McLaren: Eco-Fiction in China

The lower Yangzi delta, including the water towns of Suzhou and Hangzhou, has long been known as one of China’s most beautiful regions. The Chinese poet, Du Mu (803-852) wrote a famous poem called “Spring at Jiangnan”: “For a thousand miles the warbling of orioles, red set amongst the green/ Along the waterways, villages and hills flags fly from taverns with mellow wine”.


However, in the contemporary period the old region of Jiangnan has become one of China’s most industrialized areas. The former rice paddy ecology has been completely transformed.


As elsewhere in China, the delta has suffered chronic environmental pollution and unprecedented natural disasters. In July 2016 the Chinese heartland was struck by the most serious flooding in several decades. Official estimates are that 31 million people were affected by floods in 12 provinces.


While flooding has been a regular occurrence throughout Chinese history, the disasters of 2016 stand out for their severity. Wild rain, tornados and a fierce hail storm devastated parts of Jiangsu province, in the lower Yangzi delta.


One of the major factors in the increase of flooding along coastal China is the high rate of urbanization and the filling in of the low-lying paddy fields to build urban conurbations. Flooding is not the only environmental problem in the Yangzi delta. As elsewhere in China, people worry about toxic smog, acid rain and pollution in food and drinking water.


Death in Jiangnan


Chinese authors increasingly write about the impact of environmental damage on the psychology of the people. Ge Fei’s “Death in Jiangnan” (春尽江南2011), for example, is the third novel in a trilogy about generations of people living in the lower Yangzi delta. In this novel, the toxic environment stands for the problems brought about by accelerated modernization, a decline in traditional moral norms and rampant capitalism. Toxic smog symbolizes the increasing demoralization of the central characters in the novel.


“The suns’s rays are not very strong; the sun is covered in layers of cloud and toxic haze. From a distance it looks like an over-exposed film negative. One of the good things brought about by air pollution is that at any time of day one can gaze directly at the sun and not worry about getting burned”.


“On days without wind, steam rises from the ground, sweeping up coal dust, sulphur dioxide, invisible toxic particles, lead and ash from burnt-off grain stubble.”


Rain does not bring relief from the squalor: “The heavy rain swept the street rubbish down to the river. Scrap paper, plastic foam, drink bottles, a mass of rubbish of all types massed together in floating islands of scum. In the stink from the river one could detect the smell of burnt tyres.”


Even the Grand Canal, which once brought southern rice to the Beijing court, has lost its grandeur: “the shoals choked with clumps of weeds, black sludge gleaming, a stench that assaults the nostrils”.


The characters in the novel eat potato chips fried in gutter oil, that is, oil discarded with food scraps and illegally recovered and sold back to restaurants. Unwittingly they purchase puffed rice laced with fluorescent chemicals. As the novel progresses illness, depression and cancer increasingly dog the main protagonists.


According to Hu Wei, of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, through his trilogy, Ge Fei “explores the mentality of Chinese society over the past century. “Death in Jiangnan” focuses on the spirit of the contemporary period.” In the eyes of the poet Tan Duanwu and his lawyer wife, Ge Fei “has struck directly at the painful dilemma of the current age” (Shehui kexue luntan 2012, No. 8, 241).


The Smog Society


Those interested in China’s eco-fiction will be interested also in Chen Qiufan (also known as Stanley Chan), an acclaimed author of science fiction. In the short story, “The Smog Society (霾)”, Chen describes a retired man who does voluntary work for the Beijing Smog Society, which tests air quality in sites throughout the city. Lao Sun lives on the seventeenth floor of a Beijing apartment. When he wakes up in the morning he sees only darkness: “It was the smog’s doing for sure”. As he leaves the building he observes that “people were like parasites burrowed into the smog”. The people he greets are all wearing filter masks “saving them the trouble of greeting him”.


Image for The Smog Society


In this short story Chen focuses on the psychological damage caused by extreme air pollution on the population of Beijing.


For an English translation see “The Smog Society” trans by Ken Liu and Carmen Liying Yan (Aug. 2015)




The Waste Tide


Chen Qiufan’s The Waste Tide (Huang chao 荒潮, 2013) is set in a place called Silicon Island which is homophonous with a place known as Island of Treasures (Guiyu) in Guangdong province. The real Guiyu is now the world’s largest electronic waste site. Thousands of villagers work in unprotected conditions on the recycling of electronic chips and valuable metals from one million tons a year of e-waste such as i-phones and i-pads. The majority of the children of Guiyu are reported to suffer lead poisoning.




The recycling of e-waste from within China and the rest of the world generates immense wealth for local companies but degradation for the local population. In an interview about The Waste Tide, Chen talks about the gap between the China Dream and the actual anxieties of the people: “Between the feeling of individual failure and the conspicuous display of national prosperity lies an unbridgeable chasm” (“The Torn Generation”, May 15 2014, trans by Ken Liu).


For more on Guiyu and the global problem of e-waste see YouTube clip Asia Society Sept 12 2007 “E-waste: Dumping on the Poor”.



On eco-sites and cultural heritage in Jiangsu see


Anne E. McLaren “Revitalisation of the folk epics of the Lower Yangzi Delta: an example of China’s Intangible Cultural Heritage”, International Journal of Intangible Heritage, Vol. 5 2010




Environmental Preservation and Cultural Heritage in China by Anne E. McLaren, Alex English, Xinyuan He and Catherine Ingram, Common Ground Sustainability Series, Champaign Illinois, 2013.


See also Anne McLaren essay: “China: Eco-sites and intangible cultural heritage”.


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