Education About Asia: Online Archives

Teaching China’s Environment: Beyond the Three Gorges

Back to search results
Download PDF
photo montage of a man on a small boat on the river with a large steamboat
Photo montage created with two images courtesy of ImagineChina.
ImagineChina photo captions:
1. A ship passes the Three Gorges permanent ship lock, June 16, 2003. Lesser Three Gorges, Wushan county, Chongqing.
2. The Little Three Gorges in Wushan refers to the three separate valleys of the Daning River, namely Dragon-Gate Gorge, Misty Gorge, and Emerald Gorge. ©2004 ImagineChina

China’s environment is increasingly in the news. The controversy over the Three Gorges Dam comes immediately to mind—but think too of major flooding on the Yangtze River, dust storms that blow from the Gobi Desert over the Pacific Ocean as far as North America, and the environmental theme of Beijing’s 2008 Olympics bid, among many other pressing concerns. From local pollution caused by rural enterprises producing for export markets to the effects of China’s coal consumption on global climate change, the fate of China’s environment is both alarming and tremendously important to global sustainability. Furthermore, as human ecologist Baruch Boxer puts it, China’s environmental experience is “perhaps the world’s best case study” of the possibilities for environmental sustainability in a context of rapid social, economic, and political change.

Nevertheless, China’s environment is typically overshadowed by other topics in both the Asian studies and environmental studies curricula. An informal survey of more than a dozen recent syllabi on political ecology, environmental geography, and environmental anthropology courses in the US revealed the use of almost no material about China. The long-standing trend of “Chinese exceptionalism,” in which China is understood as completely unique (in contrast to case studies from other countries, which are more easily accepted as part of the general literature) may have fostered the misperception that little research has been published on China’s environment. In fact, many educational resources are available.

Tony Saich’s recent textbook, Governance and Politics of China, identifies environmental problems as the first of four major challenges that China faces in the twenty-first century. Just as China should be more fully integrated into environmental studies curricula, the environment also should, and can, have a much more significant presence in courses on Chinese history, politics, and society. Teaching on China’s environment—whether as a significant component of classes in Chinese studies, environmental studies, or in its own right—remains rare, but with growing interest among students and faculty this is starting to change.

photo of lush mountains and a village at the base of them
Guilin’s trademark karst mountains—one among the many varied landscapes across China. Photo by Karen Kristiansson.

This article draws on our experience leading a col­lege seminar on “China’s Environment: History, Policy, and Sustainability” at UC Berkeley. Among the tasks we faced in designing the seminar were balancing theory with specific case studies, linking histor­ical and contemporary perspectives, and providing enough background material to engage students from diverse academic backgrounds (our class included stu­dents from thirteen majors and programs). Limiting the number of topics and sources was another challenge. We decided to focus most of the seminar on recent publica­tions about several different natural resources, while stu­dents pursued additional topics of interest by writing and presenting research papers and compiling annotated bibliographies. Among the topics they chose to explore were industrial pollution, international water conflicts, urbanization, wind power, and biogas energy. Here we present our suggestions for accessible readings, videos, and Web sites that may help introduce important issues of China’s environment into the broader curriculum.


Students arrive with a range of mental images of China’s environment. We found a slide show to be an effective and fun way to engage with their preconceived notions while intro­ducing the general topic. Our aim was to broaden students’ understandings of the incredible variation of climate, land cover, and population density across the world’s third largest coun­try, as well as to emphasize cultural, ethnic, and historical specificity at a smaller scale. Assembling both our own and colleagues’ photographs gave us a set of images with wide regional coverage as well as historical depth (We were fortunate to be able to cover a period of more than twenty years, thus illustrating changes from the Maoist period through econom­ic reform.). Students may find additional images in illustrated features in the New York Times, National Geographic, and a plethora of Web sites as well as in Mao-era books and periodicals.

