Origins of Chinese Food

May 24th, 2014

Talk, Confucius Institute, University of California, Davis, May 22, 2014


Origins of Chinese Food:  Neolithic Innovations and Early Dynasties


E. N. Anderson
Dept. of Anthropology

University of California, Riverside




Chinese food today is the product of thousands of years of development, involving, among other things, borrowing hundreds of crops from western Asia, India, Southeast Asia, and most recently the New World.  Even things like Maya cactus fruit have appeared on the Chinese market.  But before all this, there was a long period of development, involving the independent invention of agriculture, the domestication of millets and rice, the coming of ancient Near Eastern crops, and the development of an agrarian civilization based on highly innovative Chinese technology.  Many important new findings on this early period have appeared recently.


Otherwise uncited statements below are summarized from my new book Food and Environment in Early and Medieval China, University of Pennsylvania Press.



“One adept at learning is like the king of Qi who, when eating chicken, was satisfied only after he had eaten a thousand feet: if he were still unsatisfied, there would always be another chicken foot to eat”  (Lü 2000:129).



Origins: Before Civilization


            There is an old joke about a history PhD thesis titled “the history of British trade before there was any.”  I am doing something like that now, in the first part of this paper:  I am talking about Chinese food before there was any.

            That is, I am going to talk about what people ate in the days long before the Qin Dynasty unified and gave its name to the core of what we now know as China.  For the first part of this paper, then, I am using the word “China” in a purely geographical way. 

China in that sense began a very long time ago.  Interior south China is a very ancient part of the earth’s surface, one of the older continental land masses.  Over time, it has stayed more or less the same while all around it has gone through dramatic changes.  The most dramatic change of all may have been the slow-motion crash of India into Asia.  Moving north after the breakup of Gondwanaland, India ran into Asia a few million years ago.  India is being progressively pushed under Asia.  The result is the Himalayan and west Chinese ranges and the Tibetan Plateau, the highest places on earth.  Another result is the huge and horrific earthquakes that affect China.  They are produced by the stress of the collision. They include the most destructive natural disasters in history.  From quite early times, Chinese science correctly saw these earthquakes as due to flows of energy within the earth, and correctly located many major fault zones as lines of the flow of qi.  The more folk-type explanation of the earthquakes was that dragons in the earth were squirming around.  Observation showed that the dragons were given to squirming at particular places, which we now know to have been active earthquake fault sites.  So even this belief was useful in helping people avoid building on such places.

            Another effect of the collision is the proverbial west-to-east flow of water in China.  Early Chinese writers saw it as a natural fact of life, almost a geographical rule. 

Humans of some sort have been in the area for a long time.  Among the earliest and most famous Homo erectus finds were the many skulls and limb bones from the Zhokoudian site near Beijing.  These became known as “Peking man” and date to around 500,000-750,000 years ago.  There are indications that the individuals in question ate local game and fruit, but the finds are from caves where animals and Peking men may have fallen in by accident or been dragged in as prey of hyenas.  One or more of the skulls shows marks that are sometimes described as due to cannibalism, but are very likely due to hyenas instead.  There are also indications of fire, but again this may mean that Peking men cooked their food or that a wildfire got into the cave material.  We really don’t know.

            After this come a series of skulls about which almost nothing is known because the Chinese are currently not allowing much access.  There were early humans, probably of several types, but we know little until the appearance of fully modern humans by 20,000-40,000 years ago (possibly earlier).  By 30,000-40,000 years ago there were different stone tool traditions in north China, showing advanced cultures with local adaptation and diversity (Li et al. 2014).  By 15,000 years ago, people were hunting game and gathering plant foods throughout Asia, including what is now China.

            At that time, the Ice Age was in full swing.  Glaciation peaked 18,000 years ago, with vast ice sheets covering much of the world.  East Asia had nothing comparable to the European and North American ice sheets, but large ice sheets did cover the mountains of Siberia and Tibet, while glaciers and local ice sheets decorated the mountains of China down to fairly low latitudes and altitudes.  The Qinling range, for instance, was glaciated, and below the glacier level it sported a fine boreal spruce forest like those of southern Siberia today (Zhao et al 2014).  Much of north China was dry, cold, and windblown, like the Gobi (which itself was even drier and colder than it is now).  South China was forested, but with a cool-weather forest, much of it coniferous. 

One result of the dry windy climate was the buildup of enormous amounts of windblown dirt in north China.  (On this and the next couple of paragraphs, the best books are still the old veterans:  Land of the 500 Million by George Cressey, 1955, and China by Yi-fu Tuan, 1969.  Updates must be scavenged from arcane scientific journals.)  This became the loess that is now so basic to agriculture there.  It is fertile, easy to work, and good at holding water; it is, however, easily eroded.  This erosion contributes to floods, landslides, and soil loss.  In the meantime, the rainy climate was progressively breaking down the igneous and sedimentary rocks of south China into soils that are usually fairly fertile and at best extremely so.  Lush forest cover led to buildup of leafmold and development of soil profiles well suited to agriculture.  The stage was set for the intensive agriculture that was to develop.

With the end of the Ice Age, the glaciers disappeared, and the core—the “eighteen provinces”—of China rapidly became covered by dense, rich forests, except on the loess plains of the northwest, which were shrub steppe or grassland.  The forests were apparently dominated in the north by oaks and similar trees, in the south by an incredible variety of plants of all sorts.  Nitrogen was fixed by leguminous plants, algae, and other life forms, rapidly enriching the soils.  Southwest China is by far the most biodiverse area of the temperate zone.  South China and northern southeast Asia also have the distinction of being among the most productive region on the planet in terms of sheer growth—primary production of biomass.  The forests produce fully 8% of the natural growth in the world (Yu et al. 2014).

The Qinling Range, on the border of north and south, had a forest of oak, alder, and other warm-temperate trees.  After 2000-1000 BCE it cooled down somewhat, with more firs, hemlocks, and other evergreens (Zhao et al. 2014).  Today, global warming is rapidly changing the vegetation through hotter, drier conditions.

Throughout lowland China, vast wetlands were among the most bioproductive areas on the planet.  The vast lakes, sloughs, marshes, swamps, salt marshes, and slow winding rivers were extremely nutrient-rich, and were vast incubators of life, from water plants and algae to fish, turtles, and alligators.  They have largely turned into ricefields now, but unfortunately they are even more recently turning into pollution sinks, with consequent loss of production (Anderson 2012). 

In short, what is now China was, shortly after the end of the Ice Age, something close to paradise on earth for the hunting and gathering population.  In fall, the oaks and chestnuts literally covered the ground with highly nutritious food.  Fruit trees, game, and fish abounded.  Resources were varied; China’s hilly, river-dissected land produced countless ecological niches, each with its own communities of plants and animals.

This rapid expansion of food should have satisfied everyone, but instead it led to the beginnings of agriculture.  Many people assume that agriculture must have been invented because people needed the food (see esp. Barker 2006 for a review of theories of agriculture).  Not so.  Agriculture requires a long period of experimentation, during which time it is unlikely to produce much; therefore, it is most likely to be invented by people who are reasonably well fed and have time to play around with plants.  Carl Sauer (1952) thus thought it was probably invented by settled people, with good plant and fish resources, somewhere in southeast Asia.  In fact agriculture was first in the Near East, but China was a close second, and indeed the people were sedentary and were rich in a wide variety of resources. 

However, there is one more thing to add: the incentive to cultivate in the first place.  Brian Hayden (2001) has proposed that this may have been feasting; one needs resources for that.  However, some of us with China experience think it was trade (McNeish 1991).  The smoking gun is a map of where agriculture was invented, worldwide and in eastern Asia: it is always first seen at major trade nodes—places where trade routes cross.  People in plant-rich areas had to trade seeds and roots for salt, stone tools, and animal products, and must have found it convenient to raise the seeds and roots near their homes.

In China, that meant the central parts of the Yellow and Yangzi river valleys.  Agriculture seems to have first come about when millets were domesticated in the hills and bottomlands around the great bend of the Yellow River.  Two species of millets were involved:  Foxtail millet (Setaria italica) and broomcorn millet (Panicum miliaceum).  This was an area where people were happily eating acorns, and also wild seeds, fruit, and game (Liu 2012).  They gradually came to sow millet, and then to depend more and more on it.  Oak trees grow too slowly; if you want a quick return, millet gives it—maturing a large crop under almost any circumstances and in just a couple of months.  These millets are C4 plants, which means that they are adapted to high heat, growing and flourishing under tropical and subtropical conditions.  They were domesticated by 7000-8000 BCE, among the earliest domesticated foods in the world.

Rice was soon domesticated, but in a separate area: the lower and middle Yangzi valley (Gross and Zhao 2014).  In contrast to millets, is a C3 plant, better adapted to cooler regimes, but to make up for this and make it the staple of the tropics it has a uniquely active form of chlorophyll, enabling it to fix more carbon with less sunlight.  This gives it the distinctive golden-green color so loved by southeast Asian peoples and by photographers.  More to the point, it makes it the most productive grain of them all, especially under the cloudy conditions of the summer monsoon. 

Rice may have been independently domesticated in India, and a different species of it was independently domesticated in Africa, but so far the earliest domesticated rice in the world is from the Yangzi drainage around 6000 BCE (Gross and Zhao 2014).  (Some even earlier rice, back to 10,000 BCE or more [see Li 2013:24], may not be domesticated.)  By 5000 it was a fairly widely grown crop; large stores of seeds have been found.  Both the common forms, short-grain (japonica) and long-grain, were domesticated by then; they may go back to different wild forms.  (True indica rice, the modern long-grain, was apparently developed in India at a later time through hybridization of Chinese domesticated rice with native Indian rice, which may have been independently domesticated around 4000 BCE; Gross and Zhao 2014.)

Peter Bellwood has developed a theory, based partly on Chinese data, that the widespread language families and language phyla of today reflect early spreads of agriculture.  According to this theory, the speakers of a given language built up large populations and radiated out, taking their crops with them, and overwhelming and assimilating other people they met on their travels.  This theory was developed from Bellwood’s studies of the Austronesian peoples, who started from southeast China about 3000-4000 BCE, colonized Taiwan, and spread from there throughout Oceania.  Austronesian languages are extinct on the mainland, but the Taiwan aborigines still speak very ancient branches of that language phylum.  Language and archaeology studies show that the Austronesians spread south into the Philippines and thence throughout Oceania.  Most of the languages of Indonesia, and all the languages of the Philippines, Micronesia, and Polynesia, belong to the Malayo-Polynesian branch of Austronesian.  It seems clear that they did indeed radiate along with agriculture.  They met a quite separate agricultural world in New Guinea, however.  The New Guinea peoples had invented agriculture independently.  Naturally, the Austronesians and the Papuans merged as peoples, and merged their agricultural systems too, so that—for example—the agriculture of Polynesia reflects Papuan patterns as well as southeast Asian.  (See Bellwood 2002, 2005, 2009; Bellwood and Renfrew 2002.) 

It was thus tempting to see the spread of Chinese agriculture on the mainland in similar terms.  The fit of millet agriculture and the spread of the Sino-Tibetan (or Tibeto-Burman) phylum is so perfect, in terms of time, extent, inferred migration patterns, and everything else, that it could not escape attention , and G. Van Driem (1999, 2002) has hypothesized that the Tibeto-Burman phylum spread along with millet agriculture.  I rather cautiously concur.  Less clear is the spread of rice agriculture, which in time and geography seems to be associated with not only the Austronesian peoples but also the Thai, Hmong (Miao), and Mian (Yao).  My own personal feeling is that the Thai (technically, the Thai-Kadai phylum) were the major players.  They were in the right place at the right time, and they radiated with spectacular success along with agricultural spreads in south China and southeast Asia.  Of course the Hmong, Mian and Austronesians may have been involved too.  However, Hmong traditions put them far to the north, where they were more plausibly associated with early millet; Van Driem (2002) cautiously maintained that the Tibeto-Burmans differentiated in what is now Sichuan and the Hmong were closer to the millet origin area.  Parenthetically, claims that the initial spread of agriculture in the Near East and Europe was via Indo-European and Semitic languages are false.  Agriculture spread there long before these groups emerged. 

As of about 6000 BCE, then, we have two centers of agriculture in China:  a millet-growing area in the Yellow River valley and a rice-growing one in the Yangzi (the best current introductions to these matters are Li 2013 and Liu and Chen 2012).  We do not know if these were connected or in touch with each other.  Very possibly the idea of agriculture spread from one to the other, or even was created jointly.  At present, the evidence seems to favor, very slightly, two independent inventions.

A fermented beverage made of rice, honey, and grape and/or hawthorn fruit left residues in a pot dating to 7000-6600 BC at Jiahu, a Neolithic site in central China.  Patrick McGovern has examined and analyzed the residue (McGovern 2009 and pers. comm.; Zhang and Hong 2013).  This is as early as any cultivated rice in the world.  Perhaps the drinkers were already writing songs to the moon and the flowers.  The drink was reconstructed by Dr. McGovern, working with Dogfish Head Brewery, under the name of “Chateau Jiahu.”  It is now occasionally available for sale, after almost 9000 years.  I cannot say it is the best beer I ever tasted, but it is by far the oldest brew in the world. 


From this time on, the record demonstrates a slow, steady intensification of agriculture in central and north-central China, and a similarly slow and steady spread of agriculture throughout eastern Asia.  Agriculture spread from its initial centers, and was soon found in all parts of what would later be the Eighteen Provinces by about 4000 years ago.  It spread onward to Korea and southeast Asia, at a rate similar to that seen in the western world, very roughly one kilometer per year.  That is what you would expect if villages grew slowly and steadily, and established daughter communities nearby. 

