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E: Environment

The Great Wall of China

A land of plenty

According to the China Meteorological Administration, yearly rainfall of 400mm is the minimum needed to sustain basic agriculture in China. If you plot that minimum rainbelt’s boundary on a map it will more or less overlap with the layout of the Great Wall.

The Great Wall was also the strategic divide between the Middle Kingdom’s agrarian economy and nomadic territory further north. So when China’s first emperor (see Q for Qin Shi Huang) started building the wall, he was an unwitting pioneer of environmental ‘protection’. His engineers were fencing off the Middle Kingdom’s rich arable soil and water resources.

Is environmental protection a modern concept?

Modern-day China put its first Environmental Protection Law into force in 2015. Nevertheless the idea of living in balance with nature has a long history. As recorded by the text on some of the oracle bones (the earliest documentation of the Chinese language, see O for Oracle Bones), people caught littering in public spaces risked having their hands cut off during the Shang Dynasty 3,500 years ago.

A number of bamboo strips that date back 2,000 years were also unearthed in 1975 in Hubei province. One of these was sculpted with the Qin’s “Laws of Farmland”. China’s earliest environmental protection legislation stipulated that hunting and deforesting would be banned between February and July, for instance. Other rules suggested a river’s course should not be blocked and that trees shouldn’t be burned and used as fertiliser.

Does the ‘heavenly mandate’ include defending against climate change?

It’s easy to understand why emperors of the past were keen to respect natural conditions, given that the Middle Kingdom’s economy was largely agrarian. The political logic today is that a government’s popularity can dwindle if the economy performs badly. Likewise, in ancient China during times of natural disaster, such as famines, floods and plagues of locusts, the emperor was often blamed for losing the ‘heavenly mandate’ (see D for Dragon throne).

Historians have also tried to establish links between climate change and the rise and fall of empires. Take the demise of the Ming Dynasty in 1644. Some academics have argued that changes in weather during the late Ming period brought the onset of one of the coldest periods of the past thousand years. The result was frequent droughts and severe disruption in agricultural production. Colder temperatures began in 1627 and droughts started in 1637, leading to famines in 1639, 1640, 1641 – followed by a fatal epidemic. There were more famines in 1642 and 1643, and another epidemic. In this weakened economic state, the last Han Chinese empire was conquered by the Manchurians, who came from northeast of the Great Wall.

Research by the Chinese Academy of Sciences in 2018, which traced 5,000 years of temperature changes via different historical accounts, has suggested that the Han-Chinese empires tended to be more vulnerable in extended periods of colder weather. Apart from the mini ‘ice age’ of the late Ming Dynasty, the fall of the Song Dynasty to the Mongols in 1279 came about in a notably colder period too. Scientists have also argued that the rise of Genghis Khan and his all-conquering hordes beyond the Great Wall was partly the result of unusually heavy rainfall over a couple of decades, which allowed the arid grasslands of the Asian Steppe to flourish, creating abundant food resources for his soldiers and warhorses.

China’s environmental concerns today…

Since China began its economic reforms in 1978, four decades of rapid growth have propelled it into the world’s second biggest economy. However, the same breakneck rise has come with heavy environmental costs, many of which have become much more evident in recent years.

Chronic air pollution in cities, for example, has become a major public health concern, also damaging the nation’s international image. Contaminated soil is another flashpoint, with a recent survey (briefly classified as a state secret) suggesting that as much as a fifth of farmland could be unsafe for cultivation. Chronic pollution (and depletion) of the country’s rivers and aquifers is another major concern.

The central government has finally grasped the severity of the situation and it now makes environmental protection a bigger parameter in appraising the performance of local government officials. The link between greener thinking and social stability is not lost on China’s leaders either – especially in the wake of public anger against urban smog, toxic rivers and leaking chemical plants. In fact, the government has now cemented its green credentials as a supporter of the Paris Climate Change Accord. It also offers massive subsidies to support the adoption of green technologies like solar and wind power. New quotas for water usage and greater investment in waste treatment are other facets of the new approach. Perhaps that’s because today’s leaders know their history – and that dynasties are most vulnerable in periods of environmental upheaval…


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