Sunday, August 19, 2012

Mao's War Against Nature

In the summer of 2006, I stopped at the train station in the small industrial town of Panzhihua in Sichuan Province. I was on my way to the touristy mountain paradise of Lijiang in Yunnan Province. Although Panzhihua was smack dab in the middle of an idyllic mountain setting, it was a dystopian industrial hellhole.

Photo of Panzhihua from

My assumption at the time was that Panzhihua was simply a casualty of China's post-Mao-era rapid economic development. It turns out that my assumption was wrong. Panzhihua's landscape is not a result of contemporary China's economic boom. Instead, it is a victim of Mao's 1960s Cultural Revolution-era attempts at military might.

Mao's War Against Nature: Politics and the Environment in Revolutionary China by Judith Shapiro is about Panzhihua and a number of other examples of Mao-led destruction of nature. The book begins in the late-1940s/early-1950s and goes over Mao's systemic attacks against nature through the end of his life in the mid-1970s.

Shapiro's book, published in 2001, is broken into five sections that move linearly through Mao's reign:
1. Population, Dams, and Political Repression
2. Deforestation, Famine, and Utopian Urgency
3. Grainfields in Lakes and Dogmatic Uniformity
4. War Preparations and Forcible Relocations
5. Legacy
These chapters are pretty self-explanatory based on their titles. I found the sections on dam construction, agriculture during the Great Leap Forward, and stories about educated youth - educated urban young adults who were sent to the countryside to learn from the peasants - to be the most interesting sections.

A couple of Chinese idioms that I've talked about before - 人定胜天 ("man can conquer nature") and 人多力量大 ("a larger population means more power") - show up again and again in Sharpiro's book. Both of these Mao-isms say so much about Mao's simplistic attitude towards the environment and political governance.

Here is a nice summary of Mao's basic views on nature from page 67-8:

Mao's War Against Nature is a nice complement to a couple other books on China's environment that I've read - China's Water Crisis by Ma Jun and When a Billion Chinese Jump by Jonathan Watts.

My biggest take away from Jun's book is that China's destruction of nature goes back millenia. Although his book is mostly about China's current water problems, a large focus of the book is on China's centuries-long destruction of and influence on nature.

Watts book is solely focused on China's economic destruction in the more recent boom years. Watts takes the reader to every corner of China to highlight the severe and, in many cases, irreversible damage that is ravaging China's environment on a daily basis.

Sharpiro's Mao's War Against Nature does a nice job of filling in the gap that exists between the two books. Mao, between 1949 and 1976, did so much lasting damage to China's environment: the countless dams, the ludicrous collectivization of China's farms, and the massive resources poured in to military industrialization, like in Panzhihua, that changed China's landscapes forever.

The main problem I had with Sharpiro's book is that it often goes into mind-numbing detail that I just didn't want or find interesting. The book is, in many ways, written in a reader-friendly journalistic fashion. Parts of it attempt to be more academic, though, and go into way too much detail. I didn't really appreciate when Shapiro gave several paragraphs to how many hectares of Yunnan Province were destroyed or the year-by-year population estimates of Panzhihua during its military industrialization. Those sections don't really fit with the totality of the book, in my opinion. I wanted more of an overview compared to an academic study.

Despite the sections sections that go into too much detail, I feel that Shapiro's book is a worthwhile read. Anyone wanting to get a very detailed picture of the history of China's destruction of its environment should check out Mao's War Against Nature.

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Chinese Art in Kansas City

A new exhibit of centuries-old paintings stored in Kansas City, Missouri and Lawrence, Kansas are now on display at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City.

From The Kansas City Star:
The most enchanting show of the summer is tucked away in the Chinese paintings gallery at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art. 
“Faces From China’s Past” is a walk-in album of charming portraits from the 16th to the 19th centuries. 
Their subjects — imposing matrons and fetching young women, stately ancestors and learned men — seem remote from us in customs and dress, yet seeing them enjoy their pets and favorite pastimes in lovely gardens and elegant interiors, one immediately feels a sense of kinship. 
And there’s just enough of a “boy meets girl” theme to keep things interesting. 
That notion gets quite an airing in a series of exquisite illustrations for an erotic novel, “The Plum in the Golden Vase,” chronicling the amorous adventures of a rich merchant, Master Ximen. He’s a randy and at times cruel character, not above climbing a garden wall to have a tryst with his brother’s wife or punishing a wayward concubine with a whip. 
Nearby, “Listening to the Qin by Candlelight,” a 17th-century piece showing a man playing the ancient stringed instrument for a female companion, presents a much more civilized approach to romance. 
Drawn from the collections of the Nelson and the Spencer Museum of Art in Lawrence, the artworks in this show were made for enjoyment and commemoration by mostly unknown artists. And many of the works have languished in storage for years. 
“Scholars weren’t interested in this type of painting; it’s not what Chinese consider mainstream,” said Colin Mackenzie, the Nelson’s senior curator of Chinese painting. The mainstream is landscape painting, he said, “created by the educated elite to express a philosophical view of art.” 
Read On  
The Nelson-Atkins Museum has one of the finest collections of Chinese art in the world. Here is a summary of the Nelson-Atkins' permanent Chinese collection:
Since it opened in 1933, The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art has actively collected, preserved, studied and exhibited works of Chinese art. Even before the Museum was built, its benefactors planned to include in it the first major gallery in America devoted solely to Chinese art. As early as 1930, the focus was to build a collection that would represent China’s highest achievements in every medium and from every historical period. As a result, the Chinese collection is one of the finest in the world. 
With more than 7,500 works of high quality, the Chinese collection comprises masterpieces from every historical stage and in every medium of China’s artistic activity – from Neolithic times to the 20th century. 
The collection of Chinese paintings is one of the best outside Asia particularly in the rarest and desirable period of early Chinese landscapes, the 10th through 13th centuries C.E. The richness of nature’s nuances can be seen in Xu Daoning’s Fisherman’s Evening Song, arguably the greatest surviving Northern Song landscape handscroll. Later period works include exceptional Ming and Qing paintings, such as Shitao’s A Landscape Album for Liu Shitou (K'u-kua miao-t'i). 
As a pioneer in collecting Ming furniture, the Museum’s collection is virtually unrivaled outside of China. The comprehensive ceramics collection spans 5,000 years and includes both sculptures and wares that chronicle the great epochs of Chinese ceramic innovations. 
Buddhist sculpture and wall paintings range from the Northern Dynasties to the Qing period and offer some of the best examples of Buddhist art in the west. A jewel of the Museum is the Chinese Temple Gallery (Gallery 230). Among Buddhist statues exhibited here is an 11th/12th-century C.E. polychrome wooden Avalokiteshvara, Seated Guanyin Bodhisattva, internationally heralded as the finest sculpture of its kind outside China.
Qian and I have been to the Nelson, which has free admission, several times in the three years we've been in Kansas City. The whole museum, on top of the Chinese collection, is just an awesome display.

The Nelson-Atkins Museum

The Chinese works of art are far superior to anything I ever saw in China. I haven't spent a lifetime checking out other cities' museums' Chinese collections, but I have to believe that the Nelson's is up there with any collection in the world.

If you ever find yourself in Kansas City, be sure to check out the Nelson-Atkins Museum's Chinese collection. Send me an email and I'll go with you. We can catch some BBQ after we see the museum too. Kansas City's BBQ, my favorites being Oklahoma Joe's and Jack Stack, is as good as it gets.