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

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


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

Monitory Democracy and Environmental Policy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Civil Society and Alternative Religious Values

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Works Cited

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Daoism and Development

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

Overview of Daoism

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

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

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

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

Modernity, Harmony and Development

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Community Wellbeing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Sivin 1995: 6).

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

(Zhang 2001: 370).

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

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

List of References

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Authenticity, Sincerity and Spontaneity

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


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


nature, religion, authenticity, daoism, confucianism, ethics

Religion and Ecological Sustainability in China

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

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

Gene Anderson reviews the book on

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

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

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

Read a fuller description of the book on my blog.

Table of Contents

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

The Daoist Society of Brazil and the Globalization of Orthodox Unity Daoism

daoist society of brazil front page Daniel M. Murray and James Miller. 2013. “The Daoist Society of Brazil and the Globalization of Orthodox Unity.” Journal of Daoist Studies 6: 93-114.


Taken out of Chinese cultural context, Daoism is often associated with physical cultivation practices such as qigong or taiji quan rather than the traditional lineages of Quanzhen or Zhengyi a hierarchically organized religion. The Daoist Society of Brazil, however, is an example of non‑Chinese Daoist practice associated with the Zhengyi (Orthodox Unity) tradition. The society’s ordained Brazilian priests perform rituals before a largely non‑Chinese lay congregation. The result is a cultural hybrid form of Daoist practice that provides insight into how Daoism is transforming through globalization.

Religion, Nature and Modernization in China

 Technology, Trust and ReligionJames Miller. 2010. Religion, Nature and Modernization in China. Pp. 107-122 in Technology, Trust and Religion: Roles of Religion in Controversies on Ecology and the Modification of Life edited by Willem B. Drees. Leiden: Leiden University Press.

One of most important concepts in the Weberian theory of modernity is summed up in the German term Entzauberung, usually translated into English as ‘disenchantment’ or ‘rationalization’. A concise summary of this concept can be found in an essay published in 1987 by the British sociolo- gist Ernest Gellner. He writes:

The modern world is organized in a rational way. This means that clearly specified goals are pursued by a calculated allocation of means; the means include not only tools but also human activity and men them- selves. These things are treated instrumentally and not as ends in them- selves. Effectiveness  and evidence  are kings. The procedures  are also rational in the sense of being orderly and rule-bound: like cases are treated alike. (Gellner 1987, 153)

According to this view, therefore, modernity presupposes a rational, logi- cal and orderly view of the world, one that is best managed by rational procedures and gives rise to the legalistic, bureaucratic institutions of the modern state. Rationalization, moreover, is not something that ‘happens’ to society. It also has consequences for the way that moderns view and engage the natural world. Gellner continues:

It is not only the procedures  of organizations  which are in this sense ‘bureaucratised’; the same also happens to our vision of nature, of the external world. Its comprehensibility and manipulability are purchased by means of subsuming its events under orderly, symmetrical, precisely articulated generalisations and explanatory models. This is Disenchantment: the Faustian purchase of cognitive, technological  and adminis- trative power, by the surrender of our previous meaningful, humanly suffused, humanly responsive, if often also menacing or capricious world. That is abandoned in favour of a more a more predictable, more amenable, but coldly indifferent and uncosy world. (Gellner 1987, 153)

As Gellner’s explanation makes clear, the Weberian concept of Entzauberung has at least two aspects to it, evident in the two English terms that are commonly  used to translate  it, rationalization  and disenchantment. On the one hand, Entzauberung involves a belief in the possibility of the rational ordering of the world; on the other hand this belief is predicated on an instrumental  view of nature, one in which nature is not valued as an end in itself, but becomes a means for the attainment of rationally cal- culated ends. Entzauberung is thus more than a process that takes place within the ordering of society. Rather it also ‘happens to our vision of na- ture’ conceived as the world that is ‘external’ to the self. Thus, according to this theory, the rationalization and bureaucratization  of society that we are familiar with in the modern period, is also accompanied  by the secu- larization of space and the disenchantment  of nature.

Recently,  however,  this  understanding  of disenchantment  has  begun to be questioned  by social theorists.  In particular, Bronislaw Szerszynski (2005) has argued that the reordering of society and nature in modernity should not be viewed as a final stage in the process of disenchantment and secularization,  but rather  as a moment  within the ongoing transforma- tion of the sacred throughout histor y. This transformation is not so much a gradual process of the sacred’s absenting itself from society and from nature, but rather a continuous reordering of the sacred within the world. The view of modern society as the highest stage in some gradual evolution towards rationality and secularism  is a view from a particular evolution- ary perspective, one that has been informed by centuries of Western theo- logical history, or as Szerszynski terms it, ‘the long arc of monotheism’. As Szerszynski writes:

The illusion that the sacred has disappeared is arguably a feature of all historical transitions from one form of the sacred to the next in a given society. Each transition can seem like an eclipse  of the sacred in the terms in which it was organized in the closing epoch; from a larger his- torical perspective,  however, it can be seen as the emergence  of a new sacral ordering. (Szerszysnski 2005, 26)

The secularization  of society and the disenchantment  of nature summed up in the concept  of ‘absolute profane’ are thus not to be seen as a final stage in history but as ‘an event within the ongoing history of the sacred in the West’ (2005, 27).

