China Has Conquered Nature

It’s no secret that I’m a man who loves to get outside.  I love to hear the breeze in the leaves overhead and let the sun beat the sweat out of me as I lose myself on a trail.  I appreciate it in a way that even most hippies think goes too far.  It is a welcome reprieve from everyday life, which can get lost in the winding streets and drowned out in the horns and engines of the city.  I belong there in the quietude, the sublime (impressing the mind with a sense of grandeur or power) reminding me that I am not as big and important as I think I am.

This man feels the exact opposite!

Walking down the street in China, one witnesses people going about their daily lives.   Young women walk by in pretty, if sometimes slightly ridiculous, dresses and fashionable high heels, twenty somethings listen to MP3 players as they walk from one point to another, elderly men may have a radio playing as they chat with their friends and toss small wrappers to the ground.

These men risk several hundred feet of rocky death for Twinkie wrappers.

Though blatant littering makes me cringe, I tolerate this behavior in the city.  This is normal, everyday behavior here and is simply how people have been brought up.  What really gets me is when this behavior spills over to their adventures into nature.

Self-proclaimed nature enthusiast Megan Wang takes a brief reprieve from exploring the best-kept secret unmarked trails of Purple Mountain. Her husband and fellow conservationist waits his turn to cross the fence.

Rules in China are in place to be followed or not depending on how much trouble will follow them.  Society has overrun nature because people see no distinction between the two.  The government hires people to clean, pave, tile sidewalks, and provide cement stairs in the city, so this should be expected everywhere.  Nature is nothing special because there a worker will be coming by in a few minutes to clean up the plastic bottle or wrapper dropped on the ground.  It’s a place to take a picture and to breathe hard for a few minutes as you climb the stone stairways.

Holding on to old traditions amidst, Julius Li focuses his chi in the simple purity of the wilderness.

In the West, more people still cling to old beliefs that outside of our door, out of the light of our figurative fire, there is the potential for danger.  We are responsible for our actions.  In China, I feel there is less personal responsibility since the government has taken that burdensome yoke from the people’s shoulders.  It has made them self-centered and self-important while simultaneously removing the need for stewardship.

On a trip to Yellow Mountain, one of the five famous mountains of China, chairlifts operate constantly, ferrying tourists to the top in thirty minutes.  The mountainside paths have been completely covered in stone, concrete, and stairs.  Hotels pitch tents on the concrete slabs outside their front door for visitors at the summit of the mountain and call it “camping.”  Loudspeakers from trees blare bird calls and traditional Chinese string music constantly to remind us we are in a place of beauty.  People crowd the highest peak to glimpse a sunset and sunrise we joked they had never seen due to air pollution in the cities.  I would normally turn off my cell phone to avoid draining the battery if there was no signal, but I never saw the phone go below three of four bars in the whole two days I was there.  Even in the midst of the great outdoors, there’s a sense of perversion to it all.  These places are still incredibly beautiful, but the urge to modernize has detracted rather than impressed.

With a good tracking dog, you can go anywhere in nature.

Every time I hear a recording of a flute blaring from the pocket of an old man walking with several friends, see a girl dressed as though she’s about to go party at a club, smell human waste on a trail nowhere near a toilet, or pause from my climb of hundreds of concrete stairs in the middle of the forest to see some guy who thinks he’s Indiana Jones emerge from his own private bushwhack, I have to take a second to calm myself.  I have to tell myself that none of these people were raised by someone who taught them to respect the land, water, and air.  This is just the way progress makes a country think when so much has been made accessible so rapidly.

Sometimes, you just have to shout out loud from the top of a mountain!

This desire for continued rapid progress and unenforced laws is what holds China back when it comes to environmental regulation.  If the common man treats a place he’s visiting to get closer to nature like a dump, there’s no way to make large companies just after profit, and a government hell-bent on letting them, do differently.

I’d be a fool to say the West has always followed this dream of mine, but it’s much more apparent that we’ve at least considered it.  I take a pessimistic view of conservation efforts in China.  I do this mostly because I see tons of people every time I go to a major landmark but can’t help but notice the complete lack of respect people show for the land.  Everything seems to be someone else’s problem, from the litter to the noise to the unofficial trails eroded by countless explorers to the fact that the very forests themselves are recently planted after having been clear-cut.

Getting to the top of the mountain the only way civilized people do.

Let it never be said that I do not appreciate that these places exist.  I love that they do.  There are people here who feel as I do, too; it’s just hard to find them amidst the crowd.

A woman poses for a picture against the only appropriate scenery available.

