religion, nature and urbanization among china’s ethnic minorities

In June this year Ian Johnson published a major report in the New York Times on China’s plans to urbanize 250 million citizens over the next decade or so. This drive continues the decades-long story of China’s conversion from an 80 per cent rural society into an 80 per cent urban society, a migration that probably constitutes one of the most significant stories in human history, when considered from the perspective of the numbers of people involved and its relative speed.

Photo shows a residential building in Zham Township, a Tibetan town located in Nyalam County of Shigatse Prefecture, which is 114 km from Kathmandu, capital of Nepal.[Photo/China Tibet Online]

Residential buildings in Zham Township, a Tibetan town located in Nyalam County of Shigatse Prefecture.[Photo/China Tibet Online]

A major issue that Johnson raises in his analysis is the question of how this will change China’s traditional character, and also the traditional rural focus of China’s communist party.

This will decisively change the character of China, where the Communist Party insisted for decades that most peasants, even those working in cities, remain tied to their tiny plots of land to ensure political and economic stability.

This insistence is reflected in China’s hukou system whereby rural migrants to China’s cities remain officially residents of their home towns, unable to access many of the subsidized benefits such as health care and education that cities offer to their official residents. For me, the question raised by this policy is why? Why is it desirable for so many people to be moved from rural areas to new cities? In Johnson’s analysis, one key reason is economic:

Now, the party has shifted priorities, mainly to find a new source of growth for a slowing economy that depends increasingly on a consuming class of city dwellers.

But other factors are also key. One of the most important of these is that the push for urbanization is occurring in China’s relatively underdeveloped west. This western focus involves environmental and ethnic factors that have not played a substantial role in the urbanization of China’s eastern provinces.

The ethnic factor here is that China’s western provinces are dominated by its minority nationalities, including those that constitute challenges for China’s central government, especially in Tibet and Xinjiang. In fact the strategic and environmental significance of China’s west means that the so-called minorities really constitute a majority. This is a key point that Dan Smyer Yu writes in the introduction to our new book, Religion and Ecological Sustainability in China:

From the geographical perspective, the “minorities” of China occupy over 65 per cent of China’s total territory. In this regard, the “minorities” could be seen as the “majority” of the nation. In addition, if we view from the perspective of China’s current modernization program, it is not difficult to recognize the “minorities” as China’s strategic “majority” because of the fact that most domestic natural resources come from the “minority region.”

One contentious issue in the push towards urbanization has been the question of settling China’s nomadic peoples. In a recent blog post, Urbanizing China’s Ethnic Minorities, Andrew Stokols writes

While China’s efforts to forcibly relocate farmers to new cities does not target ethnic minority areas specifically, the policy has unique consequences because such populations are even less prepared for the move to urban life than their Han counterparts. In border regions of China: in Xinjiang, Qinghai, Yunnan, and Gansu provinces for example, efforts to urbanize nomadic peoples are proving difficult and controversial.

Buddhist stupa and houses outside the town of Aba, Aba Tibetan and Qiang Autonomous Prefecture., Source:  Jialiang Gao / Wikimedia Commons

Buddhist stupa and houses outside the town of Aba, Aba Tibetan and Qiang Autonomous Prefecture. Source: Jialiang Gao / Wikimedia Commons

New research from Qi Jinyu, which we are publishing in our book, examines one reason for the drive to urbanize nomadic herders that should not be underestimated: environmental security. The Qinghai-Tibet plateau serves as the source region for China’s three major river systems, the Yangzi, the Yellow River and the Lancang / Mekong. China’s eastern provinces depend on these rivers for water and energy, and in the case of the Mekong, this also applies to Cambodia, Laos and Thailand. (India similarly relies on water from the Himalayas, as noted in this Guardian article on the China and India “Water Grab.”) As a result, China has embarked upon a policy of “ecological migration.” This policy contains two key elements:

  1. designate key areas as environmental protection zones;
  2. relocate nomadic families away from these areas and settle them in towns.

In the case documented by Qi Jinyu in our book, urbanization is being carried out for the sake of environmental protection. He writes:

[Researchers, the media and government officials] argued that the Tibetans’ increasing population and consequent over-grazing caused the degeneration, desertification, and the shrinkage of lakes of the grasslands.

According to Qi’s research, however, it is far from clear that the minority peoples actually had anything to do with the deteriorating quality of the water in this key areas. Instead, it seems more likely that the Tibetan nomads were scapegoats. Nonetheless, we can say that in this case, the urbanization of China’s western “majority” was not simply an economic issue, but also involved the issue of water security and domestic energy sustainability. In this case, it would seem that the cost in terms of worsened ethnic relations was deemed relatively small in the face of the massive environmental significance of the region to the livelihood of the billion people who live downstream.

Nature, Impersonality, and Absence in the Theology of Highest Clarity Daoism

Models of God James Miller. 2013. Nature, Impersonality, and Absence in the Theology of Highest Clarity Daoism. Pp. 665-676 in Models of God and Alternative Ultimate Realities, edited by J. Diller and A. Kasher. Dordrecht: Springer.

Excerpted and slightly adapted with the author’s permission from The Way of Highest Clarity: Nature, Vision and Revelation in Medieval China (Magdalena, NM: Three Pines Press, 2008).

The Way of Highest Clarity (Shangqing dao 上清道) flourished for 1,000 years in medieval China from the fourth to the fourteenth centuries. It was a distinct branch of the Daoist religion formed around its own scriptural revelation transmitted under the authority of a lineage of 45 patriarchs. Although it no longer exists in any overt institutional form, its practices were absorbed into the mainstream Daoist traditions that continue to this day. It thus constitutes an important link between the earliest organized religious traditions that emerged in the latter Han (25–220) and the modern forms of Daoism that were developed from the Yuan dynasty (1279–1368) onwards.

It originated in a series of revelations from a variety of “perfected persons,” former human beings who had been transfigured into powerful celestial gods. The revelations from these gods were written down in texts which describe lush celestial paradises inhabited by a vast panoply of divine personages served by “jade maidens” and “lads,” and who lived a life of sumptuous luxury and ease. The texts also explain that the way to this Heaven of Highest Clarity consists in repeating the process by which these perfected beings were revealed in the first place: namely, by mentally visualizing their descent from heaven and their entry into the body of the individual. This can occur at the specific times and places when the vast and obscure operations of the cosmos make this contact possible. Through this process of visualization, the transformative powers of the gods are once again revealed, and the body of the adept is transfigured into the same type of perfected being who revealed these celestial worlds in the first place. The adept’s body then avoids death completely and, while still alive but in a transfigured state, ascends to heaven in broad daylight, leaving behind no earthly token. Those who do not manage to achieve this transfiguration die but, through the intervention of perfected beings, may be reborn in paradise as “immortals.”  Such persons obtain a position within the celestial hierarchy inferior to that of the perfected beings, but nonetheless avoid much of the trauma experienced by those condemned to a postmortem existence in the underworld. Those unfortunates are tortured, tried and punished by sadistic officials in the three bureaux of heaven, earth and water in order to work off the accumulated guilt of their misdeeds, and they are separated from their friends and family. Such a fate is to be avoided at all costs.

The Way of Highest Clarity thus regards humans as living in a space between the biological process of earth and the constellated spiritual powers of the heavens. Within the hierarchy of the cosmos, humans rank above the animal world, but below the heavenly world. But because natural law is understood as a law of transformation, Highest Clarity Daoists believe that it is possible to change one’s fundamental nature in an act of cosmic transfiguration and, as it were, metamorphose from one’s earthly status to that of a celestial being. Again it is important to understand that although this involves transcending the ordinary givenness of human life in a literal and metaphorical ascension to the stars, this is not, strictly speaking, a supernatural process, because the heavens are governed by the same laws of nature as every other part of the created order. Bodily ascension, though rare and wondrous, is understood as a wholly natural transformation of the body that is open to anyone who had been initiated into the scriptures and who has the dedication to pursue the methods they detail.

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Monitory Democracy and Ecological Civilization in the People’s Republic of China

TragardhCivilJames Miller. 2013. “Monitory Democracy and Ecological Civilization in the People’s Republic of China.” Pp. 137-148 in Civil Society in the Age of Monitory Democracy edited by Lars Trägårdh, Nina Witoszek and Bron Taylor. Oxford: Berghahn Books.


