In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, booming demand for natural resources transformed China and its frontiers. Historians of China have described this process in stark terms: pristine borderlands became breadbaskets. Yet Manchu and Mongolian archives reveal a different story. Well before homesteaders arrived, wild objects from the far north became part of elite fashion, and unprecedented consumption had exhausted the region's most precious resources.
In A World Trimmed with Fur, Jonathan Schlesinger uses these diverse archives to reveal how Qing rule witnessed not the destruction of unspoiled environments, but their invention. Qing frontiers were never pristine in the nineteenth century—pearlers had stripped riverbeds of mussels, mushroom pickers had uprooted the steppe, and fur-bearing animals had disappeared from the forest. In response, the court turned to "purification;" it registered and arrested poachers, reformed territorial rule, and redefined the boundary between the pristine and the corrupted. Schlesinger's resulting analysis provides a framework for rethinking the global invention of nature.
About the author
Jonathan Schlesinger is Assistant Professor of History at Indiana University.
"Schlesinger has written a tremendously important book. Through rigorous multi-archival and multi-lingual research, he brings the most valuable perspectives from the "New Qing History" into dialogue with scholarship on late imperial Chinese environmental history, thereby enriching our understanding of both fields. This is scholarship of the highest order."
—Micah Muscolino, Oxford University
"Schlesinger offers many refreshing surprises as he punctures the idea of Manchuria as the Qing's last pristine wilderness. By showing just how disastrous the consumption of natural products could be on the environment and Manchu identity, he demonstrates the relevance of the Qing for understanding environmental consequences in our own world."
—Timothy Brook, University of British Columbia
"Offering an exhaustively researched study using Manchu, Mongolian, and Chinese sources, Jonathan Schlesinger describes in compelling detail the integration of Inner Asian sensibilities into Chinese metropolitan life and the creation of zones of indigenous purity on the frontier. The story of an elite desire for fur and other luxuries paired with a market-driven obsession with authenticity will find familiar echo today to anyone who has ever been in an airport duty-free shop."
—Mark C. Elliott, Harvard University