Maps and electronic atlases such as ERIM International’s CD-ROM “China: the Envi­ronment” invite students to explore China’s spatial variations. One striking aspect of China’s geography introduced this way is the imaginary Aihui-Tenchong line. Roughly paralleling the 450 mm isohyet that forms the outer boundary of settled agriculture, the line divides China into approximately equal halves. West of the line lie most of China’s high mountains but only six percent of the population. To balance the standard treatment of China that high­lights only the eastern seaboard and interior, we emphasized throughout the course that most of China’s unexploited natural resources are found in the west, in areas historically occupied by non-Han peoples. Geographical approaches to China are also suggested in a 1999 Educa­tion About Asia article by Robert McColl.

For book-length introductions to the range of China’s environmental challenges, Vaclav Smil’s texts have been mainstays in the field since the publication of The Bad Earth in 1984; his latest text is China’s Past, China’s Future: Energy, Food, Environment (2004). Another general survey of China’s environment is Richard Louis Edmonds’ Patterns of China’s Lost Harmony: a Survey of the Country’s Environmental Degradation and Protection (1994).

More important to our class was Edmonds’ edited volume, Managing the Chinese Envi­ronment (2000). Previously published as a special issue of The China Quarterly, this collec­tion of essays provides a good sampling of China’s environmental issues and the political structures that manage them. The Woodrow Wilson Center’s China Environment Series pro­vided a number of policy-oriented pieces, including a lucid and concise article by Kenneth Lieberthal that introduces the structure of the Chinese government and explains how that structure can complicate the implementation of environmental laws.

We spent one intense week toward the beginning of the semester introducing students to several different theoretical frameworks, and then did our best to make connections throughout the semester between this theory and specific cases. (While some students found this immersion in theory quite helpful, others were somewhat overwhelmed. An alternative would be to introduce different theoretical frameworks gradually throughout the semester.) Along with the perspectives of institutional politics and environ­mental history, we found political ecology to be particularly useful. Broadly speaking, we understand political ecology to be a conceptu­al tool-kit and a theoretical framework that calls for an integration of political economy, cultural politics, and ecology in the analysis and understanding of environmental phenomena. Key themes in political ecology include access to and control over natural resources (including property rights), competing perceptions and cultural constructions of nature and the environment, and the effects of expanding markets on natural resource use. All of these themes are clearly important in each of the natural resource sectors in China, and material that falls broadly within the political ecology framework has been published on each.

illustration of a man with a shovel and his arm up
“Man can conquer nature” Propaganda Artists Group, Shanghai 1976.
Courtesy of University of Westminster, Chinese Poster Collection.


Theories of interactions between Chinese society and the environ­ment have a long legacy. Classical concepts warranting mention include Karl Wittfogel’s hydraulic despotism and G. William Skin­ner’s regional and cyclical model. The 1967-68 debate between Lynn White, Jr. (writing in Science) and Yi-Fu Tuan (in Canadian Geographer) engaged students with the question of whether tradi­tional Chinese society promoted a less damaging effect on the environment than Christian culture and Western technology (Tuan argues no, and our later read­ings lend support to his argument.).

More recently, two useful texts have been published on different aspects of China’s environmental history. One is Sediments of Time: Environment and Society in Chinese History (1998). Edited by Mark Elvin and Liu Ts’ui-jing, this volume comprises twenty-one articles ranging from environmental records of the Tang dynasty through modern village environmental histories. Another text to consider is Judith Shapiro’s Mao’s War on Nature (2001), which discusses the devastating environmental destruction of the Mao years. While political ecologists may quibble with Shapiro over some aspects of her analysis, the material she presents on Maoist rhetoric of “attacking nature,” the “Learn from Dazhai campaign,” and the persecution of scientists who questioned dam-building and population policies high­lights a crucial piece of modern Chinese history that has been ignored for too long. Shapiro writes in a style easily accessible to an undergraduate audience.

photo of a pile of cut logs
Logs in Diqing prefecture, Yunnan, summer 1998.
Photo by Emily Yeh.

