Adctor-Network-Theory.  Oxford:  Oxford University Press.

 

LeCompte, Margaret, and Jean J. Schensul.  2010.  Designing and Conducting Ethnographic Research.  Lanham, MD:  AltaMira.

 

Lowie, Robert.  1937.  The History of Ethnological Theory.  New York: Rinehart.

 

McCracken, Grant.  1988.  The Long Interview.  Newbury Park, CA:  Sage.

 
Meyer, Mary A. and Jane M. Booker. 1991. Eliciting and Analyzing Expert Judgement: a Practical Guide.  London: Academic Press.

 

Mills, C. Wright.  1959.  The Sociological Imagination.  New York:  Grove Press.

 

Morgan, David.  1996.  Focus Groups as Qualitative Research.  Newbury Park, CA:  Sage.

 

Mueggler, Erik.  2001.  The Age of Wild Ghosts:  Memory, Violence, and Place in Southwest China.  Berkeley:  University of California Press.

 

Radwin, David.  2009.  “High Response Rates Don’t Ensure Survey Accuracy.”  Chronicle of Higher Education Review, Oct. 9, pp. B8-B9.

 

Robben, Antonius C.  2006.  Ethnographic Fieldwork:  An Anthropological Reader.  New York:  Wiley-Blackwell.

 

Rubin, Herbert, and Irene Rubin.  2005.  Qualitative Interviewing:  The Art of Hearing Data.  2nd edn.  Sage.

 

Sanjek, Roger.  1990.  Fieldnotes:  The Making of Anthropology.  Ithaca:  Cornell University Press.

 

Shweder, Richard.  1991.  Thinking Through Cultures:  Explorations in Cultural Psychology.  Cambridge, MA:  Harvard University Press.

 

Spradley, James.  1979.  The Ethnographic Interview.  New York:  Holt, Rinehart and Winston.

 

—  1980.  Participant Observation.  New York:  Holt, Rinehart and Winston.

 

Stephen, Lynn.  1991.  Zapotec Women.  Austin:  University of Texas Press.

 

Vayda, Andrew P.  2008.  “Causal Explanations as a Research Goal:  A Pragmatic View.”  In Against the Grain:  The Vayda Tradition in Ecological Anthropology, Bradley Walker, Bonnie McCay, Paige West, and Susan Lees, eds.  Lanham, MD:  AltaMira (division of Rowman and Littlefield).  Pp. 317-367.

 

Whiteford, Linda M., and Robert T. Trotter II.  2008.  Ethics for Anthropological Research and Practice.  Long Grove, IL:  Waveland Press.

 

Wylie, Alison.  2002.  Thinking from Things:  Essays in the Philosophy of Archaeology.  UC.  Essays; 514 pp. 

 

Wylie, Alison.  2004.  “Why Standpoint Matters.”  In The Feminist Standpoint Theory Reader:  Intellectual and Political Controversies, ed Sandra Harding.  London:  Routledge.  Pp. 339-352.

 

Young, James Clay, and Linda Garro. l994.  Medical Choice in a Mexican Village.  2nd edn.  Boulder, CO:  Westview. 

 

Getting a Book Published

July 15th, 2013

How to Get an Academic Book Published

 

            I am frequently asked by young scholars how to start out in the publishing world.  Usually, the specific question is how to turn a Ph.D. thesis into a book.  The time has come to write down some tips.

            First, the basics.  Publishers want a prospectus.  This is a summary of the book, with special attention to its main points and its distinctive findings and insights.  Different presses have slightly different requirements, which they conveniently specify on their websites.  The general formula is the same:  about four pages summarizing the basic message of the book; quick summaries of the specific chapters; and information on marketing it. 

This last is basic and important—the publishers have to know the details.  First and most important is the target audience.  Who is actually going to read this book?  Interested “laypersons”?  All anthropologists?  Only experts in kinship?  Only experts in Chinese village studies?  What types of students will read it?  Will it be accessible to freshmen, or only to upper-level students, or only to Ph.D. candidates?  Should this book be in every bookstore, or only in specialized bookstores, or only offered online? 

Publishers naturally want to reach the widest possible audience, and you should too, since you have really valuable and important findings to share. Write the book and the prospectus accordingly.

Your prospectus will have to include not only this information, but also the competition.  You will have to list other books with similar content, and often give details on who buys them and how many copies they sell, but the really important question is how your book is different from theirs—why people should buy yours instead of, or as well as, theirs.  Then you will be expected to say where the book should be marketed, what journals would be good places to advertise it, and so on.  This is really important.  My food book Everyone Eats was published by an academic press with little trade-book experience.  It did not occur to them to market it in cookbook stores, gourmet food stores (almost all of which carry books), and places like that, and it did not occur to me to tell them.  I lost probably 50% or more of my potential sales because of that.  If you write a book that potentially has wide appeal, you have to think TV and other media as well as print media.

Also, and critical for sales:  Network like crazy at professional meetings, and also publish pre-runs of your data and ideas in the major refereed journals.  Books sell to a great extent on how well the author is known in the field as a good scholar and theorist.  The reputation of the author’s home institution, and of the publisher, matter too–far too much, IMHO, but there you are.  If you aren’t at Chicago and publishing with U Chicago Press, or the like, you have all the more need to be seen and known as a really good anthropologist, at conferences and in the journals.

The best thing is to write a generic prospectus—covering things that all the publishers’ webpages ask for—and send it out as widely as possible.  Saturate the publishing world.  However, so as not to waste effort, do your homework first on who actually publishes the sort of book you are writing.  Academic presses are specializing more and more now.  If you’re writing about Mexico, look first to University of Arizona and University of Texas.  If political ecology, go for Duke University Press.  For Northwest Coast studies, University of British Columbia and University of Washington.  Commercial publishers also have specialties:  Brill in history and other humanistic areas, Edwin Mellen in specialized scholarly books, and so on.  Do not confine yourself to these—anybody may publish anything—but start with the most likely venue.  A corollary is: do not be discouraged if the first 50 publishers turn you down cold.  You may just not be within their specialized profiles.  The 51st may well see your ms as just what they’ve been desperately seeking for all these years.  Simon Batterbury adds that many publishers have series (such as Duke’s political ecology series) and these should be targeted if you are writing in the relevant areas.  Series can suddenly disappear or change focus, so check recent publications and webpages.

Increasingly, book deals are made at conferences.  All the major publishers have representatives at the American Anthropological Association meetings, and many send reps to SfAA, SAA, and other smaller associations.  If you seriously want to publish your book, you have to go to these meetings, bring copies of your prospectus, talk at length to the publishers’ reps about what they want, and drop off a copy of the prospectus with each one who shows any interest at all.  Forget all shame—sell yourself and be persuasive!  You have an ms that you invested a lot in, that you care about, and that you believe in (I hope and trust).  Say so.

If you have a choice, always go with the largest and most prestigious press!  Beware of excessively small presses.  One-man outfits are often desperate for mss. and will cut good deals, but then you get poor marketing—or worse.  A coworker and I once had a book accepted by a good but tiny press—basically a one-man operation.  Things were going well till we started getting strange emails.  Finally one said (roughly) “Are you aliens from another galaxy?”  We had no idea what to make of this until we got a letter saying (more or less), “We are the receivers for ***.  The editor has unfortunately suffered a nervous breakdown and is resting in a mental hospital.  We plan to bring out the books accepted by this press…”—which they did, in a timely and professional manner, but we quickly brought out a second edition with a large, reliable publisher!  I’ve had small publishers go broke on me, editors die or change jobs, and so on.  Be warned.  (Of course, it goes without saying that you do not publish it yourself.  Self-publishing is great for family cookbooks and memoirs, but gets you nowhere in academic publishing.)

Publishers currently want books in the 70,000-100,000 word range.  Anything much over 120,000 words has to be a Blockbuster (capital B) to get much traction.  Such books do, however, exist, and are not even all that rare, so feel free if you have really important data.

Simon Batterbury reminds me that an increasing amount of publishing is now electronic, and e-books are something that must be considered.  Check with the publisher on this.  He also notes that in his home, Australia, academia and publishing are somewhat differently structured from the US, and the same goes for Europe and elsewhere.  The same general ideas apply, but structures and systems differ.

Illustrations are now very cheap to produce, so use lots of them.  But getting permission for commercial ones is another matter, so take good photographs.

A good editor is worth her weight in gold and diamonds.  You will inevitably make some mistakes and phrase some things imperfectly.  A good editor will catch that.  Also, presses send out manuscripts for anonymous review.  Some of these are too kind, and then your shortcomings are left in, for buyers and journal book reviews to catch–to your humiliation and sorrow.  Some anonymous reviewers have an axe to grind and are mean-spirited, unfair, or irrelevant.  Pray for one or two really rigorous but fair reviewers who will catch every damn problem with your ms and save you before it’s printed!   It HURTS to get those reviews, but, believe me, it hurts a lot worse to get your problems caught after publication.

One final issue: anything major and important that goes in a published book has to be there with the full permission of the people you are quoting, or even just writing about.  You have to get their signed permission, after seriously explaining what you are going to do with the material (i.e., publish it).  Then you should provide the people in question with the fruits of your labor.  Bring copies of the book back to them when it’s published.  I worked hard to get my main work on the Quintana Roo Maya published in Quintana Roo and in both English and Spanish (I would have done it in Maya too if I had found a good translator).  Think seriously about coauthorship and other means of insuring that intellectual property rights are respected.  And—this really should not be necessary, but unfortunately it is necessary, to spell out—anything confidential, or anything that could endanger your consultants, should NOT be published.  I once wound up in an unexpectedly very hairy situation that prevented me from publishing anything for 7 years and prevented me from ever publishing a great deal of the data I got!  Remember, the various anthropological codes of ethics emphasize that your first duty is to the people you work with—not to serve them or argue for them, necessarily, but certainly to protect them by not publishing highly sensitive material, or ripping off material that they want to keep for themselves. 

 

So much for the grubby business side.  Now to the serious stuff.

First, believe in your work.  If it isn’t what you deeply feel and care about, change it. 

Some thesis committees, with the best will in the world (I hope), really insist on having their personal views, ideas, and citations represented at enormous length in the thesis.  Others insist that you cover the entire history of anthropological theory (or whatever branch of it you are using).  Publishers dread this, and the larger academic presses actually say right out on their website that if you are submitting a thesis book be sure and take out all that stuff first!  So, the main thing to do in turning a thesis into a book is usually trimming down the stuff the committee made you put in, and focusing on what YOU want to put in.

Alternatively, some students are shy about putting their deeply held views and their favorite facts and stories into academic books.  Forget that.  A book is SUPPOSED to be about your deeply held and valued material.  Obviously you have to confine your views to reasonable statements for which you have evidence, and you have to be properly dignified and civil in writing style.  No strong statements about the evils of this or that.  But you need to have enough passion for your work to motivate you to write it and then sell the ms.

That said, the next step is to write for the widest possible audience.  If you are doing the cognitive aspects of mother’s brother’s daughter marriage on the Upper Nowhere River, this may be only 20 people worldwide, but at least write for all 20 of them.  The horrible jargon that polluted anthro in the 1990s is mercifully gone, and not lamented.  Stick to normal English words in their normal English meaning.  (No, “imaginary” is NOT an English noun!  And cultures do not hybridize, they naturally blend; “hybridity” used for cultural matters is a racist term that should be absolutely unacceptable.)  Use six-syllable words only if they are genuine technical terms, not cover terms for ignorance and sloppiness.  (Prime examples of the latter: “neoliberalism” and “globalization.”)  Write in clear English and try to reach all the people who would naturally be interested in your findings. 

Actually, even the Upper Nowhere River marriage lore may be of very wide interest.  Ideally, a piece of scientific or humanistic research is intended to provide the key finding that will unlock a whole area of knowledge, or the key insight that solves a very wide problem.  Maybe the Upper Nowhere case is the criterial case that shows the entire field of anthropology needs to rethink everything.  At the very least, it may confirm one view and disconfirm a rival view.  Such dramatic findings are rare, but they do happen.  One recent case in anthropology was the serendipitous discovery of the Denisovan lineage of humans.  Another was the finding of Göbekli in Turkey, a large, complex site with monumental architecture several thousand years older than such sites were supposed to exist.

However, general, “popular,” Jared Diamond type books are not the way to go unless you’re a Famous Senior Scholar.  Pop books are not respected, and there are reasons for that (see any review of Diamond).  However, they can be perfectly good if done by a seasoned scholar with a lot of perspective on the field.  In general, for a beginning academic, the way to go is a thorough case study, but one with very wide implications that you trace out and spell out in detail, with full awareness of and citation of the relevant wider theoretical and practical literature.  It is also quite possible to do a good short overview book on a specific field or area, like Don Joralemon’s Exploring Medical Anthropology (2004).  We need more books like that.

 

So, think about what you found, and see just how big a deal it is in the wider picture.  Chances are that it is a very big deal indeed, and you should be seeing it and writing it as a major breakthrough in a large field, not a humble “thesis book.”  Do a good deal of original thinking about this.  Professors often do not teach students to see how important their stuff is.  Alas, some thesis committees seem dedicated to preventing that; they think of students as followers and helpers, mere contributors of bricks to the great building that the full profs are putting together. I am the opposite—I can think of nothing I like better than having my students succeed right off and eclipse me in the field.  It gets my good ideas out in ways I never could have done by myself.  Also it makes me pretty proud of having done well at teaching!

 

How much of your own experiences and feelings should go into the book?  That depends on the book and what is necessary for it.  There are reasonable limits.  Saying nothing about your experiences in the field is not a good idea; we readers seriously need to know what you actually did, whether it worked out, and how you dealt with issues of objectivity, privacy, confidentiality, intellectual propery rights, sensitivity, and so on.  At the other extreme, an anthropology book is supposed to be about the people studied, not about the ethnographer—unless it’s a deliberate autobiography.  Telling stories about your naïve early field experiences is particularly unworthy; every anthropologist knows about that and has gone through it, and there is no profit in saying it again.  I am always reminded of what the old bear says to the young wolves in Kipling’s Jungle Book:  “Ye need not stop work to inform us, We knew it ten seasons before.” 

In short, write what you feel is necessary, and no more; but if you have to err, err on the side of inclusion, because matters of rapport maintenance, intellectual property rights, and so on need more discussion than they have had heretofore.

 

In lieu of more extended discussion, let me list a few books (randomly selected—not a complete list!) that I think exemplify the best in anthropological writing—i.e., that are clear, decently written, and make extremely important general points on the basis of thorough but narrowly focused case studies.  (This list runs heavily to ecological anthro, because that’s what I do, but I try for a mix of humanistic, political, and biological studies, and of old as well as new ones.)

 

Cruikshank, Julie.  2005.  Do Glaciers Listen?  Local Knowledge, Colonial Encouinters, and Social Imagination.  Vancouver:  University of British Columbia Press.

 

Dove, Michael.  2011.  The Banana Tree at the Gate:  A History of Marginal Peoples and Global Markets in Borneo.  New Haven:  Yale University Press.

 

Feld, Steven.  1982.  Sound and Sentiment.  Princeton:  Princeton University Press. 

 

Firth, Raymond.  1936.  We the Tikopia.  London:  George Allen & Unwin.

 

Gonzalez, Roberto.  2001.  Zapotec Science:  Farming and Food in the Northern Sierra of Oaxaca. Austin:  University of Texas Press.

 

Greenfield, Patricia Marks.  2004.  Weaving Generations Together:  Evolving Creativity in the Maya of Chiapas.  Santa Fe:  School of American Research.

 

Hunn, Eugene.  1991.  N’Chi-Wana, The Big River.  Seattle:  University of Washington Press.

 

Lansing, Stephen.  1984.  Priests and Programmers.  Princeton:  Princeton University Press.

 

Li, Tania Murray.  2007.  The Will to Improve:  Governmentality, Development, and the Practice of Politics.  Durham:  Duke University Press.   

 

McCabe, J. Terrence.  2004.  Cattle Bring Us to Our Enemies:  Turkna Ecology, Politics, and Raiding in a Disequilibrium System.  Ann Arbor:  University of Michigan Press.

 

McCay, Bonnie.  1998.  Oyster Wars and the Public Trust:  Property Law, and Ecology in New Jersey History.  Tucson:  University of Arizona Press. 

 

Mooney, James.  1991.  The Ghost-Dance Religion and the Sioux Outbreak of 1890.  Lincoln:  University of Nebraska Press.  Originally appeared in the Bureau of American Ethnology annual report #14, for 1892-93, published in 1896.

 

Netting, Robert.  1991.  Balancing on an Alp:  Ecological Change and Continuity in a Swiss Mountain Community.  Cambridge:  Cambridge University Press.

 

Rose, Deborah.  2000.  Dingo Makes Us Human:  Life and Land in an Australian Aboriginal Culture.  New York:  Cambridge University Press.

 

West, Paige.  2012.  From Modern Production to Imagined Primitive: The Social World of Coffee from Papua-New Guinea.  Durham:  Duke University Press.

 

 

 

Chinese Food Updates

July 3rd, 2013

Chinese Food Updates

 

E. N. Anderson

 

Foreword

This website posting traces the development of the Chinese food system through such borrowings as well as through local innovation. 

Many years ago I wrote a book, The Food of China (1988), intended as a modest contribution to a cultural ecology of east Asia.  This book has remained one of the few accessible studies of Chinese food, and as such has achieved a rather undeserved status as a reference book.  It is now far out of date for such a purpose.  In particular, archaeology has made enormous strides since the 1980s, dramatically pushing back the dates of Chinese agriculture, and greatly increasing our knowledge of early millennia.

Many readers of the earlier work became captivated by descriptions of wonderful food, and missed the fact that I was largely describing a highly successsful agricultural system, and crediting its success to the billions of anonymous farmers and food workers who created it.  The world now needs more than ever the insights of traditional East Asian agriculture. 

I have written a number of obscure publications on Chinese food since 1988 (notably Anderson 1990, 1991, 2004, 2007, 2009, 2011a, 2011b, 2013a, 2013b), and have now finished a new book, Learning Is Like Chicken Feet, hopefully forthcoming from University of Pennsylvania Press, that will bring together a great deal of material on early and medieval Chinese food.  The present posting adds stray notes, especially on Chinese food ethnography—an area that has progressed greatly.

In the period since The Food of China appeared, serious studies of Chinese food have greatly increased.  My book was soon followed by Frederick Simoons’ encyclopedic Food in China (1991).  Meanwhile, several brilliant studies by the great French scholar Françoise Sabban brought a whole new level of sophistication to the field.  Then, with the new millennium, came several truly magistral syntheses of selected areas.  H. T. Huang’s life work on Chinese fungal and fermentation technologies reached fruition in the enormous volume (Huang 2000; Dr. Huang passed away in 2012 at the age of 95).  Lillian Li completed a similar life project in her definitive study of famine in Chinese history (Li 2007). 

Hu Shiu-Ying, an amazing ethnobotanist whose career spans over 70 years of research, produced her own life synthesis, Food Plants of China (2005).  Dr. Hu is, at the present writing, still going strong at well over 100 years old—surely a testimony to Chinese food and medicinal herbs. 

The sociology of Chinese food has also advanced greatly.  A number of Chinese scholars have devoted time and energy to interpretive studies, revealing the social and cultural complexities of food, eating, and food ideologies in the Chinese world.  Among these are Sidney Cheung, Rance Lee, Ambrose Tse, David Wu, Yan Yunxiang, and many others.  Western anthropologists such as Sidney Mintz and James and Rubie Watson (Watson 1997; Watson and Watson 2004) have also contributed greatly.  The medical aspects of Chinese foodways have received much attention, with outstanding work by Elisabeth Hsu, Vivienne Lo, and many others. 

Jacqueline Newman has not only contributed introductory works, but has also done yeoman service editing the food journal Flavor and Fortune.  Dr. Newman has chosen a “popular” approach and style, but her scholarly knowledge of Chinese food is orders of magnitude greater than that of many a scholar who writes in proper academic style.  Newman (who has given her collection of over 4000 Chinese cookbooks to SUNY-Stony Brook) has edited for many years a journal, Flavor and Fortune, which though popular in tone is scholarly in content and standards.  She has described regional cuisines, as have many contributors to the journal.  One recent article describes mushrooms of China, with references to early Chinese sources (J. Newman 2010), and including such unusual species as chicken-of-the-woods (Laetiporus sulphureus), enoki (Flammulina velutipes), and lion’s mane (Hericium erinaceus), and followed by an enthusiastic article by her husband on how to grow shiitake (Lentinula edodes; L. Newman 2010).  

 

In 2005 I had the opportunity to teach a short course on Chinese food history at the Universita di Scienze Gastronomiche, Pollenza, Italy.  This made me try to catch up somewhat on the explosion of information since 1988.  In the years since The Food of China appeared, I drifted away from Chinese studies, because of pressures in my department (Anthropology) at the University of California, Riverside.  I came to rest in Native American studies, doing research first on the Northwest Coast and then for over 20 years with the Yucatec Maya of Quintana Roo, Mexico.  This is a group whom I have come to love, and many of whom have become literally family (through Maya adoption practices).  Even so, with retirement, I found myself drifting back toward Asia.  Partly, I am simply getting too old for field work in the Quintana Roo rain forest (not the least harsh environment on the planet). 

 

New Lore:  Chinese Food Studies Updates

            Some “mispronunciations” turn out to be more interesting than they seem.  Sharp-eared foodies may have noticed that wolfthorn berries, now so popular in the western world as an antioxidant “nutraceutical,” are called either goujizi or gouqizi (Trader Joe’s sells them as “goji berries”).  This is reflected in, and may in fact come from, the fact that the phonetic element of the character for ji is actually pronounced qi, even though the full character (the phonetic plus the “tree” radical) is pronounced ji.  The linguist David Prager Branner discusses these cases and others (Branner 2011:107).  The same misreading, or perhaps simply a dialect variant that is reflected in the character, affects some other food plants:  qianma “nettle” gets read as xunma, jicai “shepherd’s purse” (a very good cress-like vegetable) as qicai, and pielan  or piela “kohlrabi” as pilan—in all cases the variant pronunciation following the phonetic without the “plant” radicals.

            Cantonese hot non-vegetarian dishes are yitfan (see So 1992:136ff).

            Tea has received its own art magazine:  The Art of Tea, up to issue 9 as of the end of 2010.  Unsurprisingly, it is supported by the Taiwan tea industry.  It is beautiful and detailed.  Going well beyond tea merchandising is Frederick Dannaway’s essay (2010) on the world-in-miniature and tea in China and Japan.  He notes, correctly, that the Chinese do not say “microcosm” or “world-in-miniature” for their bonsai landscapes and compressed urban gardens.  In fact they simply call them mountain landscapes or gardens or even worlds, as if they were the real thing.  And, indeed, they are…you need only look closely (Stein 1990).

 

Globalization and Diaspora:  Chinese Food Outside China

Much research on Chinese food in recent years has focused on the process of globalization.  In most arenas, globalization has meant the spread of American pop culture at the expense of everything else.  It is currently a bit politically uncorrect to say this, but look at any photograph of any street in any city in the world, and think where the clothing styles, sign styles, building styles, car styles, and other styles originated.  The only serious exception to Americanization, outside of local scripts on the signs, is the religiously-entailed women’s clothing in the more conservative Muslim cities.  In foodways, however, the Chinese have more than held their own.  Chinese food has been going global for centuries, since it spread along the Silk Road and along land and sea routes to Southeast Asia. 

            The long process of blending Chinese and Southeast Asian food thus commands attention, and has received it in several excellent studies (see Tan [ed.] 2011).  Notable is one on Chinese food in Singapore (Huat and Rajah 2001).  Chinese settled in southern Malaya by the 1500s, and a fusion cuisine, “Nonya” food, arose as they married into local communities.   It influenced both parents:  returning migrants brought Sinicized versions of Malay foods back to China, and Malay food has adopted countless Chinese ingredients and techniques.  It differs from both parents in a strong emphasis on turmeric and lesser galangal; it uses more hot spices than Chinese food, but less than Malay.  A very similar evolution has taken place in Indonesia, where the peranakan (Indonesian-Chinese) communities developed fusion cuisines and influenced Indonesian food profoundly.  (Ultimately, they influenced the whole world, through such inventions as ketchup.)  “Nonya” cuisine (“nonya” is a local word for a Chinese woman of status) has been self-consciously revived and modernized in Singapore (and to a lesser extent in Malaysia).  Thus, it has progressively changed.

            The initial diaspora of Chinese food was almost entirely from the south coastal provinces, Fujian and Guangdong (Anderson 1988; Tan 2011).  Southeast Asian Chinese food is primarily from Fujian, with varying degrees of Guangdong and other influences.  The names for foods show this:  they are almost entirely in Hokkien (Southern Min), the language of southern Fujian and neighboring northern Guangdong (Anderson 1988; Tan 2011).  The Philippines seems slightly more complicated, with some highly Tagalog-influenced Chinese words that do not always show clear Hokkien roots.  Carolyn Ang See (2011) provides an excellent account with full food vocabulary; words can be Tagalog, Hokkien, Cantonese (e.g. siomai for siumai) or even possible Mandarin with much Tagalog influence.  Sometimes the etymology is astonishing:  the standard Philippine noodle dish pansit is from Hokkien pian sit (Mandarin bian shi), “fast or convenient food.”  On top of this, Philippine languages have borrowed many Spanish words for dish types and ingredients.  Sometimes these Spanish words were in turn borrowed from native American languages; for instance, various pronunciations of the Nahuatl (“Aztec”) word camote have become the usual names for the sweet potato.

In the Western Hemisphere, Chinese food meant Cantonese food—from central Guangdong—until recently.  The standard food names are Cantonese, sometimes in the Taishan (Toisan) dialect; most of the early Cantonese migrant were from Taishan or the nearby “four districts” (the sei yap of California Chinese history) that speak a closely related dialect.   Only in the last 40 years have Sichuanese, Shanghainese, north Chinese, and other regional cuisines spread much beyond China’s borders.  Another aspect of the mix has been the recent emigration of vast numbers of ethnic Chinese from Vietnam and other southeast Asian countries.  They have started restaurants that not only reflect the fusion cuisines of their homelands, but also reflect fusion in their new homes with local traditions.  It is thus common in the United States to find “Vietnamese” restaurants that serve sinicized Vietnamese staples, standard south Chinese dishes, and American Chinese dishes like beef broccoli and ginger beef. 

An eclectic cuisine has developed and become almost universal.  “Chinese” restaurants in North America and Europe, for instance, typically serve the more famous dishes of several regions.  This regional fusion was looked upon with some disquiet by traditional gourmets, but it is now quite standard in Hong Kong and Taiwan as well as in diaspora communities (Wu 2011 gives excellent descriptions and provides his full share of the disquiet).

            Americans first learned of Chinese food in China itself, and developed a stereotype of it (based on Canton experience) as a lot of unsavory dishes of cut-up cats, dogs, and such (Coe 2009; see pp. 32 ff for colonial racist quotes).  Chinese emigrants came to America in the Gold Rush and in much larger numbers in the late 19th century, bringing rural Cantonese food, especially from the Taishan (Toisan) district of Guangdong).  This food was not necessarily China’s finest, and only slowly won acceptance.  Coming of more variety and quality led to an explosive growth of acceptance, making Chinese food universal and beloved (Coe 2009; Newman and Halporn 2004). 

            More recently, Chinese restaurants from Korea and Japan to America and Europe have developed local versions of Chinese food.  (On this, there are several excellent recent studies, notably Newman and Halporn 2004; Roberts 2002; Wu and Cheung 2002; Wu and Tan 2001.  For Korea, a superb article by Kim Bok-rae, 2009, chronicles in detail the changes involved.  Here the main influence was from Shandong, not south China. For France, see Sabban 2009.)   They accommodate to local tastes by changing spices, substituting local ingredients, etc. 

They also, alas, often use much cheaper and worse ingredients than they would dare to use at home.  American Chinese food has gone through several stages in my lifetime.  When I was young, most American Chinese came from impoverished backgrounds, and cooked (by necessity) rather cheap, simple food.  Accommodation to American ways led to making this cuisine even cheaper and simpler, resulting in the food of the “chop suey joints” of old (Coe 2009).  These were small local restaurants that served very humble food—“chop suey” is from Cantonese tsap sui, “miscellaneous leftovers.”  New waves of ever-more-affluent, ever-more-educated immigrants brought higher standards, and now the best restaurants in Los Angeles, New York, and—especially!—San Francisco are as good as any (except perhaps the very best) in Hong Kong or Taiwan.  The Los Angeles area now has highly specialized restaurants; one excellent one specializes in hui tou, a shallow-fried dumpling like a pot-sticker but larger and juicier, with a rather thick wheat-flour skin surrounding finely minced, highly flavored pork or beef.  Vegetarian and Buddhist restaurants exist, as do ones specializing in Zhuang minority food, Manchurian food, medical food, and countless other items.

Far from all restaurants come up to this standard.  Even the old-fashioned “chop suey joint” survives in rural communities; it has become all but extinct in urban America. 

Similar progress is documented for Australia, Japan, England, and elsewhere, with perhaps less eclipse of the low-end (Cheung and Tan 2007; Wu 2011; Wu and Cheung 2002).  David Wu, anthropologist and self-described Chinese gourmet, has traveled widely in the world, and eaten at every sort of Chinese restaurant from the humblest New Guinea émigré shack to the finest and most expensive restaurants in China and Taiwan.  He provides us a memoir (Wu 2011) with his reminiscences and frank opinions of Chinese food around the world—finding it very lacking indeed in many of the émigré communities.

In western South America, where Chinese restaurants are known as chifa (presumably a corruption of Mandarin chi fan or Cantonese sik faan “eat rice”), food of the old “chop suey joint” style survives and flourishes, providing cheap, filling food.  New “wine palaces” in the central cities have not displaced the old chifas.

            In Hawaii, the old “chop suey joints”—fondly remembered by working-class Hawaiians—have given way to “all you can eat buffets” that provide modernized but bland fare (Wu 2008; similar restaurants exist on the mainland, but are not so common).  There are many Native Hawaiian and mainland Anglo-American influences in the cuisine.  Emphasis has been on providing cheap, filling food to a varied but typically nonaffluent clientele.  David Wu, veteran of countless meals in the Chinese diaspora and long resident in Hawaii, concludes that, in Hawaii, “[i]t is very difficult at this time to identify any Chinese restaurants that provide a fine dining and exquisite culinary experience” (Wu 2008:23).  Fortunately, this is not true of the Pacific Coast mainland.

            Chinese overseas continue to celebrate with traditional foods—long-life noodles for birthdays, cakes and sweets for life-passsage rites and at New Year, buns, dumplings, roast meat (Newman et al. 1988).  In general, as Chinese immigrants acculturate to receiver societies, drinks and snacks change first; traditional festive dishes change last.

