The eminent China scholar delivers a landmark study of Chinese culture’s relationship to the natural environment across thousands of years of history.
Spanning the three millennia for which there are written records, The Retreat of the Elephants is the first comprehensive environmental history of China. It is also a treasure trove of literary, political, aesthetic, scientific, and religious sources, which allow the reader direct access to the views and feelings of Chinese people toward their environment and their landscape.
China scholar and historian Mark Elvin chronicles the spread of the Chinese style of farming that eliminated elephant habitats; the destruction of most of the forests; the impacts of war on the landscape; and the re-engineering of the countryside through gigantic water-control systems. He documents the histories of three contrasting localities within China to show how ecological dynamics defined the lives of the inhabitants. And he shows that China in the eighteenth century was probably more environmentally degraded than northwestern Europe around this time.
Indispensable for its new perspective on long-term Chinese history and its explanation of the roots of China’s present-day environmental crisis, this book opens a door into the Chinese past.