Cover of Contested Environmentalisms by Cheng Li
Contested Environmentalisms
Trees and the Making of Modern China
Cheng Li

January 2025
272 pages.

Hardcover ISBN: 9781503640306



The Chinese revolution was a forestry revolution. For decades, tree planting has been at the heart of Chinese environmental endeavors, and forestry is pivotal to its environmentalism and green image more generally. During the Mao era, while forests were razed to fuel rapid increases in industrial production, the "Greening the Motherland" campaign also promoted conservationist tree-planting nationwide. Contested Environmentalisms explores the seemingly contradictory rhetoric and desires of Chinese conservation from the early twentieth century through to the present day. Examining ethnic borderlands, the Beijing political center, and China's growth on the world stage, this book demonstrates the strength of Chinese environmentalism to adapt and survive through tumultuous change lies in what seems to be a weakness: its inconsistency and contestation.

Drawing on literary, cinematic, scientific, archival, and digital media sources, Cheng Li investigates the emergence, evolution, and devolution of Chinese conservationist ideas, showing that they acquired their value and assumed their power precisely because of their malleability and adaptability. Li situates Chinese environmental science within the context of global scientific knowledge transfer, probing the dynamics underlying conservationist ideas that energize environmental impulses in China, and shedding light on authoritarian environmentalism from cultural and historical perspectives.

About the author

Cheng Li is Assistant Professor of Chinese Studies at Carnegie Mellon University.

"Cheng Li's Contested Environmentalisms skillfully analyzes central yet heretofore underexamined tensions and ambiguities in Chinese environmentalisms, expertly drawing on diverse forms of media to demonstrate changing yet nearly constantly conflicting attitudes toward tree-planting and conservation more broadly, from the early twentieth century until today. This deeply researched book is a must-read for students and scholars of China as well as of the environmental humanities and social sciences."

—Karen L. Thornber, Harvard University

"Contested Environmentalismsis an utterly original, creative, and compelling study of the advent of conservationist consciousness in modern China and its entwinement with China's struggle for modernity, ideological rationale, ethnic settlement, and the natural environment throughout the twentieth century. Li takes an unusual protagonist—trees—in modern Chinese literature and uncovers a rich, fascinating, interdisciplinary and layered history of how arboreal modernity figures at the heart of China's ecological awareness and assertions. In an era of eco-consciousness and fragmenting global culture, this is a vital read."

—Jing Tsu, Yale University

"Cheng Li has gifted us a brilliant account of the ecological, political, economic, psychological, and aesthetic dimensions to China's ever-evolving relationship with trees. Contested Environmentalisms offers a novel perspective that will excite anyone interested in modern China. The book will also inspire scholars in fields ranging from forestry to the environmental humanities. I expect Contested Environmentalisms to provoke many robust discussions, in the classroom and beyond. A tour-de-force."

—Rob Nixon, Princeton University