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The Advance of the Crayfish: The Industrialization of the Yangzi Wetlands

When Nov 23, 2017
from 05:00 PM to 06:00 PM
Where Rushmoore Room, St Catharine's College
Contact Name
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China Research Seminar given by Chris Courtney, Cambridge/Southampton

In the past, environmental historians have used indicator species such as elephants, tigers, and dolphins to demonstrate the human impact on the Chinese environment over time. Rather than narrating the tragic retreat of a charismatic local species, this paper instead tells the story of an ecological winner. The red swamp crayfish (/Procambarus clarkii/), a native of the southern United States,was introduced to China by the Japanese in the late 1920s. Over subsequent decades it established large populations in the wetlands of the Yangzi and other regions of China. This invasion was mediated by farmers, who raised “little lobsters” (小龙虾) for the urban culinary market. This paper uses the advance of the crayfish to highlight the broader ecological and cultural transformations that have occurred in the Yangzi wetlands since the mid twentieth century. Rural communities in this region once depended upon a biodiverse environment to supply a complex and highly productive agroecosystem. Over the past century, wetland agriculture became increasingly industrialised, with the rise of mechanisation and synthetic fertilisers. This facilitated spectacular increases in productivity, yet also caused a precipitous decline in cultural and biological diversity. The human-mediated crayfish invasion is both a cause and a symptom of this broader environmental decline. Rather than seeing these creatures as a pest, rural communities have been swept up in a crustacean gold rush, raising an estimated 56 billion RMB worth in 2016 alone. The advance of the crayfish encapsulates many of the dilemmas facing rural communities in China today. It demonstrates their formidable capacity to adapt to environmental and economic change, yet also reveals the extent to which they have lost touch with a traditional ethos of agricultural sustainability.

Chris Courtney is a research fellow at Gonville and Caius College, University of Cambridge, and the Asia Research Institute of the National University of Singapore. His research focusses upon the social and environmental history of the middle Yangzi region, and the urban history of Wuhan. He has several published and forthcoming articles examining issues including the history of flooding, fire, and popular religion. His monograph /The Nature of Disaster in China: The 1931 Yangzi River Flood/ will be published with Cambridge University Press in late 2017.

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