Cho-yun HSU

A detail of a Qing dynasty scroll, showing men at work in rice paddies. Chinese farmers worried constantly about getting enough water to irrigate the paddies.

The interrelationship between humans and nature has been strong for millennia in China. Factors such as climate, landscape, and natural resources have shaped the culture of China since the seventh century BCE. Reinforced by Confucian and Daoist philosophies, the ancient Chinese stressed the need for balance and order between humans and nature.

China is a huge country with a great variety of terrain as well as different climates; this makes it difficult to speak of a single ecology or environment in the region. Nevertheless, there are four issues relevant to the environment that a majority of ancient Chinese had to contend with, regardless of their location: water, deforestation, farming, and regional interdependence.

Water Issues

The area above the Yangzi (Chang) River Valley and the high mountain barriers north of Guangdong Province is considered northern China; here the climate is dry and subject to the effects of cold-air blocks from Mongolia and Siberia. The conservation of water for domestic use and irrigation was one of the most precarious tasks that individuals and communities in this region had to undertake. Summer’s torrential rains and spring’s huge flows of melted snow and ice from high mountains could create nearly instantaneous floods, sometimes lasting for very long periods of time. Fields and houses would be washed away, topsoil carried off, and thick deposits of silt left after the waters receded. No simple water-control project could manage this many difficult conditions. It is not surprising that the legend of Emperor Yu, the founder of China’s mythical first dynasty, the Xia dynasty (2100–1766 BCE), claims that Yu had channeled the overflowing waters of the Huang (Yellow) River back into their proper course. Yu’s father, according to the same legend, had previously attempted a dike-building project that failed, resulting in renewed flooding—and Yu’s father’s execution. However, this legend actually may express a collective memory of great deluges that, unlike the flood in the story of Noah, did not occur only once.

In southern China, monsoon rains regularly bring in tremendous quantities of water. Torrential rains can generate raging downpours in moments. For these reasons, Chinese farmers worried constantly about water conditions that could bring ruin to their lives. But lack of rain in the south could be just as disastrous as a flood: Rice paddies require huge amounts of water, and a short period—only a few days even—of severe drought could wipe out an entire season’s crop. Thus, water issues were just as worrisome in the south as they were in the north.

The most common way to deal with the problem of managing water for irrigation and daily use was to try first to preserve surplus rainfall by sinking wells and using small ponds. Every Chinese village in ancient days had a public well, and larger households might have their own in the backyard or kitchen. Ancient Chinese hydraulic engineers also created marvels of technology such as the Du Jiang Dam, built in 256 BCE in western China’s Sichuan Province, which divided an entire river in two to irrigate the Chengdu basin. A water gate built from basic materials—bamboo, pebbles, and timber—could be opened and closed to adjust the water flow that irrigated several tens of thousands of hectares of land there. Amazingly, it still works today, with only minor adjustments, 2,200 years after it was built.

Chinese hydraulic engineers also built many canals to link lakes and rivers of different systems into wider networks. One canal system in Liangqu (in the present-day Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region, in the far south of China) joined two river systems at their origins high in the mountains. This mini-prototype of the Panama Canal had its own dam and reservoirs and an intricate system of locks to raise and lower the water level so that ships literally could move up and down mountains. As with Du Jiang Dam, this project is still in operation two thousand years later.


The Chinese used wood as a building material to construct houses as early as the Neolithic Age (7000–2000 BCE), especially in the south. The frames were wood, and mud brick and stamped earth were used to complete the walls. Since wooden materials do not last as long as stone (which why very little ancient architecture survives in China), eventually a house would need to be repaired, or replaced completely, and more timber was thus consumed. Also, the Chinese originally cooked over open fires fueled with firewood, a practice that evolved into the use of stoves. Wood-burning kilns for the production of pottery and ceramics and foundries for bronze and iron also consumed enormous amounts of wood.

