About a thousand years ago, in the middle of the Northern Song Dynasty, the Yellow River overflowed its banks right around the capital city, Kaifeng, causing chaos in the already-weak state.
What happened next was “an environmental drama,” according to Zhang Ling, an associate professor of history at Boston College. In her first academic book, “The River, the Plain, and the State: An Environmental Drama in Northern Song China, 1048-1128,” Zhang tells the story not from the human angle most historians take, but through the lens of the three titular subjects: river, plain, and state.
“I tried to see the world in a non-human-centric way, which means exploring how non-organic beings, such as a river, can make history,” Zhang told Sixth Tone.
Following this philosophy, she sought to explain how the environmental policies of the Northern Song shaped the landscape and the economic conditions on the North China Plain. “The River, the Plain, and the State” recently won the George Perkins Marsh Prize for Best Book in Environmental History, and it was described as a “fascinating and provocative study of state desire, state limitations, and the mutability of nature” by the American Society for Environmental History.
Zhang spoke to Sixth Tone about the sometimes-disastrous environmental policies of medieval China and what we can learn from their legacy — including her opinions on the Xiongan New Area, an economic development zone being built in northern China’s Hebei province, southwest of Beijing. The interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
Zhang Ling poses for a photo on the bank of the Yellow River in Hebei province, May 21, 2013. Courtesy of Zhang Ling
Sixth Tone: Why did you adopt a non-human focus in your research?
Zhang Ling: For a very long time in human history, we believed that we were the only intelligent species on earth. This kind of arrogance led to our abuse of resources and enormous environmental problems across the world.
To be a real environmentalist, we can’t just go out to pick up recyclable bottles or talk about saving water. It is not enough. We must fundamentally change our view about the universe, about the world.
How can we create a more democratic and more sustainable future, not only for humans but for all living creatures? This is really cutting-edge thinking around the world, and it goes far beyond the discipline of history. I spent a lot of time on these issues and will deal with them more in the future.
Sixth Tone: How did the Yellow River — one of the three main actors in your book — impact the society and economy of the Northern Song Dynasty?
Zhang Ling: There are two timelines, two historical entwining trends.
[The first is] a large-scope, long-term geographical tendency relating to deforestation and soil erosion in the Yellow River’s upper and middle reaches, which are associated with the river’s flooding characteristics. The flooding happened almost once every three years.
A partial view of the panoramic painting ‘Along the River During the Qingming Festival’ at an exhibition in Shanghai, Nov. 27, 2002. The work portrays daily life during the Northern Song Dynasty. Wang Jie/VCG
The second is a shorter timeline within the Northern Song Dynasty, a young state limited in land and people yet surrounded by strong enemies like the Liao and Western Xia [empires].
While this young, fragile state tried to struggle and survive, the Yellow River kept flooding almost every other year, demanding that the state invest money, human labor, and energy to handle these environmental problems, which later resulted in problems for the economy, finances, and human resources — and, finally, politics.
Sixth Tone: Flooding is still a common occurrence in China. How did the Northern Song Dynasty deal with frequent flooding?
Zhang Ling: The state decided to [divert] the river from the core area and channel it to the frontier by building tall dikes on the southern bank, where the capital city was, and diversion channels on the northern bank that led the water to frontier areas. Gradually, the river started to press upon the northern bank; immediately affected were the people in the flooding area. They suffered from famine and epidemics, losing their families and livelihoods. To escape the disaster, many migrated.
Stretches of land suffered from salinization, and sandstorms became common as large amounts of silt dried. Even up until the 20th century, certain parts of Hebei still saw sandbars spreading.
The indirect aftermath also included deforestation and soil erosion. In a downward spiral, this soil erosion led to more frequent and serious flooding, because loose soil was carried into the river more easily, which made it more prone to flooding [as the riverbed rose].
Sixth Tone: What do you make of the environmental policies of the Northern Song Dynasty, and what do they mean for today’s China?
Zhang Ling: My argument is blunt: This is an ethical issue.
I blame the imperial state of the Northern Song Dynasty for environmental and political policies that prioritized its core interests and sacrificed ordinary people, which created a power imbalance.
I hope today’s decision-makers think carefully about how their decisions can possibly differentiate people and a society. They need to be extra careful about the solutions they consider optimal, especially when they are confident — sometimes overly confident — in human science and human technology.
Although our options with technology today are far more plentiful, there are still limitations, and technology sometimes creates unintended consequences bigger than what we can control.
Sixth Tone: Your book mentions Xiong County, which is now part of Xiongan New Area. What were the most significant findings about this area from your research?
Zhang Ling: The county was situated on the border between the state and its northern enemy, the Liao Dynasty, so its military functions were the top priority.
The state relocated farmers and constructed canals as express waterways, so that military ships could travel quicker. It also channeled water to intentionally flood the area, creating a natural barrier to shield them from the Liao invasion.
The consequences were immediate, such as constant flooding from ponds and lakes and infectious diseases such as malaria.
Excessive water led to the destruction of arable soil, bringing enormous harm to crops. Within the next hundred years, records show poor agricultural productivity in the region, which increased poverty.
Sixth Tone: What do you think of Xiongan New Area?
Zhang Ling: I am concerned. The attitude is: “Let’s get rich first, and then we will talk about how to clean up.”
There’s nothing wrong with people desiring better lives and higher living standards after suffering hundreds of years of poverty, yet this economic development cannot be based on long-term ecological damage.
When an increasing number of people flock to Xiongan, and when construction companies build more buildings, where will the resources come from?
All these are not only environmental and ecological issues, but also economic, social, ethical, and political issues, and they need to be dealt with very carefully.
An aerial view of the Hukou Waterfall on the Yellow River in Linfen, Shanxi province, July 9, 2017. Shang Jianzhou/VCG
Sixth Tone: Do you think there is still a lack of awareness about environmental protection in China?
Zhang Ling: China has been, and is right now, ahead of many countries in the world in terms of environmental legislation and government investments in clean energy.
If you look at public propaganda in Chinese cities, people constantly use words such as “low carbon emission,” “green,” and “environmentally friendly.” This kind of public education is wonderful.
Having said that, change in terms of everyday behavior is difficult. In big cities, a richer, bigger population have started to adopt extravagant lifestyles. People feel like we’ve reached the point where we have the legitimate right to consume more. We waste a lot; we throw away a lot.
In this sense, environmental consciousness is not where it should be yet. We need to work harder.
Editor: Denise Hruby.
(Header image: An aerial view of the Yellow River in Linfen, Shanxi province, July 27, 2017. Zhang Weiping/VCG)