Books: China’s green pioneers

Wang Yongchen introduces readers to 22 friends in Seeking the Footprints of Wild Man -- all drivers of Chinese environmental protection. Meng Si would have liked more depth and distance by the author.

Seeking the Footprints of Wild Man
Wang Yongchen
Language and Culture Press, 2010

Environmental activist Wang Yongchen’s Seeking the Footprints of Wild Man focuses on the people who drove China’s environmental movement forward. This book reminds me of The Past Is Not Smoke, by Zhang Yihe. Both authors are a part of groups that the general public is unfamiliar with – one, the rightists purged by Mao in 1957; the other, contemporary China’s non-governmental environmental circles. Both writers tell their stories through their personal relationships with their subjects.

Liang Congjie
, Liao Xiaoyi, Tang Xiyang, Wang Canfa, Liang Xiaoyan, Lu Zhi, Yu Xiaogang, Xi Zhinong, Ma Jun – these are weighty names in Chinese environmental circles. In her book, Wang introduces us to her friends – 22 environmental leaders — and in the foreword explains her respect for NGOs and volunteers: they share a common aim, are uninterested in fame or profit, and so are often spiritually happy.

A radio journalist who founded
Green Earth Volunteers in 1996, Wang tries to use her own views and experiences to relate the stories of these vivid figures, and from there to shed light on the background of the times. As she says in a postscript to the book, “add up all their experiences, and I think you have the history of China’s non-governmental environmental movement”.

Unlike the strict structure of a formal history, a narrative one following individuals can be intimate and lively – and often carry the author’s opinions and feelings.

The death of Liang Congjie, one of the founders of Friends of Nature — China’s first, and to date biggest, environmental NGO — last October 28 adds a somber footnote to his chapter. Wang recalls how she and Liang traveled together to see riverside towns beset by health problems as the residents struggled to survive amid pollution; Liang’s outspoken anger when meeting local officials; and his childlike love of birds. (His grandfather Liang Qichao was a well-known reformist scholar of the late Qing era, and his father, Liang Sicheng, a famous architect known for his work to protect ancient buildings.)

describes the ordinary life of Liang, a former member of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Congress (CPPCC): being blocked from a CPPCC meeting by a guard who couldn’t believe a member would turn up on a bicycle; using the example of spitting in the street to demonstrate the necessity and difficulty of starting from small actions; and his belief that there is no miraculous force that can suddenly change society. But he did use CPPCC motions to make environmental demands of government regarding the development and management of the Nu River.

The book relates how Liang, Yang Dongping, Wang Lixiong and Liang Xiaoyan — sitting on park grass in the spring of 1993 as they decided to found Friends of Nature – linked their little fingers as they swore they would not change their minds due to any possible political risks. After succeeding in having the organisation registered, Liang received a letter from a child in Fujian, asking if they were going to put on costumes and race around the sea in speedboats.

These passing details help to sketch out an environmentalist of both warmth and perseverance.

Wang’s wild folk also include Liao Xiaoyi, founder of Global Village; Tang Xiyang, founder of Green Camp; Wang Canfa, an environmental lawyer named a hero of the environment by Time magazine in 2007; and Liu Jianqiang, now deputy editor of chinadialogue. Wang says they are a “group of friends with a certain ‘wildness’ — they pay attention to their intuition and obey their inner desires”.

In comparison with the many research-oriented or specialised environmental books currently available, Seeking the Footprints of Wild Man attempts to bring the public and the environment closer together – a valuable experiment. As for the content, however, the journalist-author has not used this flexible method to rationally analyse, in depth, the conflicts between some figures. There are not enough details to reflect true feelings, and hence no real connection with the reader.

And while extracts from elsewhere can back up the content, too many quotes from what the environmental pioneers themselves have written, or from transcripts of third-party interviews, overshadow Wang’s own interpretation – reducing the unity of viewpoint and the author’s status as observer.

Meng Si is managing editor in chinadialogue’s Beijing office.