Environmental Crises and East Asian Literatures
Karen Laura Thornber
Delving into the complex, contradictory relationships between humans and the environment in Asian literatures


East Asian literatures are famous for celebrating the beauties of nature and depicting people as intimately connected with the natural world. But in fact, because the region has a long history of transforming and exploiting nature, much of the fiction and poetry in the Chinese, Japanese, and Korean languages portrays people as damaging everything from small woodlands to the entire planet. These texts seldom talk about environmental crises straightforwardly. Instead, like much creative writing on degraded ecosystems, they highlight what Karen Laura Thornber calls ecoambiguity—the complex, contradictory interactions between people and the nonhuman environment.

Ecoambiguity is the first book in any language to analyze Chinese, Japanese, Korean, and Taiwanese literary treatments of damaged ecosystems. Thornber closely examines East Asian creative portrayals of inconsistent human attitudes, behaviors, and information concerning the environment and takes up texts by East Asians who have been translated and celebrated around the world, including Gao Xingjian, Ishimure Michiko, Jiang Rong, and Ko Un, as well as fiction and poetry by authors little known even in their homelands. Ecoambiguity addresses such environmental crises as deforesting, damming, pollution, overpopulation, species eradication, climate change, and nuclear apocalypse. This book opens new portals of inquiry in both East Asian literatures and ecocriticism (literature and environment studies), as well as in comparative and world literature.

Jacket image: Photorealistic 3D rendering of planet earth viewed from space (Asia and Australia). © Cristi Matei/

Karen Laura Thornber is the Harris K. Weston Associate Professor of the Humanities, Department of Comparative Literature, Harvard University. 

Visit Karen Thornber's web site

Praise / Awards

  • "Refreshingly original."
    —P. F. Williams, Choice
  • "In a remarkable new study, Karen Thornber has produced what may well be the most thorough attempt in the English language to catalog and interpret the human response to environmental destruction in [East Asian] literature. Ecoambiguity will be provoking discussion for years to come."
    —David T. Bialock, Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and Environment
  • "Ecoambiguity develops responsive and responsible scholarship by working within and across disciplines, activating East Asian ecologies as an analytic category. Thornber's challenging and insightful work deserves much praise and will undoubtedly please a large readership."
    Comparative Literature Studies
  • "Refreshingly original."
    —P. F. Williams, Choice 

  • "As a key figure in world literature, comparative literature and East Asian studies, Karen Thornber’s book Ecoambiguity draws on all these disciplines to provide an ecological reading of works from China, Korea, Japan and Taiwan, with a focus on ecodegradation."
  • "For ecocritics, the reiteration of this theme of how the love of wild nature co-exists with policies of ecological destruction in relationships of complex ambivalence may well seem disconcertingly relentless, but the power of the anguish in many of these texts will move and impress, and the book will be a central doorway into East Asian literature for years to come." -- Richard Kerridge
  • Honorable Mention, Association for the Study of Literature and the Environment Book Prize for Ecocriticism
  • International Convention of Asian Scholars Book Prize - Reading Committee Most Accessible and Captivating Work for the Non-Specialist Reader Accolade in the Humanities, 2013

Look Inside

Classroom Resources

Author's statement to professors | Word doc

Product Details

  • 6 x 9.
  • 702pp.
Available for sale worldwide

  • Hardcover
  • 2012
  • Available
  • 978-0-472-11806-9

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  • $94.95 U.S.

  • Audio Download
  • 2021
  • Available
  • 978-0-472-00386-0

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  • $9.99 U.S.

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  • Ecoambiguity, environmental ambiguity, ecocriticism, environmental humanities, comparative literature, world literature, Chinese literature, Japanese literature, Korean literature, Taiwanese literature