Bending the Rules: Forest History in Northeast China

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This post originally appeared on Environmental History Now, a website dedicated to showcasing the work and expertise of graduate students and early career scholars in environmental history who identify as women, trans and non binary people.

In October 2017, I was in Yichun, Heilongjiang, a small town in Northeastern China surrounded by forests. It already started snowing by mid-October, signaling that it would be the coldest year of my life. Yichun people called me “the girl with the long windbreaker,” asking me why I wore such thick clothes in the middle of fall. I always told them that I hailed from Korea, and that I hadn’t experienced winter for quite a while since I do my PhD in California. So many locals replied that they knew. They knew I was not “from here.”

After sharing that I came to Yichun for my dissertation research on forestry history of the People’s Republic of China, I was told that I came to the wrong place. “There’s nothing here. No history. Nothing special to study. Why don’t you go to places like Beijing or Shanghai?” I just shrugged, thinking there’s no place without historical significance.

Conducting research in a place where locals believe there’s no special history for an apparent outsider to learn about, however, was not easy. Especially under the current restrictive political environment, research in China often felt like walking on eggshells. No matter how careful you are, just a single archivist’s reluctance to accept foreigners could easily jeopardize your research. At the Yichun Municipal Archive, for instance, I was kicked out of the building for “digging too deep”—even after following all necessary procedures. “Go somewhere else and bug somebody else!” I was told. I still vividly remember the guy who yelled at the archivist who tried to defend me. “How dare you to drag a foreigner into the archive? Do you know what could happen because of her?” These were the last words I heard from the archive.

After this—let’s say—unfortunate event at the Yichun Municipal Archive, I witnessed the massive closing of Chinese archives to foreigners. I had to turn to sources outside of the archives. Fishing cast-off documents from online bookstores, for instance, became a routine for me. I still believe that Yichun, along with other small towns in Northeast China, have special history. Yichun indeed was one of the most crucial regions in PRC forestry history, where the efforts of the Heilongjiang Provincial Department of Forestry were mostly concentrated. Governance of Northeast forests, such as those in Yichun, moreover, shed new light on the historicization of PRC natural protection.

Example of a propaganda poster released by the PRC government during the Four Pest Campaign, titled Catching Sparrows (Ah Xian, August 1956).

Most scholars and other observers of the PRC condemn the neglect of environmental protection during the Mao era (1949-1976). Only after Mao’s death, they assert, were laws to protect the environment first promulgated. My dissertation challenges this premise by considering Chinese policy in the context of the international development of environmental consciousness during that time. Focusing on wildlife conservation and forest management in the northeastern provinces of Heilongjiang, Jilin, and Liaoning, my research tracks Chinese state efforts to regulate the environment from the establishment of the People’s Republic in 1949 to its promulgation of the Wildlife Protection Law in 1988. This period witnessed massive deforestation and species extinction in the Northeast. However, this was not to the result of an absence of state regulations, but rather a product of bureaucratic compromises, the local economy, and the government’s relationship to indigenous peoples.

“Virgin Forests,” or Xing’an Heilongjiang (Wu Zuoren, 1964).

In the mid-1950s, Heilongjiang forests appeared in the national scientific discourse as precious “virgin forests,” the untainted natural heritage of the nation. The forests in Heilongjiang, however, had never been virgin, since they had been the source of livelihood for local residents prior to this time. Moreover, after the establishment of the PRC, the Heilongjiang government participated in the constant afforestation, reforestation, and utilization of the forest. Yet scientists invoked the romanticized image of the Northeast forests as “virgin forests” as a metaphor to support their requests for state-initiated natural conservation. For instance, biologist Qi Maoman believed that just as China’s historical legacy deserved national protection, so did its natural heritage. My research investigates how these discrepant perceptions of the Northeast forest—one symbolic and the other pragmatic—became a continuous issue as wildlife began to be included in forest management and protection policy in the early 1960s.