This slow, steady spread is now well documented archaeologically.  It is now quite definitively established that agriculture spread and intensified through millions of small steps: a village would first adopt the idea of sowing some grain, then slowly get more dependent on it, then perhaps begin to experiment with domesticating a favorite local food.  There were no great breakthroughs, no revolutions, but no periods of stasis and resting on one’s accomplishments, either.  This is a really key point about human beings as well as about agriculture:  given the chance, people will work to improve their lot gradually, and will make countless small innovations to do that.  Change and progress are not dramatic.  They do not come by revolution, or by the leadership of “great men.”  They come through the efforts of millions of unsung hard-working humans, who humbly labor to make the world better for their families and neighbors. 

Intensification involved growing more crops, growing the main crops on a much larger scale, developing more productive varieties of them, and taming animals.  This last involved domesticating pigs, over a wide front, and domesticating chickens in the core rice-growing area.  The fact that almost everybody in eastern Asia uses some form of the Thai word for “chicken,” kai  (Blench 2007), is reasonably conclusive evidence that we owe the domestic chicken to Thai efforts.   Dogs had long been domesticated, from European and/or Siberian wolves, many thousand years earlier. 

We have absolutely no record of when particular plants were domesticated, and archaeology is usually silent too.  One of the things that always saddens me is realizing that the greatest benefactors of humanity are totally unknown to us.  We do not know their names, or where they lived, or when they worked (see below).  All we know is that somebody domesticated millets, rice, and all the other foods we depend on.  In China, those slowly became a truly vast number of domesticates.  These included roots such as taro and Chinese yam, berries such as the now-famous goji berry, fruits including peach and jujube, vegetable crops such as Chinese cabbages and snake gourds, and many herbs and spices including Chinese brown pepper, smartweed, and southernwood (sagebrush).  Animals domesticated in China may include the water buffalo, but India has a very strong claim there.  More certainly Chinese are the various carps found in Chinese pond culture.  The Chinese in early times even domesticated insects: not only the silkworm, but the lac insect and others.  The Chinese bee is different from the western species, but beekeeping is probably an early western introduction, since the word for “honey” is Indo-European, mi from the Indo-European root that survives in our familiar miel. 

One interesting observation is that many plants were independently domesticated in east and west.  (For a definitive, encyclopedic study of Chinese food plants, see Hu 2005.)  For example, the western cherry was domesticated in Turkey or nearby, but the Chinese separately domesticated a number of other cherry species.  (The Native Americans of Mexico domesticated still another.)  Chinese apples, quinces, pears, plums, and chestnuts are also different species from western equivalents.  Among domestic animals, west and east domesticated different species of geese.

With rising agricultural productivity, settlements got larger and more differentiated.  Early Neolithic cemeteries show that everyone was buried with more or less similar goods—a few pots and beads.  Over time, more and more people are buried with less and less, while fewer and fewer are buried with more and more.  This is, of course, the same story that we read in the newspapers today; over time, other things being equal, the rich get richer and the rest get poorer. 

By 3000 BCE, large towns existed, and complex religion is attested by appearance of such historically important symbols as the dragon and tiger.  These appear, traced out in shells, in the grave of an individual who may have been a shaman.  Shamanism involves sending one’s soul on long and often dangerous journeys to other worlds, to talk with spirit beings there and thus find cures for illness and bad luck.  It is endemic to Siberia and is known to have flourished in ancient China.  It still thrives among several minority nationalities.

The next major event was the coming of west Asian plants and animals.  Wheat and barley reached China some 4000 to 4500 years ago.  Sheep and goats appeared at about the same time—sheep rather earlier.  All four had been spreading from the Near East through central Asia at the usual rate, but there is a lot of ground to cross.  Wheat may have been involved in the world’s first noodles: a well-preserved knot of them from a Neolithic village 4000 years old.  Usually reported as millet, they may be wheat (Li 2013:38); it holds together better and makes better noodles.  Noodles did not appear in the west till about 400-600 CE (well before Marco Polo, note). 

Far more momentous was the rise by 2000 BCE of genuinely complex cultures—plausibly considered true civilization, though without writing (so far as we know).  The most impressive is the Erlitou culture, which overlaps the last Neolithic cultural phases in the area of the great bend of the Yellow River.  The site of Erlitou is a genuine city, holding perhaps 24,000 people at its maximum size.  It had impressive walls and a diversified economy with evidence of trade and manufacturing specialization.  Its cultural influence extended over a large area.  All indications are that we are dealing with a genuine state with a real capital city—the first in eastern Asia.  The temptation is irresistible to equate it with the legendary Xia Dynasty, especially since there is archaeological evidence that it was conquered by the Shang Dynasty, who founded their own regional capital nearby.  China’s earliest history works record the Shang conquest of Xia, and the records fit the story of Erlitou so perfectly that it seems pedantic to question the equation.

With the Shang Dynasty (ca. 1600-1050 BCE), Chinese society enters the light of written history.  There are early history books, but they date from the following Zhou Dynasty and may contain a good deal of legend.  Less debatable are the written records of the Shang themselves.  They wrote down questions for oracles to solve, and often recorded the answers.  Another source consists of inscriptions on bronze vessels.  When a king or high official gave a major donation or promotion, the lucky recipient was supposed to commission a beautiful bronze vessel to commemorate the event.  The vessel would have an inscription recording the donation.  Several important generalizations can be made about Shang Dynasty food, as revealed by comparing archaeological evidence with this considerable written record.

By Shang times, the agricultural regions of China had been more or less integrated into one system.  Millets, especially foxtail millet, were all over the south, while rice had moved north into the Yellow River drainage.  Vegetables and fruits had been domesticated.  Wheat and sheep were common (though not barley or goats), and had become accepted as true Chinese foods.  Pigs were by far the commonest domestic animal, making up about 90% of the meat.  Wheat was apparently a rather elite food; millet was the common dish of everyone.  Greens such as mallow leaves were cultivated.  Wild nuts, fruits, greens, and roots continued to be important.  Fish and turtles were major articles of diet, indicating China’s dependence on riverine habitats.  The oracles were usually taken by carving a question on an animal’s shoulderbone or a turtle shell; the animals in question were evidently eaten first, so we know from this as well as from archaeological residues that pigs, sheep, cattle, and turtles were common food items. 

Shang gave way to Zhou (1050-221 BCE), a dynasty that lasted a long time but held real power only until the conquest of its heartland in 771 by the Rong peoples, a non-Chinese group.  At this point, we have actual food residues in the bronze vessels.  These residues show that vessel types traditionally called stewpots did indeed contain stews—rich ones with meat and vegetables.  Vessels traditionally called wine jars and wine-serving pitchers did indeed contain Chinese wine, which is technically ale—fermented grain mash—not wine. 

A very revealing bronze inscription from around 800 BCE was cast to thank the king for giving the following proclamation:  “I order you to assist Rong Dui in comprehensively managing the Inspectors of the Forest of the four directions so that the temple-palaces be supplied” (von Falkenhausen 2011:243; his translation).  The individual ordered to assist Rong Dui cast the vessel in gratitude for this promotion.  What matters to us today is that forest conservation had reached such a high point that there was a whole bureaucracy overseeing it, and getting enough pay to afford the casting of expensive bronze items.  This indicates a level of environmental responsibility that was rare in the world at the time—though similarly brief but revealing passages in the Bible, the Epic of Gilgamesh, and elsewhere show that the cedars of Lebanon and other rare Near Eastern groves were being managed.

  For Zhou, however, we have much more than this.  The Book of Songs (Shi Jing), China’s great collection of early folk and court songs, was supposedly edited by Confucius himself around 500 BCE.  It mentions 55 food plants, 31 of them cultivated or probably so.  Millets are by far the most important ones; six varieties are named often.  Three of these are probably foxtail and three broomcorn.  93 animal species are mentioned, but most were not for food; in fact three were imaginary (dragon, phoenix and unicorn).  Food animals were largely pig, cattle, sheep and horse, as well as deer, dog, hare, turtles, and many minor items.  Of the 35 birds mentioned, most were probably available as food (not the phoenix, however).  This is an impressive record of natural history; the far longer Hebrew Bible mentions a comparable number.  A much later poetry collection, the Songs of the South (Chu Ci), adds many more food and ornamental plants to the list.  It also records a number of dishes, including feast dishes made from dog and other less usual animals.

A final interesting source is ritual text.  Several ritual manuals from Zhou survive, but were heavily edited—if not reconstructed outright—in the following Han Dynasty (206 BCE-220 CE).  They provide recipes for stews, fried foods, and barbecues.  Roel Sterckx has provided noble service in describing these texts (Sterckx 2005, 2011).  As Stercks points out, the ancestors, gods, spirits, royalty, nobles, elders, and indeed everyone had to have their proper dishes—in graduated scales of fineness and richness.  Offending custom in this regard could get you in serious trouble.  Gods punished rulers who did not sacrifice enough, often sending plagues.  On a more mundane scale, Liu Xiang (2014), a member of the Han royal family, recounts that a noble throwing a dinnner party gave each guest a turtle, but one got a very small one.  That guest sarcastically commented “I will wait till this turtle is grown up to eat it.”  The host’s wife had to bail him out, by telling him how to fix the social situation, as countless billions of wives have done with socially slow husbands throughout the world since the beginning of time. 


The Han Dynasty seems to have added several items to China’s food universe.  Not only did grapes and alfalfa enter China from the west, but the wok appears at this time, possibly a borrowing from India, but possibly a local invention.  Cast iron had been invented and popularized in Zhou, and woks are really best when made from that metal, though pottery ones are common in the record.  It seems highly likely that stir-frying was invented after the wok became widespread.  We certainly have no indication of it from pre-Han times, but, actually, we have none from Han either; it seems implied in recipes in the Qi Min Yao Shu from around 550 CE.  Bean curd was apparently invented in Han, and probably distillation as well, though apparently only for small-scale medicinal purposes (Huang 2000).

A far more important innovation in Han was genuine agricultural and medical science.  The most impressive thing is the development of systematic government-run case/control experimentation, the first by far to be documented in the world (except perhaps for Daniel 1:8-16).  It involved tests of drylands agricultural innovations; alternate strips were managed as experiments and as controls.  Fan Shengzhi recorded this in another world milestone: the world’s first agricultural extension manual, from the first century BCE (Shih 1973). 

Closely related is the rise of medical science, as seen in the Shang Han Lun of Zhang Zhongjing (1981), the Yellow Emperor’s Classic (Unschuld 2003; Veith 2002) and in the first well-known comprehensive herbals  (bencao).  Medical science is directly relevant to my talk, because at least since the early Zhou Dynasty, the Chinese have recognized that nutrition is the first and most important line of medicine.  Zhou texts (or at least their Han recensions) indicate that the court dietitian was the most important and eminent medical practitioner of the realm—of which more below.  This is still true.  One of the most consistent findings of modern research on Chinese medicine is that Chinese everywhere usually resort to food and dietetics first, not only to treat illness but to stay healthy.  Modern bioscience confirms them in this approach, and has found that many of the classic “nutraceuticals” are indeed filled with vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants.  Moreover, Zhang Zhongjing describes vitamin B1 deficiency and its cure through fresh foods, and also oral rehydration for diarrhea. 

Evidently medicine had a prior history, known only from Han sources, but it seems fairly clear to me that it was during Han that this field reached a level we can call science; earlier medicine was too full of demons, spirits, and magic to count (see Unschuld 1985).  The books cited above are completely different.  Not a word about demons.  The theories seem quaint and exotic to modern biomedical researchers, but the theories were as good as anyone could come up with 2000 years ago; they fit the observed facts and allowed deduction as well as systematization of recorded knowledge.  Chinese Traditional Medicine practitioners still use these old theories, in modernized forms, with apparent success.  

The Ling Shu section of the Yellow Emperor’s Classic is particularly impressive in its scientific approach (see Wu 1993).  Intriguingly, western medicine was undergoing the same development at the same time: Galen systematized and theorized medical knowledge and practice in a fully scientific way, while Dioscorides collected and systematized herbal medicine.  The parallels are striking.  Direct contact between the Mediterranean world and Han did not exist (see Hansen 2012), so we are forced to conclude that the progress of science had created one of its astonishing cases of parallel invention. 

The Han Dynasty also saw the development, or culmination, of a fascinating science of environment, climate and soil, but I have no time today to explore this (see my new book Food and Environment in Early and Medieval China). 

Once again, I must emphasize that most of the developments I am describing were done by individuals whose names have been forgotten.    We do not even know the names of the people who compiled the Yellow Emperor’s Classic; they hid behind an ascription to a purely mythical individual.  I am sure they knew he was a myth.  (This was, after all, the age of the arch-skeptic Wang Chong and many like him.)  They wanted a sacralized title, not personal glory.  The early bencao and sexual medicine texts, known from Han tomb finds, are all anonymous.  As is too usual in history, we know the names of every murderous general, every treacherous rebel, every court scoundrel, and every lying betrayer of the country, but hardly a single name of the people who benefited the empire through development of agriculture and medicine.  As Heinrich Heine so beautifully put it, “The tree of humanity forgets the labour of the silent gardeners who sheltered it from the cold, watered it in time of drought, shielded it against wild animals; but it preserves faithfully the names mercilessly cut into its bark.”  Heinrich Heine, 1833 (as quoted in Gross 1983:323)


Also in Han, true tea as we know it today seems to have appeared for the first time.  Its early history is an almost complete mystery, because the Chinese word cha evidently referred to any and every herbal tea in ancient times.  Camellia sinensis (a.k.a. Thea sinensis) is native to what is now southwest China, as well as northeastern India and northern Burma, but that part of China was acquired long after Han.  Tea appears to have slowly but surely gained popularity, finally breaking through as an elite drink with a cult following in the Tang Dynasty (620-907 CE).  A factor in this was the Chinese fondness for very early morning court sessions, which were made much more bearable by the existence of a caffeine-rich drink.

