China’s Assault on the Environment

In 1956 Chairman Mao wrote the poem “Swimming,” about a dam to be built across the Yangtze River. This is its second stanza:

A magnificent project is formed. The Bridge, it flies! Spanning
North and South, and a Natural Barrier becomes a thoroughfare.
A rocky dam shall stand athwart the western river,
Cutting asunder the mists, and rains, of Wushan
Until the precipitous gorges yield a lake of tranquillity.
The Goddess, should she remain alive today, shall yet marvel
at changes in the world.1

The poem distills the Chairman’s heaven-storming attitude toward nature, the attitude that, as Judith Shapiro eloquently and persuasively shows in her new book, so heavily damaged the Chinese environment that it seems to me, although not quite to Ms. Shapiro, that much of the air, water, forests, and grasslands may not recover. Mao’s fatal defiance of the natural world is summed up in his slogan Ren ding shengtian (“Man Must Conquer Nature”), which in the Fifties and Sixties found further expression in countless Soviet-style posters of muscular young men and women striking heroic attitudes as they smashed their way through mountains and across rivers, overcoming everything in their path. Mao’s slogan contradicted the traditional notion of Tianren heyi (“Harmony Between Nature and Mankind”), depicted in Sung, Yuan, and Ming dynasty paintings in which lakes, rivers, and mountains dwarf tiny figures calmly enjoying their natural surroundings.

Shapiro makes three big points. First, although Mao unquestionably bears a heavy responsibility for the destructive assault on the Chinese environment in the second half of the twentieth century, he had plenty of help, not just from his comrades in the leadership but from ordinary people and intellectuals who either hoped that conquering nature would make their lives better or were afraid of what happened to those who disagreed with the Chairman. Secondly, for centuries Chinese farmers felled forests, stripped and terraced hillsides, and dammed, channeled, and polluted their streams and rivers. Finally, while the notion of overcoming nature is less urgently ideological in post-Mao China, environmental degradation has continued apace during the reformist drive to get rich by almost any means. Although there has been considerable economic growth during these years, many of the gains are open to question and require detailed scrutiny.

Judith Shapiro, who teaches environmental politics at American University and lectures on the subject to Chinese audiences, made her reputation as coauthor of Son of the Revolution with her then husband, Liang Heng.2 The book told the story of Liang’s childhood and youth and the destruction of his family during the Cultural Revolution. In After the Nightmare and Cold Winds, Warm Winds, Sha-piro and Liang described the plight of Chinese intellectuals in the post-Mao years. Now, in Mao’s War Against Nature, Shapiro has chosen Communist China’s assault on the environment as her new theme. One of her examples of Maoist and post-Maoist hubris is the Three Gorges Dam across the Yangtze River, which Chinese and foreign critics…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your account.