In what sense can religious values and institutions in China be seen as elements of civil society that have the function of challenging and monitoring the interests, values and actions of the state? To answer this question, this essay considers both the ways in which religious issues have played a small role in containing—rather than enhancing—the ideological authority of the current Chinese state and whether they may be regarded as functioning in a way similar to Keane’s concept of monitory democracy. The first issue focuses on the role that Daoist values play in promoting awareness of environmental issues in ways that have supported local efforts to resist centrally-imposed economic agendas. This leads to a broader discussion of religious values, both national and transnational, and their ability to offer sustainable alternatives to the dominant ideology of state capitalism.

Monitory Democracy and Environmental Policy

John Keane’s concept of monitory democracy is particularly salient as regards the relationship between civil society and ecological sustainability in China. China’s unique political structure allows for a measure of indirect representative democracy, but this is always circumscribed by the political direction imposed upon the state by the Communist Party. In China’s case, the formal measures that permit democratic representation may thus be less significant than the ways in which China’s emerging civil society attempts to slow down the pace of environmental engineering and locally resist the imposition of central policies and plans.

There are valid historical reasons for thinking that these effects of monitory democracy are particularly important as regards environmental issues in China. In Mao’s War Against Nature: Politics and the Environment in Revolutionary China, Judith Shapiro (2004) amply demonstrates how “utopian urgency” and “dogmatic formalism” contributed to a series of policy disasters regarding the natural environment in China in the twentieth century. Shapiro’s explanation for these mistakes lies, intriguingly, in the realm of values. While she acknowledges the difficulty of relating cultural values to policy decisions, she nonetheless articulates her basic thesis as “how Maoist values came to dominate and govern the human-nature relationship” (2004: 11).

In her analysis of the Great Leap Forward, for instance, Shapiro explains how the Maoist rhetoric of “compressed time” constituted the core value of this campaign to overtake the West in terms of industrial development (70). She writes,

Its defining characteristic was speed: urgency in reorganizing society, urgency in catching up with Britain in industry, urgency in raising agricultural yields, urgency in building water conservancy projects, urgency in ridding China of pests, and so on. (71)

Political disputes leading up to the Great Leap Forward centered not on the basic goal of industrialization, but on the question of how fast the goal could be achieved. When the Maoist policy of “opposing opposing-rushing-ahead” won out and the Great Leap Forward was formally announced, the notion that there might be limits to the rate of development was considered heresy. Two consequences for the natural environment were evident. The first was that any attempt to reduce expectations as to what could be wrested from nature was regarded as ideologically suspicious. When, in the summer of 1958, Zeng Jia, a vice-Party secretary in Sichuan, objected to unreasonable expectations regarding grain production, he was admonished: “The Communist Party has made it possible for a field to produce 10,000 jin. If you do not believe it, where has your Party spirit gone?” (Shapiro 2004: 79). To suggest that nature might impose limits on the will of the Chinese people was to commit an ideological crime of the highest order. As the Great Leap Forward got underway, the masses were mobilized to set up backyard steel furnaces to provide the massive amounts of steel required for China’s industrialization. The consequence was massive deforestation as trees were cut down to provide firewood for this failed experiment.

During the Great Leap Forward, the slogan “Man must conquer nature” made it clear that nature was the enemy. Mao’s extreme humanism had no place for any notion of balance between humans and the natural world, nor could it conceive of an ecological understanding in which the flourishing of human life could be seen as dependent upon the flourishing of a range of ecosystems. Inflated expectations regarding grain production and massive deforestation to support steel-making had dire consequences for the health of Chinese people and the Chinese environment. It is estimated that the tremendous famine that ensued from these policies led to the deaths of 35-50 million people between 1959 and 1961.

During the Cultural Revolution (1966-76) Mao developed another disastrous strategy, which Shapiro terms “dogmatic formalism.” The case here revolves around Mao’s slogan “Learn from Dazhai.” In 1963, the Dazhai brigade of the Dazhai people’s commune in Shanxi province, overcame a natural disaster through a policy of extreme self-reliance. While this policy was clearly rooted in the earlier ideology of human voluntarism, this policy was taken in a new direction, as it was “applied mechanistically in scenarios where it could not possibly succeed because it was inappropriate for local conditions” (Shapiro 2004: 98). In particular, Shapiro documents how one specific environmental policy from Dazhai, namely, terracing hillsides to create arable land, was reproduced across China in environments for which it was not suited: “inappropriate terracing on steep slopes and areas with thin topsoils brought deforestation, erosion, and sedimentation, while encroachments on lakes and rivers led to ecosystem imbalance, microclimate changes, and increased flooding” (Shapiro 2004: 98).

In her conclusion, Shapiro briefly compares China’s efforts to conquer nature with similar campaigns in socialist Cuba and the former USSR (201). Although she argues that the uniqueness of China’s situation makes it difficult to make generalizable conclusions regarding politics and the environment, she does highlight [2] two lessons that can be learned from China’s disastrous experiments in the Maoist era. A higher level of democratic participation would have made it easier to resist the urgency of Mao’s utopian fantasies regarding the rate of industrial development. At the same time, a system of democratic representation would have enabled local areas to have greater power over their own environments and this might have mitigated the effects of imposing the Dazhai model uniformly across China’s varied topography.

These lessons are relevant for considering the ways that monitory democracy and the development of civil society in China can play a positive role in the transition to ecological sustainability as a core value of Chinese policymaking. In particular, is it possible to see how monitory activities play a role, whether positive or negative, in simply slowing down the implementation of policies? Secondly, can monitory democracy be seen in the ways that local regions resist the efforts of the state to impose its central vision upon the breadth of China’s geography? Although China has only limited channels for formal democratic representation, the rise of environmental NGOs and specific environmental protests during the past thirty years of economic reform may go some way to indicate that a form of monitory democracy is functioning in contemporary China. There are, however, four questions to be asked. One, does the sporadic scrutiny of and local protests against China’s emergent economic plans have any substantial effect on environmental policies? Two, does this ultimately benefit China’s environmental sustainability? Three, how are various non-state actors able to contribute to a higher-order debate about the basic values that underlie China’s quest for economic development? And four, are environmental or other movements able to substantially engage with a broad range of publics in questioning the fundamental direction that China’s development is taking?

In order to answer these questions, I would like to look at the case of Dujiangyan—a UNESCO world heritage site near Chengdu, Sichuan province—where a grassroots campaign succeeded in reversing governmental plans to build a hydropower dam.

Dujiangyan has good claim to be regarded as one of the wonders of the ancient world. Constructed between 267 and 256 BCE, Dujiangyan is an irrigation system that regulates the flow of the Min river during the spring floods, provides water for 50 cities, and irrigates 672,000 hectares of farmland. Remarkably, it is still in use today largely unchanged from its original design. It is regarded as a unique icon of Chinese cultural heritage not simply because it is an engineering marvel, but also because it concretely symbolizes an authentically Chinese philosophy of harmony between human beings and their natural environments. Li Bin, the project’s architect, made use of a natural feature in the topography of the Min river to create a weir and irrigation channel that function together to divert floodwater in a controlled way throughout the Sichuan basin. In this way flooding is not only prevented, but rather channelled into an elaborate system of irrigation canals that enabled Sichuan to become a rich and fertile agricultural land. To this day Li Bin is memorialized in a Daoist temple built on the site. In 2000, Dujiangyan, together with the neighbouring Daoist temple complex on Mt. Qingcheng, received designation as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Plans to dam the Min river date back to the period of Sino-Soviet co-operation of the 1950s. A dam was partially built in 1958, but construction stopped in 1961. The unfinished structure is still visible to this day about half a kilometre from the Dujiangyan site. In 2001, however, engineers began construction of a massive hydropower dam at Zipingpu, some seven kilometres upstream from Dujiangyan. In contrast to the subtle and elegant engineering of Dujiangyan, Zipingpu is a 156 metre-high dam, the highest of a series of cascading dams designed to provide irrigation water, flood control and hydropower. The dam was severely damaged during the Wenchuan earthquake of 2008, but a complete breach was thankfully avoided.

As Mertha (2011) reports, the construction of Zipingpu led to a series of environmental protests based at Dujiangyan that were successful in reversing the central government’s decision to build a smaller dam at Yangliuhu close to Dujiangyan. In 2003, opposition to Yangliuhu crystallized around the cultural argument that this new dam would irreversibly damage Dujiangyan’s status as a key treasure of China’s heritage. As one Dujiangyan official put it, “Should we sacrifice the heritage of the people and the world to the interests of some [political] departments?” (Mertha 2011: 102).