A recent spurt of writing on Chinese environmental history gives instructors a long list of other materials from which to choose. Among recent monographs are Nicholas Menzies’ Forest and Land Management in Imperial China (1994), Robert B. Marks’ Tigers, Rice, Silk and Silt (1998), and Mark Elvin’s epic The Retreat of the Elephants (2004).


Our seminar allocated the most time to land-based resources—particularly forests, cropland, and grasslands. For all three, prop­erty rights and land tenure figured as important concepts for understanding competing claims about resource conservation and degradation.

We found that a fun way to draw students into the topic of forestry was to introduce China’s new Natural Forest Protection Program. Popularly known as “the logging ban,” the program was launched in 1998 in response to devastating floods on the lower reaches of the Yangtze River. Students read a short article by Zhang et al., from the Chinese government’s perspective, along with a dissenting view by Xu et al., and a rebuttal, all of which appeared in Science. A 2004 volume pub­lished by the China Council for International Cooperation on Environment and Development (CCICED) Task Force on Forests and Grasslands adds case studies on both the Natural Forest Protection Program and a related afforestation project, the Sloping Land Conversion Program. This debate provoked our students to engage with questions about policy implementa­tion, the landscape practices of China’s non-Han minorities, land tenure, the “tragedy of the commons,” the reliability of Chinese statistics, and the rela­tionship between population and environment.

photo of a temple overlooking many fields
Terraced farmland created after the wetlands surrounding the edges of Lake Dianchi, near Kunming, Yunnan, were filled in during the Mao-era campaign to “encircle the sea, create farmland.” Photo by Nicholas Menzies.

Debate also enlivened our discussion of cropland—this time pitting Lester Brown’s 1995 booklet Who Will Feed China? against researchers who dispute Brown’s alarmism about China’s growing grain consumption and declining availability of cropland. A special issue of Food Policy pre­sents numerous arguments against Brown’s methods and conclusions. Rele­vant here are questions about urbanization and loss of cropland, projections of future food demand, and the accuracy of current government data on arable land. This debate about the availability of cropland then lends itself nicely to a discussion about changes in land tenure from collectivization and the Mao era “Learn from Dazhai” campaign through the present tenta­tive moves toward privatization.

Dee Mack Williams’ ethnographic study of pastoralists, Beyond Great Walls: Environment, Identity and Development on the Chinese Grasslands of Inner Mongolia (2000), was especially appreciated by our students for discussing environment-society relations in a non-Han region of China with a theoretically sophisticated yet readable style. Williams masterfully weaves together key themes in political ecology, including competing perceptions of degra­dation; privatization and enclosure; critical analyses of scientific narratives; and the cultural politics of landscapes. Graham Clarke’s edited volume Development, Society, and Environ­ment in Tibet (1998) was also well received for its coverage of Tibetan regions.

Chris Coggins’ new book The Tiger and the Pangolin: Nature, Culture and Conserva­tion in China (2003) fills an important gap with its historical and contemporary perspectives on the political ecology of wildlife conservation and resource management. Another recent contribution on this topic is the video documentary Mystery of Yunnan Snub-nosed Monkey, produced by two prominent Chinese environmentalists, Shi Lihong and Xi Zhinong, through their new company, Wild China Films. Available in English on VCD, this documentary is somewhat romantic in its portrayal of wildlife and conservation, but is also groundbreaking as one of the first documentaries about China’s environment produced within China to date.

photo of a thin wire fence in a field
Fencing on the pastures of Hongyuan county, Aba prefecture, Sichuan, summer 1998. Photo by Emily Yeh.


The international debate over China’s construction of the world’s largest dam has been at the forefront of public consciousness about China’s environment for over a decade. Patience Berkman offers maps and lesson plans on the Three Gorges Dam controversy in her 1998 Education About Asia article. We showed the video Great Wall Across the Yangtze, featuring journalist Dai Qing and other dam opponents from abroad as well as a few statements in favor of the dam from Chinese offi­cials. The companion book The River Dragon Has Come! (1998) addresses the same arguments in greater depth.

