Mark Elvin: August 1938 – December 2023

Mark Elvin, who was an emeritus professor of Chinese history at the Australian National University with a focus on the late imperial era as well as an Emeritus Fellow of St Antony’s College, sadly passed away on 6 December 2023.

The only child of Lionel Elvin and Mona Bedortha Dutton, Mark Elvin grew up in Cambridge, attended The Dragon School, and matriculated as an undergraduate at King’s College, Cambridge. He held a variety of short-term positions at Cambridge and Harvard before he took up a Lectureship at the University of Glasgow in 1968. In 1972, he moved to Oxford to take up a Lectureship in the Institute of Oriental Studies together with an Official Fellowship at St. Antony’s which he held until he took up a Chair in Chinese History at the ANU in 1990.

Mark was particularly noted for his ‘high-level equilibrium trap theory’ which explained why an industrial revolution happened in Europe but not in China, even though the state of scientific knowledge was far more advanced in China, much earlier than in Europe. Elvin proposed that pre-industrial production methods were extremely efficient in China, which obviated much of the economic pressure for scientific progress. At the same time, a philosophical shift occurred, whereby Taoism was gradually replaced by Confucianism as the dominant intellectual paradigm, and moral philosophy and the development of rigid social organization became more important than scientific inquiry among intellectuals.

Mark dedicated his life to unravelling the complexities of China’s environmental evolution. His exceptional ability to navigate the intricate terrain of history, coupled with a rare gift for storytelling, made his work accessible and engaging to scholars and enthusiasts alike. In the realm of environmental history, Mark Elvin’s contributions were transformative. His most recent book, The Retreat of the Elephants: An Environmental History of China, has been described as ‘a beacon in the study of this intricate subject which stands out for its insightful narratives and captivating prose’.

Mark Elvin left an indelible mark on our understanding of China’s environmental past as well as China more broadly. He will be much missed by friends and colleagues across the world.

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