Authors David Fedman, Seeds of Control, and Ian Miller, Fir and Empire, joined forthcoming author Meng Zhang, Timber and Forestry in Qing China, for a virtual roundtable about their books on Asian environmental history. Below is their conversation.
What topics in Asian environmental history deserve more attention?
Meng Zhang: This is based on my own interest, but I would like to see more works that take both the environmental and the economic seriously. Don’t get me wrong—environmental histories often have something to say about the economic, as the rapacious drive for profit and consumption is the most obvious perpetrator to be blamed. However, as more environmental scholars are beginning to caution us, we also need to be wary of a danger in elevating the morality of environmentalism to a degree that this discourse could play a similar role in justifying domination—domestically and internationally—as the previous discourse of modernization and development has done. Indeed, we already see a version of how this could play out in David’s wonderful account of how the Japanese Empire mobilized the rhetorical contrast between the Japanese “forest-love” thought and the Korean bare mountaintops. In both environmental and economic history, I hope to see more works that recognize the legitimacy of alternative interests and priorities and bridge the discursive gap between the two fields (rather than treating each other as a footnote).
David Fedman: Where to begin? To me, one of the most striking gaps in the field is geographic: namely, Southeast Asia. I’d love to see more work on the environmental histories of Indonesia, the Philippines, Laos, and elsewhere. There are, of course, some great books already written about these places but not much work that crosses borders to connect Southeast Asia to the developmental politics of Japan, China, and South Korea. Another topic begging for analysis in my opinion is historical climatology: how different states and actors have tried to understand the variegated climates that define a unit as vast as China or the Japanese Empire.
Ian M. Miller: To me the biggest gaps in the record are the voices of peoples who lived in and used the forest in ways that were not central to the actions of large states and interregional markets. Asia is home to many so-called forest peoples—from Manchus and Ainus in the north to Hmong, Bataks, and many others in Southeast Asia, and the Adivasi or “scheduled tribes” of India. There has been plenty of anthropological work, especially on India and Southeast Asia, but historical work has yet to catch up. In particular, I would like to see more work done to disentangle these groups and their historical identities and livelihoods from the ways they were classified and controlled by colonial empires in the nineteenth century and nation-states in the twentieth.
What misconceptions about East Asian environmental history would you most like to see dispelled?
DF: For me, it’s the notion that Japan has historically lived in harmony with the landscapes, that contemporary reverence for cherry blossoms and forests is evidence of a unique national relationship with nature. Environmental historians of Japan have long taken aim at this discourse, but it dies hard, especially in the public eye.
What needs for timber in late imperial China prompted changes in forestry?
MZ: Construction, shipbuilding, and manufacturing were the main sectors that consumed timber. If we think about the iconic architecture in the urban landscape of early modern China (and East Asia in general)—theaters, guild chambers, temples, ancestral halls, brothels, restaurants, teahouses—all were built with timber logs. The cover design of my book comes from a section of a famous eighteenth-century scroll painting, Prosperous Suzhou, also called Burgeoning Life in a Resplendent Age. As the title suggests, it depicts the lively urban scenes with people from all walks of life in the affluent Lower Yangzi metropole of Suzhou. The section used for my book cover shows two timber rafts floating into the city, supplementing the material bases of this prosperity. In response to such booming demand for timber generated by urbanization, commercialization, and population growth, an interregional trade structure developed over the course of several centuries and expanded to cover thousands of miles, straining natural forests but also motivating regenerative forestry in the remote interior hinterlands. My book has focused on timber production—woods that are big enough to be used for construction and worthwhile enough to be produced and transported across long distances. A big omission is firewood, whose production and consumption remained rather local; even with fuel shortages, high transportation costs meant that firewood had never become worthwhile to transport over very long distances to be used as fuel.
Meng and Ian, your two books examine Chinese forestry in different time periods and with a somewhat different geographical focus, but both suggest that Chinese forest management may have been superior to better-known European approaches. Can you say more about that? To what extent was forestry in late imperial China “sustainable”?
MZ: We often think of the issue of sustainability as either/or, but it really is a gradation of degrees. It also has multiple dimensions: we hope a sustainable pace of resource use is also socially sustainable in that it does not involve the systematic deprivation of a group. From a pragmatic perspective, if the kind of environmental measures that we come up with today can prove to be sustainable, environmentally and socially, for a couple of centuries, I would consider us very able and lucky. The practices of regenerative forestry in late imperial southern China can be called sustainable in this sense: for several centuries, they were able to regenerate timber at a pace that satisfied market and state demands and substituted for natural growths; and the multiple players along the supply chain, from tenant planters and timberland owners to lumberjacks, rafters, brokers, merchants, bankers, consumers, and officials, despite their many conflicts and negotiations, ultimately all had a stake in ensuring the next round of saplings were grown in time.