Chinese scientists during this period also maintained close connections with international scientific communities, particularly those in the Soviet Union. For instance, China participated in the World Conservation Union’s Fifth International Congress in the German Democratic Republic in 1956, the primary purpose of which was to learn advanced conservation policies of foreign countries and exchange ideas on natural protection. During this time, China witnessed a booming scientific discussion of pollution, extinction, and conservation in journals such as the Chinese Journal of Zoology, Bulletin of Biology, and Chinese Science Bulletin.

Increased concerns about environmental degradation engendered new meanings of the forest. The forest was no longer a mere collection of trees, but also a habitat for precious wildlife. The development of a scientific consciousness that nature was a complicated biological web engendered new meanings of the wildlife and the forest. Scientists showed that the lives of wildlife and trees in the forest were indeed closely connected rather than mutually exclusive—constructing the “ecosystem” (shengtai) together as flora and fauna.

Fenglin Natural Reserve, Yichun Heilongjiang (constructed in 1958-1959).

The embryonic discussions of natural conservation in the 1950s became the cornerstone of China’s succeeding creation of natural reserves, state-initiated hunting regulations, and public natural protection education during the 1960s. In the early years of the PRC, the state government only concentrated on using wildlife as precious diplomatic gifts. However, as the thriving scientific discussions of natural protection in the mid-1950s began to influence the state discourse on wildlife, concerns about extinction were expressed in state documents by the late 1950s.

More importantly, in 1962, the State Council promoted “The State Council’s Order of the Reasonable Usage of Wildlife Resources (1962),” marking conservation as an indispensable underlying principle in determining the state utilization of animal resources. It implemented a system of hunting licenses and hunting regulations, including the protection of wildlife habitat and offspring. The fledgling state vision of natural protection, however, met challenges when applied to local settings.

Tigers and tiger bones used in Traditional Chinese Medicine;
illustration from Northeast Animal Medicine (1972).

While bureaucrats in Beijing dwelled on the political and symbolic meanings of wildlife, the Heilongjiang government almost entirely concentrated on the practical use of local animals as fur, meat, or medicine. For instance, the Beijing government considered Amur tigers to be one of the most precious forms of wildlife that could be used in animal diplomacy, as gifts to foreign governments. However, to the Heilongjiang locals, Amur tigers were only useful for traditional Chinese medicine, and seen as direct threats to local livestock and humans. When faced with such contrasting needs for wildlife, the local government struggled to balance state orders with local livelihoods by actively redefining and reinterpreting central rhetoric and requests.

In numerous cases, the provincial bureaucrats made decisions that favored the local residents. For example, when implementing the policy protecting Amur tigers, the Heilongjiang government refrained from using terms such as “precious,” “extremely rare,” or “valuable in international animal exchange” that had been most prevalently used to justify the protection of Amur tigers in central government discourse.

Instead, the Heilongjiang government highlighted the economic value of Amur tigers, justifying the economic use of the species. Often, the provincial rhetoric of the early 1960s preferred “tiger” to “Amur tiger,” attenuating the exceptional status of this internationally endangered species prevailing in central governmental discourses since 1959. The provincial officials also frequently termed Amur tiger protection as “population containment.” This enabled local hunting of Amur tigers for traditional Chinese medicine and livestock protection without directly opposing the central order.

The central government’s vision of wildlife utilization and protection in the 1950s and the 1960s ignored local livelihoods. Locals were either completely absent in state documents, or they or appeared as “backward people who ate valuable wildlife without knowing its preciousness.” Even the Great Chinese Famine (1959-1961), which resulted in millions of deaths across the nation, failed to foster compassion on the part of Beijing bureaucrats, who professed not to understand the desperation behind the massive consumption of wildlife in the late 1950s and the early 1960s. The Heilongjiang government, on the other hand, had a firm understanding that the forest was also the source of livelihood of the local people. And unlike the central government, some of the bureaucrats were inclined to defend local livelihood when it was in conflict with natural protection.

Oroqen Hunter with a squirrel (1956).

