mazu: marine ecoregion goddess

The Guandu Temple, Taipei

According to tradition, Mazu (Matsu) was a girl who lived in the late tenth century who was renowned for her assistance to seafarers. She was posthumously deified and attracted a wide cult throughout the southern China coastal area in the Ming dynasty. Over the past few centuries she has become one of the most popular local deities in China.

Following my visit to the popular Mazu temple in Guandu, Taipei, I’d like to propose that Mazu be thought of as a bioregional deity, specifically one corresponding to the Southern China Marine Ecoregion as identified by the WWF, that is, the sea area between Taiwan, mainland China, Hong Kong and Macau.

Traditional scholarship on Chinese religions divides gods into local and national categories. Local gods have their specific domains and are worshipped only by people living in those particular geographic areas. National gods, such as Guan Di, the Jade Emperor, or th God of Wealth, can be found throughout the country. Local gods, conversely, are worshipped only in specific regions.

Statue of Mazu in Macau

Devotion to Mazu is widespread throughout South East China’s coastal areas because of her association with seafarers and fishermen, and because of this she should be thought of in bioregional terms. Her worship emerges from the engagement of peoples in this marine ecoregion with fish, coastlines, tides, and the sea. Out of this complex of social, economic and ecological interaction developed a religious tradition that is quite specific to this bioregion. Of course most people who live in this area are no longer connected directly with the sea, but Mazu remains as popular as ever, as a sponsor of peace and prosperity.

Typically Mazu temples are located in strategic coastal sites, and her statues watch over the marine activities of local seafarers. Indeed, residents of Macau attributed the fact that they escaped the SARS crisis that gripped Hong Kong to the prophylactic powers of the enormous Mazu statue that had been erected in Macau shortly beforehand.

Now Mazu is beginning to take on new political responsibilities as a symbol of harmonious relations between Taiwan and the mainland. A huge emeral statue of Mazu recently arrived in Taiwan from the mainland. According to today’s Taipei Times report, the reception ceremony for the Mazu statue had both religious and political significance, and was attended by both religious and political dignitaries:

Greater Taichung Mayor Jason Hu (胡志強) yesterday received the valuable statue, along with Jenn Lann Temple president Yen Ching-piao (顏清標). Hu said the religious event, which he described as an exchange of beliefs and feelings between people from the two sides of the Taiwan Strait, would pull the two sides closer together.

Mazu’s bioregionalism thus opens her up to the possibility of being exploited for political ambitions, as a symbol of the unity of people on both sides of the Taiwan straits. As Taiwan approaches its presidential elections, such events take on even greater significance. Popular support is fairly evenly split between the KMT who favours closer integration with the mainland, and the DPP who take a more independent line. Intriguingly, Mazu, as a powerful symbol of the south China marine ecoregion is taking on national political functions, as a contested cultural icon caught between those who favour local Taiwanese identity and those who favour a pan-Chinese national identity. In the same way that the KMT advocated national Chinese gods to support a single Chinese nation in the 1930s, so also Beijing seems to be supporting the worship of Mazu as a symbol that can unite the cross-straits divide.

Whatever happens to Mazu from a political perspective, it seems that nothing at the moment will diminish her status as the chief goddess of the south China marine ecoregion.

religion, ecology and nationalism

Should environmentalists support conservation projects that also serve to bolster right wing nationalist agendas? This was one of the questions that was discussed last month at the annual meeting of the American Academy of Religion, in San Francisco. I spoke on a panel organized by the Religion and Ecology section which featured a vibrant discussion on this very issue.

One of the key points of discussion that came up was the way in which the alliance of religion and ecology is not necessarily compatible with left / liberal politics. In North America we tend to associate environmental issues with left / liberal politics, and religious organizations that advocate on behalf of environmental issues similarly tend to get associated with those similar politics. As an example of this, at the Forum on Religion and Ecology lunch just a few days earlier, it was quite evident from the conversation that scholars involved in environmental issues largely fell into the left / liberal camp. But just because this is the normative cultural expectation in North America does not necessarily make this the case everywhere else in the world.

