Created: 1996-05-15, Last update: 1997-03-30, Author: Holger Blasum, URL:, Parent:

US: forests

DE: china resources, stocking, percentage of forest cover, forest
AU: 张华龄 (Zhang-Hualing)
TI: Past, Present and Future Development Tendency of the Forest Resources in China 中国森林资源的过去,现在与未来发展趋势
PY: 1988.7
SO: Journal of Natural Resources 自然资源学报 Vol.3 No. 3,201-214

(translated by Huang Yu)


1. Present state of forest resources in China

1.1. Data generated by the 5th Five-Year-Plan survey

These data are based on investigations mainly from 1978- 1980 published
in 1983.

The percentage of Chinese forest cover is about 12% ( rich forests) .
Altogether, there are about 280.17 Mha land assigned to forestry in
China, including 115.28Mha rich forest land, 17.20Mha sparse forest
land, 27.73Mha shrubs;and 119.96 Mha of desolate mountains and land
fit for planting trees. Rich forests house 10,260.6 Mm3, poor forests
house 542.07 Mm3.

Note: Rich forests have a crown shadow rate of above 30%, sparse forests
have a crown shadow rate of 10-30%.


Map: forests in China
crossing lines: dense forests
single lines: sparse and protection forests
[Note: this a very rough sketch in obvious disaccordance with the
figures quoted above]


1.2. China is poor in forests

China is lacking forest resources, for example, China is 1. 83
times below world average, and the forest coverage rates of Asia,
Russia, Europe,America are respectively 1.25, 2.92, 2.5 and 2.58 times
the size of that of China. Only in Africa forest is less than in China
because of its geographical conditions, but per capita forest area in
Africa is more than 8 times that of China. In timber volume, the rate
is even more disfavorable for Chinas.

Table 1)

1.3. The state of each province in China

The geographical distribution is very uneven, concentrating in the
Northeast and Southwest, in addition there are some in the subtropical
zone and tropical zone. The three regions given above account for 29.9%
, 19.6% and 41% of the national forest area. Meanwhile very little
forests exist on the North Chian plain and the Northwest (altogether 9
.6%).Especially in the very arid Northwest only 2% of China's forests
can be found. Notably the forest-richest province of China is Taiwan
(37%), followed by seven provinces having a coverage above 30%, six
provinces above 20% and in thirteen provinces and regions it is lower
than 10%. The lowest percentage of cover is in Xinjiang with only 0. 7%
and Qinghai with only 0.3%.


Table 2)

1.4. Different forest types

This classification is based on the exploitation pattern of the
forests. It is acknowledged that it not ideally reperesents forest
ecotypes, but in lack of a better widespread system is still used.

(1) Timber forest: It is about 69.9% of all forest area. But, at
present, the usable timber forest stocking is not over 3,500 Mm3, this
is due to limits in exploitation funding and transportation
difficulties. When the priciple that cutting must not exceed regrowth
is applied, annually soem 2.9% are cut, that means that the cutting
must not exceed 100Mm3 and the amount of wood eventually (netto) usable
timber cannot exceed 65Mm3, this means only 0. 06m3 per capita, and
equals only to 15% of Europe or 5% of the USA. As timber supply is
scarce, this leads to severe overlogging, most severe in the Southeast
of China.
(Table 3)

(2) Shelter forest (against in water and soil erosion): At present
, our national forest pervades in the mountain area, but yet it is
scanty in the Northwest with serious disasters of wind and sand. In
addition,the shelter forest takes only 8.7% of the area of national
forest and this number is not proper. In particular, many forests in
areas with serious erosion are not protected, but rather logged.
However, if we classify the entire forest of an area as water and soil
shelter forests, no forest is left to be exploited. So, pulling down
one's jacket to conceal the raggedness expresses accurately the
shortage of forest resources in China.
(3) Economic forests (for agricultural purposes): At present,these
make only up for 9.8% of the national forest area which is too little.
Economic forests in mountain areas (woody grains, oils, fruits and
medicine) could reduce the burden of the agricultural land in the
plains. Appropriate would be about 0.04-0.05 ha per capita, but at the
moment it's only 0.01 ha.
(4) Fuel forests: the present shortage of fuel forest not only
cuts off energy supply but also is brings forth irrational management
and overcutting of the other forests.Mountain area people mainly depend
on twigs, bark and timber as fuel source (except those adjacent to coal
mines or oil fields) amd evem some industrial areas do so
. Extrapolating statistical data, the annual wood demand in those
1,200 mountain counties is 224.36Mm3.On the other hand, the leftovers
from state-planned 65Mm3 timber production amass only to 50Mm3. If the
rest of the demand was totally taken from stumpage, some 2. 1Mha of
timber forest had to be converted. The lack in fuel forests often
leads to cutting or overpruning of timber and protection forests.
(5)Special use forests:1.3Mha at the time of the Fifth Five Year
Plan observation. Due to the setup of several new Nature Reserves, this
number has increased and will increase in future. Recreation forests
are still very rare.


