Conservation and Society

: 2006  |  Volume : 4  |  Issue : 3  |  Page : 488--492

The Retreat of the Elephants: An Environmental History of China

Sumit Guha 
 Rutgers History Department 111, Van Dyck Hall, 16 Seminary Place, New Brunswick, NJ 08901, USA

Correspondence Address:
Sumit Guha
Rutgers History Department 111, Van Dyck Hall, 16 Seminary Place, New Brunswick, NJ 08901

How to cite this article:
Guha S. The Retreat of the Elephants: An Environmental History of China.Conservat Soc 2006;4:488-492

How to cite this URL:
Guha S. The Retreat of the Elephants: An Environmental History of China. Conservat Soc [serial online] 2006 [cited 2019 Sep 21 ];4:488-492
Available from:

Full Text

Mark Elvin, The Retreat of the Elephants: An Environmental History of China, Yale University Press, New Haven, 2004, 564+xxviii pages, $39.95. ISBN: 0300101112.

In this book a leading historian of China addresses two dauntingly large issues: how has the Chinese environment changed through the past four thousand years? And in what way, if any, did the distinctive characteristics of this ancient civilisation affect those processes of change? The present-day boundaries of the People's Republic encompass an enormous part of Asia and the population within the ambit of Sinic civilisation has been the largest in the world for two millennia if not longer. (Guha 2001: 4-5). The People's Republic of China together with Taiwan presently contains nearly 1.4 billion people. Through the millennia Sinic civilisation incorporated an immense range of human environments, from sub-Arctic woodland and steppe to tropical rainforest and delta. Each of these was exploited by human beings in different ways and was assimilated to Chinese civilisation at different times as that civilisation spread out of the semi-arid north-west where it was born into the moister, warmer lands to the south-east. Elvin is forced to divide China into ten major zones for the purposes of analysis and simplifies the picture slightly by excluding the culturally and ecologically distinctive region of Tibet. Elvin nonetheless has not only an immense span of time to address but also an immensely diverse range of natural conditions and human technologies to explain. Finally, of course, it is now well established that the climate has fluctuated significantly through the millennia since the end of the Ice Age that permitted the establishment of agriculture. So, in addition to geographic and demographic parameters, Elvin also sketches the major climatic oscillations of the past four thousand years. Students of other parts of the world have long envied historians of China the richness of sources and evidence available to them. But when embarking on anything of this magnitude the very wealth of information would be daunting to many environmental historians. One must at the outset, acknowledge the immense scholarship that has gone into this project.

Elvin is well aware of the complexity of the task and has devised an ingenious tripartite expository structure that gives the reader fascinating glimpses of detail while not losing sight of the main story. The first part of the book is made up of six chapters addressing structural patterns of change; the second gives us rich case studies of three widely separated regions as a sample of the geographic diversity that underlay pervasive common patterns of change. The third part presents us with religious, scientific, imperial and non-official ways of addressing the non-human, both animate and inanimate. And a short conclusion asks whether China's core areas were under greater environmental pressure compared to the eighteenth century West and if there was anything significantly 'Chinese' in the actual way the Chinese used their environment.

While the book is sadly deficient in maps - a grave defect in that is also that it is addressed to a non-specialist audience - a geographical and temporal grid is laid out in chapter 1 for expository convenience. The next chapter introduces a leitmotif that (for Elvin) sums up the course of Chinese history: this leitmotif involves the retreat of the elephants. It begins arrestingly:

'Four thousand years ago, there were elephants in the area that was later to become Beijing (in the Northeast), and in most of the rest of what was later to be China. Today, the only wild elephants in the People's Republic are those in a few protected enclaves in the Southwest ...'