It is worth considering this case in comparison to the failed attempt by many of China’s leading intellectuals to oppose the construction of the Three Gorges Dam. Why did opposition to that project fail, and why was the Dujiangyan protest successful? One answer, provided in Mertha’s analysis, is that rather than directly oppose the plans of the central government, local organizations made their views known to a broad circle of media organizations, thus espousing an indirect approach, rather than formal representations (Mertha 2010: 106). In this regard, the Dujiangyan case lends some support to Keane’s theory of monitory democracy: that the scrutinizing function of the media is just as important for the democracy as a formal process of representation. As Premier Wen Jiabao declared in 2005, “for a project which has aroused such public concern, we need to devote more time and make assessments based on scientific considerations” (Mertha 2010: 108).

A second reason for the success at Dujiangyan, however, is the broad set of cultural and even philosophical issues that were at stake. Not only was Dujiangyan widely regarded as a cultural heritage work as significant as the Great Wall, Dujiangyan also signified the concrete expression of Daoist philosophy. It thus embodied a uniquely Chinese vision of human relations with the natural world, a vision proudly claimed by Sichuan local authorities. A senior government official of Dujiangyan city explained to me that just as Daoist philosophy came to be expressed spiritually in the religion that emerged around Qingcheng shan (2nd century C.E.), the same philosophy was also expressed materially in the Dujiangyan irrigation system (pers. comm. 2004). That is to say, a significant local reason to oppose the development at Yangliuhu was its connection to the values and heritage of Daoist philosophy.

At the heart of this philosophy lies the concept of wuwei variously translated as “non-action”, “non-aggressive action” or “effortless action” and which signifies a uniquely Daoist method of praxis in which the maximum effect is achieved by taking advantage as much as possible of the natural power inherent in things, rather than imposing one’s will directly upon them. Dujiangyan is regarded as a model of “effortless action” because rather than damming the river completely, the site employs a weir and irrigation system to channel and regulate the water’s natural power.

It is hard to underestimate the cultural significance of this metaphor within China. Not only does the vision of flood control go to the heart of China’s origin myths—see, for example, the so-called “hydraulic state thesis” of Wittfogel (1957)—the concept of water-flow is a key metaphor of Chinese philosophy (Allan 1997). In Daoism, water is a frequent image for the Dao itself or for virtuous behaviour: “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” (Daode jing ch. 8; trans. Addis and Lombardo 1993). In Chinese popular culture, water features are key elements of fengshui, and are taken into consideration particularly in deciding upon the locations of tombs. In aesthetics, the sound of water flowing was deemed to be highly desirable (Schafer 1962: 292). In Chinese medical anthropology, moreover, human bodies are envisioned as porous beings in which fluids circulate providing health and long life (Miller 2006). To dam water is to obstruct the natural flow of things, and in the holistic systems approach of Chinese culture, the blockage of energy is a principal cause of disease and death.

The Dujiangyan case thus not only invokes analysis in terms of how local actors mobilized media channels to resist the imposition of central power, it also goes to the heart of what values underpin China’s quest for modernization and development. Monitory democracy, such as it is in the People’s Republic of China, is not only relevant for the way that it scrutinizes state power, but also for the way that it challenges the fundamental values upon which that power is based.

Civil Society and Alternative Religious Values

This “monitory” function is perhaps more relevant in China than in other states where the fundamental values of the state seem relatively well established by popular consensus. The first reason for this is that China’s revolutionary history over the past century and more has produced a profound instability of the core values among its people. The massive migration of over one hundred million people from the countryside to the city is one of the great transformations of human-nature relationships in world history. A second remarkable story is the rapid explosion of Christian faith and Buddhist practice throughout the mainland. The net result of these profound social, cultural and environmental shifts has been to occasion a public dialogue regarding the fundamental values that underlie China’s modernization. Scrutiny, therefore, is one reason for the success of Dujiangyan: it caused the central government to rethink its exercise of power in this particular matter. But scrutiny also touched on deeper notions of Chinese identity, cultural heritage, and spiritual value.

Another example of how the process of scrutinizing state power raises fundamental questions of value can be seen in the public debate in 2005 over the concept of “revering nature” (jingwei ziran). He Zuoxiu (1927-), a noted theoretical physicist closely allied to the Communist Party, sparked this debate when he proposed the notion that “revering nature” was a superstitious, anti-science concept that would not help China to deal with its environmental problems. He wrote (2005: 20):

I want to challenge the contention that people ought to respect and hold nature in awe, advanced by one professor. He asserts that mankind should not use science and technology to transform nature, but maintain an attitude of respect and awe. Such an attitude is “anti-science”, especially when we are confronting natural disasters like the tsunami or epidemic outbreaks. I hold the opposite view. We human beings should try our best to prevent and reduce losses incurred in natural disasters. Reverence and awe make no sense.

In his essay, he directly challenged the notion of respect and awe for nature as being “anti-science”, and argued that natural disasters such as tsunamis or epidemics should not be held in “awe” at all. Rather, the task for human beings is to prevent the natural world from wreaking havoc on human livelihood.

In response, Liang Congjie (1932-2010), the head of Friends of Nature, China’s leading environmental non-governmental organization, criticized He Zuoxiu’s humanistic, anthropocentric values, by invoking the value of nature in China’s cultural heritage. He wrote: “Numerous Chinese classical works have shown that we have always placed great value on nature, far more than just being a tool” (2005: 14). Similarly, Pan Yue, vice-minister of the State Environmental Protection Agency, has also extolled traditional Chinese ideals and values in regards to the natural environment. Although he warns (2007: 31) that “when we talk about the revival of the Chinese civilization, we do not mean to mechanically restore the traditional natural economy and cultural traditions of Confucianism, Buddhism, Daoism and Legalism,” he nonetheless sees the development of an “ecological civilization” as something that integrates traditional Chinese values into a new cultural whole:

The intrinsic spirit of traditional Chinese culture and the environmental culture gathering momentum in the contemporary world are strikingly compatible. It is well known that traditional Chinese culture has always pursued harmony between man and nature, presumed morals to follow nature, abided by the laws of nature, aspired to the unity of man and nature, embraced the idea of equality among all individuals, and highlighted the security of lives and the continuity of civilization. Based on this spirit, traditional Chinese philosophies, religions, literature, art … all demonstrate harmonious relations between man and nature, profound and far-sighted ecological civilization, and harmonious aesthetics of heaven, earth and humanity. If we make a comprehensive survey of the world, both ancient and modern, we may observe that in the past several thousand years, there have been many ancient civilizations with prosperous days and golden ages; but through the destruction of nature, these came to an end. The Chinese nation is the only exception, preserved integrally and unbroken, with the same roots, race, language and culture. (2007: 30-31)

Although Pan Yue is writing as a government leader, it is easy to see that his language has important consequences for the emergence of a civil society in China that is explicitly construed around a distinctively Chinese understanding of what “civil” means. Far from wholeheartedly establishing “the environment” as a global issue to be solved by international consensus, the rise of environmentalist discourse in China has opened the door to the possibility of framing environmental issues in terms of an emergent nationalist rhetoric formed around “traditional Chinese values.” This possibility lends weight to the notion articulated by Witoszek in this volume that the emergence of civil society may also be linked with an retribalization of civil identities forged, in this case, around the values, ideals, and history of the Han people.

The case of Dujiangyan is just as instructive here as the media debate between Liang and He, or the arguments of Pan Yue. In the context of Dujiangyan, the public outcry regarding the possible negative effects of building dams was similarly couched in a nationalist language. Arguments for the preservation of Dujiangyan were not explicitly made in terms of the UNESCO world heritage designation, even though that may have been an important factor in the final decision. Rather, the arguments centered chiefly on Dujiangyan’s status as a unique symbol of Chinese heritage whose meaning could not, ultimately, be separated from the uniquely Chinese philosophy and religion of Daoism. Indeed, this powerful nexus of national identity, spiritual value and ecological relevance has not been lost on the Chinese Daoist Association, which has publicly allied itself with the issue of environmentalism (see Miller 2013).