In northern China, the arid and cold weather meant that new trees grew slowly on formerly forested land; this new growth had no chance of matching the speed with which trees were cut down for construction and fuel. Barren hills and fields therefore became commonplace in the northern countryside. As early as the fourth century BCE, the great philosopher Mencius (371–289 BCE) remarked that cities all seemed to be surrounded by landscape resembling bald heads freshly washed. Soil in the north was a fine yellow powder that simply could not be conserved without vegetation, and the phenomenon of rapid desertification had been prevalent in China since very early days. Loose sand carried away by river systems eventually came to rest as heavy silt deposits that raised riverbeds higher and higher, until the dikes and banks bordering them literally lifted some of China’s northern rivers into the air. The waters of these so-called hanging rivers flowed at a higher level than the surrounding lands; the Huang (Yellow) River is the most notorious of these.

In southern China, warm and humid weather allowed cut vegetation to grow back more quickly than in the north, but still the speed with which trees were cut down was even faster. Southern hills were normally covered with dwarf trees and bushes whose shallow root systems were completely inadequate to hold the soil in place during the torrential rains of the monsoon. Firewood became so expensive that eventually the Chinese had to find creative ways of conserving fuel; they invented a fuel-efficient stove as early as the second century BCE in which a small amount of straw, hay stalks, or the stalks of crops could be burned and generate a short but intense heat. The Chinese method of stir-fry cooking was extremely fuel-efficient, as the ingredients were prepared and chopped ahead of time, and needed only minimal time on the fire to be cooked thoroughly. The stove was built in such a way that, after cooking two or three stir-fry dishes, the residue heat in the stove and ash could be used to boil water or cook rice. Indeed, the art of Chinese gourmet cooking is the direct result of a conservation-minded lifestyle.

In northern China, where animal husbandry was more common, people used dried animal dung (either in cakes or powder form) and grain husks as basic fuels for cooking and heating the home on winter days. Although these fuels burned at a lower temperature than wood, they produced a sustained heat that made the houses comfortable. While there is no literary record nor archeological evidence that indicates precise dates, heat channels under floors and beds that cond
ucted heat from the stove throughout the home are believed to have been invented no later than the second century BCE; they became commonplace in northern China no later than the ninth century BCE. In contrast to the south, northern Chinese cuisine relies heavily on steamed breads, fried pancakes, and boiled noodle soups, all of which can be produced economically by using just a small portion of such long-lasting heat.


Chinese agriculture emerged in northern China as early as 7000 to 6000 BCE, when millet was domesticated. The main crop in the south was rice, which was cultivated at about the same time. Early on, Chinese farmers practiced slash-and-burn agriculture (which burns or fells forests to create fields for crops or livestock) to open new fields; they also knew to leave some fields unplanted to preserve the richness of already opened land. By the third or fourth century BCE, population pressures in the highly crowded central plain (around the middle reaches of the Yangzi River) led to an extremely high population density that put a great burden on what little agricultural land was available. Farmers had to use relatively small patches of land to produce enough food to feed a large population, and as noted above, environmental conditions already were not favorable. Under such challenging conditions, Chinese farmers developed practices that were highly labor-intensive. Chinese farming required an enormous amount of human labor to produce food, and it had to draw upon extra labor during the busy harvest seasons. Farmers had to develop labor-consuming field management in order to utilize the soil, and the population, to their maximum capacities. The soil needed more workers, and the working population thus needed an increasing supply of food. It was a vicious circle.

To maximize the use of limited resources, Chinese farmers carefully calculated their timing in order to catch all available moisture when the winter snows melted, and they would cover the snow with mats in order to prevent it—and the water it would provide in the spring—from being blown away. They found various methods of shortening the growing seasons, such as interpolating crops. This planting of different crops alternately on a plot of land meant that nutrients that had been removed from the soil by one crop could be replenished by the one planted subsequently, thereby conserving the soil’s fertility. Rice farmers also used concentrated fields as nurseries, growing densely-planted sprouts in a very small area while another crop reached maturity in the larger fields; after the mature crop was harvested, the partially grown sprouts could be painstakingly transplanted into the larger field. Beginning in the second century CE, the size of China’s population meant that the country could no longer afford to leave more than a very few fields fallow. Most were in constant use for food production, and their soils came to depend entirely on fertilizers, as the original topsoil was completely exhausted. For fertilizers, they used burned ash, silt dredged from the bottoms of ponds, crumbled earthen walls, and the excrement of animals and humans. The skills necessary to use the intensely crowded land area most effectively eventually spread throughout China, even finding their way into neighboring countries.

