Teaching Thoreau in China: Waldensian Reflections on Chinese Ecology and Agriculture

Journal Title
Journal ISSN
Volume Title
Journal of Ecocriticism
It may seem quixotic to teach Walden, the archetypal American ode to self-reliance and wildness, in Wuhan, one of China’s largest industrial cities. Nevertheless, I was excited when I found out I would have the opportunity to give a series of lectures on Thoreau at Wuhan University of Technology, the third largest university in China. This would give me the chance to discuss pressing ecological and cultural issues in the context of one of the most rapidly industrializing countries in the world. China’s environmental problems are widely reported, and if China can’t find a way to develop its vast economy more sustainably, then the entire world will suffer the consequences. Through this opportunity, Thoreau provided me with a helpful perspective from which to understand China’s ecological, agricultural, and political situation. Thoreau attempts repeatedly to reconcile the train that ran next to Walden Pond with his pastoral life, but the industrial and pastoral remained stubbornly at odds. This opposition describes modern China pretty well also, and their railroad system is a profound example of their rapid industrialization. Yet at the same time that China is building high-speed rail, erecting new high-rises, and coping with smog, much of the country continues to be farmed by peasants using traditional methods. For Thoreau, the countryside acts as a site for political resistance; he can move out to Walden Pond, establish a life apart from an oppressive, slaveholding government, and consider how to participate in a more just economy and culture. Such a tradition of protest and civil disobedience has been largely tamped down in China. As long as the government delivers basic services, most citizens are content to mind their own affairs; those who speak out just bring trouble on themselves and their families. One Chinese poet who was inspired by Thoreau, Hai Zi, wrote poetry protesting industrialization and the destruction of the countryside, but he eventually lost hope and committed suicide by lying down on the railroad tracks, a copy of Walden tucked into his bag. Yet at the end of Walden, Thoreau has an experience which gives him renewed hope for the railroad and his culture, a hope that may also be imaginable in China. Thoreau sees the sun melting frozen sand on the bank of the railroad grade and creating new patterns; he sees nature at work in the midst of industry. I’m never quite sure how to read this conclusion. Is Thoreau right to realize that human culture is part of nature also, or is he naive in thinking that human development can’t ultimately destroy natural life? Is he right that our imagination is what most needs to change? Teaching Thoreau in Wuhan, to people living in one of the most rapidly industrializing civilizations in the history of the world, gave me new hope that Thoreau’s conclusion, with its focus on imaginative and perceptual change, is right. Perhaps the core problem is not industrialization or the train itself, but the warped human imaginations that use these tools to damage the earth. And literature might play a role in renewing our imaginations, in helping all of us desire and work toward lives of contentment and wild harmony. As Hai Zi writes, “I hope that in this dusty world you become content / I only hope to face the ocean, as spring warms and flowers open.”
China, Teaching, Thoreau, Hai Zi, Henry David Thoreau, Walden, Wuhan, Wuhan University of Technology, ecoliterature, ecocriticism, Spring Arbor University
Bilbro, Jeffrey. "Teaching Thoreau in China: Waldensian Reflections on Chinese Ecology and Agriculture." Journal of Ecocriticism 7, no. 1 (2015): 1-20.