The Qing Invention of Nature: Environment and Identity in Northeast China and Mongolia, 1750-1850

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The Qing Invention of Nature: Environment and Identity in Northeast China and Mongolia, 1750-1850

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Title: The Qing Invention of Nature: Environment and Identity in Northeast China and Mongolia, 1750-1850
Author: Schlesinger, Jonathan
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Abstract: This dissertation studies the nexus of empire, environment, and market that defined Qing China in 1750-1850, when unprecedented commercial expansion and a rush for natural resources – including furs, pharmaceuticals, and precious minerals – transformed the ecology of China and its borderlands. That boom, no less than today’s, had profound institutional, ideological, and environmental causes and consequences. Nature itself was redefined. In this thesis, I show that it was the activism, not the atavism, of early modern empire that produced “nature.” Wilderness as such was not a state of nature: it reflected the nature of the state. Imperial efforts to elaborate and preserve “pure” ethnic homelands during the boom were at the center of this process. Using archival materials from Northeast China and Mongolia as case studies, the dissertation reassesses the view that homesteaders transformed China’s frontiers from wilderness to breadbasket after 1850. I argue instead that, like the Russian East and American West, the Qing empire’s North was never a “primitive wilderness” – it only seemed so to late 19th century observers. Manchuria and Mongolia, in fact, had served local and global markets. The boom years of the 1700s in particular witnessed a surge in poaching, commercial licensing, and violent “purification” campaigns to restore the environment, stem migration, and promote “traditional” land-use patterns. Results were mixed; conservation succeeded in some territories, while others suffered dramatic environmental change: emptied of fur-bearing animals, stripped of wild pharmaceuticals, left bare around abandoned worker camps. Beginning with changes in material culture in the metropole, the dissertation follows the commodity chain to production sites in the frontier, providing a fresh look at the politics of resource production and nature protection in the Qing empire.
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Citable link to this page: http://nrs.harvard.edu/urn-3:HUL.InstRepos:9773744

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