The Retreat of the Elephants: An Environmental of History of China
by Mark Elvin (2006)
Discussion Leaders: Jennifer Johnson-Cooper and Larissa Pitts
“Who knew that elephant trunk tastes like piglet? Or that more than a millennium ago, a writer declared that Chinese ‘competed to eat their trunks, the taste of which is said to be fatty and crisp, and to be particularly well suited to being roasted.’ Elephants, it turns out, once roamed across nearly all of China, as did rhinoceroses. Indeed, for 1,000 years the standard armor worn by Chinese soldiers was made from rhino hide. Yet these days rhinos are completely extinct in China, and elephants linger only in protected enclaves in the far southwest of the country. China being China, everything has been carefully documented, so we know that these large mammals retreated gradually over the past 4,000 years, half a step ahead of smaller, two-legged ones. Mark Elvin, an Australian scholar, brilliantly uses that prolonged elephantine trail of tears as the guiding metaphor for his new book, The Retreat of the Elephants: An Environmental History of China. Frankly, I didn’t know that I was interested in the history of Chinese elephants, or that I was yearning for an environmental history of China, until I read this book. But Elvin combines an illuminating account of the 4,000-year-long collision of humans and nature with delightful tidbits about everything under the Chinese sun.” Source: Nicholas Kristoff for Scientific American, quoted from amazon.com.
The book is of immediate interest to faculty in Asian studies, history, and environmental studies, but is very accessible to faculty with interests, but not expertise, in these areas. It is a longer book, but we will survey faculty and read selected chapters.