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.

cultural transformation and ecological sustainability among the dai people in xishuangbanna

A conservation biologist by training, I first arrived in Xishuangbanna because of my interest in the ecological value of sacred groves called “holy hills,” fragments of old-growth rainforest that remain protected by indigenous Dai people despite rapid deforestation due to the proliferation of rubber plantations.

A typical landscape: rice paddies in the valley, rubber on the hillsides.

The Dai protect holy hills because they believe their gods reside in these groves of large trees. As a result, holy hills are often the only fragments of natural forests remaining outside nature reserves and have been documented containing endangered species from China’s Plant Red Data List.

I realized quickly upon my arrival that the question of conservation with holy hills requires a strong cultural perspective: because holy hills are religious entities without formal government protection, their existence and persistence is entirely dependent on local people and how they maintain their traditions. The relationship between the Dai and their sacred landscapes is long and complex, and I will not delve into that discussion in this current post. Instead, I will share some preliminary observations of changes in cultural and religious practices among the Dai from my two months in Xishuangbanna in summer 2011.

A holy hill: “White Elephant Mountain.”

For those of you who are new to this area of the world, Xishuangbanna Dai Autonomous Prefecture in Yunnan province of southwest China is renowned for its exceptional natural beauty. Although the region covers only 0.2% of the country’s land area, it contains 16% of China’s plant biodiversity, 36% of China’s bird species, 22% of China’s mammal species, and 15% of China’s reptile and amphibian diversity. The people of Xishuangbanna are no less diverse, with more than 13 recognized minority nationalities, including Dai, Hani, Yi, Lahu, Bulang, Jinuo, Yao, Miao, Bai, Hui, Va, and Zhuang. With rich histories of traditional practices and beliefs, these minorities comprise roughly 75% of the local population. The Dai people, with 30% of the local population, are the biggest ethnic group in this area.

The Dai may have arrived in Yunnan as early as 3,700 years ago. Before Theravada Buddhism was introduced in the middle of the Tang dynasty, about 700 C.E., Dai religious life was heavily bound to the natural world. The Dai perception of the human-nature relationship consisted of five major elements: forest, water, land, gods, and humanity. Today, they still believe that the forest is humanity’s cradle, that water comes from the forests, that land is fed by the water, and that food comes from the land that is fed by the water and forests. Dai culture is deeply rooted in nature, as a traditional Dai folk song illustrates: “If you cut down all the trees, you have only the bark to eat; if you destroy the forests, you destroy your road to future.” To them, human life is supported by the forests, which are also intertwined with the supernatural realm.

Drying rubber latex.

Historically, the Dai live on the land by cropping upland rice and clearing forests. Their traditional land management practices include the collection non-timber forest products, cultivation of fuelwood trees, development of homegarden plants and different types of agroforestry, establishment of sacred holy hills as community-protected areas, and management of diverse plants in temple yards. More recently, the Dai have adopted a new land use practice: the cultivation of rubber. Following the 1949 revolution, rubber was first introduced to Xishuangbanna as a crop in state farms because it was thought to be a critical product for the national military and industrial development. In the 1980s, communes were dissolved, land was allocated to farmers, and the prefecture government was ordered to help minority farmers pursue economic development. The first smallholder rubber campaign began in the mid-1980s. It served two purposes: to help state rubber farms meet the rising national demand for rubber, and to help raise minority farmers’ incomes. Thirty years later, the campaign is more successful than its creators perhaps ever imagined.

Tourists in Dai homes.

Besides rubber, another area of rapid economic growth in Xishuangbanna is tourism. Local minorities entertain tourists with local foods, crafts, dances, songs, and wedding shows. Dai villages are major attractions, and large numbers of tourists are brought to these communities by travel agencies. Improvements in transportation, hotel services, and other tourism facilities have led to an increase in tourists from just over 5000 visitors in 1985 to nearly 2.8 million in 2005. The majority of visitors come from developed areas of China, though the international market is certainly expanding as well. I was quite surprised at the frequency with which I’d encounter Americans and Europeans during my stay.

Thus, it is evident that Xishuangbanna has undergone rapid cultural, ecological, and economic transitions throughout the past few decades. This is reflected both in the landscape and in the people themselves. The growing economy is pervasive, and the Dai are not immune to its effects: people are responding to new opportunities, values are shifting, and new practices arise. The following are a few anecdotes of changes I noticed during my travels.

With Xishuangbanna as one of the hottest new tourist destinations, Dai communities must routinely accommodate large influxes of domestic and international tourists and have modified some traditional practices to do so. According to religious customs surrounding the Kaowasa Festival (or guanmenjie 关门节 in Chinese), Dai villages are to be sealed off for three months such that no one may enter and no one may leave. However, this is impossible for villages with a growing tourist population, and many communities have reduced the sealed-off duration from three months to three days – in the most heavily visited areas, I was told that some villages can only be sealed for three hours!

Components of a traditional loom.