Their retreat was, Elvin contends, the obverse of the expansion of farming by people who were at war with the elephants-'Chinese farmers and elephants do not mix' (p. 9). This dictum is supported by extensive and generally convincing evidence, although occasionally one feels that that mythic stories are being over-stretched into literal descriptions as (for example) in the legend of giant snakes having to be overcome by the ancestors before human settlement became possible in western Yunnan. (pp. 17-18) The retreat of the elephants was an aspect of the clearance of forests that accompanied it. Deforestation in turn increased the silt load of rivers such as the Yellow River and caused destructive oscillations in its course. Dikes to contain these raised the bed to a level higher than the surrounding plain and created the potential for yet more devastating floods when the dikes were breached. The rich Chinese records enable Elvin to calculate the average frequency of such breaches which increased from once every 16 years in the Han (186 BCE to 153 CE) to 1.89 years under the Qing (1645-1855) dynasties. This he correlates with deforestation and the spread of agriculture into the fragile uplands of the river's watershed (pp. 25-26).

The original impetus behind this expansion of farming is seen by Elvin as originating ultimately in ruthless power struggles between rival potentates in the early Bronze Age as intensive farming was perceived to yield surplus labour and food to build cities and nourish armies (Chapter 5). The hugely productive rice crops demanded immense hydraulic works. The effort to sustain the public works needed huge efforts to stave off destruction by environmental decay (especially in later times the Grand Canal that brought tax-grain from the south to feed imperial establishments in the north). So, for example, 10,500 tree trunks and about 15 million cubic metres of rock were needed to build one kilometre of sea-wall in 1347 AD. There were over 400 km. of seawall built in Jiangsu and Zhejiang provinces alone. Millions depended on their existence to live: breaches brought death by drowning and hunger to countless humans. By the 18th century, Elvin writes, "prescientific technology" was reaching its limits and devouring resources needed elsewhere. These were only freed by the coming of "modern engineering". Until then, China's immense early achievement served, it would seem, to fetter her further progress (p. 164).

The next three chapters are case studies - one of a densely settled highly productive Yangzi delta province where by c.1800 AD women had a life expectancy of only 18 to 24 years; another of a sparsely populated northern province with mixed farming with almost twice the life expectancy of the Yangzi delta province, and the third of Chinese expansion into an ecological and cultural frontier in the south-east. Thus one province had a life expectancy around the level prevalent in British India during the period of major famines and epidemics of 1872-1921 while another had a level perhaps 6-8 years higher than that of Western Europe in the eighteenth century. This dramatically illustrates the immense diversity of Chinese history - one chapter seems to mirror an eastern version of the Netherlands, another perhaps eighteenth century Hungary and yet another the North American frontier as English settlers pressed into Native American lands.

The comparison with the West is a central theme in Elvin's writing but it is not pursued with much rigor. For example, he suggests that the Yangzi delta had a much higher productivity than contemporary Europe since the ratio of rice-seed to harvest was perhaps 45:1 while European wheat ratios were rarely better than 5:1 (pp. 208-209). This is a very shaky proposition. The arbitrary comparison of different species is a poor estimator of 'productivity'-bulrush millet (bajri) in early twentieth century India often yielded 80:1 for the seed but the areas raising it were periodically subject to terrible famines (Mann 1917: 89).

Three very rich chapters then address the various ways in which the Chinese perceived and understood the natural world. This book is consistently rich in translations from primary sources and that richness adds especially to the quality of these chapters. Innumerable citations from prose and poetry sustain Elvin's arguments as he shows that the Chinese had no single way of viewing the world, that scholars often combined a penetrating understanding of natural processes with an occasional readiness to embrace the impossible and that while the official view that natural calamities reflected fluctuations in levels of human virtue had some resonance, yet many remained skeptical of it. As far as scientific understanding is concerned, he sees Chinese science as highly developed but lacking the breakthroughs of early modern Europe: the experimental method and an institutionalised scientific community that could determine the facticity of theory and observation (Ch. 11 esp. pp.388-390). This seems a little hard on the Chinese: the 'fact' that Newton and not Leibniz had developed calculus was 'established' by the manipulative genius of the former and the use of his power in the Royal Society. Likewise, the Dark and Bright forces of Chinese cosmology are not prima facie more irrational than the action at a distance required of Newtonian gravitation.

