Home Institution

New York University

Publication Date

Spring 2009

Program Name

China: Chinese Culture and Ethnic Minorities


When the author of “China has First National Park” published in The Science News-Letter in 1948, he could not foresee the next 60 years of China’s struggle to develop an effective nature conservation system. If he had, he would have known that simply recognizing the value of precious land, as China did in 1948, does not automatically lead to a sophisticated, nation-wide national park system.

National parks are the hallmark of advanced civil society and complex government conservation schemes. Since the State Forestry Department declared China’s first officially protected space at Dinghu Shan Nature Reserve in Guangdong province in 1956 , China has shown sustained commitment conservation by extending protected status to special natural landscapes every year, but not without serious trials along the way. The path to a Chinese national park system reflects the evolution of Chinese civil society and it’s escalating interest in precious natural landscapes.

In this paper, I wish to show that the nascent Chinese national park system makes a new and special contribution to the Chinese nature conservation scheme, a conclusion that counters the view of many members of the conservation community. My central questions are these: How does the history of modern nature conservation in China inform thinking about the national park system? What do national parks contribute to the complex Chinese nature conservation scheme and to China as a whole?

First, I will briefly outline the history of modern conservation in China and explore some of the problems facing the nature reserve system, the most common framework for Chinese nature conservation, to contextualize the challenges facing national parks. Nature reserves and national parks are apples and oranges. I don’t wish to compare the two systems here—they have divergent purposes and goals. But they have both arisen as Chinese nature conservation models and in this way come from the same impulse—the impulse to preserve China’s natural heritage. This is what I want to explore secondly: the fact that a new model, the national park system, has recently arisen out of the conservation impulse. The continuing innovation surrounding Chinese conservation marks China’s changing conception of national and natural heritage. I will use information gathered from interviews with government officials, park staff, NGO directors, and local people, as well as my own experience as a visitor to give an account of China’s national park system.

I focused my research in Northwest Yunnan Province, on and near the Tibetan Plateau. Western China contains nearly 75% of China’s protected land area so my base location in Xianggelila (Zhongdian), Yunnan Province, provided an ideal location to study the Chinese nature conservation scheme. My visits to Pudacuo National Park, heralded as China’s first, and the future site of Tacheng National Park, were essential to my conclusions.


Natural Resources and Conservation | Natural Resources Management and Policy


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