Prometheus and the Fishpond

A Historical Account of Agricultural Systems and Eco-Political Power in the People’s Republic of China

In September 2014, the village of Digang in Huzhou, China, hosted a symposium titled ‘The Traditional Culture of Mulberry-Bordered Fishponds and the Development of Ecological Civilisation’. It was meant to celebrate the recent selection of this ‘excellent man-made ecological system’ as a model of Nationally Important Agricultural Heritage (中国重要农业文化遗产). The choice was well made: few examples so beautifully demonstrate the capacity of traditional agricultural practices to achieve sustainable productivity. In the mulberry-bordered fishponds (桑基鱼塘), ‘mulberries are planted on dikes; fish are raised in ponds; leaves are picked to raise silkworms; silkworm detritus feeds fish; pond mud fertilises mulberries; [and so] fish grow fat and silkworms strong’ (Silkworm and Mulberry Bulletin 2014). Documented in imperial-era literature, this ‘system’ further offers a tangible example of ‘ecological civilisation’ (生态文明)—the ideal of engineered harmony between humans and nature that has risen steadily in political prominence during China’s reform era, culminating with President Xi Jinping’s endorsement in 2013 and its incorporation into the Constitution of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in 2018 (Goron 2018). The related projects of agricultural heritage and ecological civilisation promise that, by tapping the brilliant traditions and ongoing innovations of the Chinese people, the Chinese Communist Party can lead China, and the world, into a more prosperous and sustainable era.

It is hard to find fault with such an inspiring vision. If there is a flaw in the paradigm, it is one that the public is often inclined to embrace: the techno-optimistic mentality that humans can solve the twin crises of poverty and ecological destruction through better engineering. And if there is a political danger, it is abstract and indirect: the threat that ecological interventionism legitimises political authoritarianism, and holism masks totalitarianism, empowering the state to pursue a wide range of projects that are destructive to both society and nature (Li and Shapiro 2020). Not only are such arguments hard to explain, they also are politically uncomfortable in the context of the ‘new Cold War’, in which charges of authoritarianism and totalitarianism risk pathologising the PRC using recognisable tropes from the anticommunist past (Karl and Lanza 2021). And yet, we do need to be able to critique the Promethean techno-optimism that portrays unending growth as compatible with sustainability. And we must be able to critique examples of ‘eco-authoritarianism’, like that of the state-sponsored sedentarisation of pastoralists in western China—a move justified by (contested) claims about the ecological damage done to grasslands through pastoralism and which serves state economic goals while transforming traditional ways of life (Bum 2018).

In truth, the flaw in the paradigm and the political danger it poses are products not just of China’s specific constellation of politics and ideologies, but also more broadly of global capitalism and modernity, and as such are by no means absent in the United States and other Western countries. As in other parts of the globe, in China, ecological agriculture is historically rooted in two ideologies, economic thinking and systems thinking, both of which have the potential to encourage technocratic and growth-oriented approaches to managing the natural environment. And yet, it is hard to deny that these tendencies are especially powerful in China, where the state’s very active role and its utter commitment to technocracy and growth impede the kind of critical standpoint found in ecological agriculture circles elsewhere—and this inhibition has increased dramatically under Xi’s leadership (Goron 2018).

The risk that ecopolitics in China will further empower an oppressive, Promethean state is thus profound. At the same time, the legitimacy the state provides to ecological agriculture opens real opportunities for people seeking to make positive change. The question, in China and beyond, is how effectively people will be able to check oppressive forces and mitigate environmental crises through just and equitable means.

Late Imperial Era: Ecological/Economic Thinking

Supporters of ecological agriculture in China highlight the destruction wrought by modern industrial agriculture and promote various forms of traditional knowledge to restore balance. China has long enjoyed a global reputation for ancient farming wisdom based on holistic philosophy, so it is not surprising that Chinese proponents of environmentally sustainable farming have sought to document that history and mobilise its authority, projecting the ecosystems concept back on to people of earlier times. An example can be seen in Figure 1: building on the mulberry–silk–fish cycle, the chart further shows how pigs, sheep, and grain fit into the ‘ecological agriculture’ at work in Huzhou during the late Ming Dynasty (Min 2000: 13).


Figure 1: Chart showing how pigs, sheep, and grain fit into the ‘ecological agriculture’ at work in Huzhou during the late Ming Dynasty. PC: Min (2000: 13).