One of the oddest creations of the Chinese diaspora was the fortune cookie—an ordinary American sugar cookie wrapped around a slip of paper with an oracular line on it.  This strange food was invented in California, either San Francisco or Los Angeles (McDermott 2000).  San Franciscans tend to blame it on Los Angeles and vice versa.  One Anglo-American man in San Francisco made a career of writing the fortunes for the restaurants there.  The fortune cookie found a chronicler in Terry McDermott (2000), who researched it thoroughly for an article (a very humorous one) in the Los Angeles Times.  Many of the fortunes are recycled bits of Western wisdom literature, and many of the fortune-writers are not Chinese.  A counter-theory has it invented in Japan (Andrew Coe, pers. comm., Feb. 2010).  This is unlikely; the sugar cookie is as alien to Japan as it is to China.

            I have developed an interest in cultural ways that “swim upstream,” i.e. that not only survive in the face of Americanization but actually invade America itself.  Chinese food and Italian food are the clear winners in this sweepstakes, though Andean and Celtic music, Australian Aboriginal art, French and Australian wines, and various other cultural entities are noteworthy as well. 

In general, things that “swim upstream” have to be really good, and they have to be actively merchandised.  It helps if they are purveyed by prestigious urban communities, but this is obviously not necessary, given the success of Australian Aboriginal art and Andean indigenous music.  Some things fail simply because they come from cultures that do not like high-pressure salesmanship.  A comparison I did between Finnish food and Chinese food in America revealed that Finnish restaurants failed not because the food was bad but because traditional Finnish hospitality requires that guests be fed without charge! 

Other immigrant communities (the Ethiopian, for instance) were less charitable and did well, but kept restaurants going just long enough to put their children through college, whereupon the children became engineers, lawyers and other white-collar workers.  A brief burst of Ethiopian restaurants has narrowed to a small number of dedicated survivors. 

The Chinese, even when college educated, love to start restaurants.  The distinguished Sinologist and anthropologist Vivienne Lo, for instance, continues to carry on the family tradition (her father was the famous chef and restauranteur Kenneth Lo) by helping her sister Jenny Lo with professional cooking and cookbook writing (Lo and Lo 2003).  Chinese food is taking over the world more surely than American fast food is.  One reason is the dedication of Chinese in all walks of life to good eating.  Another is the popularity of Chinese food with virtually everybody. 

            Meanwhile, American food, inevitably at its worst, has invaded East Asia.  A superb collection of studies edited by James Watson (1997) records the progress of McDonald’s Hamburgers in Asia.  Yan Yunxiang (1997), writing in Watson’s book, records how McDonald’s in China became the “in” place for sophisticated, worldly young people to be seen—a far cry from its identification in its homeland with more humble social realms.  I have seen the same thing in Hong Kong.  It always amazed me to see Hong Kong citizens, arguably the most food-conscious gourmets that have ever existed on this planet, flocking to a restaurant of this nature.  (Incidentally, McDonald’s started just down the street from where I used to live, in the hardscrabble city of San Bernardino, California.  The McDonald brothers first opened a roadhouse a few miles to the west of the town, then settled in San Bernardino and began to branch out.  The real spread of the chain, however, took place after they retired and sold out to Roy Kroc, who internationalized the chain.  See Schlosser 2002.) 

            There is, as of 2012, a vast potato chip boom.  Lay’s has the largest market share, but there are local imitations.  Growers are displacing grassland and herders in Inner Mongolia to grow the potatoes.  Quality control is the main problem—only 1 out of 3 big potatoes usually makes the cut (!).  The sustainable grassland-herding economy is giving way to a probably unsustainable potato boom (K. D. Anderson and Isenhour 2012).

With globalization, international influences have also influenced Chinese food in its homeland.  First, the worldwide mid-20th-century fondness for meat, oil and sugar influenced Chinese food, which became far less healthy than it had formerly been.  This process ran from about the middle 1960’s to the 1990’s.  By the 1980s, a reaction was beginning, again tracking trends elsewhere.  The emphasis returned to healthier fare, with smaller portions, more vegetables, more delicate cooking, more attention to fresh high-quality ingredients, and above all less fat and sugar. 

This may have been “nouvelle” cuisine in France and America, but it was, for China, a return to the status quo ante.  It has certainly led to what almost anyone would describe as a marked improvement, if one compares a good Chinese restaurant today with one 20 years ago.  But the great restaurants of 40 and more years ago remain, in my opinion, unequalled today.  The biggest difference is in the ingredients.  Few if any restauranteurs today will raise their own chickens and feed them entirely on sesame seeds, for instance.  And, more tragically, the superb sea foods of the old days simply do not exist any more.  They have been fished to extinction.

            On the other hand, nouvelle cuisine is alive and well in China’s newly opulent cities with their nouveaux riches desperate for status consumption (see e.g. Farquhar 2002).  Cantonese cuisine has benefited, or suffered, depending on one’s taste, and the resulting challenge to Cantonese tradition has been the subject of a stunningly good and thorough review by Jakob Klein (2007).  Klein documents the rise of expensive nouvelle Cantonese restaurants in Hong Kong and Guangzhou; meanwhile the traditional food suffers some eclipse, partly because of the difficulty of getting good ingredients in these environmentally-sad times.  Klein’s investigation of the sociological and personal experiences that result defies summary and needs serious reading.  Klein has also given wonderful accounts of the revival of traditional Cantonese food in Guangzhou; some old-timers are not satisfied, but at least they have something of the good old days back (Klein 2006, 2007).  Klein tells of Old Uncle Lu, who complains of sloppy cooking but still eats at the venerable teashop in the center of town.

            “Fusion cuisine” has become a fad in California and some other multicultural environs.  Chinese food is often blended with French, Japanese, Italian, and other “great” cuisines (D. Wu 2012).  The results are always striking and sometimes (!) successful….  One remembers that this is no new phenomenon; fusion cuisine at its most fused (so to speak) is documented in the Yinshan Zhengyao and many similar medieval works. 

            All this raises the question of “authenticity.”  Obviously, by now, “authentic” Chinese food is a very slippery concept.  Hamburgers are not authentic Chinese food, but what do you say about the split bao buns stuffed with flattened Chinese meatballs that were popular a few years ago in teashops?  They were thoroughly traditional in taste, but made to look like the prestigious hamburger.  And what of the thousands of species of fish and shellfish now used in Chinese restaurants round the world?  Most were unknown in old China, but they are now cooked in thoroughly Chinese ways, and they taste just fine.  And it always makes me feel a bit weird to eat hot-and-sour soup (suanlatang) that doesn’t have dried daylily buds or coagulated blood in it.  But, in much of the world, you can’t get daylily buds, and people won’t eat blood.  So, hot-and-sour soup adapts.  Some westernization is a total disaster, such as using sherry instead of Chinese “wine” in cooking, or thickening sauces with flour.  Other westernization works fine, such as adopting asparagus and other newly-Asianized western vegetables.  One has to look case by case.  (Lo and Lo 2003 provide a cookbook that talks thoughtfully about such matters.) 

            So I prefer to talk about what is traditional—what has been around for generations—and what is new.  Then I care about whether the result tastes good.  I let someone else worry about “authenticity.”  (See David Wu’s cited books.)

 

Current Foodways around China

            A great deal more about Chinese food and caixi—“systems of dishes,” i.e. regional and local cuisines—has come out since 1988.  H. T. Huang’s huge book—the labor of a lifetime—goes into much more detail on wheat products (including alum-raised ones, such as yutiao and some bao) and on flavoring pastes than I can possibly summarize.  There are also many cookbooks with ethnographic detail going far beyond simple recipes.  (A few examples from a large, good literature are Lo and Lo 2003, see previous section; Yee 1975; Young and Richardson 2004).

            Local foodways are covered in a major collection of papers, edited by David Holm (2009).

            Sticky rice, miscalled “glutinous,” is sticky because it has almost no amylose; the starch it does have, amylopectin, cooks up stickier.  It also brews better, and is thus the usual feedstock for rice “wines” and sakes.  Rice varieties have varying proportions of amylose and amlopectin, and are thus sticky to varying degrees.  The textbook separation of indica, japonica, and glutinous rices does not survive well; there are too many subvarieties, intermediates, and dubiously related sticky forms.

            Eggplants, domesticated in India, were apparently independently domesticated in what is now southern Yunnan (Meyer et al. 2012; the domestic plant Solanum melongena and its purported wild ancestors, S. incanum and S. undatum, turn out to be genetically pretty much the same—all one species).  They go back about as far as any plant records are found, in both China and India.  The garden egg—the variety whose fruit really looks like an egg, oval and white—is apparently yet a third domestication, from southern Southeast Asia.

            Noodles are made in several ways.  Low-gluten grains like corn and buckwheat are made into a rather wet dough and forced through holes in a colander, directly into boiling water.  This is probably how those 4000-year-old noodles were made.  Bean starch and some wheat/egg noodles are made into lumps or flat sheets and hand-cut.  High-gluten wheat noodles are made in many ways, the most dramatic of which are “pulled” or “swung noodles” (la mian).  For these, the dough is stretched and then swung like a jump-rope, then doubled and re-swung, then doubled again, and so on.  This develops the gluten so much that it produces an extremely chewy noodle.  Swinging the dough without having it neck down and break requires extreme skill.  (Not long ago, the one expert at this in Los Angeles was a Mexican chef working in a Korean restaurant.  Globalization is real.)

Salt in Chinese culture has been the subject of a major monograph by Hans Ulrich Vogel (2009); he reviews every aspect of its production and consumption in late Imperial times, and compares these with the contemporary European world.  Vogel notes, sympathetically, that Chinese add deep-drilling—perfected for salt wells—to the list of the greatest inventions China has given the world, along with paper, printing, the compass, and gunpowder (Vogel 2009:185).

Boiling and steaming remain the commonest ways of cooking in China, but stir-frying and especially deep-frying and roasting/baking have become much more common in recent decades.  The result is not always good for health; fat consumption has soared.  Complex cooking involving several processes has become common in restaurants.  Vegetables are more and more often parboiled before being stir-fried, instead of cut up, stir-fried, and then finished in added liquid.  (The latter was the traditional method, at least in the households I knew; but the newer one works fine).

            Seafood gourmetship gets ever more arcane, and ever more fatal to the world oceans (Fabinyi 2012; Fabinyi et al. 2012).  The fisheries of China and the seas around it are depleted, and a zone of extreme overfishing is expanding rapidly through the Philippines and Indonesia and out into the Pacific.  Even American coasts are depleted, by overfishing of things like sea cucumbers and sea urchins.

            Vegetarianism has received some attention lately.  Chinese Buddhists are supposed to be vegetarian, and some non-Buddhists are too; this has led to the development of a vegetarian cuisine.  Buddhist vegetarianism and avoidance of alcohol have received noteworthy attention and excellent review in two articles (Benn 2005; Kieschnick 2005; both in Sterckx 2005).

Ducks may not be raised from the egg with loving care any more (though some probably still are), but the Quan Jude restaurant—Beijing’s classic “Peking duck” place—has flourished and even franchised out.  The owners were sent down to the countryside for being bourgeois, during the Great Cultural Revolution, but they returned (Ni 2004).

Preserving eggs has received brief but thorough monographic treatment from Fuchsia Dunlop (2006), who points out that it was westerners who started calling pi dan “hundred-year” or “thousand-year-old” eggs.  They are aged a few days or weeks.

Milk and milk products used in the past include butter in offerings and milk products consumed by Buddhist monks, among other things (Newman 2011a). 

Insects, rarely mentioned at length in Chinese food books, have been treated along with various annelid and other worms by M. Leung (2000).  Cicadas, waterbugs, silkworms, and others are eaten.  Caterpillars and grasshoppers, in particular, saved countless people from starvation in earlier times.  Locusts were so popular they inspired a religious cult (Hsu 1969).  Insects are a major component of southeast Asian fare, occupying e.g. much of the space in the public markets of Cambodia, where deepfried tarantulas are also a delicacy.  Pond snails are popular, and Chinese introduced at least one genus, Viviparus, to the United States, via markets; it still is found therein, but has escaped and gone wild as well (Paul Chace, personal communication, 1987; see also Hanna 1966:37 on V. stelmaphorus).  More exotic is “winter frog”—the fat, with part of the reproductive system, derived from one species of frog in north China (Newman 2000).  One suspects that other frogs are used, because this and other frog dishes are available even in far Los Angeles.  This is contributing to the worldwide disappearance of amphibia.  Turtles are not only popular food, but medicinal, and their fabled longevity makes them a possible candidate for a long-life food (Newman 2004b).  Unfortunately, turtles, like many other animals, are threatened with extinction in China because of their popularity as food and because the Communist government destroyed the traditions of conservation and resource management that had protected China’s and southeast Asia’s environment for centuries. 

            Among the saddest cases of failure of conservation is the supply of edible birds’ nests.  These are the nests of a swiftlet, Collocalia esculenta, which makes “white” nests of protein secreted from glands in its mouth.  (Related species produce “black bird’s nests,” not purely mouth secretions, therefore inferior and in need of considerable cleaning.)  The nests are highly regarded as food and medicine, strengthening yin and lungs, good for digestion, and generally tonic.  They actually are made primarily of indigestible long-chain proteins, but include growth stimulants and a unique glycoprotein with immunomodulating value (Kong et al 1990; Langham 1980).  The supply is, however, endangered by overcollecting; increasing demand and breakdown of local social rules on harvesting have led to wiping out the swiftlet in China and making it rarer and rarer throughout its range in southeast Asia (Chiang 2011).

Mushrooms of many species are important foods in China (Newman 2010b, 2011c) and especially among minorities.  Many are also exported to Japan.  A huge trade has developed in the Tibetan frontier lands.  Daniel Winkler has chronicled this, and could not resist the temptation to refer to “mushrooming trade” (Winkler 2008, 2009).

 

Our knowledge of cooking in the various provinces of China has been enormously advanced by many culinary ethnographies.

Particular distinguished mention goes to Fuchsia Dunlop for her stunning work on Sichuan food, Land of Plenty (2001).  This book not only includes recipes for almost all the Sichuan specialties, but a set of glossaries that give the characters, transliteration, and definition for just about every common Chinese cooking and culinary term, as well as Sichuan localisms, including very obscure ones.  The recipes are, as she says, authentic: they are the way the better Sichuan chefs actually prepared them when she was there in the 1990s.  They are properly rich in garlic, Sichuan brown pepper, and chile, just as I remember real Sichuan food in the old-time cafes in Taiwan that catered to Sichuanese. A later personal memoir, Shark’s Fin and Sichuan Pepper (2008), adds more terms and recipes, as well as lively accounts of eating.  These and other works have established Dunlop as perhaps the leading ethnographer of actual Chinese food.  (A later book by Dunlop, Every Grain of Rice: Simple Chinese Home Cooking, 2012, goes over relatively familiar ground, but has some very unusual but simple recipes; it is, however, a photograph book, not an in-depth study.)

Henan, previously a rather blank spot on the culinary map, has had its food chronicled by (once again) Jacqueline Newman (2011d—with recipes).  It is noted for fairly plain, straightforward cooking, running heavily to pork, onions, and noodle dishes.

In Shanxi, jujubes are made into a true wine—they are mashed and fermented.  Buckwheat is important there, and is made into noodles, as in Korea and Japan.

            In Fujian, dumplings stuffed with meat and flattened are called bian shi, “flattened eats.”

In Guangxi, barnyard millet (Echinochloa) is an important grain; its name has spread to maize.  The foods of Guangxi have been described by David Holm (1999).

In Yunnan and elsewhere, a bitter tuber of a water plant, sa pi, comes from a Homocharis sedge.  Pteridium and Osmunda fern shoots are also eaten.  Mallows, chayotes from Mexico, and mushrooms abound.  Yogurt is still widespread.  Lima beans have become very common in Yunnan, and known locally elsewhere. 

            Yunnan cooking still includes dairy products, including thin sheets of goat cheese (ru pi “milk skin”), said to be from the Bai people.  Related is deep-fried soft goat cheese cubes.  Yogurt survives among Tibetan and related minorities.  The extension of milk products to southeast Asia, and their subsequent contraction from much of the region, was chronicled by Paul Wheatley (1965).  He pointed out that they spread with Hinduism and Buddhism, which use milk products ritually, and contracted with the spread of Islam.  An excellent water-buffalo yogurt survives among the Toba Batak of Sumatera, as a local but important food (personal observation; Richard Lando, personal communication over many years).

Basella esculenta, a green vegetable oddly known as “bean curd vegetable,” is eaten in southwest China. 

            One of the large smoky-flavored cardamoms, Amomum villosum, is distinguished (and long has been) as sha ren, not tsaoko.

            Many books and articles on tea have appeared, e.g. Chow and Kramer (1990).

The indefatigable Naomichi Ishige, now probably the foremost ethnographer of Chinese food, has produced a fine review article on dining behavior around East Asia (Ishige 2006).

Finally, on a literary note, a humorous short performance by storyteller An Zhongwen of Hangzhou has been translated (Simmons 2011:476-477).  It is a marketplace dialogue between a dried ribbon fish and a winter melon.  They slang each other in dialect like a couple of peasants.  The ribbon fish boasts not only of his taste but of “containin’ phosphorus, protein, and fat”—An Zhongwen was having some fun with modern nutritional advice.  The winter melon answers that it is “thrifty and practical, moreover easy to cook.”  As well as available for candying and soup.  Also, it could roll over and squash the fish with its sixty-eight catties—88 pounds, a most unusual weight indeed for a winter melon.

 

Good descriptions of local Chinese cuisines have finally begun to emerge in English.

Mark Swislocki (2009) has provided a fine study of Shanghai food and its local meanings—heavily nostalgic, of course.

Fujian food involves, besides the famous red ferment on rice, a flavoring mix often lacking ginger—odd in China (see below).  Raw sea food in wine lees or red ferment is not to the outsiders’ taste, especially since the sound and feel of crunching the shell is part of the pleasure.  Pitahaya, a Mexican cactus fruit, has come to Fujian and elsewhere in southeast China, under the name of “fire dragon fruit” (huo long guo)—a creative name for a scaly fruit of shocking pink and electric green.  New world foods often came first to Fujian, and some odd ones occur, such as a purple field corn similar to rare Mexican varieties—and very good (I met with it in remote rural Fujian in 1999).  Green tea powder is used there, as in Japan.  Fukien “water liquor”—made with yeast, often including the red ferment so beloved there (Huang 2000), and water—is mixed with highly distilled raw alcohol to produce a drink significantly called “tiger piss” (lao hu miao).  Hakka people of the area sometimes skin and smoke-dry field mice for food. 

In Quanzhou, tea was once common, became rare, and is now common again, thanks to the boom in the Chinese tea industry; this is a case of  “re-invented tradition” (Tan and Ding 2010).

            Wuhan food, judging from a very inadequate sample in a restaurant in San Gabriel, involves very chile-rich chopped meat dishes cooked in a pan over the stove; I have seen this in Hunanese restaurants elsewhere.  In my experience, there is not much taste except the basic ingredient and the chile.  The Tasty Dining Restaurant also offers sweet glutinous rice-squash cakes with sesame seeds on top; good, and supposedly loved by Mao Zedong.  Noodles with sesame and soy sauces, dumplings with rice and mushrooms as well as pork, and other small items are major parts of the cuisine.

            Guizhou’s cuisine, previously almost unknown to the outside world, has finally received a short monograph.  The indefatigable Jacqueline Newman (2010b) reports both regular and glutinous rice, the usual vegetables, nuts including walnuts, wild sour fruit, and game.  Pickled vegetables are popular, and Newman gives an elaborate recipe (2010b:10).  Dog meat is eaten for strengthening (see also Newman 2011a).  Recipes include a marvelous one for fish in sour soup.  Many snacks and fish dishes occur.  I remember once seeing in a Chinese cookbook a Guizhou recipe for pangolin—an animal eaten because its weird appearance makes it suspect of having powerful qi.  The recipe involved stewing it with every strong-flavored thing in Chinese cuisine, obviously to kill the taste; the animal lives on ants.  (I was reminded of the classic American folk recipe for cooking a coot:  Put the coot in water with a brick; boil till brick is tender; throw away the coot and eat the brick.  I am told that Australians use the same recipe for the cockatoo.)

            In Hubei, the mountainous southern district of Enshi is an outlier of minority groups; people of Tujia, Miao and Dong ancestry live there, though they have now Sinicized and blended into the local Chinese population.  A distinctive cuisine of uncertain origin is locally called “Tujia,” but is really a general local cuisine, eaten by all groups in Enshi.  The local anthropologist Xu Wu (2011) has devoted an entire book to this cuisine—the first scholarly book in English on a Chinese local folk cuisine.  Apparently it is a development of the whole mixed-origin population, since it is based on introduced New World crops and is thus clearly a relatively recent development.  Early account mention millets (including eleusine—now forgotten in the area), barley, buckwheat and bracken fern rhizome starch instead of the New World foods.  A watershed for the area was 1735, when the Qing Dynasty worked to open up the area for farming; settlers including minority peoples moved in, land was cultivated, game was hunted out, and the New World crops began to take over.

The distinctive Enshi cuisine is based on maize flour.  Maize is now thought to have been there since ancient times, and the locals refer to themselves as maize-eaters in contrast with the people of the plains, who are rice-eaters; by humorous analogy, jeeps are “maize-eaters” and autos are “rice-eaters” (Wu 2011:93; page numbers refer to the ms., since the book is in print as of this writing).  Rice is, however, important, and all the ritual grain dishes are made of it.  As elsewhere in China, maize has remained very much an outsider in this regard.

Local vegetables are staples, including wild greens.  The “fish flavor vegetable,” Houttuynia cordata, is popular; the root is eaten with the inevitable chiles.  Wormwood (Artemisia sp.) is another.  The people also eat what the Japanese call konnyaku: cakes of the root starch from Amorphophallus riveri.  One dish is made of smoked pork, smoked sausage casing, sticky rice, regular rice, wild wormwood, and wild garlic.” (Wu 2011:40).  It is eaten at the Spring Sacrifice in the second month.  Another green is Camellia oleifera, traditionally used not only for soup but also for tea in place of C. sinensis.  There are said to be 2000 kinds of medicinal plants (Wu 2011:71).  Famine in the Great Leap Forward led to reliance on sweet potato, fern starch, and even loquat tree bark, which is somewhat poisonous (Wu 2011:151).

Pork and bean curd are as popular as elsewhere.  The rivers have fish, once abundant but now depleted.  Game was once important; old accounts even mention smoked tiger meat (Wu 2011:71) as well as hunting with hawks and hounds (p. 83).  Even today, meat (now pork) is often smoked, harking back to the days when preserving game was a regular activity.

This cuisine, at least the folk form of it, is called “hezha.” It was once considered low, but is now popular, with its own specialty restaurants.  Hezha refers specifically to soybeans ground with water as for making tofu, but it is used as a drink or soup in Enshi instead of being processed into tofu.  It is usually cooked with chopped vegetable leaves for soup.  Sometimes red peppers, garlic, and other hot spices are added, or meat is ground with the soybeans to make a very rich hezha.  Its name has come to be the term for the whole cuisine.  Rice is sometimes cooked with white potato cubes as a starch staple.  This is washed down with the local white lightning, made of maize.  Potatoes—often a staple—are also sliced and stir-fried, then eaten with vinegar-chile sauce.  Sweet potato too can be a staple, sometimes made into a ball of mash.

The people love sour flavors including pickled vegetables (Wu 2011:50).  They especially love sour-and-hot foods (“hot” with chile—la—not necessarily hot in temperature).  They make chile sauces, both with chiles alone and with chopped chile mixed with maize flour.  The latter can be stir-fried with smoked pork or cooked into mush.  Chile is used in everything and is wildly popular, and is pieced out with spicebush (Lindera glauca), a spicy-flavored wild plant; it is said to regulate qi (Wu 2011:48).  Sweetening came from glutinous rice, sweet potatoes, maize stems, and other natural sources, including honey.  The local variant of “five spice” involves brown pepper, star anise, cinnamon, clove, and fennel (Wu 2011:48).  The methods of cooking are the usual ones, but they add “dressing raw vegetables with sauce (liangban) (Wu 2011:51).  A banquet is known as “eating wine” (chi jiu; Wu 2011:52).  Another unique trait (so far as I know) is their category of “rising” (fa) foods, those like konnyaku, egg, sticky rice, and kelp, that stimulate and can exacerbate skin outbreaks (allergy rashes)—more or less a blend of the wider Chinese concepts of supplementing and hot-wet foods (Wu 2011:53). 

New Year is celebrated as usual, but many families eat the banquet a day or two before the actual new year.  This is said to be a Tujia custom, but is in fact rather widely distributed.  Many different explanations are given, showing how many “origin myths” for a common custom can coexist in even a small community.  Often the meal involves a pig head and tail, so the year will have “a good beginning and a good end.”

A large number of taboos and avoidances for pregnant women are known, and the usual high-nutrient postpartum foods are recommended (Wu 2011:193). 

From Hunan, we have “the strange tale of General Tso’s chicken” (Dunlop 2005).  General Tso’s Chicken is a common Hunanese dish today, but does not fit the usual Hunanese cooking style, and is not known in Hunan itself outside the capital.  Fuchsia Dunlop tracked it down to an innovative Hunanese chef who invented it in Taiwan (after the Nationalists took refuge there) and then moved to New York, where he Americanized the recipe.  It now bears more resemblance to American Chinese restaurant fare than to anything native to Hunan.  Dunlop points out that it fits a common pattern of naming a dish after a general or other famous individual who might have enjoyed it (except that, in this case as in some others, it was invented long after he passed on). 

Fish are still raised in rural Hong Kong—an unchanged landscape contrasting strangely with the high-rises of Yun Long.  The fish bring 12-15 HK dollars per catty but cost 12 per catty to raise, so it isn’t very profiatable and children are not picking it up as a profession. 

Cantonese food is more elaborate than ever, but the simplest of its dishes, “yat ka mien,” remains with us on American menus.  The name simply means “one (order of) noodles” (Gray 2011).  Another simple food that persists is pun choi, “basin dish,” a large stew-up of meats, traditionally prepared by men, in quantity, for ancestral feasts and commemorative rites and for weddings.  James Watson (1987, 2011) provided a classic study of its important role in village life; it was a core of the festivals that brought village people together and created solidarity.  It has more recently caught on as a restaurant dish (Cheung 2012) and tourist attraction (Watson 2011).  It involves once-inexpensive village foods:  “dried pig skin, dried eel, dried squid, radish, tofu skin, mushroom and pork stewed in soybean paste” (Cheung 2012:4).  Fancier ingredients are now added. 

Simpler yet is rice, but its role in Cantonese life is important enough to inspire a major book, Gourmets in the Land of Famine by Seung-joon Lee (2011).

Shun De (my Sun Tak) has a distinctive cuisine, very rich, with mild and subtle flavors; many fish dishes.  It is very popular now (2013) in Guangjou.  Delicacies include sandworms, snake belly meat (various species of rat snake are on the menu), turtles, chestnut cake (stuffed pancake), all sorts of fish.  Pork hocks are cooked in a sweet sauce much like an American ham sauce. 

Chen Village fen is rice paper with pork bits and soy and other saucing; simple nbut sgreat.  A really good sweet is glutinous rice cake with jujube mashed with some brown sugar. 

In a market in Guangjou I noted several new items to me in January of 2013.  One was cow milk jujubes, huge jujubes as big as apples and green in color.  Another was gobo root, huai shan (water radical, huai phon; mountain).  Passion fruit was sold as hundred-fragrance fruit, and enoki as golden-needle mushroom.  Snow lotus was a crisp root, somewhere between a yam and a radish.  A real yam was called fen ge.  Tiger head chile is California chile.  A new fruit is jitan guo (chicken egg fruit)—much like a yellow sapote.  It isn’t in Hu.  It may indeed be a kind of yellow sapote.  Concholepas from Mexico has now come to Hong Kong as an abalone substitute.

Rosemary is now available in Guangjou herb shops.  So are all too many dyed gouji berries and Cordyceps; phony or low-quality cordyceps, dyed orange, is a staple.  The real thing is worth more than gold, and rather hard to find there.  Live scorpions, however, abound.  Crocodile meat may be found, and soup of it is taken for asthma (xiao chuan bing).  A new herb is snow chrysanthemum, a bright orange dried daisy flower.  It makes the best herbal tea I have ever had.  It is in Hong Kong too, as are huge thick slabs of Vietnamese cinnamon bark, used to treat allergy to meat, among other things.

On a different note, there are now maotais costing over $150 per bottle.  And yak meat may now be had in Guangjou; it tastes like good beef.

Some new Shanghainese items to me in 2013 were salted duck eggs (mild, with slightly runny yolks; very good); small river shrimp with Chen kong vinegar; finely slivered baby bok vchoy with mushrooms and meat threads.  Extremely small baby bok choy is “chicken feather” bok choy.

Macau has its own cuisine, alas poorly known and poorly described; we need a cookbook (see Sales Lopes 2010).

            Chinese names for dishes continue to delight.  Thin noodles with ground meat and oil (and lots of chile) are “ants climbing on trees,” because the bits of meat stick to the noodles and look like ants on trees—if you have a lot of imagination.  A Beijing sweet delicacy is “ass rolls about”—a sweet glutinous rice cylinder rolled in crushed bean meal.  The rolling process reminds one of a donkey rolling on sand to scratch his back.  “Across the bridge noodles” is a Yunnan dish in which noodles are poured from one pot into another to finish cooking; the name may come from that, but there is an origin myth involving an elite boy forced to study all the time, and isolated for the purpose on an island in his parents’ garden, food being brought “across the bridge” (Lo and Lo 2003; see ref. in preceding section).  Such cute stories explaining the name of a dish are not to be taken on faith, since the Chinese love nothing better than to make up such tales. 

A fascinating email exchange in August of 2011 between Andrew Coe, Fuchsia Dunlop, myself and several students and Chinese cooks revealed half a dozen unrelated and mutually incompatible origin myths for the name gu lou yuk, the Cantonese for sweet-sour pork.  It literally means “murmuring and muttering meat,” probably with reference to the sound of cooking the dish.  Some say this could come from a homonymous phrase meaning “ancient-old meat,” but this is unlikely, since there is nothing ancient or old about the dish.  There is a persistent myth that it is a euphemistic way to say guai lou yuk Cantonese for “foreign devils’ meat,” because the dish was devised for westerners.  (It is based on traditional recipes used for pork ribs and for yellow croaker fish, but  was created in the 19th or early 20th century for foreigners, who love sweets and do not want to deal with bones.)  Non-Chinese who are would-be sophisticates take delight in bashing this dish, but a team of leading Chinese chefs who visited Los Angeles in 2013 evaluated one high-line restaurant by its sweet-sour pork, and said this is a standard dish to test a cook’s skill (Gold 2013).  It is not at all easy to make well; it can range from superb to inedible.

