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The Great Smog of China: A Short Event History of Air Pollution (Anna L. Ahlers, Mette Halskov Hansen, and Rune Svarverud)

AAS Asia Shorts book series. ISBN: 9780924304927. 148 pages. Paperback.

The Great Smog of China traces Chinese air pollution events dating back to more than 2,000 years ago. Based on the authors’ fieldwork, interviews and text studies, the book offers a short and concise history of selected air pollution incidents that for varying reasons prompted different kinds of responses and forms of engagement in Chinese society. The three authors, from the disciplines of anthropology, China studies and political science, identify traceable incidents of smog and air pollution that have been communicated in different media and came to impact society in various ways. This also informs a discussion of what it takes to transform people’s experiences of health and environmentally related risks of pollution into broader forms of socio-political agency.

“In this little gem of a book, Ahlers, Hansen, and Svarverud combine little-known material about air pollution across the broad sweep of Chinese history with incisive and original analysis of how leaders, bureaucrats, scientists, and urban and rural publics have come to view air pollution as an issue of health, science, and governance. They do all this in the short span of 130 pages, providing China specialists with new insights into environmental history and governance, and providing environmental history and politics specialists with new perspectives on where China fits into the world air pollution picture.” — STEVAN HARRELL, Professor Emeritus of Environmental and Forest Sciences, University of Washington, co-editor of Greening East Asia: Rise of the Eco-Developmental State

The Great Smog of China is an enchanting little book with a big ambition. With topics ranging from the porcelain furnaces of Jingdezhen to the noxious fumes of night soil, from Mao’s infatuation with smoke stacks to the present-era’s “blue sky” political events, from the depredations of sandstorms to the battle against PM2.5, the book draws on a creative range of sources to explicate the environmental history of Chinese air pollution from ancient times to the present.” — JUDITH SHAPIRO, Director of the Masters in Natural Resources and Sustainable Development, School of International Service, American University, co-author with Yifei Li of China Goes Green: Coercive Environmentalism for a Troubled Planet and author of Mao’s War against Nature: Politics and the Environment in Revolutionary China

“In this accessible and engaging book, three scholars guide us through one of the most significant environmental challenges in modern times: China’s air pollution crisis. They show us, concisely and clearly, how air pollution fits into the long arc of Chinese history and culture, and why it matters for contemporary issues such as human health, politics and policy, and global climate change. Ahlers, Halskov Hansen, and Svarverud have brought their subject matter to life in a way that readers will find compelling, thought-provoking, and enjoyable.” — BRYAN TILT, Professor of Anthropology, Oregon State University and author of The Struggle for Sustainability in Rural China: Environmental Values and Civil Society and Dams and Development in China: The Moral Economy of Water and Power

About the Authors

Anna Lisa Ahlers leads the Lise Meitner Research Group “China in the Global System of Science” at the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science, Berlin. Previously, she was associate professor in China studies at the University of Oslo. In recent years, she has worked on rural governance reforms and the urban “war against smog” in China, as well as the bipolarity of authoritarianism and democracy in the 21st century. Main publications include: Rural Policy Implementation in Contemporary China: New Socialist Countryside (2014), Democratic and Authoritarian Political Systems in 21st Century World Society (2020, with D. Krichewsky, E. Moser and R. Stichweh).

Mette Halskov Hansen is professor in China studies, University of Oslo. She has done research on minority education, ethnic identities, internal colonization, individualization and, most recently, (air) pollution and human agency in China. She is currently PI for a new collaborative project that explores spiritually inspired environmental movements in China, Taiwan and India, and their potential for generating local and global change. Main publications include: Lessons in Being Chinese (1999), Frontier People: Han Settlers in Ethnic Minority Areas of China (2005), iChina: The Rise of the Individual in Modern China (2010 with Svarverud), and Educating the Chinese Individual (2015).

Rune Svarverud is professor of China studies at the University of Oslo. Initially, Svarverud engaged with ancient Chinese philosophy and philological studies. Later, he shifted attentions towards the cultural, scientific, and intellectual transfer of ideas between China and the West. In recent years he has engaged with the history of environmental degradation and air pollution in China. Main publications include: Methods of the Way: Early Chinese Ethical Thought (1998), International Law as World Order in Late Imperial China: Translation, Reception and Discourse, 1847-1911 (2007), iChina: The Rise of the Individual in Modern China (2010 with Hansen).