By MIKE IVES
Rogue trappers and poachers. An imperial court battling corruption. Border guards defending a giant wall and patrolling a vast wilderness beyond.
This is not “Game of Thrones,” but “A World Trimmed With Fur: Wild Things, Pristine Places, and the Natural Fringes of Qing Rule,” a new book by the historian Jonathan Schlesinger that analyzes the complex relationships among the exploitation of natural resources, environmental regulation and ethnic identity under the ruling Manchus of the Qing dynasty, China’s last.
Mr. Schlesinger, a scholar of imperial China at Indiana University in Bloomington, studied Manchurian and Mongolian archives to track the trade in furs, pearls and mushrooms across the Qing empire’s borderlands in the 18th and 19th centuries. He writes that Qing rulers created protected areas and limited harvests in response to environmental degradation and to reflect imperial politics that linked Manchu and Mongolian identity with a romanticized vision of unspoiled nature.
“The empire did not preserve nature in its borderlands; it invented it,” Mr. Schlesinger writes in the introduction. “The book documents the history of this invention and explores the environmental pressures and institutional frameworks that informed it.” In an interview, he discussed how Qing officials managed natural resources, their influence on conservation in contemporary China and the parallels between early conservation policies in China and the West.
You write that Qing officials alternated between arresting people for extracting resources and setting up licensing systems for these activities. Which approach did they settle on?
The Qing court actually never quite settled on a single approach. Instead, its responses depended on the locality and the resource. In some cases, as with timber production in Mongolia, the court endorsed a licensing plan that could better control and capitalize on trade. In other cases, the court took the opposite approach and banned production altogether, as during Mongolia’s rush for wild mushrooms, when the court feared widespread poaching and undocumented migration were destroying the environment and Mongol way of life.
Many historians argue that Chinese statecraft embraced a more pro-development attitude towards resource exploitation in these years. The real story is a bit more complicated. Preservationist policies often won out.
Was there any germ in these policies of what we would now consider “environmentalism”?
Yes, I think, but with caveats. There are some important differences between Qing environmental thought and our own. Qing subjects aimed to save their empire and its constituent parts, not the planet. They never justified their positions in terms of the sciences. They also lacked any umbrella organization or agency dedicated to managing the environment. In all of these respects, there are significant differences between modern environmentalism and what was practiced in the Qing world.
That said, I do think, and try to show in the book, that many of the practices and concepts that were operative in the Qing — for example, the ways the court organized policies around “purity” in Mongolia and the idea of “nurturing the mussels” in Manchuria — were in many ways congruent with what you see in other parts of the world in the 19th century. In the Qing, ethnic identity profoundly informed environmental politics, and Qing officials justified environmental protection in part as a way of defending the Manchu and Mongol homelands — just as many in the German-speaking world saw nature protection as a pathway to redemption for the German “Volk,” and Americans called for national parks to preserve the country’s national spirit. This powerful connection between identity and environment is not unique to modern Western environmentalism. It has a more complicated past.
You say we should think about environmental history outside a Western paradigm.
Sometimes it’s easy to think that the environmental history of the West is the standard by which we should measure environmental histories of other places, and I just don’t think that’s the appropriate method for understanding the history of the Qing empire. Now, I do think there are fruitful comparisons between what was going on in Europe or the Qing empire at the time. But I don’t necessarily think we should measure the Qing solely using terminology or models that we assume to be universal, but that in fact derive from and best describe European or American history.
Does this history hold any lessons for modern China?
One of the lessons is that there’s no place in China, or in countries around China, where there is unspoiled, pristine nature. If something appears to be unspoiled and pristine, chances are it’s because someone worked to make it that way at some point in time, and people have consistently worked to make it that way.
Which protected lands in China are you thinking of?
I think of Changbaishan. It’s this volcano on the border between North Korea and China, and the Manchus considered the lake inside the crater at the top to be holy territory. It was special because it was the birthplace of the Manchus. The court had special rules on collecting ginseng or trapping sable or other fur-bearing animals on the mountain. When British explorers first climbed the mountain in the late 1800s and early 1900s, they referred to it as untouched and unspoiled nature.
In fact, it was very much touched. People had been poaching on the land, but the court had been using its resources to protect that territory. The People’s Republic of China has converted this space into a nature reserve. They are in many ways picking up where the Qing left off.