The role that may be played by religious cultures, including Confucianism, in any emergent Chinese civil society is not to be discounted, whether in terms of offering alternative aspirations (the question of ultimate values) or alternative identities (the question of tribalization). The attention paid to religious and ethnic issues by the Chinese state may indeed constitute evidence for their relevance in this matter. It is not simply that the state is opposed to the values of Daoism, Buddhism or Christianity for purely idealistic reasons, but rather because it recognizes the real alternatives they pose to its own vision of civil belonging. This antagonism between the state and religious organizations goes back to the early twentieth century when nationalist reformers, both Republican and Communist, sought to establish the state as the sole object of Chinese people’s devotion. Indeed, Prasenjit Duara (1991) has argued that the formation of the modern Chinese state in the early twentieth century was based in part on its ability to supplant local religious associations as networks of civil society, thereby replacing the patchwork of local affiliations with one focussed on a single nation state. As local religious associations and the veneration of local gods were attacked under the new ideological category of “superstition” (mixin), at the same time, national religious organizations were established and national gods (those venerated more or less uniformly throughout China) brought under the umbrella of the state. (This policy has been reanimated in recent years in the exaltation of Confucius as a non-theistic spiritual icon of the Chinese people.)

The relationship between the State and religious organizations can thus be understood chiefly in terms of a “geography of power” in which the emergent nation state sought to exert its authority over the whole area of China, bringing all the various local factions, authorities and associations under a single system of guidance and authority. This model of spatial authority was explicitly restrained with the reforms that began in 1978-79, in which religion was once again permitted to function, but only in specifically designated spaces. The fact that street evangelism or other forms of public religious activity are generally prohibited, demonstrates the state’s geographic concern that public space be purely secular space. However, inasmuch as religious activities do take place in authorized locations, they constitute a limited but tolerated alternative to the values and ideology of the Communist Party and its leadership of the nation.

In what sense, then, can such activities be said to constitute a form of emergent civil society that in some way monitors or challenges the functioning of the state? The fact that such organizations are restrained from physically encroaching upon China’s purely secular public space might suggest that they have no real monitory power. But this would make the mistake of assuming a consistency between public and private discourse (Aijmer and Ho 2000: 39). As Tam Wai Lun (2006: 80) notes, “People display agnosticism or anti-religious stances in public as a strategy to avoid accusations of traditionalism and feudalism, and their public stance therefore cannot be taken at face value.” The discrepancy between public expression and private values means that any discussion of civil society in China must inevitably be more complex than what can be publicly gauged, and this makes it hard to calculate the effects of the rise of religious activity in China from conventional social science perspectives. Tam (2006: 80) goes on to note that the resurgence of religious activity in China “signals a search for alternatives or even a vague resistance to communist ideals,” but it is naturally difficult to ascertain precisely what the consequences of such “vague resistance” might be.

Anecdotal evidence can be found in the conflict between religious and secular authorities over the public meaning of sacred sites. On a recent field visit to the Daoist sacred mountain, Mt. Mao, in Jiangsu province, evidence of such conflict over fundamental values could be found in the signs that interpreted former sacred sites to the visitor in resolutely secular terms (see Miller, forthcoming). Conversely, signs on Mt. Qingcheng, the Daoist mountain jointly inscribed with the Dujiangyan irrigation system on the UNESCO world heritage list, proudly proclaim the beautifully preserved natural environment as a function of the environmental consciousness of Daoists in former ages. In both these cases, secular and religious authorities are vying to lay claim to the aspirational value and ultimate significance of China’s iconic physical spaces.

Similar evidence is related by Ian Johnson (2010) in his report of a Daoist ceremony to consecrate a temple to the Jade Emperor on Mt. Yi. In this case, the government officials, who viewed the religious dedication as a necessary but unwelcome element of their economic plan to boost tourism in the area, were obliged to compromise with the Daoist nun who insisted on a full four-hour ceremony. At the same time the public was captivated by the intensity of her religious practice, which contrasted with the perfunctory performance of the officials, for whom the dedication ceremony was simply the culmination of their economic plan to boost local tourism. In this case, the performance by a respected ritual master stood not simply as an arcane curiosity but as an authentic religious insistence on a set of values and longings that did not cohere with the narrow rational calculus of state capitalism. It is hard to imagine such a set of complex cultural and political interactions taking place in a European liberal democracy where the engagement of religion and the state is less frequently fraught with ideological subtexts. In China, however, the unusual attention and significance given to religion by the state has the ironic function of endowing religious actors with the function of publicly challenging the values and ideals of the state itself, however much they may not wish to do so. The ideological monotheism of China’s political system has the consequence that the mere performance of religious practices inherently challenges the values and goals of the state. It is doubtful whether religious actors would deliberately seek such ideological conflict with the state, but this unnecessary conflict is is, of course, exploited by foreign governments who highlight China’s religious policies as a means to exert leverage over the country in the international arena.

Finally, it is important to consider the ways in which religions have, for thousands of years, functioned as agents of globalization and transnational civil exchange. Operating both within and beyond the structures of military conflict, economic transaction and cultural exchange, religious beliefs and practices continue to exert influence as non-government actors on the Chinese scene. Particularly salient in this regard are Buddhism, Islam and Christianity, all of which are profoundly implicated in the basic question of the Chinese state’s ability to maintain sovereignty over its geographic borders. Whether it is the Muslims in Xinjiang, Buddhists in Tibet, or Roman Catholics throughout China, these transnational religious movements are clearly seen by the state as inhibiting its ability to govern its own people. Religious movements act as a boundary, and thus a zone of conflict, between the individual religious practitioner and the apparatus of the state. The conflict between the Vatican and Beijing over who has the authority to appoint Roman Catholic Bishops, or the conflict between Dharamsala and Beijing over what procedures will be used to identify the next Dalai Lama, are in both cases seen by Beijing as a conflict over state sovereignty. They reflect, albeit on a much grander, geo-political level, the same issues that Johnson highlights in the story regarding the dedication ceremony to the Jade Emperor: whose values have authoritative meaning in this specific space?

This issue is of profound significance—not simply in terms of the centuries-old dream of the Han people to once again have the dominant, even the only, voice within the geographic space known as the Middle Kingdom. It is also significant in terms of the issue of ecological sustainability. If China’s environment is understood not simply as a blank space upon which competing secular and religious interests vie for authoritative dominance, but as an active participant in the complex ecology of interests in which 1.3 billion humans live, then there is a greater chance that the “ecological civilization” much vaunted by China’s Communist Party will become a reality. From this perspective, the question of democracy is not simply about which group’s voice will be heard the loudest, but about how to incorporate the interests of all the factors that constitute China’s complex and precarious ecology.

Works Cited

Addis, Stephen and Stanley Lombardo, trans. 1993. Tao Te Ching. Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishers

Johnson, Ian. 2010. “The Rise of the Tao.” The New York Times Magazine. November 7, 2011. Accessed April 10, 2010. Internet:

Duara, Prasenjit. 1991. “Knowledge and Power in the Discourse of Modernity: The Campaigns against Popular Religion in Early Twentieth-Century Chinaand campaings against popular religion.” Journal of Asian Studies 50.1: 67-83.

Mertha, Andrew C. 2011. China’s Water Warriors: Citizen Action and Policy Change. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

Miller, James. 2013. “Is Green the New Red? The Role of Religion in Creating a Sustainable China.” Journal of Nature and Culture 8.3.

Miller, James. 2006. “Daoism and Nature.” Pp. 220-235 in The Oxford Handbook of Religion and Ecology edited by Roger S. Gottlieb. New York: Oxford University Press.

Pan Yue. 2007. Thoughts on Environmental Issues. Beijing: China Environmental Culture Promotion Association.

Schafer, Edward H. 1962. “The Conservation of Nature under the T’ang Dynasty.” Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient 5.3: 279-308.

Shapiro, Judith. 2004. Mao’s War Against Nature: Politics and the Environment in Revolutionary China. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Tam Wai Lun. 2006. “Local Religion in Contemporary China.” Pp. 85-99 in Chinese Religions in Contemporary Societies edited by James Miller. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO.

Daoism and Development

Daoism and DevelopmentJames Miller. 2013. “Daoism and Development.” Pp. 113-123 in Handbook of Research on Development and Religion edited by Matthew Clarke. Cheltenham, UK: Edward Elgar.

Overview of Daoism

Daoism, also spelled Taoism, is China’s organized, indigenous religious system. Daoists take as their focus the goal of obtaining the Dao, or Way, the unnameable source of generative vitality in a universe of constant transformation. The methods for realizing this goal have been revised and reinvented throughout Daoism’s 2,000 year history but can be generally understood in terms of mediating between the fluid energies of the body, the community and the cosmos. Daoists pay attention to the subtle energies of the inner body and engage in meditative cultivation practices that aim to restore and enhance the functioning of the body with the goal of bringing about long life and spiritual transcendence. They also worship a complex hierarchy of sacred powers that includes at its apex the Three Pure Ones, impersonal instantiations of the Dao itself, and also a wide variety of personal gods who were once humans beings but who, over the course of their lives, achieved transcendence, sometimes understood as immortality.

