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The Retreat of the Elephants: An Environmental History of China Hardcover – March 10, 2004

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Editorial Reviews

From Scientific American

Who knew that elephant trunk tastes like piglet? Or that more than a millennium ago, a writer declared that Chinese "competed to eat their trunks, the taste of which is said to be fatty and crisp, and to be particularly well suited to being roasted." Elephants, it turns out, once roamed across nearly all of China, as did rhinoceroses. Indeed, for 1,000 years the standard armor worn by Chinese soldiers was made from rhino hide. Yet these days rhinos are completely extinct in China, and elephants linger only in protected enclaves in the far southwest of the country. China being China, everything has been carefully documented, so we know that these large mammals retreated gradually over the past 4,000 years, half a step ahead of smaller, two-legged ones. Mark Elvin, an Australian scholar, brilliantly uses that prolonged elephantine trail of tears as the guiding metaphor for his new book, The Retreat of the Elephants: An Environmental History of China. Frankly, I didn't know that I was interested in the history of Chinese elephants, or that I was yearning for an environmental history of China, until I read this book. But Elvin combines an illuminating account of the 4,000-year-long collision of humans and nature with delightful tidbits about everything under the Chinese sun. One could not have written such an environmental history about, for instance, Britain or Russia. From China's point of view, such countries are modern ingenues with barely any history to speak of. But in China, we hear, for example, that the Duke of Zhou, more than 3,000 years ago, drove "elephants far away" from the Yellow River valley. A record from 548 B.C. describes the ivory trade, and later we begin to get detailed accounts of battles over crops between peasants and elephants in, say, A.D. 962. Of course, just because something has been recorded does not mean it is true. One account from 1608 reports of trained elephants in the Ming Dynasty court: "If an elephant commits an offense, or injures a human, the imperial command will be issued for him to be beaten.... Only when the beating has been concluded will he rise to his feet to give thanks for the favor received.... In the sixth lunar month they are bathed and mated. The coupling takes place in the water with a female who floats with her face upward, in all respects like a human being." Hmmm. Floating face upward? So that's how Ming Dynasty historians made love. Elvin is particularly fascinating on the history of China's long wrestling match with water. Chinese civilization may have evolved out of efforts to irrigate the land, and there is an intriguing record of the quest to tame water and land, which would typically succeed for a while until the water rebelled. The problems were especially acute with the Yellow River, which was not called that in ancient times. Then, a little more than two millennia ago, the Qin and Han dynasties promoted farming along the upper reaches of the river, and the resulting erosion filled the water with sediment that made it muddy and gave it its present name. The sediment raised the riverbed until it was held in place only by man-made dikes that required constant attention--because the water, in essence, flowed aboveground, not below it. Periodically dikes broke, sometimes catastrophically. A flood in 1117 is said to have killed more than one million people, making it perhaps the worst such disaster since Noah. The Yellow River dramatically changed course in 1194, moving to the south of the Shandong Peninsula, until in 1853 it moved north again. Elvin meticulously recounts China's hydrology, so we learn, for example, that between 1195 and 1578 the Yellow River delta advanced only 39 meters a year (as sediment built up), whereas from 1579 to 1591 it advanced 1,538 meters a year. Sometimes the sheer weight of detail is numbing, particularly in later chapters offering case studies within China. Readers without an intrinsic fascination with China may find this a book to browse, not to read cover to cover. But as a window into the history of the Middle Kingdom, and an extended account of human interactions with the environment, this is a magisterial work. What gives this book special resonance is the impact China will have on the global environment in the coming decades. The industrial revolution in the West has been so destructive of nature that we should be wary of what the industrialization of China and India will mean. I congratulate my Chinese friends when they buy their first cars, one after the other, but collectively the result of Chinese industrialization will be to swallow up nonrenewable resources, to increase carbon emissions and presumably global warming, and to send acid rain drizzling down on much of the globe. Yet this book does not really illuminate the road ahead. Elvin tells us that it was originally intended to carry us to the present day, but he ends up pretty much grinding to a halt a couple of hundred years ago. The even more gruesome period since--and, brace yourself, the predations still ahead of us--will have to be the subject of a companion volume. Alas, the Chinese elephants have already been driven to the country's fringe and have nowhere else to go. And unless they figure out how to mate even when the female is not floating faceup in a pool of water, they're really in trouble.

Nicholas D. Kristof is a columnist for the New York Times. He won a Pulitzer Prize for his coverage of China and is co-author, with his wife, Sheryl WuDunn, of China Wakes: The Struggle for the Soul of a Rising Power.


"A classic. . . a work of quite staggering scholarship of a kind that very few historians have achieved in the post-second world war period."