            Moon cakes are evolving; heavy, sickly-sweet, and doughy, they are unpopular today, so low-calorie forms are evolving, as well as variants using new ingredients.  They too have spread to the United States and become liberated from traditional contexts (Langlois 1972).

            The tea house as ordinary people’s office, a social institution I described in the book, has finally received proper and deserved historical attention (Wang 2008).

            Tea itself has caught on worldwide, of course, more than ever.  A major art exhibit has chronicled its rise and spread over historic time and over the world (Hohenegger 2009).  The latest fad, as of this writing, is for aged Puer tea from Yunnan; excellent ethnographic and historic research has revealed much about this delicacy (Yu 2010; Zhang 2010).

The Maya-domesticated pitahaya cactus is now universal in east Asia under the name “fire-dragon fruit” or just “dragon fruit” (long guo).  The latest New World fruit (as of around 2010) to arrive in China is the passion fruit, bai xiang guo, “100 fragrances fruit.” 

The classic meat dish “Buddha jumped over the wall” (it smells so tempting that a Buddha would break his vegetarian vows and leap for it) is made by very slowly braising sea cucumber, shark fin, deer sinew, fungus, abalone, dried scallops, snow fungus, fish swim-bladder, turtle, and medicinal herbs such as ginseng.  Other, less exotic ingredients are often substituted for the rarer ones.

            Finally, cannibalism, always fascinating to humanity, continues to receive attention.  As noted in my book, famine drove people to eat human flesh on many occasions, but literature fantastically exaggerated the extent of this, and Yenna Wu has analyzed the issue (Wu 1996).

 

More on Cooking Strategies:  Some Thoughts for “Slow Food” Devotees

            Chinese food is the original fast food.  Stir-frying takes seconds, or at most a very few minutes.  Food was sliced very thinly and evenly, with maximum surface area exposed, to allow it to cook at maximum speed.  Tender young ingredients are used, partly for taste, but partly—again—for quick cooking.  “Small eats” (xiao shi, the collective term for snack dishes) are sometimes slow to make, but they are sold on the street for eating on the run.  Even slower processes like steaming and soup-making are done fast in the Chinese kitchen.  Baking was speeded up by making the baked items extremely small.  Persian nan, typically about 30-50 cm long, shrank in China to become the shaobing, only about 10 cm.  Baking was done at high heat in very efficient, fuel-sparing ovens or large pots (derived from the Indian/Central Asian tandur). 

All this has everything to do with the incredible difficulty of obtaining fuel in the old days.  I well remember the scarcity and high price of wood and other fuels, even after kerosene and bottled gas came in.  All Chinese cooking is shaped by the need to cook everything with the absolute minimal amount of fuel.  I have seen a full meal for a family cooked with a handful of grass.  Stoves, dishes, and recipes are all exquisitely adapted to this.  The Chinese traditional bucket stove has now spread worldwide into fuel-short areas; I have seen it sold widely in Madagascar, among other places.  I have also seen an ancient Greek pottery stove that is almost identical; apparently it was an independent invention, but one wonders.

The only really slow cooking in Chinese tradition is the stewing and braising used for tough cuts of meat and fish.  This could be very slow indeed—some restaurants kept pots of stock constantly simmering, and put into them anything that needed long cooking.  According to legend, some of these stock pots had been simmering for centuries.  Admittedly this is highly improbable, but certainly some stock pots had been there at the back of the stove for years. 

 

Foods of Non-Han Peoples Living in or near China

            Foodways of the Muslim ethnic groups of Xinjiang, largely Turkic-speaking, have been beautifully documented in an encyclopedia, Zhongguo Qingzhi Yinshi Wenhua (Chinese Islamic Drink and Food Culture), issued in Beijing in 2009.  Many illustrations and recipes are provided.  Interesting is the strong European cast of many of the groups, especially the Tatars (p. 202ff), who are quite East European-looking and sometimes brown-haired and blue-eyed.

            China’s neighbors and ethnic minorities have very complex foodways of their own. 

Korea’s national dish, kimchi, continues to propagate worldwide.  Koreana magazine has glorified it as a perfect health food (Young 2008).  Indeed, it has plenty of antiseptic garlic and chile, vitamin-rich cabbage, antioxidants in all the vegetables, and so on, but its high salt content is associated with Korea’s high stroke rate.  Pickling destroys its vitamin C content.  I was amazed to find in France, in the heights of the Auverne, a mixed winter pickle virtually identical to kimchi but apparently a purely local invention. 

One important Korean food not known in China (as far as I can find) is acorn mush.  Chinese do eat acorns, however—usually roasted—as well as a pecan-like nut called a “mountain walnut.”  Hu Shiu-Ying (2005) identifies this as referring to both the Chinese hickory, Carya cathayensis, and the Manchurian walnut, Juglans mandschurica.  For the Korean dish, acorns are ground, the tannic acid is soaked out of them, and the meal is then boiled while stirring until it forms a jellylike mush known as dotori muk (the meal is dotori muk karu).  It is tasteless, but is sliced and eaten with seasonings or other foods.  It is similar to the acorn mush of California’s Native American peoples, but more thoroughly leached.  It was independent invented in California and Korea—there are no intermediate steps to connect the two.  (No references here—I had to do all the field work myself on this; I have never seen a published description except a brief note, long ago, in Koreana; the reference did not add to my findings.)

Beware of ordering a sundae in Korea; it’s Korean for pork blood sausage.

Korean ceremonies still use ancient Confucian sacrifice rites, involving offerings of foods adapted to the Korean context (Kim 1999).  These include jujubes, pine nuts, walnuts, and ginkgo nuts, as well as the usual meats and fish, but also kimchi (Korean pickles) including things like Chinese bellflower and wild dropwort (these are medicinal herbs).  Rice cakes and various wines are used, as well as meat minced with soy and other ingredients.  Meat items include something rather mysteriously defined as “swine’s armpit” (Kim 1999:8; the Chinese characters supplied makes things even more mysterious—the character translated “armpit” means “to pat” in Chinese).  Korea now proves to have a very long, complex prehistory (Nelson 1993, 1999).  Millet cultivation began (probably introduced from China) around the 6th millennium BC (Nelson 1999:150).   Rice was introduced, already domesticated, from China, by 2000 BC or earlier (Nelson 1999:150).  Pigs and other animals came early, before rice, and pigs became major domesticates. 

A complex agriculture evolved in Korea, spreading eventually to Japan with the Yayoi culture (intrusive from Korea to Japan around 200 BC).  Japan had some agriculture earlier, but it stayed very simple and minor; only with Yayoi did Japan become truly agricultural.

Manchu food is more or less Chinese, in recent centuries, but traditions of venison and distinctive noodle dishes survive.  Newman (2006) provides recipes.

A detailed account of foodways in Vietnam (Ngo 1994) notes that the heating/cooling system and the five-elements system flourish there.  Cooling foods, including many vegetables and fruits, were favored, because of the hot climate.  About 1500 medicinal plants make up the traditional herbal canon; some 150 are food plants (p. 77).  An 18th-century physician, Hai Thuong Lan Ong, wrote a book, Culinary Art, with 152 recipes for healing foods, with recommendations of foodstuffs.  “For instance:  glutinous rice related to sweet and tepid, strengthened spleen, lung and kidney and cured urobilinury whereas ordinary rice related to sweet and healthy, kept up the body and regulated the temperament.  Regarding beans, soya related to sweet and tepid, strengthend the bone, boosted the temperament and detoxicated whereas green beans related to sweet and cold, dissipated the heat, detoxicated and cured diabetes” (Ngo 1994:77).  Lemon balm, ginger, and other plants were noted.  “[W]omen in delivery should use glutinous rice wine, with hen-egg…” (Ngo 1994:77).  Papaya promoted milk, as did soup of pork leg.   The giant waterbug Lethocerus indicus is important in Vietnamese cuisine (Packard 2003; Smith 2003), as in northern Thailand, whence it has been imported into the United States (Pemberton 1988; also my own observations).  The pheromonal gland produces a scent that is greatly relished.  Insecticides have made the insect rare.  It is traditionally made into sauce with chiles, lime, and sometimes dried fish or fish sauce. 

Chan Yuk Wah (2011), in a brief but brilliant article, tells of investigating whether the Vietnamese rice roll known as banh cuon was derived from the Cantonese cheung fan roll.  He realized that both are variants of a local food that seems to be one of the many regional things—foods, words, ideas—linking Cantonese and Vietnamese culture as opposed to north Chinese or (other) southeast Asian.  He reasonably refers to this as Yueh culture—Yueh being the ancient Chinese state occupying what is now southeast China.  “Vietnam,” which is “Yueh nan” in Mandarin, simply means “south of Yueh.”  (Nam Viet, “southern Yueh,” was attested historically too.)  It is definitely time to realize that Cantonese and Vietnamese cultures do comprise, in some ways, a unity over and against their neighbors; one can fold the Thai and Muong cultures of north Vietnam into it, too.  Chan, again correctly, notes that “southeast Asia” is an awfully vague term—it links together a large group of countries that share nothing except their agricultural system (wet rice and tree crops) and some degree of Indian and Chinese influence.  Southeast Asia is much less a cultural unity than, say, Europe, Latin America, or East Africa.  One can easily deconstruct it and make the cultural links go in quite other directions.  Chan’s article is a really wonderful example of starting with something deceptively minor, writing a deceptively short and simple article about it, and using this to establish conclusions that shake the received wisdom on a whole region!

Nir Avieli has described in detail the food of Hui An, a town in central Vietnam that formed around a core of Chinese merchant settlements and thus has a strongly Chinese-influenced cuisine with several distinctive local innovations (Avieli 2005, 2012).  Among these are adding raw herbs—beloved of Vietnamese eaters—to Chinese dishes.  These raw herbs can, however, carry diseases that Chinese cooking would prevent—as I learned to my cost in Hui and Hui An!

One of the common herbs there and elsewhere in southeast Asia is Tabasco parsley, not a parsley but a lettuce relative, Eryngium foetidum.  It comes from Mexico (especially, of course, the Tabasco area) and how it got to southeast Asia is a real mystery.  Around Hoi An it is known as ngo gai

            In Yunnan, dozens of local ethnic groups continue interesting foodways.  Wild fruits are still very important (Chen et al. 1999).  Slightly over the international border, Yunnan Chinese in northern Thailand have set up highly successful, stable, intensive farming systems, based on subsistence food cropping plus orchards of lychees, tangerines (with a juice processing factory), and other trees (Huang 2005).  They also use an amazing and wondrous variety of wild plants for medicine, including for childbirth (Wang et al. 2003).

            Yunnan food, and some other Chinese foodways, have migrated to Burma, where Chinese food in Mandalay has become inextricably mixed with Burmese food.  A Burmese tamarind soup, typical of the sour soups of India, Burma and Thailand, is Yunnanized with chile and pronounced a “Yunnanese” food (Duan Ying 2011).

            Tibetan food and medicine are still poorly known in the west (though see Dorje 1985).  The Shuhi people, a Tibetan-related group in Yunnan, rely heavily on walnuts, for food and oil, and not surprisingly give them a major place in religion and ritual (Weckerle 2005).  This links them with scattered long-resident ethnic groups around the Himalayan region; perhaps there are ancient relationships, though we cannot know.  In any case, deteriorating rural and forest conditions in China bode ill for this adaptation.

            The Tibetans of Yunnan now produce a rapidly increasing quantity and variety of medicinal herbs (D. Anderson et al. 2005; Glover 2005; Salick et al. 2005), which is greatly improving the local economy, and, one hopes, world health.  However, it is clearly unsustainable; plants are getting smaller and rarer.  The future can only be one of crashes of major species.  Cultivation is occurring, but a belief that wild plants are more effective than domestic ones makes this a shaky proposition.

            The Sani of central Yunnan have an ancient tradition of rice agriculture, both upland (slash-and-burn) and wet, but they have more recently adopted New World crops with enthusiasm.  Their villages consist of adobe houses, on and around which are hanging maize, chile peppers in strings, green beans drying, and Mexican squashes.  Even epazote (Chenopodium ambrosioides) has made it there as a pot-herb, called ki chr kimi..  It all looked like a central Mexican village, even to the clusters of maize ears hanging in trees.  This amazed the Mexican contingent at the International Congress of Ethnobotany held in Yunnan in 1990.  

Sani dispenses with vowels in many words.  Ng pan mo is “chile.”  The odd small eggplant—a local species, Solanum khasianum—was a dz, a water buffalo an ng (cf. Chinese niu, Cantonese ngau). Dog is chrzh (the last three letters being used here to write something like the buzzed r in Czech). Simplest of all was “horse”:  m.  (The Chinese is ma.

The Akha, related linguistically (but much more fond of vowels), practice slash-and-burn cultivation and some wet-rice agriculture in southern Yunnan.  They eat a typical southeast Asian diet of rice with greens, fish, fruit, peppers, and forest products.  My student Ayoe Wang, an Akha from Yunnan, is carrying out detailed ethnobotanical researches on the Akha.

The Mian of southern China and neighboring southeast Asia traditionally ate bland, simple food, but used southeast Asian basil varieties, cilantro, mint, and lemon grass, at least in their southeast Asian villages.  Minced beef with basil, eaten in a lettuce leaf, is a favorite dish, and resembles Thai and Vietnamese dishes.  Sticky rice has also spread from the north Thai world.  (Information from Jeff McDonald.)

The Yao have varied foodways, many of which are being lost.  The Ao Yao of Guangxi used to salt down small birds with rice powder to dry them off; this is no longer done.  They pickled many foods.  Otherwise, their diet was, or at least now is, more or less the standard diet of impoverished mountain dwellers:  sweet potatoes, maize, and such, with rice and pork the luxuries (Huang 2009).  Huang gives a recipe for blood sausage—blood and rice in a pig’s intestine, with salt and flavorings. 

China’s largest minority is the Thai-speaking (now often Han Chinese-speaking) Zhuang, who live in Guangxi Province and neighboring areas; there are perhaps 30,000,000 of them.  Their food remained mysterious until recently, but now an article (Newman 2005), among other sources, opens them to the world.  They eat both sticky and nonsticky rice; nonsticky seems to be usually (not always) the staple.  They are fond of cassia and fennel, and flavor their tea with orange flowers.  Black rice soup flavored with cassia and fennel is a typical dish.  Eggplant is cooked with rice vinegar, white pepper, cinnamon, sugar, fermented sticky rice, and oil. 

A restaurant in San Gabriel (near Los Angeles) serves Guangxi Zhuang food.  A  specialty is luosifen, snail noodle soup.  The snails are boiled in the water but then taken out.  They give a strange earthy or pond-like flavor.  The soup is based on spaghetti-like rice noodles with tomatoes, Chinese cabbage, bamboo shoots, meat or fish of any kind, and flavorings.  Other soups with sour vegetables exist.  (The same restaurant—run by a couple from China’s northernmost and southernmost extremes—serves Harbin specialties from north Manchuria.  These are largely dumplings stuffed with pork and fennel leaves or other meat-and-vegetable stuffings.  Cumin is a common spicing, indicating Near Eastern antecedents.  Lamb stir-fried with sour cabbage is also a delicacy there as elsewhere in the far north.)

The Dong and Dai speak closely related languages, and in fact essentially the same people can be called “Zhuang” in one place and “Dong” in another.  Dai food has been chronicled by the indefatigable Jacqueline Newman, and is described as often being sour, with pickled vegetables important.  They share a fondness for minced, highly spiced raw meat with other Thai-speaking groups (Newman 2012b).  Water bugs continue popular (Pemberton n.d.).

Wang Si, an ethnologist in Yunnan, has described the Bai (Wang 2012), who are also fond of raw pork.  She supplies details on pig butchering and raw meat preparation and use.

Dr. Newman, who is systematically chronicling the minority foodways of China, has gone on to describe the foods of the Dong (Tung), another Thai minority very close to the Zhuang (Newman 2007, 2012c).  (In fact, “Dong” and “Zhuang” are routinely confused.  The languages are very similar, and are close to Thai.  Speakers are called “Dong” or “Zhuang” indifferently, depending on local history.  Newman reports that some people of apparent Tibeto-Burman origin are also called Dong locally.)   A characteristic Dong flavor is tea oil, from fruits of Camellia species including C. oleifera, C. sasanqua and C. kissi (but not from true tea, C. sinensis).  This is often made into a sauce with mustard, vinegar, salt, and sugar.  A raw-shrimp paste with chile, rice, ginger, cinnamon and salt is also made and stored; it would salt-cure (autodigest) in the jars.  Sticky rice is common as a staple.  It is also the staple food in northeast Thailand and neighboring areas.  Vegetables are marinated in a mix of sugar, salt, Chinese hard liquor (technically a vodka or unaged whiskey), and rice wine.  Newman has also contributed a brief account of the Bai of Yunnan, whose cuisine is not strikingly different from other Yunnan Plateau food (Newman 2012).

Yamamoto and Nawata have provided an extremely detailed and well-documented study of Taiwan aboriginal food, including Tabasco chile pepper use by these groups (Yamamoto and Nawata 2009).  Names and genetics show varieties in the southern areas of Taiwan were introduced from the Philippines (and often to the Philippines from Indonesia).  These small hot chiles are used not only for food, but for ornament, medicine, and ritual.  Young leaves as well as fruits are eaten.  This all indicates a long and interesting history.  The plants must have been introduced soon after the Spanish occupied the Philippines in the 16th century.

            Yang Zhuliang has chronicled mushrooms in Yunnan (Yang n.d.).  Mushrooms also figure large in Tibet, where they are collected by Tibetans and minorities as food.  Sale of them has made many people quite well off (Arora 2008).  The caterpillar-parasitizing fungus Cordyceps sinensis complex is an extremely important medicine, sale of which actually is the biggest single moneymaker in rural Tibet (Winkler 2008, 2009).  It is used for almost anything by Chinese and Tibetans, but is not known to have any empirically demonstrable benefits.  Many other mss. on mushrooms, as well as taro, herbal medicine, edible insects, wild game animals, pine nuts, dogs, and other edibles have crossed my desk, but in preliminary or partial forms that cannot be cited here.

            Southeast Asian food and its history has been reviewed in an excellent historical study by the Japanese scholar Akira Matsuyama (2003).  This book is particularly good on fermented foods, and provides an opportunity for someone to do a really major study by comparing them with those documented in Huang (2000).  Ties with China are very clear.

 

Food as Medicine

            Since Pillsbury’s classic article (1978) there have been several studies of “doing the month”—recovering from childbirth.  Women still stay warm and quiet and eat high-protein, high-iron foods; the custom, so valuable if restricting, has not changed as much as most traditions in this modern world.  Pork liver is a favorite for this and for building blood—it works, being the richest in iron and vitamin B12 of any common food.  Also useful are eggs and greens. Red foods such as red jujubes, peanuts (Chinese peanuts have red skins), and red wine are used for buillding blood, but with less excuse—they have some value, but their color is the main draw.  By similar magical thinking, black foods—black jujubes, black chickens, black dog meat, Guinness Stout (called “black dog” in colloquial Chinese)—are used to build body.  Their saturated color is thought to indicate their strength.  Variants of “doing the month” occur widely in Eurasia, from Bangladesh to Spain and thence to the New World, so it may be a part of the Greek humoral medical tradition that shares that distribution.

            Infant feeding methods in old times were studied by B. S. Platt and S. Y. Gin (undated separate from Archives of Disease in Childhood, ca. 1938).  In the 1930s, Chinese (largely Yangzi Delta people) breastfeeding was almost universal.  Thirty-six families had used a wet nurse; otherwise, mothers nursed their infants, though six mothers used powdered milk (having been apparently unable to nurse) and one claimed, unbelievably, to have used only rice powder.  Rice powder was used as supplement from very early.  From five or six months, soft rice supplemented the milk, and from about eight months, soup, eggs, and the like.  Chinese jujubes often came in at this point to promote blood and body; the jujubes do have iron and vitamin C.  Mothers ate pork, dry beans, cuttlefish, chicken, shrimp, sea cucumber, Chinese wine, wheat cakes, and millet to produce more milk.  They were aware of the nutritional value of silkworms, which are indeed very rich in vitamins and minerals.  Interestingly, soymilk was not used for feeding babies.

           

The myths die hard.  I heard in Taiwan in the 1970s that certain rich and powerful individuals abstained from rice noodles, humorally dry foods (such as peanuts), etc., eating instead a good deal of easily digested, nutritious food like chicken and vegetables and fruits.  They drink honey and use little oil.  This enables them to enjoy many lovers, which in turn built more vigor, since they could absorb yin energy from them.  They even eat ground pearls to supplement yang force.

            Of course, some plants really are nutritionally superior.  In addition to the pine seeds noted above (and now threatened by overharvesting; Allen 1989), the berries and leaves of Chinese wolfthorn (Lycium chinense; go qi zi and go qi zai respectively) are so rich in vitamins and minerals that they have served as de facto vitamin pills for millennia.

            The dietary combinations (shiwu xiangfan or shiwu xiangke—“food things that mutually dominate”) so feared in Chinese tradition have received some further attention since my coverage in The Food of China; see Lo (2005).  Incompatibilities between medicine and food have a different name, fuyao shiji.

            Tea is proving itself; green tea, in particular, turns out to be preventive of cancer,  heart disease, and other degenerative conditions.  This confirms the long-maligned enthusiasm of the famous Dutch “tea doctor,” Bontekoe, who was long ridiculed for insightfully making these claims in the 17th century.  This is apparently because of the tannins and other bioflavinoids and polyphenols that tea contains. “White tea”—tea leaves steamed at picking and then dried, so that they retain more of their chemical compounds—is better still.  It slows bacterial growth and kills fungi (Conis 2005).

Then there are other medicinal matters….  Cockroaches, boiled to treat colds and pimples, found a more subtle yet direct use in the Castle Peak Bay community where I lived for two years.  When a child was “shamming sick” to get out of going to school, his or her mother would quickly brew up some cockroaches and say, “All right, here, take this.”  The usual response was, “No, no, I’m fine, I’m going to school!” 

            Several hallucinogenic plants were known to Chinese traditional medicine, including henbane (Hyoscyamus niger), datura (Datura spp.), marijuana (Cannabis sativa), and toxic mushrooms including Amanita and a “laughing mushroom” that may have been a Panaeolus (Li 1977).  These plants made people see ghosts or “devils.”  Some plants that are toxic but not really hallucinogenic were classed with them; Phytolacca and Ranunculus, for instance.

            Moving from historical research to China today (see e.g. Farquhar 1993, 1994; Kleinman et al. 1975):  A brilliant new group of experts on Chinese medicine has arisen, many forming a network based around the Needham Institute at Cambridge.  Their research has focused largely on clinical treatment practice (Hsu 1999, 2001), but food cannot be neglected in any study of Chinese medicine, and they do not neglect it (see esp. Engelhardt 2001; Engelhardt and Hempen 1997).  Livia Kohn has reviewed much practice in a new book (Kohn 2005).  The Newman and Halporn (2004) anthology noted above has several articles on food and medicine, including one by myself (Anderson 2004).  Chinese traditionally focused on trying to maximize longevity—not a surprising concern in a country whose traditional life expectancy was in the 25-30 range.  Equally unsurprising, given China’s history of famine, was the fact that they were most concerned with nutrition.  Poetry reflected health beliefs; Taoist poetry is full of medical views (Cheng and Collet 1998).

            Chinese food is indeed very healthy, or once was.  Ironically, much of the health value comes not from the foods believed to be good for you, but from the humble, often-despised everyday grains and greens.  Studies by Cornell University in the 1980s and 1990s showed that Chinese under traditional rural conditions had incredibly low levels of cholesterol (average 127—vs. over 200 in the contemporary USA), were lean and in good shape, and had very low rates of heart disease, many cancers, and other circulatory and degenerative ailments (Campbell and Campbell 2005; Campbell and Chen 1994; Chen et al 1990; Lang 1989).  Some areas, at least, had rather high rates of cancer.  Cancer incidence can increase from having too low a cholesterol level (Barbara Anderson, personal communication).  But, in general, traditional Chinese food was healthful.  Some “long-life villages” in south China—often Thai-speaking villages—have especially long life expectancies (as do villages in parts of southern Japan, notably Okinawa).  The secret seems to be mountain air and water, mountain exercise, and a diet of whole or nearly-whole grains, vegetables, some fish, and little meat. 

            Chinese women traditionally breastfed for a long time, sometimes three years (but usually half of that).  Frequent pregnancy and long lactation, and frequent spells of malnutrition, meant that women rather rarely menstruated, which may explain Chinese beliefs about menstruation as a rather strange and dangerous state (Harrell 1981).  A large number of fascinating medical beliefs about breasts, breastfeeding, and breast health went—in general—to support breastfeeding in traditional China, but some were complex medical beliefs with obscure origins (see Wu 2011).

            On the other hand, liver flukes abounded of old, thanks largely to eating raw or undercooked carp and similar fish.  Opisthorchis viverrini is particularly common today.  “Many still believe that the O. viverrini parasite can be killed through fermentation, preparation of raw fish with chilies or lime, or consumption with alcohol” (Ziegler et al 2011).  No, and even freezing, salting and drying do not kill it.  There is no solution except thorough cooking.

Today, the situation is changing, and not always for the better.  Eating more meat, fat, and sugar, and less vegetables, bean curd, and unprocessed grain, has led to skyrocketing rates of obesity and diabetes.  Longevity increases with modern medicine, but heart attacks are commoner.  Moreover, the Chinese government has turned away from its spectacular early successes in medical care, which more than doubled life expectancy from the 1940s to the 1980s.  Health spending as a part of total government spending declined “from 28% to 14% between 1981 and 1993, allocation to the rural ‘cooperative medical-insurance system’ decreased from 20% to 2%,” while rampant corruption and price-gouging have denied care to the poor (Dong, Hoven and Rosenfeld 2005:573-574).  Given the epidemics of SARS and AIDS as well as the drastic decline in healthy eating, China is in deep trouble.  Problems for the future include not only obesity and diabetes, but specific deficiencies, such as anemia (chronic in China for millennia) and folic acid deficiency (an emergent danger with the decline in eating vegetables and whole grains).  Folic acid deficiency is probably the major cause of birth defects round the world, and is probably increasing in China.  (The double “probably” reflects the dismal state of knowledge of this terrible, insidious problem.) 

On the other hand, life expectancy continues to increase (so far), and the Chinese live almost as long as Westerners.  In Taiwan, and parts of south China, they live as long as do the inhabitants of many European nations.  Food and medical care continue to be reasonably adequate, and the scale of differences from two generations ago are almost unparalleled in world history.  However, public health care is declining seriously in rural areas (Arif Dirlik, talk of May 26, 2005, UCR), threatening the future.

            Meanwhile, Chinese medicinal food has spread to the western world, not only via books but also via such restaurants as the TT Chinese Imperial Cuisine of San Gabriel, CA—a restaurant serving medicinal foods to the local Chinese community.  In China itself, restaurants serving yaoshan—“medical dining,” traditional medicinal dishes—have been growing in number and elaborateness since their beginning around 1980 in Sichuan.  They use variously-updated recipes from the medical-nutrition classics.

            And the classic four tastes—salt, sweet, sour, and bitter—have been increased to five:  the human tongue has receptors for glutamate, giving us the taste known in Japanese (and now in English) as umami.  This gives the spark to MSG and many Asian ferments.  And to end this ms with a correction: In 1988 I reported that MSG could cause flushing and discomfort, the “Chinese restaurant syndrome.”  This seems to be a rare allergy, not a normal event; the syndrome was usually psychosomatic. 

 

 

 

References

 

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Alas, just a photo-cookbook, nothing like the 2001 classic.  Good recipes though.

 

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—  2005.  “Pleasure, Prohibition, and Pain:  Food and Medicine in Traditional China.”  Sterckx 2005:163-185.

           

Lo, Vivienne, and Jenny Lo.  2003.  Secrets from a Chinese Kitchen.  London:  Pavilion Books.

 

Matsuyama, Akira.  2003.  The Traditional Dietary Culture of South East Asia:  Its Formation and Pedigree.  New York:  Columbia University Press.

 

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Meyer, Rachel; Kenneth Karol; Damon Little; Michael Nee; Amy Litt.  2012.  “Phylogeographic Relationships among Asian Eggplants and New Perspectives on Eggplant Domestication.”  Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution (in press when seen)

 

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Newman, Jacqueline.  2000.  “Snow Frog:  Trailing This Rare Delicacy.”  Flavor and Fortune 7:3:11-12.

 

Newman, Jacqueline.  2004a.  Food Culture in China.  Westport, CT:  Greenwood.

 

—  2004b.  “Turtle Means Longevity.”  Flavor and Fortune 11:4:5, 8-9, 26.

 

—  2005.  “Zhuang People in China.”  Flavor and Fortune 12:3:19-20.

 

—  2006.  “Manchu People and Their Foods.”  Flavor and Fortune 13:4:19-20, 32.

 

—  2007.  “Dong:  A Chinese Ethnic Nationality.”  Flavor and Fortune, 14:2:34-36.

 

—  2010a.  “Guizhou Cuisine.”  Flavor and Fortune 17:1:7-10, 25.

 

—  2010b.  “Mushrooms:  Familiar and Less So—Part 1.”  Flavor and Fortune 17:4:15-20.

 

—  2011a.  “Dog Meat:  For Men and Minds.”  Flavor and Fortune 18:3:24-25.

 

—  2011b.  “Milk:  A Pre- and Post-Dynastic Food.”  Flavor and Fortune, 18:2:32-35.

 

—  2011c.  “Mushrooms: Familiar and Less So—Part III.” Flavor and Fortune 18:2:28-31.

 

— 2011d.  “Henan and Its Foods.”  Flavor and Fortune 18:4:12-13, 19.

 

—  2012a.  “Bai Minority People and Their Foods.”  Flavor and Fortune 19:2:17-20, 33, 37.

 

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Ming and Qing: Population and Agriculture

July 3rd, 2013

Ming and Qing: Population and Agriculture

 

E. N. Anderson

 

Population Growth in Late Imperial China

The great drama of late imperial China was the steady growth of population.  Ming reached about 150 million by 1600 (Brook 2010:44-45; see his excellent short discussion of rival estimates).  Then growth was interrupted by the enormous crash in the Ming-Qing transition, when population fell by at least 25% and possibly more.  Qing population soon bounced back:  to “313 million in 1794 and an estimated 430 million by 1840” (Brook 2010:45).  A side note is that with the rapid expansion of the educational system in this period, “lower degree holders…increased from around 40,000 in 1400 to…well over 1,000,000” around 1800 (Rowe 2009:151).  Of course this led to a crisis familiar today:  far more educated people than the system could absorb. 