The connoisseur Lu Yü wrote a Classic of Tea (1974, Chinese orig. ca 800 CE) that established tea as a drink that not only kept one awake, it was exquisite and refined, worthy of serious cultivation.  He recommended procedures to bring out the best in it.  The stage was set for the development of tea-drinking as an art form with its own rituals and ceremonies (see Anderson 2003; Blofeld 1985; Hohenegger 2009); this led ultimately to the Tea Ceremony (cha no yu) of Japan, so famous in literature and culture.  In China, tea quickly became a specialty of the southeastern and southwestern mountains, where it finds ideal growing conditions.  It spread to Japan very early, but in India—though it is native there—its popularity and wide growth is of very recent origin, largely a function of the death of coffee trees from blight in the late 19th century; tea was a good replacement.  By Song, tea was counted a necessity, and was so abundant that the Song court sent 20,000 catties of it a year to the Xi Xia as part of a peace deal (Ebrey 2014:375).

Parenthetically, it is rather interesting to trace the word for “tea” around the world.  It has been borrowed worldwide in three forms, each one betraying a particular route of migration.  Tea is cha in most of China, and that is the form found in Korea, Japan, and other nearby countries.  The southern Fujian pronunciation, however, is te, and since Fujian is a center of tea production and trade, this was the form first encountered by western Europeans when they came to China.  Tea is te, or a derivative of it, in all western European languages.  (“Tea” was pronounced “tay” originally, as it still is in parts of Ireland.)  Finally, tea in Central Asia was picked up by Iranic speakers, and acquired an Iranian nominative ending, -i, thus giving us chai. That pronunciation is a sure indication that tea reached the area in question through the Central Asian route.  It is the pronunciation found from Mongolia throughout all Central and West Asia and on into Russia and India.  The whole history of the tea trade makes a fascinating study in itself, but is outside the scope of the present paper (see Anderson 2003).

The fall of the Han Dynasty, after a 400-year run (interrupted by a few coups), led to disunion that lasted almost another 400 years.  During this period, China changed radically in one important way: it opened up to the rest of the world.  It was no longer a united realm under a powerful ruling family.  Outsiders could and did take over vast tracts, as the Toba Turks did in creating the Wei Dynasty, which ruled the north for most of the period of disunion.  Many of China’s other local rulers also had Central Asian roots.  Moreover, when China was finally reunited (with reduced boundaries), the conquerors who founded the Sui and later the Tang Dynasties (581-620, 620-907, respectively) had Central Asian backgrounds; they were generals serving on the northwest frontiers, and they had Central Asian blood—some say they were largely Turkic by descent, but this is uncertain.

Meanwhile, from Han times onward, the famous Silk Road was becoming a major corridor linking the great civilizations of east and west.  The term “silk road” was coined by the German geographer von Richtofen in the 19th century (Hansen 2012), but it is appropriate, although there were actually many parallel routes and silk was only one commodity. 

Among the other commodities were foods.  How much Chinese food went west is still unclear, but the coming of western foods to medieval China was monographed in detail as early as 1919, by Berthold Laufer.  He drew on herbals and encyclopedias from the time.  He described some 53 foods and medicines, ranging from grapes and Persian walnuts (which came early) to carrots and watermelons (which came late—or at least were not recorded until around 1300).  Many familiar Chinese spices, such as coriander, cumin, and fenugreek, came at this time.  Sun Simiao, in his great medical works of the 7th century CE, already recognized the medicinal value of many of these, and incorporated at least eight of them into his cures; he also incorporated more than a little western medical theory (Engelhardt 2001).  About the only western herbs not borrowed by 1300 were the ones such as lavender and rosemary that are hard to grow away from the Mediterranean and its distinctive climate. 

In addition to these products, Central Asian and Indian milk consumption habits flooded into China, largely with the Turkic and part-Turkic conquerors.  In Wei and Tang, milk was important, and north China became famous for milk product consumption.  Liquid milk was little used, because of lactose intolerance, but yogurt, butter, ghee, kumiss, qaymaq (the skin from boiled milk and cream), and other products abounded (Sabban 2011; Schafer 1977).  Most of this was Central Asian in origin, but Tibetan habits spread in the west and southwest, and China probably also received some of the influences of Indian milk culture that spread with Hinduism and Buddhism in southeast Asia (Wheatley 1965).

Valerie Hansen (2012) has recently maintained that the Silk Road was actually very little traveled, being used only by a few caravans a year.  Her work reminds me of Charles Wesley’s cynical description of the road of wisdom as “a narrow path with here and there a traveler” (from Wesley’s 18th-century hymn “Broad Is the Road that Leads to Death”).  Hansen is clearly wrong.  The enormous influence of west and east Asia on each other between 500 and 1400 BC speaks for itself.

China was also learning from southeast Asia.  The Nanfang Caomu Zhuang (Li 1979) of 304 CE records a large number of plants China acquired from there.  Many actually were native to what is now China, and were new only because the Han Dynasty had captured their homelands.  Others were truly exotic, like the areca palm, known then and today by its Malaysian name pinang (borrowed through southern Fujianese as pinnang, now variously pronounced in modern China). 

By the time the Mongols first united west and east, both ends of the Silk Road had hundreds of domesticates.  The west was, and is today, much slower to pick up Chinese crops than China was at picking up western ones.  Europe has always been rather conservative about foodways.  Only with massive immigration from eastern Asia have Americans learned the delights of Chinese cabbage, Chinese pears, goji berries, smartweed (rau ram of Vietnamese markets), and many others, and even these are little known away from cities with large Asian-American communities.  All or most citrus fruit are Chinese or southeast Asian.  Otherwise, outside of rice, there really are very few common western foods that come from China.  China is much better at learning these things than Europe has been.


My own work in Chinese food history has for many years been as a sort of back-up to Paul Buell’s work on the Mongol Empire and its Chinese manifestation the Yuan Dynasty (1279-1368).  Together we translated the Yinshan Zhengyao, the court nutrition and food manual of the Yuan Dynasty, compiled by the court nutritionist (or dietitian) Hu Sihui (Buell, Anderson and Perry 2010).  It is a particularly revealing work, because most of the recipes (except for very simple ones for herbal tea) are Near Eastern or Central Asian.  The silk road had done its work.  Recipes traceable to Baghdad, Kashmir, and the Persian Gulf area, as well as to Mongolia and Turkestan, are found, as well as Chinese recipes.  Most interesting are some unusual recipes that seem to be blends of various traditions.  There are some cases of mere substitution of Chinese ingredients for hard-to-get Near Eastern ones, but I refer to more complicated recipes.  Those Silk Road cooks were learning from each other.  The “Strange Delicacies of Exotic Flavors” section—the main recipe section—contains some 21 Near Eastern recipes, another 21 Central Asian, 11 Chinese, and 42 that represent blended traditions.

Dr. Buell and I are now working on the Huihui Yaofang, “Muslim Remedies,” a vast medical encyclopedia of Near Eastern medicine compiled under the Yuan Dynasty.  About 500 pages survive of an original 3500 or 4000 (in a Ming reprint).  The medicine is state-of-the-art Mediterranean-area medicine of the time, as we have found through comparing cures with documented cures from the same period in France, Egypt, and elsewhere.  Fortunately, one part that survives is the table of contents of the section on foods and health—alas, the section itself is lost.  It, and the material that survives, allows us to count 148 food items are mentioned in this work.  These are extracted from a full herbal list involving about 287 plant taxa, 68 animals, and 26 minerals. There are actually more species of plants represented, because the terms in the Huihui Yaofang often lump two or three similar species into one category.  This can be confusing, as when quinces are simply “quinces,” and we can only guess that the Chinese quince was used in place of the similar Mediterranean one.  The compilers were strikingly good scientists, though; they rarely combine species, even very similar ones, if the medicinal indications were different.  A few serious mistranslations did occur, when Chinese names were ambiguous.

The book is apparently a translation or compilation of Central Asian medical works.  It is not always appreciated that the “Arab” medicine of the medieval world, so influential on European practice, was more Central Asian Iranic than Arab.  Many of the greatest exponents—al-Bīrūnī, Avicenna (Ibn Sīnā), Al-Samarqandī, and others—were from that origin (for them, and for the glory days of Central Asia, see Beckwith 2013; Starr 2013).  Avicenna’s work in particular became the defining medicine of the medieval and Renaissance West.  But it also influenced China, via the Huihui Yaofang. 

Food as medicine is less featured in this work than in Chinese sources, because western medicine did not feature food as much as the Chinese traditions did.  However, food and diet therapy are by no means lacking.  This awaits further study.

Unfortunately, the Huihui Yaofang was too identifried with the hated Mongols to last as an influence.  The Ming Dynasty did reprint it, early on, but then it and most other recent Near Eastern influences simply disappeared.  They were lost and forgotten.  Late Ming medicinal and dietary works like the writings of Gao Lian (which we are now studying; see Anderson 2013) have a few random Central Asian recipes, but nothing like the influence seen in Yuan works.

We close this rather breathless survey with some notes on the Ming Dynasty.  Ming is sadly notorious for its authoritarian rule and its increasing censorship, a censorship that the Qing Dynasty initially relaxed but later tightened again.  For decades, many Sinologists have maintained that China’s achievements in science, medicine, and technology were as impressive, rapid, and genuinely scientific as those of the west—until Yuan and Ming, when increasingly authoritarian rule slowed progress.  Various versions of this idea are widespread in the literature, from Joseph Needham (1958) to today (and including my own writings; Anderson 1988, etc.).  The main counter-theories have been that China always progressed slowly and steadily, with no special inflection after 1400; or that China was so trapped in mystical and other-worldly dogma that it could never be scientific (Needham somewhat accommodated this view, but for an extreme version, see Wolpert 1993).  The great historian of the world, Geoffrey Parker, is the latest to weigh in unequivocally in favor of a serious shutdown of Chinese progress through late Ming and Qing autocracy (Parker 2013:660, 666-667), rather than just a steady slow progress.

As I read the evidence (and I admit others do not agree) China progressed with considerable speed in all areas of science during Han, Tang and Song and on into Yuan, and continued to progress somewhat in Ming, but that after mid-Ming, China really did not keep up the momentum.  One clear case that concerns us here is botany.  Li Shizhen’s Bencao Gangmu, when it appeared in 1593,was comparable to the greatest herbals in the west at that time.  It even anticipated many later developments in western science.  But then the West forged ahead, while China remained faithful to Li’s magistral but increasingly obsolete text.  Li mentions 67 western plants that had been introduced to China, but most had been in China since Tang and Song.  He does not deal with the New World plants that were flooding into China at that time.  China’s countless borrowings from the rest of the world continued, but unsung and rarely incorporated into medical tradition.  Chinese medicine did not quite freeze in place, but it did tend to close ranks around Li’s herbal and the Yellow Emperor’s Classic, though western medicine and then international bioscientific medicine came in due course (Unschuld 1985).  Biomedicine revolutionized Chinese practice, but Chinese study of herbal medicine and other indigenous traditions has only recently revived, and still struggles with ancient dogma.  Agriculture hit similar snags.  Development was not spectacular during Qing, in spite of the rapid advance of the New World food crops and other introductions.

Over the long term, China’s agriculture was and is characterized by what Yujiro Hayami and Vernon Ruttan (1985) called “biological” development.  Higher and higher yield crops were developed.  More and more fertilizer and compost were used.  More and more productive agricultural practices were deployed.  More and more labor was poured into the fields. Akira Hayami (2009; I wonder if he is related to Yujiro) called this an “industrious revolution,” a term now widely borrowed in western historical literature for other cases (Parker 2013:487; Parker notes Hayami invented the term in 1977).  Biological development and harder work led to Chinese agriculture in 1900 being about five times as productive per acre as American agriculture (cf. King 1911).  Unfortunately, increased production merely kept pace with population increase.  Thus, people worked harder and harder, but did not get any more food per capita.  This produced a situation that Philip Huang (1990) called “agricultural involution,” using a term coined by Clifford Geertz (1963) to describe Java.

Today, with productive land shrinking worldwide, we have to borrow China’s biological development concepts.  This has been done most conspicuously in Bill Mollison’s concept of permaculture, which is based on Chinese farming principles.  It involves the development of highly efficient, biologically intensive cropping methods for all world systems.

China managed, through intensification, to feed its hundreds of millions of people over thousands of years.  By the late Qing Dynasty, China had 400 million people but was self-sufficient in food.  However, enormous famines were regular occurrences by then.  Normal weather fluctuations were catastrophic in a country desperately overcrowded and depending on traditional agriculture.  It is not true to say that China at that time was “backward” or “underdeveloped”; it actually had a far more productive agriculture and food economy, in terms of supporting many people on little land, than the western world did (see esp. King 1911; also Anderson 1990). 

Progress in agricultural change stalled in the Republican period, and resumed after 1949.  However, erratic policies and too-rapid change led eventually to the great famine of 1958-62 (Dikotter  2010; Yang 2012).  After that, progress resumed—still erratic, but fairly steady until recently.


