Something strange happened in Manchuria in 1840: its precious freshwater pearls all disappeared. Perhaps stranger still, the Qing Empire did everything in its power to protect them: draft men; fortify passes; patrol rivers; send boats and horses and silver and bannermen. What had happened? Historians typically present Qing Manchuria’s environmental history with sharp, ethnic contrasts: Manchus attempt to conserve nature; Chinese immigrants work to develop it. Based on Manchu-language archival sources, this paper argues for a more complex narrative, in which neither Chinese nor Manchu identities predominate. Rather, it frames the very invention of this ethnic dichotomy – and “Manchuria” itself – in the context of China’s early modern resource boom, when commodities, such as fresh water pearls, were first hunted to extinction.
Jonathan Schlesinger is an assistant professor in the Department of History at IU Bloomington. His current book project, Inventing Nature in the Qing Empire, studies the nexus of empire, environment, and market that defined Qing China in the years 1750-1850, when unprecedented commercial expansion and a rush for natural resources transformed the ecology of China and its borderlands.