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the philosophy of qi in an era of air pollution

By: James Miller

A view over the Forbidden City in Beijing
A view over the Forbidden City in Beijing

In a recent column in Nature, Qiang Wang argues that responsibility for transforming China’s environment lies with its citizens. He points to several instances in which local protests have successfully prevented new industrial activity, and argues that this heralds the beginning of a new relationship between Chinese citizens, the state and the environment.

China is witnessing the beginnings of a civil society in which the Chinese people spontaneously defend their right to a healthy environment, independent of organizers, political goals and commercial interests.

The issue here is the scale at which people are engaging with environmental issues. Fighting against the development of a local chemical factory does not necessarily signal the development of an transformative ecological consciousness, but could simply be the result of a NIMBYism that governments across the world have to contend with.

The issue of air quality, however, is different.

Qiang Wang writes:

Chinese citizens who want to drink clean water can buy a water purifier; those worried about poisoned milk can buy imported milk. But when the air is polluted, there is no option but to fight.

The broad scale of China’s air quality problems, and the fact that smog cannot easily be evaded, means that it has the potential to engender a large scale transformation in attitudes towards environmental issues. Far from simply being the concern of local citizens for local issues, the issue of air quality is so widespread and so immediately felt that it demands transformative action.

Traditional Chinese culture views the body not as a discrete object set apart from its environment, but as a dynamic system in which vital fluids are exchanged between the inner body and their environment. Central to this view is the concept of Qi (Ch’i) 气 a complex term sometimes translated as vital breath, spirit, or pneuma. The most fundamental form of Qi is the air we breathe that gives us life.

One important connection between contemporary ecology and traditional Chinese culture, therefore, lies in the way that bodies are engaged with their environments. In both cases we can say that Qi or breath is the basic medium through which this engagement takes place.  Qi is the conduit, the vital fluid, that circulates between the two in a constant dynamic exchange.

From this perspective it is easy to see that healthy environments help to produce healthy bodies. Although they are two distinct systems, bodies and ecosystems are connected at the most fundamental level through Qi, the flow of breath that keeps us alive.

The philosophy of Qi also urges us to think about health not simply in physiological terms but in broader ecological terms. Our health derives from the food we eat, the air we breathe, and the water we drink. This traditional Chinese view has enormous potential to foster a broad ecological consciousness in China and across the world.


Categories: Opinion