From the perspective of an outside observer, Daoism has two distinct characters: an elite tradition of monks and priests who are dedicated to the quest of obtaining the Dao; and a communal tradition integrated into local society and patronized by non-initiated lay people. The elite tradition is focussed on maintaining and transmitting the teachings of the various lineages to a relatively small number of initiates who are deemed to be suitably qualified by virtue of their religious commitment. This elite tradition is esoteric, in that the contents of its teachings are not generally transmitted to non-initiates, and it generally has a hierarchical structure so that initiates must demonstrate their accomplishment at a lower level of teaching before receiving transmissions of a higher level of teaching. This elite tradition is by definition somewhat obscure and tends to jealously guard its distinct identity and sacred authority.

At the same time, however, Daoism also embraces the common Chinese religious tradition that pays little heed to religious distinctions. In this tradition, non-initiated lay people patronize temples to pray for good fortune, to mark the changing of the seasons, and to conduct rituals for the departed. The patrons of such temples and services may not be aware whether their temple is run by Daoists, Buddhists or other local religious traditions. The main thing is that they regard the temple as having spiritual efficacy. Within this common religious framework, however, there are specifically Daoist rituals for funerals and exorcisms that call upon distinctively Daoist gods and have specific Daoist characteristics that can be easily detected by the trained observer. The most distinctive Daoist ritual is the jiao, generally a complex multi-day event aimed at restoring the balance between the community and the cosmos. The most lavish of these is the the rite of cosmic renewal staged only once every sixty years, to mark the beginning of a new cycle of the Chinese calendar.

From an internal perspective, however, Daoists generally categorize themselves according a variety of distinct lineages each with its own genealogy of sacred authority. Daoists are initiated into a tradition by a master, receiving sacred texts and teachings into the methods taught by that tradition. Historically these various traditions were often centred on particular sacred mountains, and are frequently referred to by the name of the mountain. For this reason, some Daoist lineages tended to have strongholds in distinct regions of China and, at times these affiliations have maintained their various historical and geographic distinctions. In the modern period, however, all lineages and forms of Daoism have been increasingly subjected to mechanisms of centralization, nationalization and bureaucratization under the aegis of a single organizational framework, known as the Chinese Daoist Association (CDA). The CDA is based at the White Cloud Monastery in Beijing, which is one of the most important monasteries associated with the Complete Perfection (Quanzhen) tradition of monastic Daoism that dominates northern China. For this reason contemporary Daoism at the national level tends to reflect this elite monastic form though, historically, this is a relatively late Daoist movement which does not really represent the whole of the tradition. The CDA is itself supervised by the State Administration for Religious Affairs (SARA).

Modernity, Harmony and Development

The concepts of development (fazhan) and, in particular, scientific development (kexue fazhan) are key terms in the ideology espoused by China’s modernizers since the beginning of the twentieth century. Such revolutionary terms were developed, however, in direct opposition to earlier conceptual frameworks regarding the basic functioning of human society, its relationship to the natural environment and the cosmos. The modern concept of development is, essentially, predicated on a linear theory of time, in which human activity contributes in a cumulative, meaningful way towards some final goal or purpose. This was not the generally received view of traditional Chinese governance, set in place some two thousand years earlier in the dominant theory of Dong Zhongshu, which held that the relationship between the three realms of humanity, earth and heaven should ideally be one of reciprocity or mutual resonance (ganying; see de Bary 1960: 208). The sacred duty of the emperor in this view was to conduct rituals to ensure the positive correlation between humanity, earth and heaven so as to bring about the most optimal flourishing. Indeed the success of the empire was thought to depend in part upon the ritual activity of the emperor that sought to correct periodic imbalances in the relationship between humans and the cosmos (see Miller 2012a). In such a view, the function of religion was a mediating one: to bring everything back into alignment so as to create a balanced, homeostatic organism. This cyclical view can even be seen in the traditional Chinese system for measuring time based on the twelve animals of the Chinese zodiac and the five elements, according to which the clock is reset every sixty years.

It is entirely understandable, therefore, that China’s modernizers should see “development” as a revolutionary concept that aimed not towards the continuous cyclical alignment of humanity, earth and heaven, but rather the relentless transformation of the same towards some positive goal. This view placed progress in opposition to Chinese traditional views, especially Confucianism and Daoism, and was one reason why these traditions were particularly scorned by revolutionary modernizers.   A prime example of this can be see in the work of Chen Duxiu (1879-1942), a founder of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) who, in a now-famous essay, advocated four chief characteristics among China’s revolutionaries: that they be independent, not servile; progressive, not conservative; aggressive, not retiring; and cosmopolitan, not isolationist (Lawrance 2004: 2-3). In all four cases, Chinese religions in general, and Daoism in particular, were found wanting.

Daoism like all religions, contains a conservative element within it. While, from a spiritual perspective, Daoists might believe they advocate independence rather than servility, the institutional structures of Daoism are designed along a hierarchical basis in which students cannot simply “think” their way into enlightenment, but must generally be guided by teachers and have their progress validated by the religious community. Secondly, Daoist elites aim to preserve their authority through the transmission of classic scriptures, and seek to indoctrinate new generations with values and beliefs developed centuries ago. From this perspective it can hardly be regarded as a “progressive” movement. Thirdly, Daoists are noted for seeking sanctuary in remote mountain areas and in withdrawing from the conventions of ordinary human society. At the same time, Daoists explicitly deprecate aggression and value non-interventionist ways of acting in the world. Finally, Daoists tend to value the inner, spiritual life. They are not missionaries, nor generally do they seek to transform the external world. Doubtless Chen Duxiu would regard them as isolationist in attitude. In all four aspects that he enumerates, it is easy to see how Daoism can easily be classified in the negative of the binary pairs. From Chen’s perspective, therefore, it is well nigh impossible to imagine how Daoism might contribute something to development.

The classification of religion as a hindrance to development was only made worse by Marx’s view of religion as a narcotic. From this point of view, Daoism, like other religions, is not simply a set of values and beliefs that may be regarded as ideologically opposed to the values of social development. Rather, religions also have the social function of hindering historical progress. Given the widespread adoption of these views of religion by China’s modernizers, it is not surprising that they came to view religion as a enemy in the goal of political revolution, social and economic progress and scientific development. It is hardly surprising, therefore, that Chinese communist revolutionaries engaged in iconoclastic campaigns to destroy temples, denigrate Confucius and eradicate all forms of what they perceived to be superstitious thinking that was opposed to scientific materialism.

Such anti-religion thinking was by no means confined to Communist modernizers. Duara (1991) details how Nationalist aspirations conflicted with the local networks of religious power in the first half of the twentieth century. Yuan Shikai, for instance, “sought to systematically dismantle the institutional foundations of popular religion” by appropriating local temple property and establishing schools and government offices in their stead (Duara 1991: 76). Nationalist modernizers further made use of the political distinction between religion and superstition in their attempt to centralize the power of the newly-emerged Republican state. The anti-superstition campaigns of the late 1920s and early 1930s, proscribed popular religious practices such as geomancy and physiognomy while simultaneously advocating the cult of national figures such as Confucius and Laozi. As Duara (1991: 80) demonstrates, the effect of this was to consolidate national power over local society by bringing ‘legitimate’ religious activities under state control while at the same time excluding from the definition of religion those popular practices that it could not easily control. “Superstitious” practices involving charms and talismans were also associated with secret societies and local religious organizations, which had also historically functioned as networks of dissent against central state power.

The ideological distinction between legitimate religious organizations and popular “superstitious” activities was maintained in the Deng Xiaoping era after the hardline leftist policies associated with the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) came to an end. National religious associations were revived and placed under the oversight of the Religious Affairs Bureau, now the State Administration for Religious Affairs. More recent times, however, have seen the emphasis placed on pragmatic, rather than ideological, considerations regarding the role of religious activities in China’s continued development. Religious leaders now form part of the Central People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) and the Communist Party has instead formed a broad coalition of ruling elites, including religious figures, on whom it depends for its continued legitimacy. This has led to a renewed understanding of religion from a broad socio-cultural perspective rather than in purely ideological terms, and a rethinking of what religion might positively contribute to social development. Following Gramsci in recognizing the value of the “cultural” sector (Zeng 2011: 773), China’s leaders have reconsidered the value of traditional Chinese culture, rehabilitated Confucius, and permitted the overt functioning of authorized religion, while maintaing an ever closer watch on undesirable religious and cultural phenomena. The resultant “religious boom” has cost the government considerable sums of money in terms of vacating and restoring confiscated religious properties and subsidizing the operating expenses of authorized religious organizations (768).

