daoism’s quest for relevance

Photograph taken during the liturgy at the Templo da Transparência Sublime, Rio de Janeiro, December 2009.

In a Wall Street Journal blog today, Christopher Carothers asks, “Is Daoism is losing its way?” He writes:

Today, Buddhism is regaining its traditional place as the largest religion in Chinese society. Islam is expanding through the growth of Muslim families in the Hui and Uyghur minority ethnic groups. Protestantism and Catholicism are winning new converts all over China and shaking off the old label of “foreign religion.” Daoism, on the other hand, seems to be standing still.

Worse still, he argues, Daoism is often ridiculed by other religions, as was the case in the recent incident in Singapore, in which a Christian pastor was forced to apologize for his anti-Daoist remarks. Singapore has strict rules concerning public speech about religion, so one can only imagine what anti-Daoist sentiments are being expressed in countries without such restrictions on free speech.

Carothers offers a reason for this reported decline, quoting unnamed researchers who say “the main reasons for Daoism’s troubles are its poor social networking and the lack of available information about its teachings.” This reason deserves further explanation. It’s certainly true that Daoism is a lineage-based tradition which prizes knowledge and training that are passed on orally from teacher to student. This gives it a certain disadvantage compared to proselytising and more “democratic” traditions like protestant Christianity, where individual believers work out their own spirituality through the medium of a cheaply-distributed Bible. In a globalized world Daoism also has a disadvantage compared to transnational religions such as Buddhism, which has well-established global networks and a long history of cross-cultural adaptation. (More…)

new directions in religion and nature

I was in LA last weekend to attend the Sixth Annual Conference on Daoist Studies which was organized by my former teacher, Livia Kohn, and LMU Professor Robin Wang. The conference drew the usual mix of academics and practitioners (which was itself the subject of an interesting meta-analysis by Elijah Siegler). My rationale for attending the conference, however, was that one of its focus themes was religion and ecology. I wanted to see how far the field had evolved since I co-edited the first book on this topic, Daoism and Ecology, Ways within a Cosmic Landscape, in 2001, and I’m delighted to report that there has been some excellent progress.

The majority of essays in that volume, nearly a decade old now, focussed on correlations between environmental concepts and philosophical and religious concepts in the Daoist tradition. Some focussed more on cultural practices such as fengshui or meditation, but there was generally a lack of historical detail and also theoretical innovation. But it was the first stab at creating such a field, so one can’t be too critical.

On the other hand, the papers presented at this year’s conference revealed a greater emphasis on historical detail and also a willingness to engage theoretically innovative frameworks and methods coming from cognitive science and evolutionary psychology. (More…)

avatar vs. confucius

What do you do, as a Chinese film board, when the Hollywood science fiction film Avatar smashes Chinese box office records in its first three weeks in theaters, when online chat sites are buzzing about the uncanny parallels between the fictional film plot of developers raping the land and forcibly evicting the people and real life in China?

As this report makes clear, Avatar vs. Confucius in China, some Chinese netizens are calling for a boycott of the Confucius biopic, arguing that the government is only promoting Confucianism in order to help suppress political dissent. In contrast Avatar is seen by Chinese people as a fable regarding the power of the state over local communities:

“What is ‘Avatar’ about?” asked one contributor on the Web site Mop. “It’s about the government’s forced evictions of people, and about them risking their lives to protest. No Chinese director dares to touch this topic.

The report goes on to note that an estimated 30 million people, that’s nearly the entire population of Canada, have been evicted or relocated during China’s rapid economic development. On top of this China has an estimated “floating population” of some 100 million migrant workers who live in poor conditions on the edge of China’s gleaming cities. It’s doubtful that James Cameron imagined that he was making a movie about China, but Avatar may well turn out to be one the most significant mythologizations of China’s economic development.

china’s green religion

James Miller attending the Laozi Conference in the Great Hall of the People

James Miller attending the Laozi Conference in the Great Hall of the People

I’m at the First Summit on Laozi and Daoist Culture, which is taking place this week in Beijing. The Summit is the work of Prof. Hu Fuchen, one of the leading scholars of Daoism, and a professor at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. This morning, we had the opening ceremony, which was held in the Great Hall of the People. It was my first time in this magnificent building.

The purpose of the conference is basically to promote Daoism throughout China and the World. It is being funded by a wealthy donor, and has received backing at a high level from the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. (More…)

china’s greatest contribution to sustainable development

This week I’m at a conference on eco-aesthetics at Shu Yen University in Hong Kong. Today we heard the opening speech from Prof. ZENG Fangren, the former president of Shandong University. He runs a research institute on aesthetics, and is one of China’s leading scholars of eco-aesthetics.

In his overview of the field of eco-aesthetics in China, the lasting impression that I received was how the government’s advocacy of “ecological civilization” has had a profound impact on the field. As a result of this leadership, more and more scholars are devoting attention to ecological issues.