However, texts from the late imperial period do not demonstrate much interest in ecological systems. Rather, their authors were explicitly concerned with running profitable farms in the context of a commercialising economy. As a commonly quoted text from the sixteenth century summarised a similar set of practices (using fruit trees instead of mulberry): ‘He placed dozens of cash boxes in his room and every day placed the income from each source in different boxes, some for fish, some for fruit … His income was thrice what could be earned from fields’ (Li 16th C). In fact, before they came to the attention of environmentally minded scholars, such texts were used by economic historians as proof that China was already developing ‘sprouts of capitalism’ prior to nineteenth-century Western intrusions (Shang 1955).

The economic focus, and indeed commercialism, of these imperial-era texts does not appear to bother scholars promoting ecological agriculture in China. In this, they are arguably more in tune with the history of ecological thinking than any would-be critics. Ernst Haeckel coined the term ‘ecology’ in 1866 and defined it as ‘the body of knowledge concerning the economy of nature’—a phrase used also by Charles Darwin (Worster 1994: 192; emphasis added). An interest in farm economy would thus by no means preclude a budding concept of farm ecology: if we are going to fish in Chinese history for a concept of ‘ecology’, we would do well to recognise that in the West the concept emerged from Victorians who were conceiving of it in terms of their own rapidly commercialising economy. That commercial economics and ecology are closely intertwined in Chinese thinking today is thus not at all strange, but the uncritical preservation of this influence nonetheless has profound political consequences.

Mao Era: Systems Thinking

 In 1958, economic geographer Zhong Gongfu described the mulberry-bordered fishponds in language that continued to centre on economic management but within a new framework: ‘This is a cultivation system with tight production links … a cultivation method with three-fold, organically linked production involving planting mulberries, raising silkworms, and raising fish. It is a perfect, scientific agricultural production technology and business management system’ (Zhong 1958a: 259). To capture the practices as they had grown in recent decades to include sugar production, he created the ‘production links chart’ reproduced in Figure 2. His understanding reflected not only concepts specific to the political economy of 1950s China, but also the global phenomenon of systems thinking, which in the mid-twentieth century was transforming knowledge of nature and society around the world (Hammond 2003).


Figure 2: Zhong Gongfu’s ‘production links chart’. PC: Zhong (1958b: 245).

In China, systems thinking built on a Marxist concern for the dynamic relationships of parts within a whole: policies focused on bringing diverse things ‘together’ (结合), ‘undertaking simultaneously’ (并举), ‘integrating’ (综合), ‘developing holistically’ (全面发展), and ‘walking on two legs’ (两条腿走路)—so much so that I argue we should see integration as a core scientific-political value of the Mao era, alongside mass mobilisation, self-reliance, and the primacy of practice (Schmalzer 2021). Some of the most fundamental principles of Maoist political philosophy emphasise such synthesis—for example, the unity of theory and practice, along with the call for cadres to combine political and technical expertise to become ‘both red and expert’ (又红又专) (Schmalzer 2019). Agricultural science is full of more specific examples: ‘three-in-one’ (三结合) scientific experiment groups combined technicians with modern scientific expertise, old peasants with the wisdom of practice, and political cadres with reliable ideology; agricultural scientists emphasised the wisdom of a traditional practice of ‘bringing together land use and land nurture’ (用地养地), by which they meant continually returning nutrients to the soil that provides the harvest; and Mao Zedong himself promoted the integration of agriculture, forestry, and animal husbandry. Meanwhile, integrated production complexes (综合体) were communes designed to diversify agricultural production and manufacturing, maximising the efficiency of production links (Figure 3).


Figure 3: Diagram of an integrated production complex. PC: Third-Year Economic Geography Majors, People’s Commune Research Group (1960: 36).

In the mid-1970s, as Chinese scientists began a new wave of greater interaction with their US counterparts, the term ‘agroecology’ made its first appearance in China. The field was then developing rapidly in the United States, growing out of a confluence of ecosystems theory, the environmental movement, indigenous studies, and rural development studies—and in explicit opposition to the United States’ promotion of the Green Revolution overseas (Altieri 1983). Many of its early proponents had strong connections to Latin America and especially to leftist political struggles in that region. In its emphasis on systems thinking, its popularity among leftist circles around the world, and its appreciation for the kinds of aquaculture–agriculture integration long practised in China and promoted by the PRC, agroecology was extraordinarily well suited to the intellectual and political environment of Mao-era China.

