SUMMARY OF EXPERIENCE FROM

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					    BRIEF HISTORY OF ENVIRONMENTAL PROTECTION IN CHINA

                                               PENG, Shijiang
     Dept. of Agricultural History, South China University of Agriculture, Guangzhou, Guangdong, PR China.

 (Research in Agricultural History 1989 (81):131-165. Transl./interpreted by Dr. W. Tsao, 1/30/2002. Edited by B.
                                                    Gordon)

        Protecting the environment and balancing its ecology affects national and regional
agricultural production, as well as the prosperity or decline of a people. Many ecologists believe
the Persians defeated the Babylonians because they were ecologically weakened. A similar
situation was in China: “Shi Ji” (Historic Records) said “Xia Dynasty (2205-1818 BC) fell after
Yie and Lo Rivers dried up, while Shang Dynasty (1766-1154 BC) fell after Yellow River ran
dry” – both natural disasters. As an unbalanced ecology is a main reason for national decline,
environmental protection was tied to major human affairs since ancient times.

        At first, no serious problems resulted from primitive slash-and-burn agriculture of large
virgin forests by a small population. But serious food production cuts occurred when soil and
water dissipation in damaged forest and prairies caused flood or draught or even huge landscape
change(1). People had to accept environmental protection. Legend says the sacred rites of
Tang-Yu period (ca. 2356-2205 BC) had a prayer: “Soil and water return to their rightful
places...green colors return to grass and trees(2)”. As people were unable to fight the degenerating
environment or produce adequate food, they could only pray for god’s mercy. But people began
a sense of environmental protection after Ying-Zhou period (1766-255 BC), esp. Chun Qiu
(722-484 BC or Spring Autumn Annals) and Zhan Guo (403-221 BC or Warring States period).
The following occurred at that time.

1. Halting uncontrolled hunting and logging; reserving natural resources

    Farming changed quickly after Shang (1766-1154 BC) and Zhou (1122-255 BC) Dynasties.
As more efficient metal tools replaced those of wood and stone, grass and trees were burned,
their ash used as fertilizer. But forest burning disturbed its ecology and killed its animals. War,
hunting-gathering, construction and stock-grazing forced people to realize the importance of
forest conservation. Confucius’ famous student Zeng Zi said: “Niu Mountain trees are beautiful
and glorify the countryside, but is their logging beautiful?…Our cows and sheep also damage the
mountain by continuous grazing, making it appear scrubbed(3)”. Qing Shi Huang (The first
Emperor to unite China 221-209 BC) logged many trees in Chu (Hebei) and Shu (Sichuan) States
to build his famous A Fang Palace, which led to the maxim “Mountain Shu is bald, A Fang is
built(4)”. There are other stories of forest damage. Guan Zi discouraged people from logging in
his book: “If mountains are unprotected from fire, vegetation is destroyed, depleting the
nation;...if mountains are protected, vegetation grows and brings prosperity(5)”. Evidently,
national fire prevention was seriously treated because it affected humanity. Legend says Emperor
Da Yu (2205-2197 BC) announced the following prohibitions: “To help vegetation, no ax shall
be brought to the mountain in the 3 spring months. To help the growth of fish, turtles and other
aquatic forms, no fishnet should be put in rivers or lakes in the 3 summer months”. In “Wang
Zhi” (Emperor’s rules), Xun Zi said: “No axes or knives shall be brought to the mountain to halt
the vigorous vegetation. No fishnets or poisons will be put in rivers and lakes to harm breeding


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aquatic forms. When proper work is done for spring sowing, summer cultivating, autumn
harvesting and winter storing, we shall have adequate food for everyone. Forbidding
contamination of any water system will help the growth of fish and turtles and people will have
more than they need from rivers and lakes. Proper logging ensures more than adequate wood for
construction”. “Li Ji” (Book of Rites) says: “In the first spring month, logging, emptying birds
nests and killing young insects are prohibited. If the fetus is killed, where is the young bird - not
to mention eggs”...All these records show natural resource damage seriously affected human life
and work. After recognizing its seriousness, many philosophers and politicians offered their
opinion, finally making the central government agree to set an official position(6).

