Mark Elvin

Mark Elvin, a professor emeritus of Chinese history at Australian National University, is the author of The Pattern of the Chinese Past and The Retreat of the Elephants: An Environmental History of China.

Outposts of Progress

Mark Elvin, 19 October 1995

Environmental history is concerned with the ways in which the production of goods and services has both transformed, and been constrained by, the natural infrastructure on which human survival and economic activity depend. Climate perhaps apart, this infrastructure is only imperfectly visible – at best – to anyone who is not a scientist. Most of it consists of biogeochemical cycles – of carbon, nitrogen, H2O etc – mediated in large measure by plants and micro-organisms that maintain inter alia the atmosphere, the soil and the availability and quality of water. Those causes and effects that are more easily observable are often in practice widely separated from each other by time, space and intermediate links that are not so easy to detect. An example is the ocean plankton Emiliania at times visible as huge ‘blooms’ in the seas, which both stores carbon dioxide – a ‘greenhouse gas’ – in its shell, and emits dimethyl sulphide, which, suitably transformed, provides condensation sites for water vapour and causes clouds to form over the oceans.

Watch the waste paper

Mark Elvin, 19 August 1993

Nearly four years ago now I was the executive producer of a film, Hong Kong: The Hidden Fear. The editing was finished in June 1989, almost on the day of the events in Tiananmen Square. Its gentle, balanced and in-depth probing was swamped by the images of Chinese government violence then sweeping the world. Though I did not know it at the time, the film was to be the end for me of years of involvement with the problems of the future of the Territory. For many of these years I was a member of the Friends off Hong Kong Committee, an admirable body on which I ceased to be active when I moved to Canberra.

China’s Crisis

Mark Elvin, 5 November 1992

In less than a hundred years, the Chinese have lost two systems of belief. During the first quarter of the present century they rejected Confucianism or, more precisely, scriptural Confucianism as opposed to habits of mind often given the ‘Confucian’ label. And at the beginning of the last quarter of this century, Maoist Communism ceased to be credible. It is not surprising, therefore, that a complex confusion about morals, world-views and the purposes of life now reigns in the thinking stratum of Chinese society, especially among the young. David Rice’s Dragon’s Brood is a marvellously fresh and immediate evocation of this confusion at what one might call the first level of perception – that of the serious visit. Rice is innocent of any real knowledge of Chinese culture or Chinese history, and has to work through an interpreter, but he has a good journalist’s sense of the core of a human character, and a gift for asking questions. He has not been deceived by the usual stage props, and he persuades his informants to say blunt, even brutal, things. ‘I could tell people enjoyed seeing the men killed,’ says one of a political execution. ‘In all our institutions, never forget there is a double tier of existence – one written down, and the other one, the things that really happen,’ says another. Above all, Rice presents conflicting views and avoids peddling a single line of interpretation. In spite of its apparent superficiality, his book achieves real depth.’

Revolutionary Gaze

Mark Elvin, 4 November 1982

I remember very clearly a visit to the art college in Nanking in April 1976. The suffocating presence of Jiang Qing (Mao’s wife and aesthetic dictator of the day) could be felt almost everywhere. Even so, there was quite a variety of work on show: some stiff, hieratic seal-style calligraphy, and experiments in inking landscapes on soft absorbent paper in unusual ways, as well as the endless, predictable sunlit parade of pictures on the approved themes of Maoist revolutionary romanticism – stage lighting, theatrical poses, crowds contrasting with lone figures frozen in the ‘revolutionary gaze’(as we called it), half-defiant, half-messianic, eyes fixed at 45 degrees on some distant future. Occasionally there was the odd piece that came to life in spite of it all. I recall a small lithograph (I think it was) where a cool jet of irrigation water arched across the deep dark green of an upland valley, while the sun shone yellow on a plain far below, sparkling with pylons.

History on Trial

Mark Elvin, 19 February 1981

The carefully contrived piece of political theatre that opened in Peking in November, ran almost to the New Year, and ended off-stage in January with a wrangle between the producers over the dénouement, was altogether a tangle of paradoxes. The trial of the ten was a performance, scripted and rehearsed at a pre-trial session in the summer. But it was not sufficiently predictable to be entrusted to full public exposure. There were 800 court tickets, available to members of selected units. Everyone else had to depend on selective transcripts and edited film footage. The proceedings were thus, in a sense, both public and secret. What appeared to be one trial was also, in fact, two. For all practical purposes, the Lin Piao and Chiang Ch’ing factions appeared in two different courtrooms simultaneously. This was appropriate enough. By the late 1960s the two had become deadly rivals. But the prosecution maintained that all the accused formed part of a single, continuing Lin-Chiang conspiracy. Why the late Marshal Lin’s accomplices were belatedly drawn into the trial is not clear. They had languished nine years in jail since their leader’s unsuccessful coup and death. Would it have been too blatantly anti-Mao to try the Four on their own? Is that why the old man’s nephew, Yuan-hsin, has now been put in the dock separately? Or was the decision motivated by the desire to bring both the distinctive factions of the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution before the bar of justice? To try, by implication, an entire era?

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