This paper aims to consider the disenchantment  of nature in modern China from the perspective  of this debate  within  social  science  theory. First  it examines  the  process  of modernization  in China  as a self-con- scious process of disenchantment  and rationalization. In this process the state assumed rational control over religious spaces and religious orga- nizations.  It was able  to do so in part  through  the  development  of the concept of ‘superstition’ in which the religious activities associated  most overtly with nature were prohibited.  All this seems to indicate the value of the Weberian view of modernization. This chapter follows Szerszynski, however, in arguing that this process should not be understood as the absolute  secularization  of Chinese  society  but rather  as the creation  of a new form of the sacred in Chinese society, this time the creation of a transcendent  monotheism  focused  on the  abstract  concept  of the  state and concretely  embodied  in the  Communist  Party. In effect,  therefore, the process of modernization in China has not been about secularization but rather about the establishment of a new sacred order in which the diversity of Chinese religious values became increasingly subordinated to a new transcendent  monotheism.

The Rationalization of Sacred Space

In an article entitled ‘Knowledge and Power in the Discourse of Moderni- ty: The Campaigns against Popular Religion in Early Twentieth-Century China’  Prasenjit  Duara  (1991) argued  that  the  newly  emerging  modern Chinese state in part based its ascendancy on its ability to destroy the local religious associations  and local geographies of power so as to reorganize them within a monolithic ideology of the modern nation state. Even be- fore the establishment  of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, the mod- ernization of the Chinese state was achieved through a reorganization  of local power and social networks, chiefly by appropriating land owned by local temples. ‘Monks and priests who had depended on religious proper- ties were deprived of their sources of livelihood; local religious societies that fulfilled social as much as spiritual needs were dispossessed  and replaced by government offices that seemed mainly interested in extracting revenues and uncovering unregistered  property ’ (Duara 1991, 76). Duara viewed this reordering  of local religion as socio-economic  activity, with the state assuming control over the economic resources and social struc- tures previously under the control of the religious organizations. But per- haps this was not simply a reordering of the religious economy, but also a reordering of the sacred. Perhaps in crushing the social and economic power of the local temple networks, the modern Chinese state was also establishing itself as the only legitimate source of spiritual authority with- in the nation. In short, this transformation might not be about seculariza- tion, as Weberian  theory  understands  it, but, in Szerszynski’s  terms,  as one of these various moments in human histor y when an old sacred order gives way to a new one.

In  order  to  understand  how  this  forced  disenchantment  of  China’s countr yside could legitimately  be viewed as a transformation  within the sacred  in modern China, it is necessar y to understand  the relationship between  the  sacred,  nature  and geography  in traditional  China. In the histor y of China, power was not only constituted  ideologically and theo- logically, but geographically too. This was evident most clearly in the sa- cred cosmography that held China to be the ‘middle kingdom’. This term originated in the Warring States period, and was originally understood in the plural. It referred to the various ‘central states’ that shared the culture of writing  in characters.  These  ‘central  states’  were  thus  distinguished from outer regions who did not share the same literar y and cultural tradi- tions. After unification under the first Qin emperor, these ‘central states’ became the ‘middle kingdom’, that is, the single China that is familiar to us today. At the centre of this middle kingdom was the capital, and at the centre of the capital was the imperial palace, and at the centre of the im- perial palace was the court from which the emperor governed the distant corners  of the empire.  This cosmology  was replicated  ever ywhere.  The magistrate had his offices in a courtyard at the centre of the city. The city was surrounded by walls. Outside the walls was the countr yside that pro- vided the food to keep the city functioning and beyond the countr yside was the wilderness inhabited by bandits, beasts, and barbarians. This cosmology was replicated also in the heavens, which were viewed as a circular canopy rotating around a central ridge-pole known as the Great Ultimate  (taiji), an axis mundi  connecting  the pole star down through the earth into the under world. In some Daoist religious movements,  the most significant  deities  were thus the ones associated  with the stars  of the Big Dipper (Ursa Major) who lit the way to the apex of heaven and around which the lesser constellations  revolved. Power, in earth and on heaven,  was  manifested in the  construction  of space.  It was  about  the disposition of things, structuring human relations in a certain way within their  surroundings  so as to promote  a cosmic  vision of order and har-mony (see Lewis 2006).

Central to this worldview was the network of sacred mountains that symbolized  the  centre  and the  four corners  of the  empire.  In addition, both Buddhists and Daoists claimed their own sacred mountains and es- tablished monasteries and retreat houses there. At certain times and in certain  locations  these  sacred  geographies  overlapped  with  each  other. Mt. Tai in Shandong province, the Eastern mountain of the imperial cult was also sacred to both Buddhists and Daoists. On this mountain, the Qin emperor who reunited the country following the dissolution of the War- ring States period instituted new sacrifices to the supreme cosmic rulers. Only the emperor  was permitted  to offer these  feng and shan sacrifices. Through this exclusive ritual the emperor asserted his own personal con- nection to the cosmic powers that governed heaven and earth. He es- tablished  himself  not only as the  chief  mediator  between  the  gods and the people but as an indispensable  element in the theological  geography that constituted the Chinese understanding of their place in the universe. The Wu emperor of the Han dynasty reinstated these sacrifices and built a temple  at the base of the mountain where the entire cosmic pantheon could assemble to witness the rituals over which the emperor personally presided  (see Bokenkamp  1996).  The  imperial  cult  thus  served  to rein- force the authority of the emperor over his people, an authority vested in the ritual construction of sacred space by means of which the nation could orient itself in relation to the heavens above and the peripheral spaces to the north, south, east and west.

This network of sacred spaces, however, should not solely be interpret- ed in ideological and epistemological terms about what Chinese people believed about the nature of the cosmos. Rather we should interpret this construction  of sacred  space  as the  way in which  power  and authority were actually constituted in terms of the geography of the nation. The significance  of the feng and shan sacrifices  did not lie solely in the sym- bolic nature of the liturgy and the ritual, but in the fact that they were performed at the base of a vast and imposing mountain reaching vertigi- nously up into the sky. Through the ritual the emperor was appropriating power vested in the physical geography of that particular space.