Landsat Image of Rama's Bridge

George James from the University of North Texas, for instance, noted the way in which the right wing nationalist politics of India BJP opposed the Sethusamudram shipping canal between India and Sri Lanka not because of environmental reasons but because the proposed shipping channel would cut through the causeway known as Rama’s Bridge, which is identified in the Hindu sacred mythology of the Ramayana. Here was a case in which the alliance of religion and ecology did not conform to the typical expectation of the left-liberal North American academic.

My own paper, on the alliance of Daoist religion and ecology, similarly made the point that the state has particularly supported the conservation of Daoist sites where this has accorded with nationalist politics. This is the case at Maoshan, a designated AAAA tourism destination, which is also a red tourism site, associated with the 4th Army’s role during the 1937-45 war with Japan. It was also the case for Wudang shan during the Ming dynasty, which ordered a local garrison to prevent local deforestation, in part because of the national significance of the site to the Ming emperors.

Here were two examples, then, of the ways in which religious efforts at the conservation of sacred sites were aided by nationalist agenda rather than a green agenda. In these cases, environmental efforts were local, rather than global, and subsumed under the question of national identity.

This discussion was also continued with reference to Suzanne Armstrong’s paper on the Christian Farmer’s Federation of Ontario, which demonstrated a range of theological opinions regarding the alliance of religion and agriculture that could be classified politically anywhere from conservative to liberal. Similarly, Elizabeth Allison’s paper on “brown” environmental issues in Bhutan raised the question of whether a technocratic approach to environmentalism bolstered a statist agenda, that is, empowered the government to strengthen its control over a wide range of issues in people’s lives.

The conclusion we reached, I think, is that just because environmental issues are perceived as being left/liberal issues in North America does not mean that this is necessarily the case in other cultures. We should not expect environmentalists to hold the same colour of political opinions, and we should also expect that there are instances where local environmental issues will bolster conservative orthodoxies and right wing agendas. Does this mean that we shouldn’t support environmental efforts where they also serve to bolster political ideologies that we don’t agree with?

the religion and ecology of the blang minority nationality

A Blang nationality woman

The question of how to promote a culture of ecological sustainability in China took me this summer to conduct exploratory fieldwork among the Blang minority nationality, in Yunnan province, close to the border between China and Myanmar. The Blang are one of China’s smaller nationality groups and occupy a remote mountainous terrain that is a gruelling and dangerous three-hour drive from the county town of Menghai.

The economy of the Blang village where I stayed was based increasingly on the production of tea. Previously subsistence farmers, the villagers had now turned almost exclusively to the production of tea leaves which, when processed, become the famous and expensive pu’er tea. Since the economic and land reforms after the cultural revolution, the villagers had been steadily converting their lands to the production of tea, with tea bushes now dominating the steeply-terraced mountainsides. After harvesting the tea leaves, the villagers dry and lightly roast the tea leaves before selling them via middlemen to nearby tea factories that ferment, process and package the finished product.

A Blang nationaity Buddhist monk on his motorbike

The village is distinguished by well-preserved social customs: villagers are divided into a number of exogamous clans; newly married men live in their wife’s family’s home for three years; and most young men spend a period of time as a Buddhist monk in their youth. The Blang, like many nationalities in southwest China are Theravada Buddhists, but their highly complex religious life is also informed by local beliefs and customs that relate to the traditional ecology, with special attention being paid to rice, water, bees, beeswax, and the various local spirits that are associated with them. The production of tea has not been integrated into the religious life of the village and remains detached from it. On the other hand the relative wealth that has come to the village has enabled the renovation of old temples, the construction of new ones, and the hosting of lavish religious festivals, including the Kaowasa festival, known in Chinese as guanmenjie 关门节, a Theravada Buddhist festival to mark the beginning of the rainy season.

Here the relationship between religion and ecology becomes more evident. During the three month period inaugurated by Kaowasa, injunctions are placed on the life of the monks and laypeople in the village. Most notably these include a prohibition on cutting down large trees. In traditional times such large trees might be cut down and used for building houses. While most of the houses in the village are still made of wood, the more important reason for cutting down trees nowadays is to increase the land available for tea production.