Unfortunately, progress is now checked by the catastrophic decline of the Chinese environment (Anderson 2012, updated as of May 2014 on my website).  This impacts food production through the damage to soil, water, and air.  The Chinese government has recently become aware of the seriousness of the problem, and promised to improve.  However, the situation is dire. 

The worst problem is the degradation of farmland by pollution, erosion, and desertification.  China has lost a quarter or more of its farmland in the last 50 years.  In the last couple of decades, at least 12 million hectares have become too polluted to be farmed safely.  Much of this pollution is heavy metals—arsenic, mercury, cadmium, lead, etc.—that make the land unusable for geologic time spans.  Desertification has lost China millions of acres, much of it in Inner Mongolia; traditional grazing preserved the grasslands, but ill-advised farming schemes led to rapid soil loss.  Deforestation, especially during the 1950s and 1960s, led to massive erosion.  An equally massive reforestation campaign, and banning of much logging from 1998 onward, has restored huge areas to healthy forest, but even more land has become too degraded to be easily restored; trees die or grow very poorly (personal observation supplemented by poring over Google Maps and by conversations with Nicholas Menzies, an expert on China’s forestry).   

Urbanization is another problem.  China is developing rapidly, with resulting expansion of suburbs, airports, roads, factories, shopping centers, and other uses at the expense of farmland.  China is currently losing about 860,000 hectares a year to these.  Since China’s cities were, quite naturally, located in the midst of the best farmland, the resulting costs to agriculture are disproportionately high.  There is no hope of making this up by bringing further land under cultivation; China’s agriculture is already overextended onto unsuitable soils.  Traditional Chinese culture frowned on urbanizing farmland (though it happened anyway), but today there are no controls enforced, though recent concern has been expressed. 

Irrigation is affected by overdraft of rivers.  The Yellow River no longer comes even close to the sea.  Water pollution makes many waterways dangerous to use, even if water is available.

In addition to impacts on agriculture, China’s combination between rapid economic expansion and rapid pollution increase has led to decimation or even destruction of fisheries.  Worst hit are inland fisheries, but nearshore fisheries are devastated and even deep-sea ones within reasonable sailing range are severely stressed. 

To counter this, China is taking a lead in clean energy development, including solar panel production.  Attempts to lower China’s huge release of greenhouse gases are well under way (see e.g. Liu et al. 2013).  China is also investing in mass transit, including state-of-the-art rapid trains.  Improvements to China’s Environmental Protection Law have been recommended by the National People’s Congress in 2011, but were rejected in 2013 (He et al. 2013).  The Communist Party has adopted the idea of “ecological civilization,” a civilization based on “man-nature, production-consumption harmony” (He et al. 2013).  In early 2014, the government renewed a commitment to cleaner air, taking a no-nonsense position with allowable levels set (Qiu 2014). 

It remains to be seen whether all this will work.  China’s government has great power, but foot-dragging by local officials, often corrupted by local development interests, has been a major problem for implementing environmental protection.

One place they might be well advised to turn is to the accumulated wisdom of the Chinese people, including the minority nationalities.  Doing so was once a priority of the Communist regime, but such is apparently no longer the case.  Given the extreme population density over centuries, the various nationalities of China had to work out ways to live with nature and with an intensively managed agricultural environment. 

Han Chinese have traditions, going back more than two thousand years, of conserving game, protecting forests, and protecting agricultural land from too much alienation for buildings and other purposes.  Some of these traditions were embodied in the folk science of site planning known as fengshui.  Others stem from Confucian and Daoist thinking or from the imperial practices of the Zhou and Han Dynasties.  (I have described these in some detail in my recent book, Anderson 2014.)  Later, Buddhism added to existing beliefs in the sacredness of old and venerable trees.  Temple groves and fengshui groves became the major way of conserving forests in the more crowded areas of China.  They were extremely effective, protecting millions of hectares of woodland—most of it adjacent to villages, temples, and towns, where it was most needed for shade, fuelwood, forage, forest products, and timber (trees were harvested sustainably).  I saw Chinese conservation at work in the New Territories of Hong Kong 50 years ago, when they were under Qing Dynasty law and custom.  Resources were not ideally managed, but there were still large groves, abundant wildlife, abundant wild herbs, and many other goods from the land.  Villages did not sprawl onto good agricultural land.  Construction and clearing were done conservatively.  The major environmental problem was wildfire, set for various reasons and devastating to grass and brush resources.  Organic pollution was also a serious concern.

Many of the minority nationalities have even more stringent conservation rules.  I had long read accounts of the good conservation practices of the Mongol peoples, specifically in regard to grassland and forest (Metzo 2005; Williams 1996a,1996b, 2000).  Experience traveling widely in Mongolia showed me that this extends to animals, minor plant resources, and even rocks; a young nomad girl told me she likes to collect pretty rocks, but does not do it because it would be disrespectful to the rocks to move them around for so minor a reason.  The concept of respect (shuteekh or other words) is the basis of environmental protection in the Mongolian world.  One must respect people and their needs, but also the trees, mountains, rocks, animals, and spirit powers that constitute the environment.  This is often shown by wrapping a sacred blue silk scarf round the venerated item—usually an old tree, a small grove of trees, or a sacred cairn (ovoo or oboo—thought to bring luck and protection).  Away from the exploding metropolis of Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia is incredibly well-managed.

The Koreans share China’s ancient cults of sacred mountains and trees, as well as the fengshui system; these beliefs persist in Korea apparently better than in China (see e.g. Zozayong 1975).  Tibet has a long tradition of nonviolence, due to Buddhist influences.  Soil and water were protected, and forests where they occur.  Mountains were sacred, and the most revered ones served as natural wildlife and forest sanctuaries (Huber 1999).  Animals were not hunted traditionally, or at least not hunted unsustainably.  With modernization, this is no longer the case.  Both Han and Tibetan hunters have impacted the game. 

The Gold Tungus of the China-Russia border were memorably described by Arseniev (1996, Russian orig. ca. 1900).  Arseniev’s account is romanticised, but his descriptions of Gold environmental practice jibe perfectly with more sober recent accounts of Mongol and Tungus practice, as well as with my own experiences in Mongolia.  The Gold have the same general beliefs in environmental spirits, the need for respect, and the personhood of animals, plants and winds.

Other groups are poorly known, at least as far as their presence in China goes.  There is apparently no description of environmental beliefs and practices in Xinjiang or for most of the Sichuan minorities.  Research is ongoing into several minorities in Sichuan and Yunnan, however, and one example may stand for the whole.

The Akha of far southern Yunnan have been described in a brilliant Ph.D. thesis by my student Jianhua “Ayoe” Wang (2013).  They share with other south Chinese and Southeast Asian peoples a belief that the world is divided into the realm of humans—the villages and fields—and the realm of spirits, the forests and mountains.  People and spirits move freely in each other’s domains, but must be careful and respectful.  Again, the concept of respect—taqheeq-e in Akha—is basic.  Since the Akha stem ultimately from northwest China, this is probably an ancient belief system shared with the Mongols.  On the other hand, the same concept exists among North American Indians, so independent invention seems to happen

The spirits punish those who harm forests, landscapes, or the very large number of species of plants and animals that are sacred.  In practice, these religious and ritual rules made it impossible to use the land and its resources unsustainably.  Of course there were always scofflaws who broke the rules, but they were judged negatively by their neighbors, and any misfortune they suffered might be blamed on their conduct.  So they could not be too disruptive.  Again, modernization has led to abandoning much of this ancient body of rules.  The fact that it is justified by religion should not be held against it; it is equally justified by common sense and obvious pragmatic success.  It joins the vast number of sensible rules—from helping your neighbor to washing your hands—that human beings everywhere elevate to the level of religious teaching but that are followed by any reasonable human in any case.  

We may contrast these ancient but pragmatic and reasonable teachings with the western ideas of dominating or “struggling against” nature that have informed Chinese practice in more recent decades.  Far from being progressive or economically sound, these beliefs are based on the Biblical charge to exert “dominion” over the earth (Genesis 1:26).  This passage and other domination beliefs in the west go back to the slave-run or serf-run estates of ancient Mesopotamia, Greece and Rome.  It is ironic to see them held up as progress.  Westernization does not equal progress. 

Also, for those who might oppose “spiritual” teachings to “modern rational economics,” one can only respond that modern economic policies are based on neoclassical economic theory, which assumes humans are totally rational, interested solely in maximizing immediate returns, have perfect information, and make decisions on the basis of errorless calculus of maximizing utility.  These assumptions are patently false and lead to policies that can only be described as insane.  Belief in tree spirits at least leads to saving trees.  China must take into account the pragmatic wisdom of these minority traditions if it is to continue to feed its people.

In short, China’s success in feeding its hundreds of millions of people over thousands of years was due to policies that may have been far from perfect and far from scientifically well-informed, but at least were successful and intelligent enough to keep the system functioning.  China’s success at economic growth today is based on measures that are devastating China’s food production system.  This is unsustainable and will soon end.  What will happen then depends on choices that China is making today.









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China Faces Environmental Ruin (updated May 2014)

April 30th, 2014

Paper, California Sociological Association, annual conference, Riverside, Nov. 9-10, 2012

(updated since)


Environmental Ruin:  The Drag on China’s Future

E. N. Anderson

Dept. of Anthropology

University of California, Riverside



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



            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 Anderson 2014; Elvin 2004, but Elvin considerably too harsh on the traditional system; Marks 1998, 2009, 2012; 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.

In retrospect, we can see Mao’s policies as typical of the world of the 1950s.  It was a unique period, characterized everywhere by a rush to privilege the artificial over the natural.  This was the age when processed food was better than unprocessed, bottle feeding better than breastfeeding, episiotomies and anaesthetics and Caesarian sections better than natural childbirth, leafblowers better than lighter and faster brooms, and any and all labor-saving devices better than the old ways even when the latter actually involved less effort and expense.  Research on biocontrol would have saved the world from pesticides.  Often, as in China, the results were irreversible.  As Rachel Carson predicted in Silent Spring (1962), pesticides have exterminated the biocontrol agents—the birds, bugs and bacteria that used to control pests.  In China, active and deliberate extermination of small birds, believed to eat grain (wrongly in all cases except for one or two species), was added to that mix.

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. 



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 usable 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 (Fenby 2014; 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).  This is often a measure of desperation; local governments are overextended and poorly funded, and must do this if they are to meet operating costs, according to Jonathan Fenby (2014:65-66).  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. 

Poor economic and ecological conditions in the rural areas are driving people, especially men, to work in the cities—often illegally in terms of China’s strict controls on residence.  A result is that 58 million children were effectively fatherless in 2010, and 40 million women and 47 million aging parents were also deserted.  This exodus has also led to poorer land care; some land has gone out of cultivation, while composting is reduced and overuse of chemicals increases (Yang 2013).

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.  A Chinese governmental estimate, from 2013, says that some 3.3 million hectares (8 million acres) of farmland are too polluted to use (Atkin 2013).  The Chinese government wants to keep at least 120 million hectares in farmland; it has 135 million as of 2013, but only 120 million are usable, because of desertification and erosion as well as pollution.  (For the record, China had 80 million under cultivation in 1600 [Parker 2013:619]). 

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.  China’s government now admits, on the basis of surveys between 2005 and 2009, that 16.1% of China’s soil, including 19.4% of China’s arable land is contaminated, largely with heavy metals including the deadly cadmium (BBC News, 2014).  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).  Shale-gas extraction by fracking is now contaminating more of the groundwater.  Polluted groundwater used to irrigate crops is causing the crops to become toxic.  Some “36% of rice grown in Hunan province…was found to have cadmium levels above those specified by China’s food standards regulation” (Yang et al. 2013); Hunan is one of the rice bowls of China, and cadmium causes horrible pathologies—as was made famous in the US by Erin Brockowitz.

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.  Jiao Li (2013) reports that the Chinese are finally waking up to the problem, recognizing groundwater contamination, up to 35% of wells over large areas being contaminated.  Factories in Weifang and elsewhere had been discharging pollutant wastes into groundwater.

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).

Jonathan Fenby reports further tragedies:  “A 2012 report by the Land Ministry found that of 4,929 roundwater monitoring sites across the country, 41 per cent had extremely poor water quality…. The resulting annual human toll is put at 60,000 premature deaths” (Fenby 2014:87).  And this is the official figure.  The truth is almost surely worse. 

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 (Fenby 2014: 87; 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; see Quarternary International, vol. 304, passim, 2013, for many articles on China’s water management).  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 nocase 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.

Development projects are now firmly entrenched at the provincial level, requiring centralized government to fix—but the centralization is a problem also.  At present, provincial and local officials are in various forms of collaboration with developers, using construction and mass transit as plums and moneymakers.  Overuse of power in all these projects leads to constant power failures, and use of yet more coal, though solar is building fast (Dylan Kirk, personal communication, email of Sept. 29, 2013). 

Local authorities are short of cash—and want more for themselves—with results that can be hard on farmland and environment:  “local authorities are short of cash to meet spoending obligations; to fill the gap, they requisition farm land, classify it for development and sell it to developers” (Fenby 2014:57).  This is one of the major reasons that China’s agricultural land is shrinking fast.

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).  Worse estimates are reported by Fenby:   “outdoor air pollution is estimated to contributre to 1.2 million premature deaths a year…. Cigarette smoking…kills 2,000 people a day”; diesel trucks and coal plants add to the mix (Fenby 2014:86). 

Cigarette smoking is the government’s fault, to a significant 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). 

