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.

journey of the universe

At the end of June I had the privilege of speaking at the Chautauqua Institution in upstate New York. The topic for the week was the film Journey of the Universe, by Brian Swimme and Mary Evelyn Tucker. If you haven’t seen it, you can read all about it on the website at

The film narrates the 14 million year epic of cosmic evolution from the big bang through to the present day. The purpose of the conference was to present responses to the film from the perspective of various world religions. Below is my 15 minute presentation on Daoism, Ecology and the Journey of the Universe.

the philosophy of qi in an era of air pollution

A view over the Forbidden City in Beijing

A view over the Forbidden City in Beijing

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

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

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

The issue of air quality, however, is different.

Qiang Wang writes:

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

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

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

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

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

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


green spirituality and the limits to modernity

In an online report on Religious Innovation for Sustainable Future (no longer available), Nina Witoszek (Oslo University) surveys a “pastoral renaissance” taking place across the globe.

Image from

This renaissance, she declares, is “not just a tide of projects and conferences, but a new-old mindset which aspires to reclaiming nature, culture and spirituality, influencing green architecture and furthering alternative models of consumption.” The report continues with four essays based in China [note: I wrote the essay on China], India, Ghana and Norway, which explore the various ways in which this pastoral renaissance is taking place. The major aspect of this development is that discussion about the relationship between religion and ecology is not simply academic but actively shaping projects, cultures and mindsets in these very different areas of the world. While this in itself would be an important observation, Witoszek probes further into this phenomenon, and ends the opening section of her essay with this intriguing question:

Does this green spirituality signify a curious “premodern turn” in Western conceptions of human progress?

That is to say, is the pastoral renaissance in world religions and cultures a step back from modernity, a retreat into the past, an end to the project of modernity, of relentless and inexorable progress?

To understand the worldview of modernity, Witoszek produces an acute observation from Daniel Bell, writing in the 1970s:

The theme of Modernism was the word beyond: beyond nature, beyond culture, beyond tragedy—that was where the self-infinitizing spirit was driving the radical self. We are now groping for a new vocabulary whose key word seems to be limits: a limit to growth, a limit to spoliation of environment, a limit to arms, a limit to torture, a limit to hubris – can we extend the list?”

Witoszek’s conclusion is that the affinity between religion and sustainability lies in the way they both regard the question of limit as a central concern. Sustainability is about living within the ecological limits of the planet and not degrading our biosphere beyond its ability to sustain life. Religions are also oriented towards placing limits on people’s behaviour: don’t eat pork; don’t have sex with your neighbour’s wife; don’t harm living beings. Of course these religious limits have also been oriented towards supporting one group of people’s power over another group of people: for example, refusing to admit women as religious leaders. Nevertheless, it can’t be denied that religion is one of the most powerful cultural forces that is oriented around not doing certain things.

From my point of view, it’s no surprise that as the world experiences the downside of industrial modernity, a healthy regard for limits should once again rise to the forefront of our cultural consciousness. In China, the quest for a sustainable future is mirrored in the “back to the future” rise of religions. For sure this is a complex phenomenon: people pray to the gods for wealth and happiness, not for a lower ecological footprint. But at the same time, Chinese religions send messages about reducing desire, non-violence to living beings, harmony with nature, and the value of balance and moderation. Is it any wonder that people should see a profound connection between religion and sustainability?

So to answer the original question, does the renewed interest in green religion signify a retreat to the past? Certainly, as Witoszek notes, the new “pastoral renaissance” can be allied with powerful nationalist forces and reactionary fundamentalist movements (see also my blog post on the rise of a Hindu nationalist ecological movement). At the same time, I remain hopeful that the new spirituality is part of an real and evolving consciousness centred on sustainability as a new form of “immanent transcendence,” one the capacity to root humanity deeply in the world.

the business of religion: buddhism, stock markets and the “authenticity” of religion

A recent news story on Reuters, headlined Thou Shalt Not Launch IPOs, China tells temples, reports that the State Administration for Religious Affairs (SARA) has issued an injunction against temples listing on the stock exchange. SARA official Liu Wei is reported as staying:

Chinese worshippers offer coins for prosperity while praying at Longhua temple to greet the lunar new year in Shanghai on February 9, 2005.

Such plans “violate the legitimate rights of religious circles, damage the image of religion and hurt the feelings of the majority of religious people.”

