希望: A Postcard from China

Palaces, Forbidden City, Beijing

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Lang Kou
Lang Kou

Lang Kou was until a few years ago a tiny, traditional country village on the banks of China’s winding Lushui River. It was most likely the village’s picturesque quality, its suggestion of a China almost disappeared, that doomed it. The regional government recently relocated the villagers to a new housing development two kilometres away. (The villagers were dismayed to discover the new rowhouses were not fitted out with doors or windows.) Old Lang Kou was razed, and in its place a clean, modern facsimile village was built, one which tourists could enjoy and, maybe, where movies requiring a traditional Chinese setting would be filmed. To encourage that association, the new village, population zero, has its own IMAX.[1]

Locals were as curious about the new Lang Kou as I was, and we wandered it together. My host in China, Zhen Wang, was surprised to find that she often couldn’t understand their dialect, although we were only two hours outside her city of Wuhan. Young children were visibly startled to see me, and a few blurted “Laowai!” – “Stranger / foreigner / white guy!” – before their smiling parents shushed them. Given where we were, I wondered if they mistook me for a Western movie star.[2]

Lang Kou was characteristic of my entire trip to China this spring. While I fully expected to see massive development, and I was not disappointed, most striking was how aspirational this development was – expectant of an approaching modernity, and one modelled after the Western one. I saw this everywhere. Traffic clogs city streets, but the highway systems running through the cities are less busy than Canadian highways, because a smaller proportion of people live in one section of the city and work in another. But they are being accommodated to do so, and undoubtedly soon will. As I rode in a near-empty mid-day train zipping from Beijing to Wuhan at 300 kilometres per hour, I saw out the window hundreds, thousands of peasants working away weeding crops with hoes, or trimming trees being raised to be transplanted to the cities. In Wuhan, there’s a shopping district with Italian-, German-, French-, and Spanish-themed streets. Where fifteen years ago there was farmland, there is now a department store modelled after Notre-Dame, an outdoor escalator dubbed, weirdly, “El Puta.” I enjoyed simply walking the streets reading people’s t-shirts, almost all of which were in English.

The highlight of French Street in Wuhan.
The highlight of French Street in Wuhan.

I was in Wuhan teaching a course on the Anthropocene – the idea that humans have made such dominant, permanent changes to the earth that we are living in a new era in not just human history, but earth history. The course was a tall order. The students were in Environmental Design, and most had never taken a History course; I ended up teaching them (and so first learning) more Chinese environmental history than I had originally intended. They had varying comprehension of English, and my building the course around an unfamiliar twelve-letter word hardly made things easier. And, as became clear in the very first question I was asked in class, they were suspicious that I was moving towards telling them that the world could not afford China experiencing the modernity that the West has long enjoyed.

Which meant that, if I was to keep them, I had to be optimistic about the future of China and the world. Which isn’t necessarily easy when immersing yourself in the Anthropocene literature. Knowing that atmospheric carbon dioxide is at its highest level in millions of years. That ice is melting, sea levels rising. That most nations are living well above their biocapacity. That the world is hooked on chemical fertilizers, which require massive amounts of energy to produce and in turn produce substantial greenhouse gases. That we’re running out of phosphorous reserves. That peak global coal use did not peak until 2014. That humans, their pets, and livestock constitute about 95% of the biomass of all terrestrial vertebrates. That in terms of species, languages, diets, and folkways, the world is becoming less and less diverse.[3]

And while it’s true that China is modernizing with much more knowledge of environmental matters than the West had when it did, it is not clear that this is making much of a difference. China has lax environmental standards, and fails even to meet those standards.[4] Ten years ago the Chinese government pronounced that it would build an “ecological civilization,” but a decade later there is still debate whether this is to be the next civilization, following agriculture and industrial ones, or merely a component of the existing one.[5] More anecdotally, there are recycling bins throughout Wuhan, but the recycling program itself has not yet gotten going. Campaigns such as “Use a Hankie, Save the Earth” attest to Western-style greenwashing and the limits of meaningful environmental action.

"Use a Hankie, Save the Earth"
“Use a Hankie, Save the Earth”

During my China trip, NiCHE prepared a series of blogposts on “Hope and Environmental History.” I admit to being a little bemused by our field’s recent interest in hope: the books, workshops, collections. Isn’t this search for hope itself the greatest indication that we believe the future largely hopeless?[6] Sustainability, the notion that we – who? affluent North Americans? humans? – can maintain indefinitely a lifestyle familiar and acceptable to us seems increasingly a laughable target. And when considering climate change, even the most forward-thinking of us focus on the year 2100 because we can’t conceive of a future beyond then; forget a one-child policy, we seem to be preparing for a zero-grandchild policy. I thought about writing a NiCHE post entitled “Hope? Nope.” Yes, I’m that much fun at parties.