Life expectancy in North China is 5.5 years less (and in Beijing perhaps 16 years less) than in the south, because of Mao’s policy to have coal-fired boilers heating interiors everywhere.  He denied this to the south.  The 500 million north Chinese lost, collectively, 2.5 billion years (Chen et al. 2013).  This study showed that particulate pollution from coal is much more dangerous than was thought previously.  One wonders at the damage to other life-forms.  Many, probably most, animals are more susceptible to air pollution than humans are.  On the other hand, much or most of the pollution was indoors. 

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. 

As of 2006, about 36% of anthropogenic sulfur dioxide, 27% of nitrogen oxides, 22% of carbon monoxide, and 17% of black carbon in China’s air pollution was the result of production for export.  The United States, as China’s major buyer, was responsible for 21% of China’s air pollution (across categories: 21% of each category above).  Much of this blew right across the Pacific, contributing, for example, 12-24% of the sulfur dioxide pollution in the United States (Lin et al. 2014).  Proportions have not changed much since.  The United States thus pays some of the price for allowing firms to dodge environmental restrictions by exporting production to countries without rules.

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.

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 some 62 million ha of forest, about 4% of the world’s forests—by some measure the most forested area of any country in the world (Peng et all. 2014; I do not believe the last claim—Russia and Brazil must be well ahead).  Almost all this forest is 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.  Observation on the ground in 2013 in Guangdong showed a healthy regrowth of trees and forest wherever people allowed it, but a rampant spread of urbanization that destroyed forests and farms alike.  Satellite photographs confirm both impressions on a large scale.  Forces of conservation and destruction are both actively at work; 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).

At the same time, pests from around the world are swarming to take advantage of monocrop cultivation and of destruction of natural predators.  Familiar plagues such as the whitefly Bemisia tabaci (a notorious vector of plant diseases) and the pine bark beetle have reached China and are causing devastation there (Qiu 2013a).  Once, China’s healthy ecosystem could absorb such creatures, with hosts of birds and other insectivores destroying them.  No longer.

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 Australia; 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).  Elephant and rhinoceros poaching in Africa, sea cucumber overharvests in Maine, and illegal rosewood extraction in Madagascar all occur for the Chinese market (not entirely within China; the ethnic Chinese market in southeast Asia is large).

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.

Life satisfaction in China has been stagnant for decades, in spite of the huge (alleged) increases in economic well-being (Easterlin et al. 2013).  This stagnation tracks social, economic, and medical insecurity, declining real standards of living, and paper growth that is more growth in pollution than in welfare.  The stagnation or even reduction in living standards of the hundreds of millions of poor, in particular, leads to widespread unsatisfaction.

China’s economy is also shaky, in spite of growth, and Timothy Beardsley (2013) has contexted the environmental problem within a study of China’s troubled economic future.

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).  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). 



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).  Reforestation of many lands ravaged in Mao’s day has led to cooling of the lands reforested, and since this is fast-growing forest it is blotting up greenhouse gases at a dramatic rate (Peng et al. 2014).  This is very, very good news for the planet.  China has taken a strong lead in some aspects of clean energy, notably the mass production of solar panels, but also water, wind, and other sources (most recent update at this writing is Mathews and Tan 2014), and is using more and more of the solar panels originally designed mostly for export.

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.

China has finally made some strides toward changing its policies, but progress is incremental and slow.  Minor improvements to China’s Environmental Protection Law were recommended by the National People’s Congress in 2011, adopted (watered down) in 2012, and rejected in 2013 (He et al. 2013).  A plan for lowering carbon release into the air, and saving energy, has been developed, and China is working seriously on this issue (Liu et al. 2013).  Meanwhile the Communist Party adopted genuinely radical (for them) new stance:  adding to their constitution the idea of “ecological civilization,” meaning a civilization based on “man-nature, production-consumption harmony” (He et al. 2013).  In early 2014, the government renewed their commitment to cleaning the air, dedicated resources to this, and took a no-nonsense fast-track position with allowable levels set (Qiu 2014). 

A group from the Chinese Academy of Science Research Center for Eco-Environmental Sciences recommended that the law reaffirm commitment to environmental protection, provide “a strong legal basis…for independent strategic environmental assessmen t and performance-based auditing,” improve law enforcement, and “shift from regulation to governance,” meaning that the government should work with NGO’s, local groups, local polities, and education and voluntary agreements (He et al. 2013).  These are all worthy goals, and the United States could well learn from this assessment, but the fact that an outside group needs to call for them speaks volumes about what the Communist Party is not considering.

Unfortunately, at current rates of change, China will collapse before much can be done.  Repairing ecological damage is a slow process.  Economic lock-ins and rampant corruption are holding back implementation of even the gradualist plans devised so far.

One major reason for China’s failure is that the Communist government 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.  There are the problems with Mongolian grasslands noted above.  Similar stories come from all parts of China that have local minority groups (including Han ones). 

Indigenous peoples are usually good managers.  Indeed, some are model resource managers—among the best in the world at sustainable landscape use.  Invaders and new settlers are not usually so aware of the land.  They usually do not know enough to manage it so well. But instead of learning from traditional people, China’s government has chosen to repress them savagely.  The dominant Han Chinese have considered the minorities to be trapped in “backward,”  “superstitious,” “feudal” or even “slave society” stages of cultural evolution—Marxism used to justify racism.  The minorities are supposed to acculturate to Han norms in the name of “progress.”   Blanket condemnation of their behavior as “backward” is particularly troubling.  Imperial Chinese attitudes seem to have been better, or at least no worse.

 Since these are small, weak groups subjected to often intense discrimination, they are in a very weak position in regard to protecting their resources.  Typically, a frontier mentality (the sort described in the western United States as “rape, ruin and run”) has developed.  In many areas this has greatly improved, as the frontier fills up, but the improvement is too late to save the resources.  (This is based on my own wide observation and on the work of many students, but the latter are largely Chinese and would be endangered by being named here.)

 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, locally, 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.  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.  Nor are stated policies necessarily the real policies. 

China’s current leadership is beginning to play a deadly game—one that is played to the hilt in other countries, including the United States:  retaining power by whipping up hatred of minorities and “enemies.”  The Uighurs and Tibetans have been the minority victims, the Japanese the primary foreign nation targeted.  On recent visits to China, I have detected an ugly racism that was hard to find before.  The Chinese have always had a lively sense of their own qualities, and have been prone to make less than tactful remarks about other cultures, but that is quite different from “The (fill in the blank) are bad people; they are terrorists, they are evil, they have nothing to offer.”  If China’s leadership succeeds in demonizing whole groups this way, they will have a legacy that will not soon end and that will threaten the nation as nothing else can do.

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 World Bank has said that environmental pollution costs China 9% of its GDP (Fenby 2014:21).  The official figures are inflated by an uncertain amount too, so the actual growth rate is in fact close to 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.  Protesters have often been executed, their bodies then parted out like used cars—China harvests the organs of its executed “criminals” (BBC News Online, Aug. 16, 2013: “China Announces End Date for Taking Prisoners’ Organs”—note that an end date is announced but no end to the practice has actually occurred so far).  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. Dirlik and Prazniak 2012; Economy 2005; Fenby 2014; 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 a bottom-up movement, with the government driven to act only when pressure is great.  Carbon limits are being set and the worst cities are now the subjects of serious plans (Qiu 2013b). 

China is riding a tiger.  The more it needs to change, the more the old men who rule it fear that change, since changes are more and more threatening to their power.  They thus crack down more and more condignly on dissent or innovation.  This is rather reminiscent of the Qianlong Emperor’s similar behavior in the last decades of his rule, but the situation is far more extreme today than in his 18th-century time.  As Jonathan Fenby says, “China finds itself at a watershed in which it needs to change but knows that change will face it with the biggest test since Deng Xiaoping…” (Fenby 2014:122-123).  Or perhaps since the fall of the Qing Dynasty.



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). 

Subsidies include the release of China’s firms—especially the state firms that still dominate the economy—from having to pay the costs of production.  In a free market, ideally, the cotss of production—including pollution, waste, loss of farmland, and loss of ecosystem services—would be paid by the producers.  This may or may not be true, but we will never know; capitalist societies always involve governments that subsidize giant firms and protect them from lawsuits and other restraints on externalizing (Anderson 2010).  The farther a society gets from a free market, other things being equal, the more the government protects firms from such costs by “externalizing” them—passing them on to the public.  Marx and Engels saw this problem clearly, and tried to escape it by envisioning comprehensive planning (see e.g. Engels’ Anti-Duhring, 1966, one of the last works written by the founding fathers and thus particularly revealing on such matters).  In practice, the Marxian drive for production at all costs led to externalizing costs far beyond anything permitted in democratic countries. 

In the last analysis, Communism is a philosophy of production. Its goal was always to maximize production of useful goods, as readers of Marx and Engels know.  It is not set up to moderate production to maintain ecosystem goods.

It is also a totalitarian and absolutist philosophy, with no place for upward feedback.  The Chinese Communist system remains a top-down one, autocratic and savagely repressive of criticism.  The resulting political sclerosis has been well documented by Jonathanb Fenby (2014), among others.  Change is difficult.  Even if the leaders want it, they have to overcome the vast inertia of the local bosses, middle managers, and bureaucrats. Unlike leaders in democracies, they cannot use support from ordinary people.

            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.  Perhaps Demick and others are exaggerating the situation, but they are clearly not inventing it.  Opening 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.

Finally, this comes within a much broader phenomenon: the number of well-educated middle class people in China is rapidly increasing.  Such people always bring pressure for forward and progressive change.  It may be that they will yet force the issue, and make China’s dinosauric Communist Party wake up.

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 2013; 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. Fenby 2014, Marks 2012, Watts 2010, and the entire history of the Soviet Union, East Europe, and Cuba).  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 in China.  And policies once set are very hard to reverse overnight, even for a totalitarian state.  The “lock-in” is a well-recognized economic phenomenon.

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).

In a particularly bitter irony, China’s new premier Xi Jinping has now called, in a rather pathetic plea, for a revival of traditional religions to fill China’s moral void (Kim and Blanchard 2013).  Belatedly, the Communist rulers realize that over 60 years of repression, involving millions of murders in which repression of religion and traditional philosophy were part of the justification, was a mistake, costing Chinese society very dearly indeed (Kim and Blanchard detail the continuing repression). 

Minorities suffered in particular, from Mongolia in the north (see Williams references below) to Xishuangbanna in the far south (Wang 2008, 2013).  Communists 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” (X. 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 (Fenby 2014; 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 (on this and other aspects of Chinese governance see Dirlik and Prazniak 2012; Dirlik is coming out with further overviews).  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—has been abandoned.  The best of capitalism—relative freedom of speech and action, resulting in real enterprise and improvement of production—has never been permitted.

One effect of this is an extreme form of the well-known problem with big government in general, and government subsidies in particular: 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 many of China’s communists are 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 conservationists have learned 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.



            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 such as Mesa Verde.

            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 or four generations are 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 and fourth decline 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’s long history; 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 228 (the amazingly long run of peace in the later Ming Dynasty [1368-1644], from Yongle’s bloody coup in 1402 to the beginning of the violent end in 1630).  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, historical 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 rather than being 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 in 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.




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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World Food Security in the 21st Century

April 30th, 2014

Talk, South Puget Sound Community College, April 28, 2014



World Food Security in the 21st Century


E. N. Anderson

Dept. of Anthropology

University of California, Riverside, CA 92507



The Problem
“DAVOS, 24 January 2014  Up to 849 million hectares of natural land – nearly the size of Brazil – may be degraded by 2050 should current trends of unsustainable land use continue, warns a report by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP).  The need to feed a growing number of people globally has led to more land being converted to cropland at the expense of the world’s savannah, grassland and forests.  this has resulted in widespread environmental degradation and loss of biodiversity, affecting an estimated 23 per cent of global soil.  Agriculture currently consumes more than 30 per cent of the world’s land area, and cropland covers around 10 per cent of global land.”   (UNEP 2014b, citing UNEP 2014a.  The rest of the agricultural land is largely grazing.)

            World food security is entering a new and troubling era.  At present, the world has plenty of food.  The media sometimes point to the fact that there are stocks sufficient to carry the world for only a few months, but this is expectable and natural; there is little point in stockpiling world food beyond the next harvests.  The fact that three billion people are not eating well, with about one billion of them in serious want (Kuhnlein 2014:13, citing FAO figures), is disturbing, but is balanced out by the fact that about one-fourth of the world’s food is lost to rats, insect pests, spoilage, and waste.  Also, with 1.5 billion overweight or obese (Kuhnlein 2014:13), including almost one billion obese in developing countries (BBC 2014), there is unbalance in food consumption. 

Current world food problems are political, as pointed out often over the years by Amartya Sen (e.g. 1992, 1997, 2009).  Sen showed that famines for at least the last 70 years have been political: a government refuses to provide adequate resources to farmers, or refuses to provide adequate food aid, or fails to set up a food aid infrastructure in a timely manner.  As Sen puts it: “…no major famine has ever occurred in a functioning democracy with regular elections, opposition parties, basic freedom of speech and a relatively free media (even when the country is very poor and in a seriously adverse food situation)” (Sen 2009:342).  Sen shows convincingly that famine is a governmental choice, rendered possible by lack of accountability, rather than a natural disaster.

This is now well known in the international community.  The term “structural violence” was coined by Paul Farmer to refer to deliberate inaction leading to mass deaths (Farmer  2004).  A child dies of malnutrition every 10 seconds (Alexander 2013), but these deaths are due to failure of governments and agencies to provide livelihoods for the poor and medical and nutritional education and resources, not to any absolute lack.

