Salient. An Organ of Student Opinion at Victoria University, Wellington N.Z. Vol. 22, No. 1. March 2, 1959
Inside China Today — Man and Nature in China
Inside China Today
Man and Nature in China
Among the most striking achievements of China in the last decade has been the dramatic change in the attitude of the Chinese people to their environment. The hopelessness, the feeling of helplessness in the face of natural or man-made calamity which long characterised man's attitude to nature in China, have given place to an unswerving faith in the capacity of man to dominate his environment and create a world of plenty.
The quality of Chinese traditional peasant life is vividly depicted in the novels of Pearl Buck. Between population and food supply there was a delicate equilibrium—"an equilibrium measured to the limit of exactitude, poised on the knife edge of starvation." It was an equilibrium shattered easily by any one of the great natural calamities which ravaged China with monotonous and tragic regularity—by flood or by drought, by typhoon or locust plagues; shattered, too, by man-made calamities such as war or civil strife.
This is the first of a series of articles by Professor K. M. Buchanan (professor of geography) on his recent visit to China and North Vietnam.
In the face of these calamities the peasant was helpless, stricken by a fatal resignation. In "The Good Earth," the father of Wang Lung sees his family starving, reduced to eating grass and bark, yet can still say "There have been worse days, there have been worse days. Once I saw men and women eating children."
Here was a society whose material poverty could scarcely be described; in which there was no standard of living in the western sense, in which mere existence was the standard. . . . The peasant was dumbly acquiescent in his [unclear: fate] and his evaluation of the situation was shared by most western scientists. It's true the fatalism of the scientists expressed itself in differents terms; it invoked shortage of arable land, overpopulation, the "procreative recklessness" of the peasants, as root causes of the situation. But both peasant and scientist accepted the inevitability of hunger, the helplessness of man confronted with a task beyond his power.
"We stamp our feet, and the earth trembles;
We blow a breath, and the roaring river makes way;
We lift our hands, and mighty mountains shiver;
We stride forward, and none dare block our path;
We are the workers—our strength is inviolable."
The justification for this new found confidence lies in the achievements during the first Five Year Plan, above all. In the achievements of 1958, the "Year of the Great Leap Forward." Tree-planting on a vast scale, water conservancy projects designed to eliminate flood and drought, the extension of irrigation, new techniques in agriculture and new forms of social organisation—all these have contributed to the great expansion of food production. Grain output was doubled last year, and with the food problem solved the old feeling of helplessness, bred partly by malnutrition, has been replaced by an unbounded confidence in the future.
Much of China's rural poverty has been explained by geographers in terms of difficulties of the physical environment such as shortage of arable land, uncontrollable rivers, or the vagaries of the Chinese climate. These factors may have played a role, but their importance was aggravated by the defective organisation of society, by the instability and ineffectiveness of the Central Government and by a landholding system which facilitated the ruthless exploitation of the peasant.
"We blow a breath, and the earth trembles;
We lift our hands, and mighty mountains shiver ..."
I would find the explanation for the great and accelerating transformation of the land of China, not in any merciless regimentation of the people of China, but in the release of the suppressed and latent energy of 500 million peasant folk. I would stress that the process of change did not finish there for, if social change made possible the shaping of a new environment so, too, the process of remodelling the environment itself stimulated further change. "As men transformed nature, their own way of thinking was transformed too."
As more ambitious schemes of water conservation or afforestation were initiated the need for bigger community groupings with bigger resources of manpower and capital became obvious. The agricultural co-operative was too small a unit for such schemes—and so the new commune system was born. It was born in the countryside, from the experience of the peasant masses and not, as some would have us believe, Imposed arbitrarily on the peasants by an edict from Peking. Only if we realise this "grassroots" origin of the commune system can we understand its enthusiastic adoption by peasants through the length and breadth of China.
Remodelling of China
The conscious remodelling of China geography by 650 million people takes many forms; I can give here only a few examples.
The Chinese living space has been occupied by man for many thousands of years. Over the centuries the natural vegetation of the plains has been cleared to make; way for cropland; the forests on the upland areas have been relentlessly destroyed as a result of! the increasing quest for fuel.