Yet despite the haze in the Wuhan sky, the ugly 25-floor apartment buildings springing up everywhere like groves of trees, the incessant car traffic, and the extreme poverty amid incredible wealth, I couldn’t help but be won over by the hopefulness of the Chinese themselves. I mentioned that the writing on t-shirts was in English? An overwhelming number featured ridiculously, unironically affirming sentiment. “You will always find someone better at things than you. Just be your best” – that sort of thing.[7] It was impossible to meet and read several thousand of such messages every day without being heartened.

Lang Kou family, 2017
Lang Kou family, 2017

In Lang Kou, rather than eat dinner at the fake village, we asked at a country store if there was a local family who would feed us. A phone call later, and we were sitting outside the home of a large extended family. They were clearly delighted to be hosting us. (“How old is the laowai?” they debated. “Thirty,” guessed one. “No, sixty,” said another.) The father who usually cooked was shooed out of the kitchen by his mother, in honour of these special guests.[8]

Being outside Lang Kou, this house had not been been part of the village relocation. The family had built an addition to the front of their home a decade earlier, but when I asked to use the bathroom, they directed me back through the old house directly to an attached pig shed.[9] When it came time to eat, the family insisted we do so alone, that they would eat later. Although unsaid, it was obvious they would not eat so well. As we ate, Zhen Wang noted quietly that this family had climbed out of poverty, that their lives were better than that of their parents, that they were essentially middle-class. They had reason to be happy, even hopeful.

I grew up in a family steeped in the Christian faith, but I have little faith of my own. Which doesn’t mean I don’t respect their faith, it’s just that faith isn’t something you can fake or manufacture. I feel the same way about hope. I don’t have much hope for the future. But I respect and take some strength from the hope of others. Maybe that’s enough.

There is an F. Scott Fitzgerald quote that is often pulled out when discussing the role of the liberal arts in teaching critical thinking:

The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.

Living and teaching in the Anthropocene, we should be sure to include the next, far less cited, line:

One should, for example, be able to see that things are hopeless and yet be determined to make them otherwise.


[1] The website of the village’s new hotel includes photos of the area.

[2] It happens.

[3] Useful texts for the course included JR McNeill and Peter Engelke, The Great Acceleration: An Environmental History of the Anthropocene since 1945 (2014); Christophe Bonneuil and Jean-Baptise Fressoz, The Shock of the Anthropocene: The Earth, History, and Us, trans. David Fernbach (2016 [2015]); Libby Robin, Sverker Sörlin, and Paul Warde, The Future of Nature: Documents of Global Change (2013); Ian Angus, Facing the Anthropocene: Fossil Capitalism and the Crisis of the Earth System (2016); JR McNeill and Erin Stewart Mauldin, eds. A Companion to Global Environmental History (2012); Anthony N. Penna, The Human Footprint: A Global Environmental History (2015); Spencer Weart, The Discovery of Global Warming (2008); Elizabeth Kolbert, The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History (2014); Kenneth Pomeranz, The Great Divergence: China, Europe, and the Making of the Modern World Economy (2000); and Mark Elvin, The Retreat of the Elephants (2004).

[4] See, for example, two recent stories in the New York Times: “Nearly 14,000 Companies in China Violate Pollution Rules,” and “As Beijing Joins Climate Fight, Chinese Companies Build Coal Plants.”

[5] See Bao Maohong, “Environmentalism and Environmental Movements in China since 1949,” A Companion to Global Environmental History, McNeill and Mauldin, eds.

[6] [This post was written before the publication of David Wallace-Wells, “The Uninhabitable Earth,” New York Magazine, July 2017.]

[7] Yes, there were exceptions, like the girl’s shirt that read “Dead inside.” But they were far in the minority.

[8] The store owner followed us there. He was more gregarious than our hosts, and was soon happily telling us the story of how his son had cost him 150,000 RMB (about $30,000) in fertility treatments, but then his daughter was born naturally two years later. The one-child policy had been largely ignored throughout rural China.

[9] In this, in the smoking in malls, and in the general indifference to public hygiene, China sometimes reminded me of Canada of the early ‘70s, or at least my early ‘70s.

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I am the author of Becoming Green Gables (spring 2024), The Summer Trade (with Edward MacDonald, 2022), & The Miramichi Fire (2020), & the editor of the print/open-access Canadian History & Environment series at University of Calgary Press. I was Director of NiCHE, 2004-15. Contact me at amaceach@uwo.ca.

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