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 592 pages
  • Publisher: Yale University Press; First Edition edition (March 10, 2004)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0300101112
  • ISBN-13: 978-0300101119
  • Product Dimensions: 9.6 x 6.5 x 1.8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 2.2 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (11 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #2,090,883 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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10 of 10 people found the following review helpful By BD on February 6, 2010
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Mark Elvin's book is not really about elephants. The elephants are a symbol for the retreat of nature from China. What the book makes clear is that China's environmental disaster is not a product of the 20th century, but dates back thousands of years when the early dynasties stamped out a culture of hunter-gathering in favor of agriculture and engaged in a deliberate destruction of flora and fauna for economic and political gain. Early Chinese dynasties were damming rivers and carving away mountains long before Mao tse-tung expounded his theories man conquering nature, the Chinese were damming rivers and carving away rivers. The book is not complimentary of Han Chinese culture's attitudes towards the environment. Elvin makes clear that other ethnic groups had more interest in maintaining harmony between man and nature. The research that went into this book is impressive. Elvin quotes extensively from literary sources and even oracle bones to explore Chinese attitudes towards nature. The book doesn't dwell much on what happened after China's economic boom in the late 20th century, but nonetheless goes a long way towards explaining why the Chinese landscape looks the way it does today.
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12 of 15 people found the following review helpful By L. Chang on January 17, 2007
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
This is a landmark book on environmental history that is well-received by many academics (also check out other reviews on the web). For me personally, this books helps me understand today's China's problems better than many other books I've read.

It maybe a stretch for people that to understand today's China, you need to go back to its 3000 years of environmental history. However, this book offers many potential answers to many questions that are still relevant today - e.g. Is China's growth sustainable? Why Chinese people have such relationships with their government? Where does her seemingly in-exhaustible labor pool come from?

The book illuminates the constant struggles between the Chinese population and her environments throughout her 3000 years of written history, with the Chinese state often being the driving force and the subsequent victim when nature eventually fought back. Many such struggles are still being repeated today - for example, the recent push of China to develop its north-west region resembled the same push Chin/Han dynasties started from 300 BC, which resulted in permanent soil erosions that gave yellow river its name and caused numerous disasters downstreams since. The Three Gorges Dam is an extension to the long running tradition of massive state-sponsored hydro-projects trying to control the river in the name for "growth". The list goes on and on...

History is bound to repeat herself if we ignore her. Hopefully this books will not be ignored.
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6 of 7 people found the following review helpful By Paul D. Heikkila on February 13, 2012
Format: Paperback
Let me comment on the reviewers. The academics give the book five stars, and the occasional nay sayer gives it three. They are both right. The book is an academic tour de force, an excursion into anthropological, ecological, demographic, and literary theory. A treasure trove of information for the academically inclined. For the general reader, on the other hand (the reader wondering what to make of the Three Gorges Dam, how many fish remain in the East China Sea, or the fate of the panda), the pickings are rather slim. The subtitle might have mentioned that the history ends with the end of imperial China. The chapters on the Yellow River delta I found particularly confusing. You need a good atlas (Elvin tells you this in the first sentence of the book) but I think it was more than that. I agree with the three star review on this. The chapters on minorities in China's southwest, on the other hand, delve into the history of that colonialism and send me off to my bookshelf to dust off a couple of ethnographies. A very fine piece of scholarship. Some will find it rough going.
Readers might also wish to look at Robert B. Marks, China: Its environment and history, and Judith Shapiro, China's Environmental Challenges. Both works are readable introductions. Shapiro's is brief (too brief at 200 pages, not a single chart or table) but provides a useful guide to internet resources.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful By R. Albin TOP 1000 REVIEWER on December 18, 2010
Format: Paperback
An impressive effort by a highly learned historian to study the impact of and consequences of Chinese civilization's exploitation of the natural environment over the many centuries of Chinese history. The books is organized into 3 sections. The first is Patterns, and arguably most important, is Patterns, a description of the impact of an continuously expanding agricultural civilization on the natural world. The second is Particularities, a set of descriptions of the interactions between Chinese civilization and nature in 3 disparate parts of China. The third is Perceptions, a study of Chinese attitudes, particularly intellectual attitudes towards the natural world.

The basic story, captured by the title, is the gradual expansion of agriculture and the destruction of forests across China. Forest elephants once ranged across much of China. The spread of Chinese agricultural society resulted in habitat destruction and accompanying loss of elephants and many other species. This is hardly unique to China. Hannibal's elephants were native North African forest elephants, long since vanished. A particularly important aspect of the story, which Elvin analyzes quite well, is the relatively large scale of Chinese environmental manipulation. The relative power of even early Chinese states allowed massive hydrological engineering projects which in a set of positive feedbacks, furthered Chinese agricultural development. Elvin also argues that these impressive successes came with considerable costs, not only to the natural environment but also to successive Chinese states.
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