- Across Forest, Steppe, and Mountain: Environment, Identity, and Empire in Qing China's Borderlands by David A. Bello, and: A World Trimmed with Fur: Wild Things, Pristine Places, and the Natural Fringes of Qing Rule by Jonathan Schlesinger
These two very interesting books represent a fusion between the new Qing history (now no longer so new) and Chinese environmental history. In some ways, it seems surprising that this fusion did not happen earlier, given the central importance of environmental issues in understanding the lands that the Qing ruled and the Ming had not. Those territories represent over half of today's People's Republic and were an even larger percentage of Qing domains.
For a long time, however, Chinese environmental history has principally focused on agriculture and issues related to it, such as water control and deforestation. Those stories are, in turn, often tightly connected to population growth and commercialization. This emphasis means that millions of anonymous actors without much political power generally take center stage. The state plays a significant role in some specific stories—especially those involving large-scale water management—but otherwise it usually plays a secondary role; key variables such as cultivated acreage respond more to bottom-up pressures than to particular government policies. Culture, in this older Chinese environmental history, is also generally a side issue, with demand for grain, fuel, and other necessities being much more sensitive to demography than to changes in attitudes. There are exceptions to these generaliza-tions, but they are broadly accurate as descriptions of most environmental histories of "China proper" written before the last few years.1 [End Page 275] The environmental literature on other parts of the empire, meanwhile, has been far smaller.2
The shift in attention these books represent is therefore more than just geographical. Many of the commodities at the center of these books are luxuries: ginseng, rare mushrooms, and furs for Schlesinger's book and pine nuts, freshwater pearls, furs, ginseng, high-quality horses, and mushrooms for Bello's book. Since the value of these goods is much more dependent on cultural construction than is the value of basic foodstuffs, cultural analyses of demand play a large role in these works, especially Schlesinger's.3 Moreover, these cultural constructions were often closely tied not only to what sorts of people were thought to use these goods but also to what sorts of people were thought to produce them. For the Qing court, those considerations were issues of political calculation as well as of "taste." It was important to protect certain resources not only because the origin of these goods affected their value but also because making a living by exploiting particular resources in particular ways was thought to produce certain kinds of people whom the Qing needed: hardy hunters, diligent and locally rooted farmers, and so on. Thus population growth, though not absent from Bello's and Schlesinger's accounts, is a much less important driver of their narratives than it is in most earlier works of Qing environmental history.
Bello's book begins by introducing the northeast–southwest line drawn across a map of China by the demographer Hu Huanyong 胡煥庸 in 1935. The diagonal line runs from Heihe 黑河 County in Heilongjiang, through Ningxia, Inner Mongolia, southern Gansu, and western Sichuan, to Tengchong 騰冲 County in northwestern Yunnan. The territory it runs through is an ecotone, or zone of ecological transition. [End Page 276] Much of this land is potentially arable—and thus belies any notion of a sharp border between steppe and sown fields—but at the beginning of the Qing, almost none of it was farmland. Very few Han (to use a less-than-satisfactory term) lived north or west of the line (pp. 11–12). Bello's...