With the completion of the Three Gorges Dam structure in the summer of 2003, much of the debate has become moot. Nonetheless, China’s dam-builders have set their sights on many other rivers, such as the Nujiang and Lancangjiang (Salween and Mekong), raising many of the same concerns about the environmental and social costs and benefits of dams. The legacy of past dams is treated in Shapiro’s Mao’s War on Nature, while students found present-day dam building to be a fruitful topic for online research into news sources and organizations such as the International Rivers Network, Rivers Watch East and Southeast Asia, and the World Bank.

Urban water supplies and water pollution are also of pressing concern to Chinese policymakers and citizens alike. According to the Woodrow Wilson Center, as of 1998, eighty-six percent of China’s rivers exceeded standards for industrial pollution, while 400 of China’s 600 major cities suffered from severe water shortages. In another engineering feat to rival the Three Gorges Dam, work has begun on the gargantuan South-North Water Transfer system that would reroute rivers across China, including the upper reaches of the Yangtze on the Tibetan Plateau, to meet the demand of cities in the north. These issues are covered well in Managing the Chinese Environment and the China Environment Series.

photo of a ship in a ship lock
Three Gorges permanent ship lock, June 16, 2003. Lesser Three Gorges, Wushan county, Chongqing. ©2004 ImagineChina


China’s energy system is of global importance: the country’s greenhouse gas emissions are expected to surpass those of the United States early in this century. A good place to start learning about both energy and industrial questions is Energizing China: Reconciling Envi­ronmental Protection and Economic Growth (1998). With sections on “energy and emis­sions,” “environment and public health,” “energy and the economy,” “the domestic context,” and “international dimensions,” this edited volume could become the basis for one to several weeks of class lecture and discussion.

For an official government perspective, we sent students to the Web site of China’s State Environmental Protection Agency and the annual State of the Environment report. The World Bank presents its vision for balancing development with environmental protection in China on its Web site, as well as in the report Clear Water, Blue Skies (1997). The interplay between environmental policy and economic trends is highlighted in a China Environment Series article by Jonathan Sinton and David Fridley, while Lester Ross considers the benefits of internation­al trade standards on environmental compliance by Chinese factories in his chapter of Managing the Chinese Environment.

Elizabeth Economy’s The River Runs Black (2004) and two books co-authored by Stanford researchers, Implementing Environmental Policy in China (1995) and Environmental Regulation in China (2000), provide detailed case studies that illustrate the challenges of balancing environ­mental and economic concerns at the local level. Combining common themes from these cases, we asked students to play the roles of factory owners and workers, neighbors complaining about pollution, local envi­ronmental protection officials seeking to enforce national standards, and a local mayor charged with keeping order. Over the course of an hour, stu­dents attempted to forge alliances and negotiate compromises that met their objectives. An exercise such as this can reinforce the point made in Lieberthal’s article that environmental policy implementation is often a process of balancing conflicting interests.

photo of a factor near a river with smoke billowing out
Pollution from factory along the Yangzte
River, 2001.
Photo by Joanna Lewis.


Teaching on China’s environment runs the risk of overwhelming students with the sheer number of potential environmental catastrophes. To balance out a tendency towards incapacitating pessimism, we devoted the end of our seminar to efforts that are pushing China towards a more sustainable path, including international cooperation and the rise of a Chinese envi­ronmental movement.

The aforementioned China Environment Series and other publica­tions of the Woodrow Wilson Center, all available online, are excellent sources of information on Chinese environmental education, activism, and NGOs, as well as foreign organizations working on energy and the environment in China. The listings of Web sites and contact information are quite useful for student projects as well as for students wanting to gain some practical experience in the field. Of related interest are the newsletter China Development Brief and its publication, 250 Chinese NGOs: Civil Society in the Making (2001), both of which detail the work of international and local NGOs in China, particularly with regard to development and environment.

poster with many children's faces and chinese text
New state environmentalism: “Planned land use benefits the nation and the people.” Lhasa, TAR, Summer 2002. The billboard stands on drained wetland.
Photo by Emily Yeh.