In 1975, an article published in the Journal of the Tieling Agricultural Institute (铁岭农学院学报) titled ‘On Agroecological Systems and Using the Land while Nurturing the Land’ made clear this affinity (Shen 1975). The article, penned by Shen Hengli, an agronomist at the forefront of the agroecology movement, included a diagram that strikingly resembled the ‘production links charts’ of earlier decades (Figure 4), but bore the label ‘structure of the agroecological system’ (农业生态系统结构). The author credited Mao with providing a ‘scientific foundation’ for research into agroecological systems by calling attention to the ‘dialectical dependency relationships’ uniting agriculture, forestry, and animal husbandry. He further applied Marxist analysis to the old adage ‘Many pigs, much fertiliser, much grain’ (猪多、肥多、粮多), which he described as an ‘oft-mentioned dialectical system’: if the agroecological patterns were fully explicated, humans could intervene in any of the links and so cause a transformation of the whole system—in Marxist terms, a ‘qualitative leap’. The author went on to criticise agricultural practices under capitalism, which fostered a ‘metaphysical’ approach that oversimplified the relationships between humans, cultivated land, and production; he posited instead that ‘the material humans reap is the result of the integrated utilisation of the agroecological system’. And he argued that agroecological research was scarce in capitalist countries because agriculture was controlled by landlords and capitalists who pursued a profit motive and therefore practised ‘plunder-style production’. This sharp critique of capitalist ideology and profit-oriented agriculture testifies to a convergence in the mid-1970s between Chinese and Western leftist agroecological perspectives.

Figure 4: Diagram representing the ‘structure of the agroecological system’. PC: Shen (1975).

 Deng Era: Ecological Engineering

Shen’s left-critical approach did not become influential in China as agroecology took hold in the 1980s. Rather, what continued across the 1978 political watershed, as China embarked on its economic reforms, was systems thinking. So well documented as the basis of the reform era’s One-Child Policy (Greenhalgh 2008), systems engineering also became the foundation for agroecology and the related fields of ecological engineering and agroecological economics—all of which took off during the Deng Xiaoping era because they offered the Promethean promise that through engineering humans could manipulate natural systems to deliver ever-increasing economic growth. Tellingly, Zhong Gongfu’s 1958 production links diagram on the mulberry–silk–sugar–fish system rose to iconic status during this period, becoming a test question on college entrance exams (Middle School Student Library Editorial Group 1986).

Strong support for agricultural systems engineering came from the very top. In 1981, Deng’s speech writer and architect of the economic reforms, Yu Guangyuan, extolled mulberry-bordered fishponds as an example of ‘artificial ecosystems’ that generated ‘virtuous circles’—that is, feedback loops that, in contrast to ‘vicious circles’, were positive both in the sense that they were self-reinforcing and in the sense that they had good outcomes (Yu 1981: 10). The classic example, as already noted, was the loop captured in the adage ‘Many pigs, much fertiliser, much grain’. One of Yu’s more imaginative suggestions involved an ecological cycle linking polluted water, water hyacinth, earthworms, and sables. He had visited a farm that used water hyacinth to clean polluted water and then composted the hyacinth to fertilise the fields. Concerned that the pollution would carry into the crops, Yu devised a solution: first feed the water hyacinth to earthworms, which concentrated the pollution in their own bodies and left behind excellent fertile soil; then feed the polluted earthworms to sables, which were used for their furs and not for their meat, creating a productive outcome while protecting human health (Yu 1984).

Meanwhile, the increasingly influential missile scientist and systems theorist Qian Xuesen was adding his voice to the call to systematise agriculture. Qian argued for industrialisation based on traditional agriculture: using the sun for energy and the photosynthesis of plants as the foundation of a production system integrating crops, aquaculture, and industry, and then enhancing the effectiveness of that system by entering the ‘middle links’ and making use of the materials produced there. He described it as ‘big agriculture that is integrative and based on intensive high-level knowledge and technology’ (Qian 1984: 7).

Some early reform-era writings continued to highlight the links between agroecology and Marxist systems theory, claiming, for example, that ‘systems agroecology is simply the concrete and dynamic expression of materialist dialectics in agricultural science’ (Wu 1981). But by the late 1980s, thanks especially to Qian Xuesen, systems theory was ideologically dominant enough to rest on its own base, so technocracy rather than Marxism became the pervading framework in ecological agriculture texts. As one 1990 article put it, a ‘unique feature of Chinese ecological agriculture’ was its ‘emphasis on the deeper development of the ecosystem’s internal capacity’, which meant ‘employing the food chain network and transforming waste products into resources so as to augment the ecological niche [充实生态位]’ (Sun et al. 1990: 4). The authors further highlighted the ‘incorporation of agricultural production into the national planned economy to guide the harmonious development of agricultural production and environmental construction’. This involved ‘systemic and holistic optimisation’ and the ‘unification’ of the three priorities of economy, society, and ecology through the application of systems engineering.