In this case the problem is that the governments or agencies in question either do not care about the hungry, or actively want them to die, as in genocide cases (see Anderson and Anderson 2012).  The problem then becomes one of changing people’s minds about the worth and deservingness of the targeted group, and about the need for solidarity in the modern world—a world in which “we’re all in this together” and stand or fall together.  That, however, is somewhat outside the scope of the present paper (see, instead, the world’s religious scriptures).

The concept of “food security” was put in order by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) in 1974, and defined as “availability at all times of adequate world food supplies”(Kuhnlein 2014:14).  A summit in 1996 and subsequent reportrs have added “nutrition security” (FAO et al. 2013; Kunhlein 2014).  The definition has extended, and has recently been phrased as “when all people at all times have physical, social and economic access to food, which is safe and consumed in sufficient quantity and quality to meet their dietary needs and food preferences, and is supported by an environment of adequate sanitation, health services and care, allowing for an healthy and active life” (Committee on World Food Security 2012, as quoted by Kuhnlein 2014:14).  

Like many UN definitions, including the classic one of  perfect health (“the right to enjoy the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health,” again Kuhnlein 2014:15, quoting the World Health Organisation in this case), this final definition is clearly unachievable in the real world; it is an ideal to strive for.  It is what I call a process goal: a goal that is unachievable in full, but for which every step toward it is progress.  Other process goals include peace, safety, and ethnic and religious tolerance.  We will never have perfect food security, but every genuine step toward it helps countless people (see e.g. Pottier 1999).


Root Causes


            However, the future will be very different.  Problems are many and complex, and fall under several headings, both environmental and social (a good review is Lester Brown’s book, Full Planet, Empty Plates, 2012).

            Most obvious, but not by any means the most intractable, is population.  World population is now almost eight billion people.  World land area is 57.53 million square miles, or 36,800,000,000 acres (Dave Huckleberry, online, Yahoo answers, 2008).  That works out to about 5 acres per person.  Unfortunately, only 1/10 of land is arable and another one or two tenths can be successfully grazed.  The rest is city, desert, ice sheet, tundra, and mountain.  Thus we are being fed from about 1 ½ acres of land apiece.  This is about the size of a traditional Chinese or Vietnamese rice farm.

            Population is still growing fast.  One hears that population growth has stagnated, but this is true only in Europe and the urbanized parts of East Asia.  The US population is still growing at almost 1% per annum.  Africa and the Middle East are growing at 2% or more.  Egypt has grown from 80 million to 92 million in the last few years.  Egypt depends entirely on the Nile, whose waters are now coveted by Ethiopia and Sudan.  Egypt has succumbed to political instability and religious bigotry, thus making it  impossible for the country to deal at present with long-term problems of food and population.  Pakistan and several other countries are in similar risky situations.

The good news is that the demographic transition is working; people everywhere are having fewer children than their parents did.  I have seen this happen in the major places I have worked:  Hong Kong, Malaysia, and southeast Mexico.  Completed family size dropped from seven children to two just in the time I have been working in those areas.  The bad news is that the demographic transition is not happening, or is happening very slowly, in the areas that still have rapid growth.  The future is not very hopeful in those areas.  If we do not make a full range of health care and birth control and family planning options available, free, and if we do not make them a socially acceptable choice, the consequences in places like Egypt and Pakistan are horrible beyond imagining.  Fortunately, the demographic transition proceeds rapidly when comprehensive health planning and care are done.  The problem is getting such things into the African and Middle Eastern back country.

            More immediately menacing, and far less tractable, are the problems with current farming practices.  One classic problem, not new and not caused by industry but greatly exacerbated by modern water mismanagement, is salt buildup in farmland.  Irrigation without proper drainage is the cause.  Salt buildup has been going on since ancient times in Mesopotamia and Pakistan, and the Bible speaks of it as a familiar phenomenon.  It has vastly increased in the last hundred years, as more and more dams and irrigation works are constructed, often without proper attention to drainage and flushing out salts.  Such land can be used for salt-tolerant crops for a while, or reclaimed, but ultimately it is too far gone to save.  Many a productive wetland has been drained and cultivated, only to become a salt desert in a few decades.

            Other ancient problems that are now worse than ever are overgrazing and overcultivation leading to desertification.  Millions of acres are lost every year, especially in dryland Africa and interior China.  Soil erosion also continues unabated in much of the world, in spite of well-known remedies.   Over-application of those remedies has its own costs:  The United States and Egypt, among other countries, have now so thoroughly controlled soil erosion that natural replacement of delta lands by silt has been impaired, leading to loss of vast areas of fertile land in the Mississippi, Nile, and other deltas. 

            Another curse that is ancient but has recently become far more serious is urbanization.  Even Babylon and Nineveh sprawled onto cropland, but of course we now urbanize on a vaster scale.  At the rate California was urbanizing before the housing meltdown of 2008, California’s last farm would have gone under around 2050.   China loses almost a million hectares a year to urbanization.

Most current problems, however, are due to unsustainable industrial farming.  The current worldwide crash in honeybee populations is the first real global disaster that can be laid directly at the door of industrial farming.  There have been many local ones, especially in China (Anderson 2012, updated on my website).  Water pollution—river, ocean, and groundwater—by fertilizers and pesticides is the source of the worst local problems.   Even the soil can be too polluted to use.  

A worst-case situation is that of China.  China’s farmland peaked at over 160,000,000 ha in the 1970s.  China’s farmland is now down to 120,000,000 ha—the minimum the government believes it needs for food security.  Much of this land was barely usable and reverted to forest, but by far the major part of it has been lost to the above causes.  China has lost perhaps 12,000,000 ha of farmland to soil and water pollution alone (Anderson 2012 summarizes the sources).  Similar disastrous land loss is observed in Pakistan, Uzbekistan, and other dryland countries. 

Into all of this comes climate change.  Global warming is rapidly heating and drying much of the world’s agricultural land, including California, to the point of disaster.  We in California are losing about 20% of our almond acreage this year, for example, and may lose almost 100% of it in the near future.  Worldwide, the effects of global warming will be much worse in future (Elliott et al. 2014).  Some 15% of humanity dwells in areas where water availability is already problematic and will be much more so (Haddeland et al. 2014; Schewe et al. 2014).  Agriculture will suffer enormously from water shortages and heat, with possible loss of 17% of world production (Nelson et al. 2014; Rosensweig et al. 2014).  Probably most of the world’s cropland will be negatively affected by global warming, especially the poorer areas of the world (Wheeler et al. 2013).  The Sahel, for instance, will desertify.  So will the southwestern United States.

The release of the greenhouse gases that cause much of global warming is to a great extent due to agriculture.  Deforestation, land degradation, burning, use of fossil fuels, and other pathologies of badly-done rural land management cause at least 20% and probably over 30% of greenhouse gas release—more than cars or heating, almost as much as power plants.  This wasteful mismanagement is almost entirely the result of large-scale plantation-style farming, especially the clearing of tropical forests for oil palm plantations and cattle ranches. 

One particularly ironic, and dangerous, effect of global warming is that it is selectively destroying the most environmentally fine-tuned farming systems.  They depend on tight adjustment to local soil, water and climate conditions.  They are increasingly losing out, as global warming destroys those conditions.  Large-scale industrial farming has one virtue: it is relatively buffered against such things.  Even so, it is dying in much of California today.

The other big problem for the future is the oil peak, long predicted but always pushed farther into the future by new discoveries and new technologies.  We are currently much more threatened by greenhouse gas buildup from fossil fuel combustion than by the danger of oil peaking.  However, the end must come some time, and the world will have to adapt.  Energy is no problem—wind and solar are already underselling oil on the (virtual) free market.  Oil remains competitive because of the hundreds of billions of dollars of direct and indirect subsidies poured into it by world governments, and the extreme political power of the oil lobby (Juhasz 2008; Oreskes and Conway 2010; Ross 2012).  The oil corporations have successfully fought efforts to move away from oil or to admit the climate-change effects of fossil fuels.  The problem if oil runs out, however, is not lack of energy: it is need for oil to produce fertilizer, pesticides, and most other agrochemicals.  What we will use as feedstock for these chemicals is an interesting problem.  Coal and agricultural wastes are possibilities, but the technology needs development.

The other worldwide curse today is monoculture (for this and much that follows, see Anderson 2013).  Large-scale monoculture is not new.  It was a creation of the royal estates and temple estates of ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia, apparently the latter in particular.  They grew wheat and barley and very little (if anything) else.  They were owned and run by the government, though necessarily worked on a small-farmer basis.  The giant monocrop estates led directly to the even larger, slave-worked estates of ancient Greece and Rome.   These were more often mixed, since wine and fruit production was important, but extensive fields of wheat or barley were still common.  Medieval Byzantium and the Islamic empires continued this tradition, and western Europe picked it up from them. 

The dreadful climax of monocrop plantations came with the sugar industry in the Caribbean and Brazil in the 18th century.  Some 15,000,000 enslaved Africans were imported to work sugar (and, later, rice and cotton, on a much more limited scale).  Each enslaved person landed in the New World meant another three to ten persons dead—in African slave-capturing battles, or from disease and horrible conditions on the way from Africa to the Americas.  One slaving captain, John Newton, was so horrified but what he saw—and did—that he entered a profound personal crisis, quit his career, and repented for years, finally feeling he had achieved some religious forgiveness, and immortalizing it with the hymn “Amazing Grace”—which became a favorite of African-Americans. 

Thus was born modern monocrop agriculture.  Today, slaves continue to provide a great deal of the work force, in many parts of the world.  More commonly, landless laborers are used.  They can be cheaper than slaves; slaves had to be fed, and had every incentive to shun work, since they were usually too valuable (after the first decades) to be allowed to die outright. 

Quite apart from the social pathologies, so well covered in a vast literature (e.g. Beckford 1972; Mintz 1985, 1996), monocrop agriculture is suicidal as a food production method.  One reason is that it drives out more and more of the old species and varieties.  The world is now fed by a tiny handful of varieties of a tiny handful of species of plants and animals.  Of tens of thousands of species that have been used by humans, only eight plants (wheat, rice, maize, white potatoes, manioc, sugar cane, soybeans and sorghum) and three animals (cow, pig, chicken) supply almost all the world’s calories and meat.  Diversity is collapsing.

Worldwide, the big three grains—wheat, rice, and maize—are spreading rapidly at the expense of  local crops.  Soybeans, potatoes, and barley are spreading too, but important local crops such as rye, sorghum, and manioc are not (Khoury et al. 2014; FAO data), and the underappreciated and local crops are going out.  Soybean acreage has expanded 284% since 1961, oil palm 180% (Kinver 2014).  Almost all this expansion has been at the expense of tropical forest, leading to huge increases in atmospheric carbon as well as the loss of all the diversity in the forests.  Cattle ranching has also increased at the expense of forest.  This is not the result of the market or of competitive economics; these crops are heavily subsidized.

Much of the expansion of oil crops is not for human food, but for animal fodder or biodiesel production.  Biodiesel also now takes a large percentage of the world’s corn and sugar production.  When the biodiesel boom began, there were predictions that it would set rich people’s SUV’s against poor people’s children.  This is exactly what has happened.  Prices of food grains have soared while availability drops.

The other reason is that diseases and pests build up to high population levels, and also to high levels of virulence.  The more individuals of any organism are crowded together, the more density-dependent mortality they will experience (other things being equal).  The more genetically similar they are, the less resistance they will have to a particular disease that targets their particular genetic strain.  Diseases evolve rapidly through natural selection.  The one that succeeds best in spreading like wildfire in a large, crowded population will naturally triumph.  We have seen this with humans, from the Black Death of 1346-48 to the annual flu epidemics of today.

The notorious case of monoculture making history was the great European potato famine of 1846-48.  It is known in the English-speaking world as the Irish potato famine, but actually far more people were involved in Germany, Poland and Russia.  The resulting unrest led to revolutions, and to the success of the Communist Manifesto (Marx and Engels, 1848).  Still, the effect on Ireland was bad enough: hundreds of thousands dead, and millions—over the next few decades—emigrating. 

What happened was that north Europe had come to rely on a very few varieties of potato, especially one known as the Lumper (on the famine, and potato history, see Reader 2008; Salaman 1949; Woodham-Smith 1962).  The reason was that the potato was originally a tropical mountain crop, and only a few strains could live in a climate with fluctuating seasons an day-length.  These varieties largely derived from Chiloe Island, Chile, where they had been developed by the Mapuche people.  Chiloe is still a sort of genetic material.  The few really high-yield, adaptable strains available in Europe were vulnerable to the potato blight, Phytophthora infestans, which was originally described as a fungus but is actually a brown alga.  The cold, wet summers of 1846 and 1847 were ideal for this wetness-loving plague.

More recently, in 1970, one third of the American maize crop was lost to a blight.  Today, a Ugandan wheat blight threatens the world’s wheat.  Several diseases are slowly wiping out the cacao plantations of Africa, and chocolate will soon be a thing of the past unless more is done.  Manioc is subject to buildup of diseases, though genetic engineering and ordinary selective breeding have saved it so far.  Bananas are now subject to Panama disease, strain 4, which is incurable and which has evolved to target the widely-planted existing varieties; it has devastated production in Asia and is now affecting Africa (Fresh Plaza 2013).  Other problems afflict bananas too (Turvill 2014).  Almost all commercial bananas are of the old Cavendish variety.  It has been around long enough to accumulate many diseases that target it.  Corn rootworms have now evolved resistance to Bacillus thuringensis genes engineered into maize (Gassmann et al. 2014), and weeds have evolved resistance to the herbicide glyphosphate (Roundup), so the major defenses of the US maize crop are giving out. 