2. Variation of forest distribution during Chinese history

Although there is much research still in progress, we have already
the outline of the concept.

2.1. Prehistorical Forest Distribution

For this see table figure No. 2.The distribution of forest types
similar to today, but the scale of each forest was much greater than at
present. For example, the present agricultural area nearly entirely was
forests. The first agricultural area in southeast China was almost all
covered by forests, except swamps, waters and saline-alkaline soil. In
the second are, the Northwest high mountain area, the lowest and the
highest limits of forst distribution both were beyond today. For
example, the Kunlun mountains and many oases were covered by forests.
In contrast, present forest resources have decreased during
several thousand years. The main reson for this is not climate, but
social factors.

2.2. Social factors causing the reduction of forest area in Chinese

(1) Destroying the forest in order to prevent animal attacks and
rule the country. "When emperor Yao reigned the country, the country
was often flooded and wild animals and birds set theirs traces on China.
Emperor Shun used fire and burned the mountains and swamps, so the
animals retreated." (Mencius), "The Yellow Emperor drives wild animals
away, the king of Youyu makes the swamps dry and burns the mountain
woods." (Guanzi), "Long ago, at the time of Hao and Ying, the forests
were cut to extinguish the wild animals, at that time the people were
few and the woods and beasts were many." (Shangzi).

(2) Destroying the forests for war: "When Chen and Tang made war,
the burned thew forests in order to get a battlefield" (Shiji); "At the
Chengpu battle, the duke of Jin cut the forest for advantage in the
fight. ... At the battle of Xiao, Xian Xiu cut the wood to impede the
Qin soldiers." (Zuo Chuan) The habit of felling and burning woods for
strategical reasons has a history of several thousand years and was
done in all dynasties. For example, when the Qing dynasty was
established (in the 1st half of 17th century), the northern part of the
Taixingshan mountains and the western part of the Yanshan mountains were
destroyed for preventing rebels from hiding near the capital. The
Japanese invaders (1937-45) also destroyed forests in North China to
suppress peasant unrest.

(3) Overcutting forests for timber. Timber was used for official
buildings, private housing, for boats, cars and instruments. [ P208
]After tree felling grazing often prevented tree regrowth. For example
,the Taixing mountain forests near the capital were large-scale opened
during Ming dynasty (1368-1644).

(4)Fuel use. Before the medieval times, no coal was used and
cooking and firing entirely depended on fuelwood.

(5)Destroying the forests for agriculture and grazing. Usually
after forest fires the forest will recover after some decades. But if
sheep and cattle graze repeatedly the open areas,the soil will become
condensed and the seedlings will be eaten, so no regrowth occurs and
severe erosion can occur. So opening the forests in combination with
grazing is the major reason for the decrease in China's forests. And
there are explicit reports about the conversion of forests to pastures
and farmlands in the Chinese classics,as well as archeological and
historical evidence show that the plains and the Yellow river plateau
were deforested first. During ca. 1200-1000 BC a settlement policy by
concentrating some farmers and explore new land was begun in the
Guanzhong plain and the southern part of the Yellow river high plateau
. Such resettlement policies were pursued by most nobles during
subsequent dynasties so that at 200 BC the opened area extended from
the Yellow river in the NW, the sea coast in the E, the old long wall
in the N and the Yangtse in the S.
During the Han dynasty (206 BC to 220 AD) under a "opening the
inaccessible mountains and swamps" policy the agricultural settlements
expanded to the west near to the oases in the deserts. During the Three
Kingdom period (220-280) Sun Wu drained swamps in eastern Jiangsu, Shu
Han in Sichuan and southern Shaanxi; Shu Han also opened hilly
mountain areas in SE Gansu and Cao Wei did the same in E Hubei and N
After the Jin and Tang dynasties ( 3rd- 9th cent. ) the forest
destruction increased rapidly due to state-encouraged logging of the
forests, population fleeing the fights opening the mountains and
opening land for military reasons.