Four important point can be made here. The first is that there is clear evidence of religion playing an influential role in managing the direct relationship between the Blang people and their local ecosystems. Their religious life is not a matter of private belief or personal spirituality, but a cultural system that clearly intersects with ecological and economic systems. In this regard, at least, religion is a cultural force that acts as a constraint upon a economic activity that has a deleterious effect on the local environment.

Secondly, in this regard at least, the Blang religion supports Chinese government policy and law which prevents deforestation. While I was in the village, I saw that this policy is supported by educational programs that aim to get local people to understand the important relationship between forests, water and the livelihood of local ecosystems. What struck me was that in this regard, religion could clearly be an ally towards government policy and environmental policy. When I interviewed a local CCP member, he informed me that the Party did not put up any obstacles to his participation in local religious activities, but would certainly view the spread of non-indigenous religions such as Christianity as highly problematic.

A new pagoda outside a Blang village is testimony to new-found wealth

Thirdly, the complex and lavish nature of the religious activities in the village were directly supported by the village’s economic development. Without the wealth brought by tea monoculture, it would hardly be possible to support the scale of religious activities that I witnessed. The village’s wealth could clearly be seen in the renovation of the main temple, and the building of a new pagoda outside the village. This pagoda was built upon the advice of a visiting Burmese monk and was located according to fengshui principles to ensure that the wealth generated in the village would as much as possible remain in the village. Economic development supports religious activities, and in turn religious activities are designed to support economic development.

The final point relates to the power of Buddhism as a transnational religion. The border between China and Myanmar was clearly a notional border for the local people. Commercial, religious and family relationships straddled the border, and villagers were able to cross easily into Burma by foot. Some monks had spent time in Thailand and were able to live there without any passport, so long as they had proof of their religious status.

From my exploratory research it seems clear that there exists a complex relationship between religion, economy, ecology and nationality among the Blang people that is deserving of much deeper study and analysis. At the same time, it is not clear how long these relationships will remain intact. The current five year plan holds out the prospect of a proper paved road from the village to the county town. This will make communications with the “outside world” far easier and undoubtedly bring momentous changes to the religious, economic and social life of the village.

“best to be like water”: tsunamis, religion and non-human agency

Image from National Geographic

It’s been three weeks since the devastating tsunami in Japan, and I am still haunted by the familiar phrase from Daode jing ch. 8:

Best to be like water,
Which benefits the ten thousand things
And does not contend.
It pools where humans disdain to dwell,
Close to the Tao.
(Trans. Addis and Lombardo, Hackett: 1993).

For those devastated by tsuanmis, floods and other water disasters, to make an analogy between goodness and water seems at the very least grotesque. In what sense can the wild and untameable powers of nature be used as an analogy for what’s best? In English, such natural disasters are often referred to as “acts of God”, meaning that they are far beyond the power of humans to grasp, and essentially mysterious and unknowable. Insurance companies may refuse to cover such “acts of God” because they represent risks that are so enormous and so incalculable that they resist any attempt to bring them within a familiar economic rationality. An “act of God” is simply beyond human comprehension.

Although ancient Chinese philosophers did not, so far as I know, have any experience of the devastation brought by tsunamis, they were undoubtedly aware of the dangerous power of water. Spring floods have for millennia wrought havoc on the plains of China. To harness water’s power has been the dream of China’s rulers from ancient times to the present. Indeed it would not be going too far to suggest that the present rulers of China have staked their future on hydropower dams as the way to generate low-carbon electricity, and also to divert water from south to north.(In so doing they are providing interesting data for Karl Wittfogel’s famous “hydraulic civilization” theory of Chinese power.)

In the Daode jing, the essential quality of water is that it is fluid. The key difference between fluids and solids is that fluids have a kind of agency to them: they move and act independently of human will. Try as we might, water always runs downhill and “pools where humans disdain to dwell.” Humans fear being in low places because there they cannot see what is coming. Being in a low place threatens human agency, the ability to exert control over our situation, and to be a master of our own domain.