    Many examples of worshipping or protecting useful animals exist; e.g.s, Yangshao owl
carvings in Ying-Shang period sites show owls catching mice and rats; sacred “Ba La” ceremony
in “Li Ji” says: “Welcome cats for catching fieldmice; tigers for catching wild boars”. Obviously,
owls, cats and tigers were not hunted by ancient people. Huang Yizhong of Jin Dynasty
(265-420) wrote: “A kind of big goose helps farmers in fields to pull out grass roots in spring and
remove weeds in autumn. By official order, any villagers harming them will be punished(7)”.
“Han Shi Lu” (Han place events) says: “In Qianyou period (948-950) the magpie is protected by
law because it eats field locusts(8)”. “Mo Ke Hui Xi” (A Scholar’s Records) says: “Zhejiang
people like eating frogs, but Shen Wentong (1023-1062) ordered them not to eat this useful
animal”...Many other similar examples show our deep experience in natural resource protection.

2. Attention to protection and use of soil and water resources

    Our ancestors realized soil as the agricultural base, its pulse maintained by close ties with
water conservation. As mentioned, the sacred ceremonial prayer “soil and water return to their
rightful place…” denote a longing for conserved water and soil. Guan Zi said: “clothing and food
are important to life, while food production depends much on water and soil”, plus “land is the
origin of every being and the root of life”. “Guo Yu” (National Documents) says “ancient
community managers did not destroy mountains, disturb public space, block rivers or drain
marshes. Mountains are points where land collects, public spaces where creatures return, rivers
are different states and marshes are pools...our capable ancestral emperors always treated these
places with care”; e.g., our pre-Chun-Qiu and Warring States (ca. 722-221 BC) ancestors already
realized the importance of water and soil conservation.

    The main purpose of conserving Qin Dynasty forests was to maintain continuous lumber
access because there was no end to its “tremendous use”(9). Post-Han Dynasty people gradually
realized forest was important in conservation programs; e.g., West Han Dynasty’s Gong Yu said
“it is unreasonable to believe draught and flood do not directly relate to forest damage, (yet)
there is no regulation forbidding logging”(10). South Song Dynasty’s Wei Xian said “the Siming
River landscape used to be picturesque: mountains covered with various tall trees and flat banks
of bamboo. At rapids, much soil was kept from being washed away by roots, while loose soil
was easily scoured. Recently, an increased lumber price attracted more loggers, such that the
mountains are bald and banks without bamboo. As there are no trees to slow floodwater, the
loose rootless soil runs downstream and silts river harbors(11)”. Qing Dynasty’s Mei Zhengliang
(1786-1856) was told by Xuanchcheng farmers about forest conversion to field: “If trees are cut
and soil ploughed on the mountain, sand and gravel will rush downstream with water pouring



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into the valley. Very soon, water will have no place to go but into lowland fields. When they are
gone, there will be no water to irrigate paddies. Conversion results in useless fields and lowers
fertility(12)”. Fenshui County Topography (1845) says: “Planting corn in hilly districts allows
sand and gravel to rush downstream in storms, damages streams and roads and ruins
fertility…while this practice will unlikely bring soil to its ultimate use, it causes long term field
damage”. These comments on converting mountain forest are based on suffering and sorrow.

