Fir and Empire
The Transformation of Forests in Early Modern China
- PUBLISHED: June 2020
- SUBJECT LISTING: History / Environmental History, Asian Studies / China, Environmental Studies
- BIBLIOGRAPHIC INFORMATION: 296 Pages, 6 x 9 in, 9 b&w illus., 4 maps, 5 tables
- SERIES: Weyerhaeuser Environmental Books
- ISBN: 9780295747330
The disappearance of China’s naturally occurring forests is one of the most significant environmental shifts in the country’s history, one often blamed on imperial demand for lumber. China’s early modern forest history is typically viewed as a centuries-long process of environmental decline, culminating in a nineteenth-century social and ecological crisis. Pushing back against this narrative of deforestation, Ian Miller charts the rise of timber plantations between about 1000 and 1700, when natural forests were replaced with anthropogenic ones. Miller demonstrates that this form of forest management generally rested on private ownership under relatively distant state oversight and taxation. He further draws on in-depth case studies of shipbuilding and imperial logging to argue that this novel landscape was not created through simple extractive pressures, but by attempts to incorporate institutional and ecological complexity into a unified imperial state.
Miller uses the emergence of anthropogenic forests in south China to rethink both temporal and spatial frameworks for Chinese history and the nature of Chinese empire. Because dominant European forestry models do not neatly overlap with the non-Western world, China’s history is often left out of global conversations about them; Miller’s work rectifies this omission and suggests that in some ways, China’s forest system may have worked better than the more familiar European institutions.
Authors & Contributors
Ian M. Miller is assistant professor of history at St. John’s University.
Miller’s monograph, supported by solid evidence and compelling arguments, enables the reader to explore this long arc of Chinese civilization from the unique perspective of environmental history.- Choice
[O]ffers a transformation of our understanding of China’s early modern environmental history...a sweeping book...not only tells a story that will have wide impacts for the field, but manages to create an intimate look at what China’s forest management system looked like to those trying to operate and profit from it.- New Books in East Asian Studies (NBN)
The concisely written chapters are packed with period surveys and local vignettes, which give this relatively short book considerable depth.- Agricultural History
Miller has provided both historians of China and the environment with valuable new perspectives and a wealth of information.- H-Net
With clear prose, detailed maps, and ink brush paintings from primary sources, the book is a pleasure to read. Two appendices explaining the research methods and sources will find an eager audience among graduate students and other researchers. Undergraduates will appreciate carefully selected excerpts. All will apprehend that thisbook establishes new standards for scholarship on the long history of humans and forests in China.- Environmental History
This pathbreaking addition to the sparse English-language literature on China’s forest history far surpasses all existing works in terms of scope and scholarly rigor. Miller’s work and the arguments it advances could genuinely transform the field of Chinese environmental history.- Micah S. Muscolino, University of California, San Diego
Excellent . . . Miller problematizes the notion of Chinese premodern deforestation and, more broadly and significantly, the idea that premodern China was somehow deficient in its environmental governance in comparison to its European contemporaries.- David A. Bello, author of Across Forest, Steppe and Mountain: Environment, Identity and Empire in Qing China’s Borderlands