About Casey

Casey arrived in China almost by accident in the fall of 2009 to teach English. Since then, he has enjoyed a new-found respect and interest for its people, food, and culture. He returned to teach English this fall and will provide a layman's impressions of everyday life in China.
This entry was posted in Development, Environment and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

16 Responses to China Has Conquered Nature

  1. Danchan says:

    I have not been to China, so I cannot compare, but visiting places famous for natural beauty in Japan I have to steel myself to not get depressed. Both on the way to the place, and at the place itself, it is very hard to get away from reinforced concrete, electric pylons, and of course, people taking photos. I was very lucky to grow up in a country where you can quite easily have a whole amazing beach to yourself.

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  3. I completely agree with your thoughts here. When traveling in China, you must overlook all the typical things that the Chinese do that annoy you if you want to enjoy the beauty of nature. It’s really a pity that the government (and the parents of the new generation) doesn’t teach its citizens how to respect the land, air, water and each other better than they do. You have to ask yourself how long can the terra firma in China withstand the constant trampling and dirtying by its 1.4 billion people.

  4. RLP6 says:

    I couldn’t have put it better, and believe me, I’ve tried. I recently went to Dali and Lijiang in Yunnan Province to get away from it all and with the intention of proceeding further up the road to the recently renamed ‘Shangri-La’. The stunning landscapes and clear mountain air were as advertised; the ancient cities of Dali and Lijiang were not. In Lijiang, for instance, the ‘old city’ has been largely rebuilt and the Bai minority people, and others, have sold their houses to shopkeepers who not only proliferate in the ‘old town’, but monopolize it.
    Imagine a warren of ancient streets, all recently repaved with native stone blocks, radiating out from the center like a spider’s web. Now imagine 25 shops selling tourist dreck. Now imagine 300-400 carbon copies of those same 20 shops selling the same things throughout town. You search for the ‘old’ in ‘old town’. Your search is in vain.
    Further imagine you are hurriedly walking down paths, alleyways and hidden lanes trying desperately to escape the 25,000 tourists who are all seemingly intent on preventing you from escape. Hands clasped behind their backs, they mosey, they amble , they plod. You feint left, juke twice and find yourself on the outer edge of the scrum, daylight not far ahead.
    And then you see it; an old water wheel. You rush to take a photo, but before you can change lenses you realize that all fifty thousand of you have simultaneously had the same idea and there is a mad Black-Friday-Playstation-sale dash and then your window of opportunity has closed for the foreseeable future. All that remains is to do what you have done at every major developed tourist site in all of China: you take photos of people taking photos of other people taking photos of people in front of something or other which is obscured by other people flashing the two-fingered Kilroy-was-here-and I’m-Kilroy-sign.
    We never bothered to go to ‘Shangri-la’. And although I live in China and although I am an amateur photographer and desperately want to take photos of all sorts of things, I refuse to go to touristy places any more. Chinese are sheep who need to be led. And they have been led by the millions to developed villages, ancient cities, sacred mountains and other significant historical/cultural sites. The problem is that since most of these places were destroyed during the Cultural Revolution, they have largely been rebuilt on the basis of memory, faded or no. And while they are being rebuilt, what the hey… why not maximize profits by utilizing state-of-the-art Disney or Universal Studios get-’em-in, get-’em-out technology?
    In America we play a game when traveling wherein we count the different state license plates whilst driving down the road. In China, whilst resting at some rest stop halfway up the mountain, I count the number of tourist guides and their groups of ducklings, distinguishable by different colored triangular follow-me-flags or identical brightly colored long-billed baseball caps. Individualism in America means to get off the beaten path, both literally and figuratively. Individualism in China means to decide, as a group, to all wear the daring red plaid caps.

    • This sums up traveling in China to a tee:
      “You rush to take a photo, but before you can change lenses you realize that all fifty thousand of you have simultaneously had the same idea and there is a mad Black-Friday-Playstation-sale dash and then your window of opportunity has closed for the foreseeable future. All that remains is to do what you have done at every major developed tourist site in all of China: you take photos of people taking photos of other people taking photos of people in front of something or other which is obscured by other people flashing the two-fingered Kilroy-was-here-and I’m-Kilroy-sign.”

      There’s simply too many people in China to enjoy the country. It’s a prison here of sorts; no wonder Chinese only care about themselves and act like nobody else exists in this most populous country. They have to fight for everything or else not get anything. It’s this type of lifestyle and cultural thinking that is the root of many of the problems that exist here. It’s a hard life here and the government isn’t really doing enough to make it any easier for the Chinese people.

