Abstracts from Resilience, Response, and Reclamation in the Ecology and Environment of Greater China


Rural Resilience in the Chengdu Plain: a Multi-scale Perspective

Daniel B. Abramson, Associate Professor, Urban Design and Planning, University of Washington

Shuang Wu, PhD Candidate, Urban Design and Planning, University of Washington

This paper reports on agrarian communities and agroecosystems in the Chengdu Plain, Sichuan, China.  We focus on changes in the cultural value, socio-ecological function, and spatial distribution of a unique agricultural landscape and settlement form: the “wooded lots” or linpan, which combine forest, farmlands and farm dwellings in a patchy, biodiverse and remarkably scattered pattern across a densely populated and exceptionally productive region, including China’s largest irrigation and flood control system, the Dujiangyan Irrigation District.  For more than two millennia, this system has demonstrated long-term high productivity and resiliency; it has supported some of China’s largest, earliest, and most stable urban centers without experiencing the kind of environmental degradation seen in other long- and densely-settled irrigated landscapes in China.  While the precise origin of the linpan settlement form and its functional relation to water management over the centuries are still a topic of research, preliminary findings suggest strong feedback loops and adaptive interaction across multiple scales of change in ecological, governance and market systems (Whiting et al 2018). Within the past two decades, however, national-scale rapid urbanization policies and the expansion of Chengdu city itself, threaten the continued viability of the linpan landscape.  In this paper, we build on earlier methodological work reported to this group in 2015 (Tippins 2015), which focused on field and settlement-scale agricultural landscape land use and settlement morphology in four cases of rural development in Pi County (reincorporated in 2016 as Pidu District).  Since then, we have augmented the study with household socio-economic surveys, the addition of new cases elsewhere in the same county, and qualitative observations of changing developmental and environmental policies at local and regional scales.  In the past decade, the region has undergone a policy shift -- largely corresponding with the transition from the Hu Jintao-Wen Jiabao administration to that of Xi Jinping and Li Keqiang -- from supporting rural development through a “hard” Socialist New Countryside Construction program of new concentrated housing and built facilities and infrastructure, to an emphasis on “softer” “Rural Revitalization” that emphasizes internet- and cellular-network-based governance and marketing, new forms of land rights transaction and investment, and leaves the landscape and settlement form more physically intact at certain scales.  Most notably, in 2017, the municipality of Chengdu adopted a policy to limit the westward expansion of Chengdu’s built area in the historically most productive agricultural land in the Plain. Our most recent survey sites – three administrative villages in Saodaoyan Town, Pidu, illustrate many of these trends with special sharpness.  Sandaoyan is within Chengdu’s drinking water source protection area so the government restricts any polluting activities within the buffer zone, including dwelling sites. Under this circumstance, ‘organic farming’ is advertised and encouraged to replace the traditional crop cultivation, but the traditional scattered linpan dwellings become uninhabitable. Interviews with farmers reveal their attitudes toward organic farming and e-business (e.g. online selling and shopping), opportunities and challenges of organic farming for local communities, and preservation of traditional settlements. 


Fire Fences and Corridors in China’s Fire History:  Tools, Policies, and Social and Ecological Resilience and Effects in Sichuan and Heilongjiang Forest Regions

Jack Hayes, Associate Professor, Chinese History & Asian Studies, Kwantlen Polytechnic University & University of British Columbia

This paper will examine the influence of wildfire and forestry institutions on management and forest resilience over time in northeastern and southwestern China.  It draws on research from a multi-ownership (or occupation), high frequency fire, and policy and natural systems approach (CHANS) and social-ecological resiliency studies.  Using three primary examples of forestry and firefighting brigades (state institutions), land management groups (national forest, regional government, and local practices), and medium and large scale fires, it attempts to create a historical (1950s-2015) social-ecological history framework to better unpack how tools, policies, and ecosystems interact in modern China’s diverse fire regimes.  With reference to several large scale fires, complex relationship of institutions and their forestry practices, local communities, and policies linked to the Daxing’an forest region and western Sichuan’s Kangding and Aba Prefectures, the paper seeks to unpack how these regions have both dealt with frequent fire events as well as the relative recovery of burned over areas over time (ie. relative recovery of ecosystems).   

As a coda to my abstract:

Ideally, (this is a paper I am currently writing/working on) this historical perspective can facilitate broad-scale, adaptive responses to wildfire-related ecological feedbacks in three ways:  by (1) providing insight into how informal institutions and  institutional history interacted in China with formal institutions to influence wildfire management behavior, (2) by providing a historical baseline and system stages that contextualize current management behavior, ecological conditions, and policy options, and (3) by illuminating historical  sources of variation among forest management/control and how they might be addressed in a warming climate with increasing frequency of fires and scale of damage.


From ‘Humanity is Destined to Conquer Nature’ to ‘Building an Ecological Civilization.’  Development, Revolution, and Science in the Ideology of the Communist Party

Stevan Harrell, Retired Professor, Anthropology, University of Washington

Natural science is one of humanity’s weapons in its fight for freedom. In order to achieve freedom in society, [one] must use social science to understand society, to reshape society and to carry out social revolution. In order to achieve freedom in the world of nature, [one] must use natural science to understand nature, overcome nature and reshape nature.

