Xanadu 2121: Paradise Lost
THE ECOTOPIA 2121 PROJECT OUTLINES THE FUTURE HISTORIES OF 100 REAL-WORLD CITIES AS THEY FACE-UP TO LOOMING ECOLOGICAL CHALLENGES. THIS WEEK, WE FORECAST THE FUTURE OF XANADU, CHINA.
Xanadu was the capital of the old Mongol empire. At its zenith in the thirteenth century, when Kublai Khan was emperor, it was home to at least one hundred thousand people, with maybe a million more traders, civil servants, and diplomats arriving and leaving over the course of the year.
Xanadu in the 13th Century
In the late fourteenth century, Xanadu was sacked and torched by the Ming army and then abandoned. For centuries, only a few temple ruins could be seen, along with some canal works.
The city lived on and grew in mythic status through later art and literature, such as the poetry of Samuel Coleridge:
In Xanadu did Kubla Khan.
A stately pleasure-dome decree:
Where Alph, the sacred river, ran
Through caverns measureless to man
Down to a sunless sea.So twice five miles of fertile ground.
With walls and towers were girdled round:
And here were gardens bright with sinuous rills,
Where blossomed many an incense-bearing tree;
And here were forests ancient as the hills,
Enfolding sunny spots of greenery.
Xanadu is now a UNESCO-protected site in China. Today, as in Kublai Khan’s time, the area is mostly grassland, but year by year the rains become rarer.
In the future, the site may be deserted arid wasteland. Every March, Yellow Dragons wreak havoc on the Xanadu site. These are violent sandstorms whipped up from the Gobi Desert that block out the sun for weeks at a time. Over the decades, they’ve become increasingly worse as the Gobi gets closer and ever more soil is denuded of grass and desiccated.
As China suffers environmental collapse during the tumultuous “dirty decade” sometime around the middle of the twenty-first century, the faltering Chinese government becomes fearful that Mongol tribes will try to reclaim Xanadu. Thus the site becomes heavily militarized.
The Mongols never come, but by 2121 the Gobi Desert has fully invaded. Alas, what was once labeled a paradise is bound to end up as the cautionary opposite under China’s current ecological trajectory.
Freedman, E., and M. Neuzil. Environmental Crises in Central Asia: From Steppes to Seas, From Deserts to Glaciers. London: Routledge, 2015.
Gallagher, S. Meltdown: China’s Environmental Crises. Washington, DC: Pulitzer Center, 2013.
Ho, P., and E. Vermeer, eds. China’s Limits to Growth. London: Routledge, 2006.
Man, J. Xanadu: Marco Polo and Europe’s Discovery of the East. New York: Bantam, 2010.
Marshall, A. Ecotopia 2121: Visions of Our Future Green Utopia, Skyhorse Publ., NY.