At the same time, the goal of rapid economic development has come to be supplemented once again with “back-to-the-future” virtues such as “harmony” (hexie) and “spiritual civilization” (jingshen wenming). Such emphases on spirituality and culture are designed to help ensure broad social stability, and crack down on official corruption and dissident social movements.

Community Wellbeing

Putting aside the dominant narratives that have come to frame Daoism in the modern period, it is possible to examine the ways in which Daoists have historically interacted with local communities in terms of social and economic development. The earliest Daoist community of which we have a clear understanding was known as the Way of the Orthodox Unity (Zhengyi dao), and functioned as a theocracy in south-west China for about 70 years from 142 CE. Common to most traditional Chinese communities it operated on a collective basis, collecting an annual tax from each household and imposing regulations governing the upkeep of the communal environment, such as not wantonly felling trees, picking flowers, digging holes or drying marshes (Schipper 2001:81). Such concern for the common spaces were no doubt advantageous for the the wellbeing of the community as a whole and may be regarded as characteristic of Chinese society in which the interests of the group are accorded a high priority. In Schipper’s (2001: 89) analysis, however, these injunctions they draw on an older tradition “rooted in the rejection of the feudal society and the ritual practices of the public cults of the city-states.” That is to say, the ethical foundation for the community was one predicated on a sense of being a different kind of society with a different kind of ritual life. These earliest Daoist communities thus tended to be in this sense peripheral communities, predicated on a rejection of the conventional social order and embracing a life based on simple communities and natural sacred spaces.

As Daoism became more integrated into mainstream Chinese society, however, it tended to merge with local religious organizations and embedded itself in the common religious life of Chinese people. In a later publication, Schipper (2008) makes the argument for understanding Daoism as the primary framework within which Chinese religious life takes place. In its transition from the periphery to the mainstream, however, it brought about a change in the relationship between local communities and religious institutions. In particular, the “covenants of purity” (qingyue) specified that Daoist gods were not to be offered animal sacrifices and Daoist priests were not to receive salaries. As a result of the latter, temples came to be owned and funded by the collective rather than by priestly lineages. Thus in contrast to affiliation-based religions in which people pay tithes to a religious organization that is distinct from secular society and governed by a special class of religious professionals, Chinese people founded community associations (hui) or common management organizations (gongsi; now the term for “corporation”) in order to manage their collective religious lives. As a result the gap between “religious” activities and other local economic, educational or charitable activities becomes harder to discern. These communal associations, for instance, became significant managers of local wealth held in trust for the benefit of the community. In keeping with their originally religious motives, some of these funds are typically devoted to religious activities, but in many cases a significant proportion could be channeled into local enterprises or educational activities.

Despite the attacks against local religions and “superstitious” activities throughout the 20th century, local religious collective are still important drivers of development in rural China. Tsai (2002), for instance, provides evidence of how rural development projects at the village level in mainland China are actively initiated and managed by temple or lineage organizations. At one research site in Fujian province, for instance, a village temple committee took over the responsibility of building roads. From the 400,000 yuan in annual donations to the temple in 2000, the temple committee paid for four roads to be paved, and village basketball courts to be constructed (11). Tsai makes the positive conclusion that “the use of community social institutions to provide village services makes coercive strategies unnecessary while empowering citizens to participate in civic life” (24). Where religious institutions are owned by the community as a whole they are able to play a role in local development. In these cases, government authorities do not wish to condemn such local religious organizations as “superstitious” but rather bring them under the wing of the state as officially-authorized “venues for religious activities (zongjiao huodong changsuo)” (Chau 2005: 245).

The positive effect of local religious activities perhaps goes against traditional theories of the function of social function of religious activities, whereby religious rituals are most commonly associated with “festival time” in Chinese rural society. As Tam (2006: 78) explains, the rhythms of rural Chinese life are traditionally divided into an “ordinary time” where labour and commerce are paramount, and a “festival time” that emphasizes play, theatre and social exchange. From the perspective of economic development, therefore, the ritual activities of local festivals might seem to function in opposition to significant economic development. Festival time does not produce a vast amount of direct economic activity, except for the expense of mounting religious rituals, staging operas and hosting lavish banquets. The traditional Chinese understanding of the value of these times of relative economic inactivity was that they were a time to “keep the bow unstrung” (79), that is to say, times of quiet and passivity rather than intense economic activity.

Chau (2005), however, challenges this traditional view of religious activity as economically otiose. His fieldwork in northwest China demonstrates how the local temple association used community donations to engage in a wide range of economic, philanthropic and educational activities:

Besides being a site of both individual and communal worship, a temple is also a political, economic, and symbolic resource and a generator of such resources. A beautifully built temple and a well-attended temple festival attest not only to the efficacy of the deity but also to the organizational ability of the temple association and the community. (Chau 2005: 238)

As Laliberté et al. (2011: 148) note, although it might seem that festival activities such as opera troupes and folk music performances organized by local temples are not directly related to philanthropic endeavours, the money spent on candles and incense, plus the funds left in donation boxes during these times can generate substantial revenues. In the case of the area studied by Chau, these funds were used to build a primary school and launch a reforestation project that attracted international acclaim. In these cases, “temples are like enterprises that generate prosperity for the local economy (especially if they are regional pilgrimage centers) and income for the local state. It is thus in the interest of the local state to protect local temples as they would local enterprises” (Chau 2005: 245).

Although it is important to pay attention to the “hard” economic value contributed by Daoist and other Chinese community religious associations to local development, the “soft” value of such organizations should also not be underestimated. Tam (2006) emphasizes the way in which religious activities play an important role in creating and performing networks of interaction within and between local communities, and notes, for instance, notes how religious festivals in south-east China contribute to a broader sense of community by bringing together various extended family networks and local ethnic groups, even to the extent of overloading local cellphone networks (Tam 2006: 71). From this example, we can see that Daoist ritual activity functions as a kind of social lubricant, orchestrating and coordinating the mutual interaction of various communities. The work of contemporary anthropologists such as Chau and Tam, therefore, plays an important part in demonstrating the significance of Daoism for development not only in economically quantifiable terms, but also in terms of the development of social capital.

In both these cases the value that religion brings to the table is not characterized in terms of values or beliefs, but rather in the way that ritual activities serve the social function of maintaining healthy networks of community association. There is, however, an underlying set of values that reinforce Chinese religious approaches to community organization, and which deserves further explanation. In this regard it is important to understand that Daoists have not tended to regard the communities with which they engage as monolithic, unchanging entities. Rather, the normative model for understanding community has been that of the body, i.e., an organism whose wellbeing is constituted by the proper functioning of its internal systems as much as external or environmental factors.

In the Daoist view, the outward health of the body is determined by a complex internal system in which Qi, or vital energy, is distributed via a network of meridians, each associated with the major organs or viscera: heart, liver, lungs, spleen and kidneys. Health obtains when Qi flows smoothly through the entire system and all the organs are in communicative reciprocity with each other. This view of the body is the foundation for Chinese medicine and also for Daoist meditation practices. It relies on a theory of wellbeing defined as optimal harmony that obtains within a system. In principle this  theory can be applied to define what is good and bad in a wide range of analogous systems: good can be defined as what brings about the flourishing of the whole system; evil can be defined as deviations of Qi that produce negative effects upon the whole system. From this systems perspective, good is a function of the relationships between the various actors, and is something that is distributed across the network rather than isolated in one particular area.

As an example of this, we can turn to ancient Chinese political theory in which the operations of the state were understood by analogy with the body. Just as the health of the body depends on the free flow of the various fluids, so also the health of the state was thought to depend on the free circulation of power and knowledge among the various ranks of government. In the view of the 3rd century B.C.E. document, known as the Springs and Autumns of Mr. Lü (Lüshi chunqiu), the “virtue” of the ruler is viewed as a kind of fluid that circulates throughout the organism of the state.

When the ruler’s virtue does not flow freely [i.e., if he does not appoint good officials to keep him and his subjects in touch] and the wishes of his people do not reach him, a hundred pathologies arise in concert and a myriad catastrophes swarm in. The cruelty of those above and those below toward each other arises from this. The reason that the sage kings valued heroic retainers and faithful ministers is that they dared to speak directly, breaking through such stases.

