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Doing Chinese Environmental History

Updated: Jan 13


This article argues that scholars should see environmental history not as a specialized subfield but as a research paradigm useful to all students of modern China. It first presents an expanded definition of an “historical actor” and encourages scholars to integrate a range of organic and inorganic Others into their cast of characters. The article then addresses the subject of the environment and time, proposing alternative ways of periodizing Chinese history, linked to the idea of the Anthropocene. In the final section the discussion turns to the problem of space, focusing on the ways that Qing history has reshaped our understanding of the relationship between the natural world, center and periphery, and state formation. Setting aside both declensionist and triumphalist narratives about China’s past, this article suggests that the methods, concepts, and research agenda of environmental history can enrich the work of all students of Chinese history regardless of specialization.

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