The technological  limits of the pre-modern  era, however,  meant that the official state orthodoxy was not imposed uniformly throughout  Chi- na. China was thus a land of religious diversity in which local religions constructed  their own interpretations  of sacred space and competed with each  other  for the allegiance  of the people.  Dynasties  were  established on the  back  of religious  fer vour  and  were  destroyed  in the  same  way. As much as the Imperial court sought to impose its vision of unity and harmony on the empire, such an imposition was inevitably imperfect, fracturing  at its  various  intersections  with  the  authority  of local  cults and popular religions. In order for this vision to become a reality, it was necessary for the modern state to dismantle the networks of theological power and religious authority traditionally associated with the sacred mountains and local cults. This was made possible part by rapid developments in communications technology that, for the first time, enabled the central authorities to impose their vision of the world upon the various regions of China. Although from the perspective of traditional Chinese religious history this could be viewed as the secularization  of these natural and local spaces, the campaigns against popular religion could equally be interpreted  as the reordering of the sacred into a single, overarching , transcendent  monotheism constructed  around the abstract notion of the state.

It  would  come  as  no  surprise,  therefore,  that  religion  and  the  state would come into conflict  where  the function of religion was not clearly allied with that of the state. In such cases religion had to be controlled by the state because it was, in effect, a theological competitor.  Duara traced the modern history of conflict between  religion and the state to an offi- cial document published in 1928, called the ‘Standards for Preser ving and Abandoning Gods and Shrines’ (Duara 1991, 79). This document marked a milestone in the process of legitimating certain forms of religion and delegitimizing others. Some gods such as Confucius, Guandi, Laozi, and Buddha were  permitted  to be worshipped.  Other  gods, such as the city god and the god of wealth  were proscribed.  The  main distinction  to be drawn between these two lists of gods is that the former could be identi- fied in terms of their function with the overarching goals of a nation state, whereas the latter list contains gods who chiefly serve the interests of in- dividuals or localities. In short, some gods had a place within the temple of nationalism  and other  gods were seen as subversive  of the overarch- ing agenda of the state. Just as the rise of the nation state in Europe has been  seen  as  a theological  consequence  of the  Protestant  Reformation (Loy 2002,  94), so also the invention of the modern Chinese nation state could be seen a type of theological activity that demanded the restraint of religious competitors.

Religion, Nature, and Modernization

The debate  about the place of religion in the modern Chinese  state  was not, however, understood simply within the framework of the overarching theology of the nation state. It was also an ideological conflict predicated on competing visions of nature. This conflict was made possible by the invention  of the  category  of ‘superstition’  (mixin).  Duara demonstrates in the same article that although popular cults and local religions had previously been regarded with disdain by elite religious leaders and cat- egorized as ‘heterodox’ (xie) they were now increasingly placed under the new category of superstition  (mixin).  The categor y of ‘superstition’  thus functioned  as an ideological  tool by means  of which  the state  was able to make normative judgments about religious institutions so as to assert power over them. It did so by framing the ideology of local and popular re- ligious movements as ‘superstition’, that is to say, ‘deluded beliefs’. A devi- ant or unorthodox institution might have the possibility of being aligned, reformed or normalized in some way. An organization founded on super- stition, or deluded belief, would face a far harder task of surviving in the modern state. Just as the birth of the nation state in Western  Europe and North America was accompanied by the proscription of witchcraft and magic, so also the birth of the modern Chinese state witnessed  a violent struggle over the ideologically correct way to view and engage the natural world. In both cases, magic and superstition  were seen as the direct en- emies of technology and science.

The  attempt  to  define  superstition  in China  began  in 1930  with  the ‘Procedure for the Abolition of Occupations of Divination, Astrology, Physiognomy  and  Palmistry,  Sorcery  and  Geomancy,’  the  ‘Procedures for Banning  and Managing  Superstitious  Objects  and Professions,’  and the ‘Prohibition of Divinatory Medicines’ (Duara 1991, 80). The so-called superstitions  of divination, astrology,  physiognomy,  palmistr y, and geo- mancy were all key elements of popular religion in China, frequently con- ducted in local temples,  and were not generally associated  with the for- eign religions of Buddhism or Christianity.  In effect  the proscription  of these activities was designed to promote the demise of traditional Chinese popular religion. But there was also a significant ideological component at stake here that revolved around the philosophy of nature. Although astrology and physiognomy are generally dismissed in modern society as ‘fortune-telling’, in traditional Chinese religion they were part and parcel of the fabric of religious meaning that enabled people to make sense out of their lives, and also part of the local temple  economy. What binds all these forms of ‘fortune-telling’  together, however, is a shared philosophy of nature, one that is diametrically opposed to the ideology of science and rationality on which the modern Chinese state was building its authority. All the proscribed activities described  as ‘superstitious’ held in common the view that physical nature, whether  in the form of human bodies, the stars or geography, had the capacity to reveal truths that are of value for human beings. As such they were sources of religious meaning and moral capacity  that  originated  beyond  the  control  and authority  of the  state, or, indeed, any formal religious institution. The development  of science, on the other hand, was accompanied by an instrumental rationality that viewed nature not as the revealer of spiritual truths but as neutral, value- free space capable of being shaped by human will through technology and so forth. In the former case, nature revealed truths to humans through religious  processes;  in the  latter  case,  humans  imposed  their  values  on nature through technological and economic processes. In the modern na- tion state the imposition of values on nature is directed by the organs of the state  through  its various science  and technology  research  institutes and the modern university system.