Today only one-tenth of the! country is forested. Deforestation has caused a shortage of fuel and constructional timber; even more important has been its effect on the country's river regimes. A forest cover reduces rates of run-off and regularizes river flow; deforestation means rapid run-off and violent flooding of the rivers after heavy rain. Because of the obvious benefits of afforestation there has been a vigorous programme of tree planting. Some 28 million acres were afforested under the first Five Year Plan.
The hills of Southern and Central China are being reclothed in forests and, on the desert margins of China, the bare and sun scorched hills are carefully terraced and planted with young trees. The North China Plain is gridded with young shelter belts, and along the margins of the Gobi a new Great Wall of trees, one thousand miles long and a mile wide, is arresting the drift of sand and the scorching winds from the interior. Around the villages and along the roads and railways literally thousands of millions of trees have been planted; 8000 million in the first three months of 1958 alone. The vegetation map is being completely transformed and in less than a decade the ravages of centuries made good.
Some of the most striking achievements have been In the field of flood control. Drought and flood were the twin ravages of much of China; only under a strong and efficient government could any attempt be made to overcome these hazards. Water conservancy projects have taken several forms. There has been a great proliferation of small scale projects—sinking of wells, construction of small page 7 scale dams and storage ponds—which gain in effectiveness if planned and co-ordinated over a wide area. There are medium scale projects such as the Tao Canal system near Lanchow, which benefits 30,000 square miles, with a population of 41/2 million. Finally, there are the major schemes such as the schemes for controlling the Hwai River and the Yellow River.
These are multipurpose schemes, involving flood control, water storage and irrigation and power generation; the most ambitious scheme involves the diversion of surplus water from the Yangtse north into the basin of the Yellow River. By 1960 the danger of flood and drought will have been eliminated and virtually all cultivated land will be irrigated. Meanwhile, last year alone 80 million acres of land were brought under irrigation. In the field, too, millions of peasants are now consciously remodelling nature and creating a world from which some of the old causes of famine have been banished.
Afforestation, the planting of shelter belts, and water conservation schemes have in turn provided a basis for the great expansion of agricultural productivity achieved during the last year or so. Together with more efficient types of agricultural organisation—the co-operative and the commune—and new cropping techniques, such as deep plowing, closer planting, use of better seeds and tenfold increase in the application of manures, they made possible a doubling of the grain yield in a single year.
The yields achieved on trial plots seem fantastic by Western standards; yields of up to 60 tons of rice to the acre have been achieved and it is confiently claimed that "the land will yield as much as man dares to make it." It is, I think, difficult to overemphasize the importance of the commune in these dramatic developments; it is large enough to be a workable unit for purposes of flood control or other major development projects, and it provides an institutional framework within which improved agricultural techniques can be applied with maximum advantage.
The wider implications of these changes hardly need stressing. The Chinese peasantry, one-quarter of humanity, are emerging from the corroding poverty of their past. Bowed down for centuries in backbreaking toil, prisoners of a stagnating agricultural system, they are now lifting up their heads and asserting their capacity to dominate their environment, to bend it to their needs.
Man in China is now an "ecologic dominant." The eventual outcome is a new geography of China, for with rapidly increasing grain yields it will be possible to reduce the area devoted to food crops and to allocate more land to forestry, animal husbandry and fisheries. When the average yield per acre reaches 30 tons, which Chinese experts claim is an attainable figure, a mere 35 million acres will be needed to support 650 million people. Then, as one writer puts it, "the entire country will be transformed into a huge garden."
These developments are of vital importance to the world. They illustrate how the release of human energies and enthusiasm through a social and political revolution has made possible the creation of an entirely new relationship between man and his environment. They illustrate how, in the shaping of this new environment, new needs and new opportunities have brought into being new forms of social organisation.
If, as seems likely, the Chinese experiment suceeds, their achievements will have a major impact on the uncommitted countries of South and East Asia. The Chinese success in creating, within the framework of a Communist society, a new world of plenty will be taken as evidence of the superiority of that society by the small and struggling nations on China's southern fringes. At that moment, a new world power balance will be struck.