The "Concluding Remarks" largely focus on an important comparative issue: whether the pressure on the environment in the developed regions of late imperial China was more or less severe than that in north-western Europe at the same time and whether this had anything to do with the former's failure to pioneer 'early modern economic growth' (454-471). Elvin's forcefully logical clarification of the parameters needed for a meaningful quantitative comparison is an important contribution to the entire debate, one which will find application in many parts of the world. He seeks to estimate 'pressure' by looking at the trend in the fraction of gross output needed to maintain existing production capacity (or depreciation). In his view, the preponderance of evidence is that late-imperial China was worse off than northern Europe in the eighteenth century and it also lacked the overseas resources that crucially enabled western growth. The conclusion therefore reinforces the older idea of European exceptionalism recently challenged by historians like Pomerantz (2002).

The other large question broached in this book is that of the practical significance of views of nature on the actual history of the environment. Elvin's answer is a simple one: they made no difference. People ravaged their environment in so far as that process yielded resources. Buddhism occasionally 'helped safeguard trees around monasteries'; but in the aggregate and in the long run, the search for power and profit determined what actually happened (pp. 470-71). I feel that there may be significant impacts missed in this sweeping generalisation - especially as regards macro-fauna. Perhaps the appropriate standard of comparison is not northern Europe, but Asia. Indian agrarian civilisation is of approximately the same age as the Chinese and large regions have long been densely peopled. Yet humans coexisted for centuries with wild elephant and tiger populations in the east-central Gangetic plain, although habitat destruction certainly reduced their numbers. The wild peacock is still common in India today, with significant populations even in the heart of the capital, New Delhi. In China, the species has vanished from the south and is confined to the south-western borderlands. Elvin seems to actually credit a Qing source which says that peacock excrement poisons water and causes diarrhea and depression (p. 33)!

On the whole, however, it is hard to fault his conclusion that human beings seeking to sustain their toilsome lives may have disregarded moral axioms and sought short-term advantage regardless of consequences. Nor indeed are these traits confined to the past, as the modern situation on potentially catastrophic global warming shows. Furthermore, today one reads his strictures on limits of 'pre-scientific' engineering (p. 164) with the memory of how the decidedly post-scientific US Army Corps of Engineers could not protect a major US city against a long-predicted Class 4 hurricane in 2005. The same vulnerable sites are today (November 2006) being re-occupied behind reinforced levées while neither local hydrological causes (destruction of buffering wetlands) nor the global issues of sea-level rise and warmer ocean waters are being confronted. Indeed, the institutional structures for the production of "fact" that Elvin sees as having been sadly deficient in early modern China, are being systematically distorted. The Chronicle of Higher Education (8 Sept. 2006) reports that the work of a climate scientist that showed a dramatic rise in global temperatures in the twentieth century was subjected to an official inquisition (10 hours of sworn testimony!) by none other than a U.S. House of Representatives sub-committee with the object of falsifying his inconvenient finding. If we attempt a yet larger comparison between Western and Chinese systems, we cannot but notice that by Elvin's account, it took close on 3000 years for the latter to approach hard limits to sustainable growth: fossil fuel systems have done the same in 250. Over the last century, billions have enjoyed better, fuller and more enriched lives than their ancestors could dream of - but when all the bills for that are paid who knows how the ledgers of the two enterprises will stand?[3]


1Guha, S. 2001. Health and Population in South Asia from Earliest Times to the Present. Permanent Black, Delhi.
2Mann, H.H. 1917. Land and Labour in a Deccan Village I: Pimple Saudagar. University of Bombay, Bombay.
3Pomerantz, K. 2002. Political economy and ecology on the eve of industrialisation: Europe, China and the global conjuncture. American Historical Review 107(2):425-444.