Like much reporting on Chinese religion, this story is left unexplained, as an item of “bizarre news” which lends weight to the Orientalist stereotype of China, and especially Chinese religion, as being ineluctably mysterious. To those whose knowledge of religion is limited to the West, there are two main issues that need to be explained:

  • Why do religious sites want to go public on the stock exchange?
  • What interest does the state have in preventing them from doing so?

A pervasive modern view of religion is that it is somehow incompatible with money. This sentiment perhaps goes back to the familiar Biblical texts that “the love of money is the root of all evil” (1 Tim. 6:10) and  “you cannot serve God and money” (Matt. 6;24). There are certainly some parallels in China, notably in monastic religion where a contentious issue has always been how much time should be spent on properly religious activities such as meditation, and how much on the actual business of running the monastery. In Imperial times, many monasteries in China had significant landholdings. The rent collected from tenants was used to fund the operations of the monasteries. But from the times of the first anti-religious protests in 1922, the economic status of monasteries declined, first as tenants refused or were unwilling to pay their rents, and secondly as land was expropriated by the state (an act that bears comparison with Henry VIII’s dissolution of English monasteries and appropriation of their wealth). After the reforms of the 1980s monasteries were allowed once again to operate as religious sites under the ultimate supervision of SARA, but very little land was returned to them. As Jing Yin writes in his essay “The Economic Situation of Chinese Buddhist Monasteries” this meant that the monasteries were faced with a dilemma:

The good news is that Buddhists today have buildings to operate and services to perform; the bad news is that they have almost no money with which to work. Therefore the urgent priority for nearly every monastery is to find a way to generate revenue. Monasteries are thus trying to become economically independent and to minimize their dependence on state government.

Today, temples do not make money from renting out their land but rather as sites for religious tourism. Many are located in sites of outstanding natural beauty and have become ecotourism destinations in their own right. But probably the most successful religious site in China today is Shaolin Temple, in central Henan province, home to the famous martial arts school. Shaolin has been remarkably successful in marketing itself as a tourist destination, and as a site of global Buddhist pilgrimage, and has generated huge revenues that have benefitted the local economy. According to the Reuters report, there was an outcry when Shaolin contemplated an IPO three years ago, which led to the ruling reported on recently. To many, running the temple as a profit-making activity implies that it cannot also be a religious activity. But as André Laliberté notes, this view is often the view of outsiders rather than insiders.

Buddhist devotees may criticize the activities of organizations like Shaolin because of its emphasis on martial arts, but they do not fault the management of the temples because they appreciate the fact that the temples are wealthy. In the moral economy of Buddhism …  donors can gain merit by contributing to the building and furnishing of a monastery … . It is therefore non-Buddhists who are more likely to object to Buddhist temples gaining wealth.

In the case of local Daoist religions, the link between religious life and local economic life can be quite close. In rural China, local Daoist 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 (see Schipper 2008). 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. Adam Yuet Chau (2005: 38) writes:

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 goes on to note that such temples have been involved in local development work such as paving roads, planting trees, and building schools. The lesson to be learned from this is that the line between “religious” and “nonreligious” activity has no self-evident boundary. Rather what has happened in China is that the modern state has moved to create such distinctions, defining for religious institutions what constitutes proper religious activity.

By now the answers to the questions posed above should be somewhat clearer. Religious sites want to list on the stock exchange because it is in their interest to secure funds for their continuous development and expansion. Religious activity is not simply “spirituality” but requires buildings, staff, management, cars, roads and other infrastructure. In contrast, it is in the state’s interest to emphasize the modern definition of authentic religion as “personal spirituality” so that it can continue to limit the material base that religious institutions require in order to develop and expand. In China religious activities can only legally take place in spaces that are authorized religious sites: they may not take place in the public sphere. The stock exchange is clearly viewed as public space, and to allow religions to list on the stock exchange would be to permit the encroachment of religion into the public sphere. This is something that the Chinese government is clearly not willing to tolerate.

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

religious diversity and ecological sustainability

For the past six months I’ve been working with Dan Smyer Yu from the Max Planck Institute for Religious and Ethnic Diversity on a conference which is finally taking place next week at Minzu University in Beijing. The title of the conference is Religious Diversity and Ecological Sustainability in China. Here’s the conference rationale that we wrote.