“Perhaps no country besides the United States will have greater impact on global energy and environmental strategies in the coming years than the People’s Republic of China” write Pamela Baldinger and Jennifer L. Turner. Today’s students inherit a world in which envi­ronmental quality is of increasing global concern. With resources such as those presented in this article, instructors can ensure that every student who completes a survey class on China or environmental studies gains a deeper understanding of the important topic of China’s environment.



Materials mentioned in this article are listed below.

The complete syllabus for our seminar on China’s environment can be found at:­labus.html.


Boxer, Baruch. “China’s Environment: Issues and Economic Impli­cations.” China’s Economic Dilemma in the 1990s. Washington, D.C.: Joint Economic Committee, US Congress, 1992.

Edmonds, Richard L. Patterns of China’s Lost Harmony: A Survey of the Country’s Environmental Degradation and Protection. Lon­don: Routledge, 1997.

Edmonds, Richard L., ed. Managing the Chinese Environment. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000.

Lieberthal, Kenneth. “China’s Governing System and its Impact on Environmental Policy Implementation.” China Environment Series 1 (1997): 3-8.

Saich, Tony. Governance and Politics of China. New York: Palgrave, 2001.

Smil, Vaclav. The Bad Earth: Environmental Degradation in China. Armonk, NY: M. E. Sharpe, 1984.

_____ . China’s Past, China’s Future: Energy, Food, Environment. New York: RoutledgeCurzon, 2004.


Blunden, Caroline, and Mark Elvin. Cultural Atlas of China, rev. ed. New York: Checkmark Books, 1998.

ERIM International. “China: The Environment.” Electronic atlas (CD-ROM). Ann Arbor: ERIM International, 1998.

Heilig, Gerhard K. “Can China Feed Itself?” Electronic atlas (Web site). Laxenburg, Austria: International Institute for Applied Sys­tems Analysis, 1999.­naFood/index m.htm.

McColl, Robert. “Understanding the Geographies of China.” Edu­cation About Asia 4 (1999).

Perry-Castaneda Library Map Collection. “China Maps.” Austin: University of Texas, 2001.


Elvin, Mark. The Retreat of the Elephants: An Environmental His­tory of China. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2004.

Elvin, Mark, and Ts’ui-jung Liu, eds. Sediments of Time: Environ­ment and Society in Chinese History. Cambridge: Cambridge Uni­versity Press, 1998.

Marks, Robert. Tigers, Rice, Silk, and Silt: Environment and Econo­my in Late Imperial South China. Cambridge: Cambridge Universi­ty Press, 1997.

Menzies, Nicholas K. Forest and Land Management in Imperial China. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1994.

Shapiro, Judith. Mao’s War Against Nature: Politics and the Envi­ronment in Revolutionary China. Cambridge: Cambridge Universi­ty Press, 2001.

Skinner, G. William. “Presidential Address: The Structure of Chi­nese History.” Journal of Asian Studies 44 (1985): 271-92.

Tuan, Yi-Fu. “Discrepancies Between Environmental Attitude and Behavior: Examples from Europe and China.” Canadian Geograph­er 12 (1968).

White Jr., Lynn. “Historical Roots of Our Ecologic Crisis.” Science 155 (1967).


Brown, Lester R. Who Will Feed China? Wake-up Call for a Small Planet. New York: W. W. Norton, 1995.

Coggins, Chris. The Tiger and the Pangolin: Nature, Culture, and Conservation in China. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2003.