The only hope in this world of monocultures is to preserve and encourage genetic diversity by any and all means possible.  The overwhelmingly most important thing to do is save all existing heirloom varieties, and landraces—the local varieties of crops that are preserved in small-scale and traditional agriculture.  This is being done, most famously in a vault in Spitsbergen, a place so cold that even projected global warming will not melt its deepfreeze.  Spitsbergen has other protection too:  the polar bears are so numerous and ferocious that people are not allowed outside the limits of the one tiny town unless they carry rifles. Other vast genetic resource banks exist, most notably the International Rice Research Institute in the Philippines, which preserves almost 500,000 varieties of rice.  Landraces of rice are still producing astonishing breakthroughs that can vastly increase world food production (Fujita et al. 2013).

Genetic engineering, meanwhile, can rapidly produce new varieties that are adapted to new diseases.  Genes for resistance to manioc diseases, for instance, have been engineered in from unrelated organisms, including in some cases the disease organisms themselves (Broach 2014).  This is where genetic engineering can come into its own.


Continuing Deterioration


Unfortunately, the world is not facing this crisis very well.  Agricultural research is being devastated by penny-pinching governments.  Now that most people worldwide live in cities, and farmers are down to 1 to 2% of the population in developed countries, agricultural research is simply not a political priority—though subsidies for agribusiness still are popular.  Agrarian and rural-based political parties tend to be conservative—more interested in saving tax dollars than in investing those dollars to save the world.  Annual growth in research and development in agriculture has declined steadily and sharply and is now less than 1% of research spending per year in the United States, as opposed nearly 4% over the 1950-70 period, the years of concern over the world food problem. 

Increase per year in crop yields and in labor and land productivity has tracked this amazingly closely (Alston et al. 2009)—it has slowed down greatly as research is cut. Moreover, research is increasingly related to the needs of industrial farming.  Little attention is paid to serious development of agriculture on small farms and in harsh or tropical environments.  NGO’s do a great deal of applied work in those areas, but little innovative research.  Some of the most important crops get strikingly little research.  Wheat yields have increased only 0.9% a year in the last decade, vs. maize 1.6%, because maize is more profitable to seed companies.  Governments no longer do much research on any crops (Nature 2014).  Even maize yield increase is not keeping up with world population increase.

Land productivity is 2.4 what it was in 1961, labor 1.7 times.  These figures imply that the Green Revolution has had less effect than it might; it increased the yields of major grains by up to 10 times.  Meanwhile, the giant seed and agribusiness corporations, especially Monsanto, have progressively cut back offerings, monopolized seed, and bulldozed the farm sector into cutting back on traditional varieties.  Often, Monsanto can persuade governments to give it and its seeds and chemicals special consideration (see e.g. Imhoff 2012).  The world is addicted to monocropping because of these uneconomic interferences with the market.  The UNEP report cited at the beginning of this paper gives many more details, especially on crop acreage, and many suggestions for fixing the world; unfortunately the suggestions are at a high level of generality.

We thus find ourselves, worldwide, poised on the brink of what could be a catastrophe of unimaginable proportions.  Diseases are waiting in the wings to take out wheat, rice, potatoes, and the other staple crops, as well as chocolate, bananas, coffee, and our other favorite indulgences.  Wiping out honeybees will eliminate almonds, alfalfa, and dozens of other crops that require honeybee pollination.  Moreover, other bees are just as susceptible to modern pesticides, and we are thus losing bumblebees, which pollinate clover and other crops, and squash bees, which are essential to pollinating squash, gourds and melons.  Pollinators in general have been in decline for decades, with disastrous effects on plants (Burkle et al. 2013).

            At least we do not have to worry as much about GMO crops as many are doing these days.  They are, so far, safe.  America has been a nation of guinea pigs, eating GMO crops for 20 years without reported damage.  The genetic engineering is a natural process, put to work by scientists (see e.g. interviews by Nagy and Bose with my colleagues Norman Ellstrand and Alan McHughen, 2014; unlike most sources, this one has the advantage of drawing on scientists who have studied the questions, rather than advocates with committed positions).  One problem so far has been overuse of pesticides with consequent devastating effects on wild plants and insects.  Possibly more serious for the future is increasing monopoly over seeds, not only of GMO’s but of conventional crops, by Monsanto—which has acted in a way that can only be described as predatory and amoral, as in suing farmers for growing patented seed when the seeds had apparently come up by accident in the farmers’ fields.  Neither of these problems is intrinsic to GMO’s and both are quite solvable. 

On the other hand, the golden promise of GMO’s has not come to pass.  They do not greatly increase yields.  They do not greatly decrease pesticide use (though they should).  They have brought no significant benefits to impoverished nations, though they surely would if proper research were done.  The debate on GMO’s is notably unedifying.  Both sides resort to extreme and flatly dishonest claims.  It is a depressing insight into human political activity.

            In short, many of the problems with food production today are the result of industrial monocrop plantation agriculture.  Industrial large-scale agriculture has several disadvantages. It relies on oil-fueled machinery instead of skilled labor.  It clears vast tracts of land and mismanages landscapes on a large scale.  It uses vast amounts of pesticides and inorganic fertilizers, again in place of skilled labor.  And it is a great lobbying force behind the run-down of aid and research for diversification, good management, and small-scale mixed farming.

Other, more general, problems include urbanization, pollution, population growth, and water shortages.  But they are not intractable, and recent writers on the world food situation are relatively upbeat and hopeful about the future (e.g. Evans 1998; Smil 2001).  For instance, livestock rearing, currently often unsustainable because it leads to tropical deforestation and competes with humans for grain and soybeans, could easily be made much more ecologically sound—though it would probably mean less meat per human.  Mark Eisler and Michael Lee (2014) point out that we could do a much better job.  This would involve choosing livestock for the land (instead of raising cows everywhere); doing a much better job with animal health and veterinary medicine; using feeds that are not human food and do not compete for cropping space; eating better quality meat (more expensive, to be sure); drawing on local cultures; and being more conscious of costs and benefits of various practices.


Small Farms: the Foundation of Hope


All the above may sound truly daunting, but the beginning of a remedy is simple, clear, and easily available.  Martin Luther, in his hymn “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God,” conjures up a terrifying image of Satan, but then reassures us that “one little word will slay him.”  The same is almost literally true of the world food problem.  The difference is that instead of the Word Made Flesh, our winner today is Small Mixed Farming. 

            There are currently 500 million family farms in the world, supporting 2 billion people (Katz 2014).  They dominate the production of many nutrient-rich crops.  The main problem with shifting toward small-scale farming is the mistaken belief that it is less efficient and productive than large-scale industrial farming.  A program on the banana problem on NPR recently held that people want cheap bananas, so must have monocrop plantations.  This could not be more wrong.  An enormous literature, usefully brought together and summarized (with references) by Robert Netting in Smallholders, Householders (1993) and by Michael Dove in The Banana Tree at the Gate (2011), has proved that intensive, skilled smallholder farming is virtually always more efficient and productive. 

All local systems have enormous resources of knowledge and skill (see e.g. Bicker et al. 2004; Gonzalez 2001; Laird 2002; Lansing 1991; Wilken 1987; many references therein).  Of course the world’s many small farms include many that are mere hobby or retirement farms, or are too desperately poor to function well, or are on marginal land.  But where there is straight-up competition, as in the areas I have done my own research in China, Malaysia and Mexico, well-managed, adequately capitalized small farms literally beat the plantations out of the field. 

In the Maya region I study in Mexico, for instance, no large-scale farming has ever succeeded in the hot, dry, pest-ridden environment.  But the Maya have been succeeding brilliantly for 3,000 years there.  The famous Maya collapse in the 9th-10th centuries A.D. was very likely due in part to their adopting something too much like large-scale monocrop agriculture (Diamond 2005, but his interpretation is somewhat preliminary and is debatable).  

            The belief that bigger is better has led to enormous subsidies, tax breaks, and special favors for agribusiness (Imhoff 2012 provides full details), and to targeting research to the needs of agribusiness—especially since much of the research is done by the corporations themselves.  Agribusiness controls whole nations and whole American states, or more often the agricultural policies of whole states, through heavy campaign donations to political candidates and through heavily funded lobbying.  American taxpayers subsidize agribusiness to the tune of tens of billions of dollars a year; that money is then used to influence legislators and legislation, to keep the money flowing and, sometimes, to keep small farmers suppressed (see e.g. Anderson 2014; Imhoff  2012; Nestle 2002).  Several American states actually have laws against criticizing large-scale agriculture.  (These are irreverently called “veggie libel laws,” though many actually focus on banning criticism of industrial animal rearing, which is often cruel to the animals.)  These are ruled unconstitutional whenever challenged in court, but survive because of servile media and high court costs to challengers.

            Recent studies of economic development have shown unequivocally that the best way is to work with people on the ground, which means ordinary people—not giant corporations, agribusiness firms, or millionaire absentee landlords (se e.g Ascher 1999; Bunker and Ciccantell 2005; Daly 1997; Dichter 2003; Easterly 2006; Ellerman 2005; Stiglitz 2003).

            Small farms have several advantages.  First and foremost is the presence on the ground of a highly skilled labor force.  Small farmers are usually the descendants of long lineages of small farmers, who have sharpened their skills dealing with a difficult world.   If they are the owners or have long leases, as is usually the case worldwide, they have every incentive to use every ounce of their skill in maximizing production over the long term.  By contrast, a tractor operator for a giant California agribusiness firm has no incentive beyond getting through the day without being fired.  Efficiency, to him, means only that he would take longer at a given job—to the annoyance of his boss.  Thus it is no surprise to find that about a third of tomatoes produced on California factory farms are lost by careless production and harvesting (a figure I can amply confirm from personal experience).   

Water management is a similar case.  A giant industrial farm is apt to use sprinkler irrigation or open-ditch irrigation.  A small closely-managed farm is more apt to find it economically compelling to move to drip irrigation and water-sparing practices and crops.  Another advantage of skill is knowing how to use “nature’s services” (Daily 1997).  Farmers know how to maximize the benefits of sun, water, and soil, and minimize the risks.  Small farms usually have diversified crops, but even if they do not, they are separated from other farms by at least some sort of field boundary.  If this is a hedgerow or brush or grass strip, it is a haven for pest-eating animals, and retards erosion.

There is no substitute for a skilled owner or long-lease-holder.  As the English proverb says, “the best dung for the land is the tread of the master’s foot.”  That is what is lost with absentee landlordism and giant corporations.  (A minor, but real, exception occurs when a corporation has enough sense to lease out farms and give the lessors control of the operation.)

            One qualification that has to be made, though, is that “small” is a relative term.  A small wheat farm is a couple of thousand acres.  A small ranch may be even larger, especially in desert lands.  A one-acre lavender farm is quite large, and vegetable farms of one-fourth or even one-sixth acre are often highly profitable.  The economics of cropping, especially labor needs, matter more than actual land area.

            The only solution to monocropping is not monocropping.  Small mixed farms can produce plantation commodities such as rubber and bananas more efficiently than plantations do (Dove 2011; my own research confirms this).  Epidemics cannot sweep so easily through the landscape.  Small farms conserve a rich mix of species and varieties.  There are countless banana varieties in Malaysian and Indonesian home gardens that resist Panama disease 4; they should be sought out and propagated. 

            As to global warming:  agriculture could easily turn from producing 20 to 30% of the world’s greenhouse gases to absorbing a much higher same amount.  This would require intensive tree cropping, reforestation, restoration of grasslands and brushlands, care of wetlands, polliution control, and, in short, farming such that the land is improved rather than devastated.  Healthy forests and grasslands are major carbon sinks.  (Claims to the contrary are wrong, and sometimes deliberately dishonest.  Trees increase their carbon takeup exponentially as they age; Stephenson et al. 2014.)  In fact, regrowth of foolishly cleared and subsequently abandoned land in Amazonia is now a substantial sink for atmospheric carbon.

Some of the most threatened and rapidly-vanishing forests are among the most extremely effective at blotting up carbon (e.g. Southeast Asia’s; Yu et al 2014).  If intensive tree cropping were practiced on small farms, with the wood of overaged trees being used for construction or the like and the slash being mulched, an increasingly large carbon sink would develop.  The wood would have to go into some long-term use or it would just rot or burn and release its carbon again.  My furniture-making great-grandfather drew on local aging orchards for his wood.  Today, overaged orchards are simply burned—a huge waste of good wood.


The Best Chance:  Small Farms and Gardens


            The best solution for food insecurity involves intensive small-scale field cropping coupled with home gardens.  In rural areas of the world, home gardens are a well-established tradition.  It has been my good fortune to work in areas of the world where homegardening was a fine art: Mexico and Southeast Asia (Anderson 1993a, 1993b).  Here, traditional households normally lived on lots that could range from a quarter acre to one or two acres.  These they gardened intensively, growing many fruit trees, bushes, herbs, grasses, perennials, and even algae. 

Gardens are typically layered, to take advantage of sunlight at multiple storeys, like a natural open forest.  In Southeast Asia, for instance, a high layer of coconuts shares a canopy layer of durian, mangosteen, rambutan, orange, avocado and other trees, which shades a perennial layer of papaya, bananas, and guavas, which shades a bottom layer of manioc, spices, herbs, and bushes.  Vegetables, however, need more sun, so they are planted separately or at the edgesof the treed area.  The high trees grow their branches over the houses, so that no air space is wasted.  From an airplane, in the old days, one saw only a vast expanse of fruit trees with only a few bits of roof poking through.  Yet the population on the ground could be urban in density.  Unfortunately, modernization naturally means lots of roads, parking lots, and shopping centers, even where they make no economic sense, and millions of acres of highly productive land have been sacrificed.

