A Mushroom's Perspective on Qing Environmental History

This is an Archive of a Past Event

Jonathan Schlesinger, Assistant Professor of History, Indiana University

What environmental histories can Mongolian and Manchu archives of the Qing empire tell? This talk finds an answer in a curious and forgotten event: the rush for wild steppe mushrooms in nineteenth-century Mongolia. In the 1820s, thousands of undocumented workers crossed the internal boundary from China to Mongolia in search of mushrooms. As the booming trade transformed the land, field reports poured into Beijing: not only did mushroom pickers violate imperial law, they allegedly destroyed a pristine environment. As tensions rose, the Qing state mobilized around a dramatic response: a “purification” campaign to repatriate undocumented Chinese, investigate Mongol collaborators, and restore the steppe to a timeless state. Historians usually describe Qing Mongolia as an agricultural frontier. Based on archival research in Ulaanbaatar in Beijing, this talk points instead to how a resource rush, not homesteading, could drive environmental change and politics and explores the idea of "pure" nature in the Qing world.