    Our ancestors not only opposed uncontrolled conversion of barren lands but criticized field
expansion into rivers and lakes. They advocated dikes in field management for making a better
environment for agricultural production. Field expansion into rivers and lakes became more
serious in Jiangnan (south of Yangtze River) after Song Dynasty population increase. South
Song Dynasty’s Yuan Yueyou’s “Damages caused by expanding agricultural fields into rivers
and lakes” suggested uncontrolled expansion will “lead to no water storage places during flood
and no place to pump water in drought. After years of draught and flood, it will become
progressively serious((13)”. At the start of Qing Dynasty, Gu Yanwu said: “Song Dynasty farmers
began expanding into rivers and lakes after Zheng He period (1111-8), seriously harming water
conservancy in southeast China. In the next decade, 60-70% of fields were deserted, with their
lowest production ever(14)”. Bao Sichen suggested: “Provinces east of Yangtze River depend
totally on “wei tian” (embanked paddies) to produce rice. Previously, farmers reclaimed land
from lakes, but now unforgiving lakes reclaim this land for fish(15)”. Ming Dynasty’s Zhou
Yyong noted damage from “wei tian”: “As river management and agricultural production closely
relate, it is impossible to sustain production if rivers or lakes are poorly managed, but the water
system will be easily maintained if fields are well managed(16)”. Xu Zhenming had similar
thoughts on water conservancy and agricultural practice(20). All these comments suggest unified
water conservancy and agricultural policies alter hazards to advantages, which we believe merit
further study.

     Our ancestors highly valued the use of water and land resources in accordance with the
environment. Legend suggests Shennongshi (ca. 2800 BC): “observed the right places for rice
growing based on warmth, humidity and fertility by testing grass and streams(18)”. Emperor Tang
Yao (ca. 2356 BC) advocated “fishers, mountain loggers, stockmen and farmers have work done
using proper tools by capable people(19)”…Xun Zi’s book says a “proper sky above, prosperous
land below and cooperative manpower in between” results in “tremendous wealth sprouting from
the ground, accumulating in both ocean and mountain”. North Wei Dynasty’s (386-416) Jia Sixie
used his long agricultural experience to say: “proper work by season and land will better succeed
with less effort, but if one’s own inclination is followed against the rules, hard work may not
produce any harvest(20)”. Many scholars had similar descriptions; e.g., Qing Dynasty’s Yuan
Yuan described “four rivers in this old town divide into hundreds of small streams reaching
every home, with water caltrop planted in deep water, rice in shallow water and lotus in
between”. From the above, it is clear agricultural production can only be fruitful if rules are
followed, proper timing and locations observed and natural resource conservancy practiced.

3. Turning evil to beauty; promoting material recycle

   Maintaining soil fertility or ability for re-growth is a deciding factor in agricultural
production. Primitive agriculturists depended on transhumance for soil recovery. Fertilizer



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invented in Shang-Zhou period (1766-255 BC)(21) ensured soil improvement, creating favorable
conditions for continuous multiple harvests by changing “sourness to miracle, evil to beauty(22)”
and converting “human and animal excrement, ash and other garbage into cloth and food
crops(23); i.e., fertilizer involved waste return from agriculture, forest, livestock and fishery back
to soil, maintaining the soil for a long time.