Katsigris, Eugenia, Xu Jintao, and Ulrich Schmitt, eds. Implement­ing the Natural Forest Protection Program and the Sloping Land Conversion Program: Case Studies. CCICED

Task Force on Forests and Grasslands. Beijing: China Forestry Pub­lishing House, 2004.

Rosegrant, Mark, Scott Rozelle, and Roberta V. Gerpacio, eds. “Special Issue: China and the World Food Economy.” Food Policy 22:3 (1997).

Williams, Dee Mack. Beyond Great Walls: Environment, Identity, and Development on the Chinese Grasslands of Inner Mongolia. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2002.

Xi Zhinong, and Shi Lihong. “Mystery of Yunnan Snub-nosed Monkey.” VCD, 40 min. Beijing: Wild China Films, 2002.

Xu, Ming, Ye Qi, and Peng Gong. “Reply to Zhang et al., ‘China’s New Forest Policy.'” Science 289 (2000): 2049-50. http://www.sci­

Zhang, Peichang, Guofan Shao, Zhao Guang, Dennis C. Le Master, George R. Parker, John B. Dunning Jr., and Qinglin Li. “China’s Forest Policy for the 21st Century.” Science 288 (2000):2135-36.


Berkman, Patience. “The Three Gorges Dam: Energy, the Environ­ment, and the New Emperors.” Education About Asia 3 (1998).

Dai Qing, John Thibodeau, Philip B. Williams, Probe International, and International Rivers Network. The River Dragon Has Come!: The Three Gorges Dam and the Fate of China’s Yangtze River and Its People. Armonk, NY: M. E. Sharpe, 1998.

International Rivers Network. “China Programs.” Berkeley: IRN, 2001.

Rivers Watch East and Southeast Asia. “Dams, Rivers, and People.” Baguio City, The Philippines: RWE&SA, October 2000.

Ronning Topping, Audrey. Great Wall Across the Yangtze. Video­tape, 60 min. Alexandria, VA: Public Broadcasting Service, 2000.


Economy, Elizabeth. The River Runs Black: The Environmental Challenge to China’s Future. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2004.

Johnson, Todd, Feng Liu, and Richard S. Newfarmer. Clear Water, Blue Skies: China’s Environment in the New Century. Washington, DC: World Bank, 1997.

Ma, Xiaoying, and Leonard Ortolano. Environmental Regulation in China: Institutions, Enforcement, and Compliance. Lanham: Row-man and Littlefield, 2000.

McElroy, Michael B., Chris P. Nielsen, Peter Lydon, and Harvard University. Committee on Environment, China Project. Energizing China: Reconciling Environmental Protection and Economic Growth. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Committee on Envi­ronment, 1998.

State Environmental Protection Agency. “State of the Environment in China.” Beijing: State Environmental Protection Agency, 2002.

Sinkule, Barbara J., and Leonard Ortolano. Implementing Environ­mental Policy in China. Westport, CT: Praeger, 1995.

Sinton, Jonathan E., and David G. Fridley. “Hot Air and Cold Water: The Unexpected Fall in China’s Energy Use.” China Envi­ronment Series 4 (2001): 3-11.


Baldinger, Pamela, and Jennifer L. Turner. Crouching Suspicions, Hidden Potential: United States Environmental and Energy Coop­eration with China. Washington, DC: Woodrow Wilson Center, 2002.

Li Daqun. “New Diplomatic Endeavors Concerning World Envi­ronment.” Guoji Wenti Yanjiu (International Studies) 4 (1990). Trans. Mark Henderson. http://www.cnr.berkeley.edui-mhenders/home/guojiyanjiu.html

Young, Nick, ed. 250 Chinese NGOs: Civil Society in the Making. Beijing: China Development Brief, 2001. http://www.chinadevelop­


chi  [kaɪ]  详细X
n. 希腊文第二十二个字母
n. (Chi)人名;(德)希;(柬)齐;(日)智(名)
CHI: 芝加哥
Ming-Chi Kuo: 郭明池
Chi Cheng: 纪政