Guarding the treasures of nature in China and Japan

Living Treasures: An Odyssey Through China's Extraordinary Nature Reserves, by Tang Xiyang. New York: Bantam Books Inc./Peking: New World Press. 196 pp. $29.95. In the Shadow of Fujisan: Japan and Its Wildlife, by Jo Stewart-Smith with photographs by Simon McBride. New York: Viking/Rainbird. 208 pp. $29.95.

Nature reserves in China didn't exist until the past 30 years or so. Dong Zhiyong, vice-president of the China Wildlife Protection Association, says: ``They embody the truth, goodness, and beauty of the natural world.'' He notes how important a role they play in moderating the pressure of population and technology on natural resources by saying that they ``manifest the harmonious coexistence of man and nature. They are the cradle in which man can dream of his past, the model for the future that man is pursuing.''

He puts this vision in his foreword to Tang Xiyang's remarkable book, ``Living Treasures: An Odyssey Through China's Extraordinary Nature Reserves.''

Tang Xiyang, a Chinese journalist, took advantage of his enforced sojourn in the countryside during the Cultural Revolution to become deeply interested in his natural surroundings. On his return to Peking, he became director of the editorial department of China's Nature magazine. He was able to explore the nature reserves, actually seeing the last surviving band of Guizhou golden monkeys, the crested ibis, and the reptile that may have prompted the myth of the dragon.

His is the first account of China's living treasures to reach the United States, aside from a few scientific papers. And the appearance of his book is the first time a Chinese and an American publisher have joined forces to produce a book in both countries. It is an auspicious beginning to what one hopes will be a long and fruitful association.

Tang Xiyang's record of his odyssey is straightforward and delightful to read, for he includes gems of Chinese poetry and historical accounts along with his own reactions to what he sees and undergoes and the people he meets. He frankly admits he is not a scientist, but he clearly and intelligently reports the scientists' work of studying and preserving their treasures.

More than 200 photographs illustrate what the author writes, but there are no credits for them. Did the author take them all? One would like to know who had the poetic vision to capture on film scenes that have a quality reminiscent of Chinese paintings.

The reader yearns for a map of China that includes the geographical information to help locate the places mentioned in the text. The one included, though charming, shows animal pictures sprinkled over the country, but that is all except for blue lines indicating the large rivers. Nor is there an index, alas!

``In the Shadow of Fujisan,'' by contrast, has a map pinpointing the location of sites mentioned in the text, and an index. This book also has many beautiful photographs, gems of art and history to give background to the story of wildlife survival - or lack of it - in Japan. The book is companion to a BBC television series.

It offers a tour of natural history sites, but equally important, also some reasons for what appears to be Japanese ambivalence about nature. Tang Xiyang's book about China makes an occasional perceptive comment about a similar situation in his country, but Jo Stewart-Smith goes into the whys and wherefors. The reasons are not always the same in the two countries, although the impact of population pressure and modern technology may have parallels.

One difference has to do with the Shinto religion in Japan. Its reverence for the spirit of a place, animal, plant, or thing means that certain areas have remained untouched in their natural state in spite of extensive modifications people have made to most of the landscape over the millennia. Those modifications represent the other part of the mental equation wherein man is regarded simply as a part of nature. He looks after himself, other aspects of nature look after themselves.


``In the Shadow of Fujisan'' points out the difficulties of this dichotomy, acknowledges the beginning of efforts to deal with it, and, like ``Living Treasures,'' emphasizes the need for education, education, and more education on the need to preserve nature's gifts.

Mary Cowen is a free-lance writer specializing in nature.

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