The word “smog”, used heavily in English-language news reports, is a portmanteau combining “smoke” and “fog”. But in China, particularly Beijing, the press use a different combination of characters: “fog” and “dust storm”. In doing so, Chinese media have successfully distinguished a natural phenomenon from a man-made one.
While this distinction has helped avoid associating fog with air pollution, it has also resulted in reports arguing that the fog and dust storms of the Yuan and Ming Dynasties were actually worse than the smog people are experiencing today. It may simply be a battle of semantics, but when you’re trying to avoid any discussion of greenhouse gas emissions and air pollution, it’s an important battle.
One such report boldly proclaims that even “ancient China had smog”.
SMOG EXISTED IN BEIJING’S YUAN DYNASTY; SERIOUS CASES HIT THE MING DYNASTY EVERY FEW YEARS
The report traces Beijing’s smog back to dust storms that occurred in early Chinese history. Quoting from a Yuan history text, the report notes that dust storms hit the city many times throughout the Yuan Dynasty. The report goes on to suggest that ancient China’s smog may have been even worse than today’s, as scholars didn’t have access to modern technological devices for analysis.
Modern scholars aren’t buying it, of course, arguing that the “ancient haze” of yesteryear is a far cry from the smog of today. Moreover, they stress that such thinking only absolves citizens of taking responsibility for their actions, reports Nandu.
Professor Wu Dui of the Atmosphere and Environment Safety and Pollution Control Research Auxiliary Center at Jinan University said a “dust storm” and “fog” aren’t the same thing (as if this still needs to be pointed out). Dust storms of the past were a natural phenomenon, while the “grey fog” of today is caused by man-made emissions, explains Wu.
It’s interesting to note that while Wu is quick to distinguish a dust storm from grey fog, he avoids use of the term “air pollution”. He is only willing to concede that today’s smog is much more severe than when he was a child. While that’s a start, it would appear there’s still a long way to go before smog becomes a legitimate environmental issue and not just a blustery day in the desert.