  5. Chip says:

    The litter issue is annoying, but exists because of a lack of punishment. America has done a great job keeping its national parks clean by ensuring that littering fines are severe.

    • James says:

      I really don’t think it’s because of the fines at all. Because most of the time (here) on forest trails or on the beaches, nobody else is there to see you litter, so who would know?

      I think a big part of it is guilt vs shame. I was raised in a guilt culture, even if nobody sees me litter, I know I littered, and I feel bad, so I don’t do it.

      China is a shame culture. If nobody makes a fuss over littering, there is no shame, and no problem.

      • I completely agree with you here @James. It’s about being responsible because you care about preserving your country no matter who’s looking. People shouldn’t need to be told to keep their country clean if they have a sense of pride and respect of where they come from and are interested in preserving their land for future generations to enjoy.

  6. Casey says:

    I have to try hard not to keep comparing it to the beauty of our national parks and it’s not completely fair to do so. The overt lessons of my boyhood by my father and scouts and the subtler, almost invisible, lessons imparted by living on the beech-lined banks of a lake; I was and am able to see miles down the beach in either direction, drink water out of the tap, and walk through an old forest not far from my parents’ home. I’m still trying to figure out how much of this is culture (or remnants of the Cultural Revolution) and how much is the price of progress.

  7. Chopstik says:


    As a naturalist, I take this to heart. I might not criticize the people as much here (though clearly some blame should be put onto their shoulders) as much as a culture of waste and “someone else will fix it for me” mentality imparted by a leadership wanting to siphon away all aspects of personal responsibility in favor of itself. At times and in situations like this, I am reminded of the axiom, “Think globally, act locally”.

  8. NiubiCowboy says:

    Like many others who have commented, I too tried to visit as many Chinese scenic spots as I could when I first arrived in China. Flash forward a few years and you have friends asking, “Why don’t you go anywhere on vacation?” I knew they would understand in time.

    When I finally returned to the States the first thing I did was take a road trip out West to visit Yellowstone, Glacier, Grand Teton, and Badlands National Parks. My mind and my body craved the tranquility that only nature could provide. No trash strewn about the path, no knick-knack shops scattered along the trails, and no huge packs of identical fluorescent cap wearing tourists wandering along the same well-trodden path. The only times I encountered behaviors I’d witnessed in China (pushing past people to get a good photograph, throwing trash on the ground, climbing over barriers to walk through prohibited areas and/or delicate ecosystems) at these American national parks was, unfortunately, when I came across Chinese tour groups.

  9. Meryl Mackay aka 马美丽 says:

    I live in the beautiful highlands of Scotland. I have visited Beijing a few times and can cope because it is just another city. Casey and Commenters, you have completely put me off exploring the scenic spots of China! I will not go there! James, I will remember your point of guilt versus shame cultures – it is so pertinent! Thank you Casey for a great Post and thank you Commenters. As ever, I learn so much from you all. Merry Christmas to you all from my starry skied rural idyll.

  10. James says:

    China is a wonderful place for the people, the food and the history, but you will have to look hard and travel to far off the beaten path places to find untouched wilderness.

    I went to Changbai Shan in Jilin province, and it is far off the beaten path. I scrambled up the steep scree slope with no trail to reach the top of the rim and spend the night overlooking the lake, so I could wake up early and get pics of the mirror-still lake in the morning.
    Even there, there was litter.

    The only truly wild, and mostly unlittered place I saw in all my travels was Xinjiang. If you are choosing to visit China, know that humans have transformed the landscape – if you want wild and untouched… you probably won’t find it in China.

    Friendly people, great food, and historic buildings, yes. Wilderness, no.

    • RLP6 says:

