Commentary RESEARCH

Chinese eco-literature dissects industrialization


2024-04-19 09:53

Chinese Social Sciences Today

The modernization process catalyzed by industrialization is not without its merits; it is a significant stage in the development of human society. However, in most contemporary Chinese works of eco-literature, industrialization has negative connotations. It is known for disrupting the ecological balance of land, sea, and air, causing the extinction of species, and even jeopardizing human survival. Why does such a drastic contrast appear in the way industrialization is framed? While pollution’s harm is undeniable, does industrialized production also possess some positive values in contemporary Chinese eco-literature? What leads most of China’s eco-literature writers to negatively portray industrialization while overlooking its essential contribution to historical progress?

Criticism of industrial pollution

Ecological issues are typically not considered a serious problem until after national crises have eased and people’s dire socioeconomic conditions have improved. With this in mind, the critical depiction of ecological crises in Chinese literary works indicates that China, through reform and opening up, has achieved remarkable success in economic development. As people become used to a higher quality of life, a steady awareness of the growing rift between mankind and nature forms and the public now pursues higher ecological standards.

Industrial modernization was required to enhance China’s comprehensive national strength and achieve common prosperity for all, while industrialization is also necessary for achieving the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation. Contemporary eco-literature writers, who follow the adage that “people are masters of the country and therefore shoulder social responsibility,” turn to literary works to expose real problems such as water and air pollution, the extinction of species, and disruptions to ecological diversity. They criticize the enormous damage industrial production causes to the ecological environment and the negative impact on people’s health.

In Hua Hai’s poem “Gongchang, Juzuo Zai Hedui’an (The Factory, Sitting Across the River),” industrial ash, smog, and waste discharged by enterprises pollute the air and water surrounding factories, which is the implied cause of the lung cancer Lao San Die, a leading character, suffers from. Cities, as transportation hubs with both material convergence and population aggregation, become enticing locations for industrial production. As such, many factories choose to build their facilities in urban, suburban, or surrounding areas. Thus, cities inevitably bear heavy environmental burdens from industrial production. People in cities not only face the risk of drinking water with traces of contaminants, or breathing polluted air, but also find it difficult to access food that hasn’t been polluted by industrialization, which will have immeasurable effects on the entire human race’s reproduction. 

In the novel Ji Le (Bliss) by novelist Zhefu, he applies a science fiction approach to predict that humanity will decline by the end of the 21st century due to severe damage to the ecological environment.

Human history has long demonstrated that industrialization is a double-edged sword, bringing abundant material products to the public while inevitably taking a toll on the natural environment. The question, how do we maintain a dynamic balance between development and ecology, and society and nature, has long been contemplated by eco-literature writers.

Reflections on industrial pollution

Industrialization is an inevitable stage in the development of human history. Thanks to improvements in productivity, human civilization rapidly ascended to new heights. However, industrialization is not a panacea that can solve all of humanity’s societal problems. While it promotes the rapid development of material production, it also negatively impacts the natural environment. Therefore, starting in the 1980s, contemporary eco-literature writers began deeply reflecting upon the significant effects of industrialization in China and on the global ecological environment, critically examining the development model that solely pursues GDP and material production.

While we intellectually understand the idea of pairing industrialization with a socialist outlook during the early days of the People’s Republic of China, we have to admit that the persistent romanticization of industrialization after the 1980s was a serious cognitive error. Dai Zhanjun and Xu Yongqing, in their book Zhengjiu and Mingyun (Rescue and Fate), reflect on the pollution caused by China’s pursuit of industrialization, emphasizing that only by following natural laws and caring for the ecological environment can humanity achieve a friendly balance with nature. 


Ultimately, ecological issues stem from human problems in the sense that human philosophies, values, and the societal production disrupt the balance of natural ecosystems, leading to frequent ecological disasters.

Some contemporary eco-literature writers strongly criticize China’s industrialization, associating it with ecological problems and the divide between urban-rural areas. They argue that urbanization and the idea that industries can benefit agriculture are false propositions. As Chinese novelist Han Shaogong put it, urban industrialization constantly consumes production factors and resources, posing a significant threat to the natural ecology of rural areas. In addition, industrialization leads to the loss of young labor and economic vitality in rural areas, causing the countryside’s gradual decline. In Inner Mongolian writer Bao’erji Yuanye’s prose “Dadi De Zhixu (Order of the Earth),” a series of rhetorical questions are deployed to challenge the destruction that industrialization wreaks upon natural environments and rural traditions.