The way in which private forestry was organized was mundane and ingenious at the same time. It wouldn’t shock any scholar who knows something about late imperial Chinese land tenure that the same contractual formats for rice paddies were used for timberlands. But out of these familiar contractual terms, abstract shares were created and claims on the trees changed hands as liquid financial instruments, liberating the landowners and planters from an excruciating wait for the trees to grow up. This shareholding practice in forestry was in line with (and even anticipated) the proportional liability shareholding structures that were widely used in Chinese business partnerships. If these financial practices sound surprisingly savvy for traditional forestry, one would be even more surprised to learn that they were found in the ethnically diverse, economically less affluent frontier regions of southwestern China. This holds some serious implications for how we think about effective forestry and the history of finance and business in a globally comparative framework. On a personal note, a historian’s happiness really comes from excavating these surprises.
IMM: I would not necessarily say that Chinese forest management was superior to European approaches, because this is ultimately comparing apples to oranges. Compared to European approaches, Chinese management developed in very different environmental conditions and focused on a different type of tree, the China fir (Cunninghamia lanceolata). Some characteristics of the fir—including its incredibly rapid and straight growth and its suitability for a variety of purposes, from ships to buildings and chests—meant that management in China was easier. For example, China fir reaches marketable dimensions in twenty-five to fifty years, as opposed to the hundred-plus years needed for oak, which was the principal European shipbuilding tree.
Nonetheless, I would say that the Chinese forest system converged rather quickly to market-based solutions that eventually came to dominate in other places and largely did so without large state interventions that caused some problems in Europe. The Chinese forestry system also has a much longer track record—tree plantations have been cultivated in parts of southern China for close to a thousand years at this point, whereas the history of tree plantations in Europe only really goes back two hundred years. This speaks to a long-term ability to produce enough timber for most uses. Empires in China did tap their frontiers, including the southwest and Manchuria, to supplement the plantations of the interior, but there is also nothing comparable to this huge European quest for timber abroad in the Americas, Africa, and Asia.
David, Japan is legendary for its history of forestry, also called “forest-love.” How do your new insights about Japanese forestry in Korea reshape that understanding?
DF: I think my book helps to show how much of this mythology about “forest-love” and reverence is an invented tradition, a process bound up with the rise of the nation-state during the Meiji period. Forest-love is not so much a timeless culture of stewardship as a discourse, one used to nurture emperor-worship and nationalism at home and justify woodland expropriation in colonial territories. This ideological project sat at the very foundation of Japan’s claims to greenification in Korea—and, one could argue, continue to animate more recent incursions into the forests of Southeast Asia.
How can your book inform global conversations around conservation as a tool of colonialism—“seeds of control”?
DF: My book underscores the simple but easily overlooked point that the greening of landscapes is not always a singularly good thing. Although we tend to positively associate greenification with notions of investment and renewal, reforestation can also operate as a tool of expropriation and exploitation. At a time when scientists and activists are calling for massive tree planting schemes to combat climate change, we’d be wise to think more critically about what this breakneck regeneration looks like on the ground for local residents, human and animal both.
What does the study of plantation forestry in particular offer to the study of Asia or environmental history writ large? We all seem to be writing about forest regeneration in one way or another, and I wonder if our collective works don’t offer new perspectives on what some are calling the “plantationocene.”
IMM: This is a really interesting question. I had not heard plantationocene before, and it took me down a very interesting rabbit hole. My perspective on it is this relates to the ways that people have been talking about the anthropocene, which I think are flawed but useful conversation points. There is one definition of the anthropocene—massive human modification of the environment—that starts in deep antiquity. It goes something like this: humans have been modifying grasslands in intensive ways for something like five to ten thousand years, starting with the domestication of grains (which are grasses) and ruminant animals (which eat grasses). There is another definition of the anthropocene that starts with modernity. It goes something like this: humans have been causing indelible changes to biogeochemical cycles for one or two centuries—going back either to the layer of fallout from nuclear weapons in the 1940s and ’50s, or the first large-scale use of coal in the 1800s. Both of those are useful markers of large scale anthropogenic environmental change.
But there is another change point that we need to talk about, which is more or less the watershed of the early modern. Jason Moore has called this the capitolocene and thinks it is about the new ways that markets are interlinked coming out of the Middle Ages. Charles Mann has called it the homogenocene and ties it to Alfred Crossby’s work on the Columbian Exchange, in that 1492 was the first moment since deep prehistory when the American and Afro-Eurasian continents were closely linked and transferred species between them. These are both useful. But there is a third transition that ties them together: the historical moment when intensive human cultivation of things that we might call plantations begin to spread from farms (domesticated grasslands) to forests (domesticated woodlands). This plantationocene comes to a fever pitch in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries with the spread of things like rubber, palm oil, coffee, and so on, but I think it begins with the types of plantations that the three of us are talking about in our books.
David Fedman is assistant professor of history at the University of California, Irvine and the author of Seeds of Control: Japan’s Empire of Forestry in Colonial Korea.
Ian M. Miller is assistant professor of history at St. John’s University and author of Fir and Empire: The Transformation of Forests in Early Modern China.
Meng Zhang is assistant professor of history at Loyola Marymount University and author of Timber and Forestry in Qing China: Sustaining the Market.