3. The variation of Chinese forest data during recent decades

There is much discussion on this subject, and the three main
opinions are: (1) The forest area in China was never so big as stated
before. (2) By the efforts of several decades, the Chinese forest area
increased froom 8.6% in 1949 to 12% at present. (3) Chinese forests are
decreasing at a rate of ca. 1.3 Mha per annum.

These different opinions are based on different evaluations of the
forest surveys made in this century.
There have been 11 nationwide forest surveys since the 1940s
,although before 1940 some local investigations have been made, those
data are too incomplete(see table 4).

The 1947 data (8.7% coverage rate) are a very rough estimate. This
figure was published by the Kuomintang Agriculture Department and in
the "Compilation of Chinas Forest Statistics" where it is stated
expressively "this survey is only based on the larger forests obeserved
. Most minor forests of some few square kilometers will have been
overlooked. " Later on in January 1948, the same department of
Agriculture published that China's forests cover 83Mha, which makes a
forest cover of 8.5%, but it also states that only 50Mha have been
verified by actual investigation, the rest having been extrapolated.
From this fact, support for both opinion (1) and opinion( 2) can be
gained. And in the 1947 compilation it is stated that "The data are
still crude, as most forests still await aereal and intense ground
investigation, so that the figures can be ascertained." This means that
many figures in the 1947 compilation do not rely on actual investigation
. The first minister of agriculture after 1949, Liang Xi, stated in
1950 "The is no correct data on the Chinese forest area. ". He stated
that the old compilations just collected some local data and added them.

By interviews with old forest officials and reading the author
comes to the conclusions that before 1949 ( 1) there was never a
systematic nationwide survey by survey teams. (2) The north east China
forest investigation was partly done by aerial inspection, partly by
ground teams and partly by sub compartment analysis. The figures were
added, so the estimative content is still very strong. (3) The figures
of the other regions were based on older statistics which were already
out of data and not very reliable.[P210] So the 1947 figure is dubious.

As for the 1943 figure, it is published in the "China Yearbook"
without explanation. As no nationwide surveys had been done before,
this is clearly the sum of the figures reported from various regions.

In the 50s, the 1950 figure (5.18% forest cover) was often quoted.
But,the 1950 figure actually is only a (verified?) part of the 1947
figure and not at all reliable. Subsequently, the real forest cover in
some small areas was reinvestigated, thus corrections to the 1947/50
figure were made during the 50s. But it must be emphasized that even
up to 1958 only a small part of the forest has been reinvestigated, so
these figures aren't reperesentative either.

Up to 1961 after about ten years of efforts since the 40s, some 3
Mkm2 of the forest bearing area of China had been inspected, but only
half the inspected area also had been classified according to the
principles of ground resource investigation and graded management
investigation.The figures were published in 1963, but they still had
some serious deficits, for example: (1) The estimation content was
still enormous:The forests in Tibet were estimated to cover 0.71 Mha
area and to bear 175.02 Mm3 of timber. After the Fourth Five Year plan
investigation those figure had to be adjusted to 11.97 Mha and 1436.26
Mm3 of timber repsectively, implying an underestimate by 15.9 and 8. 2
times. (2) Many small forests, four-side woods, and wood net forests
were overlooked. (3) The figures compiled in 1962 used all kinds of
data collected from 1949-1961, many of it outdated. ( 4) Many local
reports were not reliable.

In 1978 a national forest coverage rate of 12. 8% was reported,
using the data of the 1973-76 nationwide forest check carried out under
the Fourth Five Years plan. Except Taiwan and Tibet south of the
Maikemahong line, all forest bearing areas were investigated and
classified (small area wood, four-side wood, wood net, sparse wood etc.
). 22 regions, provinces and cities used the sub compartment method for
counting, the other areas used sample investigation. The Tibetan
forests south of the Maikemahong line were estimated using satellite
pictures and data for adjacent forests. For Taiwan, the newest
published data were used. So the Fourth Five Years plan investigation
can be said to reflect adequately the real forest cover.

The 1983 figure (12% forest coverage rate) is based on the Fifth
Five Years plan investigation done in 1978-81. Now a unified method was
employed nationwide: sample investigation, with a nationwide clarity
requirement of 95%. This method had already proved effective in
developed nations.