The attack on superstition persisted in modern China through to the Communist period. At the Eleventh Party Congress in 1979, freedom of religion was restored in China only for the five state-sanctioned  religions of China. All other forms of traditional religious culture were deemed su- perstition. The policy on the regulation of religions adopted in 1979 states that:

By superstition  we generally  mean activities  conducted  by shamans, and sorcerers,  such as magic medicine,  magic water,  divination, for- tune telling, avoiding disasters, praying for rain, praying for pregnancy, exorcising  demons,  telling  fortunes  by physiognomy,  locating  house or tomb sites by geomancy and so forth. They are all absurd and ri- diculous. Anyone possessing rudimentary knowledge will not believe in them. (Document 3 from Selected Documents of the Third Plenary Session of the Eleventh Party Congress, 1979; MacInnis 1989, 33-4)

From this excerpt we can see that the principal question about the rela- tionship between religion and the state has been formulated around the capacity of nature to shape and direct people’s religious experiences.  The so-called  superstitious  activities  mediate  the  relationship  between  hu- mans and nature in a way that lies outside of the bureaucratic  processes of the state, or the established religions with solid institutional structures that could more easily be brought into line with the goals of the modern Chinese state.

Thus  the conflict  between  religion,  science  and superstition  was not just about  epistemology,  or the rational  procedures  for verif ying belief. They were also about the capacity of nature to be a source of sacred power and even moral authority outside of the structures of the state and the ra- tional procedures of science. The campaigns against superstition and local religions that were begun in the Republican  period and carried through most forcefully in the Communist period were not only contesting  ideo- logical  and epistemological  space  within  the  Chinese  psyche;  nor were they solely struggles to assert central power over local areas; rather they were also struggles over the value of nature, and the capacity of nature to function in some way as sacred space, as a source of divine revelation, or as a theological reality.

It would be a mistake to underestimate the serious nature of this conflict between science and ‘fortune-telling’. The various activities proscribed under the rubric of ‘superstition’ were by no means fringe activities re- stricted to a few uneducated people. Rather, they expressed a fundamen- tal aspect of the traditional Chinese worldview, namely the view of nature as a source  of sacred  power. This  view is neatly summed  up in a third- centur y poem by Cao Zhi. The subject is Mt. Tai, the sacred mountain of the east, mentioned above as the location of the feng and shan sacrifices.

I roamed the mountain in the dawn
Secluded in its misty depths
When suddenly I met two boys
With faces that were fair and fresh.
They gave me herbs of the immortals
The Numinous Supreme had made,
Medicaments that when absorbed
Revive the seminal essence and brain,
So life, like a rock’s or metal ore’s,
Passes through eons, but does not age.

(Trans. Elvin 2004, xxii-xxiii)

Here nature, in the form of Mt. Tai, is the space in which the poet encoun- ters two boys. They are described as having ‘fair and fresh’ faces, which is the clue that they are not ordinary mortals but immortal beings. This view is confirmed when they give the author ‘herbs of the immortals’ to ‘revive the seminal essence and brain’. Here, nature is not simply the location for an encounter with divine beings, but is also the source of cosmic power which has the capacity of conferring immortality on the one who ingests the herbs. Finally, nature in the form of unchanging  rock is a metaphor for  the  sacred  ideal  of immortality.  In these  three  cases,  nature  is not valued in terms of some rational economic calculus but as the medium through  which  the  adept  can  transcend  the  mundane  world.  Nature  is sacred inasmuch as it is the Way to attain a transfigured and more perfect reality. When the state proscribed ‘divination’ and ‘magic medicine’ it was in effect proscribing this view of nature, which formed the bedrock of traditional religious culture.

Remarkably,  however,  this  view of nature  was never  extirpated  from the Chinese mentality; instead it continued, albeit in a transformed  way, into the modern period. Despite the ideological rhetoric of the modern Chinese state, the view that nature is a source of sacred power and moral authority continues into the present day. Take for instance, the following song from the Great Leap Forward in the 1950s:

Let’s attack here!
Drive away the mountain gods,
Break down the stone walls
To bring out those 200 million tons of coal.

(Zhang Zhimin, Personalities in the Commune; quoted in Shapiro 2001, vii)

At first glance it would seem that this song supports the Weberian hypothesis that modernization involves the disenchantment of sacred space. Here modernization, in the form of coal mining, demands the secularization  of the  mountain  space  where  the  mining takes  place,  described as ‘driving away the mountain gods’. From the perspective of traditional Chinese religion this indeed is tantamount to the secularization  of sacred space, but from a larger perspective it is more accurate to interpret this as the reordering of the sacred. Driving away the mountain gods does not re- veal the mountain to be an inert place devoid of any sacred power. Rather it reveals the mountain to be harbouring a new form of sacred power, that of coal. Coal is not here simple ‘stuff ’, but during the Great Leap Forward was the means by which China would achieve its Great Leap Forward into the future. It was, in effect, the numinous substance that was essential in the concoction of a new elixir of immortality: steel. The view of nature as harbouring secret powers, whether conceived as 200 million tons of coal, or herbs  with  numinous  powers  remains  constant.  The  only thing  that changed from the time of Cao Zhi to the time of Mao was the understand- ing of the role of the traditional  gods as guardians  or mediators  of the sacred power of nature. These  were dispensed  with and replaced  by the gods of the human will. As Jasper Becker writes in Chinas Hungry Ghosts (1996, 308; quoted by Shapiro 2001, 68):

Mao wanted to modernize China but could not grasp the basis of modern thought, the scientific method: that the way in which the natural universe behaves can be proved or disproved by objective tests, inde- pendent of ideology or individual will.

