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 atlantic-community.org 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.