Admittedly, whether in the United States, China, or elsewhere, agroecology is an inherently interventionist branch of ecology: its premise is that the human activity of altering the environment to grow food can be pursued in a manner consistent with basic ecological principles. But the Chinese literature nonetheless displays an unusual emphasis on manipulation and control rooted in its specific political context. In the United States, the driving force of agroecology emerged from the coalescence of leftist political movements in the natural and social sciences, including a sharply critical position relative to the Green Revolution and other US state projects. In China, the state facilitated the development of agroecology alongside the related fields of ecological economics and ecological engineering. Indeed, ecological agriculture more generally has meshed seamlessly with, and formed an important pillar of, the overarching reform-era state emphasis on engineering the natural and social worlds through systems science. This weakens its ability to challenge the Promethean faith that through totalising interventions the state can compel natural cycles to support perpetual economic growth.

Hu and Xi Eras: Heritage and Civilisation

The early twenty-first century saw the emergence of ‘agricultural heritage’—a project of the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). The FAO defines Globally Important Agricultural Heritage Systems (GIAHS) as ‘a living, evolving system of human communities in an intricate relationship with their territory, cultural or agricultural landscape or biophysical and wider social environment’ (FAO 2022). China has been a very active player in the project and has secured more GIAHS sites than any other country. In keeping with decades of scientific writing on agricultural systems in Chinese journals, Min Qingwen, a leader in the field, explains:

These hybrid agricultural systems are Chinese agriculture’s distinctive characteristic, reflecting the harmonious relationships between humans and nature in Chinese traditional culture. They emphasise the holistic and connected roles among the multiple component parts in complex biological-social-economic systems, and they place agriculture, forestry, horticulture, animal husbandry, aquaculture, and other activities into an interconnected system. (Min et al. 2011: 1019)

Without impugning any sinister motive or disrespecting the often excellent work that such scientists are doing, critics of the current PRC state will be quick to notice that while attractive from an ecological perspective, the frequent evocation of ‘harmony’ (和谐) in this discourse risks enhancing a powerful state tool used to squash political activism: any dissident can be accused of disrupting social harmony, to the extent that people jokingly refer to being censored as being ‘harmonised’.

With the rise of President Xi, the concept of ecological civilisation has skyrocketed in political significance. On the one hand, it broadens the state’s purview, establishing a totalising vision for top-down state intervention not only in society but also in nature, not just at a local level but also nationally or even globally. Evoking ‘civilisation’ gives the platform additional power: it ties past, present, and future together while claiming a moral weight rooted in the most enduring cultural values. On the other hand, state promotion of ecological civilisation expands opportunities for scientists, scholars, and others to pursue environmentalist projects. And yet, of course, working in concert with state ideology also blunts any would-be critical edge: their projects cannot help but shore up state power even as they achieve their specific ecological objectives. The political leadership will allow environmental action when it strengthens state power, or at least stays modestly on the sidelines, but never when it threatens economic growth or party authority.

Reflecting on the history of ecological agriculture in China, an ever-deepening emphasis on economic and systems thinking, together with a very weak critical standpoint, has seriously limited the ability of this would-be ‘alternative’ to challenge the state’s Promethean juggernaut. The mulberry-bordered fishponds may continue to inspire, but we should be highly sceptical of the ‘virtuous circles’ they supposedly represent; there is something decidedly ‘vicious’ about both the promise of unending economic growth and the state power it enables.


Cover Photo: The Commune’s Fishpond, Dong Zhengyi (董正义), 1973


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Sigrid Schmalzer

Sigrid Schmalzer is Professor of History at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. Her published works include Red Revolution, Green Revolution: Scientific Farming in Socialist China (University of Chicago Press, 2016, recipient of the Levenson Prize), along with a children’s picture book based on that research, Moth and Wasp, Soil and Ocean: Remembering Chinese Scientist Pu Zhelong’s Work for Sustainable Farming (Tilbury House Publishers, 2018). She also co-edited Science for the People: Documents from America’s Movement of Radical Scientists (University of Massachusetts Press, 2018). She is a founding member of the Critical China Scholars group and the revitalised Science for the People, and a vice-president in her faculty union.

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