The Sandstorms in Beijing
As someone from South China who is accustomed to humidity, the first time I went to Beijing I was struck by its dryness, especially in winter. My proximal nail folds cracked, no matter how much hand cream I put on. For Beijing citizens, sandstorms and smog are the twin horrors. One year the sandstorm was so thick it painted the sky orange. Even if you sealed all the windows, the next day your tables and floors would be covered by sand. The spring wind blows it in from the Gobi Desert. The smog, by contrast, has many culprits: fossil fuels, coal, heavy industry, too many cars. The tiny particles hang in the air waiting to be breathed in and no one can escape from it. Even the supreme leader has to breathe the same polluted air as the rest of us. People in Beijing hate the wind for bringing the sand but love it for blowing the smog away.
China has been combating desertification for more than four decades. Since 1978 the National Forestry and Grasslands Administration has been planting poplars across a vast area of the Northwest, North and Northeast to hold back the encroaching Gobi. The Three-North Shelter Forest Programme, or Great Green Wall, claims to be the largest eco project on the planet. The trees hold the earth and resist the wind, though there are concerns about the lack of biodiversity and the amount of groundwater the poplars absorb. There is also another slight nuisance: every March and April, they shed huge amounts of pollen (‘spring snow’), which a lot of people are allergic to, though this has been less of a problem during the pandemic since everyone started wearing masks.
In recent years, private enterprises such as Alibaba have joined in with the tree planting. The Alipay app includes a game called ‘Ant Forest’ which allows you to collect ‘digital green energy’ by cycling to work, going paperless or stealing from your friends’ accounts (more fun). When you have enough ‘green energy’, you can adopt a real tree. By August 2019, according to the company, more than 500 million people had joined the Alipay Ant Forest Green Programme, planting more than 100 million trees over an area of 112,000 hectares in Northwest China.
My first tree was a sea buckthorn in Inner Mongolia. It wasn’t long before Ant Forest started selling us sea buckthorn juice from our own trees. They sold a million bottles in three seconds. Profits went to the Poverty Alleviation Foundation. It’s a win-win-win scenario for the government, the private sector and the game-loving masses.
People may be cycling enough to collect their ‘digital green energy’ but Beijing still has too many cars. As well as contributing to the smog the heavy traffic has led Beijingers to adopt a peculiar dinner plan, liushuixi, with meals served separately to each guest as they arrive. You can’t go Dutch at a Beijing banquet, as guests come and go depending on the traffic situation, while the host has to stay for the whole night and pay at the end. The government tried to reduce traffic using a number plate restriction policy, with odd-numbered plates allowed out on certain days of the week and even-numbered plates on the other days. But people bought two cars (one odd plate and one even) to drive on alternate days.
Winter heating is another smog contributor. China has been relying on wood and coal for thousands of years. The third emperor of the Ming dynasty relocated the capital from Nanjing to Beijing – a thousand kilometres to the north – at the beginning of the 15th century, during the Little Ice Age. There are records of snow in midsummer and extreme weather events including torrential rain and typhoons, as well as increased sightings of dragons. Snow scenes and dragons are both more common in Ming paintings than those of earlier dynasties.
The heating system in the Forbidden City (built for the third Ming emperor) is a wonder and modern visitors are often amazed that there isn’t a chimney in sight. The heating tunnels that extend in all directions beneath the palaces, like a Roman hypocaust, were known as the ‘underground dragon’. High quality, smokeless coal was burned slowly in underground brick furnaces, so the royals wouldn’t have to endure the -30°C freezes. The empress dowager, empress and high-ranking royal concubines had indoor braziers with a special kind of charcoal, which burned with a sweet fragrance. Concubines who fell out of favour would be sent to a place called the ‘cold palace’.
After 1949, everyone in Beijing depended for fuel on briquettes made from coal slag. When the gas cooker entered the household, one of the husbands’s duties was carrying and changing the gas tank. Nowadays Beijing is supplied by mass central heating, from several giant gas thermal power plants. To tackle the smog problem, the city has been undergoing a large-scale project to replace coal gas with natural gas, as well as shutting down many heavy polluting factories nearby. In February, China signed a thirty-year gas deal with Russia. Since 2015, Beijing has reduced fine particulate pollution by 58.3 per cent and residents are seeing more and more blue sky.
According to ancient Chinese cosmology, humanity is an integral part of tian (a word with no direct English equivalent, but usually translated as ‘nature’, ‘heaven’ or ‘transcendence’). The regime’s legitimacy came from heaven, and the emperor could be seen as the earthly embodiment of the dragon – a creature of heaven. Unlike Western dragons, Chinese dragons were always associated with water, and believed to be responsible for rain, floods and storms. People prayed to the dragon for rain during a drought, but the appearance of dragons during extreme weather events was a sign that heaven was displeased with the emperor’s rule. In other words, dragons were more often spotted when people were unhappy with the emperor. If a bad emperor drowned, it was seen as punishment from heaven via the claw of dragon. Anomalies in the weather were believed to be a prelude to political turmoil or grave injustice.
Astrometeorology was important at court: if the emperor knew precisely when a comet would visit or the next lunar eclipse would be, he could prepare his policies accordingly. The smart royal concubines knew how to bribe the astrometeorologist to make the stars align to their benefit. Jesuit missionaries may have finally gained access to the imperial court thanks to their knowledge of astronomy. The Qing emperor Shunzhi even put a German Jesuit, Johann Adam Schall von Bell, in charge of the imperial observatory and modifying the Chinese calendar.
It wasn’t until Mao, who claimed that humanity must dominate nature, that the bond was broken. The Chinese embraced the secular age and tried to tame nature in every possible way. We cut down trees, reclaimed the seas, dammed the rivers, polluted the air, and now suffer the consequences. There are more weather anomalies every year, but no one claims to see dragons any more.
This piece is part of the LRB’s collaboration with the World Weather Network.