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religion and ecological sustainability in china

By: James Miller

Religion and Ecological Sustainability in China front CoverNew research on the relevance of culture and religion for understanding China’s environmental crisis and its transition towards sustainability has just been published in a collection of essays entitled Religion and Ecological Sustainability in China (Routledge 2014). The work, by leading scholars in the humanities and social sciences from China, Europe and North America, marks a milestone in the attempt to understand the cultural roots of the Chinese social imagination of nature, and to analyze the continuing relevance of those cultural traditions in China’s contemporary engagement with local environmental degradation and the global ecological crisis.

Edited by James Miller (Queen’s University, Canada) and Dan Smyer Yu and Peter van der Veer (Max Planck Institute for Religious and Ethnic Diversity) the book simultaneously presents new data, new analysis, and new theoretical insights on Chinese understandings of nature, environment and ecology.

“Many of the very best scholars from China and the West working in anthropology, history, philosophy, religion, and sociology are featured in this book,” says James Miller.

Put together, the essays in this work makes a vital argument about how we should understand Chinese thinking about sustainability today. They demonstrate that thinking about the place of human beings in the world is deeply informed by cultural values. When we frame ecological sustainability as chiefly a technical or scientific problem, we overlook the way that people’s basic values and attitudes towards nature are the product of millennia of cultural habits and narratives. Sustainability can never be achieved without critically understanding and constructively engaging the way those cultural habits function in modernity.

The arrangement of the book presents a narrative arc that begins with China’s dominant cultural traditions and excavates the deep and complex history of Chinese attitudes towards nature and environment. Scholars of elite traditions and popular cultural practice trace the dominant cultural forms that have come to underpin Chinese thinking about nature and environment. The pivotal moment in this narrative comes with Rebecca Nedostup’s essay on how modern Chinese ideas of culture, religion, evolution and ecology were co-constituted in dynamic flux of China’s engagement with the West at the turn of the 20th century. The second half of the book comprises anthropological studies of Chinese and Tibetan practice regarding nature and environment that demonstrate how this modern nexus of ideas regarding culture, religion, nature and environment works itself out in contemporary China. Altogether the book demonstrates that Chinese ideas of nature, ecology, and environment are richly informed by a deep background of values and habits of thinking that are historically and culturally complex.

Failure to properly understand this complexity can result in serious social and environmental problems. This is especially true in a contemporary, rapidly urbanizing China that produces a cultural deficit regarding the most sensitive ecological areas that increasingly lie outside mainstream experience. This problem is also compounded by the fact that many such areas are populated not by Chinese people but by ethnic minorities such as Tibetans and Uighurs who have different languages, cultures and claims to nationality.

A case in point can be seen in Chinese author Qi Junyu’s essay on the forced migration of Tibetan herdsmen away from ecological protection areas. In his analysis the application of a scientific desire to protect sensitive areas of China’s environment exacerbated cultural misunderstandings between Chinese and Tibetans because it failed to take into account the way that local ecology functioned in traditional Tibetan culture. At the same time, however, Emily T. Yeh, demonstrates how the view of Tibetans as “ecological natives” also produces serious cultural misunderstandings for environmentalists working to protect these sensitive areas.

Altogether, the book paints a rich and complex picture of the state of the environment in contemporary China. It is a picture that is ethnically complex, inflected by historical values and habits, and dynamically engaging with modern scientific theory. The urgent need to understand how China’s diverse cultures interact with modernity to constitute China’s present quest for ecological sustainability is a vital enterprise that has repercussions for the whole world.  China’s environmental problems, its struggle to find the proper place for historical traditions in modernity, and its complex and problematic engagement with ethnic minorities are key issues of the 21st century. As this book demonstrates, they are all facets of a complex and dynamic cultural process that is only just beginning to be understood.

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