A garden could have up to 100 or more species of plants.  The record in Chunhuhub, the town I studied in Mexico, was 92 species in one garden.  Other gardens had as few as four or five, but the average was around 25-30 (Anderson 2003).  Gardens in other areas of Mexico, and other tropical countries, can have well over 100 species. 

            An interesting feature is that Southeast Asia and tropical America began to share dooryard garden plants with the very first Portuguese and Spanish voyages.  Today almost everything is shared except for a few hard-to-grow fruit trees.  The Thai lime, that characteristic citrus of Thailand, is essential to Yucatan cooking (Anderson 2013).  Tabasco parsley (Eryngium foetidum) is universal in even remote areas of Cambodia and Vietnam (personal observation), though how it got there I have no idea.

When I was doing research in Madagascar, I found the homegarden tradition to be poorly developed there.  I was there with some students who were going on to international aid work, and for them I wrote up a manual of tropical home gardening.  Unfortunately it has not found a publisher, but it is available online:  “The Tropical Food Security Garden,” at my website  It provides full directions for developing a tropical garden when one has limited space and virtually no money for inputs. 

Strangely, this sort of gardening guide is incredibly hard to find these days.  The best were the old Victory Garden manuals from World War II.  Find them if you can.  My friends Daniela Soleri and Dave Cleveland did a similar manual for dryland gardens, but they could find only a quite obscure publisher for it (Cleveland and Soleri 1991).  Fortunately, Gary Nabhan (2013) has now done a similar work for dry areas, and it is much more visible.

            The United States has its own problems, often following from loss of traditional farming and traditional farm varieties of plants.  These varieties were often hardier and more productive under difficult or special conditions than are modern varieties (though the converse is also often true).  A great deal of effort to salvage these old varieties and re-popularize them is going on now, especially in the southern United States, where old varieties are especially common and well liked (see e.g. Campbell 2014; Lockyer and Veteto 2013; Nabhan and Madison 2008).  The traditional conservatism of the south has social costs, but major dietary benefits.

            Even more effective, because widespread and targeting the very areas that most need good food, is urban gardening.  A particularly stunning program emerged from Houston, thanks to the work of Robert Randall since the early 1980s (Randall 2013).  Working tirelessly with inner-city residents, he has built up a huge program of vegetable and fruit growing.  The inner city people in question usually had had farming parents or grandparents, but had been raised in the city, with scant knowledge of how to grow food.  Other cities have their own programs; in Los Angeles, public gardens are well established, largely because of the city’s huge Latino and southeast Asian population, whose dedication to growing their favorite foods is unstoppable.  They have launched countless “guerrilla gardens” under power lines, in vacant lots, and in other neglected spaces—usually with the law looking the other way, sometimes with permission and encouragement, rarely with oppressive forced removal.  Seattle’s “P-Patch” program is famous and successful, as I know not only from observation but from many an hour spent working in P-patches. 

Home gardens not only produce a great deal of food; it is usually very nutritious.  Corn is usually the favorite vegetable to raise (Anderson et al. 1973), and it is not a great nutrition source, but the other regular plants—tomatoes, squash, greens, peppers and the like—are extremely valuable contributors to household nutrients. 

            It is possible to do urban gardening anywhere.  A memorable experience of my wife and myself was visiting the worst slums of Dhaka, Bangladesh, in 1999, and finding that healthy survival there depended on finding any tiny bit of soil where vegetables and trees could be grown.  Landlords usually made this expensive and difficult, but families who could manage to find bits of ground—sometimes only a square foot—could grow an astonishing amount of food.  They could, for instance, train squash vines over their huts, a practice I have seen all over Asia and Mexico.  I have also seen many a rooftop garden, in pots on the tops of high-rise buildings.  I have also seen perfectly productive, nutritious gardens grown in pots on the verandas of houses built on stilts over water. 

            The real virtue of urban gardens is the high nutritive value of the food.  One is not going to produce many calories, but one can get a full complement of vitamins and minerals from a very small garden, by careful planting.  The highest nutrient values in common vegetables are found in turnip greens and similar dark greens of the cabbage family; chile peppers; parsley and cilantro; and spinach.  Purslane (see below) is even higher.  Highest of all, probably, is the goji berry, a traditional Chinese food now popular in the United States.  It has been grown for thousands of years in China, for medicinal purposes that translate perfectly well into modern biomedicine: its berries and leaves are the richest common source of vitamins and minerals, and it is also rich in protective antioxidants.  It has long been grown in Chinese gardens in the US (personal observation, Los Angeles; observation by my coworkers Paul Buell and Christopher Muench, Seattle and Bellingham).  It is now commercially available from US nurseries.

            This being said, producing a lot of calories in a very small space is possible.  Sweet potatoes, winter squash, and manioc can do it.  Best of all is a trick developed by the Green Revolution workers in Latin America.  One plants potatoes in a normal bed.  Then when the potato plant is well grown, one puts an old worn-out tire around it, and fills the tire with dirt.  The potato grows upward, and also produces more tubers in the tire.  One can build a tower of three or four tires this way, and get a bushel of potatoes out of 30 square feet of land. 

            The area covered by lawns in the United States is estimated to be equal to the area of Pennsylvania (Jenkins 1994; see also Robbins 2007).  Most of this area could be vegetable garden or home orchard instead of useless, water-wasting, poison-drenched lawn.  Our studies showed that people keep lawns for social conformity, and refrain from gardening in them because of local peer pressure; one neighbor of a gardener remarked “He raises vegetables in his front yard.  He must be crazy.”  (Anderson et al. 1973; see also Anderson 1972).  Lawns are to mark status as a proper American and neighborhood citizen, not to be useful (Anderson 1972; Robbins 2007).  They should be converted to a less wasteful future.

            Most hopeful of all is the movement to get schools into vegetable gardening.  This is a very old agenda—it was often done in my childhood, and my friend David Goodward has been doing it in our local public schools for years.  But it became visible through Alice Waters, the great restauranteur who built Chez Panisse from a tiny hole-in-the-wall to the most famous restaurant in the western United States.  Alice Waters has worked with enthusiasm and charm, but has also fought with bulldog tenacity, for this cause; her book Edible Schoolyard: A Universal Idea (2008)is a must read for all aspiring food security workers.

            Weeds remain a very common and widespread source of food.  They are very often protected in gardens or even semi-cultivated.  They are often deliberately introduced to gardens, with farmers transplanting, trading, sharing, and propagating (see e.g. Anderson 2003; Cruz-Garcia and Price 2014).  They are particularly well known as a food resource in the Mediterranean, partly because of the beautiful literary treatment of Patience Gray (1997), whose accounts of gathering wild foods on remote islands of Greece were very widely read for their outstanding quality, but also for the persistent ethnobiological work of Andrea Pieroni, Manuel Pardo-de-Santayana, and other researchers.  (See e.g. Molina et al. 2014; Quave and Pieroni 2014.) 

I well remember a fascinating moment of truth.  A Mexican botany student of ours, Juan Jimenez-Osornio, who had come from a central Mexican farm,  was taking his oral examination, and was asked by our weed expert, Jodi Holt:  “What do you do with the weeds in your fields?”   He answered:  “Well, we eat them.”  Jodi Holt is hard to astonish, but that stopped her.  All her career had been spent getting rid of weeds.  But in the next few minutes she learned that every weed has its use:  if not as food, then as medicine or pest control source.  I have visited Mexican fields with Juan, who is now a professor in Mexico.  With him I observed the spectacular Mexican marigolds saved because no pest will come near them—they contain powerful pesticidal and fungicidal chemicals.  Often, there is a continuum from weed to cultigen.  In Juan’s fields were growing cultivated varieties of purslane, verdolagas in Spanish (Portulaca oleracea).  The same plant is a wild plant, but gathered for food, in other parts of the world.  But in California it is merely destroyed as a weed.  It is basically tasteless but has a very high nutritional value.  It will grow literally on a brick (it routinely grows in cracks in the pavement at my house), so its future for food security is bright.

            The crux of the matter is changing worldwide priorities from support of large-scale industrial agribusiness to support for small-scale, intensive, skilled, diversified farming.  This does not mean going with the current fads for locavory, organic farming, or the like.  We will, instead, have to draw on every possible technical advance: new pest controls, genetic engineering, new storange and transportation systems.  We will have to widen the scope of world trade.

Above all, though, we must seriously support the existing small-farming sector, from Thailand to Mali, from Bolivia to California, from Finland to New Zealand.  The vast majority of the world’s farmers are still small-scale operators.  Many still follow traditional practices and maintain traditional crops.  Where they are supported with subsidies and research comparable to those lavished on industrial agribusiness, they prosper and flourish. 


Deeper Cure:  World Justice


            This, however, is not the end of the story, or perhaps even the beginning of it.  We must return to the initial observation of this paper:  hunger and food insecurity in the modern world are the result of politics, not lack of food.  As Amartya Sen pointed out, sometimes the government is so corrupt and incompetent that it cannot take care of its people, but usually it has simply abnegated the responsibility.  Often this leads to ecological collapse and the failure of the whole food production system (see e.g. Diamond 2005 on Haiti).  Often, government irresponsibility is the result of hate.  Two kinds of hate primarily concern us:  first, hatred and contempt of the poor and the weak; second, ethnic, political, gender-based, and religious hatreds.  Both are rampant worldwide.  The really deadly case occurs when they are combined—when a powerful, rich government looks down on the less fortunate and keeps itself in power by appealing to group hate. 

Unfortunately, the vast majority of food producers worldwide are small-scale local people, many of them impoverished and uneducated, and many of them members of minority groups or oppressed castes or classes.  Also, many are women, and gender bias is far too common worldwide.  In fact, a large percentage of the problems with both food production and food security in today’s world are straightforward matters of hatred and discrimination based on ethnicity, religion, gender, class, caste, political orientation, and other group identities.  This is not often stated and still less often addressed.  Sometimes whole groups are deliberately excluded, but more common is inadvertent exclusion based on sheer ignorance.  My wife Barbara Anderson and I have repeatedly seen, in many parts of the world, literature and workshops aimed at and delivered to me—in places where women do the farming and gardening work.

Moreover, sadly, most of the literature on world food production deals with technological fixes that would help large-scale agribusiness but would do nothing to alleviate the real problems.  Relatively little available material is aimed at ordinary small farmers.

            Thus, farmers tend to suffer disproportionately from unfair and violent treatment.  This may appear in the forms of war, genocide, repression, withholding of aid to the poor, or overall injustice.  These all impact the food system. 

More immediately deadly are direct attacks on the food production system itself.  Sometimes this takes the form of displacing local food producers through violence, urbanization, or simple theft.  Sometimes it takes the form of insecurity of land title—a huge problem especially for minorities including Indigenous groups.  Sometimes it comes through irresponsible development schemes, such as big dams.  I have even heard anecdotally of a proposal (presumably not very serious) to throw African farmers off their lands and bring in American and Chinese agribusinessmen—presumably thought to be more successful.  Of course, quite apart from social injustice, this would not work, because the farmers would have no idea how to cope with the harsh African landscape. 

One of the saddest manifestations of environmental injustice is displacement of local food producers in the name of environmental conservation (Brockington, Duff and Igoe 2008; West, Igoe and Brockington 2006).  Throwing productive, successful people off their land does not successfully conserve.  It is more apt to turn them into poachers and wasters.  It leaves the land unprotected and unmanaged.  I have seen this in Mexico (Anderson and Medina Tzuc 2005) and friends have studied it there (e.g. Martinez-Reyes 2004).

            New grassroots NGO’s, such as La Via Campesina, have now seen the necessity to deal with food security, political structures, and oppression through hatred as one problem that has to be addressed as one problem.

            Whether corruption, incompetence, or hatred is the problem, governmental failure is clearly the biggest factor in hunger worldwide, as Amartya Sen has shown.  Only through the success of real democracy and justice can food security exist, whether at local or national or worldwide levels.  Democracy means not only majority rule and minority rights, but a climate of honesty, tolerance, and valuing diversity.  It is a system in which each individual has value; no one is devalued because of poverty or ethnic or religious minority status, or because of gender or personal identification.  People have to be the ends of all action, not mere means to achieve “economic growth” or some other abstraction.  The environment, too, needs to be treated as an end in itself, worthy of preservation for itself.  Only by giving it an absolute right to exist, undamaged, can we protect even a minimum of ecosystem services.

            Religion has tried to teach these things throughout history, but has been bent to the service of evil and psychopathic persons in all times and places.  We need ecologically aware and morally engaged religion, uncontaminated by the evil (see Sponsel 2012; Taylor 2010).  We also need a more general and basic system of morality. 

I have recently been struck by the very widespread use of concepts that translate as “respect” as the basis for the morals of environmental and food security.  Of languages my students and I have worked in, I can mention shuteekh in Mongolian, isaak in Nuu-chah-nulth (Atleo 2004), and taaqheeq-e in Akha (a minority language of China; Wang 2013).  This may provide the real hope for the future: a morality based on respect for all life and all people.











Alexander, Ruth.  2013.  “Does a Child Die of Hunger Every 10 Seconds?”  BBC Magazine, online, June 17.


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Saving American Education in the 21st Century: Administrators

September 23rd, 2013



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





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.





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)





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




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)




(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)




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)




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)







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.





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!)





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).





Anderson, E. N.  1988.  The Food of China.  New Haven:  Yale University Press.


—  1990.  “Up Against Famine:  Chinese Diet in the Early Twentieth Century.”  Crossroads 1:1:11-24. 


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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.)



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)




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 Japa