Becker’s critique of Mao, and also Shapiro’s, was that Mao did not in fact secularize nature in the ‘correct’ way. Rather he simply replaced one form of ideology with another, asserting the supremacy of the human spirit, not the celestial gods, over nature.

Reading Chinese modernization not as ‘secularization’ but as an endur- ing theological  contest  over the location  and power of the sacred might also help explain contemporary Chinese leaders’ fascination with grand works of environmental  engineering.  Projects such as the Three  Gorges Dam can be understood as modern equivalents of the acts of mythological heroes who brought order out of the watery chaos. Such projects continue to reveal the enduring power of sacred mythology in modern China. Thus the destruction of the natural environment continues not through the rationalization and disenchantment of nature, as conservative religious critics  of modernity  might  suggest,  but because  of the  enduring  power of ‘secular theologies’ to subordinate human interests  to irrational ideals (see Gray 2004).

Religion and Nature in Contemporary China: Three Cases

The debate over the place of religion and nature in modernity was not, therefore,  decisively  settled  in the  twentieth  century  and has  begun  to take on new forms in an era of relative religious freedom in China. The following three brief case studies display something of the complex situa- tion of religion, nature and modernity in contemporary China.

The first case concerns that of religious sites located in areas of out- standing  natural  beauty,  which  have  been  developed  and  reorganized chiefly as tourist attractions in China, and function under the authority of local tourism offices. Although the reopening of temples might lead one to think that religion is somehow  resurgent  in China, the fact that reli- gious spaces are often contained firmly within tourist economic develop- ment zones makes clear that the sacred is secondary to the economic. The recent  flourishing  of religious  activities  in China  thus  leads,  paradoxi- cally, to serious problems faced by wealthy monasteries located in tourist development zones. Referring to Buddhism, Jing Yin (2006, 90) writes:

Problems associated  with the impact of the market economy on Bud- dhism  can  be divided  into two  categories.  The first  can  broadly  be termed external problems that arise when government officials, par- ticularly low ranking local ones, infringe upon the rights and interests of the monasteries.  The more wealthy monasteries  become  the more frequently this occurs, and this constitutes a rather serious problem in some areas. The second category of problems are internal disputes that arise when the state returns property to the monasteries following the implementation of the policy of religious freedom in 1979.

The  recent  freedoms  bestowed  on religious  institutions  in China  have thus come at a price, that of keeping sacred space contained within the bureaucratic  control  of the  state  as a means  to achieving  rational  eco-nomic ends. Jing Yin (2006, 91-92) goes on:

 From a Buddhist perspective, one can say that the one-sided economic development  in many monasteries  has made them lose their distinctively Buddhist characteristics.  I have accompanied many overseas Buddhist delegates on visits to monasteries in China. In my experience, visitors often feel that despite  the proliferation  of monasteries,  there is a lack of character  here. Monasteries  commonly operate vegetarian restaurants, guest houses, souvenir shops, and food and drink booths. Some even go to the extreme of running factories and operating companies. The long-term effect is that the market economy is seriously hurting the religious nature of the monasteries. Once monasteries be- come large-scale  enterprises,  it is difficult for them to back out. And when monasteries become principally tourist attractions, the danger is that the energy of the monks becomes devoted chiefly to receiving tourists, leaving no time for the sangha or to engage in Buddhist practice.

In other words, even in an era of religious freedom, it seems that religious activities  continue  to  be  subordinated  to  rational,  economic  functions and are increasingly unable to stand as moral or ethical challenges  to the dominant  values  of the  state.  Such  a view is borne  out  by the  Chinese state regulations on religion issued in 2004, which paint a clear picture of the place of religion within the secular space of the Chinese state. These new regulations do not deal with the thorny theoretical questions such as the definition of religion, or the relationship  between  religion, superstition and scientific belief. Rather they tend to focus on more bureaucratic questions  such as which government  agency is the competent  authority for dealing with various types of religious issues, and economic questions such as the relationship  between  religious  pilgrimage  and secular  tour- ism. Article 18 of the new regulations, for example, governs the manage- ment of religious sites and typifies well the new direction in Communist policy towards religion:

A site  for religious  activities  shall  strengthen  internal  management, and, in accordance with the provisions of the relevant laws, regulations and rules, establish and improve the management systems for person- nel, finance, accounting,  security,  fire control,  cultural  relics protec- tion, sanitation and epidemic prevention, etc., and accept the guidance, supervision and inspection by the relevant departments of the local people’s government. (State Council 2004)

As this regulation indicates, the overall goal now is to promote the smooth management  of religious  spaces  in such a way that  they do not disrupt social  harmony  or pose  a threat  to the  authority  of the  government.  It seems that party officials are no longer concerned with understanding the nature of religion in terms of political theor y, but only with managing its social and economic functioning. In contrast to the divisive ideological debates of the May Fourth and early Communist era over secularization, tradition,  and modernity, the contemporary  framework  for understand- ing the relationship between religion and society emphasizes  economics, management and social harmony. The CCP no longer seems intent on attempting  to control the religious beliefs of Chinese citizens, but rather on ensuring that religious organizations, whatever they believe, work to support the nation and its economy.