Population growth put unprecedented stress on the production system.  Agricultural land per capita declined 43% between 1753 and 1812 alone (Rowe 2009:150; the dates are set by the availability of fairly reliable figures).   This was in spite of steady, rapid opening of new farmland on all frontiers.  William Rowe (2009:150) believes labor had previously limited the ability of the system to intensify, but now land was the limit, and labor was poured into making it yield more.  (In fact, the system had been intensifying for centuries, so labor was not a very dramatic limit, if it was a limit at all.)  This is a variant of Ester Boserup’s famous theory of agricultural intensification (1965) and is also related to Elvin’s high-level equilibrium trap (1973; discussed in detail in Anderson 1988).  Rowe also notes Elvin’s further development of a technological lock-in model (Rowe 2009:212; cf. Elvin 2004a).  China was stuck with a labor-intensive organic model and could not switch overnight to anything like a western plan. 

Supporting so many people on so little land took a level of skill, innovativeness, and hard work that has not been adequately appreciated.  Most of the literature (e.g. Elvin 2004a; Elvin and Liu 1998) stresses the grim Malthusian crisis, with deforestation, unsustainable conversion of wetlands, desertification, “retreat of the elephants” (Elvin 2004a), and so on, as the inevitable toll.  All these and more did indeed occur and were horrific, and conditions by the early 20th century were awful beyond modern imagination (Li 2007), but the real news was that somehow those 400 million usually managed to eat.  Superior water management (Zhang 2006), famine relief, forest control, ricefield protection, the New World crops, and many other creative and dynamic innovations were responsible.

As we have seen, Li Bozhong has pointed out that the effects of the new crops and cropping patterns introduced in Song and Yuan were not widely felt till Ming, and thus Ming population and wealth could grow steadily in spite of the poor governance of that troubled dynasty.  The Yangzi Delta and neighboring areas flourished especially.  Evidently this was one reason the dynasty survived so long.

Yields stayed about the same in shi per mu in Ming, but the shi measure became larger than it had been in Song (when it was ca. 145 lb.).  In Ming it was some 220 lb or more (Li 2003:170).  Thus, though landholdings shrank, the combination of higher yields and higher measures meant that people were, on average, not desperate—though of course the plight of the least fortunate was dreadful.      

Population grew, but the idea that China “always” had a huge, fast-growing population is a myth.  China’s population, and its increase rate, remained comparable to Europe’s through most of this period (Lavely and Wong 1998; Lee and Wang 1999; Pomerantz 2000).  In fact, until the late 19th century, China’s population was less dense than that of the United States today.  Only when China’s 18th century brought peace, and Europe’s birth rate declined (and declined more in the 19th and 20th centuries), did China forge ahead.  Moreover, the rebellions of the 19th century reduced China’s population so much that whole regions were left labor-short (see e.g. Rowe 2009:198), leading to much more favorable terms for farmers and workers.  The effect was like that of the bubonic plague in 14th-century Europe.  This released land and capital for development, especially in the lower Yangzi region, China’s richest and one of the hardest hit by the Taipings.

Population pressure is not a valid explanation for differences between China and Europe.  In fact, I have yet to see a case in which “population pressure” by itself explains anything.  One must always explain why the population pressure builds up in the first place.  One must then explain why people picked one particular method of dealing with it as opposed to the infinite list of other possible ways.  Rising population drove ecological degradation in China (Elvin 2004a; Marks 1998), but other choices were possible, and were locally adopted.  The Chinese were fully aware of the environmental problems (Myers and Wang 2002:640), and did a great deal to prevent them—planting trees, maintaining forests, keeping dykes maintained and when possible keeping them low and letting the rivers run.  True remedies were, however, beyond China’s administrative power.  There simply was not enough government expertise or enforcement capability.

James Lee and Wang Feng (1999) have argued that China was not up against true Malthusian pressures, even in the late 19th century.  Infanticide was widely practised—especially, perhaps, in the most densely populated areas.  Even the imperial family practiced it, the poorer nobles more than the high elites.  In some areas up to a quarter or more of girls were killed, and toward the end of a completed family—when the mother was too old for much further hope of a son—even higher rates were observed (Lee and Wang 48 ff).  Since it was selective, eliminating female babies, it disproportionately reduced overall birth rates.  Lee and Wang also mention abortion, but Matthew Sommer has pointed out that abortion was rare in traditional China (Sommer 2011), which accords with my findings 40-50 years ago.  Today, abortion is common, especially abortion of female fetuses—thanks to ultrasound making sex determination possible.  South Korea has had to outlaw ultrasound to prevent mass abortion of girls.  Before ultrasound, however, people had to wait till the child was born, after which selective infanticide of girls was common.

 China may have had, over its history, 20% fewer people than it would have had if everyone had as many children as they possibly could.  A Chinese woman married at 20 and living to menopause could expect to have six children—Lee and Wang find the figure remarkably consistent over history—as opposed to 7 to 9 in the west in the old days (Lee and Wang 1999:86ff).  The figure of six, however, has been challenged, however, because it refers to registered children, not including those that died at birth.  Lee and Wang explain the lower figure (compared to the west) by sexual restraint of Chinese men—rather oddly, since they had just finished showing that infanticide eliminated exactly enough children to explain 100% of the difference: they conclude that it reduced birth rates by 20%.  Folklore, novels, and medical literature all agree that Chinese men were no more sexually restrained than any other men.  In reality, it was infanticide, poor diet, rampant disease and trauma, and chronic banditry that led to high child deaths in China.  Also, Lee’s and Wang’s high figures for “the west” are for relatively well-to-do countries in the early modern period.  Figures from the Balkans or Ukraine or Russia would show lower rates.

Lee and Wang, however, note a striking shortage of descendants even in noble lineages, where there was every pressure to have children (Lee and Wang 1999:105ff.).  They also note high adoption rates.  Less credibly, they allege that male heads of households had total authority, though qualified by heavy responsibilities (Lee and Wang 1999:125ff.).  This traditional view of the family was always the ideal, but in practice a paterfamilias could not exercise anything of the sort.  Research in Chinese communities confirms what Chinese novels, from The Story of the Stone (Cao and Gao 1973-1986) to Ba Jin’s Family, show:  a strong paterfamilias resorted to consultation and to empathetic listening, while a petty tyrant was invariably a weak man.  In the latter case, any coalition of strong women was enough to run rings around him; they kept him busy with outside matters (men’s proper sphere!) and ran the household more or less as they wanted; The Story of the Stone provides some 4000 pages of detailed proof of this point.  Either way, a man’s authority over his household seems not to have been greater than that found in America in my childhood, when father’s word really was law. 

The importance of this is that Lee and Wang make a case that fathers could both abstain from sex themselves and make sure their sons and sons-in-law did—thus keeping fertility rates low:  “Not only did married couples wait a substantially longer time to initiate reproduction than their European counterparts; they also ended their reproductive life much earlier.  Influenced by a different culture of sexuality, and under the close supervision of the collective family, Chinese couples were able to control the ‘passion between the sexes’” (Lee and Wang 1999:105).  A great deal of further attention is devoted to this saintly abstinence.  This also runs true to stereotype but against all evidence.  Chinese men were often away from home and usually worked terribly hard, often with little nourishing food, all of which militates against their having inordinate amounts of sex.  However, once again, my long stays in Chinese households in traditional times certainly did not reveal any sexual deficiencies.  (My sample was small, but we knew them well.)  And, once again, the novels are far better evidence.  One may also note (as Lee and Wang do not!) the enormous number of prostitutes, singing girls, and other hospitality workers in old China, available often for very small sums.

In fact there were plenty of men, and plenty of male sex drive, but relatively few women to bear children.  Selective infanticide and neglect kept sex ratios imbalanced, though to highly variable degrees in different parts of the country.  Thus men often married late or not at all.  Polygamy made it even harder, though Lee and Wang note that polygamy was rare—one in ten among the high elite, but only one in a thousand marriages among rural poor.  (My surveys 40-50 years ago found a bit fewer than one in a hundred.  These surveys were among middling people—some rich, some poor, most making an adequate but not good living.  Only the rich could afford two wives, and most of the rich actually remained monogamous.) 

Also, chronic disease, malnutrition, and other killers took a heavy toll.  On the other hand, public health was known, and new child care manuals devoted increasing attention to the values of breastfeeding, the proper introduction of solid foods, and other issues of care; in addition, smallpox vaccination was practiced widely (Lee and Feng 1999:45, 91; readers will recall that the Chinese, not Jenner, invented smallpox inoculation; he learned it from them).  Breastfeeding was indeed normal and kept on for two years or more; I found it extending even beyond three years in some cases, on the Hong Kong waterfront in the 1960s and 1970s. 

In all:  “As a result of China’s long history as the largest national population and the most densely settled nation, the Chinese evolved a demographic system early on of low marital fertility, moderate mortality, but high rates of female infanticide, and consequently of persistent male celibacy” (Lee and Wang 1999:105).  Of course this conclusion is debatable, and has been debated.

By the mid-18th century there may have been 500 persons per square kilometer of cultivated land in the densely populated areas of China.  Western Europe had only about 70 per square km at the time (Lee and Wang 1999:168).  The Chinese figure misses a lot of cultivated land in back regions and with low population densities, however.  Meanwhile, cultivated acreage increased considerably (contrary to earlier views; see Lee and Wang 1999:169-170), especially in the remote regions of Manchuria and the montane southwest.  Population grew rapidly here, slowly in most of China, and not at all in the desperately crowded central-east (Lee and Wang 1999:117).  The central-east became an enormous sender area; migrants moved to the other parts of China, but also to Southeast Asia and even farther afield.

China’s population increased from 150 million in 1700 to 300 million in 1800, perhaps 450 million by 1840.  It dropped back sharply because of the Taiping and other rebellions, but rose again to the famous “400 million”—a figure proverbial in the western world in those days—by 1900.  Rowe also stresses the importance of  “the period when Chinese civilization moved decisively uphill” (Rowe 2009:93), the 18h and 19th centuries; this again was due largely to the New World crops, especially potatoes and corn, which flourish on slopes.  Constant problems with servile and exploited labor and underclass populations, as well as ethnic minorities, followed (Rowe 2009:97ff.). 

There is doubt about population figures, since we have no believable figures from late Ming or the Ming-Qing transition, but the general trends are clear (see Lavely and Wong 1998; Myers and Wang 2002; Rowe 2002.)  The problem was certainly not lack of food or lack of ability to feed a growing, increasingly urbanized population. 

 

The Survival of Ming

Even the infamous “strike” by the Wan Li Emperor, who refused to sign edicts for decades, did not bring the dynasty down (Huang 1982).

No other Chinese dynasty came even close to this record of continued tranquility without interruption by coups or near-fatal rebellions.  The Yi Dynasty in Korea lasted longer, but faced continual crises and rebellions.  The Tokugawa in Japan lasted almost as long, but the shoguns were highly competent and assertive, and ruled during a period of expanding economy.

How Ming did it remains a mystery.  Apparently a major part of the reason was the incredible success of Ming at maintaining what political scientists call a perception of “legitimacy.”  People were truly loyal to Ming.  Nothing impresses more in this regard than the early Portuguese accounts, which emphasize the profound reverence—beyond mere loyalty—that common people in remote southeast China had for “Da Me.”  (This was the Portuguese transcription of the Hokkien pronunciation of da ming, “Great Ming”; Hokkien converts “ming” into “me,” which in both Hokkien and Portuguese has a strongly nasalized “e.”)  The Portuguese hoped for a local dissident movement that they could take advantage of—hence their concern and wonderment. 

The Dutch later ran into the same problem in Taiwan; they took the island, but were promptly expelled by Ming loyalists looking for a base to reconquer China from the Qing rulers!  The last Ming dynasts bestowed on Taiwan’s conqueror, Zheng Chenggong, the right to use the Imperial surname (Zhu), and he became immortalized in Hokkien slang as Coxinga (Hokkien kok seng a, “Imperial Surname Kid,” Mandarin guo xing zi; a is a Hokkien slangy diminutive with exactly the same extensions as “kid” in English).

Yet more:  even the 1911 revolution, which ended the Qing after almost 300 years of rule, was brought about by rebels chanting “Overthrow Qing and restore Ming!” In hundreds of years of persecution of Ming loyalists, this slogan not only survived, but several hand-gesture forms of it had developed to allow the faithful to communicate their sentiments even when there were Qing spies about.  Some of these morphed into criminal gang signs after Qing finally did fall.

Possibly the dynasty’s very eccentricity helped it.  When the emperor was on strike, or busy playing in a carpentery shop, or otherwise revealing all too well the dynastic family’s streak of mental instability, the country had to look after itself.  Bureaucrats and eunuchs were forced to act for the general good, because they knew they would all go if the system went down.  Ordinary people could be loyal to the Emperor, because he was doing nothing—thus giving no offense.  Obviously, however, this is an inadequate explanation of the fact, and we are left in wonderment.

Ming continued Yuan autocracy, and also Yuan’s repressive view of women.  (The Yuan view is itself surprising, given Mongol norms of female power; steppe women had to run the society when the men were off fighting, and had a great deal of independence and agency.)  Neo-Confucian influences and the development of the property-holding corporate lineage by Fan Chengda and other Song statesmen found fruition; the Ming regime imposed these as part of a comprehensive strategy of top-down, authoritarian control.  The status of women fell.  Widow remarriage, previously the rule, was discouraged.  Women lost many rights to dowry wealth if their marriages failed or husbands died.  Polygamy (as opposed to concubinage) was legitimized (Birge 2002).  Combining this with the property-holding lineage enormously increased not only male power but the power of corporate landholding entities ruled by central authority—the lineage elders in the case of lineages, the father in the case of families, the village leaders in the case of communities, and on up to the imperial court.

Some success was due to trade.   Ming trade with Japan was important, especially for silver.  Japan’s large silver mines were the source of most of this precious metal in Ming, at least until New World silver began flooding into the country—a process that began in Ming but did not become overwhelming till Qing, when Europeans paid in silver coins for Chinese goods.

Ordinary private voyaging, trade, contact, and settlement continued, and by the end of Ming, Southeast Asia—known as the Nanyang, “South Seas”—had large communities of Chinese, mercantile but involved in many extractive industries also.  This was the start of the large and well-educated southeast Asian Chinese communities that are so important in the world today.  The South China Sea, always a “Chinese lake” and heavily used for trade since Tang, became a crowded highway, with people constantly shuttling back and forth.

At first, it seemed that Ming was following in the tracks of earlier centuries.  The Ming government republished the Huihui Yaofang and other works.  It continued to release new books of research.  It opened more and more contacts with southeast Asia.  But after Zheng He’s voyages, China turned inward.  The Ming elite was not deeply concerned with foreign issues, especially of trade and expansion, though ties to southeast Asia and concerns with Japan continued.

 

The Rise of Qing

Qing came in with dynamism, and, initially, more open government than Ming.  This did not last long, as most Chinese resisted these non-Han invaders.  Rebellions flared everywhere, and, as we have seen, when Qing was finally overthrown in 1911 it was by people who still chanted the ancient line “overthrow Qing, restore Ming.” 

At first, the Manchus claimed to revert to their ancestors the Jurchen, who ruled the Qin Dynasty.  “In reality, [they] built their state partly from scratch and partly by liberal borrowing from…Ming….  In only several decades [before conquering China in 1644], they worked out not only a formidable mutiethnic miltary and political system but also a comprehensive ideology of mission that would put most modern corporations to shame” (Bronson 2006:140). 

Relevant is the wider context of peace; the core provinces were so calm that when a local rebellion finally occurred in Shandong in 1774 (Perry 1981), the local law enforcement personnel could not find their weapons.  When they finally located these in an old storeroom, they discovered that the weapons had rusted away!  I know of no comparable story anywhere else in the world.

In spite of such reign of peace, the Qing Dynasty was increasingly perceived as an unpopular reign of alien “barbarians,” especially after 1800 (Rowe 2009).  It found itself forced to become even more autocratic (see Peterson 2002, passim; also Elliott 2009, but that source is a bit more temperate).  Even their liberation of the (rather few) serfs and low-caste peoples was apparently a way to create a levelled, easily-ruled society, not as a blow for freedom (Rowe 2002).  Intellectuals protested and advocated small government in terms reminiscent of the American founding fathers, and were savagely repressed in consequence (Peterson 2002; see especially Woodside 2002).  Commerce greatly flourished, and capitalist-like firms and behaviors multiplied (Rowe 2002), but the oppression of all initiative crushed any chance of real development. 

            Qing had a surprisingly strong feminist streak in its early popular culture (see esp. Idema and Grant 2004).  Male writers like Cao Xueqin, Zheng Xie and Yuan Mei extolled the value of women, their intellectual equality with men, and their potential.  Yuan Mei not only advocated educating women along with men, but actually educated many of them himself, serving as tutor and mentor to over fifty women—a whole generation of brilliant female writers (Waley 1986).  Cao Xueqin’s great novel The Story of the Stone (Cao and Gao 1973-1986) portrays elite women who had the benefit of such education and turned out to be brighter and nobler than the men in their lives. (On these matters see Epstein 2011; Idema and Grant 2004; Widmer 2006.) 

There were various motives involved.  Cao and Zheng were intensely moral men, were concerned with fairness and ending abuses, but Yuan, who had the mores of a tomcat, made no secret of wanting lovers he could talk to.  Women themselves wrote countless poems, stories, and especially tanci, prose-poetic works thought to be largely a female medium; not surprisingly, tanci routinely portray women as “smart, learned, physically active, and the equal of any man in the examination field, imperial court, and sometimes even in physical combat” (Epstein 2011:7).  It will be recalled that women did not get this kind of fair shake in western literature until the late 18th and early 19th centuries.  (Sappho anticipated the trend by a few millennia, but one swallow does not make a summer.)  One wonders, as so often, why China did not go on to parallel the west.  Neo-Confucian morality reasserted itself.

 

Qing food

China’s cities were quite “modern,” having—among other things—a wealth of teashops, restaurants, and attendant food-related amenities (see e.g. Rowe 1989, esp. p. 86; Rowe 2002). 

            Business, trade and commerce enormously expanded through the 18th century (Rowe 2009:132ff.).  The old idea of international trade as “tribute”  and internal trade as minor and repressed is largely wrong.  Trade continued to expand after 1800, but, especially after 1840, trade with the west incurred increasing disadvantage.

This was in large measure because of opium, long known but explosively expanding its tentacles in the 19th century.  It was used moderately and reasonably before the 19th century, but then the British began “dumping” it on China in order to get silver and to get a local foothold on trade.  David Bello has recently updated the history of this drug (Bello 2003 and references therein—a comprehensive bibliography).  The Qing Dynasty tried, not without success, to prohibit it, but the western powers—finding little else they could sell at a profit—forced it on China anyway.  By the end of China’s last dynasty, in 1911, millions of Chinese were addicted to this debilitating curse.  The result of the British pressure was a rise in demand and in addiction, and eventually a serious problem, as I had plenty of opportunity to observe in Hong Kong in the 1960s.   The effect on food production was serious, as more and more laborers succumbed.  Attempts to eradicate opium in the early Communist years were quite successful, but, with the opening of the market after the 1970s, heroin and other hard drugs flooded in (Dikötter et al 2002; they are wrong in claiming the problem was not a large one earlier).

            Tea has its own stories.  Robert Gardella (1994) compared China’s smallholder production with the rise of plantations in the colonial world; Qin Shao (1998), in a fascinating article, showed that China vilified teahouses as dens of freethinking and other iniquities—just as Turkey and later Europe attacked coffeehouses, and just as “espresso joints” were attacked as hotbeds of “beatnikism” within my own memory.  Exports of tea to England “grew exponentially, from around 200 pounds eper year in the late seventeenth century…to over 28,000,000 pounds in the early nineteenth century” (Rowe 2009:166), with the average English household by then spending as much as 5% of its income on tea.  England at first paid in New World silver, but eventually only opium was valuable enough to trade to offset the buying of tea, porcelain, cloth, and so on.  So opium spawned the famous colonialist wars, which had much to do with “underdeveloping” China.

China kept developing more and more elaborate dishes, and became more and more committed to what we now recognize as “Chinese cuisine”—no more Central Asian and Near Eastern borrowings (Anderson 2005b). 

The great Chinese gourmet Yuan Mei (1716-1798) flourished in Qing (Anderson 1988; So 35-43; Waley  1956).  His birthday, set at March 25 in the western calendar, has recently been declared International Chinese Food Day.  It could be an arbor day, too; he planted a tree on his 70th birthday, saying:

“Seventy, and still planting trees….

Don’t laugh at me, my friends.

I know I’m going to die. 

I also know I’m not dead yet.”   (Tr. J. P. Seaton, 1997:92.)

His cookbook is thoroughly Chinese (Schmidt 2003; So 1986; Waley 1956).  No central Asian or western influences here.

The great novels, notably The Story of the Stone (Cao and Gao 1973-1986) and The Scholars (Wu 1957), are full of food images (Anderson 1988).  Classical cookbooks appeared, to be mined in our time (e.g. So 1992).  The Qianlong Emperor loved birds’ nests, though, oddly, Li Shizhen did not refer to them (Rosner 1999:7).

An odd sidelight into food in remote Taiwan comes from the career of He Bin, an outrageous rogue in the grand tradition of scoundrels (Andrade 2007).  Among other things, he misappropriated the taxes on mullet, very popular common fish that could be caught wild or farmed.  Working for (and simultaneously against) the Dutch, who occupied Taiwan in the 17th century, he managed, among other things, to channel a great deal of the mullet tax into his pockets.  A tax of 10% on mullet and their roe, during the season for fishing them, was charged, and little of it got past He Bin. 

 

In Qing, China revived its interests in Central Asia.  The dynasty conquered outward, not only bring China back to its classic Han and Tang borders, but extending these still further, in one of the great territorial upsweeps of history.  At its peak, China held what is now Mongolia and southern Siberia as well as all of contemporary Chinese territory.  Russia slowly pried away the Siberian lands, and then in 1921 the USSR “liberated” Mongolia, but England was never able to take Tibet, which remained Chinese territory.  (In spite of modern-day hopeful romanticism, Tibet was never independent after early Qing).

Qing became a cosmopolitan empire, after its fashion, by not only integrating these lands into Great Qing, but also respecting their cultures and giving them and their religions high status within the imperial framework (Elverskog 2013; Rowe 2009).  The Qing court, especially early on when Central Asian ideals of tolerance still held, was respectful of China’s minorities—rather more than some regimes since.  In Beijing they set up religious places of worship for all major faiths.  They patronized Buddhism of various forms, as well as piously continuing traditional imperial sacrifices.  Visitors to Beijing were treated respectfully.  A Muslim Uighur concubine in the court of the Emperor Qianlong in the 1760s and 1770s managed to avoid pork, eating mutton instead, and to eat sweets—probably with a Central Asian flavor (Millward 1994:435). 

 

Qing Agriculture

            Agriculture had, if anything, even higher prestige in Qing than in other eras.  The Manchus took seriously the Confucian worship of that activity.

            However, China’s (and perhaps the world’s) greatest novel, The Story of the Stone (Cao and Gao 1972-1986), shows that not all was well.  A recent and extremely insightful study (Zhou 2013) shows that Cao Xueqin, the author, consistently casts a sardonic eye on agriculture and farmers, and portrays his elite protagonists as holding it in varying degrees of scorn and ridicule.  This was noted and at least sometimes disliked by other Qing authors.  Evidently Cao touched a nerve (here as in almost everything else he wrote), and people were well aware of mixed attitudes toward farming.  This clearly goes far to explain Qing’s mix of policies favoring agriculture and lack of real energy about modernizing it.

Most careful observers of China’s food and population problems in the Qing and the early 20th century focus not on crude Malthusian stories but on the nature of growth.  China’s development before the Communist period was always “biological” in the terms of Yujiro Hayami and Vernon Ruttan (1985; cf. Elvin 1973; Huang 1990).  People applied more and more fertilizer, worked harder and harder, introduced new crops, learned better cultivation and management techniques—all of which increased output per acre, and output per factor input, much more than they increased output per worker.  It is doubtful whether output per work-hour increased at all.  Lee and Feng (1999) point out that individuals were more productive, and did eat better, but this appears to be the result of working both harder and smarter.  They note, for instance, that women “increasingly joined the main labor force” (p. 39). 

Qing for most of its time on earth had more area and people than Europe; it was continental in size.  By 1800, Europe had 180 million people; Qing had 250-300 million.  Feeding them was a challenge.

By mid-Qing, the borrowings from the New World—crops like maize and sweet potatoes came in the 16th century (Sinoda 1977:493)—were having a revolutionary effect.  Sucheta Mazumdar’s work dramatically confirms and extends our knowledge of this  (Mazumdar 1999).  Among other things, New World crops allowed Chinese cultivators to continue to live as small independent farmers.  The new crops also fed a sustained population increase that still continues.  As William Rowe points out, “New World food crops such as potatoes, sweet potatoes, and peanuts…served as brakes on starvation during harvest failures of the more preferred staples, rice and wheat” (Rowe 2009:91).  They also allowed cultivation of uplands and sandy soils. 

By contrast, increase in agricultural productivity in the western world was due largely to opening up new lands, to mechanization, and to industrial developments such as artificial chemical fertilizers.  Output per worker soared, but output per acre was stagnant until the rise of hybrid seed varieties and other biological improvements in the mid-20th century (Hayami and Ruttan 1985; local exceptions where both output per worker and output per acre increased included Denmark, the Low Countries, and parts of England and Italy.).  Thus, in Qing, China involuted (Geertz 1963; Huang 1990, 2002) while the west industrialized.

Modern authors like Kenneth Pomeranz (2000) and Bin Wong (1997) have stressed China’s many advantages in population, resources, productivity, learning, and organization, even as late as the 17th and 18th centuries.  They have done much to demolish the idea of European exceptionalism.  Li Bozhong (see above), also, emphasizes the enormous increases in agricultural production and productivity and the other economic gains in Ming.  Pomeranz feels that China was equal to Europe in production, productivity, and development until 1700, after which Europe forged ahead because of its maritime successes, its scientific tradition, and its cheap coal (at least in England—but China also has a great deal of coal). 

Against Pomeranz, however, Philip Huang (2002) reaffirms his arguments for agricultural involution, and argues that China was so trapped by its intensive agriculture and high person-to-farmland ratio that few resources (whether land, labor or capital) could be freed for development.  Huang argues from his work in the Yangzi delta (Huang 1990), without reference to pioneer fringes like Yunnan and Manchuria that produced more surplus.  Pomeranz has riposted to Huang (2002), and the debate has been joined by others (Lee et al 2002; Brenner and Isett 2002).  The argument came down to misplaced decimal points, misdrawn curves, and other minutiae, at which point it became beyond resolution with the data available at the time.  Recent work suggests rather strongly that per capita GDP in western Europe was about twice China’s—around $1200 in today’s dollars vs. $600—in 1700, and China remained at that level as late as 1820 (Bolt and van Zanden 2013:6-7).

Suffice it to say that China had a rich economy with a good deal of surplus that could have been invested, but west Europe had more, including a wealth of animals and a more easily accessible trove of coal (Morris 2010; Pomeranz 2000).  It is also clear that much of China was trapped in static situation of local lineage power, micro-farms, and razor-thin margins.  Change was impressive and important in Ming and Qing China, but much of it was driven by governmental desire to centralize and take ever more power, rather than by a real desire for development in the modern sense.  Local individuals and regions might resist, but they could, at best, slow down and dilute the rise of autocracy. 

“Taking grain as the key link”—an infamous campaign of Mao Zedong—had its ancestry in a Qing campaign launched by the Yongzheng Emperor.  In 1725 he wrote:

“I enjoy eating rice, and I never waste even a kernel.  Rice is a gift from Heaven and nourishes the people.  Because I love the people, I must respect heaven and take great pains to save and treasure rice….  If I…waste foodgrain, Heaven will be angry, and our people will suffer calamities.  I have heard that people in Kiangsi feed grain to the hogs.  This is not appropriate behavior….  Avoid waste and love grain!”  (Quoted Myers and Wang 2002:608.) 

Alas, China today feeds a great deal of its grain to the hogs, and in consequence has to import grain on a massive scale, driving up world prices and impacting the world’s poor.  The old Chinese line “Heaven will send calamities” is appropriate: the Chinese knew perfectly well that “acts of God” followed human mismanagement of the rural landscape.

Pomeranz, like other authors, has recently stressed the vulnerability of north China to floods, siltation, and other water problems, the rapid growth of population in Qing, the limits of agricultural intensification except in the very best habitats, and the problems of progressive forest destruction on the internal frontiers (Pomeranz 2010).  Pomeranz also follows others in noting that Qing government was thin on the ground, with one magistrate for every 300,000 people (as of 1840).  Things had been considerably better in earlier years.  In the mid-18th century: “Officials were few in number relative to the population—on average 1 per 100,000 in the mid eighteenth century” (Elliott 2009:152).  Still, even that is a very low ratio, and these government servants were paid little, reducing their capacity to do much.

Only 3% of GDP went to national taxes (Pomeranz 2010:93); recall this was the ideal established by Emperor Jing, far back in early Han.  Taxes were thus low; figures for 1753 are quite comprehensive, and show levels around half a tael to a tael (about 1 1/3 oz silver) per mu (a bit less than 1/6 acre) (figures from Bernhardt 1992:45).  Silver is worth around $27 per ounce today, so taxes were around $36 per mu, or $216/acre.  A tael would buy rather more than a shi of rice.  Yields of good rice land were about 10-20 shi per acre per crop, with most areas double-cropped and some triple-cropped  So taxes were, at worst, a bit over a tenth of income, and at best a mere 1/30 or so: again that classical Chinese ideal figure of 3%.  Rent levels were similar. 

 Of course the farmers paid much more, thanks to local taxes and above all to illegal squeeze.  But it is still a tribute to the Chinese philosophy of light taxation.  Pomeranz stresses that, thanks to all the wise measures from river management to low taxation, China did not collapse in the 20th century, even with the appalling violence and devastation that accompanied the fall of Qing, the rise of the Republic, the Japanese invasion, the Communist takeover, and (perhaps worst of all) the horrific excesses of Communism in Mao Zedong’s old age.

Pomeranz, Wong, and Philip Huang, as well as other scholars, all agree that China was extremely productive agriculturally during this time, thanks to millions of farmers on postage-stamp farms exploiting their family labor.  Myers and Wang’s summary article (2002) describes a stunningly successful, rationalized, developed agriculture with highly sophisticated technology.  Farmers and writers realized that bean plants, plowed in, restored soil fertility, as did beancake fertilizer (see e.g. Myers and Wang 2002:610-611).  They knew the relative values of different kinds of dung.  Efficiency of production, transportation, and processing all increased, at the same time as leasing arrangements, banking, and government policy were making it ever easier to trade in foodstuffs.  On the other hand, rural wages (calculated in rice-buying power) declined as population rose (Myers and Wang 2002:637, citing Kang Chao).  The classic work of Ruddle and Zhong (1988) on the Pearl River delta is relevant here; it describes a system so impossibly sophisticated and fine-tuned that it seems beyond the reach of even modern computerized society.  Yet it flourished everywhere in the coastal deltas.