It is becoming increasingly obvious that the health of Planet Earth is affected by human activities on both organizational and personal levels. The industrialist vision celebrating a modern cornucopia has proven itself successful in extracting and harnessing resources from the Earth as well as in producing wastes lethal to the biosphere. The worldwide project of modernization has concurrently brought blessings to human wellbeing as well as displacement of human communities and endangered myriad species. Many of us, who are either socially engaged or theoretically-oriented, have produced works critiquing the environmental consequences of modernity and its grand global material project—modernization. Meanwhile, many of us have also begun to revisit and reinterpret ancient ecological worldviews and practices that are an inherent part of native belief systems for the purpose of either exploring alternative, “green” models of modern life or radically reorienting the course of modernization the world over. Nowhere are these questions more intensely focused and their impacts more keenly felt that China, which has experienced the full brunt of industrialization, population explosion, rural to urban migration at a pace and scale un- precedented in world history.

At the same time, however, it is necessary to resist the simplistic construction of “New China” as exclusively “secular”, “modern”, or “materialistic.” The resurgence of religious expression in contemporary China, the attention paid to minority nationalities throughout China’s diverse environmental contexts, and the resuscitation of Confucius as supreme icon of Chinese culture together compel us to pay attention to the cultural and religious diversity of contemporary China. Doing so leads us to question the binary taxonomies of tradition / modernity, sacred / secular, rural / urban, religion / science that inform the ideology of mo- dernity, and to pay particular attention to the way their attendant ideologies and narratives serve to construct and authorize particular views of nature and environment.

We aim to do so by weaving together three separate spheres of inquiry. The first aims towards an historical understanding of China’s traditional constructions of nature and environment and of how those constructions have been reconfigured by modern narratives of secularization, nationalism, or scientific development. The second engages an understanding of China’s diverse environmental contexts and the ways in which minority nationalities, popular culture and official religions have constructed and engaged their local ecolo gies and environments. The third analyzes contemporary urban China and the concepts of space, nature, technology and environment that inform and authorize contemporary archi- tecture, urban planning and utopian dreams of eco-cities. In these three ways we develop 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.

To generate this breadth and depth of knowledge requires a multidisciplinary approach, the first stage of which will take place by means of a workshop at Minzu University. In this workshop, both the historical studies of larger traditions and the ethnographic discussions of eco-religious communities among non-Han populations are part and parcel of the ongoing worldwide scholarly effort to discern the diverse superstructures and axiomatic roots of human ecological practices. On one hand, the workshop explores the “green” facets of religions in China, and, on the other hand, traces origins of modern ecological views, ethics, and practices from ancient times. The inclusion of ecological discourses from the non-religious sphere in China is meant to acknowledge the social reality of contemporary China, in which approximately 90% of the population is “non-religious.” This does not mean the secular society of China is constructed of social behaviors absent of belief systems and religiosity. The path of China’s modernization, despite its changing forms, bears a millenna- rianist trademark ranging from scientism to the current modernization trends, in which the vision of a “saved” China has always been projected into a not-yet-manifest future depicted as a paradise on earth with abundance, equality, and fair division of labor. This enchanted utopian trait of China’s modernity deserves an ecological reading from the perspective of religious studies as does contemporary field studies in smaller scale communities negotiating modernity and their own traditions in a globalized era. We look forward to working with a diverse body of scholars bringing fresh theoretical perspectives.

If you visit the Max Planck website  and download the conference brochure, you will see that we are bringing in a group of top-notch scholars from Europe, North America and China. I fly to Beijing on Saturday, and the conference takes place from March 6-9. After the conference I will be going on a brief lecture tour with Mary Evelyn Tucker and John Grim from the Yale Forum on Religion and Ecology. I will report back with some of the highlights over the next few weeks.

permanent agriculture and the anthropology of waste

This term I have the privilege of co-teaching a new seminar course at Queen’s (with Emily Hill) on the topic of Green China: Environment, Culture, Politics. The course examines the intersections between religion, culture, politics, and the natural environment in China over the past century.

