In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

Reviewed by:
  • Mao’s War against Nature: Politics and the Environment in Revolutionary China
  • Jason N. Krupar
Judith Shapiro . Mao’s War against Nature: Politics and the Environment in Revolutionary China. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2001. 287 pp. $59.95 hardcover; $18.95 softcover.

Judith Shapiro's book presents a highly readable account of China's Maoist-inspired struggle to tame nature. Although Mao's War against Nature revisits the well-traveled terrain of Mao Zedong's China, Shapiro offers fresh insights into the environmental, scientific, and technological costs, intentional and unintentional, of the major political campaigns of that period. She demonstrates quite effectively the interaction of state-sponsored political repression, environmental degradation, and scientific and technological concerns.

Shapiro stresses broad themes and explores the degree of environmental damaged inflicted on nature and the Chinese people during these years. Furthermore, Shapiro uses case studies that illustrate not only the environmental harm created by Mao and his decisions, but also the political violence experienced by those who opposed his state-led campaigns and projects. The first chapter focuses on the 1957 Anti-Rightist [End Page 174] Campaign and the silencing of intellectual criticism. Shapiro returns to the well-known story of Ma Yinchu to introduce readers to the the risks facing anyone who dared to criticize Mao's regime. Ma, an economist educated at Columbia University, was banished from public life after he tried to warn Mao and the government about the long-term dangers associated with China's state-sanctioned population-growth programs. Shapiro next examines the case of Huang Wanli. Huang, a hydraulic engineer, opposed the construction of the Sanmenxia Dam on the Yellow River. In particular, Huang was vehemently against the application of the Soviet engineering model, which called for a large, grandiose dam of questionable usefulness. The stories of Ma and Huang illustrate not only the disastrous outcomes for those who dissented from a despotic government, but also the long-term costs of suppressing honest dialogue. China today is still dogged by overpopulation and ill-conceived dams.

Shapiro's second chapter recounts Mao's design for the forcible modernization of China through the Great Leap Forward. She recalls the efforts of Mao and his colleagues to mobilize the population into a utopian frenzy in order to surpass the industrialized West. This campaign resulted in one of the worst famines in history, leaving more than thirty million dead. Besides the famine, Mao's Great Leap Forward ignored rational development traditions and plans and targeted nature as the enemy. The government encouraged farmers to organize into larger collective units and to undertake questionable water conservation projects. In addition, officials instructed farmers to pursue deeper tilling and closer planting methods to bolster crop yields. These ill-considered schemes failed to increase harvests significantly and led only to greater land degradation. The government further contributed to the growing environmental catastrophe by directing people to construct primitive backyard furnaces to produce iron and steel. These operations produced unusable, low-quality metal and resulted in the denuding of the countryside of trees and shrubbery.

According to Shapiro, the Great Leap Forward generated a lasting obsession with grain security among elites and the masses. She underscores this point by explaining the campaign to "Wipe out the Four Pests," another component of the Leap. Obsessed with grain production and crop yields, officials conducted a nationwide, military-inspired operation to exterminate rats, sparrows, flies, and mosquitoes, with a particular emphasis on sparrows. The campaign proved too successful. Farmers learned too late that sparrows were their greatest ally in insect control.

In the immediate post-famine search for grain self-sufficiency, the village of Dazhai served as the national model. Located in Shanxi's mountainous Xiyang County, the Dazhai commune assumed national prominence in 1964 when the local party secretary refused state aid and funding after a devastating flood. Instead the peasants turned nearby hills into fields and promised to contribute grain to the state. During the Cultural Revolution, Dazhai became the ideal all others strived to imitate. Unfortunately, as Shapiro explains in her third chapter, the campaign to learn from Dazhai led to many ill-conceived cropland reclamation projects. While pursuing the goal of grain...