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City Botany: Reading Urban Ecologies in China through Amitav Ghosh’s River of Smoke

From: Narrative
Volume 21, Number 3, October 2013
pp. 322-332 | 10.1353/nar.2013.0015

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Amitav Ghosh’s second novel in the Ibis trilogy about the opium trade to China in the early nineteenth century is also a sustained meditation on the economics of botany. The cultivation of poppy flowers and the processing of seeds into opium in India and its sale in China by British, American, and Indian traders is the most obvious aspect of economic botany. The secondary narrative of the search for an elusive flower from China, the golden camellia, is another goal of the mercantile explorations undertaken by the British in the nineteenth century. My interest is in examining these botanical endeavors through the lens of urban studies. Ghosh’s representation of Chinese flora and fauna is emblematic of what I call “city botany,” the cultivation and trade of plants within cities, specifically Canton, center of the illicit opium trade and the site of British defeat of the Chinese in the first Opium Wars (1839–1842).

In detailing colonial expeditions in search of exotic plants that somehow wend their way from, towards, and around the city, Ghosh suggests a move away from Orientalist notions of “pure” uncultivated nature. Cultivated nature, its bounty, and the transportation of this bounty across the seas is the governing trope in the first two novels of the trilogy: Sea of Poppies (2008) and River of Smoke (2011). Examining contemporary implications of such tropology, this article places environmental and urban studies in dialogue with postcolonial studies to argue that Ghosh’s historical perspective illuminates contemporary global concerns about urban spatial economy, built versus natural environments, and the profitability of the trade in plants, which often take China as the epicenter of these concerns. The novel, like the cities depicted in it, advances a postmodern historiography that gestures toward the present even while it describes the past. It allows for an analysis of a strand in postmodernist discussions of urban ecologies, embodied in particular by David Harvey’s recent writings, where some cities are understood as epitomes of unequal development and governmental apathy toward its citizens. Such an approach inadvertently contributes to the discourse emerging from Western policy studies that takes developing nations to task for not preserving environmental standards or biological resources in the rapid drive towards urbanization.1

My claims resonate with those made by Cara Cilano and Elizabeth DeLoughery in their essay “Against Authenticity” that “a vital aspect of postcolonial ecocriticism refuses the nostalgia of pure landscape even while it grapples with the best ways of addressing the representation of the nonhuman environment” (79). I understand Cilano and DeLoughery’s reference to “nonhuman environment” as indicating natural and built environments. The city and the garden are two obvious examples of such built environments.2 The following questions addressed in this article derive from my reading of Ghosh’s novel: If botany has always been pressed in the service of economic interests, and cities have served as the loci of these interests, then should developing nations be held especially culpable for not keeping in mind sustainable development in imagining and creating cities for the new millennium? Further, are developing nations any more culpable than developed ones for not preserving their biological resources in natural habitats? There are no easy answers, particularly since China (like many other Asian countries) is witnessing unprecedented migration from rural to urban locations, which puts pressure on existing natural and built environments.

Ghosh has pointed to the connections between the historical setting of the novel and contemporary relations between China and Western nations in an interview with Tom Ashbrook. The parallels between nineteenth-century Euro-American advocates of Free Trade in the novel and neoliberal policies in the present as well as the inverse balance of payments crisis are too obvious to be missed. The opium trade was directly responsible for draining the Chinese economy much as the current situation is leading to a US balance of payments deficit. In both cases state protectionism to curb the excesses of the trade imbalance is seen as a way out of the current crisis. In Ghosh’s novel when Governor Lin confiscates the opium cargo brought by American, British, and Indian traders, he does so by following both the letter and the spirit of...

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