      There are, indeed, places in China where one can go to find what used to be called the ‘real China’. But it takes planning, resources and determination to find them. In 2009 a Chinese friend and I went to Guilin and then took a bus to Yangshuo where we were herded into the tourist section and its foreigner’s street. It was nice to have some Chinese style American food but I felt like I was a Chicago tourist at the Wisconsin Dells, a tourist town built on scenery but which has deteriorated into a ‘strip’ (a la Vegas) with Water Parks and all you can eat buffets and Ripley’s Believe It or Not Museum-type attractions. We were accosted by vendors at every turn hawking tickets on giganto tour boats for the Li River tours and the like and I told my friend that I could find this stuff in the States and I preferred just to leave. Then she asked me if I was interested in doing what some Chinese do and I said “yes!” immediately.
      So we took a local bus and crossed to the east side of the Li River and proceded twenty-five clicks or so until we came to the small town of Xing Ping. There was a tourist street and a hotel or two catering to westerners but the few westerners we saw were backpacker-types who were short on cash but long on optimism and resourcefulness. There were venders and hawkers but they were more muted as there were far fewer of them. We bargained for and got a delightful bamboo raft tour (the bamboo being replaced by a more practical bamboo look-alike PVC pipe) and at stops along the river…you know, the ‘accidental stops’ where vendors carrying tethered cormorants wearing mock fisherman clothing (the vendors; not the cormorants) accosted us and offered to pose for photos for only 10 kwai awaited. But also, there were little villages and country roads that held a promise of the ‘real China.’
      We based ourselves in Xing Ping for 3 days or so and walked down lanes and cow paths and were warned more than once by people that we should not proceed further because there were ‘highwaymen’ or ‘dangerous wild animals’ farther along and we should turn back. My friend, a student of mine who was 25 or so but naive and gullible in the sweet Chinese sense, urged me to follow the advice. I, being aware by that point of the Chinese need to be indirect and being fully aware that the old man who was warning us, merely wanted to protect people’s privacy from prying laowai eyes, told my friend that highwaymen had better things to do then to lay in ambush down the particular relatively deserted cow-path we were on and that any dangerous wild animals in them thar parts would have been eaten into extinction thousands of years ago. We soldiered on, she, a little leery, nervously twitching a little and constantly looking from side to side.
      I had to go pee so I found a little cul-de-sac and did and then she had to go and I told her I would look away but she was a girl and that was out and she would have to die and that was that. Then we saw a little house and she stopped and in the Chinese way made ritual conversation with the woman in the yard prior to getting permission to use the toilet. Permission was heartily given and Anna, (her English name) went in whilst I lingered outside in the warm sun. She seemed to take forever, but finally emerged from the house 10 minutes later all atwitter as if she had discovered gold. It seems that the bare-chested, gold-chained Chinese Mr. T of a number one son who emerged with her was running a business providing meat for Guangzhou specialty restaurants and she had seen the animals and the family had agreed to butcher one for us for lunch for a great price as Anna had bargained as if her life depended on it. I was then shepherded into the house and into a room which was dimly lighted and filled with cages and miniature concrete bunkers filled with a little straw and lots of very large guinea pig looking critters. The son shone a flashlight all around and through Anna’s translation, told me that they were something called bamboo rats and ate (yep) bamboo and a little corn and that I could pick one and he’d cook it right up on the spot. I asked how much it would cost and he hemmed and hawed as I sounded a little reticent and I might think he was cheating us on the price but finally Anna told me that she had gotten him down to about 200 kwai a kilo. I asked how much they weighed and she said about 2-3 kilos but we would get vegetables and beer “for free!” (All Chinese absolutely adore freebies.) I am not averse to eating the occasional vermin, but not at those prices.
      So what’s the point here? China lacks, in the extreme, places to go which are designed for the contemplative solo traveler. By definition, people are everywhere and they are culturally disinclined to separate from each other physically or psychologically. Westerners are pathfinders by nature. We cherish privacy, an obscure concept in the far- east. But some things ring true in both cultures. If I want to ‘find’ America I do not go to New York City. If I want to ‘find’ China, I do not go to Shanghai. New York is to the United States as Shanghai is to China; fascinating but not representative of the whole.
      If I want to find America I venture down some interstate and leave the highway at some crossroads not featuring chain restaurants and wander a bit. I pull over at some unknown one horse town and look for the horse. If I get lucky and things look interesting I stay awhile. If not I move on. China is the same. There are villages and off-the-beaten track megalopolises where laowai are unknown. The difference is mainly that in the United States a tank of gas, a credit card and a sense of adventure is all I need. In China I need a sense of adventure, all right. But I also need a firm command of the language and culture or a companion who has and I need grit and perseverance and a pocket filled with ‘paper.’ (If you live in China you know what ‘paper’ is and its many uses.)
      So maybe I should stop complaining and get out to the countryside more. Maybe I should do a lot of things. …..Nah. Complaining, as recreation, satisfactorily fills both my day and hundreds of blogs such as this one.

      • M says:

        interesting report, thanks for ideas around Yangshuo, I like just to hire motobike and get lost driving anywhere, it’s nice, but in China more difficult

        it would be more readable if you would use proper paragraphs

        what is the paper?

  11. RLP6 says:

    The paper is tissue which can be used for toilet paper and as paper napkins in restaurants. Since Chinese love ‘freebies’ and any paper that is provided is considered thusly, one must bring one’s own.

    Readable? True. I ramble. Lord, I was born a rambling man…

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