     Besides fertilizers, our ancestors created special artificial systems to cope with certain
environmental conditions; e.g., Yangtze Basin and Jiangnan have many sewers, ponds and
reservoirs by rivers and lakes for their special rice-fish symbiotic system. They pacified annual
flood, influenced micro-weather and produced much aquatic food, earning Jiangnan the title
“fish-rice country”. Jiangnan’s wealth has been described in many classic documents and Han
paddy sites in Yunnan, Shaanxi and Sichuan. In 1978, a Han artifact inscribed with frogs, eels,
carp, shellfish, turtles and other aquatic forms was found in Mianyi County, Shaanxi. Why were
these forms kept in paddies rather than ponds? Further study showed local hill paddies had only
one annual rice harvest in their long reservoir period, when they were used for fishing(24).
Seasonal Food of Wei-Wu Period 220-264 records a special Sichuan food: “A small carp with
yellow scales and red tail, in Pi County rice paddy, can be made into good fish paste (25)”. From
these records, we can trace the history of paddy fish to Han Dynasty, with paddy remnants as its
initial stage. This ecosystem developed further in Song Dynasty, when “Nong Shu” (Book of
agriculture) said: “For every 10 mu (like English acre) of highland fields, farmers select 2-3 mu
at a low spot for pond location. In the spring-summer rainy season, pond dikes are strengthened,
then planted with mulberry and pomegranate trees to provide shade for buffalo…this stores
irrigation water and avoids flood”. As fish raising is unmentioned, it can be considered as
ecosystem 2nd stage, the 3rd being in Ming and Qing Dynasties. In Ming’s Jiajin period
(1522-1567), Tan Xiao and his brother Tan Zhao of Changshu County, Jiangsu, cheaply bought a
piece of deserted “hu tian” (field embanked from lake). “After hiring >100 villagers, they
designated lower spots as ponds and built dikes around higher areas to convert them to fields,
resulting in >3x harvest than ordinary fields. Around >100 ponds, they built chicken coops on
dikes, feeding their waste to fish; and planting plum and peach trees and seasonal vegetables.
Mushrooms, water chestnut and other aquatic plants are grown in lower wetland. The thousands
of items grown in this deserted “hu tian” are quickly on the market(25)”. Xu Guangqi’s
“Complete book of agricultural policy” said “Sheep may be kept in sheds on dikes, with grass
waste swept into the pond to feed carp and sheep waste to feed chub, obtaining 3x profit”.
Similar practice also existed in Qing Dynasty’s Gaoming County (Guangdong) Topography:
“Much higher profit can come from dike mulberry trees giving leaves for sericulture and
silkworm waste for fish feed”. As aforementioned, sheep and hog raising allied with the fishery
allowed multiple recyclable subsidiary products to be collectively used. Recent reports say
experimental hog raising and fishery in the US solves the difficult problem of managing hog
waste. Like China 400 years ago the fishery is called a “cleaning industry”.

    Some people believe it is impossible to recycle agricultural waste because products are sold
and consumed in the city, but city human waste and garbage is also recycled in soil. Some
centuries ago, “air, water and soil contamination was solved only by blending rural and city
lives(27)”. Thus, rural-city harmony and industrial-agricultural cooperation are indispensable to
both economy and environmental protection. If modern technology can solve problems of
agricultural fuel and industry-city waste recycling, the initial recycling stage in traditional



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Chinese agriculture may be further developed and reach the stage of “everything grown from soil
returns to soil”.

REFERENCES:

(1) The Book of Odes, The 10th Month.
(2) The Book of Rites
(3) The Book of Mencius
(4) The Poetry of Afang Palace
(5) The Book of Guanzi
(6) The Book of Rites of Zhou Dynasty
(7) Tai Ping Yu Lan (Imperial inspection of Taiping), Vol. 917
(8) See (7), Vol. 950
(9) See (3)
(10) The Book of Han Dynasty History
(11) Si Ming Cong Shu (Complete Book of Siming County)
(12) The Literature Collections of Bo Si Shan Fang, Vol. 10
(13) Important Affairs of Song Dynasty
(14) Ri Zhi Lu (Daily Knowledge), Vol. 10
(15) An Wu Si Zhong, Vol. 27
(16) Famous Literature on National Management of Ming Dynasty, Zhong Hua Book Store,
    1962
(17) Xu Zhenming, Ming Dynasty, Lu Shui Ke Tan (Stories heard from Lushui guests)
(18) Huai Nan Zi (A classic Chinese book on water management)
(19) See (18)
(20) Qi Min Yao Shu (Important ways of managing people’s daily life)
(21) Hu Houxuan, Discussion Further on the Agricultural Fertilizer Application of Yin
    Dynasty, The Front Line of Social Science, 1981
(22) Zhi Ben Ti Gang (Rules of Knowing the Basics)
(23) Zhang Luxiong, Addendum of Nong Shu (Addendum to the Complete Book of
    Agriculture), Vol. 2
(24) Archaeology in Agriculture, No. 1, p. 130, 1983
(25) Literature Collection of Fishing History, 1st Vol., p. 23, 1984
(26) Yi Wen (Strange Stories in Legend) in Chang Zhao Collective Articles
(27) Engels, Peoples’ Pub. Co., p.325, 1974




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