A North American shrub in Beijing: Part Two

Previously, we were introduced to the controversy arising from the widespread introduction of rhus typhina to Beijing. In this post, let us dive deeper into the discourses used to contest the role of the species in the city.

Too much red?

Botanist Jiang Gaoming (see the previous post on his view of rhus typhina as an invasive species) also argued that the species threatened Beijing’s historical and cultural landscape. He asserted that the introduction of a non-native species like rhus typhina would cause the city to lose its uniqueness. Also, in contrast with the view that rhus typhina’s red foliage would bring beauty to the cityscape, Jiang felt that the red colour disrupted the harmony of the natural landscape and was out of place with the city’s quaint ancient aesthetic.

Rhus typhina: too red for Beijing? (Source: X)

Jiang’s view reflects how ‘non-native plants may be seen as a threat to narrowly defined cultural landscapes’ (Gandy 2017). The aesthetic value and appeal of rhus typhina has been turned on its head to argue against its introduction due to fears that the species could disrupt and therefore alter Beijing’s fundamental look, as well as the history and culture embedded in its landscape.

A threat to the city?

So far, rhus typhina has been presented by experts to be an ecological and cultural threat to Beijing. But what exactly is the “Beijing” that is under threat here? Ecological discourse regarding the species’ invasive potential is dominated by a concern of the harm it could bring to other species. In general, woven into the “invasive species” label are claims of the undesirability of certain species and the corresponding desirability (or relative importance) of other species or societal interests: a species is considered a threat when defined in relation to an “other” that the claimant would like to protect. Similarly, the central argument in the discourse describing rhus typhina as a threat to Beijing’s cultural landscape is based on the threat that the species could pose to the preservation of an ideal of the city’s aesthetic.

Here, I borrow Swyngedouw and Kaika’s (2014: 477) idea that ‘there is no ‘foundational’ ‘Nature’ out there that needs or requires salvation in name of either Nature itself’ to posit that there is similarly no part of Beijing’s ecology or cultural landscape that inherently requires safeguarding from rhus typhina. What is actually threatened are ideals of what Beijing’s ecological makeup and cultural landscape should be, and these ideals are the cultural projections of the positionalities and corresponding interests that those producing the dominant vein of discourse about rhus typhina hold with regards to the city.

What next for this tree?

In 2013, the Beijing Gardening and Greening Bureau announced that rhus typhina had been removed from the list of colourful trees to be planted, for it “looks good, but reproduces too quickly”. In selecting new colourful tree species to be used in beautifying the city, the Bureau vowed to prevent repeating the mistake with rhus typhina.

While it is officially off the list and unlikely to make a new comeback for the time being, the rhus typhina introduced more than a decade ago has continued to flourish in both heavily urbanised areas and the outskirts of Beijing. It remains a welcome sight within the Olympic Forest Park and other sightseeing destinations further from the city centre such as Xiangshan Park, which hosts a massively popular “Red Leaf Festival” yearly.

Rhus typhina in the Olympic Forest Park. (Source: X)
Many flock to Xiangshan Park located in Haidian District during its Red Leaf Festival. It is estimated that there are roughly 5000 rhus typhina trees there. (Source: X)

Hence, while elite discourse advanced by scientific experts and government policy portrays rhus typhina as an invasive species and a threat to the cityscape, the species’ “beauty” has not been quashed, for its aesthetic value continues to be appreciated by the eyes of Beijingers. Interestingly, rhus typhina here is both the ‘accidental garden[…]’ that Gandy (2018: 2), writing in the accompanying booklet for his film, finds ‘more interesting than the designed and manicured forms of urban nature that characteri[s]e pervasive landscapes of … control’. The species started off being introduced to beautify spaces as part of official government policy, yet went “out of control” because it spread rapidly. Discourse of the species parallels this: expert narratives do not control all the meanings attached to the species, for it continues to be appreciated as an ornamental tree in Beijing’s landscape.

In all, our case with rhus typhina shows how ‘Nature … [is an] ‘empty’ signifier’, giving rise to ‘a multitude of natures and a multitude of existing, possible or practical socio-natural relations’ (Swyngedouw 2010: 304). The process of urban beautification is a telling reflection of the socio-environmental perspectives varied stakeholders have regarding the role of nature in the city, envisionings of what the city ought to look like, as well as opinions of what Nature is doing to the city (Swyngedouw and Kaika 2014). These perspectives are vocalised in the form of the discourses employed in the contested governance of urban nature. In Beijing, rhus typhina is both ‘empty’ and many things at once.

List of References

Gandy, M. (2017) Natura Urbana: The Brachen of Berlin, UK and Germany.

Gandy, M. (2018) ‘From Brachen to cosmopolitan ecology’, in Natura Urbana: The Brachen of Berlin (DVD booklet).

Swyngedouw, E. (2010) ‘Trouble with Nature: Ecology as the New Opium for the Masses’, in Hillier, J. and Healey, P. (eds) The Ashgate Research Companion to Planning Theory: Conceptual Challenges for Spatial Planning, London: Routledge, 299-318.

Swyngedouw, E. and Kaika, M. (2014) ‘Urban Political Ecology. Great Promises, Deadlock… and New Beginnings?’, Documents d’Anàlisi Geogràfica, 60, 3, 459-481.

4 thoughts on “A North American shrub in Beijing: Part Two

  1. Hi! Thank you for writing these 2 posts on the North American shrub in Beijing! (: It was a good read and left me with some considerations on the introduction of different species to urban spaces.

    Part 1: It’s fascinating how invasive species were forcefully introduced to Beijing’s ecology. After watching Gandy’s film, I considered how new species are introduced through human flows, and to see it done purposefully in another major city makes me wonder about the state of such activity worldwide.

    Part 2: I enjoyed reading about the different discourses surrounding the introduction of this one shrub to Beijing! I can’t believe this one species would ignite such debate and concern over cultural aesthetics and ecological threat. The perspective you introduced on how this is, at the end of the day, simply a contestation of ideals and interests was thought-provoking as well. Really reiterates how the social interactions within urban spaces have overlapped the interactions between urban and nature.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I have thoroughly enjoyed reading about the conundrums surrounding rhus typhina! Indeed, as Guan has pointed out, it was interesting to hear that the debates surrounding urban natures are ultimately a contestation of various ideologies.

    What amused me, however, was the fact that despite being lambasted by cultural and ecological experts, rhus typhina is ironically cherished for its beauty by the people of Beijing. Personally, it appears that if we don’t insist stubbornly on a ‘correct’ version of nature, it might actually work better in the interests of the community.

    On a more serious note, while the ideological dissonance surrounding rhus typhina may be of little consequence here, it highlighted how political ideations of nature has serious implications on urban ecology (in this case, the removal of rhus typhina from the list of colourful trees). During my next run in the park, I will most definitely be looking at roadside greenery with fresh eyes – thinking more deeply about why it might be planted, and why it was chosen by the authorities to take root here.

    Liked by 1 person

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