Many of the traditional activities applauded by tourists are becoming increasingly obsolete in the context of modern society. For example, I was graciously hosted by a lovely family in the village of Mengxingxiazhai, and the grandmother of the family was well-known for her ability to make beautiful traditional clothing. She proudly showed me her loom, and said that she was one of three women remaining in the village who knew how to use one. I asked her why, and she replied that making cloth is time-consuming and inconvenient, so the vast majority of people prefer to purchase their clothing from stores; thus, few young women have expressed interest in learning how to use the loom, and this traditional practice is fading.

Making traditional drums.

This dilution of cultural activities is not limited to making cloth. One man I spoke to, a well-known Dai dancer and traditional drum-maker in Mengla, said that his son is reluctant to follow in his father’s footsteps and learn Dai dance and drum-making. This man told me the main factor is money: with the lucrative option of farming rubber, the son chooses to spend his time collecting rubber latex instead. Even this man’s wife is opposed to him spending so much time dancing and making drums because she thinks he should be out farming rubber to make money; she says, “Are you crazy? Why are you dancing when everyone else is out planting rubber?”

To my great surprise, I learned that another activity in danger of becoming a relic is going to school. Education is a difficult path to pursue, to which many of us can attest, and the motivation to achieve academic success is simply non-existent for Dai youth in Xishuangbanna. Farming rubber provides a comfortable and stable salary, and no education is required for such a career; thus, the more prudent choice for many is to invest their time and energy in planting rubber instead of reading books. I spoke to schoolteacher in Xishuangbanna who passionately believed in education and strongly encouraged children to stay in school. She told me that the typical response to her campaigns for education was, “What’s the point of going to school? For school graduates like you, your monthly salary is equivalent to my salary for one day. So what’s the point of spending extra time in school? And in addition to me making more money than you, I have more freedom in life.” (The last point is in reference to the growing season for rubber: rubber trees lose their leaves for four months each year, during which rubber latex cannot be collected and most farmers go on vacation.) There are few Dai students who make it to university, and in modern Chinese society where the majority of youth attend university, a Bachelor’s degree does not guarantee a job or any advantage on the job market. Moreover, if these students return to the rubber farms to earn a living, they are at a disadvantage to their peers who chose to stay home and gain experience with farming rubber.

A monk on a motorcycle.

One evening, I met a crowd of teenage boys for beer and fresh barbeque. I found that while all of them could speak Dai, none could read or write. I asked if they learned any Dai in school, and they said very little. The reason for this, I learned from a schoolteacher, is that the curriculum in schools is formatted after a Han curriculum. When speaking to elders in Dai villages, my interviewees said that they learned the most about Dai knowledge and culture when they were monks in the temple as young men. Unfortunately, the recent decline in education is not limited to the secular realm, and enrollment of young boys as monks in temples has also dropped precipitously. Furthermore, for those who do enter monkhood, the rules are significantly relaxed. Monks can leave the temple when they choose to, ride motorcycles, and enjoy many modern luxuries. Many elders saw this slackening of rules as a drop in moral strength; indeed, they said, reports of theft in the temples has been higher than ever before. Twenty years ago, no one would dare to steal from the temple. Now, temple thefts are common enough that they are no longer scandalous.

One important question is: as Dai culture changes, what is preserved? It is obvious that both the land and the people if Xishuangbanna are undergoing a period of rapid transition, and it remains unclear how people will redefine their relationship with their religion, culture, and environment. In the case of my particular interest in holy hills, it appears that culture which created them may not be the same one that preserves them – that is, if the people choose to maintain these holy hills. When speaking to Dai villagers, everybody young and old unanimously asserted their unwavering faith in the spiritual power of the holy hill. Even teenagers who could not read or write Dai still firmly believe in their sacred forests because their parents raised them to revere and fear the holy hill. But with weakening traditions and declines in cultural and spiritual education from schools and temples, how can this reverence be maintained?

Lily Zeng

contested sacred space on maoshan

Maoshan Temple

In May 2010 I had the opportunity to visit Maoshan, an important Daoist site in Jiangsu province (see here for my earlier post). One result of my fieldwork was that it gave a deeper insight as to the way Daoism and nature are represented together in contemporary Chinese culture. The evidence suggests that just as Daoist organizations are competing and also collaborating with local governments and other enterprises for control of the natural spaces in which monasteries are located, they are also engaged in ideological conflict over the meaning of these spaces. The battle over administrative control over natural spaces where Daoist sites are located is an ideological contest over the meaning of nature. This suggests that in contemporary China, as in the West, the meaning of nature is contested in part by means of its association with concepts such as “the sacred.”

Evidence of ideological conflict can be seen in the use of signs that aim to offer visitors to Maoshan the “correct interpretation” of the natural spaces through which they are travelling. Two examples of this can be found in the Huayang Cave 华阳洞 and the Feichang Path 非常道.