The 11 forest figures are thus [P211] not sufficient to establish
any statistically based forest dynamics since 1949. As far the opinion
(3) (" the forests are disappearing at a rate of 1. 3 Mha/annum") the
author also hasn't found any support by now, save the possibility that
it is derived by subtraction of the 1983 from the 1978 figures. But
that would have been a mistake, since the investigation techniques in
those both surveys differ and some variance is to be allowed for. Of
course, there is some change in the forest area in recent years, but to
derive it so crudely is certainly wrong and the data of the Sixth Five
Years plan investigation under way should be used to predict any trends

4. The development tendencies of the Chinese forest resource

The development tendency of the Chinese forest resources is
decided by two factors - demand and potential.

4.1. Demand [lucid ideals]

(1)Forests are beneficial to ecology (eg water and soil conservancy,
windbreaks, air purification, climate regulation, noise absorption etc.
). To fulfil these roles and to prevent disasters the nationwide forest
coverage rate must reach 32.7%, 314 Mha. Thereof, the area SE of the
400 mm equipluvial needs 276 Mha forest ( 58. 6% coverage) , because
people, industry and agriculture are concentrated in the area
endangered by water erosion in the mountains and wind erosion on the
plains and coasts. To the NW of the 400mm equipluvial, forests are
needed as shelter forests for the prevention of wind erosion and
desertification for a not very populated area.Some 38.13 Mha of forest
cover (coverage 7.8%) are needed, see table 5.
(2) Timber and shelter forests produce timber, fuel and other by
-products and economic forests produce fruit, oil materials and foods,
medical herbs or industrial material. Of course, forests also have
other uses, but for the sake of simplicity we only take account of
these two forests types: (1) Timber demand: Supposed there are 1. 4
billion persons in China in the next century and the per capita forest
consumption is about 0.4 m3, assumed a stocking volume of 110 m3/ha,
an earning efficiency of 80% and a ripening period of about 45 years,
some 286.364 Mha are necessary. (2) Economic forests: assuming a need
of 1/15 ha per capita, some 93.33 Mha will be used. Both timber and
economic forests sum up to 379.097 Mha of forest, requiring a coverage
rate of 39.6%.

4.2. Potential [and sordid realities]

The possibility of expanding the forests is restricted with the
land resources available for forestry. In SE China, after subtraction
of land neded for agriculture, industry, traffic and housing, there are
only about 268.22 Mha of potential forest land available, and in the
harsh NW China climate only 12 Mha are available for forestry.
Thus nationwide the area available for forestry is only 280.17 Mha. If
we subtract 10% accounting for buildings, roads, water pools, factories
etc., the maximum area shrinks to 252.15 Mha or 26. 3% of the Chinese
territory. Due to the shortage of forest land, we must concentrate it.
For instance, the economic forest should be concentrated to a smaller
area by increasing its density. For example, if we decreased its
planned area to 60 Mha, then the remaining 192.15 Mha could be used for
other forests. By high density management, the stocking of each unit
should reach the world average - 110 m3/ha - and at this rate, that
area could bear 21.137 Gm3. [P213] Though even then it cannot satisfy
the whole demand for timber, the state must do better than at present.
As far for shelter forests, apart from sparsely populated areas, it
seems impossible to reach the norms.

4.3. The development allows no optimism

The period of timber production is long and to develop forestry
needs a big amount of money. According to typical estimations, if the
coverage is increased by 1%, the investment would be more than 10
billion yuan, of which the state has to pay 30- 50% which is very
difficult for the country now. So, scientists predicted the tendency by
the end of the 20th century might be three possibilities. (1) If we
lack funding, the normal cutting amount must be maintained, and forest
destruction cannot be kept in check, so the forest coverage rate drops
to several percent. This will mean many natural disasters for the
people living in the first two decades of the 21st century. ( 2) The
consumption and the regrowth of the forests are kept in balance and
the forest cover will be preserved at ca. 12%. To achieve this, it will
mean many difficulties to the people living in the first two decades of
the 21st century. (3) By strong political measures, the forest
administration system is reformed, illegal consumption restricted, the
finance and the vivacity of the forestry is recuperated and funds are
risen for reafforestation of logged forests plus neoafforestation of
about 0.23 Mha annually. By these measures,the forest coverage rate
might increase 3-4% till the turn of the century, and the people
living in 2000-2020 would have some 200-300 Mm3 more timber, which
would alleviate the timber and ecological crisis. Although even this
scenario does not satisfy the entire demand, it is a good goal to work