My dissertation project investigates how the provincial government employed state-initiated wildlife protection policy as a means to govern the major local ethnic minority: the Oroqens, hunters who inhabit the wildlife-rich forests of the Greater and Lesser Xing’an Mountains. From the Qing dynasty to the PRC, they were often referred to as “the people dwelling in the mountains,” or “magic hunters of the forest.” Considering Oroqen as reclusive, primitive, and superstitious people living in the forest, the Heilongjiang government tried to modernize them throughout the 1950s. However, ambitious settlement efforts, such as providing free brick houses, failed to accomplish the intended goal. In the documents of the Heilongjiang Provincial Department of Forestry during the period, the Oroqen appeared as ungoverned threats. For instance, in 1953, the Heilongjiang Provincial Department of Forestry reported that Oroqen communities were hotbeds of bandits who trafficked in opium in the forest

Local government mobilization of local hunters in 1963 in the Provincial Hunter’s Union as a response to the central government’s request to protect national wildlife triggered an unexpected change in the state-Oroqen relationship. Unlike their American counterparts who formed natural reserves in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, the Heilongjiang bureaucrats did not see Oroqen as the enemy or a hindrance to conservation projects. They saw Oroqen more as ideal partners who could learn to “properly use wildlife resources,” by which the Heilongjiang bureaucrats’ meant to increase the manufacture of animal products. Formulating the union also engendered a new chance for the Heilongjiang government to modernize the Oroqen by putting them under government control; the union provided systematic ideological education to Oroqen.

Oroqen Hunter with a Cadre Forest Guard in PRC Children’s Book (1961).

At least from the bureaucrats’ point of view, the cooperation with the ethnic minority was a success, considered it being a win-win. The bureaucrats praised the ways in which the Union provided Oroqen with better economic conditions, vastly increased the number of wildlife to be hunted, and finally turned the Oroqen into good Marxists who served the nation with their exceptional hunting skills. However, the successful alliance between the provincial government and the Oroqen facilitated the exploitation of wildlife resources. This suggests that the incorporation of indigenous knowledge and local cooperation, which has been the basis of the contemporary community-based conservation projects, could also lead to a vast environmental degradation depending on the subject of and the motivation behind involving the indigenous populace.

My experience in Northeast China as an outsider reflects the findings of my dissertation research. It was a constant struggle between the soft and hard rules of the archives, it being necessary to find a way to navigate those rules without directly opposing to the authoritarian state. Often, personal characteristics and relations were more influential than the written regulations. I often pose as an innocent foreigner. Occasionally, archivists and librarians let their guards down, thinking of me studying at a Chinese instiution ot being a Chinese student from overseas. When this happens, I don’t correct them.

Even so, sometimes I still get rejected access to the archives. Yet there have been archivists who have tried to bend regulations for me. At the Heilongjiang Provincial Archive, for instance, one of the archivists allowed me to photocopy hundreds of pages. She winked at me and said, “I won’t write a report about you.” She also whispered to the lady who was in charge of photocopy, “Let her copy whatever she wants. Don’t charge her. She’s a good kid. If she asks for too many pages, give her half a discount.” Whenever I write about the bureaucrats in the 1950s and 1960s who tried to bend the state regulations for local people, I think about the lady who allowed me to smuggle copied documents out of the archive. I owe my dissertation to these flexible government workers who sympathize with local people, or poor grad students like myself.

*Cover Image: Yichun, Heilongjiang, in snow (November 10, 2017). Photo by author.

*Photo Credit:,, Northeast Travel Paintings (1964), Oroqen People (1956), Oroqen Grandpa (1961), Northeast Animal Medicine (1978).

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I study human-animal relations in modern Chinese history, specifically focusing on the history of the People’s Republic of China. I am currently working on the bureaucratic management of forestry, wildlife conservation, and center-periphery relations in Northeast China from 1949 to present, viewing the forest as a site of complicated relationships between the central government, the local government, local ethnic minorities, and the indigenous environment.

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