One of the first books we read was Farmers of Forty Centuries or Permanent Agriculture in China, Korea and Japan, a travelogue by the American agricultural scientist Franklin Hiram King (1848-1911). The book extols the virtues of what we might today call “organic farming” or “sustainable agriculture,” practices that King observed in his eight month travels to the Far East in 1909. (Note how the publisher of this new version on the left has changed the subtitle to make it more relevant to a contemporary market.) His designation of this form of agriculture as “permanent” was meant to differentiate it from the “orthodox agriculture” advocated by the USDA, and signals what the Oxford scholar John Paull terms a “clash of ideologies … which remains to this day.” In recent years, interest in King’s book has multiplied amongst advocates of alternatives to industrial agriculture and, having emerged from copyright protection, has attained the status of a classic work. A free edition is available from the Gutenberg e-text website.

One of King’s key observations regarding the ‘permanent’ nature of China’s agricultural practices at the turn of the 20th century regarded the use of human manure as fertilizer, thereby returning key nutrients to the soil. He describes in detail the practice of recycling human manure to the soil, which he observed throughout the Far East. Then he  launches into a withering attack on the supposed civilization of the West (Chapter IX):

On the basis of the data of Wolff, Kellner and Carpenter, or of Hall, the people of the United States and of Europe are pouring into the sea, lakes or rivers and into the underground waters from 5,794,300 to 12,000,000 pounds of nitrogen; 1,881,900 to 4,151,000 pounds of potassium, and 777,200 to 3,057,600 pounds of phosphorus per million of adult population annually, and this waste we esteem one of the great achievements of our civilization. In the Far East, for more than thirty centuries, these enormous wastes have been religiously saved and today the four hundred million of adult population send back to their field annually 150,000 tons of phosphorus, 376,000 tons of potassium, and 1,158,000 tons of nitrogen comprised in a gross weight exceeding 182 million tons, gathered from every home, from the country villages and from the great cities like Hankow-Wuchang-Hanyang, with its 1,770,000 people swarming on a land area delimited by a radius of four miles.

Man is the most extravagant accelerator of waste the world has ever endured. His withering blight has fallen upon every living thing within his reach, himself not excepted; and his besom of destruction in the uncontrolled hands of a generation has swept into the sea soil fertility which only centuries of life could accumulate, and yet this fertility is the substratum of all that is living. … The rivers of North American are estimated to carry to the sea more than 500 tons of phosphorus with each cubic mile of water. To such loss modern civilization is adding that of hydraulic sewage disposal through which the date of five hundred millions of people might be more than 194,300 tons of phosphorus annually, which could not be replaced by 1,295,000 tons of rock phosphate, 75 per cent pure.

King’s language reveals the exasperation of a scientist who can readily see the folly of his own culture’s practices but finds himself powerless to change them.

For me the issue here is that “waste” and “pollution” are key categories in anthropology. What falls into these categories and how we behave in relation to them are governed by social habits that are deely ingrained and culturally specific. Terms for human waste are obscenities in the English language, and readily convey the particular distaste that we have developed for these substances. The pervasive Gnostic / Christian emphasis on the soul, rather than the body, as the location of the divine also contributes to the notion that little good is to be found in the material we excrete from our bodies. Cultural barriers such as these make it particularly hard to advocate the recycling of human waste.

Curiously, this reminded me of the famous discussion in Zhuangzi chapter 22.

Hmong woman carrying nightsoil (Image: Brad Houk)

Dongguozi asked Zhuangzi, “Where is this Dao you speak of?”
Zhuangzi said, “There is nowhere it is not.”
“You must be more specific.”
“It is in the ants and crickets.”
“So low?”
“It is in the grasses and weeds.”
“Even lower?”
“It is in the tiles and shard.”
“So extreme?”
“It is in the piss and shit.”

The notion that the Dao subsists in all things, even what we regard with the greatest disdain, was clearly meant to shock, but it is certainly the logical outcome of a resolutely monistic philosophy, the notion that the Dao underlies and pervades all things in the cosmos. Zhuangzi would probably not have been surprised to learn that, from a scientific perspective, the Dao really does lie in human excrement.

I would argue, however, that it is precisely Zhuangzi’s way of thinking, shocking though it may be, that makes it more possible to contemplate recycling human waste, rather than flushing it into the sea. When human waste is viewed as the location of the Dao, rather than as a polluting substance that makes us ‘feel dirty,’ then it becomes more possible to implement systems that incorporate our waste into the agricultural cycle.

Paull is right, then, to see the battle between ‘permanent’ agriculture and the USDA ‘orthodoxy’ as an ideological battle. But in my view, what we consider to be “waste” and “pollution” and how we behave towards it is also a matter for cultural/religious anthropology.

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.