(Sivin 1995: 6).

Here we can see clearly a notion of what disorder consists, namely, the “hundred pathologies” and “myriad catastrophes” that “swarm in” when the fluid, charismatic virtue of the ruler does not flow smoothly throughout the nation. Conversely, communal wellbeing obtains when the ruler’s virtue flows unhindered throughout the nation.

Throughout Chinese history, Daoists have consistently emphasized the wellbeing of the individual body and the communal body in these terms, seeking to bring about healing within the body (of the individual or the community) and also to defend the body from negative environmental factors characterized in Chinese mythology as demons and ghosts. Thus as Laliberté et al. (2011: 142) explain, “Daoist priests were expected to provide protection against diseases and demons through rituals, exorcism, and healing. The most common form of Daoist charity was to provide free medicine and medical care to the needy.” Daoists have thus undertaken significant work in the area of healthcare regarding it not so much as an adjunct charitable activity directed towards helping the needy, but as a part and parcel of their worldview in which health and long life are regarded as fundamental virtues.

To give two examples of the involvement of Daoists in healing arts and science, the first general classification of Chinese herbs was undertaken by the Daoist Tao Hongjing (456-536). This work, the Divine Farmer’s Materia Medica (Shennong bencao jing) contains 365 recipes for drugs classified in three levels (Kohn 2005: 171). Tao’s work drew on a long tradition of Daoist preoccupation with herbs, fungi, minerals and animal parts whose properties were thought to aid the promotion of long life and even immortality. Similarly, the later physician and Daoist master, Sun Simiao (601-693) compiled an even more extensive compendium, and is widely revered in Daoist temples across China as the God of Medicine. Daoism and health are thus firmly intertwined in the popular imagination in China, and in the West, so much so that there is often much confusion about whether various concepts or practices ought to be understood as “Daoist” or “medical” or “religious” (Kohn 2005: 7-8). This confusion is indicative of the fact that the Western category of religion does not always make sense out of the Chinese cultural situation, in which the lines between what we would call religion, culture, economy, politics and medicine are often drawn in different ways than in the West. Thus Daoists are not known for establishing hospitals as discrete centres of medical treatment in which the body is treated separately from an emphasis on religious or spiritual matters. Rather community temples and temple associations form nodes in the networks through which Chinese people deal with health issues.

This interconnection of Daoism and health continues to play a role in shaping Chinese people’s values in regard to public policy. Using data from the 2006 Taiwan Social Change Survey, Chang (2010) performed a statistical analysis of religious values and preferences for various redistributive social policies in contemporary Taiwan. Part of the impetus for conducting this research was the although spending on social care has grown substantially in Taiwan, the country has also been facing increased economic inequality as the result of globalization and economic liberalization (102). In such a context, understanding the motivations for public attitudes towards redistributive social policies becomes all the more important. The key finding was that Protestant Christians tended to favour social insurance and welfare programs, whereas Buddhists and Daoists favoured the government’s role in providing healthcare (81). While Chang’s article does not offer any specific evidence about Daoism it does conclude that inheriting the values of Confucianism, Daoism and Buddhism “leads to differences in preferences for redistributive policies [compared] with those of Western Christian societies” (102). There is at least initial evidence for supposing that in a modern East Asian society Daoists continue to hold identifiable values regarding these key aspects of public policy, and that healthcare is a particular focus for them.


Cyclical models of economic activity have once again come to the fore as linear models of economic development push up against the ecological limits imposed by the natural carrying capacity of the earth. Prominent ecological economists such as Daly (1996) argue for “steady state economics” (SSE) rather than conventional growth economics. For now, however, international work towards climate change mitigation has pushed China to focus not on limiting growth in absolute terms, but in reducing the intensity of carbon emissions per unit of economic activity. The climate change policies promoted in China’s twelfth five year plan (2011-2015) call for the development of “circular economies” in which the waste product of one economic process becomes a valued input for another process (Information Office of the State Council 2011). Typically two or more enterprises are co-located so as to facilitate this economic synergy. China’s Vice Minister of Environmental Protection argues that although industrialization broke through through the “static, circulating economic pattern” of traditional agriculture, this model is ultimately unsustainable as it demands high energy consumption and produces massive pollution (Pan Yue 2007: 11). He continues, “Human beings obtain materials and energy from nature, and they must return them to the circulating system and do their best to reduce waste and destruction. Such an energy circulating system operating in line with the law of as nature is exactly what was put by ancient Chinese as ‘round and round goes the divine order of things.’’ This is a paraphrase of chapter 16 of the classic Daoist text, The Way and Its Power  (Daode jing) which articulates a fundamental insight of the Daoist worldview, namely, a basic cosmic pattern of emergence and decay, activity and stillness, yang and yin. Daoists regard this pattern as natural, and derived it from the observation of the rotations of heavenly bodies through the sky. If Daoist philosophy has anything to contribute to notions of development, it is from within this circular perspective, in which the functioning of a system is basically understood not as a simple linear growth but as continuous exchange. Translated to an economic sphere this invites a theory of development rooted not in Christian or post-Christian faith in continuous linear development towards some ever-unattainable utopian ideal (see Gray 2004), but rather a more realistic and holistic view that pays attention to the overall health and wellbeing of the community.

Given the political realities in contemporary China, however, it is not surprising that the Chinese Daoist Association (CDA) has avoided the role of critiquing China’s economic policies.  This does not mean, however, that it has completely avoided the issue of the environment as a key religious question. Such efforts go back to at least 1995 when the CDA issued a Declaration on Global Ecology. The final page of this declaration summarizes the whole in three bullet points:

• We shall spread the ecological teachings of Daoism, lead all Daoist followers to abide in the teachings of self-so or non-action, observe the injunction against killing for amusement purposes, preserve and protect the harmonious relationship of all things with Nature, establish paradises of immortals on Earth, and pursue the practice of our beliefs…

• We shall continue the Daoist ecological tradition by planting trees and cultivating forests. Using traditional hermitages as an organizational base, Daoists will conscientiously plant trees and build forests, thereby making the natural environment beautiful and transforming our hermitages into the paradise worlds of the immortals.

• We shall select some famous Daoist mountains as exemplars of the systematic task of environmental engineering. We expect to reach this goal by the early years of the new century.

(Zhang 2001: 370).

While this goal may have been hopelessly optimistic, there is no doubt that the seeds sown in 1995 continue to bear fruit in the present, with ongoing attempts by the Chinese Daoist Association (CDA) to preserve Daoist sacred spaces as paradigmatic locations for contemporary urban Chinese to encounter China’s “lost” nature. The CDA’s Maoshan Declaration (2008) and its accompanying Eight Year Plan advocate that Daoist sacred sites be regarded not simply as places where religious activities take place but also as sites of environmental significance and locations for environmental education (Miller 2013). Moreover, in a partnership with the Alliance for Religions and Conservation (ARC), the CDA established a small Daoist Ecology temple in a conservation site near Taibaishan, Shaanxi. While it is perhaps too soon to be able to measure the practical effects of such policies and activities, it is at least worthwhile noting that a major national religious organization in China has embraced the preservation of specific environments as a central religious value.

Duara (2011: 24) speculates that what we may be seeing here is the embrace of sustainability as “an emergent ideal, a new type of transcendence and sacrality with the capacity to motivate and mobilize persons and groups.” From this perspective, Daoism may be regarded as contributing to the development of an alternative to the conventional paradigms of secular modernization and economic development, namely, ecological sustainability. In so doing, whether it realizes it or not, the CDA is playing an certain role in contributing to a national conversation in China about what development and modernization should look like. In contrast to the Maoist ‘utopian urgency’ of  “Let’s attack here! / Drive away the mountain gods, / Break down the stone walls / To bring out those 200 million tons of coal” (quoted in Shapiro 2001: vii), there is now a sense that the preservation, rather than destruction, of natural environments has not just a positive effect on the wellbeing of the community, but is rather one component of a transcendent value that demands attention in its own right and to which other values must ultimately be subordinate.

List of References

Chang, Wen-Chung. 2010. “Religion and Preferences for Redistributive Policies in an East Asian Country.” Poverty & Public Policy 2.4: 81-109.