Mao Zedong, Speech at the Inaugural Meeting of the Natural Science Research Society of the Shann-Gan-Ning Border Region, 1940.

Upon its victory in 1947-50, the Chinese Communist Party set about the task of reconstructing the war-torn country, both socially and physically, fixing and transforming both the disorder-prone social system and the disaster-prone ecosystem. To accomplish this monumental task, the Communists adopted a strategy based on three important concepts: development, revolution, and science.

This chapter examines these concepts in detail, and hints at how their use led to the increased vulnerability of social-ecological systems, then goes on to analyze the current concept of “ecological civilization” and the way it relates to the three original concepts of development, revolution, and science.


Urban Chinese Childrearing and Social-Ecological Resilience

Rob Efird, Professor, Anthropology; Asian Studies, Seattle University

In a growing number of urban, middle-class Chinese families, nature has become an important part of nurture. Partly in response to non-Chinese research and writing on the negative developmental impacts of nature deprivation (including “nature deficit disorder” [Louv 2005]), urban Chinese parents are placing a greater priority on ensuring nature contact (ziran jiechu) for their young children as a means of fostering healthy physical, emotional and social development. This goal is both emphasized and satisfied by an increasing number of nature education (ziran jiaoyu) providers outside of the formal education system, including so-called “nature schools” (ziran xuexiao). Although nature education often differs from formal, school-based environmental education is stressing the health and well-being of the child rather than the health of the ecosystem, research suggests that early childhood nature exposure is an important precursor of adult care for the environment, care that in turn builds ecological resilience by fostering attentiveness to ecological change and action for ecological integrity. In addition, the social dimensions of much nature education are explicitly intended to teach singleton children traits such as selflessness, compassion and teamwork, attributes that contribute to social resilience. In this sense, nature education has the potential to contribute to the strengthening of social-ecological resilience in urban China. This paper presentation will discuss the rise of nature education in China, its connection to childrearing practices, and the potential for nature education to contribute to social-ecological resilience. 


Embodiment and Politics of Memory in the Aftermath of Sino-Soviet Split

Guldana Salimjan, Sessional Lecturer, Institute for Gender, Race, Sexuality, and Social Justice, University of British Columbia 

Immediately after the Sino-Soviet split in 1962, nomadic pastoral Kazakhs in Tarbagatai border area were forcefully relocated to make room for Xinjiang Production and Construction Corp’s mission of building border defense farms and ranches. This paper demonstrates contested politics of memory and discourse regarding landscape in local language, embodied practice, and state development agenda. Although the place is imbued with the violence of military occupation, displacement, and ethnic conflicts, memories of lived experience, collective encounters, and being on the land also dwell there. The sentiments of loss and nostalgia are passed on through memoir constructing a “steppe civilization” (dala madenyet), family storytelling of relocation and separation, or folk songs composed by diaspora émigré to Kazakhstan. These memories are embodied and disseminated via sensorial experience of grassland flora, naming practices, and revisiting ancestral places. As a response to the overwhelmingly silencing economic agenda of the region, these embodied practices also speak to family histories and constitute one voice to recapture history and reclaim, “We were here once, and we are still here.”


The Rise and Fall of Hydraulic Engineering in Early Imperial China: Evidence from Early Historiography

Luke Habberstad, Assistant Professor, East Asian Languages and Literatures; Religious Studies, University of Oregon

 Scholars have long used early Chinese water control efforts as illustrative examples when drawing links between the political cultures of early states and their ability (or lack thereof) to mobilize labor. The political and rhetorical debates surrounding early water control efforts, however, generally receive far less attention. This paper presents an initial attempt at studying such debates, noting at the outset that water control receives uneven treatment in imperial historiography: the subject first appears in the “Treatise on the Yellow River and its Canals” (He qu shu 河渠書) of the Shiji 史記 (comp. ca. 86 BCE) and then in the “Treatise on Ditches and Canals” (Gou xu zhi 溝洫志) of the Hanshu 漢書 (comp. ca. 100 CE), but after the Han period hydraulic engineering as a distinct category falls out of imperial histories, not to reappear until the Song period. Why? Why did water control receive such close analysis during the Western Han, Xin, and Eastern Han, only to disappear later? The factors are complex, but this paper argues, via a close analysis of the water control treatises in the Shiji and Hanshu, that part of the answer lies in a growing understanding of the costs associated with hydraulic engineering. Specifically, whereas the Shiji celebrates water control as an example of the capacity of unified empire to realize stunning benefits for a large population, the Hanshu sounds a note of caution regarding the capacity of the imperial court to determine whether a given water control project will in fact be beneficial, since the long-term consequences of a dam or dike are so difficult to determine. Given these problems, the Hanshu argues that decisions about water control should be made not by hydraulic engineering experts, whose calculations are unreliable at best, but rather by the best, most morally cultivated men at court. The early history of hydraulic engineering in China, then, is less a story about the state’s capacity to marshal resources, and more a complicated tale about shifts in the understanding of hydraulic engineering as an arena of knowledge.