Huayang Cave Sign

The Huayang cave was a site for Daoist meditation, associated in particular with the Highest Clarity Patriarch, Tao Hongjing 陶弘景 (456-536), who took as his epithet “Hermit of Huayang” (Huayang yinju 华阳隐居). The main entrance to the Huayang Cave, however, makes no reference to the religious significance of this sacred space, noting it only as a cultural relic famous for its wall carvings dating from the Tang (608-906) to the Qing (1644-1911) dynasties. Presently, however, it no longer functions as a living sacred space, but as a “cultural relic” under the “protection” of the Jiangsu Province Cultural Relics Protection Unit. Another sign close gives a geological explanation for how the cave came to be formed. The uninformed observer will thus be educated solely as to the secular, scientific value of the space, whose sacred quality exists solely as a cultural memory.

Entrance to the "feichang dao"

A slightly different story can be found in the Feichang Path. The term “Feichang Way” or “Feichang Dao” comes from the first line of the Daode jing, which states: “The Way that can be told is not the constant Way.” In Chinese, “not constant” is “Feichang 非常,” and the “Feichang Way 非常道” is a newly resurfaced twisting footpath that leads from the base of the mountain to the temple on top. At regular intervals along the path, verses from the Daode jing are carved onto wooden panels, beginning with chapter 1 at the bottom, and ending with chapter 81, the last, at the top. As climbers makes their way to the summit, they are thus engaged in a meditative encounter with the text of the Daode jing, reputed to have been authored by Laozi, the mythical sage of Daoism, later revered as a high god. The space through which the traveller passes is thus textualized and sacralized and, through the encounter with the text, a firm association between the natural beauty of the mountain and the traditions of Daoism is established in the visitor’s experience.

This association is, however, not entirely unambiguous. Along the way it is possible to see evidence of earlier texts carved in rock which have not been restored and are difficult to read. Moreover, there are several small shrines along the path which appear to have fallen into disrepair whether through deliberate neglect or otherwise. Although the mountain path is a sacred path, its sacred quality comes not from the maintenance of tradition, but rather from the presentation of a modernized form of Daoism, one that de-emphasizes concrete, material religion in favor of the more mystical and abstract verses of Daoist literature. Although Daoism and nature are represented and experienced together, it is a particularly modern, “Protestant” version of Daoism that is emphasized, in particular, a version that finds authenticity in a single founding text, rather than in the complex layers of institutional history.

mazu: marine ecoregion goddess

The Guandu Temple, Taipei

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

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

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

Statue of Mazu in Macau

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

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

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

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

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

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

the religion and ecology of the blang minority nationality

A Blang nationality woman

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

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

A Blang nationaity Buddhist monk on his motorbike

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

daoist religion and ecotourism: a visit to maoshan

Laozi Statue on Maoshan

In May this year I had the opportunity to visit Maoshan (Mt. Mao) a Daoist mountain sacred to the Shangqing (Highest Clarity) tradition of Daoism that I studied in my most recent book. Located in Jiangsu province, it is about an hour’s bus ride south of Zhenjiang, a stop on the main high speed railway from Shanghai to Nanjing.

I was interested to visit Maoshan not only because of my historical research, but because it was the site of the Maoshan declaration, which in 2008 committed China’s Daoist Association to a ten year program of ecological protection.

The result of my visit is a mixed assessment of the possibilities and problems associated with the practical implementation of Daoism and ecology. I’ll be presenting the full details of my conclusions at the forthcoming SASASAAS conference at Furman University on September 24-25, but I’d like to present some key findings now.

First of all, the encounter between Daoism  and Ecology has to be understood from the perspective of China’s engagement with modernity and especially science. “Ecology” in Chinese does not signify a Romantic attachment to nature undefiled by human habitation, but rather a modern, scientific and ultimately technological enterprise. To make Daoist sites more “ecological” means to install green technology such as solar panels, and to showcase Daoism not as a “traditional” culture but as modern and scientific.

Secondly, the encounter between Daoism and Ecology is an economic enterprise. A chief incentive for Daoist sites to engage in ecological protection is to respond to the demand for ecotourism. As such Daoist sites work with local governments to develop the whole areas surrounding Daoist temples as ecotourism sites. Engaging with ecology thus helps drive economic development. As a case in point, the Maoshan site was developed not only by the Daoist Association but by the People’s Liberation Army which operates a memorial to soldiers of the 3rd Army who fought in the Anti-Japanese War of 1937-45. Nearby the museum is a garish 99 metre high statue of Laozi, the legendary author of the Daode jing. Maoshan is thus an ecotourism site, a patriotic memorial, and a Daoist temple site, all in one. As a result it obtained AAAA tourism designation, the second-highest national ranking, making it a prime location for “red”, i.e., patriotic tourism activities.

The current implementation of “Daoism and Ecology” in China thus resists simplistic Western notions of Daoism as “the Way of Nature.” It is also a way of economic development, a way of science and modernity, a patriotic and even militaristic way. This should not be surprising to scholars of religion who are well-attuned to the complexities and contradictions that religious cultures historically inhabit. But it may be surprising to those who have sought to frame “Eastern religions” as somehow more authentically connected to nature than the monotheisms of Western religion. Yes, the Daoist conception of nature does have much to contribute to the discussion on religion and ecology, but the practical implementation of this concept in China is caught in a complex political, ideological and economic web.