Chau, Adam Yuet. 2005. “The Politics of Legitimation and the Revival of Popular Religion in Shaanbei, North-Central China.” Modern China 31.2: 236–278

Daly, Herman E. 1996. Beyond Growth: The Economics of Sustainable Development. Boston: Beacon Press.

Duara, Prasenjit. 1991. “Knowledge and Power in the Discourse of Modernity: The Campaigns against Popular Religion in Early Twentieth-Century China.” The Journal of Asian Studies 50.1: 67-83.

________. 2011. “Sustainability and the Crisis of Transcendence: The Long View from Asia.” Keynote address, Conference on Asian Modernities and Traditions. Leiden University, September 9, 2011. Internet:

de Bary, Wm. Theodore.1960. Sources of Chinese Tradition. New York: Columbia University Press.

Information Office of the State Council. 2011. China’s Policies and Actions for Addressing Climate Change. Issued on November 22, 2011: Accessed January 15, 2012.

Kohn, Livia, in cooperation with Stephen Jackowicz. 2005. Health and Long Life: The Chinese Way. Three Pines Press.

Laliberté, André, David A. Palmer and Keping Wu. 2011. “Religious Philanthropy and Chinese Civil Society.” Pp. 139-151 in Chinese Religious Life edited by David A. Palmer, Glenn Shive and Philip L. Wickeri. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Lawrance Allan, ed. 2004. China Since 1919: Revolution and Reform. A Sourcebook. New York. Routledge.

Miller, James. 2012. “Nature.” In The Wiley-Blackwell Companion to Chinese Religion edited by Randall Nadeau. Oxford: Blackwell.

________. 2013. “Monitory Democracy and Ecological Civilization in the People’s Republic of China.” Forthcoming in Civil Society in the Age of Wikileaks: Challenges to Monitory Democracy edited by Nina Witoszek and Lars Trågårdh. Oxford: Berghahn Books.

Pan Yue. 2007. Thoughts on Environmental Issues. Beijing: China Environmental Culture Promotion Association.

Schipper, Kristofer. 2008. La réligion de la Chine. Paris: Fayard.

Sivin, Nathan. 1995. “State, Cosmos, and Body in the Last Three Centuries B. C..” Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies 55.1: 5–37.

Tam Wai Lun. 2006. “Local Religion in Contemporary China.” Pp. 57-84 in Chinese Religions in Contemporary Societies edited by James Miller. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO

Tsai, Lily Lee. 2002. “Cadres, Temple and Lineage Institutions, and Governance in Rural China.” The China Journal 48: 1-27.

Zeng, Chuanhui. 2011. “Coalition and Hegemony: Religion’s Role in the Progress of Modernization in Reformed China.” Brigham Young University Law Review 3: 759–782.

Zhang Jiyu. 2001. “A Declaration of the Chinese Daoist Association on Global Ecology.” pp. 361-372 in Daoism and Ecology: Ways within a Cosmic Landscape edited by N. J. Girardot et al. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.


Authenticity, Sincerity and Spontaneity

Authenticity, Sincerity and Spontaneity: The Mutual Implication of Nature and Religion in China and the WestJames Miller. 2013. “Authenticity, Sincerity and Spontaneity: The Mutual Implication of Nature and Religion in China and the West.” Method and Theory in the Study of Religion 25: 283-307


Fundamental approaches to ethics and morality in both China and the West are bound up not only with conceptions of religion and ultimate truth, but also with conceptions of nature. One dominant theme in the West is to see nature in terms of an original goodness that precedes human manipulation. This theme is bound up with Biblical views of divine creation by a divine lawmaker. In contrast to this view, Chinese conceptions of sincerity (cheng) and spontaneity (ziran) mitigate against such an abstract conception of the original goodness or authenticity of nature.


nature, religion, authenticity, daoism, confucianism, ethics

Religion and Ecological Sustainability in China

Religion and Ecological Sustainability in China front CoverJames Miller, Dan Smyer Yu and Peter van der Veer, eds. 2014. Religion and Ecological Sustainability in ChinaNew York: Routledge.

This book sheds light on the social imagination of nature and environment in contemporary China. It demonstrates how the urgent debate on how to create an ecologically sustainable future for the world’s most populous country is shaped by its complex engagement with religious traditions, competing visions of modernity and globalization, and by engagement with minority nationalities who live in areas of outstanding natural beauty on China’s physical and social margins. The book develops a comprehensive understanding of contemporary China that goes beyond the tradition/ modernity dichotomy, and illuminates the diversity of narratives and worldviews that inform contemporary Chinese understandings of and engagements with nature and environment.

Gene Anderson reviews the book on

This edited volume deserves serious attention from those interested in China and in the environment, and I hope its absurdly high price will not discourage people from looking into it. Like most (if not all) collections of papers, it is uneven in quality, but the best papers are seriously important and worthwhile. I have too little space here to hit all the high points, but a few that are particularly useful and innovative include Deborah Sommer’s on early Chinese concepts of the earth (much more interesting than you might have thought); James Miller’s paper on an early Daoist sect; Chris Coggins on fengshui groves and their exceedingly important role in saving forests and large trees until the Communists destroyed most of them; Rebecca Nedostup’s on how borrowed western “rationalist” concepts of religion from 19th-century cultural evolutionism led to pernicious devaluing and attacking Chinese traditional religions; and Emily Yeh’s really stunning and wide-ranging paper on Tibetan attitudes toward the environment, the changes of these in modern times, and the various western-world idealizations of them. I am in awe of these papers; I’ve been working on this material for 50 years and I never got close to making all these points. There are many other valuable papers here.

Much of this book (not the paper by Coggins or Yeh, however) represents book-driven, text-based approaches. My approach comes from human biology and has been field-driven and broadly materialist. So I had a lot to learn here. But, also, a thoughtful point emerges. Book-driven research inevitably leads to privileging elite positions and meditative, thoughtful takes on the world. This can lead to seeing the Chinese as sages living in a world of visions. No paper herein does that, but I can imagine casual readers being lulled into that view. In contrast, the field approach in human ecology can lead to a crassly materialist approach in which too much attention is paid to uses of plants and animals relative to the subtleties of the thought behind such environmental management. I have fallen into this trap on occasion, and Ole Bruun catches me up on it in his paper in this volume. Fair point, but essentializing traditional belief and religion is also shaky as a strategy, depriving us of the lessons we could be learning. That is my one real criticism of this book: there is very little on what the world can learn from China’s successes and failures in managing the environment, or from traditional Chinese (Han and minority) views and ideas about environments. This is a pity, since there is in fact a great deal that the world environmental and conservation community could learn–some good ideas and some (or many) cautionary notes. The editors would no doubt respond that this book is about documentation and analysis, not about recommendation, but in a world where long-predicted catastrophes and nightmare scenarios are rapidly becoming reality, can we afford to do that? Would a medical text on drug-resistant tuberculosis ignore the treatment side?

That said, this is a collection that no one interested in Chinese environmental history can afford to miss.

Read a fuller description of the book on my blog.

Table of Contents

  Title Author
  Acknowledgments James Miller, Dan Smyer Yu and Peter van der Veer
  Introduction Dan Smyer Yu, with James Miller and Peter van der Veer
  Part I: Ecology and the Classics
1 Ecology and the Classics Mary Evelyn Tucker and John Grim
2 Conceptualization of Earth and Land in Classical Chinese Texts Deborah Sommer
3 “The Great Virtue of Heaven and Earth:” Deep Ecology in the Yijing Joseph A. Adler
4  “Hard-Hearted” and “Soft-Hearted” Ecologies: A Rereading of Daoist and Confucian Classics Chen Xia and Peng Guoxiang with James Miller
5 Gods and Nature in Highest Clarity Daoism James Miller
6 When the Land is Excellent: Village Feng Shui Forests and the Nature of Lineage, Polity, and Vitality in Southern China Chris Coggins
  Part II: Imagining Nature in Modernity
7 Finding Nature in Religion, Hunting Religion from the Environment Rebecca Nedostup
8 Globalizations and Diversities of Nature in China Robert P. Weller
9 Is Chinese Popular Religion Compatible with Ecology? A Discussion of Fengshui Ole Bruun
10 Ecological Migration and Cultural Adaptation: A Case Study of the Sanjiangyuan Nature Reserve, Qinghai Province Qi Jinyu
11 Reverse Environmentalism: Contemporary Articulations of Tibetan Culture, Buddhism, and Environmental Protection Emily T. Yeh
12 Earthwork, Home-Making, and Eco-Aesthetics among Amdo Tibetans Dan Smyer Yu