The second case study concerns the revival of interest, at least in a theoretical sense, of the value of traditional religions in contributing to the emergence  of environmentalism  in contemporary  China.  Most  notable in this regard has been the work of Pan Yue, Vice-Minister of the State Environmental Protection Administration  (SEPA). In a notable speech in 2003, he called for the creation of an ‘environmental culture and national renaissance’  that forged traditional  views of nature with the demands of the modern Chinese state into a nationalistic vision of Chinese develop- ment, and one that would avoid the ecologically destructive excesses of Western  modernization.  He quoted chapter 16 of the Daoist classic, The Way and Its Power (Daode jing), ‘The myriad creatures  all rise together / And I watch their return / The teeming creatures / All return to their sep- arate roots’ to argue for a ‘circular economy,’ his vision of an ecologically sustainable society (Pan 2007, 11). Such a society would be at once at the forefront  of ecological  economics  and sustainable  development  theory, and at the same time indigenously and authentically Chinese:

The pursuit of harmonious  relations  between  man and nature is the mainstream of traditional cultures in the past thousands of years. The Confucian school advocated ‘the unity of nature and man’, which em- phasizes  that all human behaviours  must conform  to the law of na- ture.

The Daoist school proposed the theory of ‘Tao following nature’, which elevates the concept of ‘nature’ to a metaphysical height. … According to Laozi, natural laws shall not be violated, and human principles must conform to the natural laws. (Pan 2007, 6-7)

In Pan’s view, therefore,  China’s religious traditions are sources of moral capacity and intellectual  authority which could be reconfigured  to fit in with China’s new goals of sustainable development. China’s economic de- velopment, its accompanying environmental and social pressures, and its state-sponsored  nationalism are thus ushering in new transformations  of the sacred.

Finally, the contemporar y Chinese  scene reveals a popular interest  in understanding  the  relationships  between  religion,  science  and  nature. Such an interest has most recently been evident in the 2005 debate about whether environmental protection in China was best served by an attitude of reverence  (jingwei) towards nature. He Zuoxiu, a prominent scientist, argued that reverence for nature was the product of anti-scientific  think- ing and was not helpful in fighting diseases or natural disasters (He 2005). Liang Congjie, the founder of the Chinese NGO Friends of Nature, on the other hand, argued that nature cannot be viewed simply as a tool, and that having a sense of reverence for the natural world was itself natural and rational (Liang 2006). Although Liang was careful to define his use of the word ‘reverence’ in a humanistic way, the very use of the term ‘reverence’ or ‘awe’ (jingwei) in the first place,  clearly  struck  a negative  chord with some  members  of the  scientific  establishment.  The  very debate  reveals that issues of the environment are not simply a matter of science and tech- nology in China, but also ethics and values.

These three examples from the contemporary Chinese scene reveal that in China’s  quest  for modernization,  religion  and nature  continue  to be sites of ideological conflict. Religious organizations continue to be active- ly managed by the state’s religious affairs administration.  This oversight is especially  strong  where  religious  sites  are located  in areas  of natural beauty and there is thus a large potential for making money by developing the local tourist economy. On the other hand, there seems to be a willing- ness among some of the elite to consider the value of traditional ideas in helping to solve China’s dire environmental problems. Their views are regarded as controversial because they seem to contradict the official ide- ology of modernization  and scientific  development  (kexue fazhan)  and yet figures like Pan Yue hold senior positions within the government. At the same time the question of respect for nature remains highly contested among scientists and environmentalists. All this seems to suggest that despite the rhetoric of science and modernity, there has not been an ir- reversible process of disenchantment in China. Some traditional values persist, whereas others have been transmuted into nationalism and sci- entism. The relationship  between science, nature, and religion continues to be contested both theoretically  and practically.


AsiaNews.  2005.  Sixty  Thousand  People  Protest  Against  Chinese  Pol- lution. 14 April 2005. Internet: view_p.php?l=en&art=3036

Bokenkamp, Stephen. 1996. Record of the Feng and Shan Sacrifices. In Religions of China in Practice, edited by Donald S. Lopez Jr. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 251-60. Duara, Prasenjit. 1991. Knowledge and Power in the Discourse of Modernity: The Campaigns against Popular Religion in Early Twentieth-Centur y China. Journal of Asian Studies 50 (1), 67-83.

Elvin, Mark . 2004. The Retreat of the Elephants. New Haven: Yale Univer- sity Press.

Gellner, Ernest. 1987. Culture, Identity and Politics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Girardot, N.J., James Miller, and Liu Xiaogan, eds. 2001. Daoism and Ecol- ogy: Ways within  a Cosmic Landscape. Cambridge:  Harvard Univer- sity Press.

Gray, John. 2004.  The Future of an Illusion. Daedalus 133 (3), 10-17.

He Zuoxiu. 2005. Ren yu ziran yi shui wei ben, wuxu jingwei daziran. Internet:

Jing Yin. 2006.  The Impact of Economic Reforms on Buddhism in China. In Chinese Religions in Contemporary Socities, edited by James Miller. Denver: ABC-CLIO.

Lewis, Mark . 2006. The Construction of Space in Early China. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press.

Liang Congjie. 2005.  Bu neng jinjinde ba ziran kanzuo  renlei de gongju. Internet:

Loy, David. 2002. A Buddhist History of the West : Studies in Lack. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press.

MacInnis, Donald, ed. 1989. Religion in China Today: Policy and Practice.

Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books.

Pan, Yue. 2007. Thoughts on Environmental Issues. Beijing: Chinese Envi- ronmental Culture Protection Association.

Shapiro, Judith. 2001. Maos War Against Nature. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

State  Council  of the  People’s  Republic  of China.  2004.  Decree no. 426: Regulations on Religious Affairs. Adopted at the 57th  Executive Meet- ing of the State  Council  on 7 July 2004,  promulgated  30 November 2004,  effective as of 1 March 2005.

Szerszynski, Bronislaw. 2005. Nature, Technology and the Sacred. Oxford: Blackwell.

