This week I’m at a conference on eco-aesthetics at Shu Yen University in Hong Kong. Today we heard the opening speech from Prof. ZENG Fangren, the former president of Shandong University. He runs a research institute on aesthetics, and is one of China’s leading scholars of eco-aesthetics.
In his overview of the field of eco-aesthetics in China, the lasting impression that I received was how the government’s advocacy of “ecological civilization” has had a profound impact on the field. As a result of this leadership, more and more scholars are devoting attention to ecological issues.
What fascinated me about his talk was how fluent he was in Western scholarship regarding aesthetics and philosophy. It seems that so often dialogue between China and the west is one-sided, with all Chinese scholars mastering Western discourse and very few Western scholars mastering Chinese discourse.
As a result, in the discussions following his presentation, I asked the question of what China can contribute to the world in the areas of eco-aesthetics and sustainability.
His first answer was not what I expected. Rather than discussing Chinese wisdom, Confucian philosophy or Daoism, he made a very simple but powerful point. If China can manage its economic development without increasing too much its ecological footprint, it will have achieved something that everyone in the world can learn from.
This made me realize that the efforts to foster sustainable development will not ultimately depend upon what we in the West do or do not do. It will be developing countries like China and India that will, out of necessity, have to create ecologically sustainable forms of economic development. They will do so because they have no other choice. And when they have done so, they will be in a far more advanced position than us in the West. When that happens it will be we who learn from China and India, and not the other way round.