When the Daode jing suggests that it is “best to be like water,” it is making the counter-intuitive suggestion that human beings should relinquish some of their desire to be in control of everything. In Daoism this is known as “wuwei” variously translated as “non-action” or “non-assertive action.” Although scholars have endlessly debated the meaning of his term, my interpretation is that the Daode jing is advocating recognizing the limits to human agency: we just can’t do everything. But at the same time it is advocating recognizing the value of other non-human agencies: there is power, fluidity and dynamism to the world that is independent of human will. To be like water is thus to embrace a different kind of agency from the familiar instrumentality that would have us always “be in control.” Far from suggesting that we give up power and do nothing, it is suggesting that we recognize the existence and power of other agents in our environment, and learn to co-operate rather than contend with them.

Lately my students have been looking at James Lovelock’s famous Gaia hypothesis—the notion that the earth is a single self-regulating organism. Such a view is shocking to conventional science because it suggests that the earth may be considered as some kind of agent: it is not simply passive matter upon which we humans act (with disastrous consequences) but has some kind of ability to regulate itself. As the healing of the ozone hole demonstrates, when left free from human interference (in the form of CFCs), the ozone layer seems to be “healing itself” quite nicely, thank you. This is a powerful and difficult message to those environmentalists who would have us “save the world” (as if we actually could!) and to those anti-environmentalists who would have us wage war upon it.

In the end, I don’t think that it is too grotesque to consider the message of the Daode jing in a time of flood and devastation. While it is our natural instinct of survival to head for the high ground, it is all the more necessary to think about the possibility that humans co-operate with, rather than fear or fight, the myriad forms of non-human agency that inflect our universe. Sometimes, fight or flight may well be necessary, but this does not have to be our only response, our only Way of action. Maybe in other situations a kind of “non-action” or co-operative engagement may be the way forward. But all of this depends on entering into a post-humanist mindset where we are comfortable in recognizing forms of non-human agency, whether the benign power of the earth to heal itself, or the cognitive and moral reasoning of non-human animals, or even the destructive power of tsunamis and earthquakes.

daoism and technological innovation

The electronic prayer hall at Wong Tai Sin (photo: Sik Sik Yuen)

As China overtakes Japan to be recognized as the world’s second largest economy, it is inevitable that Chinese religions will undergo change and transformation. But since Marx infamously compared the social function of religion to that of a narcotic, religion has consistently been framed in the modern imagination as backwards, anti-modern, and anti-science. China’s modernizers, likewise, have viewed religion as a problem to be overcome in the quest to build the new China, and their view has become part of the mainstream amongst Chinese youth. In Chinese Religions in Contemporary Societies, I told a story about a lecture that I gave in Shanghai several years ago: one of the students was shocked to learn that I studied Chinese religions, and asked me, incredulously, why on earth someone would spend time studying China’s religions!

Of course it is entirely ironic that the divisive narrative that frames religion as part of the past has also been taken up by some religious institutions who would seek to return human civilization to some mythic ideal that most likely never existed as an empirical fact. Fundamentalists and secular modernists often share the same framework about the absolute disjunction between modernity and science on the one hand, and religious tradition on the other.

But what if this story about the place of religion in the modern world is recognized for what it is: a story? Recognizing that modernity is its own story—a cultural narrative like any other—places religions in a new light.

In that regard, I would like to point out two stories about Daoism that have been in the news recently. The first is that Wong Tai Sin temple in Hong Kong has created a new electronic prayer hall in which prayer requests are submitted on paper slips and deities respond by lighting up with LED lights and emitting artificial smoke. As Patrick Brzeski reports in the Wall Street Journal, this temple administration defends this technological innovation not just as a way to attract new visitors but as more healthy and more environmentally friendly:

Lee Yiu-fai, chairman of Sik Sik Yuen and the chief planner of the new prayer room, named Tai Sui Yuenchen Hall, says he sought to create a more comfortable, healthful and modern Taoist environment, free from the pervasive incense smoke that often chokes the alters of traditional temples. Temple staff have been touting the eco-friendliness of the new facility’s energy-saving LED lighting and its smoke-reduction policy — burnt offerings inside the hall are limited to one small low-smoke incense stick. That contrasts with the atmosphere at the original and main altar, just above the new one, where templegoers burn large incendiary joss sticks by the handful.