The Way of Highest Clarity: Nature, Vision and Revelation in Medieval China

The Way of HIghest Clarity by James Miller

The Way of HIghest Clarity by James Miller

James Miller. The Way of Highest Clarity: Nature, Vision and Revelation in Medieval China, Magdalena, NM: Three PInes Press, 2008. US$34.95. ISBN 978-1-931483-09-4

The Way of Highest Clarity was a Daoist religious movement that flourished for a thousand years in medieval China. This book explains its chief religious ideas and practices through three key texts, translated into English for the first time.

“This is the first Western book to present the theology of the Highest Clarity (Shanqing) tradition, a Daoist lineage that originated in southern China in the fourth century c.e. and became the leading Daoist tradition in Tang times. To illustrate the fundamental tenets of Highest Clarity thought and practice, the author translates two of its earliest texts as well as Zhu Ziying’s (976-­1029) preface to its fundamental Perfect Scripture of the Great Grotto. Both the translations and the eminently concise presentation of Shangqing worldview are not only essential for the Daoist specialist but also a ‘must read’ for scholars and students of comparative religion.”

—Stephan-Peter Bumbacher, Universität Tübingen

The Esoteric Biography of Perfected Purple Yang documents the life of a Daoist saint who travels through China encountering a wealth of immortals and gods who aid him in his quest for transcendence. They transmit esoteric scriptures to him, including the Central Scripture of the Nine Perfected, also translated here. This text explains a meditation technique that involves visualizing gods descending into the organs of the body at certain times of the year. The book also translates the preface to the Perfect Scripture of the Great Grotto, a theological reflection on the practices of Highest Clarity, which connects the tradition back to the fundamental principles of the Dao.

Together with the introductory essays on the concepts of nature, vision and revelation, the book provides an overview of a unique and fascinating religious imagination, which will be of interest to anyone who seeks a deeper understanding of China’s cultural heritage.:

Table of Contents

1. The Way of Highest Clarity
2. Nature
3. Vision
4. Revelation
5.The Esoteric Biography of Perfected Purple Yang
6. The Central Scripture of the Nine Perfected
7. Preface to the Perfect Scripture of the Great Grotto

Chinese Religions in Contemporary Societies

Chinese Religions in Contemporary Societies edited by James Miller

Chinese Religions in Contemporary Societies edited by James Miller

James Miller, ed. Chinese Religions in Contemporary Societies, Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO Press, 2006Print US$85.00 1851096264; eBook US$90.00 1851096310

Chinese Religions in Contemporary Societies is a comprehensive introduction to the resurgence of religion in China and Taiwan since the end of the Cultural Revolution and a wide-ranging examination of the impact of religious traditions on Euro-Americans and Chinese immigrants in present-day North America.

“Chinese Religions In Contemporary Societies by James Miller … has brought together in a single work an in-depth survey of the forces that have shaped Chinese religious practices, along with the prevalence, adaptations, and transformations of these practices in North American communities from Confucianism to Falun Gong. Also covered are such practices as self-mortification, exorcism, spirit-writing, healing, counseling, changing fate, and self-cultivation. A core addition to academic library History of Religion reference collections, Chinese Religions In Contemporary Societies also traces the adoption of Chinese religious practices by Euro-Americans and is an invaluable resource for students of Chinese history and comparative religions, as well as non-specialist general readers with an interest in contemporary Chinese culture and social issues.”–Midwest Book Review

Table of Contents

James MILLER Introduction
James MILLER 1. The historical legacy of Chinas religious traditions
James MILLER 2. The opium of the people: religion, science and modernity
TAM Wai Lun 3. Local religion in contemporary China
Ven. Jing Yin 4. Buddhism and economic reform in mainland China
KIM Sung-Hae 5. Daoist monasticism in contemporary China
Alison MARSHALL 6. Shamanism on contemporary Taiwan
David PALMER 7. Body cultivation in contemporary China
Francis YIP 8. Protestant Christianity in contemporary China
Terry WOO 9. Women in contemporary Chinese religions
Jonathan LEE 10. Contemporary Chinese-American religious life
Elijah SIEGLER 11. Chinese traditions in Euro-American society
HE Xiang and James MILLER 12. Confucian spirituality in an ecological age
About the authors



Daoism: A Beginner’s Guide

Daoism: A Beginner's Guide by James Miller

Daoism: A Beginner’s Guide by James Miller

Daoism: A Beginner’s Guide (Oxford: Oneworld Publications 2008). 192pp. ISBN-13: 978-1851685660. US$14.95

This is a republication of my earlier book, Daoism A Short Introduction(Oxford: Oneworld Publications 2003). Pp. xviii+174. ISBN 1-85168-315-1, US$17.95

Italian translation by M. Ghilardi. Daoismo: una introduzione. (Roma: Fazi editore 2005). xiv+234. ISBN 8-88112-604-4. €13

Farsi translation مقدمه ای کوتاه بر آیین دائو  (Adyan Publications, 2016).

From the Preface

Daoism is an organised religious tradition that has been continuously developing and transforming itself through China Korea and Japan for over two thousand years. Now it has spread around the globe from Sidney to Toronto and includes among its followers people from a whole range of ethnicities and cultural backgrounds. Day by day, Daoism is truly becoming a world religion, but as it does so, it seems to resist being pinned down in neat categories. Not many people know what Daoism is, and when people do have an understanding of it, often it is quite different from someone else’s. One reason for this is that the history of Daoism is a marvellous history of continuous change rather than a linear progress or development. Daoism has no single founder, such as Jesus or the Buddha, nor does it have a single key message, such as the gospel or the four noble truths. Rather Daoism bears witness to a history of continuous self-invention within a vast diversity of environmental contexts.