What fascinated me about his talk was how fluent he was in Western scholarship regarding aesthetics and philosophy. It seems that so often dialogue between China and the west is one-sided, with all Chinese scholars mastering Western discourse and very few Western scholars mastering Chinese discourse.

As a result, in the discussions following his presentation, I asked the question of what China can contribute to the world in the areas of eco-aesthetics and sustainability.

His first answer was not what I expected. Rather than discussing Chinese wisdom, Confucian philosophy or Daoism, he made a very simple but powerful point. If China can manage its economic development without increasing too much its ecological footprint, it will have achieved something that everyone in the world can learn from.

This made me realize that the efforts to foster sustainable development will not ultimately depend upon what we in the West do or do not do. It will be developing countries like China and India that will, out of necessity, have to create ecologically sustainable forms of economic development. They will do so because they have no other choice. And when they have done so, they will be in a far more advanced position than us in the West. When that happens it will be we who learn from China and India, and not the other way round.

china’s transition to sustainability

The following is reproduced from today’s Kingston Whig-Standard.


Change in offing in China, prof says


Behind today’s show of military might celebrating its 60th anniversary, the People’s Republic of China is undergoing significant environmental policy change, according to a Queen’s University professor.

“Economic expansion has been successful in terms of lifting people out of poverty and bringing economic wealth to China,” said James Miller, a professor of religious studies at Queen’s.

“They can’t keep on doing this for the next 50 or 60 years because the environmental and social costs are very high.”

Miller is part of a movement that believes religious traditions can be used to effect environmental change. (More…)

china must talk to its religious leaders to create a culture of ecological sustainability

Over the past sixty years China has achieved something close to a miracle when compared with other developing nations. It by and large manages to feed, educate, house and employ its own people. It is not involved in futile and costly military conflicts. It is a creditor nation, not a debtor. Its social and political system provides sufficient stability for the vast majority of its people to pursue their own livelihoods in a rational and predictable way.Yet all this will be lost if the world does not help China to embrace an ecologically sustainable culture. (More…)

what climate change means for religion in china

Much intellectual discourse about Chinese philosophical and religious views of nature focuses on ideals such as harmony between humans and the natural world, or “forming one body with heaven and earth” (tian ren he yi). But when it comes to historical studies of Chinese environmental history, it’s hard to find instances of where this ideal was concretely realized. Mark Elvin concludes his monumental history of China’s environment with the following observation

The religious, philosophical, literary, and historical texts surveyed and translated in the foregoing pages have been rich sources of description, insight, and even, perhaps, inspiration. But the dominant ideas and ideologies, which were often to some degree in contradiction with each other, appear to have little explanatory power in determining why what seems actually to have happened to the Chinese environment happened the way it did. Occasionally, yes, Buddhism helped to safeguard trees around monasteries. The law-enforced mystique shrouding Qing imperial tombs kept their surroundings untouched by more than minimal economic exploitation. but in general, no. There seems no case for thinking that, some details apart, the Chinese anthropogenic environment was developed and maintained in the way it was over the long run of more than three millennia because of particular characteristically Chinese beliefs or perceptions. or, at least, not in comparison with the massive effects of the pursuit of power and profit in the arena provided by the possibilities and limitations of the Chinese natural world, and the technologies that grew from interactions with them.

But when it comes to the history of religion in China, (rather than philosophical ideas), the story is quite different. Chinese religions demonstrate a continuous attempt to grapple with the natural world, imploring the heavens to aid the productive bounty of the earth. For popular Chinese religion in particular, the natural world is also depicted as a dangerous force capable of producing death and destruction on a massive scale. (More…)

How Confucianism could curb global warming

csmIn today’s Christian Science Monitor, I published an op-ed piece that ties together some of the themes that I’ve been blogging about lately:

  • Is democracy the best vehicle to ensure sustainable development?
  • What is the Confucian view of the human person and its relationship to the environment?
  • How is the Confucian renaissance in China changing official thinking about economic decisions?

You can read more on how Confucianism could curb global warming.

what is freedom of religion for?

A Taiji quan peformance

A Taiji quan performance at a Daoist temple in Sichuan

There is hardly a truth more sacred to the contemporary American imagination than that religion must be free from interference by the state and that the state must be free from interference from religion. Neither of these ideals holds true in China, and this fact is an enormous thorn in the side of Chinese-American relations, especially as regards the Tibet question.

The fact is that religions and the state in China have co-existed in something of a symbiotic relationship for thousands of years. In medieval China, Buddhists seeking to ingratiate themselves in the life of the court proposed rituals to bring about the salvation and prosperity of the empire. Daoist priests also ordained emperors and oversaw court rituals. In return, the Emperor bestowed his patronage on monasteries and temples, granting them land, money and prestige. At the heart of this arrangement was a very simple and natural proposition: you help me and I’ll help you. (More…)