In May this year I had the opportunity to visit Maoshan (Mt. Mao) a Daoist mountain sacred to the Shangqing (Highest Clarity) tradition of Daoism that I studied in my most recent book. Located in Jiangsu province, it is about an hour’s bus ride south of Zhenjiang, a stop on the main high speed railway from Shanghai to Nanjing.
I was interested to visit Maoshan not only because of my historical research, but because it was the site of the Maoshan declaration, which in 2008 committed China’s Daoist Association to a ten year program of ecological protection.
The result of my visit is a mixed assessment of the possibilities and problems associated with the practical implementation of Daoism and ecology. I’ll be presenting the full details of my conclusions at the forthcoming SASASAAS conference at Furman University on September 24-25, but I’d like to present some key findings now.
First of all, the encounter between Daoism and Ecology has to be understood from the perspective of China’s engagement with modernity and especially science. “Ecology” in Chinese does not signify a Romantic attachment to nature undefiled by human habitation, but rather a modern, scientific and ultimately technological enterprise. To make Daoist sites more “ecological” means to install green technology such as solar panels, and to showcase Daoism not as a “traditional” culture but as modern and scientific.
Secondly, the encounter between Daoism and Ecology is an economic enterprise. A chief incentive for Daoist sites to engage in ecological protection is to respond to the demand for ecotourism. As such Daoist sites work with local governments to develop the whole areas surrounding Daoist temples as ecotourism sites. Engaging with ecology thus helps drive economic development. As a case in point, the Maoshan site was developed not only by the Daoist Association but by the People’s Liberation Army which operates a memorial to soldiers of the 3rd Army who fought in the Anti-Japanese War of 1937-45. Nearby the museum is a garish 99 metre high statue of Laozi, the legendary author of the Daode jing. Maoshan is thus an ecotourism site, a patriotic memorial, and a Daoist temple site, all in one. As a result it obtained AAAA tourism designation, the second-highest national ranking, making it a prime location for “red”, i.e., patriotic tourism activities.
The current implementation of “Daoism and Ecology” in China thus resists simplistic Western notions of Daoism as “the Way of Nature.” It is also a way of economic development, a way of science and modernity, a patriotic and even militaristic way. This should not be surprising to scholars of religion who are well-attuned to the complexities and contradictions that religious cultures historically inhabit. But it may be surprising to those who have sought to frame “Eastern religions” as somehow more authentically connected to nature than the monotheisms of Western religion. Yes, the Daoist conception of nature does have much to contribute to the discussion on religion and ecology, but the practical implementation of this concept in China is caught in a complex political, ideological and economic web.