Invasion of the great green algae monster

A lake in China turns brighter than any emerald. Will the imperial court hear the lamentations of the people?

By Andrew Leonard

Published June 25, 2007 10:24PM (EDT)

In 1521 the tenth emperor of the Ming Dynasty died without a son or brother who could succeed him. A cousin, Zhu Houcong, was named the eleventh emperor, under the official reign-title "Jiajing." Upon accession, the Jiajing Emperor immediately threw the imperial court into turmoil in a struggle known to history as "The Great Rites Controversy."

Precedent demanded that in order to maintain an unbroken line of imperial descent, any new emperor from a side-branch be named the adopted son of the previous emperor. But Zhu Houcong was prickly about such matters, and demanded, instead, that his own father be posthumously decreed an emperor.

The court split on the request, but being the emperor, Zhu got his way. A group of officials representing the losing side protested "by raising their voices in lamentation outside the palace gate." For this, they were flogged, executed, or if they were exceedingly lucky, banished for life to the remotest corners of the empire.

In the annals of Chinese history, the Jiajing emperor does not come off well. His own concubines attempted to kill him, possibly because of the sexual practices he engaged in while seeking immortality through arcane Taoist rituals. Many historians trace the eventual decline of the Ming Dynasty to his long reign, even if they do concede that, culturally speaking, China flourished under his rule. The Dictionary of Ming Biography offers a concise summary:

In spite of his concentration on selfish whims and the menace on his borders, Zhu Houcong never let anyone usurp his power and authority. In his time the rich grew richer and the poor became impoverished, particularly in the Lower Yangtze area. Wealth bred leisure, which demanded luxuries and entertainment; it also encouraged the development of the theater, art, literature, and printing. The political vigor of the empire, however, began to decline, and the house of Ming showed signs of senescence.

Despite the temptation to ponder further this instructive period of expanding wealth inequality, our concern here is not so much with the Emperor, as with one of the officials who was lucky enough to be exiled, a brilliant scholar named Yang Shen, originally a native of Sichuan, but forced to spend the last thirty years of his life in the frontier province of Yunnan.Yang was a prodigious author and poet, and a great admirer of Yunnan's fantastic natural beauty, including the acclaimed "Pearl of the Plateau" -- the great Lake Dianchi, situated just to the south of the city of Kunming.

Yang wrote a poem, "Glimpses of Spring," about the lake.

A windy lake is Dian yet never any dust is seen,
The newly green isle Ding in the far horizon lies.
Beauty one enjoys here as in land south of the Yangtse River,
A vast rippling lake in spring with distant foam lily white.

China Digital Times links today to a pair of extraordinary pictures of an enormous "bloom" of blue-green algae in Lake Dianchi. The Day-Glo green color of the algae is so bright as to be chilling -- a snapshot of what pollution has wrought upon a lake that just a few decades ago was transparently clear, stocked to the brim with multiple species of fish, both wild and farmed in floating cages. A million blog posts on the environmental devastation afflicting China do not deliver the impact of these two pictures.

How did this happen? The World Bank, which has loaned at least $175 million dollars to various projects aimed at improving water quality around Kunming, offers some succinct poetry of its own.

Rapid urbanization, industrialization and income growth in the 1980s and 1990s exerted great pressure on urban environmental services in Yunnan Province. Pollution loads in urban centers had destroyed potable water sources, reduced agricultural yields, and ended recreational use of a number of lakes.

Perhaps the most shocking aspect to the current algae explosion is that Lake Dianchi has been a target for environmental cleanup for more than a decade. The days when the city of Kunming simply dumped nearly all of its raw sewage and garbage directly into the lake are more or less over. Landfills have been created, sewage plants erected, waste water treatment facilities put into place. According to one detailed (and dour) report, the rate at which the lake's health has been deteriorating may even have been stabilized, although progress in resisting "eutrophication" -- the choking of the lake with algae -- has been minimal.

Success has been greatest in dealing with specific "point" sources of pollution -- factories dumping garbage directly into the lake. Preventing pollution from "non-point" sources: Agricultural runoff, phosphorous leached from open pit phosphate mines, sewage dumped upstream into the twenty major tributaries that feed into the lake, is a much more challenging problem. The struggle is vast: Cleaning up Lake Dianchi means nothing less than bringing to heel the entire economic revolution that has swept China over the past three decades. And just as China has packed into just a few decades the kind of economic growth that older countries took centuries to achieve, so too it has created an equivalent amount of environmental devastation in a remarkably short period of time.

What kind of poem would Yang Shen write, if he were alive today? Would he raise his voice in lamentation so loud that the imperial rulers in Beijing heard him, and exiled him into silence? Or would he be channeling his efforts into a broad-based part of the nascent civil society movement whose members cagily employ such images as the blinding refulgence of blue-green algae to mobilize public opinion into a force that can sway the Party? Would he observe, in tones of the darkest gloom, that a jewel of China's environment that has been treasured for centuries upon centuries has been made unfit for human beings or fish in the space of one lifetime? Or would he express a guarded hope that that very devastation will be the wake-up call that mandates corrective action?

The Jiajing Emperor's reign was marked by a series of devastating earthquakes -- the kind usually taken to signify that an Emperor has lost the Mandate of Heaven. One suspects that if all China is turned into a poisonous wasteland, it won't be too good for the Communist Party's poll numbers, either.

Finally, even though it doesn't quite pertain to the topic at hand, I can't resist quoting an appraisal of Yang Shen's intellectual achievements by a contemporary Ming Dynasty critic, Wang Shizhen. Again, from the Dictionary of Ming Biography:

[Wang] considered him an expert on classical references but not always reliable in interpretations, proficient in anecdotes but neglecting the official histories, interested in the history of poetry while ignorant of its principles, and given to transcendent thoughts but occasionally missing the obvious."

Yang Shen, How the World Works posthumously bestows upon you the newly created title: Most Esteemed Patron Sage of Bloggers -- a species of literati who are always more than willing to miss ten obvious points if that means they can stumble upon just one transcendent thought.

Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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