Post by Fei Sheng
“Yellow” has a unique meaning in the Chinese conception of environment and society. We have always believed that our civilization—which, despite small interruptions, has never been significantly disrupted during the last 4,000 or even 5,000 years—is derived from the soil of our mother land, the Yellow Highland (Loess Plateau), and from the water of our mother river, the Yellow River. Defining us within a settled and agricultural tradition, “yellow” is the symbol of all that is stable, fertile, and peaceful. Is this an accurate representation of our country? Does it reflect our understanding of environment and history?
As an environmental historian, I could hardly say “yes.” Our history has, in effect, always been colored by its interactions with various environments and civilizations. It was never narrowly confined to the yellow farm land. We should never forget that Chinese history was full of stories of brilliant nomads. If we had not met with the pastoral groups of previous generations, there would be neither the Great Wall nor the Forbidden City, indications of how Manchurians, Mongolians, and other ethnic groups influenced and integrated into our history. We should never forget that Chinese history is filled with wonderful voyagers who set sail from the Korean Peninsula to the Horn of Africa and from the muddy shoals to the blue oceans.
Today, China is facing dramatic changes both in environment and in society. Skyfall, the latest James Bond movie, captures the marvellous skyscrapers and neon lights of Shanghai, a symbol of our rocketing economy. However, we also see the rivers run black and the plants turn to brown. We hear from the environmentalists, who make loud appeals to public and government: save our yellow land. Significant! Nevertheless, I would like to complement this sentiment with a few more words: we should seek to build a truly colorful future.
Yellow can be a symbol of wealth, fortune, and nobility, while green can be a symbol of health, refreshment, and equality. They are all needed for China’s rising. Moreover, we need our blue sky, our red flowers, and our clean water back from the menace of noxious haze, ruthless bulldozer, and humming factory. Together, government and civil society should adjust our economic policy and review our traditional customs, respecting local people’s experiences and learning from other countries.
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Fei Sheng is is an environmental historian and an assistant professor at the School of Asian-Pacific Studies, Sun Yat-Sen University in Guangzhou, China. He was an RCC Fellow in 2012.