The second story, which has not been reported in the news media so far, is that the International Taoist Tai Chi Society’s main temple near Toronto has recently installed 48 solar panels that generate 10kW of green energy, which is fed into the Ontario power grid. This green tech investment parallels similar moves in China being promoted by the Chinese Daoist Association’s commitment to ecological issues.

While I have no doubt that a range of motives lay behind the decisions to invest in technology at both these institutions, two things for me stand out. The first is that both institutions are touting the environmentally friendly aspect of their technological innovations. That is to say, investment in new technologies for Daoists is made more acceptable when it is seen as an environmental benefit. I think that this is to be explained in part because many religious people across the world see environmental protection as a serious ethical obligation. Daoists in particular have a real historical and ideological affinity for taking nature as an object of religious concern. It is part of Daoism’s DNA to take nature seriously, and this makes it not particularly surprising that Daoists should make green technology innovations.

In fact, Daoism has a long history of engaging with science and technology. The pioneering work of Joseph Needham advocated an affinity between Daoism and science, and this argument has been newly advanced in a thoroughly detailled way by Jiang Sheng of Shandong University who recently published (in Chinese) a series of volumes on this topic. Daoists invented accurate, portable, water clocks for use in meditation, and were pioneers in a wide range of scientific fields. While this may still be a far cry from installing LED statues or solar panels in temples, it does go some way to counter the cultural narrative of secular modernity that religion and technology do not go together.

consumptionomics: asia’s role in reshaping capitalism and saving the planet

Consumptionomics by Chandran Nair

Last year I wrote an article for on China’s quest for ecological sustainability. The basic point that I tried to make was that China has to create its own model for development because China simply will not be able to function as a country if its nearly 1.4 billion people expand their ecological footprint to the same level as that of North American societies. I am not arguing that China must not develop its economy. Rather I am arguing that it must develop its economy in a radically new way and not slavishly copy the pattern of development that the West has established.

I’m pleased to note that a similar argument has now been made but fleshed out in much more detail, by Chandran Nair, founder of the Global Institute for Tomorrow, a “social venture think tank.” The book has already been reviewed by the Financial Times and I’m very interested to read it. It hasn’t yet been published in North America, but I’ve ordered a copy from Amazon.

According to the FT’s Hugh Carnegy,

Nair is adamant that nothing good will come to any of us if success in the new economies of the east is defined by flashy, western-style consumption. His book is a call for Asia’s developing nations to eschew consumerism and adopt a more ascetic economic model that will deliver sustainable development and save the planet from environmental disaster.

While Nair is much more interested than I am in fleshing out the policy details of what such a redesigned capitalism would look like, I am pleased to see that attempts are being made to bring about a serious debate on what kind of development the world can tolerate. Hopefully, Nair’s book can go a long way to mitigating the dreadful assumptions that lay behind last year’s New York Times Magazine article on how best to develop China’s domestic appetite for consumer products.

Nair’s vision seems to be for a Singapore-style benevolent dictatorship that will proactively guide Asian economies towards more sustainable forms of economic development. This echoes the feelings of my own students that dictatorships may be better for sustainability than democracies. But to my mind this seems to completely overlook the possibility that sustainability can be seen in a positive light, and not as some form of state-sponsored asceticism.

To my mind, sustainability has the potential to be understood not simply as an economic policy, but as something like a spiritual path, a vision that can provide hope, purpose and meaning for human beings caught in the swirling currents of global capitalism. I believe that sustainability understood in this way resonates profoundly with the deep philosophical currents that flow beneath the shiny surface of modern Asia. This gives me hope that sustainability can become embedded in Asian cultures in ways that Western policymakers may find hard to believe.

green china rising

As the trailer for this new documentary from Mandarin Films makes clear, the global environmental crisis will be solved in China, not in America, for the simple reason that China has no other option. As I noted recently in my post on ecological civilization in China, there is a widespread recognition in China that the paradigm of industrial civilization must be changed so that China can bring economic development to its people without a correspondingly large increase in its ecological footprint. (More…)