The Columns

W&L Professor David A. Bello Explores Relationships Among People, Environment and History in New Book

— by on November 9th, 2015

David A. Bello, associate professor of East Asian history at Washington and Lee University, is interested in how relationships between people and their environment shape history. He explores that idea in his latest book, “Across Forest, Steppe and Mountain: Environment, Identity, and Empire in Qing China’s Borderlands” (Cambridge University Press).

In this work, he offers a new and radical interpretation of how China’s last dynasty, the Qing (1644–1912), relied on the interrelationship between ecology and ethnicity to incorporate the country’s far-flung borderlands, which included the additions of Tibet, Xinjiang, Mongolia and Manchuria, into the dynasty’s expanding empire.

He noted, “What’s critical about these relationships, is even in a conventional environmental historical approach, you usually have a scenario where people show up and cause a serious disturbance, like deforestation leading to extinction. This implies that animals respond to human action, never really vice-versa. In contrast, my analysis proceeds from the observation that humans are also responding to animal action, so that human-animal relations are mutually conditioning.”

One example he uses to illustrate his point occurred in Manchuria, in what is now northeastern China. “The Manchurian people were very good at mounted archery, and that was the primary military advantage they had over far larger groups of Chinese at the time,” explained Bello. “But this skill was developed mainly by pursuing wild animals in the forests of Manchuria.” The key animal initiative here is that the prey ran away, which presented a challenge to the humans that developed their military skills.

When the Manchus conquered China and begin living in areas where they were no longer engaged in hunting animals, they were no longer soldiers. “Historians have interpreted this loss purely as cultural assimilation,” said Bello. “Certainly, there is an interaction with the far larger number of Chinese people who maintain urban and agricultural institutions of great transformative power. There’s no question that one group of people is exerting change on another group of people, but I argue that critical change is not generated by mere human interaction from ethnic Chinese influence on these Manchus. An equally significant factor, ignored by people-centered historians, is that the Qing occupation of China alienates Manchus from their relationship with wild animals back home in Manchuria. They can’t bow hunt cows from horseback because the cows won’t cooperate. So, in the end, it’s the Manchu warriors who become extinct.”

Bello has been traveling to China since 1988, and for the past 10 years, with Glenn and Lenfest funding from W&L, has spent every summer there examining the administrative records written in Manchu. He explained that while most historians accept the idea that the Manchurians were culturally assimilated by the Chinese, the details of how that happened are incomplete and misleading. “I’m providing those very specific explanations based on Manchu documents that most people who work in Chinese history can’t read because it’s not in Chinese, it’s in a Chinese minority people’s language.”

As well as his example of Manchurian hunters, Bello presents additional evidence focusing on mosquitos and different populations’ resistance to malaria in indigenous areas of southwestern China and interdependencies between herders and livestock in Inner Mongolia.

“There’s been some quibbling by scholars about the degree to which these populations can be said to have assimilated by the ethnic Chinese — whether they lost their culture or whether they just adapted it,” said Bello. “All assume, however, that people are always behind this change; it’s always people changing people. I’m showing how when people’s relationship to their ecology changes, that makes them more vulnerable to human change. If the Manchus or Mongolians had maintained their relationships with their particular environment, it’s unlikely that this purely human assimilation or acculturation would ever have occurred.”