I am an environmental historian with one foot in the past and one in the present. My research explores how historical trajectories shape China’s contemporary water challenges. I have to admit that my focus on China's environment was an accident. Suffice it to say that during my dissertation research on a very different topic at the #2 Historical Archives in Nanjng I kept encountering archival records of the Huai River Conservancy Commission. I decided to follow the sources. It was a fortuitous development as China was experiencing severe water quantity and quality challenges (during the 1990s) that could best be understood in historical context.
My research focuses on the social construction of water management during the 20th and early 21st centuries (with an emphasisi on the PRC period (1949-). Two broad questions guide my scholarship: 1) How have Chinese states after 1911 employed modern science and technology to advance their respective state- and nation-building efforts? and 2) What have been the environmental consequences of these efforts? These issues lay at the heart of modern Chinese history. China has experimented with a variety of political forms in the 20th Century: republicanism, quasi-fascism, communism, and “socialism with Chinese characteristics.” Transcending these experiments are historical patterns: the introduction of modern science and technology, industrial development, the “internationalization of China,” and ecological disequilibria. China’s environmental challenges are global challenges. Understanding the historical trajectory of the social, political, cultural, and technological forces that shape China’s ecological ledger allows us to better appreciate the range of choices available to China as it confronts these dilemmas.
Extinction and Conservation on the Yangtze River
My current research project, “Death and Life on the Yangtze: Extinction, Conservation, and Environmental Change in China” (under contract with Harvard), completes the trilogy on China’s major waterways by sticking my head underwater to explore the social construction of extinction and conservation of aquatic species in China. The project compares the fate of two critically endangered Yangtze River freshwater cetaceans: the Baiji dolphin, presumed extinct by 2006, and the Finless porpoise, a subject of ongoing conservation efforts. Specific questions include: How was animal life perceived between the Maoist and post-Mao periods? How was the science of conservation biology introduced in China during the post-Mao era? How do conservation efforts fit patterns of bureaucratic behavior in China? How has the term “biodiversity” been adopted by different social constituencies in China during the post-Mao era?
The impact of the project lies in its contemporary relevance. Discourses on climate change, biodiversity, and the “sixth extinction,” signal a need for environmental historians to contribute their unique perspectives to these conversations. Patterns of China’s resource development and their impact on landscapes and biodiversity are having a global reach. My project adopts a case study of extinction and conservation to surface attitudes toward animal life, biodiversity, and conservation biology in China that will drive policies and practices that will shape global patterns of resource exploitation and conservation. The project has been supported with a UA Social and Behavioral Sciences Seed Grant, an Isaac Manasseh Meyer Fellowship (National University of Singapore), a Carnegie Fellowship (2020-22), a Guggenheim Fellowship (2020-21), and a Fulbright Scholar Award (2020).
Historicizing the Yellow River
My second book, The Yellow River: The Problem of Water in Modern China (Harvard, 2015), is a historical exploration of China’s current water challenges – challenges that shape internal discourse and condition China’s participation in international networks. Specifically, The Yellow River focuses on the management of water in the Yellow River and the North China Plain since 1949. The research explicates three issues: 1) how hydraulic engineering shaped, and was shaped by, state-building, national identity, and the pursuit of communist modernity; 2) how the waterscape was transformed during the Maoist era; and 3) the legacies of Maoist water development for the reform period. The Yellow River engages scholarship on the social context of science and technology and on the co-construction of culture and nature. The Yellow River received the 2016 Cecil B. Curry Book Award from the Association of Global South Studies. Research for, and writing of, the book was supported by the Mellon Foundation (Needham Research Institute for the Study of the History of East Asian Science, Medicine and Technology, Cambridge University, 2005), the American Philosophical Foundation (Franklin Research Grant, 2005), the National Science Foundation (Scholar's Grant, 2005-07), the National Endowment for the Humanities (Research Grant, 2007-08), and a Willis S. Doney Fellowship from the Institute for Advanced Study, School for Historical Studies (Princeton, 2011-12).
Engineering the Huai River
My first book, Engineering the State: The Huai River and Reconstruction in Nationalist China (Routledge, 2002, 2017) is an institutional history of the Huai River Conservancy Commission during the “Nanjing decade” (1927-37). Over the past several decades, research on the Nationalist era (1927-49) has embedded the period in a larger context of 20th century Chinese history. The book explores how the Nationalist Government, drawing on global models like the Tennessee Valley Authority, recruited technical expertise, promoted modern science and technology, and managed resources to bolster their state- and nation-building goals. Support for this project came from a Pacific Cultural Foundation Research Fellowship (1996-97), a China Times Cultural Foundation Research Grant (1996-97), and an American Council of Learned Societies/Chiang Ching-kuo Foundation Fellowship for Dissertation Research (1995-96).
Future Scholarly Trajectory
After I complete Death and Life on the Yangtze, I believe it will be an appropriate point in my career to attempt more synthetic treatments of China’s environmental history. I have contracts with Cambridge University Press for a text entitled The Environmental History of Modern China, and with Palgrave for Water and Human Societies: A Sourcebook (with Dorothy Zeisler-Vralsted).