A Summary of the Old Ways
There is a rather clear pattern of good management and bad management. Good management existed in orchards, temple and fengshui groves, wet-rice agriculture, remote areas of the country everywhere, and gardens—both commercial vegetable gardens and ornamental gardens. Bad management dominated most forestry (especially late), much dry-grown grain farming, much commercial agriculture in general, and at the pioneer fringes. It was particularly bad where the Chinese were displacing minority groups or warring with each other. Industry led to much ruined land. Overall, the north did worse than the south.
The clearest determinants here are industrial or exploited forests versus religiously protected ones, and dry-grown crops versus wet rice. However, at a deeper level, it appears that the rapacious and usually corrupt government and the merciless market were the ultimate causes of the problems (see Elvin 2004a). They demanded everything straightaway and thus forced short-term accounting on the farmers, who had to maximize their immediate income to pay taxes and bribes and still have enough money to buy clothing and metal tools. There was always some surplus, but it was unpredictable and had to be saved or invested in more secure ventures, rather than used to maintain and improve sustainability and efficiency of farming. Some old established farm families could and did invest in the latter, but largely where they could feel secure in tenure of fields and orchards.
The only way to avoid government rapacity and market squeeze was to have powerful community and religious forces that were even stronger and more persuasive on the local level. Thus, either religious ideology (temple groves, sacred groves) or elite taste (gardens, estates) or economic rationality (rice paddy systems, tree-planting) or a combination of all these (fengshui groves, elite involvement in landscape protection) could save environments and promote wise use of resources against wreckage of the environment and the resource base. Lack of any or all of them led to waste.
One had to think of the lineage descendants, even the poor relations, as far into the future as one could see. Thus, the extreme cut-and-run attitudes of modern industrial agriculture did not exist, except on frontiers and during troubled times. On the other hand, the needs of the living necessarily took precedence, and many a short-range decision was made with full knowledge of—and sorrow about—its long-term costs.
Worldviews and ideology mattered in many ways. The basic background ideology of working with nature—of harmony with earth and waters—was never lost in dynastic times. The basic ideology of sustainability was certainly present in rice farming, tree cropping, and related branches of agriculture, thanks to a constant feedback between economic realities and ideological preferences.
The result of economic rationality combined with a balance-of-nature worldview was a lock-in of sustainable agricultural practices, at least in rice agriculture. Innovation and intensification involved using more labor, rather than innovative machinery and pesticides, to rationalize rice paddies, canals, dikes, and soil preparation (Hayami and Ruttan 1985).
Grazing, brushlands, gardens, vegetable farming, and other types of land use all had rules and models, and sustainable management was found where culture, religion, or aesthetics demanded; otherwise, overuse was common. In ancient times, game was reserved by the imperial court and other elites for hunting purposes, but there seems to have been little sense of the value of wild animals, and conservation was rather limited. Animals that caused actual danger, like tigers and wolves, were hunted for elimination when possible. A broad respect, and even love, for wild animals was present and general but seems not to have been strong enough to be a major protective force.
One resource that was usually extremely vulnerable to exploitation was fish. I never heard of general fisheries management or conservation among the fishermen I lived with for two years in Hong Kong and have found no references to such in the literature. They did, however, save the sacred fish; as in the case of forests, religion protected when common economics did not.
The modern Chinese state has destroyed its fisheries thoughtlessly, leading to extinction of the white-flag dolphin and the imminent extinction of the Yangzi porpoise (Stone 2010), and extirpation or commercial extinction of countless species.
On the other hand, the Chinese fishermen I lived with in Malaysia (E. Anderson and M. Anderson 1978) were often strong conservationists, managing their stocks and protecting local fisheries by methods up to and including outright killing of trespassers. Presumably these Malaysian Chinese had had some sort of equivalent systems back in China, and one wishes for reports.
Chinas elite nature-loving ideology clearly affected practice via educated estate owners and even small farmers and via the massive influence of elite culture on folk culture (far greater than in most of the Western world). Ideas matter, but the important ones are the working ideas of how to farm, not so much the abstract religious models. The working models not only more directly influence the environment, they are also far more widely shared, and usually at a deep, even subconscious, level. Abstract philosophical and aesthetic models are less deeply held.
Chinas ability to feed itself over 2,000 years is due to several factors.
First, China has always been willing to adopt and accept new and valuable crops.
Second, China early developed a balanced crop roster that supplies maximum nutrition for minimum space and inputs.
Third, China developed a "biological" technology that emphasized fertilizing, soil improvement, superior varieties of crops, careful cultivation techniques, and other ways of winning more with less. There was enormous investment in what geographers call "landesque capital": reshaping the land by such things as terraces, dykes, leveling, building drainage ditches and canals, and improving the soil.
Fourth, Chinas imperial government often tried to keep agricultural taxes low, develop agricultural science that really worked, and invoke policies that benefited agriculture in many ways. The government was, however, also frequently arbitrary, tyrannical, brutal, and overtaxing. But it was rarely as dam-agingly bad as were many other governments of the time.
Fifth, China developed a general ideology, or cosmology, or environmental science, that was accommodating to conservation and wise management. It incorporated wise management ideas in its philosophical systems.
Sixth, Chinese religion also incorporated some conservationist and resource-sparing ideas.
Seventh, the entire concept of civil and personal responsibility in China was based on following the broader ideals of religion and cosmology, including some ideas about conservation. Much more important was a more specific idea of responsibility about food, feeding the hungry, maintaining the agricultural system, regarding farmers as valued citizens, and regarding agriculture as the most important of all activities. These latter may be contrasted with Europe's traditional social scale, on which warmongers ranked highest and peasants lowest.
Eighth, China had an aesthetic based on a true love of the rural scene and a love of plants, trees, forests, waters, and other natural resources—one that contrasts very sharply with the traditional Middle Eastern aesthetic. China's aestheticis closer to the romantic strain in European arts but is considerably more positive about rural experiences.
Ninth, in the end, we have to credit the indomitable Chinese people. They survived disasters, wars, evil emperors, oppressive landlords, and all the other problems that broke and crushed almost every other ancient civilization and many modern ones. They survive today, unbowed and unbroken.
The future ahead is cloudy. China has abandoned the traditional cosmological and aesthetic views that encouraged sustainability. Recent developments have not always been sparing of agronomic resources or encouraging of farmers and farming. Above all, conserving soil, water, forests, and biodiversity will be a great challenge for the future.