China’s Air Pollution Crisis: Science, Policy, and Citizen Engagement

Bryan Tilt, Professor, Anthropology, Oregon State University

China’s air pollution crisis, which has profound effects on the environment and human health, has attracted a great deal of scientific and media attention both domestically and internationally. Over the past few years, air-quality monitoring data in many Chinese cities has actually shown marked and sustained improvement. In this paper, I outline past trends in the air pollution crisis and examine emerging research to discuss what the future may hold. I provide an in-depth analysis of the various measures – including scientific and technological innovation in key sectors such as energy, top-down policy initiatives, and citizen engagement – that are integral to the emissions reductions now being achieved. I discuss these findings in the context of theoretical literature on socio-ecological resilience and consider the implications for the control of air pollution in China today and into the future.


Growing Intervention: State-led Agricultural Modernization, Resilience, and the Limits of Agroecological Reform in China

Ross Doll, Visiting Scholar, Geography, Clark University, PhD Candidate, Geography, University of Washington

At the start of the new century, China’s central government initiated an ambitious campaign to overhaul its grain production system. Predicated on improving peasant livelihoods, agricultural production efficiency, and food security and safety, the state has channeled hundreds of billions of dollars to rural governments, earmarked to develop the landscape for large-scale farming, usher in dahu (large farming firms), and “liberate” peasants to pursue off-farm labor. Ruilin, a rice-growing township in southern Anhui Province, was in 2007 named one of the first sites for agricultural modernization reform. Based on 10 months of ethnographic fieldwork in Ruilin, I find that many conditions there reflect the state’s reform aims: grading has been completed on over 90% of arable land; over 70% of peasants have leased their land to 130 dahu. Other developments signal the influence of more recent “green” reform goals: the largest landholding dahu engages in integrated rice-crayfish-solar farming, while others are preparing to transition to organic produce. Yet the township government produced these results by coercing unwilling peasants into leasing their farm land. Among the dispossessed include traditional leaders. Unable to form unions, dahu have struggled in the face of rising costs and declining prices. A key exception, the largest dahu, receives extensive township financial support. Applying a resilience theory analytical framework, I argue that modernization holds the potential to improve Ruilin’s crop diversity and decrease commercial input dependence. But this has been achieved at the cost of reduced social connectivity, knowledge capital and governing autonomy. These unsustainable gains reflect the authoritarian-biopolitical techniques through which they were enacted, and suggest a governing rationale and system at odds with creating resilient agroecosystems.


Big Is Modern: The Making of Wuhan as a Mega-City in Early Twentieth Century China

Zhiguo Ye, Assistant Professor, History, Acting Director Asian Studies, Seattle Pacific University

Today China has the largest number of mega cities and its obsession with “big” supersized cities has shaped and continues to shape modern urban environments in China. This history study examines the governmental efforts to make the mega city of “Great Wuhan” and the unexpected ecological pressure and social resistances the project caused in the first half of twentieth century. The making of “Great Wuhan” required emerging three independent towns: Wuchang, Hankou and Hanyang into one gigantic socioeconomic entity and led to forcible changes to urban landscape, functions and community life. The supersize of the planned city became a subject of a long drawn-out quarrel among municipal, provincial, and county officials, local leaders, and villagers. The resistance also came from the fact the artificial geopolitical configuration often meant aggressive land reclamation and ignoring “natural” boundaries set by rivers, lakes and mountains, and associated local community’s wisdom. This study hence contextualizes and historicizes the social, political and ecological tensions developed around China’s urban development.  


Traditional Medicines in a Global Economy: Resource Sustainability and Resilience in the Traditional Tibetan Medical Practice of Substitution

Denise M. Glover, Visiting Assistant Professor, Sociology and Anthropology, Asian Studies Program, University of Puget Sound

Nearing the end of the second decade of substantial growth in the traditional medicines industry in China, concerns about the sustainability of natural resources utilized in the industry are only increasing. Increased public interest in consumption of Tibetan medicine, starting perhaps with the SARS epidemic in 2003 (Craig and Adams 2008), along with increased marketing has created an uptick in production throughout the country, with government statistics citing a 129% annual increase in the first years of the early 2000s (Saxer 2013). A key issue is that baseline understandings related to resource strain are not well established. In other words, are we at a crisis moment, or on the verge of such a moment, in terms of the environments in which many of these natural resources occur, or in terms of the species populations themselves? With the exception of endangered species, we do not have a full enough picture yet, in part because the dispersal of resources used in traditional medicines in the context of China is quite expansive. But it is clear that increased medicine production and thus extensive harvesting and over-harvesting, and other factors such as climate change, are having some key effects in moving towards a possible future state of disequilibrium. In this paper I explore the practice of substitution (tshab) in Tibetan medicine formulation as a resilient, adaptive strategy utilized historically and currently in times of resource scarcity (and used now especially in relation to endangered species). Due to the value of substitution as a practice of resilience, it is argued that the medical standardization process must be adjusted to allow for such flexibility of resource use, in order to avoid a precipitous collapse of resources and/or to respond to pre-collapse fluctuations in resource availability.