Victor Lieberman has recently addressed these issues (Lieberman 2009), agreeing to some extent with both sides.  Much of China was involuting by 1800, certainly, but the system was still generating much wealth and showing considerable dynamism.  The involutionists sometimes forget that cultivation was actively expanding in the southern and southwestern frontier, even as the old rice-growing areas were getting more and more congested.  China’s wealth continued to expand up until the 1840s, when rebellions and famines began a devastating course that was to destroy Qing in time. 

Lieberman sees the low taxation rates as emphatically bad.  They prevented China from having the resources to develop, rationalize, invest, and improve governance.  He quotes the truly depressing statistic that the ratio of government administrators to people reached 1:21,750 by 1850; France’s was 1:213 in 1825 and even the rest of Asia had far greater ratios (Lieberman 2009:614).  I share with Pomeranz the view that low taxes on the agrarian sector are basically a good thing, allowing farmers to flourish, but this sort of ratio of governors to governed is indeed a problem by any standards.  Lieberman also notes that the English agricultural worker had 45 times as much land as his Chinese equivalent in 1800 (Lieberman 2009:569), but of course China’s land was far more productive.

Lieberman sees many of China’s problems and successes as due to its military situation; this is part of his wider thesis that military challenges force states to improve the efficiency and competence of governance and revenue collection, but that constant warfare and violence inhibits development.  For Lieberman, the “protected zone”—the areas of Eurasia safe from Central Asian invasions—succeeded and developed rapidly, while the “exposed zone”—the area hopelessly exposed to Central Asian war—was constantly being devastated.  China and, for a long time, Russia were in an intermediate status.  China was open to Central Asian invaders, but too big and isolated to be constantly challenged but other types of threat.  It thus had advantages over some isolated areas, but on the whole tended to be conquered by any strong Central Asian force (to say nothing of the Manchus), rather than subjected to the constant pressures that drove France, Italy, and other states to modernize.  (Lieberman is aware that Tokugawa Japan presents an anomaly here, but notes that true modernization in Japan did not occur until the west challenged it in the 1850s.  This somewhat underestimates Tokugawa success, however.) 

Like others, Lieberman sees China as falling behind the west in technological and scientific advances by 1700; he is skeptical of the extreme ability of China to repress progress and independent thought, but takes a position that the Chinese government (more specifically, the Qing government) was strong enough to discourage it or coopt it (Lieberman 2009:622-623; this is similar to my position in Anderson 1988).

Yet another important point raised by Lieberman and Pomeranz is the extreme importance of the New World and Australia in providing food and other resources for western Europe, and thus for releasing the pressure on European food production.  Pomeranz and others have pointed out that Europe was expanding its own agriculture and basically feeding itself, so one cannot make too much of a point of this, but the fact is that Europe was flooded with cheap food, silver, timber, and all manner of goods from its colonial conquests.  A problem barely noted by these authors, but worthy of more attention, is why China did not take over the Philippines, Borneo, and other lands occupied only by small, scattered, technologically less sophisticated populations.  The spice islands, in particular, had been supplying China with spices for millennia, yet they were always left alone. 

That Qing could have conquered the islands is proved by the example of Taiwan.  But the Qing government never wanted such expansion, and was not even very active in opening its own southwest.  Taiwan was taken, after all, by Ming loyalists under Zheng Chenggong.  Taiwan was settled against Qing’s will.  Qing was stuck with it after a long period of trying to ignore it.  Apparently there was plenty of food at home; involution could always produce more.  No need to take over remote islands at untold military and strategic cost.  The Iberians and later the Dutch, of course, had no such qualms, and took over the islands as soon as they could get more than one or two ships to them.  It is a profoundly interesting contrast.  Especially interesting is the contrast with Qing’s obsessive fascination with the deserts and uninhabited mountains of Central Asia and Tibet, which it took over at great expense and with enormous drive and determination (Perdue 2005).  The reason is clear: China had always seen Central Asia as the zone of threat, opportunity, and interest—the “gate of war,” the Arabs would have said.  Also, the Manchus identified with the Central Asian peoples.  But by seeing the world thus, Ming and Qing missed their great opportunity.

In general, as pointed out by Pomeranz and Lieberman, Europe was always a much more maritime world than China, especially after 1420, in spite of the enormous and continuing trade between China and the Nanyang.  China simply did not see its interests lying there. Europe may have been forced to the sea by its desperate need for protein (see e.g. Morris 2010, citing a very long chain of sources); beans yield poorly in Europe, especially the native Near Eastern species, while fish was available and cheap before the fishing boom of the late 20th century wiped out the North Atlantic fisheries almost entirely.  Europe’s dependence on high-seas fishing contrasts with China’s conservation of inshore resources and development of aquaculture.  As in agriculture, China did the sensible thing by intensifying local sustainable production, but Europe’s strategy paid off in the long run. 

By the 1700s, intensive development had progressed especially far in the Yangzi and Pearl river deltas.  Agriculture was thoroughly commercialized.  Most people depended entirely or in part on cash cropping and on their own labor in spinning their cotton and silk production into thread and weaving it into cloth for sale.  Other local crafts, from basketmaking to embroidery, added to income.  Families depended on crafts as well as farming, and many would starve if either income stream was disrupted.  Labor productivity, however, increased; yields increased after the troubles; and wages even rose, such that there was more meat for the farm laborers (Lee and Feng 1999:34) and more people could be supported.

Of course many farmers were purely subsistence producers as far as rice went, and had to raise silk, cotton or the like, and/or carry out household craft production, to make money for taxes.  There were extortion, illegal rent-seeking, theft, and other ills to contend with.  These were backbreaking for poor farmers, but not unsupportable for most.  

Around 1800, environmental crises due to rapidly rising population and cultivation began to get more serious.  “Generations of encroachment on lakeshores and riverbanks of the middle Yangzi watershed, stimulated by the growing downriver demand for commercial risce, had rendered the Yangzi valley, likely for the first time in imperial history, a source of flooding of equal concern as the Yellow or Huai rivers to the north” (Rowe 2011:76).  Lakes and sloughs silted up, hills eroded, mountains were stripped bare, forests fell.  The Grand Canal silted up (again).  The beginnings of China’s ecological catastrophe, so immeasurably worse today, were at hand.

Encroachment on lakes and wetlands continued (e.g. Osborne 1998), though it was far less serious than what is going on today.  More serious, and perhaps the worst environmental problem of Qing, was the massive deforestation (Vermeer 1998)—though again it was nothing compared to today’s.   Reduction of minorities was often the cause (Vermeer 1998:246 describes this for the Miao).  Their forests were plundered.  Sometimes this was done on the excuse that “bandits and rebels” (Vermeer 1998:247), many of whom were actually desperate resistance fighters, were taking refuge there.  Other forests were cut by poverty-stricken people who invaded them in spite of rules and restrictions.  Vermeer quotes a number of contemporary sources, some pro-forest, some pro-deforestation.  Awareness of the devastating effects of deforestation was widespread, but not adequate to stop the combination of official fear and grassroots desperation.  Agroforestry was practiced widely (Menzies 1994; Vermeer 1998:251).  Tree plantations were, however, vulnerable to poaching and government takeover.  These acted as disincentives.  Government reserves fell apart and were given over to cultivation, continuing a trend established as early as the Han Dynasty.

Keith Schoppa (2002) has chronicled the fate of the Xiang Lake, across the Qiantang River from Hangzhou.  This study is important not only for itself—and it is excellent—but because it is fairly representative of what happened in the more densely populated parts of China.  This lake was created as a reservoir in Song times; it held excess water and released it later for irrigation.  It became famous for its water-shield plants (Brasenia schreberi, a small waterlily relative, famous for its crunchy and succulent texture), and for bricks and tiles made from its alluvial clay.  Local elite lineages constantly tried to encroach on it, being stopped off and on by heroic efforts of local activists and magistrates; Schoppa’s main point in the book is that only a few such individuals existed, and could turn the tide, while the vast majority lived in terror of the local elites and dared not combine to act against them.  However, the well-meaning citizens succeeded often enough, and had enough local support, to slow degradation and keep the lake viable until the end of imperial times.  In the 20th century, the Xiang Lake met the fate of most of rural China—it was trashed by the Nationalists and destroyed utterly by the Communists, to the enormous damage and impoverishment of the area.

The highlands were even more stresssed.  Thanks to overcutting and similar environmental problems, “a huge pool of late eighteenth-century mountaineers led rootless, impoverished,and desperate lives” (McMahon 2009:94).  Fortunately, some forests were well managed.  Menzies (1994) recounts temples and “clans” that preserved forest adequately; best preserved, however, were commercial plantings of China fir and pine.  Worst managed were the imperial reserves.  Mushrooms were abundantly produced. 

 

The lower Yangzi was the economic heart of China.  “In Qianlong’s day, Jiangnan accounted for 16 percent of the total agricultural land in the empire, but provided 29 percent of the government’s land tax revenue in cash (paid in silver) and 38 percent of its revenue in kind (paid in grain), as well as 64 percent of the tribute grain sent to feed the capital” (Elliott 2009:78-79).

 Kathryn Bernhardt, in Rents, Taxes, and Peasant Resistance, a thorough and detailed study of the lower Yangzi River area, provides full statistics.  In the Yangzi delta, cotton had largely replaced rice, forcing import of thousands of tons of rice per year from upriver (Bernhardt 1992:18).  Rents were high; rice in the mid-19th century was about 2-3 taels of silver per shi, and a shi per mu (about 1/6 acre) was a standard rent (Bernhardt 1992:24).  A tael of silver today is worth about $36.00, which would mean that rice cost almost a dollar a pound in modern terms—a good deal more than rice costs today.  Of course one would have to adjust all these prices for inflation and so forth, but by no standard was rice cheap or rents low in those days.  Mark Elliott adds:  “Popular wisdom had it that it required 4 mu of land (about two-thirds of an acre) to feed one person.  With rapid population growth, this ratio had worsened under Qianlong from 3.5 mu per person in 1766 to 3.33 mu per person in 1790” (Elliott 2009:148).

In contrast to the typical, and ideal, situation, small independent yeoman farmers were relatively few in this rich but heavily-populated area.  Most were tenants.  A few large landlords, mostly resident in towns and cities, owned thousands of hectares.  Rents were high.  A division had come about of actual ownership of land from rights to cultivate it; the suffering farmer often had to pay rent to both.  (These were confusingly and inaccurately called rents for “subsoil”—actually, actual ownership—and “topsoil”—actually, rights to cultivate, i.e. usufruct.)  In Taiwan, the aborigines often retained ownership, but had no control over cultivation and virtually no income, because aggressive ethnically-Chinese immigrants had managed to get control of the cultivation rights, and used those to maintain a stranglehold over both the cultivators and the actual owners.  This is a case in which actual ownership of the land (“subsoil rights”) meant virtually nothing; “topsoil rights” had taken over.  Never was Marx’ distinction between formal ownership and actual control more dramatically seen.

Tenants thus continually used every possible means to make more money and pay less rent, from working harder to cutting corners to resisting rent collectors to rebelling openly.  Both they and their landlords also resented and resisted taxes.  As water management deteriorated and population increased, tensions grew worse and worse, and increasingly large resistance movements arose. Bandits could work for themselves, for angry tenants, for landlords repressing tenants, for the government, or for social ends—the same groups doing all these things in rapid succession (Bernhardt 1992).  Violence and crime became common, ultimately resulting in total meltdown in the Taiping Rebellion, when various rebel armies, various pro-government forces, and many independent militias and bandit gangs all vied for local control.   Writing of his fellow locals, an anonymous villager commented in 1860:  “Some even follow the bandits.  They do not know shame” (Bernhardt 1992:90).  

The resulting chaos was partially resolved by government success in quelling the Taiping Rebellion; the war devastated thousands of square miles and eliminated a large percentage of the population.  However, imperial China never recovered.  Kathryn Bernhardt goes on to tell a depressing story of the decline of rural society.  The decline of Qing led to increasingly desperate attempts by the government to raise money by taxing more and more heavily.  The fall of Qing in 1911 merely unleashed lawless violence on all scales.  China was not at peace till after 1949.

Western colonialist pressure was increasingly a factor after 1842, leading to classic peripheralization (Wallerstein 1976).  As this continued, through the 19th and 20th centuries, the western world was almost unanimous in taking a supercilious, patronizing attitude toward China’s traditional food sector.  Only those who had intimate acquaintance with it, such as F. H. King (1911; and several others quoted in The Food of China), recognized what an accomplishment mere survival was, under the circumstances.  Now that the United States has as dense a population as late Qing China had, and now that the world food system is tottering toward collapse, we may be able to take a more properly humble attitude.

 

Qing and Famine

Famines took place constantly (Li 2007; Mallory 1926; Wu 1996, 1997—with comments on the fears of cannibalism; Lee and Wang minimize famine, but are contradicted by all other sources).  They were worse in China than in most of the world, including Europe (Li 2007).

Particularly dramatic was the expansion of food, famine relief, and—consequently—population in the Qing Dynasty, and the collapse when Qing failed.  Lillian Li, in her magistral study of famine in China, Fighting Famine in North China:  State, Market, and Environmental Decline, 1690s-1990s (2007), notes that population rose from 150 million around 1700 to 300 million in 1800 and 430 million by the late 19th century.  “The human impact on the forests, soils, and rivers of China was a centuries-old historical process, but by the eighteenth century, the effects of human encroachment on land, forest, and water resources was becoming evident to officials and local elites of many parts of China.  Increasing population size demanded greater agricultural productivity…” (Li 2007:3-4), and this put yet more pressure on resources. 

By the 20th century, China was in trouble, especially the dry north, where south China’s land-making and land-enriching strategies did not work well.  Li’s chronicle of the disasters of the Beijing area is harrowing indeed.  She gives whole classification schemes for different types and levels of disasters (Li 2007:30, etc.).  The North Chinese had about as many words for floods and droughts than the Inuit have for snow.  Extremely erratic rainfall at the margin of the monsoon led to frequent droughts.  Wheat, the staple, was one of the more susceptible crops, making one understand why more drought-tolerant millets, sorghum, and sweet potatoes were traditional staples of the poor (Li 2007:25).  Foxtail millet was more nutritious than wheat, but sweet potatoes—newly introduced from the Americas—were not, and dependence on them always made for problems.  (Unlike American varieties, the common Chinese varieties are not rich in vitamin A.)

However, the rest of the world had no shortage of famines in those times.  For the vast majority of humanity, freedom from want became a real possibility only with the rise of modern bulk transport of grain and perishable commodities, by rail and ship, in the late 19th century.  Of course, even today, over a billion people, including a quarter of American children, live in poverty and want.  We can hardly feel superior to the Qing bureaucrats.

A study by Deng Yunte (as summarized in Xu 2010:157) found a total of 5,258 recorded famines in China from 1766 BC to 1936 AD.  Of course the earliest were either legendary or actually later, since there was no writing in China in 1766 BC, but on the other hand local small-scale famines were not normally counted, so for actual historic periods this is an absolute minimal figure.  These famines involved 1074 droughts and 1058 floods. 

Pierre-Étienne Will and Bin Wong (Will and Wong 1991) carried out major studies of famine relief, amazingly effective in much of Qing.  They and others (see Myers and Wang 2002; Rowe 2002) have showed that the Qing Dynasty’s famine relief system was pervasive and effective, probably the best in the world in the 17th and 18th centuries.  Beijing’s food security, for instance, was guarded effectively by a range of institutions (Li and Dray-Novey 1999).  Few countries at that time were so well organized as China in making sure that people had some access to food.  Moreover, while Ming sent taxes skyrocketing (to around 9.1% of grain; Brook 2010:108), Qing, as we have seen, dropped them back to the historic 3%.  Low agricultural taxes meant life to the farmers and thus to the whole food system.

Stockpiles of grain for famine relief could be huge, overflowing granaries and rotting because there was simply not enough storage capacity (Li 2007:169).  Famines persisted, however, because the population was so dense and so fast-growing that a government with only premodern transportation methods at its disposal was handicapped.   Lillian Li (2007) investigates the problems of Beijing and the areas around it.  Beijing grew from 660,000 to over a million in Qing (p.a 146) and the region grew even more. 

Like other observers, Li describes a diet of wheat, millets, sorghum, and—increasingly—the New World crops, maize, peanuts, and sweet potatoes.  Many varieties of soybeans were grown; the black one was for horses or for the starving.  Cotton competed for land with food.  Rice was grown but never did well in that cold climate, and there was little water for it in many years.  Rice from the south tended to be old and probably bug-eaten.  The land was productive (far more so than most of Europe at the time).  However, the climate was changeable and official policies and practices were too.  The climate could produce droughts or floods; the region has a very high amplitude of variation in rainfall.  The officials could produce excellent policy in a good time (such as the early 18th century), but corruption was common, and in bad decades even minimal law enforcement was difficult. 

Unlike the north, however, southern and especially central-east China were doing well (Lee and Wang 1999; Li 1998).  The lower Yangzi region and the coast southward from it were well fed and productive, and continued to increase production and per capita consumption through much of the time period in question (Li 1998).  This was accompanied by true involution, but it was successful; an incredibly dense population survived, and even thrived during the more peaceful periods.

The grain tribute brought an enormous amount of food to the capital.  Up to “13-15 million shi” (Li 2007:148; a shi was 133 lb. in the early 20th century) were stored in the city at a time; that would be about 10,000 tons of grain.  One effect was linking prices over the empire; regionalism was inhibited and grain flowed throughout eastern China and to some extent through the center and west.  The nobility was given huge donations of grain (as well as silver and other items) and sold some of it.  As so often, the novel The Story of the Stone is a good source for the realities of this system.

The government tried to keep grain prices low, favoring the urban population but often hurting the farmers.  This is a practice familiar in the modern world, where many countries have done it, usually with unfortunate results for agriculture.

Soup kitchens and other aid facilities, as well as grain storage, helped the hungry.  The system functioned best in the 18th century, preventing mass deaths.  The dreadful tales of late Ming, and again of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, are singularly absent from the records (Elliott 2009; Li 2007:247)  We do not read of cannibalism, living on bark, selling of children for a few coins or scraps of food. 

In the 19th century, all this slowly unraveled.  Rising population led to want, which fueled rebellions that brought the Qing down in 1911.  The worst rebellion was the Taiping (1850-64), which led to tens of millions of deaths, mostly from starvation due to the scorched-earth tactics of all sides in this multi-sided civil war.  Soon after it came perhaps the worst peacetime famine in premodern history.  In 1876-79, some ten to thirteen million people died (Li 2007:272; Lee and Wang 1999:174).  Up to 90% of the population died in some districts in 1878 (Bohr 1972).  Then and throughout the early 20th century, people were reduced to eating chaff, bark, weeds, and corncobs.  Even the more edible weeds and tree barks were long gone.  Cannibalism from desperation was widespread in the 1876-79 famine, and was observed by sober outside observers, not merely reported by the Chinese sources.  (The latter are unreliable, since, like literary sources everywhere, they loved to exaggerate this horrific recourse.)  A great deal of this is summed up in a beautiful and heart-wrenching poem by Chen Wenshu (translated by Yan-Kit So, 1992:226, and well worth looking up).  Food relief failed because transportation and communication resources were simply overwhelmed. 

James Lee and Wang Feng (1999) make the case that south and east China had a great deal of economic growth in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.  They ignore the fact that these areas had been substantially depopulated a couple of decades before by rebellions and famines, and were rebounding economically.  They also ignore or minimize the effects of westernization, which brought new health and farming practices.  Perhaps most serious, they misconstrue the key arguments about growth vs. involution (a.k.a. high-level equilibrium trap).

 In the early 20th century, population growth and environmental deterioration reached a collision point (Anderson 1990; Bohr 1972; Li 2007; Mallory 1926).  Famines were appalling.  People were reduced to eating husks, roots, bark, and grass, until all the trees died because people had eaten not only the leaves but also the bark. 

By the early 20th century, however, China had a great deal of international help (Anderson 1990; Li 2007), which at least prevented cannibalism in most cases, though sale of children continued.  In the famines of the 1920s, death tolls were comparable to those of 1876-79 (Li 2007:304).  Even when it came, relief was slight; rations of 8 oz. of grain a day—i.e. 800 calories, 1/3 the needs of an adult—were given in 1921 (Li 2007:300).

By the 1930s, China, especially the north, was in the grip of chronic poverty, and people were reduced to near-starvation even in good times.  William Hinton (1966) reported people in the 1940s virtually hibernating in winter because there were not enough calories to allow any activity.  People simply lay down under wraps for days on end.  Maize had replaced more nourishing grains over much of China, with a resulting increase in malnutrition.  Life expectancy may have dropped to 25 in north China, with infant mortality running to 30 or 40% (Li 2007:315).  Modernization, trade, factory work, and other improvements stabilized matters, but the diet of the ordinary people remained one of coarse grain.  Banquets increased for the well-off, but very few were in that category.   The world depression of the 1930s and the Japanese invasion were utterly devastating.

 

Qing Fails to Modernize

This inevitably leads to the ancient question of why Qing failed to modernize—whatever that much-abused word may mean.  At the beginning, Qing China was in many ways ahead of Europe.  It had a much more productive agriculture and much more efficient food system, for one thing.  It had an outward-looking, tolerant policy toward its own varied peoples, and toward the rest of east and southeast Asia. 

As of 1100 A.D., anyone betting on different regions of the earth would probably have bet that China would be the unquestioned leader in all fields for the next many centuries. India, the Near East and perhaps southeast Europe would stay a strong second.  Any objective observer would have bet in 1100 that west Europe would remain a marginal backwater, except in so far as Muslim civilization brought Spain into the wider world.

By 1200 this was beginning to change.  India by 1100 was already beginning to suffer from Central Asian invasions that progressively restricted its cultural independence.  In the west, scientific progress had been dramatic in the Islamic world, but came to a brutal near-ending.  The Mongols ravaged the Near East in the 1250s, and the bubonic plague 90 years later (Dols 1977) completed the work of ruining the region economically and academically.  Our futurologist in 1100 could not possibly have predicted these two world-altering processes.  Science survived under the Mongols—one thinks of the brilliant polymath Nasīr of Tus, who covered everything from astronomy to ethical psychology—but significant scientific innovation almost ended with the plague epidemic.  In later centuries, the increasingly oppressive and violent competition and colonialism of Europe kept the Near East down.  The Ottomans succeeded to the Byzantine Empire, but unfortunately tended to continue its policies, which did not involve heavy investment in science and progress.

By 1300, China was also showing strains.  It had not only had the Mongol conquests, but, even earlier, the declining Song and its war-torn environment (Twitchett and Smith 2009). 

However, Kenneth Pomeranz (2000, 2010) has argued strongly that China did very well indeed through Ming and Qing, developing as fast as Europe and remaining as prosperous, until the Industrial Revolution pulled Europe far ahead.  He minimizes the importance of China’s turn away from sea travel in 1420, regarded by others as a critical retreat from what could have been a breakthrough to modernity, since it gave the seas to Portugal and Spain (cf. Anderson 1988).  Jared Diamond (1997, 2005) thus stresses 1420 as a key date. 

Pomeranz argues that Europe’s coal and farmland, and to a lesser extent metal ores and forests, gave it an advantage.  Pomeranz also argues that China was as developed as Europe, in technology and in capitalist economic forms, till the 18th century. Certainly the Middle East could not compete, but China had its own coal and soil, and Bin Wong and Philip Huang have proposed alternative formulations that make the situation more complex (Huang 2002; Wong 1997).  They show that Europe lacked a huge lead in resources, and they reaffirm the conventional wisdom that Europe had pulled ahead of China well before the 18th century.  Huang, like Morris (see below), points out that Europe’s sparser population allowed more feeding of and thus use of animals, and so productivity per person was greater.  One must add, here, that productivity per acre was correspondingly less—a real problem.  Europe could export its excess population to the colonies.  Further, Huang shows that the price of labor was low, especially in the 19th century in China.  The vast majority of Chinese lived on a bare subsistence wage.  Starvation was by far the commonest cause of death.  Pomeranz is on very shaky ground in maintaining that China still had parity and a good shot at the brass ring as late as the 18th century. 

It was much easier for Europe to develop economically.  But China could have risen, had it been ready.  Not all areas were poor and densely populated.  Surplus could be, and was, extracted.  Some people were well paid, and levels of living were not abysmal for everyone.  Also, capitalism, science, and technology require a mind-set rather than a rich peasantry.

As noted above, most scholars today would probably accept the conclusion that, while China failed to expand into global sea trade, Europe was forced to expand in that direction, and profited greatly.  Portugal in particular had nowhere to go but out into the Atlantic, and the Dutch too had little option but to take to seafaring.  These nations were, successively, the leaders of long-range voyaging and trade.  The Dutch are sometimes credited with, or accused of, inventing capitalism as a result.  (On all these matters, Wallerstein 1976 remains classic.)  Thus the Europeans became, in Victor Lieberman’s striking and insightful phrase, “white Inner Asians” in their relations with southeast Asia, especially the islands; they came as overwhelming conquerors who appeared out of the blue and swept over the region with devastating effect, like the Mongol hordes (Lieberman 2009:857-894).

China was ahead in maritime matters until the early 1400s, but then turned against government sponsorship of large-scale marine trade and voyaging.  Ming tried to ban sea trade, and Qing fought piracy in ways that damaged the seafaring economy.  Sea trade actually continued, and even flourished, but was largely confined to trade with southeast Asia and other nearby points, and remained largely a trade in luxuries rather than staples—though pottery and other useful goods were exported in industrial quantities.  Ventures did not stop, but the lack of major voyaging gave the west a chance to catch up and then forge ahead, to take a commanding lead by 1500.

China’s turn from world trade after 1420 contrasted with Europe’s dependence on it.  The effects of long-range seafaring and trade on west Europe have been stressed far too often to need repetition here (see e.g. Wallerstein 1976).  It seems clear that world trade forced science and development.  China’s exceedingly active trade with southeast Asia just was not the same thing.  Southeast Asia, always a realm of small trader states, was never a world leader in change or development, though the people are among the most dynamic and enterprising in the world.  Apparently the old southeast Asian states were always land-based and tributary enough, and sufficiently oppressed by bigger empires, to prevent them from taking full advantage of their situation.

A key date with much symbolic significance is 1593.  That was the year of publication of Li Shizhen’s Bencao Gangmu, the climax of Chinese herbal writing and a truly stunning achievement.  But it was also just slightly later than Rembert Dodoens’ Flemish herbal of 1554, which represented a similar breakthrough for herbals in Europe.  Soon after, in 1597, came Gerard’s Herball (1975 [1633], originally written 1597; based heavily on Dodoens), the first great modern herbal in English.   In 1593 there was every reason to believe that Li would stimulate a major breakthrough in Chinese herbal and botanical science, as Dodoens and his colleagues and followers did in Europe.  But Li remained unexcelled.  The Ming Dynasty fell, the Qing showed no interest in advancing the science, and Li is still the standard text in traditional Chinese herbalism.  By contrast, Gerard was almost immediately eclipsed by John Parkinson’s incredible achievement Paradisi in Sole (1976 [1629]), and then by John Ray’s development of taxonomy.  After that botany exploded in the west.  One could tell similar stories about medicine, zoology, geology, nutrition, weaving technology, and other natural sciences.  China lost the spirit at the same time the west got it.

Ming progress was slender enough, but the collapse of Ming seems to have truly blown out a light.  Only medicine slightly breaks the pattern, developing strongly in late Ming and staying dynamic in early Qing (see e.g. Furth 1999; Wu 2010).  Otherwise, in the sciences, the Qing Dynasty republished old works and added to encyclopedias and agricultural manuals, but really did very little creative work.  Recent works on Qing (e.g. Elliott 2009, Rowe 2009) are cautious about explaining this, but recognize the continuing growth of autocracy. They also point out the increasing woes of Qing as population grew, Europeans took over trade and then invaded, and the environment deteriorated.  Under a despotic but floundering government, China was in no position to innovate.

A fateful episode, probably more symptom than cause but still a very significant block on progress, was the Qianlong Emperor’s “literary inquisition.”  Plagued by increasing fears of disloyalty, he launched in the late 18th century a comprehensive attack on the literati.  It is reminiscent of, though far less extensive than, Stalin’s purges in the 1930s and 1940s. 

The inquisition came at the same time as the European Enlightenment.  As the Qianlong Emperor was turning the clock back to autocracy, the west was discovering human rights, democracy, nonviolence, liberation, and free trade.   Steven Pinker (2011) has conclusively shown how extremely transformative the Enlightenment and its values eventually were in the west; slavery was outlawed, wars gradually declined, feuds and duels ended, and eventually even ordinary murder and robbery became less common.  China had long eliminated chattel slavery, had no cult of the duel, and was relatively peaceful in most of Qing, so there was not so much to change.  In China the rise of the middle classes went on peacefully and was rather unproblematic though woefully slow.  In the west, the middle class rose fast, came into conflict with the nobility, and pushed hard for more rights.

One direct effect of Qing’s overextended autocracy was that corruption was rampant, and the victims had little recourse.  The fantastic levels of “squeeze” certainly prove that lack of capital was not China’s limiting problem!  Of course the west, and the rest of the world, did not lack for corruption, but in the west the ill-gotten gains were often invested in trade and industry.  The problem in China was that the spare capital was all going into someone’s pocket, to be spent ultimately on luxuries or on acquiring land.  This bid the price of land up to distressingly high figures, among other things, and thus created yet another wealth sink.  The corrupt officials did not do as America’s robber barons did, and invest their ill-gotten gains in progressive schemes.  (A few in China did, in such areas as irrigation improvement, but not on any scale until well into the 20th century.)  One cannot help noting that today’s American robber barons are investing in luxuries and land….

Finally, while Japan was frantically playing catch-up after 1868, China—with the same opportunities—was caught in a form of political paralysis, following Qing’s near-death experience in the Taiping Rebellion.  The Tongzhi Restoration of 1862 saved the dynasty, but it was dominated thereafter by the wily and foxy but increasingly conservative Empress Dowager Cixi.  China did not, of course, ignore the west.  The treaty ports and other imperialist impositions saw to that.  But such impositions (including, alas, many missionaries) showed the west in its worst light, and rarely led to much beneficial change.  All the revisionist literature cannot stand against the testimony of the Chinese themselves, who in the last decades of Qing were the first to admit that they were falling far behind Japan in adopting western industry, military technology, governmental management, media, educational innovations, and other “modern” developments.

The food economy was increasingly impacted by western technology and imports.  It did not suffer as much or as directly as the iron industry, of which Donald Wagner reports that  “up to about 1700 China had the world’s largest and most efficient iron industry” (Wagner 2008:74) but after 1850 the west flooded China with cheap imports, and ruined the old metal industries.  “It hit hardest precisely in the places where the most technically sophisticated and capital-intensive techniques were in use” (p. 78).  They were the most in need of skills, capital, and markets, and they were most directly competed by high-quality imports. 

