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  • The Retreat of the Elephants: An Environmental History of China
  • Robert B. Marks
The Retreat of the Elephants: An Environmental History of China. By Mark Elvin (New Haven, Yale University Press, 2004) 564 pp. $39.95

This book is broad in scope, detailed in examination, deep in understanding of both China and Europe, innovative but careful in its use of sources, and attentive to major theoretical issues. It is a major contribution [End Page 313] to Chinese history, to environmental history, and to the debate about why Europe first experienced modern industrial economic development and not China. It samples 3,000 years of Chinese history, but (wisely) not the twentieth century.

The book is divided into three sections. In the first, "Patterns," Elvin begins by explaining the title of the book and surveying the broad course of environmental change in China. Once inhabiting most of the region that became China, elephants began to disappear first in the north and then progressively in a generally southwesterly direction, until they were gone by the nineteenth century. The explanation for the retreat of the elephants is simple: A 3,000-year "war on animals" waged by Han Chinese as they expanded from north to south, imposing their political organization and distinctive mode of intensive farming on non-Han Chinese and on the environment (11). Concurrently, most of China was deforested to make way for the farms. Elvin argues that military competition drove the creation of China's "militarized urban-agrarian state" (87), and that investment in large-scale water works for both irrigation and transport locked China into a particular pattern of premodern development.

The second section, "Particularities," provides detailed case studies of three localities, one in the lower Yangzi core (Jiaxing); one a non-Han Chinese peripheral area in the far southwest that was colonized (Guizhou); and another in Manchuria (Zunhua), home to the rulers of China's last dynasty, the Qing (1644–1911 C.E.). These local histories, which are all based on Elvin's original research, reveal the extent of local variation and departure from the "patterns" discussed in the first section. Elvin argues that throughout the millennia, Jiaxing, which "can be taken as a model for most of China" (167), pushed land utilization to the point that "there was virtually no longer any environmental resilience in the system" (203).

The third section, "Perceptions," deals with the question of how Chinese understood their relationship with the environment, exploring the paradox that although Chinese considered themselves part of the environment, they were ruthless in refashioning it. Chinese might have liked individual trees, but not forests. "The idea that the Chinese did not strive for an active mastery of nature, which has been advocated by some scholars since at least the time of Max Weber, is—as a simple generalization—ludicrously wrong" (446). Relying mostly on poetry (the dangers of which Elvin is acutely aware) but also other fascinating texts and state documents, Elvin probes deeply into what Chinese thought about nature, and why—including the fascinating question of why educated Chinese claimed to see dragons (and how it relates to "scientific" understandings of nature).

In his "Concluding Remarks," Elvin compares China's "pressure" on the environment c. 1800 with Europe's. He concludes that China's was more intense, perhaps significantly so, largely because the costs of environmental restoration were so high and locked into the particularities [End Page 314] of Chinese farming practice at a time when resources were already fully exploited. Elvin implicitly parts company with Pomeranz's thesis of "the great divergence."1 He suggests instead that these large environmental differences between China and northwestern Europe might help to explain their trajectories in the nineteenth century.

Robert B. Marks
Whittier College


1. Kenneth Pomeranz, The Great Divergence: China, Europe, and the Making of the Modern World Economy (Princeton, 2000).



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