In fact the human experience of change or transformation in our bodies and in the world around us lies at the heart of the Daoist experience in much the same way that faith in an eternal, unchanging deity lies at the heart of the Jewish-Christian-Islamic religious system. Whereas Western religionists seek to place their trust in an unchanging and invisible stability that somehow transcends the fleeting experience of time, Daoists recognize and celebrate the profound and mysterious creativity within the very fabric of time and space itself.

The most influential Daoist text, Daode jing (Scripture of the Way and its Power, c. 4th century B.C.E.) names this mysterious creativity “Dao”, which can be translated quite straightforwardly as “way” or “path.” The first line of the standard version of the text enigmatically warns, however, that “Dao can be spoken of, [but it is] not the constant Dao.” No wonder, then, that Daoism has taken a vast array of forms within the East Asian cultural context. This book is a short introduction to Daoism that takes seriously the task of naming the Dao, all the while acknowledging the constant change that continues to take place within Daoism. The way I have chosen to do this is to settle on eight keywords or fundamental themes that I believe lie at the heart of Daoism in its various cultural and historical forms. In each chapter I focus on one of these themes using it as a lens or a spotlight to illuminate a key aspect of the Daoist tradition.

daoismo una introduzioneTable of Contents

  • Historical Introduction
    Proto Daoism
    Classical Daoism
    Contemporary Daoism
  1. Identity
    Daoism as Chinese religion
    Daoism as lineages of transmission
    Daoism as universal path
  2. Way
  3. Body
    Qi: The breath of life
    Correlation, synchronicity and resonance
    Longevity practices
    Transcendent bodies
  4. Power
    Daoism millenarianism
    Daoist messianism
    Daoism in contemporary China
    Negotiating with destiny
  5. Light
    The development of Shangqing Daoism
    Light practices
    Contemporary visualization practices
  6. Alchemy
    Alchemy and the quest for immortality
    Laboratory alchemy
    Internal alchemy
    The Way of Complete Perfection
  7. Text
    The religious origins and functions of Daoist texts
    Transformations of meaning in Daoist texts
  8. Nature
    Natural space as sacred space
    Marvellous nature
    Caverns and texts
    A Daoist aesthetic of spontaneity
  • Glossary of Chinese Terms
  • Bibliography
  • Index

Daoism: A Short IntroductionReviews of Daoism: A Short Introduction

“The author is consistently thoughtful about how to reach undergraduates: “To understand what Daoism means, then, it is instructive to pay attention to our own cultural milieu, the values and concepts that we take for granted in our day-to-day lives. But on the other hand we must also look for the ways in which the various Daoist traditions operate quite differently than the cultures we are familiar with” (x-xi). This approach is likely to encourage vigorous class discussion.

The book is not at all professorial in tone, and is knowledgeable about Daoism today in the Occident (with interest- ing examples from Canada). Its organization is thematic, and, I believe, serviceable. Its chapters on identity, Way, body, power (political connections of Daoist movements), light (its centrality in meditative Daoism), alchemy, text (scriptures and revelations), and nature (the role of the envi- ronment) are an excellent choice, likely to engage the inter- ests of most readers. One may read them in any order. I found the book intriguing and open-minded, generous with fresh insights.” Nathan Sivin, University of Pennsylvania, Religious Studies Review 2010, vol. 36 (1) pp. 31-50.

“As the preface explains, the book is intended largely for college students, and Miller’s presentation is clearly shaped by the author’s classroom experience regarding questions and concerns raised by students encountering Daoism for the first time. For example, Miller observes that “Daoists construct their ways of being religious in quite different ways than we might expect” (x). The work is filled with useful heuristic generalizations regarding such differences, such as the following: “the human experience of change or transformation in our bodies and in the world around us lies at the heart of the Daoist experience in much the same way that faith in an eternal, unchanging deity lies at the heart of the Jewish-Christian-Islamic religious system” (ix). Teachers and students of comparative religion will thus find here an excellent starting point for looking at Daoism as today’s scholars now understand it. … [A]s a comprehensive “short introduction,” this nuanced and well-informed book succeeds extremely well.” Russell Kirkland, University of Georgia, in Daoist Studies(Internet: December 2, 2004).

“His stated goal is not only to introduce Daoism generally, but “specifically to introduce what it means to someone, like myself, who lives in the twenty-first century Western cultural context” (p. x). Indeed, one of the strengths of this work is its discussion of the interplay between the history of Daoism and contemporary Western attempts to make use of Daoist ideas and practices. … The structure of the book makes it relatively easy to use as a classroom text. It does not have to be read in a linear fashion, and so it will work well as a supplement to primary texts and lectures regardless of the order in which various themes are discussed. It will also be a good tool for leading students away from popular one-dimensional views of Daoism.” Erin Cline, Baylor University, in Journal of Chinese Philosophy 31.4 (December 2004): 547-9.

“This book has a host of strengths, not the least being its combination of brevity and thoroughness. Writing such a book is not easy and Miller has done us all a great favor. Although he eschews an historical approach to his subject, Miller’s “Historical Introduction” (just over fourteen pages) is excellent by itself and I can easily see instructors using it when covering Daoism in “world religions” surveys…. Overall Miller’s Daoism: A Short Introduction is excellent and I am eager to try it out. Reading it has also stimulated new ideas for my own scholarly explorations – something I did not expect from an introductory text.” John M. Thompson, Christopher Newport University, inTeaching Theology and Religion 8.2: 123-4.

Daoism: A Beginner’s Guide (Oxford: Oneworld Publications 2008). 192pp. ISBN-13: 978-1851685660. US$14.95