This need for intensive cultivation also meant that there was little or no open pasture in which domestic animals could graze. The Chinese countryside was dotted with pigs and chickens, however these animals did not run wild. Rather, they were kept in enclosed yards or cages, and their waste was collected for use as fertilizer. Fish grew in hatcheries surrounded by fruit trees and other plants. Ducks were kept in ponds. The silt that collected at the bottom could be dredged up periodically and used to fertilize the fields. Thus a small, nearly independent ecosystem could develop around a pond next to a village.

Regional Interdependence

These local farming ecosystems were not completely independent of each other; they were part of a much larger system that brought together regional labor, land, and crops into an exchange network that constantly sought the most economic and efficient way to utilize local conditions and resources to produce essential goods. These products were not made for subsistence (that is, for personal use), but rather for trade, and might include staple goods, preserved or cooked foods, clothing, furniture, utensils, or tools. They were gathered by itinerant merchants to be sold in other areas. A network of hierarchically arranged market centers based in towns and cities spread throughout China and siphoned local products from rural areas, redistributing them elsewhere. Even when China suffered the chaos of internal division and civil war, the interregional economy was so tightly integrated that political divisions could not stop the exchange of goods and wealth.

A sustained and ongoing process of debate in which several schools of philosophy, most notably Confucianism and Daoism, eventually shaped the Chinese way of thinking took place during the sixth century BCE in China. In the emergent Chinese worldview, the cosmic order, the natural world, human society, and human individuals were all integrated into a comprehensive system in which energy and resources constantly circulated. The parts are inseparable from the whole. Consider, for example, the term mai, which means the veins and arteries of the human body; the very same term is also used to denote a river’s course, mountain ranges, a network of human relationships, a family’s lines of descent, or even a system of highways. The constant and unimpeded flow and circulation of energy, or Qi, through such systems—in the sky as atmosphere, in a person as spirit—is the very definition of vitality. Without a proper circulation of Qi, there is death. Chinese acupuncturists use the term xue, which signifies an important point of connection in which the human body’s circulating Qi gathers and disseminates; the same term xue is also applied in feng shui (Chinese geomancy) to describe a favorable site on which to construct a city, a house, or a grave.

The Chinese mentality, as reflected in the Confucian and Daoist philosophies, strives to achieve and maintain a balance between the order of the cosmos and nature on the one hand, and the order of human society on the other. Human effort should not be used for the conquest or exploitation of nature, but rather it should blend as much as possible with the movements of natural forces. Therefore, the ancient Chinese formed in their minds an interactive network between and among the cosmos, nature, human society, and the human individual; these various levels are understood to be interconnected and constantly engaging with one another in a carefully maintained dynamic equilibrium. To upset any part of the balance is to tempt adverse repercussions throughout the entire system. Hence, the Chinese believe that the misuse of nature by humans will return in the form of nature’s retaliation. In the same mode, the Confucian motto of forbearance states: “Do not do unto others what you do not wish them to do to you.” For the Chinese, the system of interrelations and balances includes the small ecosystem around a pond, the larger farmstead and its natural surroundings, and the enormous marketing network for the exchange of resources. Feng shui, literally translated, means “wind and water.” The terminology is quite telling, in that it reveals the fundamental belief that human life is heavily influenced by the blowing winds and the flow of the waters.

Further Reading

Elvin, M., & Liu, T. J. (Eds.). (1998). Sediments of time: Environment and society in Chinese history. New York: Camb
ridge University Press.

Hsu, C. (1980). Han agriculture. Seattle: University of Washington Press.

Tucker, M. E., & Berthrong, J. (Eds.). (1998). Confucianism and ecology: The interrelation of heaven, earth, and humans. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Source: Hsu, Cho-yun. (2009). Environmental History—Ancient. In Linsun Cheng, et al. (Eds.), Berkshire Encyclopedia of China, pp. 731–735. Great Barrington, MA: Berkshire Publishing.

Coal-laden camels in Beijing. Coal has played a role as a major fuel source in China’s history from the fourth century.

Environmental History—Ancient (G?dài huánjìngsh? ?????)|G?dài huánjìngsh? ????? (Environmental History—Ancient)

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