China has a long tradition of writing about nature. In ancient literature, the concept that “heaven and man are united as one,” subtly influenced the aesthetic thinking of contemporary Chinese writers. The translation and dissemination of Western ecological civilization approaches further encouraged Chinese authors to adopt critical and reflective positions on industrial production. Therefore, there are wide discussions over various aspects of China’s industrialization process, the pursuit of GDP, human greed, and the dichotomy between urban and rural areas, which all underlie the phenomenon of ecological destruction. This deepens contemplation over the severity and complexity of China’s ecological issues in their works.

Dialectical thinking

Contemporary Chinese eco-literature, when addressing industrialization, often adopts a critical and reflective stance. However, some writers carefully acknowledge the significant value that industrialization holds for modern Chinese society. Writers like Wang Meng, Xu Gang, Shao Yanxiang, Zhang Wei, and Hua Hai approach industrialization in their ecological writing with a dialectical mindset. They acknowledge both its potential threat and destruction to the ecological environment and frankly appraise the essential value it brings to society and the people. 


Similarly, some writers maintain an objective attitude towards industrialization, neutrally representing both sides when weighing its economic value, social value, and ecological threats. They rationally acknowledge that industrialization has been indispensable in the transition from a traditional Chinese society to a modern one. At the same time, the direct environmental pollution caused by industrialization is also something that writers cannot overlook, so their sense of social responsibility urges them to respond by writing about these issues.

Does industrialization inherently contradict ecological preservation? For many eco-literature writers, this is a false dichotomy. Some writers hold an optimistic view of the relationship between industrialization and the environment, believing that they are not irreconcilable and can coexist under certain conditions. 

Xu Gang believes that if people can pollute rivers, they can also effectively manage and treat them. Moreover, coexistence and mutual benefit can occur between ecologies and industrialization. Shao Yanxiang believes that in modern society, people cannot avoid the industrialization process, or reject the benefits it brings. Instead, people need to find a sustainable balance between industrialization and ecological protection. For Wang Meng, industrialization and modern technology are not the culprits of ecological problems. He argues that the real issue lies in the urgent need to improve the quality of our social culture, especially by raising the ecological awareness of the population. Zhang Wei, during a tour of the Rhine River in Europe, discovered that industrialization there not only led to prosperity and material abundance but also came to exhibit a harmonious relationship between human and nature. In other words, industrialization no longer holds a negative image. 

The experience of developed countries demonstrates that industrialization and the ecological environment are compatible, so it is not unrealistic for developing countries to also achieve low-pollution or pollution-free production after industrialization, thus establishing sustainable interactions between humans and nature. Zhefu, in his book Huanghe Zuizong: Hunsuiguilai (Tracing the Yellow River: The Returned Soul), emphasizes the importance of healthy industrialization to environmental protection. Industrialization is no longer understood to mean environmental pollution; it can also meet the needs of modern society in a clean and diverse manner.


The negative portrayal of industrialization in contemporary Chinese eco-literature can be attributed to several factors. First, the rise of industrialization shattered Chinese writers’ perception and imagination of the environment. The aesthetic principle that “heaven and man are united as one” led many eco-literature writers to resist and reject industrialization. China has been an agricultural civilization for centuries, and the idyllic ideal of pastoral life has been a constant through literary works from ancient times to this day. A corresponding set of evaluation mechanisms for the relationship between mankind and nature has been deeply established based on that aesthetic sentiment.

Second, China’s rapid societal transformation led to frequent ecological problems that ignited a wave of criticism among eco-literature writers. Since the late 1970s, China experienced, in a mere forty years, a development trajectory that took Western societies over two hundred years. This rapid industrialization exerted immense pressure on China’s natural environment. China’s historic industrialization was a period of continuous ecological damage and a myriad of ecological issues, intensifying eco-literature writers’ contemplation of the seriousness of environmental problems and filling their works with critique of industrialization. 

Last, early Western eco-literature classics inspired Chinese writers, who, while learning from the success of Western classics, unintentionally constructed a negative image of China’s industrialization. As China’s economy gradually took off in the 1980s, environmental degradation intensified. When seeking literary inspiration, Chinese writers often look to Silent Spring, a well-known work by American biologist Rachel Carson. Her bravery in speaking up and standing behind her beliefs make her a model for Chinese writers.

In summary, contemporary Chinese eco-literature writers have indeed maintained a prolonged critical attitude towards industrialization. They hope to raise social awareness, gain government attention, and seek solutions by exposing environmental pollution issues. At the same time, several eco-literature authors have written about the positive values of industrialization, highlighting its compatibility with ecological protection. Considering the full range of literary opinions expands the scope of contemporary Chinese eco-literature and gives rise to more nuanced contemplations on the complex relationship between industrialization and ecological protection.

Long Qilin is a professor from the School of Humanities at Shanghai Jiao Tong University.



2024-04-19 05:53
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