Agriculture did not suffer that much, but comparable if less devastating impact occurred.  Then much greater damage was done when the Communists invoked Soviet-style westernization after 1958.  Everything old, whether sophisticated or rough, went down.  The result, with ironworking and agriculture, was that western observers and western-educated Chinese ones developed very low estimations of traditional technology.  They not only had the biases of their training; they had only the bare survivors of the traditional system to observe. This point has not been made for agriculture—we have, rather, F. H. King’s famous and wonderful exposition of the successes and strengths of the traditional system (King 1911).  But Wagner’s generalizations about the iron industry clearly apply to other aspects of technology, including much of agriculture.  This led to widespread ignoring of the successes of the old ways.

 

Europe and Qing Compared

In southern and western Europe, conversely, the coming of Aristotelianism from the Near East (Gaukroger 2006) led to a steady rise in scientific thinking and knowledge collecting.  Stephen Gaukroger thinks the “scientific revolution” of the 1600s was more or less a smooth continuum from this medieval and early Renaissance revolution.  He and other historians have cut the “scientific revolution”  of the 17th century down to size, pointing out that it had long antecedents (Gaukroger 2006; Osler 2010), and that it did not revolutionize everything, either.  Copernicus and Galileo genuinely revolutionized astronomy, Vesalius really changed anatomy, but progress in chemistry and biology was much slower.  Even Newton’s epochal contributions took a long time to be worked out, propagated, and adopted. 

Thus, revisionists now deny the existence of the scientific revolution.  I must respectfully disagree.  It seems to me that without the burst of sea trade and the religious wars, Europe would simply have kept developing slowly along very traditional lines.  The breakthroughs represented by Bacon and Descartes when they advocated experience above received wisdom were real.  They were related to the triumph of observation over tradition in the work of Galileo in astronomy, Harvey in anatomy and physiology, Boyle in chemistry, Sydenham in medicine, and others, including early agricultural and herbalist experts.  What is distinctive about the 17th century “scientific revolution” in Europe is that scholars throughout western Europe, throughout all the scholarly disciplines, kicked over the traces of received wisdom.  They looked with fresh eyes at the enormous masses of data being revealed by exploration and experiment.  Galileo, John Ray, Linnaeus, Boyle, Harvey, and their contemporaries were not only willing to break with tradition, but also—thanks to new instrumentation from microscopes to telescopes—they had the necessary data to do it successfully. 

They then came up with entirely new paradigms—not just new theories—based on that observation.  Francis Bacon and René Descartes were the spokesmen for all this, but not the inventors of it nor the most active in actually doing it. 

The 17th-century revolution was real.  Certainly, it built on a steady increase in knowledge and in original thinking, which came at a time when those were stagnating or decreasing in other areas of the world.  But so does any revolution.

Comparing China’s failure to make this breakthrough with the west’s achievement of it certainly revitalizes the old idea of a “scientific revolution”!  China had the same slow development from traditional ideas through the period from 1200 to 1500 or even 1600.  After 1600, China did not stagnate, and did not ignore western learning; it simply did not match the frenetic pace of Europe in changing basic knowledge.  China did have the advantage of some European science (out-of-date and thin in many cases), thanks to the Jesuit missionaries.  Contrary to frequent western claims, the Chinese welcomed, adopted, and used the more valuable of the Jesuit introductions (Elman 2005).  This makes the problem more thorny; it seems that China could, at any time before 1700, have overtaken and passed the west. 

What really happened, to give an architectural metaphor with some “resonance,” was that the Chinese kept adding bricks to their old structure.  The Europeans tore down their old structure (or most of it) and built a whole new one, from different and superior materials.  We see this in medicine, for instance.  The Han and Tang Dynasty classics not only were still the textbooks in the 1700s, but they still are the textbooks for Chinese traditional medicine in the 21st century!  In medicine, the great Song, Yuan and Ming works are competitive with anything western before 1500 or even 1600, but then the explosion of medical innovation by Vesalius, Sydenham, Harvey and others coincided in time with the final shut-down of Chinese medical innovation.  Not only were there no revolutions, but the Song and Yuan breakthroughs became neglected.

Joseph Needham held in his early work that the eclipse of Daoism by Confucianism was the problem; Daoism was science-oriented and nature-oriented, Confucianism dry and moralistic.  The truth is otherwise.  China’s strong tradition of pragmatic conservation of resources found its home in Confucianism, not Daoism (Anderson 2001).  The Song Confucians were more similar to modern scientists than most Daoists.  Confucianism animated scholars like Song Yingxing and Li Shizhen.  Daoism did indeed represent and encourage Chinese love for nature and desire for unity with it.  It did indeed inspire a great deal of science.  However, it was the creativeness of the Chinese people and the union of the two philosophies (not to speak of other schools, absorbed by the two dominants) that led to the rise and glory of early Chinese science, food, and development. 

Needham wrote that China had equivalents to da Vinci (I assume he was thinking of Tao Hongjing and Shen Gua) but not of Galileo (Needham 2004).  Mark Elvin, in his introduction to Needham’s work, agrees (Elvin 2004b:xlii). China had polymaths, but no one who dramatically smashed a reigning paradigm and established a new and more accurate one.  Of course Galileo did not do that as cleanly and single-handedly as the old-fashioned books of my childhood said, but he did do it, and no one in China did anything comparable until the 19th century.

In chemistry, China had its alchemists but no equivalent to Robert Boyle.  In mining and mineralogy, China had been the leader for centuries, but Agricola’s work eclipsed it.  We have seen that in general technology, Song Yingxing’s Tiangong Kaiwu was similar to a number of contemporary western works, but the latter stimulated more and better, while Song had no followers.  We have also noted that Li Shizhen was ahead of the west in botany in the 1590s, but had already lost the lead by the 1640s.  The list could go on. 

 

Thoughts on Change, 1700-2100 

Marshall Sahlins (1993) said that speculations on why China didn’t develop capitalism when “they came so close” are like the speculations the Fijians might have made when first seeing missionaries explain Holy Communion:  why didn’t they develop true ritual cannibalism when “they came so close”?

Well, fair enough; the west has never been into ritual cannibalism, but it did have human sacrifice as an institution, very widespread from Denmark to Ukraine.  But its disappearance is easily explained:  the western world needed the labor power, and thus ended human sacrifices as cities and farms got large and absorbed more workers.  Forget “evolving morality” as an explanation; we are talking about the civilization that gave us the Inquisition and the African slave trade. 

Richard von Glahn (2003) and Victor Lieberman (2009:2-8) have reviewed a vast number of theories, ranging from the sublime to the ridiculous.  The ridiculous ones are those that essentialize Europe, making it either racially superior or else a homogeneous realm characterized by a single political-economic framework that somehow unites early Renaissance Italy and modern England.  One mentioned by von Glahn, and going back to Marx and earlier, is that Europeans were more ruthless than anyone else.  Anyone who has studied Chinese and Mongol history will have doubts.

Ian Morris (2010) sees largely a geographic determinism (partly following Jared Diamond 1997).  Morris finds in particular that the west had more energy resources, from animal traction to coal (recall Pomeranz’ point, of which Morris is well aware).  Also, the west had more diversity both ethnically and ecologically.  It had more farmland, more different kinds of habitat and thus more different kinds of farming systems, more mines and mineral resources.  It had more opportunities for trade.  The Mediterranean Sea, for instance, was indeed “medi-terranean,” in the midst of the lands, and thus a perfect place to develop trade and shipping; the China Sea was comparable but not enough to be equivalent.  China’s great trade route for most of history was the Silk Road, which did more to lay China open to predatory nomadic raiders than it did for serious trade in staple goods.  Peter Turchin (personal communication) is currently working on an explanation for China’s failure to equal the west in the 1600-2000 period that involves these nomadic states.  I am not convinced. 

Geography is not destiny; much of Europe never developed, and much of the Mediterranean shorelands were less developed in 1900 than anywhere on the continental shores of the China Sea.  Morris has to admit that China was generally ahead of the west in technical, economic, and scientific progress from about 400 to 900.  (I would see 400 to 1300 as more reasonable, and Morris considerably underestimates the successes of Han, too.)   Morris’ history founders on the rock of his belief that “it was not emperors and intellectuals who made history but millions of lazy, greedy, and frightened people looking for easier, more profitable, and safer ways to do things” (Morris 2010:359).  This is exactly wrong.  Emperors may not matter, but intellectuals and other people who are not at all lazy, greedy, or frightened are the ones that make progress.  Laziness and fear motivate people to crawl in a hole, do as little as possible, and above all change as little as possible.  This is well demonstrated in psychology and in common experience.  Change comes in moments of confidence, hope, and hard work for the group.  Any reasonable history of China proves this, but one may call particular attention to Johanna Smith’s study of charity in Ming, cited above (Smith 2009).

This matters, because if people really created out of laziness and fear, we would see creativity enriched by poverty and insecurity.  As with Boserup’s theory of intensification, this would predict that Haiti would be leading the world; the United States would be the least innovative society.  The way to get creative, proactive societies is to provide them with the most resources and the best security available.  In history, it was individuals and societies who were on the way up—who were doing well and fully expected to do better if they worked harder—who did the innovating.  Max Weber traced the resulting feedback loops long ago.

The question is not explaining why “the west” won.  There was never a time when “the west” won.  The west always consisted, and consists today, of a few winners and a lot of losers.  In the 19th century, China was ahead in every way of much of eastern Europe.  The question is why a fast-moving, fast-changing subset of western polities kept replacing each other as winners.

A much more important point noted by Morris (among others) is the reliance in the west on extensive grazing, which forced the west to expand continually.  I have noted the importance of this above.  The New World was looted by those hungry for gold, but European settlement was largely about finding land to raise livestock, and to a lesser extent grain, sugar and cotton.  China’s agriculture, maximizing land productivity, tended to make people stay where they were, developing their home landscape more and more intensively.  Morris and others have thought the added animal power and meat in the diet mattered, and made that extensive land use worthwhile, but I doubt it; Chinese had plenty of protein from grain and soybeans, and had an intensive cultivation system that made maximal use of a few animals, rather than minimal use of a vast number. 

The scientific revolution was not only restricted to Europe, but to a handful of countries there:  Italy, the German realms, the Low Countries, France, and Britain.  Most obviously, its rise followed the rise of commerce and capitalism, a point not missed by Needham (2004) or others.  It was precisely in those countries that had gone from commerce to seafaring to full capitalism that science developed.  Moreover, countries developed science in the order in which they had achieved the (dubious?) status of capitalism:  Italy first, northwest Europe last.  Needham and most others have made the obvious inference. 

In fact, the great difference was not between “Europe” and “China,” but between the fast–changing trade-based states and the dinosauric tributary empires.  In Europe, this was an old and familiar story.  The Greeks had already told it, comparing themselves with the Persians.  Then the Greeks succumbed, and the Byzantine Empire ossified while Genoa and Venice rose and eventually made mincemeat of the Byzantines.  Then the Ottomans took over Byzantium’s territory, but did little to blast eastern Europe forward; the Ottomans remained more innovative than Byzantium, but hardly a force for rapid change.  Meanwhile, the Hanseatic League and later states in west and central Europe peripheralized the Polish-Lithuanian empire (Wallerstein 1976).  Then France, the Low Countries, and Britain entered the trading stakes in a serious way, reaping the benefits from the increasingly ossified and tribute-based Spanish and Portuguese empires.  The rise and fall of states in Europe, then and since, has always perfectly tracked the difference between small, innovative trading states—and then, later, democratic republics—and the great land-based empires. In fact, the great tributary empires of Europe—Byzantium, Poland, early Russia, and even the Spanish and Portuguese empires in their expansive days—were far less scientific-oriented and progressive than China.

The popular literature is still full of sweeping claims about the innate superiority of “Europeans” or of “Western civilization” from the ancient Greeks onward.  These conveniently overlook the Dark Ages, the Counter-Reformation, and the hapless state of eastern Europe throughout most of history—today included.  I have always wondered why “the west” never seems to include places like Rumania or Russia.  They remained backward as long as China did, if not longer.  Even today, the smaller Balkan and ex-Soviet nations are far behind China, let alone Japan or Singapore, in every respect.  Some, such as Moldova and Byelorus, are behind even the better-off African states on many statistics.  These failed European nations certainly disprove the classic racist and civilizationist arguments! 

By contrast, if the lower Yangzi or the Guangzhou area or central Sichuan were independent countries, they would have been consistently among the richest and most forward-looking ones for the last several hundred years, and they would be today.

The Chinese found it possible to “think outside the box,” but they needed to break out of the box entirely.  Essentializing claims such as Chinese lack of individuality, or slavery to tradition, are wrong.  The Chinese had come up with highly original and individualist philosophies and ideas in the Warring States and Han periods, and to some extent in mid-Tang and Song; why did they not in Qing?  Basically, the reason is that they were constrained by a repressive government that could coopt any fresh new thinkers into its bureaucracy.  The ancient ideas remained powerful and compelling. 

It should be remembered that people do not normally innovate.  Revolutionary new ideas are usually wrong and always disturbing.  People realize this.  They fear change—above all, revolutionary change in basic ideas.  This is especially true if they are aging emperors unsure of their thrones.  But it is true of humans in general, as psychologists have found.  Moreover, Chinese children were raised in a highly traditional educational system, and saw no great reason to challenge it. 

Europe—or, rather, France—adopted Chinese ideas, or what they thought were Chinese ideas, in the 18th century.  Montesquieu, Say, Voltaire, and others idealized China, and introduced such concepts as China’s rule of law (rather than by men), agriculture as the foundation of the state, and many others.  (Ironically, it was the Legalist ideas that inspired these radical critics of European autocracy.)  Of course printing, paper, gunpowder, and other innovations had already had their effect. 

Thus, not only did China fail to beat Europe, not only did it fail even to imitate Europe (before the 19th century), but it even wound up losing its best ideas to Europe.  Europe, not China, profited most from China’s own institutional inventions. “Fortune favors the prepared mind,” and only a mind ready for a new idea will accept it.    The European radical intellectuals needed new ideas about the rule of law and the development of a rationalized bureaucracy.  The European elites did not need Chinese religion or medicine, and found the religion (at least) too challenging to be acceptable.

In so far as China had brilliant, dynamic people anxious to improve the world—such people sprout in every country, and certainly China had many—those people went into religiosity, or arts, or developing more farmland, or government.  They did not create modern science or innovate new political-economic institutions.  The Neo-Confucians in China had the same high ideals and high hopes as the Enlightenment sages of Europe, but felt that hopes could best be realized by going back to the past—or, with Wang Yangming, the most original and driving Confucian thinker of the Ming Dynasty, into mystical escape. 

This shows a critical point.  A regime naturally attracts opposition, and the have-nots generally coalesce behind a particular ideology, as Marx pointed out.  The elites’ position is always quite clear:  We are on top; we want to stay there; therefore we oppose all disruptive change, whether progress or regress.  The have-nots can then take what they feel is the opposite position.  In Marx’ theory, they will simply oppose the haves, and a third, new class will appear between the two and take over.  The feudal lords escaped the master/slave opposition when Rome fell.  The capitalists escaped the feudal lord/peasant and serf opposition.  The proletariat was supposed to take over, led by Communist intellectuals. 

What really happens is that a number of possible ideologies can unite those who are out of power but want to take it.  In Ming, those who were not bandits tended all too often to Wang’s type of escapism.  In Qing, Han chauvinism and scholarly Confucianism fused to produce a different but equally regressive anti-elite ideology.  In the west, increasingly after 1500, the scientific and proto-Enlightenment ideology gained ground steadily, in spite of regressive religious movements.  The latter either went along with the scientific program or were too other-worldly to attract many elites or middle-class people.

The fact that ideology was the final, proximate cause of modernization is shown by the very rapid changes in Japan, Korea, and the Chinese polities once they accepted a western-type ideology that favored moderizing science and production.  They did not even abandon Neo-Confucianism or Buddhism; they simply added western attitudes toward material progress.  The transition happened in only a generation in Japan, and not much longer in Korea.  Economics, military contingencies, and other real-world matters forced the change, but in the end the ideology had to change with them.

The autocratic, backward-looking state created incentive issues. For an upwardly mobile Chinese in imperial times, getting into government service was always a major goal.  Families diversified their portfolios by investing in land, trade, and education for government service, rather than focusing on economic development.  China had large cities but rather few large towns, and the population was scattered and rural, in a vast network of marketing areas.  Myers (Myers and Wang 2002:579) contrasts this with the highly urban-centric (“plexus”) economy of Europe.

Moreover, if they did think outside the box, they had nowhere to go to escape inquisitions like Qianlong’s.  In Europe, an original thinker could flee persecution in his homeland by going to the Netherlands (as Descartes did), or England, or whatever other realm might tolerate him.  In China, one could become a mountain hermit, but there was no other real option.  Japan and Vietnam were regarded as unthinkably barbarous, and if a Chinese thinker did go there he had little opportunity to publish and be read at home. 

Thus, Europe’s geography of small states into which one could easily escape, while keeping contact with friends just over the border, was certainly a factor.  Europe benefited from lack of unity; geography made unification under an autocratic emperor almost impossible (Lieberman, Morris and Pomeranz are among many who have discussed this idea).  It was not for lack of trying.  From the Romans to Napoleon and Hitler, conquerors attempted to unite Europe.  The mountains always got in the way, saving Europe from unity and stagnation.  The European Union might theoretically have ended European progress, but by 2012, it was already showing strains that threatened to dismantle it. 

However, an exactly comparable disunity did not work for southeast Asia (Lieberman 2009).  It was apparently locked in a luxury-trade pattern, supplying unmodified primary products, mostly luxuries, to more developed realms.  It was, in short, a classic periphery (or at best semi-periphery).  It was kept down by the logic of trade.  Traditional rulers drew strength from keeping the system backward; they profited from selling primary products, and were threatened by innovation.  They did try hard to get into the modern world of manufacturing and industry when it came calling, as Lieberman shows, but by then it was too late; they were taken over outright by European powers, or, in the case of Siam (Thailand), forced to do a complex and difficult dance to keep from that fate (Lieberman 2009).  In short, southeast Asia was exactly comparable to eastern Europe in Wallerstein’s model (Wallerstein 1976).  It had all the geographic and cultural advantages, but its position in the military-economic order of the times kept it down.

Conversely, if Japan had been a continent with several conflicting polities, it might have parlayed its rather striking parallels with Europe (see von Glahn 2003) into equally rapid and impressive development.  It too was split by mountains into several different local regions.

Another major component in Europe was religious pluralism.  The Jews were always at the forefront of thought and innovation.  So were the Muslims on the tense frontiers in Syria and Persia, and later in Italy and Spain, in the early medieval period.  Later, certain radical Catholic monastic orders took over some of the function of being dissident innovators.  Then, finally, the Protestant explosion in the 1500s led to both violent and intractable conflict and a whole new way of thinking.  The importance of this for the development of science is well known (Merton 1970; Morton 1981).  Particularly critical was the idea that one could be in a minority and still absolutely right—a bearer of God’s truth.  This led people to argue, defend, and stick to their principles and perceptions, rather than accommodating.  Such arguing over truth began on the Muslim frontiers, driving science there, among both Muslims and Christians.  This suggests a reason why the Jews were among the most important thinkers: they were minorities on both sides. 

The Protestant reformation wrote a whole new book, one in which forward thought, new ideas, and innovative perceptions were argued with dogmatic stubbornness.  It is certainly no accident that so many of the greatest early scientists—including John Ray, Robert Boyle, Rene Descartes, and Baruch Spinoza—were major religious thinkers.  By contrast, the Chinese fondness for accommodating all worldviews into one harmonious bureaucratic order was fatal to sustained argument.  The exceptions prove the rule:  new and exciting currents of thought (such as Song medicine, mathematics, and philosophy) were accepted all too easily, and swallowed up into a vast blur of ideas, where they were diluted into innocuousness rather than sharpened into revolution.

Interestingly and significantly, China remained ahead of the west in agriculture, forestry, nutrition, silk work, and certain other practical fields until rather later.  Chinese nutritional science was ahead of the west’s until the discovery of vitamins around 1900.  Forestry was better in China and Japan than in most of the west until the late 19th century, though a few forests in northwest Europe were at least as well-managed as anything in China.  We must beware of bland stereotypes.  But the fact remains that China did not have a scientific revolution or an Enlightenment until later times.

It should be remembered that science—in the sense of discovering new knowledge—is rarely popular.  In general, people like the familiar and are wary of anything new and different.  In particular, science is notoriously challenging to orthodoxy, not only in religion but in politics, land management, water use, forestry, everything.  Scientists are constantly finding things that are at least embarrassing and often devastating to the interests of big landlords and giant firms.  This was perhaps more true in the Renaissance than at any time before or since, but it is a general finding.  China and the Near East lost their early and commanding lead in science because the elites not only ceased to back it; they actively opposed anything that rocked the boat.  Even today in the United States, there are only a few tens of thousands of research scientists, while 40% of the country actively disbelieves in evolution, while even more disbelieve in global warming.  A large number (some estimates run to 20%) do not even realize the earth circles the sun.  Science is hated, feared and distrusted by the millions that hang on every word of Fox News. 

Now, of course, the importance of trade and commerce is proved by the fact that as the east Asian countries moved into it, they quickly adopted European science and technology, and soon made themselves leaders and innovators in what is now a truly global scientific enterprise.

As they became democratic and trade-based, the small East Asian countries have explosively modernized, become prosperous, and become world leaders in education and science.  Merchants in Hong Kong and Japan held their own from the 19th century onward, and eventually outcompeted the west at its own games.  Slowly, Vietnam is coming on board today.

Even dinosauric China is waking from the Maoist nightmare.  However, it can be confidently predicted on the basis of past experience that China’s hopeful beginnings in science and education will come to a bitter end if repression and corruption continue.  China is developing an even more bureaucratic, dictatorial, and corrupt government than that of Qing.  It is also eating its seed corn:  destroying its resource base and overworking its people.  Also, it is copying the west, not innovating or developing new paradigms. 

 

William Rowe (2009:216-218) lists four main possibilities for China’s failure to industrialize and modernize in the 19th and early 20th centuries:  political failure of will, traditionalism and Confucian scholarly reaction, the high-level equilibrium trap (however phrased), and deliberate Western suppression through colonialism, war, unequal treaties, industrial policies, and general terms of trade.  One may note that these are not mutually exclusive, but, in fact, would be mutually reinforcing if they were all true.

As he points out, the traditionalist argument is probably the weakest.  Confucian traditionalism not only singularly failed to halt the explosive development of Japan in the 19th century and the various Chinese-majority nations in the late 20th; it is actually claimed by the latter as their secret of success.  Singapore, currently by some measures the best-off and best-educated nation in the world, has been explicitly neo-Confucian in policy since its independence.   Japan transitioned from an extremely “traditional” frame of mind to a very modernizing one in a few years in the late 19th century; the change of “mentalité” seems to have been real enough, but did not displace, or even much affect, the basic Buddhist-Confucian character of Japanese culture.  It is now clear that broad religious and philosophical traditions can all accommodate modernization perfectly easily—or they can justify stagnation and reaction.  Even within American Christianity, we have the gap between classic Weberian Protestantism and the extreme reaction and anti-modernity of the fundamentalist sects.  Islam has its range from the educated elite of Lebanon and Turkey to the Taliban of Afghanistan. 

The same could be said for the high-level equilibrium trap.  China was indeed trapped in a biointensive agriculture.  So were France, Denmark, the Netherlands, and, in east Asia, Japan.  Enough said.

Rowe’s book confirms my long-standing opinion that autocratic repression coupled with weak local rule was the main problem.  In fact, it is so overwhelmingly the obvious cause that I cannot help wondering what the debate is about.  The government could not even control bandit gangs, yet it could and did shut down free enquiry.  Autocracy in China vs. relative openness in Europe was already visible in the days of ancient Greece—though China’s Warring States period came close to Greek openness—and more visible by 1200 (Lieberman 2009:2). 

The key here is not so much autocracy per se.  Most modern success stories begin with autocratic governments that aggressively modernized.  This applies not only to east Asia from Japan to Singapore, but also to France, Germany, Sweden, and some other western states (though not England or America).  France in particular got its major and dramatic intellectual and scientific revolution before it had its famous (or infamous) political one.  But even earlier than that was France’s commitment to trade, commerce, and nascent capitalism. The connection of commerce and revolution seemed obvious to contemporaries, whether they liked the changes (as Smith generally did) or hated them (as Edmund Burke did). 

The problem is with huge imperial bureaucracies that have the power to suppress change over vast areas and populations.  There is no case anywhere in the world of an agrarian tributary empire successfully modernizing; the Chinese came fairly close, and so did the Ottomans, but both collapsed when change became really rapid.

Also incompatible with rapid change are weak, incompetent autocracies that are threatened by modernization and change.  They are effective at suppressing, terrorizing and disuniting progressive forces of any sort, but are ineffective at controlling corruption, local violence, or local rapacity.  This was the story of Ming and Qing.  It was a problem with the late Ottoman and Mughal and other empires (Dale 2010; Streusand 2010).  It is the story of Myanmar, Congo and Sudan today.  To some extent it was and is the story in the Old South of the United States.

Such states can even be “democracies,” if the democracy is not backed up by meaningful legal protection for the weak; Indonesia today is one eastern Asian example (though, after the overthrow of Suharto’s fascist regime, even it is economically progressing—somewhat—thanks to what democracy it has). 

A strong, modernizing autocracy can give way easily to a strong, modernizing democracy, as in Korea and Taiwan, but a corrupt, ineffectual autocracy tends to give way to a corrupt, ineffectual “democracy,” as in Indonesia and several post-Soviet states.  What matters is whether the government feels threatened by change and can effectively crush it.  Most autocracies think this way, but the exceptions are striking.  Conversely, even slightly democratic states usually prefer dynamism, but here too there are striking exceptions.

It seems clear to me—though I recognize there can be debate on this—that if Europe had continued on the path to autocracy from 1600 onward (P. Anderson 1974), Europe would have had the same sluggish development as China, if not even more sluggish.  It would have had the same involutional tendencies.  We may point yet again to eastern Europe, ruined by autocracy and by peripheralization (Wallerstein 1976).  The Ottoman Empire, like the Byzantine before it, proves that large tributary empires are hopelessly stagnant, even when they are the heirs of the ancient Greeks.  The fate of the Spanish Empire in the 17th and 18th centuries provides another example.  In short, and this cannot be said often enough, the contrast is not between Europe and Asia but between small, relatively open countries and autocratic empires.  The European exceptionalism (or racism) of authors like Samuel Huntington and David Landes always founders on this rock (Morris 2010).  It simply cannot explain Byzantium and Russia on the one hand or Japan and contemporary Taiwan, South Korea, or Singapore on the other.

Revolution, colonization, the labor movement, and other processes saved the western nations (P. Anderson 1974).  It was a near thing.  It was not automatic.  It would never have happened without the massive injection of wealth from oveseas trade, and probably the advantage of cheap and easily available fuel (such as England’s coal; Morris 2010), but these were not enough.  They did not do much for Spain or Poland, or China.

One further refinement is provided by the failure of southeast Asia to take advantage of its trade centrality and small, diverse states.  Southeast Asia had trading city-states comparable to Venice and Genoa:  Melaka, Aceh, Palembang, and others.  These followed in the footsteps of earlier trading cities from Oc Eo onward.  The great empires of Majapahit and Mataram were trade-based and urban.  But these trading city-states were all run  more or less as the agrarian states were.  Thomas Raffles and other early western observers (Marsden 1966; Raffles 1965—both originally early 19th century)  compared them with Europe in this light, noting the autocratic and closed nature of southeast Asian society as opposed to European openness.  Even allowing for the huge doses of racist and colonialist distortion in these sources, the point is hard to deny after reading them.

Thus, in the end, I personally continue to accept the hoary, time-honored view that China’s autocratic centralism inhibited change, while the ferment and competition of multinational western Europe’s small nations and feuding religions forced change.  The rise of science tracked the rise of capitalism and ran ahead of the rise of Enlightenment politics.  The coincidence here is not “mere” coincidence.  This is why Adam Smith (1910 [1776]) envisioned a fourth age, that of commerce, following the classic Greek ages of hunting-gathering, pastoralism, and farming.

After all, and this book exists to prove the point, China did not refuse to westernize.  During earlier centuries, Central Asian cuisine had penetrated north and especially northwest China, where it is still robustly evident in the cuisine.  Such items as mantou and shaobing recall the centuries of Silk Road contact.  We have seen that mantou comes from the Turkish root mantu, a word found throughout the Turkic languages in various forms (Eren 1999:286; Paul Buell, pers. comm.). Then later, since the mid-sixteenth century, western food crops totally revolutionized China, as shown long ago by Ping-ti Ho (Ho 1955).  Some medical and other influences crept in too.  But they were not addressed by scholars on any major scale.  Ho had to comb local gazetteers for the first mentions of crops, and even then it is clear that many crops had been established for years or decades before making it into the gazetteers, let alone the more elite sources.  But on these matters I defer to those more expert than I (e.g. Elman 2005).

 

 

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China Faces Environmental Ruin

June 20th, 2013

Paper, California Sociological Association, annual conference, Riverside, Nov. 9-10, 2012

 

Environmental Ruin:  The Drag on China’s Future

E. N. Anderson

Dept. of Anthropology

University of California, Riverside

 

Abstract

After 5000 years of trying to live in some degree of “harmony” (he or heping) with the environment, China under Mao turned toward “struggling against nature” (in Mao’s phrase).  The result of this conflict is, inevitably, that both people and nature lose.  China now suffers massive deforestation, pollution, soil erosion, desertification, urban sprawl onto prime farmland, and building of huge uneconomic projects that destroy the environment (statistics supplied in this paper).  This in turn has led to ill health among the citizenry.  Now, China has turned to other countries, as it seeks resources to make up for those it has lost.

 

“When you’re thirsty it’s too late to dig a well.”

                        Chinese proverb

 

1

            Communist China’s economic success is due to a number of things.  Some of these are commendable, at least in general principles if not always in detail.  China now has mass education, scientific research, generally available health care, a vastly improved infrastructure, and law and order.

            However, some other features of China’s economy have caught the eyes of foreign observers.  Many American observers, including Mitt Romney to judge from his statements, ascribe China’s success to four things.  First is keeping wages low and preventing workers from grassroots organizing.  Second is massive government support for primary production.  Third is an autocratic government that suppresses dissent and free speech.  Fourth is the concern of the present paper:  the relative lack of meaningful environmental regulations or protection.  China has decided that environmental protection is in conflict with economic growth. 

In this, Communist China has reversed China’s 5000-year history of trying to live and work with the environment.  Imperial China often failed in the execution, but at least had a reasonably consistent belief that a well-managed environment is necessary to the survival of agriculture and civilization.  The Chinese Communist under Mao Zedong reversed this policy, and adopted the Marxist-Leninist idea of “struggle against nature”—a favorite phrase of Mao’s.  Marx shared the 19th-century European belief in progress through destroying nature and substituting an industrial landscape.  Marx himself was quite moderate about this, and had some sense of a need for environmental management (Foster 2000), but Lenin and Stalin opted for heavy industrialization at all costs.

In China, after 1948, things went well for about ten years.  It did not bring in extreme collectivization measures until 1958.  Instead, it began ambitious and stunningly successful measures of flood control, erosion prevention, reforestation, and public relief.  Capital was freed by expropriating landlords.  Workers were more efficiently mobilized.  Cooperatives, successful locally even before communism, spread and flourished.  Food production soared.

Most successful of all in saving the environment has been the policies on birth.  A two-child policy changed to one child only for most Han Chinese; minorities and some rural populations get better dispensations.  China still has 22% of the world’s population on only 7% of the land. 

However, Communist China has been harsher on the environment than was dynastic China (on dynastic management, see Elvin 2004, Marks 1998, 2009, 2012; but Elvin considerably too harsh on the traditional system; Anderson in progress, Menzies 1994).  The Communists substituted a mentality of “struggling against nature” for the older tradition of going with nature.  This increased production in the short run, but major policy errors—the Great Leap Forward, the Cultural Revolution, “taking grain as the key link,” and others—led to massive famines. 

The Great Leap Forward in 1958-1961 caused what was almost certainly the greatest famine in all Chinese history.  A history of this event has finally come forth:  Mao’s Great Famine by Frank Dikötter  (2010; see also Smil 2004; Dikötter’s work has been criticized, largely for maintaining it was deliberate genocide; it was more a matter of mistaken policy; see Eberlein 2012.  However, the death toll is what matters here).  Further famines during the Great Cultural Revolution (due more to the confusion of that time) continued to erode Communist successes.

Li (2007:359) cites an estimate of 23 million dead in the 1958-61 famine, but her figures for the areas she knows are relatively higher, and so are mine (very incomplete but revealing) from interviews with refugees in Hong Kong.  I would estimate at least twice her figure, and many other estimates are higher (see also Dikötter 2010).  After long and detailed review of the evidence, Li breaks her usual objective stance to say that “the Mao famine…stands alone…an ‘error’ of an individual human being.  Some Qing emperors were exemplary leaders,…others were lacking in ability….  But none could be said to have actually caused a famine to occur….  The spirit of the country was high…. The government was fully functional….  For the Mao famine, there is no record, no acknowledgment, no acceptance of …responsibility” (Li 2007:364).  The Qing officials did their best and made reports on any failures.  Not only Mao, but even the post-Mao governments of China, have never done that.  Secrecy was and is maintained.  The story remains untold, the dead not only unacknowledged in public but uncounted.

Policy was substantially changed after Mao Zedong’s passing, leading to several environmental reforms, and to dramatic production increases.  These, however, came at increasing environmental cost.  Massive pollution by extreme overuse of fertilizers and insecticides (up to 10 times the recommended rates) has accompanied massive loss of farmland to urbanization, erosion, desertification, and pollution. 

The result of China’s policies has been deforestation, desertification, pollution, and waste of resources.  Many books document this (Abe and Nickum 2009; Day 2005; Economy 2005; He 1991; Marks 2012; Shapiro 2001; Smil 1984, 2004; Tilt 2009; Watts 2010; for more thorough and general recent reviews of environmental-economic prospects for China, see Song and Woo 2008).

Even more serious for the future is the fact that much of the damage is essentially irreversible.  Lester Brown (1995), Richard Edmonds (1998), Robert Marks (2012), Vaclav Smil (1984, 2004), and Judith Shapiro (2001) have been particularly sharp and insightful recorders.  Smil (2004) sharply criticizes Brown’s negativity.  On the other hand, Smil agrees with the facts.  Smil differs from Brown only in the projections.  Brown adopts a worst-case scenario in which China keeps going downhill.  Smil, on the basis of hindsight, sees much more hope.  Following the massive floods in 1998 (see below), China’s leadership recognized that something had to be done.  Thus, not only Smil, but other observers of the Chinese environmental scene (Day 2005; Economy 2005), saw considerable hope for the future, as of the early 2000’s. 

 

2

Unfortunately, since these books appeared, the rate of urbanization and ruin of farmland and the levels of pollution have increased, and the government seems to have backed away from its sensible policies (cf. Hyde and Xu 2009), though reforestation continues and is notably successful in some places.  My observations and my students’ (thanks especially to Ayoe Wang here) make it clear that Smil is too optimistic.  Brown was closer to the truth.  Things are not going well. 

China’s farmland is down to 121.8 million ha, an enormous decline from the peak in the 1960s.  China had 7% of the world’s arable land; this would drop it to 5-6%.  The country lost more than 15% of its agricultural land from 1957 to 1990 (Smil 2004:124)—probably quite a lot more—and it has lost at least as much since.  Reported losses from 1997 to 2008 were 12.31 million hectares (Moyo 2012), and the truth is certainly higher.  As recently as the early 1990s, China had 140-145 million ha or more (Smil 2004:128), and that was after enormous prior declines; the greatest extent of China’s agriculture came in the 1960s, when over 160 million ha may have been cultivated.  (“May have been” because China’s official figures in earlier decades were often too low [see Smil 2004:125-127], and satellite imagery, now used to correct them, was not adequately available in the 1960s.)  Taking 160 million ha as base, and using a figure from 2007 of 122 million ha now (Shi 2010:4), we have around a 25% decline.  The steady loss of farmland and of local rights is working increasing hardship on the poor and middle class (Zhao 2013).

The decline is currently at 860,000 a year from urbanization alone (Larson 2013), not counting the even greater amount of land lost to erosion.  Seto et al (2012) point out that China may triple or quadruple its urbanized land area by 2030, from about 80,525 square km in 2000 to perhaps 300,000 in 2030.  This would require spending $100 billion a year simply to keep up with infrastructure.  At this rate, China’s last farm will disappear around 2200.  (At least this is better than California; before the housing crash of 2008, California was urbanizing at a rate that would have eliminated its last farm around 2050.)  Meanwhile, global warming is seriously impacting crops; rice pollen dies when the temperature passes 37 degrees C, which is now happening in southern China (Larson 2013).

A measure of China’s land use planning, and of its method of executing those plans, is provided by the summary expulsion of less affluent people from their land to make way for development that profits local businesspeople and government officials (the latter often through corruption).  Summary expulsion from land and houses, without appropriate compensation, has affected an estimated 43% of villages and cities.  Gangs of thugs are sent to beat residents who object.  A revealing case involved a gang of seven attacked the home of Shen Jianzhang in a small village; unfortunately for them, he was a gongfu master, and he and his son quickly reduced the seven to a crumpled mass on the floor.  The result, though, was that he had to flee the town and his son was jailed (Hannon 2012).  His wife had videoed the episode, however, and the video has now been seen all over China, inspiring some concerted action. 

Brown pointed out that China’s aggressive campaign to modernize transportation is sacrificing vast areas of farmland to roads, parking lots, airports, and the like.  I found his claims and figures hard to believe until I visited China in 1999; in a short visit, I personally observed tens of thousands of acres of prime rice land being converted to these uses.  The situation has gotten much worse since.  On the other hand, transportation has moved rapidly toward fast rail, subway, good buses, and other more environmentally friendly means.  Yet the drive to increase the number of cars is continuing.  Farmland paved over for cars is out of production for a very long time.

The remainder is acidifying, and the more heavily fertilized parts are degrading seriously because of this (Guo et al. 2010).  The BBC News website (in a posting on 23 April 2007) related that China’s farmland is so seriously polluted that more than 10% is out of production or nearly so.  Pollution took out of production some 307,000 ha of arable land in the first 10 months of 2006 alone.  Excessive fertilizing, polluted water, heavy metals, and solid wastes did most of the damage.  Heavy metals are especially bad, since they persist essentially forever; they caused losses of $2.6 billion in 2006.  But even ordinary nitrogen, which has increased from 9 teragrams overall to 56 from 1910 to 2010, is getting out of hand and creating huge problems of eutrophication and environmental pollution (Cui et al. 2013).  “Approximately 8.3% of the country’s…arable land…is contaminated buy unbridled mining, trash dumping, and long-term use of pesticides” (Liu et al. 2013).  Lead and cadmium are abundantly found, as well as all manner of other contaminants.

As far as water goes, Science magazine reports: “Fully 90% of China’s shallow groundwater is polluted…and an alarming 37% is so foul that it cannot be treated for use as drinking water….  The toll is significant:  Every year, an estimated 190 million Chinese fall ill and 60,000 die because of water pollution.  According to the World Bank, such illnesses cost the government $23 billion a year, or 1% of China’s gross domestic product” (Qiu 2011b).  The Yellow River no longer reaches the sea (Moyo 2012:41), and tens of millions of people along its former lower course suffer desperate shortages of water.  The Yangzi is also drying slowly in its lower course, and is so compromised that its signature animal, the white-flag dolphin, has become extinct.  China’s lowland lakes, such as the famous Dongting and Poyang Lakes, are rapidly filling up with sediment, and their water is too polluted to be usable.  Attempts to clean up groundwater are more notable for the pollution they document than for their success (Qiu 2011b).  Science further reports:  “Two-thirds of China’s 669 cities have water shortages, more than 49% of its rivers are severely polluted, 80% of its lakes suffer from eutrophication, and about 300 million rural residents lack access to safe drinking water….”; waste and outdated technology increase water use while conferring no benefits.  “More than 46,000 of the 87,000 dams and reservoirs built since the 1950s have surpassed their life spans, or will within 10 years”; they are silting up or wearing out.  “Many water projects…were rushed without following the national law of environmental impact assessments and have caused enormous environmental and socioeconomic impacts” (Liu and Yang 2012).  Even the projects that did pass environmental review are turning out to have costs higher than their benefits. 

Zhiwei Wang, of Tonji University in Shanghai, writes in Science:  “In 2011, China generated 65.21 billion tons of wastewater”; this may reach 784. Billiln tons by 2015.  China has ambitious plans to increase treatment, now rudimentary in rural areas and far from perfect in cities, but goals will be hard to meet (Wang 2012).

In water as in other things, China has gone for short-term benefits that occasion later but far greater costs.  The costs are now beginning to come out.  China thus displays an acute form of a worldwide problem:  the benefits of environmental wreckage have largely been reaped, and often either squandered or else appropriated by the super-rich, while the costs are now coming due, and will be paid by the entire human race—especially the poor.

Dai Qing (1998), Deirdre Chetham (2002), Richard Stone (2008), Peter Gleick (2012), and others have documented the disasters caused by big dams, which, in China as elsewhere, are often planned with inadequate attention to cost/benefit ratios.  Landslides, siltation, damage to downstream fisheries, loss of villages to rising waters, and many other problems have occurred.  Protesters have been ruthlessly suppressed, though dam-protest movements are building in spite of this (Forney 2005).  Coggins (2003) has recorded the problems and trials of conservation in one mountain village.  Ideally, dams provide power, thus preventing the use of coal, and store water.  In fact, poorly planned dams always have poor cost/benefit ratios and rarely pay for themselves (Scudder 2005).  Meanwhile, China has refused to enter into international agreements on water and river management, partly because they are upstream of several countries and want the full benefits of that position (Gleick 2012).  Being downstream in China itself is bad enough; being downstream from China is looking disastrous.  China is, for instance, aiding with dams on the lower Mekong, which threaten to wipe out that river’s ecology and damage Cambodia’s agriculture severely; China is also funding big and ecologically irresponsible dams in Africa and elsewhere (Gleick 2012).  China’s big dams are largely for hydropower; other considerations, including the rights and livelihoods of the less affluent, are not considered.  The cited sources describe brutal political repression of those who protest this.

Huge dams, climaxing in the Three Gorges Dam (Dai 1997; Yan and Potter 2009), have led to massive displacement of people, ruin of downstream fisheries and other water benefits, and geological instability—yet siltation is filling these dams much faster than expected, and they will be useless in a few decades.  On recent visits to China I have seen up to half the reservoirs in some areas ruined by silt infill.  The rapid siltation, in turn, is the result of deforestation and poor farming practices, both of which are the results of specific Communist policies that reversed previous good care in the relevant areas.

The Three Gorges Dam was so obviously a disaster for the Yangzi River’s endemic fish that a reserve was declared upstream, a 500-km stretch of river (350 km on the Yangzi, the rest on main tributaries).  However, as is typical of Communist conservation, this was deceptive.  The reserve lasted only as long as it took the engineers to plan and commence new dams.  It is now giving way to more and more high dams.  These will turn the Yangzi and its main tributaries to slack water—until the dams silt up.  Meanwhile, pollution, low and unreliable water levels, and loss of valuable fisheries are the lot of the whole river downstream from Three Gorges (Qiu 2012).  In 2011 “China’s cabinet, the State Council, admitted that the dam is plagued by pollution, silt accumulation and ecologtical deterioration nearby, and has affected irrigation, water supply and shipping in downstream regions” (Nature 487:144, news item “Three Gorges Dam Reaches Full Power”). 

China’s obsession with huge, uneconomical or hard-to-sustain dams (Schmitt and Tilt 2012) is an extreme form of a world pathology (Scudder 2005).  China now has or is planning over 25,000 big dams, more than the rest of the world now has; even North America, dam-crazed for decades and now forced to take out many old ones, has only 8,000 (Tilt 2012).  Friends of mine who have worked for the World Bank report they know of no case of a cost-effective huge dam in a less affluent country.  Moreover, the damage is of a really tragic nature—ruining the poor, destroying prime farmland, exterminating countless species, displacing whole indigenous groups—while the benefits are banal: more power and more irrigation control—invariably benefiting rich businessmen more than the poor majority.  The reason for these dams in some countries is often no more than the success of large construction companies at bribing politicians. I do not know if this is the case in China, but China’s corruption and money-madness arouses suspicion.

Even more irrational than megadam projects are the artificial ornamental and recreational lakes now appearing everywhere in China.  They are being created even in the deserts of Ningxia and the drought-afflicted basins of Shaanxi (Liu and He 2012).  They get their water from the major rivers, including the Yellow River, whose flow is now so reduced that it does not even come close to reaching the sea.  Local governments, unaccountable to the people in general but under constant pressure to deliver quick economic benefits, seem largely responsible.  The increasing irrationality of maximizing short-term benefits at the expense of medium-term and long-term ones increases apace.

Dams, water abuse, and other environmental problems have led people to attempt to flee the land to better land or to the city.  This was met with state violence:  “… in the 1970s and 1980s, several thousands of the Miao [minority] moved spontaneously from northeast Yunnan and northwest Guizhou, and reclaimed wasteland and took up farming in the mountainous areas of Anning City near Kunming….  In response, their newly-built houses were burned down and they were sent by force back to their original villages….” (Cang 2009:80-81). 

But then, the state, realizing the need, completely reversed itself and began a policy of forced migration that took millions of people from their homes and scattered them far away (Cang 2009 and other chapters in Abe and Nickum 2009).  Often, these were minority-group people, and they were settled among Han.  Anyone aware of China’s recent policies, which have not infrequently been virulently anti-minority, will suspect that the plan was to destroy these minority groups’ cultures and political bases rather than to help them economically.  China’s minority policies have differed considerably from place to place; the much-publicized situation in Tibet and Xinjiang is rather balanced by the more benign policies in Guangxi, Yunnan, Sichuan and elsewhere (see e.g. Harrell 2001; Harrell ed., 1995, 2001).  Still, China is, at best, committed to acculturating its minorities to Han culture.  At worst, it simply displaces or represses minorities to make way for Han Chinese.

China’s air pollution, the worst in the world, is causing enormous damage to crops and forests not only in China itself but in Korea, Japan, Russia, and elsewhere.  The World Health Organization estimates that some 700,000 people die from air pollution every year.  The World Bank estimated that in 2009 China lost $100 billion from ill health (Pierson 2013).  The truth may be worse; the Harvard School of Public Health estimates that 83 million Chinese will die of lung problems in the next 25 years (from 2008; “Chinese Lung Disease ‘To Kill 83m’”; BBC News Online, Oct. 4, 2008; Fagin 2008).  This is largely due to smoking and coal-burning; smoking is the government’s fault, to a great extent, because the Chinese government owns the tobacco company (the blessings of Communism) and thus has done everything possible to promote smoking, including circulating dishonest claims about the health effects of smoking and deliberately suppressing the truth on the matter.  Current estimates indicate that over 300,000,000 people are sick from air pollution.  This is more than the entire population of the United States.  Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, “an incurable respiratory disorder that can cause severe breathing difficulties,” is now extremely common, affecting “roughly 8% [of] people who are 40 or older”; it is caused by smoking and air pollution (Hughes 2012:818).  One recalls that the Chinese government owns tobacco companies and sells cigarettes, and thus has a vested interest in maximizing smoking.  Women rarely smoke but most men do, and the women are affected by secondhand smoke. 

At the end of 2012 and beginning of 2013, cold stagnant air led to the buildup of pollution over China.  Some 33 cities recorded hazardous readings, with Beijing’s air being extremely hazardous for days.  Enormous and unprecedented health costs were registered (Pierson 2013).  Dai Qing noted that this was “dangerous” for civil unrest as well as for health; people might protest environmental damage more than other ills.  The pollution followed years of replacing air quality experts with bureaucrats unwilling to criticize government in the relevant bureaus.  On the other hand, 75 cities were reporting pollution levels, and the trend is toward better reporting and publicity (Demick 2013). 

Even more frightening is the permanent brain damage caused by pollution.  Hundreds of millions of people are now affected by heavy metals, plastic-making chemicals, and air pollutants that are known to damage the brains of growing embryos and children.  This is giving China a legacy that will last; some of the pollutants actually affect not only the children, but even their future children. 

Solid wastes, many of them toxic, are also increasing:  “China has surpassed the US to become the world’s largest trash producer, churning out more than 260 million tons a year” (Makinen 2012).  Where China will put all this is a real problem.

Serious malnutrition has declined dramatically; it was, of course, rampant in pre-Communist China and again after 1958.  Stunting from malnutrition still affected 33.1% of Chinese in 1990, but was down to 9.9% by 2010.  However, “nearly 6.5 million children under age 5 in China are stunted” (Stone 2012).  Of course this is a very small percentage of Chinese children, but it is a lot of people.

Unless something truly revolutionary is done, China will face in 20 years a food, pollution, and environment crisis unprecedented in the history of humanity.  This will have global effects (Brown 1995; Liu and Diamond 2005, 2008). 

Even government scientists admit serious problems.  In 2011 the minister for the environment, Zhou Shengxian, said that “the depletion, deterioration and exhaustion of resources and the deterioration of the environment have become serious bottlenecks constraining economic and social development” (Moyo 2012:27).  Xu Jun of the Ministry of Science and Technology says that China’s “ecological situation is terrible” (Qiu 2011a).  Bojie Fu, a Chinese scientist writing in Science (2008), admits:  “Over the past 20 years, the total cost from environmental pollution and ecological deterioration is estimated to have been 7 to 20% of the annual gross domestic product….”  This means that China’s vaunted 10% growth per year is indeed neutralized, as Brown feared.  Moreover, “40% of urban wastewater was discharged into neighborhood water bodies without treatment.  In 2007, water quality at half of the 197 monitored rivers of China was rated as heavily polluted…” as were 60% of lakes.  Air quality was equally bad, and “excess erosion from wind and water has deteriorated about 37.1% of China’s total land mass.”  Recall that this is the government’s official statistics; the truth is certainly worse, but we shall probably never know how much worse. 

China now may have passed the United States to become largest producer of greenhouse gases, thus contributing mightily to global warming, which is drying up west China and producing more typhoons in the south.  Yet China not only refuses to do much (the vaunted “clean energy” China produces is actually a drop in their bucket; see Moyo 2012), but joins the United States in actively working against international agreements to curb greenhouse gas emissions.  China’s energy production is inefficient, and the Chinese government does not seriously address improving emissions to control global warming (see Song and Woo for reviews).  China is, however, moving rapidly into clean energy; it is by far the biggest producer of solar panels, and has moved into wind energy and other cleaner sources.  All these have their own problems, but they are certainly preferable to coal, the major current source of China’s energy.  China’s current problem in this area is a nice kind of problem: they have moved so fast into clean energy that they are suffering from overcapacity and overproduction (Nature, 4 Oct. 2012).  This may yet brighten China’s environmental record, in future.

China once had 14% of the world’s grassland, but half of that is now lost to farming and mining and 90% of the rest is severely degraded by overuse and erosion (Qiu 2011a).  Inner Mongolia suffered dreadfully, as Mongol land-sparing patterns of herding were replaced by environmentally disastrous farming and overgrazing (Sneath 1998, on Russia vs. Mongolia; Normile 2007 and Williams 1996a, 1996b, 2000 on China’s ruin of Inner Mongolia).  Superb management by traditional methods was replaced by complete disaster, leading to massive desertification and economic ruin (Abe and Nickum 2009; Williams 1996a, 1996b, 2000, 2002).  Desertification there is being dealt with in some areas by mass poisoning of rodents and other small animals, a measure so ecologically insane that it is certain to backfire (Hao Xin 2008).

 This was not the only area where plowing fragile desert grasslands led to total desertification. 

            China enters the 21st century almost completely deforested, with rather little reforestation.  Reforestation began in the 1950s, but has had a very up-and-down career—mostly down.  Extreme programs of grain-growing and timber-cutting in the 1960s and 1970s led to massive deforestation.  Meanwhile, planted trees died of neglect.  However, as of the early 21st century, the most intensively managed and long-reforested parts of China actually have appreciable tree cover—at least in the south, where forests flourish much more than in the north.  The areas north of Hong Kong, which I could see from my research areas in the 1960s and 1970s, were utterly barren as of 1966.  They were showing a faint green haze of pathetically spindly saplings by 1975.  They are now well forested with pines, except where housing has replaced all natural cover.  Some other areas of the south have done well too (personal observation, eked out by careful study of satellite photographs).  Unfortunately, in the north, the deep interior, and many other areas, reforestation has not done well.  However, there is still hope; the Great Wall, which when I saw it in 1978 was surrounded by a moonscape, is now surrounded by a healthy woodland, and it has been interesting to follow the progress of this growth through photographs and satellite imagery. 

China has about 4% of the world’s forests, almost all seriously degraded.  Devastating policies of deforestation caused massive erosion and land ruin in much of China from 1958 to 1980.  “Before 1980, China long promoted a grain-focused agricultural policy called ‘taking grain as the key link,’ which produced large areas of deforestation in the name of opening up uncultivated ‘wasteland.’  For example…felling all trees was executed in Nujiang Prefecture, which destroyed a lot of forest reserves and finally led to…disastrous mud-rock flows….”  (Cang 2009:81).  Forests have collapsed, and China’s search for wood has devastated southeast Asia.

Deforestation increased dramatically in the 20th century, especially after 1950, and reforestation campaigns in the 1950s and 1960s failed, for various reasons.  So have many since (Marks 2012), though many have worked well (personal observation).   Incalculable damage has been done, though forests are left and reforestation is better now (see Richardson 1990 for more on forests).  One result has been massive soil erosion, filling reservoirs and swamping fields with mud.  In 1998, disastrous floods swept central and south China, and the Chinese government finally put an end to forest clearing, whether for logging or agriculture.  This has not proved totally enforceable, but has stopped the worst of deforestation.  In this and many other ways, China has made great strides in environmental management, as acknowledged by e.g. Vaclav Smil, who did the best job of documenting China’s environmental destruction in the 1980s (Smil 1984).  Smil has applauded the partial turnaround (Smil 2000, 2004).  Plant conservation has recently been improved (Huang et al. 2002; my personal observation, especially in 1999, confirms this), but may now be going downhill again. Biodiversity conservation in China has a long and complex history which needs unpacking.

Mara Hvistendahl (2012) reports that China has now turned many forests over to local communities or individuals, in a belated, rather desperate attempt to counteract the disadvantages of Communism—summed up by one villager as “What was everyone’s was really no one’s” (Hvistendahl 2012:27).  Unfortunately, the problems of private ownership immediately surfaced.  These are the same problems that smallholder forest owners face in the United States, such as incentives to deforest rapidly for ready cash, to replace mixed forest with commercial monocrop, to sell out to predatory big interests because of high offers or because of threats and bullying.  Both public and private forests have suffered from the worst curse of forestry worldwide: the temptation to replace mixed, sustainably-harvested stands with quick-growing commercial monocrops such as pine, eucalyptus, and rubber (Hvistendahl 2012, and my own observations). Other privatization schemes have suffered similarly.  Yunnan’s forests, virgin till recently because carefully protected by local people, have given way to monocrop rubber plantations (Qiu 2009; Yin 2001, 2009; Ziegler et al. 2009).  This was first pushed by the government; the government is now trying to slow the pace, but the local people have been converted, and continue to replace forest with rubber (Ayoe Wang, 2008 and personal communication of ongoing research; see also Abe and Nickum 2009), to the detriment of wildlife, water supply, biodiversity, tourism, and sustainability.  Thus, China’s claims of enormous reforestation, for example, are disingenuous; most of the “reforestation” consists of rubber and eucalyptus plantations and other environmentally devastating commercial planting, rather than actual regrowth or replacement of real working forests that could supply timber, forest products, or environmental services (Xu 2011; Xu is a leading forester in China, so this can hardly be dismissed as outsider grousing). 

China once had 10% of the world’s wetlands, but China’s wetlands are now also degraded and mostly now gone.  China has also lost 73% of its mangroves and 80% of its coral reefs as of 2011 (Qiu 2011a).

Biodiversity has been devastated by overhunting, overfishing, medicine collecting, and, above all, habitat destruction (see e.g. Harris 2008; Marks 2012).  Overfishing and pollution have decimated or completely eliminated most wild fish resources.  The zone of death in the seas is spreading rapidly from the China coasts throughout the west Pacific region (see e.g. Fabinyi 2012; Fabinyi et al. 2012).  Overfishing for the Chinese and Japanese market is simply wiping out the oceans.  Even sea cucumbers, one of the least vulnerable of marine organisms, are now disappearing fast (Schenkman 2011).  Sea cucumbers are being wiped out even in Canadian and Alaskan waters, to feed the Chinese demand. 

One of the stranger threats to biodiversity was the anti-pest campaign under Mao Zedong in the middle 1950s.  This led to some elimination of rats and flies—probably not effective—but it led to mass extermination of small birds, held to be “sparrows” and to eat vast quantities of grain.  In 1958, the Chinese press reported that 1,650,000,000 sparrows were killed (Taylor 2005:117, citing the Chinese Medical Journal).  The grain consumption by these birds is inconsequential, but their insect consumption is phenomenal.  The result of this campaign was massive outbreaks of insect pests.  The campaign was halted, but China’s small bird populations were permanently decimated.  Between this campaign and habitat destruction, as well as hunting for food by desperate people, China’s bird life is almost nonexistent today except in remote reserves.

Wildlife conservation is increasingly troubled by poaching, inadequacy of reserves, inadequate enforcement of laws in reserves, excessive tourist development in some of them, and other typical problems of crowded lands with shaky governmental legitimacy (Harris 2008). 

China has 2538 nature reserves covering 15% of the country, as of 2011, but this extremely impressive total is less than it appears; many are “paper parks,” there on paper to impress outsiders, but unenforced and unenforceable locally.  Most of these reserves are in fact subject to extraction, and many are suffering from unregulated mass tourism.  As many as ten million tourists a year now visit Lijiang, and other sites have comparable masses (Huang 2012).  The government often cannot resist the Yosemite Valley model of putting a flashy, revenue-generating tourist center on fragile habitat that was supposed to be protected.  China now has 400 endangered species, and many more species have probably gone extinct without anyone noting it (Marks 2012).

Moreover, China is exporting its mismanagement.   Rabinowitz (1998) documents the virtually complete extermination of wildlife in Laos by hunting for the Chinese market (I have personally observed the striking emptiness of Laotian forests).  Most of them go for medicine; Chinese folk medicine uses almost everything.  Food, however, is also an end product of overhunting.  Smil (2004) points out the devastation of wildlife, noting that a huge percentage of China’s animals are endangered, yet are still sold in restaurants—26% of animals sold in restaurants are endangered (Smil 2004:108).  Ten tons of snake meat are sold daily in Shenzhen, a thousand tons annually in Shanghai (Smil 2004:109).  Edible birds’ nests, once sustainably harvested, are now disappearing as fast as thieves and overharvesters can take them (Kong et al. 1990). 

Meanwhile, China is buying or leasing land throughout the tropics, and appropriating the product.  Africa is a major target; Africa’s starving millions now have to compete with relatively well-to-do Chinese for the products of African agriculture (see e.g. Moyo 2012).  Australia’s eucalypts have been replaced by wheat for China, which has led to massive salinization and loss of millions of acres of land (personal research and observation, southwest China; simply looking at the area on Google’s satellite photographs is revealing). 

Brazil’s rainforest and cerrado forest are the latest casualties; they are being destroyed to produce soybeans and other foods for the Chinese market.  Legal protection for these forests was greatly relaxed in 2012 under Chinese pressure. China is already buying enough food to impact world markets.  Lester Brown (1995) was right:  China was destroying its agricultural potential and would soon be forced to raid the rest of the world for imports.  This has now begun to have the effect of raising world food prices, as Brown feared it would.  Even the United States is facing squeeze on agriculture, and consequent high prices, because of direct and indirect effects of the China market.

This is not a problem confined to food.  China’s deforestation is giving it an appetite for trees and other imports that destroy forests, grasslands, and fisheries worldwide (Aldhous 2005; Beech 2005; Lu and Diamond 2005, 2008; Moyo 2012).

Meanwhile, China is increasingly stressing its neighbors by taking water from cross-border rivers.  Kazakhstan is particularly endangered, since essentially all the water in the eastern part of the country flows out of China.  China is taking much of this and refuses even to discuss fair deals; its position is that it has the right to the water and need not consider Kazakhstan (Stone 2012).  This could lead to catastrophic agricultural failure and the near-drying of Lake Balkhash.  Kazakhstan has reason to worry, since in USSR days water diversion almost completely dried up the Aral Sea, leading to an environmental catastrophe; Kazakhstan has been desperately trying, with fair success, to restore its part of the Aral, but Uzbekistan—which controls most of it—remains intransigent (see Anderson 2010 for this and much other relevant data).

China is consuming more animal protein, and using many of the imported soybeans to feed the animals (Du Bois et al 2008).  Meat consumption soared from 8 million tons in 1978 to 71 million in 2012 (Larson 2013).  Smil (2004), and all other recent observers, are struck by the rapid increase in obesity, diabetes, atherosclerosis, and other food-related health problems in China.  China will have to limit its consumption of red meat, fats and oils, and sugars—either voluntarily or through morbidity and death.  The picture is not pretty.  At least the Communist leadership does not have “face” invested in this, as they do in their suicidal big-dam and automobile-development projects.  One can be cautiously optimistic about the chances for limiting “junk food” consumption.

Still, the new China is too successful at providing bulk calories, too unsuccessful at providing vitamins and minerals.  One-fourth of Chinese are obese (BBC News, July 8, 2008), and the proportion is rapidly rising.  This is due to more bulk calories and less exercise, but I suspect a further factor, one that certainly operates in the west:  unsatisfied hunger due to insufficient nutrients.  “Man does not live by bread alone,” and sugar, oil and white flour do not satisfy, even in excessive amounts.  Not surprisingly, rates of diabetes, hypertension, and heart disease are rising rapidly.  Diabetes, often blamed on sugar, is actually exacerbated more by polished rice than by sucrose; polished rice eaters have up to 25% higher risk than eaters of more varied foods of lower glycemic index.  Again, an unbalanced diet short of vitamins and minerals is also a factor.  Eating more meat, fat, and sugar, and less vegetables, bean curd, and unprocessed grain, has led to the rise in rates of obesity and diabetes.  Longevity has increased with modern medicine, but heart attacks are commoner than simple life extension can explain. 

Moreover, the Chinese government has turned away from its spectacular early successes in medical care, which more than doubled life expectancy from the 1940s to the 1980s.  Health spending as a part of total government spending declined “from 28% to 14% between 1981 and 1993, allocation to the rural ‘cooperative medical-insurance system’ decreased from 20% to 2%,” while rampant corruption and price-gouging have denied care to the poor (Dong, Hoven and Rosenfeld 2005:573-574).  Public health care is declining seriously in rural areas (Arif Dirlik, talk of May 26, 2005, UCR), threatening the future.  Given the epidemics of SARS and AIDS as well as the drastic decline in healthy eating, China is in trouble.  Problems for the future include not only obesity and diabetes (Normile 2010), but specific deficiencies, such as anemia (chronic in China for millennia) and folic acid deficiency (an emergent danger with the decline in eating vegetables and whole grains).  Folic acid deficiency is probably the major cause of birth defects round the world, and is probably increasing in China.  (The double “probably” reflects the dismal state of knowledge of this insidious problem.) 

Through the 1970s, all Chinese had free health care.  By 2000, only 15% of the population had medical insurance, and the rest had to pay full cost; “the World Health Organization ranked China 144th out of 191 national health care systems” (Hvistendahl 2013c).

Since then, things have turned around.  Life expectancy continues to increase (so far), and Chinese now live almost as long as Westerners.  In Taiwan, and parts of south China, they live as long as do the inhabitants of well-off European nations.  Food and medical care continue to be reasonably adequate, and the scale of differences from two generations ago are almost unparalleled in world history.  China plans to triple its medical spending.  Better hospitals are being built.  Mental health care is improving after earlier neglect.  But the rapid growth of heart and circulatory diseases, and other consequences of modernization and accompanying changes, has caught the system in a serious squeeze (Hvistendahl 2013b).

Far more dangerous is China’s extremely shaky control over epidemics.  The SARS outbreak and subsequent flu epidemics were wake-up calls, heeded but not adequately heeded.  China faces a situation in which an extremely dense, homogeneous population is packed into increasingly close quarters, with pigs, ducks, chickens, and other disease-vectoring animals numbering in the hundreds of millions very close to major cities.  The corruption and poor supervision endemic China’s bureaucracy have proved hard to fight in making China more ready for epidemics.  If the future involves economic and social decline, or more health damage from pollution, the chances of major epidemics will greatly increase.

In short, through “modernization,” China has made great strides in food production.  However, this has often involved adopting poor ideas from the rest of the world, from excessive use of chemicals to feeding meat animals on grain that humans could eat.  Flooding, biodiversity loss, water shortages, and paving of cropland have yet to show their full effects; they will be more deadly in future (see also Marks 2012).

 

3

There are options.  Conservation, especially reforestation, is on the government’s program now, and awareness of the devastating effects of pollution is now quite high.  Forest product use is efficient, a really bright spot (Ajani 2011).  Public transportation is another bright spot (Edwin Schmitt, pers. comm.)  In degraded grasslands, experiments with market-based but environmentally sensitive bottom-up planning led to great improvement and some grassland recovery (Kemp et al. 2013).  Tian Shi’s solid review of the problems and prospects of “sustainable ecological agriculture in China” (2010) begins with a long treatise on what that agriculture is, then moves into a consideration of China’s problems and prospects, including a case study of one fairly successful experiment.  Tian Shi is well aware of the Marxist ideology of refusing to acknowledge ecological problems (see esp. p. 95), but recognizes that there is some hope.

Unfortunately, at current rates of change, China will collapse before much can be done.  Repairing ecological damage is a slow process.  One reason is that China has increasingly repressed its non-Han inhabitants.  For example, the Tibetans, who conserved animal life because of their Buddhist faith, have lost control of their land, which has been settled by vast numbers of Han Chinese who have hunted the animals into extinction.  Similar stories come from all parts of China that have local minority groups (including Han ones).  Indigenous peoples are usually good managers, while invaders and new settlers are not usually so aware of the land.  They usually do not know enough to manage it so well.  All this has caused a problem for modern environmental researchers trying to understand traditional China.  They often back-project the disastrous mismanagement of the 20th century on earlier periods.  This is inaccurate and misleading. 

Meanwhile, Tibet suffered as Chinese hunters exterminated wildlife long protected by Buddhism.  (Tibetans have now reportedly taken to poaching as well.)  Many Tibetans and Mongols have charged that Han Chinese are stripping resources not only to get the wealth but also to oppress the indigenous people.  China boasts of heavy investment in Tibet, but Tibetan refugees maintain that this investment goes to Han individuals.  The Han Chinese deny this.  Proof—one way or the other—remains elusive.  But the disasters are real, and they match Communist China’s deliberate destruction of its own cultural traditions (Leys 1985) all too closely—but, unlike the Great Cultural Revolution, which soon ended, the repression of Tibetan and Uighur culture is ongoing.  (The question of how China treats its minorities is a somewhat vexed one.  There are many charges on all sides.  Certainly China’s current stated policies are highly fair and civil.  Behavior on the ground does not always match ideals, of course.  Nor are stated policies necessarily the real policies.) 

After early success, China’s environmental practices have gone downhill, though with many hopeful reversals.  Old China had a goal of getting maximum benefit through minimal cost, usually by striving for harmony with environmental forces.  The Communists introduced the Marxian idea of “struggle against nature” (see Shapiro 2001).  “Nature,” in this thoroughly western and Marxist sense, was quite a new concept to China—and, for that matter, “struggle” in the Marxist sense was also a rather new concept.  Mao said that “if people living in nature want to be free, they will have to use natural sciences to understand nature, to overcome nature and to change nature” and “to struggle against the heavens is endless joy; to struggle against the earth is endless joy; to struggle against people is endless joy” (Tilt 2009:136).  Even by western standards this is rather strong stuff, and to Chinese raised on Daoism, Confucianism, and solid rural experience in working with nature, it was appalling.

In what must be the most stunning non sequitur in history, the Communist apologist Jiang Zemin commented—as summarized by Lillian Li—“that China had the task of feeding 22 percent of the world’s population on only 7 percent of its arable land; therefore, political dissent and democratization had to take second place” (Li 2007:5; on this sort of political Newspeak in general, see Leys 1985; Smil 2004:144-145).  Of course, the experience of the rest of the world is that democracy and freedom translate into better management and more productivity in agriculture.  There is, in fact, an almost perfect correlation.  China has indeed greatly opened its political and economic system over the last few decades in order to keep producing food, but it has not opened enough to prevent loss of farming capacity.  China must depend increasingly on imports.  

Another Orwellian claim is that China will become “first rich, then clean,” as the Chinese government mistakenly believed the west had done.  However, the non-Communist west was never even remotely close to being as polluted and eroded as China is today.  The west never had the population density.  Moreover, environmentalism arose in the west before 1900, and was already stunningly successful, especially in forest and wildlife protection, under Theodore Roosevelt and his European equivalents.  At that time, the United States was a poor and overwhelmingly rural country.  Pollution control began as early, and climaxed with the many laws of the early 1970s.  Only in Communist East Europe was there ever anything like China’s current devastation. 

In any case, “first clean, then green” does not work.  Even if the government could reverse its policies of 70 years, those 83 million people would not be brought back to life, nor would the farmland ruined by urbanization and heavy metal pollution be restored.  What actually has happened is that China has developed an extreme case of “lock-in.”  It is trapped in a dirty economy that is now beyond major change unless there are enormous governmental changes at all levels—changes that are impossible so long as the government is in the hands of the notoriously corrupt Communist Party.  Even if national policy were to shift, local corruption would make major change impossible.  My students have documented the ways that local officials persist in devastating policies even after the national government has suffered a genuine change of heart and of laws (see also Tilt 2009).

More serious is the fact that China will never be rich if it does not become clean soon.  China’s vaunted economic growth rate is actually half or less what is claimed (Smil 2004; Tilt 2009), because the official figures do not take into account the costs of the pollution and erosion.  The official figures are inflated by an uncertain amount too, so the actual growth rate may well be zero.  This is not even to mention the point that the world does not have enough resources to allow China to consume at current western levels. 

It is highly relevant to observe that China’s human rights record is also notorious.  Correlation of human rights abuse and environmental mismanagement is typical, not only in China but worldwide. 

China represses those who protest environmental mismangement; this was reported in regard to the floods in Beijing in 2012 (Yahoo! News Online, July 24, but Edwin Schmitt, who was there at the time, says there was no repression and the 77 dead were all acknowledged; Schmitt, pers. comm., in writing, email of Sept. 21, 2012).  Political protest is often fatal in China.  Nature reports “Green protests on the rise in China” (Gilbert 2012), but they appear to have little chance of making a difference.  Meanwhile, China has recently imprisoned and tortured activists (including the artist Ai Weiwei) for protesting shoddy school construction that led to hundreds of child deaths in earthquakes.  A government that stifles criticism and “shoots the messenger” in cases of such flagrant abuse clearly has problems. 

The government has not always been able to crush or coopt protest.  Usually, however, the government can prevail, stifling dissent or answering it with purely cosmetic changes (see e.g. Economy 2005; Watts 2010).  On the other hand, popular and scientific opinion killed a major section of the huge and environmentally dreadful South to North Water Transfer project (Mufson 2010).  Popular protest, led by a few environmental activists at serious risk of their lives, is slowly forcing the government to wake up; it is definitely a bottom-up thing, with the government driven to act only when pressure is great; but carbon limits are being set and the worst cities are now the subjects of serious plans (Qi 2013).

 

 

4

China is beginning to face the consequences of its folly, but its government has locked in much of the pollution by heavy subsidizing of power plants and polluting industries, as well as by pro-car policies.  (Though, recall, public fast transit is also being furthered.)  Above all, a combination of corruption and extreme repression of public opinion has rendered the polluting interests not only above the law but above all criticism.  The usual dynamic has appeared:  an industry heavily subsidized becomes wealthy and politically connected, and thus is too powerful to be controlled effectively.  Pollution is far worse than the government’s statistics admit (Abe and Nickum 2010; Cyranoski 2007). 

            One sad result of all this has been the creation of socialist people.  Westerners sometimes say that Communism “fails” because it does not create selfless people.  The fact is that it never tried, at least in the USSR and China.  In those countries, Communism took the form of classic tyranny, which, as the ancient Greeks (e.g. Plato and Aristotle) pointed out, makes people passive, deceitful, and weak, rather than cooperative and enterprising.  Particularly dramatic has been the rise of reluctance to help in accidents, reportedly because of fear of getting into trouble with the police.  Bystanders in a position to help, sometimes even when asked, have let children die and allowed old, handicapped people suffer (Demick 2011).  The government sometimes blames Chinese traditions, but of course Chinese traditions advised helping all, in no uncertain terms:  “between the four seas all are siblings,” and much more.  There were reports of callousness in traditional times also, but always in the same circumstances:  tyranny and corrupt police.  Except in such situations, I saw only the opposite—extremely helpful, prosocial behavior—in my many years in Chinese communities.  But when my wife and I have been in police-ridden communities (including mainland China itself) we have sometimes seen the passive avoidance of help.  It is probable that Demick and others are exaggerating the situation, but they are clearly not inventing it.  Of course, the opening of China post-Mao has slowly and steadily changed this for the better, and it is impossible to break the Chinese spirit in any case—but there seems to have been a genuine change here, however much Demick’s case may be exaggerated.

My assessment is that China has done more damage to its environment in the last 60 years than in the entire 3500-year history of Imperial China.  I cannot prove this from figures.  However, certainly the damage before 1900 was substantial, but I do know that since 1966 when I first saw Hong Kong, and even since 1978 when I traveled throughout China, the country’s environment and health have declined at a dizzying pace.

            Considerable pressure for change and improvement has built up in recent years (Smil 2004; Tilt 2009).  The horrific floods of 1998 forced the Communist leadership to recognize that deforestation was having devastating consequences on downstream areas.  The Olympic Games of 2008 led to some significant cleanup of the Beijing area, which showed in turn how much improvement could be done for relatively little money.  Water shortages are forcing major reforms of water management in north China.  Recent forest policies are far from new or adequate, but they are not bad and may be improving.  An important review by Julia Strauss (2009) offers hope, but only if China does a number of things, notably streamlining policy and involving local people in all ways at all levels.  These seem, at this writing, unlikely. 

More hopeful, however, are the rapidly increasing protests against environmental ruin (Wang et al. 2012).  The public is seriously fed up, and the government is having more and more trouble balancing their tendency to crack down on dissent with the need to appear at least somewhat aware of the problem and also to appear somewhat less draconian.  International investors as well as the public have to be considered.

Also hopeful is a government plan to move toward a national circular economy—one in which material and energy flows are made as efficient as possible, with maximal recycling, minimal waste, and maximal sustainability using renewable materials (Geng et al. 2013).  It remains to be seen whether this policy will be implemented, but it represents a stunning turnaround in rhetoric, and may well transform practice.  One can only hope so.

Thus, some observers have been led to hopeful assessments of the future (e.g. Hyde and Xu 2009).  Unfortunately, these assessments are based on acceptance of official statistics known to be massaged or fabricated outright to fit national goals, and on policy statements that are not necessarily taken seriously at the local level.  Studies by local scholars show a very different reality indeed (Abe and Nickum 2009; also Ayoe (Jianhua) Wang, Yu Huang, Bryan Tilt, Stevan Harrell, and others, personal communication about ongoing research). The Chinese say “numbers make leaders and leaders make numbers” (Liu and Yang 2009): fabricating statistics gets one promoted, and then one fabricates more (see e.g. Hvistendahl 2013b).

Tilt (2009), among others, thinks that China’s totalitarian government could as easily impose conservation as it imposed devastation.  This is, unfortunately, quite wrong (Ayoe Wang, pers. comm.; and see e.g. Marks 2012, Watts 2010).  To begin with, there is the matter of changes that are difficult to reverse.  Most obviously, it takes 50 years to regrow a tree cut in 10 seconds, perhaps a thousand years to restore soil eroded in one storm, and thousands of years for urbanized land to become arable again.  Extinct species will never come back.  Surviving ones may be so depleted, and their habitat so altered, that they can never even begin to recover their original populations.  This is true of fish like the yellow croaker, as well as essentially all wild land animals.  And policies once set are very hard to reverse overnight, even for a totalitarian state. 

More generally, people have now irrevocably lost the old ideology of working (however imperfectly) with nature, and are slow to change from the newly-learned but now thoroughly-learned ethic of resource drawdown.   

The old ritual links to the land are long broken.  Mao’s devastating campaign against popular religion eliminated the fengshui groves and other land-sparing religious and magical institutions.  It also eliminated the ritual and religious instantiations of community that held people together and made them responsible (see e.g. David Johnson, 2009, a stunning picture of lost folk plays in interior China; for the general case, Leys 1985).

Minorities suffered in particular.  Most had excellent, sustainable resource use practices, from Mongolia in the north (see Williams references below) to Xishuangbanna in the far south (Wang 2008, 2013).  Commuinsts systematically destroyed these practices, seeing them as backward, superstitious, wasteful, and otherwise bad.  The reality, on the ground, was a combination of extreme and vicious racism and short-sighted attention to immediate profit at the expense of the future and of sustainability (Wang 2013 documents this at exhaustive length for Yunnan; there are comparable if sometimes less sophisticated studies for almost all minority areas).

Violently anti-environmental and anti-environmentalist rhetoric, harking back to the early Communist period, is still highly visible; Robert Marks quotes some of it (2012:325).  It is cited to government officials, but may be idiosyncratic rather than policy.  Ironically, it sounds very much like the right-wing anti-environmentalism of the Koch brothers and their ilk in the United States.  There actually seems to be some copying of specific slurs.  Also, China’s government is now so honeycombed with corruption that enforcing any regulations that run counter to local economic interests is difficult.  Local authorities are in league with and dependent on developers, and any American knows what that means.  A Chinese observer, Xiaolu Wang, puts it:  “Income inequality…is likely to be even greater [than reported] because unreported income (including illegal income) is huge, and is concentrated to a small proportion of high-income earners….  Rent-seeking behavior and corruption in the public sector are increasing; there is evidence of unjustified distribution of returns from land, natural resources and financial resources” (Wang 2008:167). 

Possibly even more threatening are rapidly tightening restrictions on research that could throw light on China’s environmental management and mismanagement (Hvistendahl 2013a).  Outsiders are not allowed to map or photograph in much of China, and China is trying to get satellite photographs to be shot at low resolution; this is claimed as necessary to protect security of military sites and the like, but it is enforced in oil drilling areas and other environmentally—but not militarily—sensitive sites.  Thus, one can assume that there is an agenda of hiding environmental damage.  Foreigners taking photographs—even without having been warned, or ever notified of new rules—have been fined; Chinese have been jailed and tortured. 

It should be emphasized that China is a Communist country, not a capitalist one, in spite of claims in the media.  The government plans, manages, and controls the economy and the labor force (see Moyo 2012).  Market reforms have opened much of the economy, but these reforms, and their effects, are still under the control of the government.  It should be remembered that Communism does not necessarily mean total direct control of every economic enterprise by government; it means planning by government such that the economy is subservient to government policy.  (On Chinese government, some particularly thoughtful and interesting studies by Andrew Kipnis are particularly good at problematizing simple narratives of “Communism,” “capitalism,” and state power; Kipnis 1997, 2007, 2008.) 

China now has one of the most unequal income patterns in the world, rivaling the United States—with the difference that China’s largest category is the poor, not the middle class.  Distributional equality is not helped by the current pattern of local governments using eminent domain to force farmers to give up their lands (with purely nominal compensation), which the local governments then sell for hundreds or thousands of dollars an acre to urban developers.  The officials pocket the money (Orlik 2013).

The result of this—and perhaps the most critically important observation one can make—is that China now has the worst of Communism: commandism, top-down planning, fabrication of statistics, and the like, and also savage repression of dissent and independent thought.  It also has the worst of capitalism:  obsession with short-term profit by the powerful at the expense of everyone else.  The best of Communism—overall planning for the long term and roughly equal access to key resources—and the best of capitalism—relative freedom of speech and action—are lacking.

One effect of this is an extreme form of the well-known problem with government subsidies: they lock in inefficiency and waste, by making it profitable to pass on costs of production to the public, and by making it difficult and expensive to change and innovate.  Also, as noted, such centralized planning guarantees cooked figures and invented statistics (as Chinese dynastic planners already knew thousands of years ago!).  Also, Communism teaches that industry, short-term economic gains, and “development” of resources should always take precedence, and privileging of short-term gains over long-term considerations is locked into the Chinese system.  As the Chinese environmental scientists Tian Shi reports:  “abandoning or even compromising growth for the sake of environmental protection or resource conservation is regarded as a heretical concept.  Even when environmental problems are acknowledged, the Chinese government generally denies the reality of the limits to growth.  This perspective is based on the Marxist axiom that the problems of mankind have their origin in the structure of social relationships, especially those surrounding the means of production; nature presents no obstacles that cannot be overcome by the appropriate social arrangements and the wonders of scientific-technological productivity” (Shi 2010; see also p. 62).  All environmentalists who have tried to deal with western Marxists know too much about this, and China is far more extreme than most western devotees.

Centralized economies have always been extremely successful at drawdown, but conservation is generally best organized at the grassroots level, as we have found through thousands of cases worldwide.  Grassroots citizen action has, in fact, been the only real force motivating change for the better in China (Economy 2005; Tilt 2009). 

Things could be worse.  Nature reserves (around 1800 now), reforestation, water management, conversion away from coal, and other hopeful programs are growing and improving apace.  Unfortunately, these continue to be outbalanced by rapid degradation.  China’s vaunted economic growth appears to be a myth.  The real costs of environmental decline are already serious.  They will increase exponentially in the near future, threatening or dooming China’s chances of being a world economic leader.

 

5

            Jared Diamond’s famous book Collapse (2005) found several societies that collapsed from wrecking their local ecosystems, or ignoring ecological changes that threatened them.  The most interesting point about the book, to me, is that Diamond found so few cases.

            Why aren’t there more?  Humans tend to be careless and take little thought of the future when planning for the environment (Anderson 2010).  So there should be more collapse stories, and Diamond was evidently rather surprised to find there were very few—all highly local and either on islands or in special zones that were ecologically island-like.

            From my research, I believe that the reason is that the beginnings of an ecological crisis cause so much political chaos, so rapidly, that there is no time for a genuine Malthusian crisis to occur.  As Malthusian pressures build, people become so desperate to preserve their own lives, and the lives of their immediate families or friends or clients, that they work against the wider system and against all sacrifice for the future.  If one is confident that one is going to be ruined in the short term, the long term is no longer meaningful.  In fact, even the slightest downturn is apt to bring rapid political dissention and conflict, as we are seeing in the United States today.  Worse downturns bring worse troubles, as Europe saw in the Great Depression.  (The United States was spared the worst of that depression, but still had its tensions.)  Then the social system melts down even before the ecological system fails.  The resulting economic and demographic decline takes the pressure off resources.  Thus, when China’s ecological disasters catch up with the economy, we can confidently expect political trouble and a regression toward a Hobbesian social world.

In fact, it is quite possible that China’s environmental crisis will combine with a political crisis in about 15-20 years.  China is almost three generations away from the revolution of 1948-1950 that put the Communist Party in power.  Three generations is critical in Ibn Khaldun’s quite successfully predictive theory of the evolution of a polity (Ibn Khaldun 1958; cf. Anderson and Chase-Dunn 2005).  Ibn Khaldun observed that, for a generation, a new government is held together by bonds of loyalty, mutual support, and sharing the loot.  They had to stand together to win the country, and this carried them through while the conqueror generation was in charge.  The second generation relaxes the military discipline and ideological solidarity of the winners, but achieves wealth, power and glory, more or less through momentum.  The third generation (and the fourth, if there is one) declines into luxury, corruption, and a general attitude of every-man-for-himself or every-group-for-itself.  Power blocs can grow over the years until they challenge the center.  It may be assumed that there are always people wanting to take power.  If the government is strong, the challengers cannot prevail.  As the Ibn Khaldun cycle works its way along, certain blocs of people can accumulate more and more power, while the government weakens.  This leads to collapse.

In a situation where many people become selfish while others fall back on loyalty to a group, the groups in question tend to become fanatical and violent.  They thus often win, since a highly motivated group can easily conquer a vast number of disunited individuals, one at a time.  However, this rarely happened in China; what usually happened was that either the leading general or some similar powerful individual simply took over the country in a coup, or else a semiperipheral marcher state invaded and took over.

The cycle takes about a hundred years, in Ibn Khaldun’s theory, and by and large in Chinese history, though cross-cultural statistics show it typically taking about 75 in many other areas (including the United States:  Independence to Civil War to Depression to current economic woes).  My own study of Chinese crises show that they did occur at roughly 75-year intervals since the unification of China in 221 BCE.  However, the range was great.  It ran from a mere 14 years (the dismally short reign of China’s very first dynasty) to 242 (the amazingly long run of peace in the later Ming Dynasty).  So the figure is hardly predictive.  However, there is every reason to believe that China’s next crisis will indeed come around 2025.

At this point the future becomes unclear.  China resolved many crises by a sort of coup by the government against itself:  a more or less legitimate but undesignated or displaced member of the imperial family seizing full power, eliminating rivals, and reinventing the government.  At other times, an army general would stage a coup, usually with bloody but limited fighting.  Total collapse occurred only when the government was completely nonfunctional due to selfish behavior by all parties.  The major collapses involved long periods of dynastic weakness, during which it the government lost legitimacy in the eyes of the people—“lost the mandate of Heaven,” as the Chinese put it.  This led to the rise of competing groups: bandits,” local armies, and “barbarians.”  These got into fiercer and fiercer spirals of violence, often creating local kingdoms or warlord fiefs, until some one powerful armed group rolled up the whole of China.  This happened most recently at the fall of Qing in 1911; China was not again united till the Communist victory under Mao Zedong in 1948-1950. 

            China’s many dynasties all fit the Ibn Khaldun model, but with one major difference:  Almost all of them lasted about 300 years—three or four Khaldun cycles.  This was, however, not as far from Ibn Khaldun’s theory as it looks.  Every one of them had crises at roughly 75-year intervals, sometimes involving actual overthrow of the dynasty by a coup and its recovery in a countercoup.  (This happened twice in the Han Dynasty.  China was ruled, historically, by eight major dynasties.  Of these, three involved conquest by semiperipheral marcher states, two of which were non-Chinese; four involved takeover by leading generals serving the previous regimes; and one was an actual popular revolution.  The Communist revolution marked the second takeover in China’s history by a popular movement. There were, in addition, several dynasties that conquered large parts of China but not the whole; five involved conquest of north China by non-Chinese semiperipheral marcher states, or perhaps in one case a truly peripheral state.  It may be worth noting that two major dynasties, Sui and Tang, had founders who were allegedly part “barbarian,” having Xiongnu, Xianbei or Turkic ancestry.  But they were culturally Han Chinese themselves.)

            China’s current government is rapidly losing legitimacy through rampant corruption and brutal repression.  The environment is a major part of the action, since mass protests over displacement of millions by big-dam projects, groundwater pollution, and so on are building, and since soil erosion, deforestation, and pollution are wrecking the livelihoods of literally hundreds of millions of rural residents.  Meanwhile, political crises are surfacing, due to more ordinary competition for power.  Also, the rest of the world is going through a long, unstable, economically parlous period, that will probably not end before some currently wealthy countries are leveled down.  The United States in particular seems poised to collapse, with fascist dictatorship a possible outcome.  This would have repercussions that would be serious for China, as for everyone else worldwide.

By 2025—75 years from the triumph of the Revolution—China will be in a parlous situation. 

            Major environmental and consequent economic crises at this point in an Ibn Khaldun cycle will weaken or bring down the government.  China’s history suggests that anything could happen, from an internal coup to a complete meltdown into total chaos and violence.

            We may get a bit farther in predicting which.  On the one hand, China’s history suggests that the first 75-year crisis in a regime is usually handled well; the regime reforms or revitalizes, and carries on.  (This occurred in Han, Tang, Sung, Ming, Qing, and several minor dynasties, but not in Qin, Sui or Yuan among the majors.)  This suggests that the present governmental system, with its gray apparatchik leaders, might collapse, but the Communist Party or the Red Army would produce dynamic leadership to replace them.

On the other hand, China never had anything like the present resource crisis, except at the fall of the Qing Dynasty when population had overshot food production and the food supply base was threatened by erosion, floods, and droughts.  Moreover, the current Chinese ideology is communist, as opposed to the traditional eclectic mix of various philosophies. 

Communism under Mao, as under Stalin, often behaved like an extreme religion, comparable to extremist Islam and right-wing Christianity.  At present, however, China is far more open and less extreme.  In a crisis, the leadership might seek refuge in extremism, as they did in Mao Zedong’s time.  Given current environmental conditions, this would almost guarantee government failure.  In this case, China would certainly suffer one of its periodic collapses into violence and chaos, such as occurred at the end of each of the great dynasties.  On the other hand, it is also possible that present hopeful trends continue.  Imminent crisis might shock the leadership into taking charge, forcing temporary austerity on the people, and working to clean up the environment.  China might still save itself at the last moment. 

Doing so will require a well-known set of conditions (Anderson 2010).  First, serious cost-benefit accounting will be necessary; the real costs of dams, air pollution, loss of farmland, and the like must be factored into budgets instead of concealed and passed on to the poor.  Second, a system of accountability and recourse must be established; officials and local firms must be held accountable for damages, and ordinary people must have the right to protest (peacefully) and to sue at court.  Third, corruption must be fought.  This does not mean simply making pious statements about amoral officials; it means that powerful firms and local interests must be absolutely prevented from using covert means or unequal power to get their way.  (This is not always called “corruption”; in the United States, giant firms can legally do essentially anything they want to get their way politically, including the use of measures that are considered “corruption” in virtually every other nation, China included.  Conversely, the trivial “corruption” involved in inviting a cadre to a feast in exchange for getting some ordinary government service would not make much difference.) 

Fourth, however, there is a serious need to end, totally and completely, Mao’s “struggle against nature.”  There is a need to return to the long-standing Chinese tradition of working in some degree or type of harmony and balance (heping) with the environment.  The idea that people had to live in the world and deal with its realities, and thus had to conserve things like forests, soil, and water, was basic to Daoism, Buddhism, Confucianism, Legalism, and indeed all the traditional Chinese ways of thought.  It has been abandoned in favor of a thoroughly western concept that has proved disastrous in the west.  China’s ideology, and above all its education system, needs to abandon the equation of “modernization” with destroying nature.  Wholesale mindless imitation of the worst of the west (from “struggling against nature” to fast junk foods) is very far from the Marxian goals that China once had, and even farther from Chinese tradition.  It is also far from the current thinking in the west itself.  A major reform of the educational system would be a focal place to start.

In the near and middle term, the world is not likely to recover from its present economic doldrums.  China is not the only country dealing with environmental crises.  Also, many countries are dealing with hard times by cutting expenses and programs—in other words, by decimating consumption and spending, not a very good way to grow the economy.  All this suggests that China will have a very hard landing indeed, and will, at best, not be a great economic driver of the future world economy. 

            The world needs to learn from China’s investments in education, science, technology, and infrastructure.  China has made incredible strides in health, food production, and industrialization.  At first, in the 1950s and 1960s, China made enormous gains in dealing with water pollution.  These should all inspire world efforts.  The world should, however, not follow China over the cliff into autocratic government, repression of the public, and environmental ruin.

 

 

Acknowledgements

Thanks to Alex Alvarez and Christopher Chase-Dunn for help and encouragement, and thanks in particular to Rob Efird and Edwin Schmitt for very careful readings and analysis that led me to modify many statements.

 

 

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