China: Landscapes, Cultures, Ecologies, Religions

Routledge Handbook of Religion and Ecology

Routledge Handbook of Religion and Ecology 

James Miller

Prepublication draft from Routledge Handbook of Religion and Ecology edited by Willis Jenkins, Mary Evelyn Tucker and John Grim, New York: Routledge 2016, 181-189

As the third largest country in the world, China has a vast geographic diversity: arid deserts and snow-capped mountains of Xinjiang in the far West; the unique landscape of the Qinghai–Tibetan plateau, source of the Mekong, Yangzi and Yellow rivers; the rich alluvial plains of Sichuan that provide much of China’s food; the northern grasslands of Inner Mongolia; the stunning, golden hues of the Loess plateau, source of much of China’s coal and minerals; the central province of Henan, which harbors a vast treasure trove of China’s ancient civilization, and is now home to over 96 million people; the densely populated coastal regions of Zhejiang, Fujian and Guangdong, now the base of much of China’s manufacturing wealth; and the southwestern province of Yunnan, bordering Laos, Vietnam, Thailand and Myanmar, home to much of China’s biodiversity and as well as 26 of China’s 55 recognized ethnic minorities.

In addition to its geographic size, China is also the world’s largest country by population, currently standing at 1.37 billion, approximately 19% of the world’s total. Of these, approximately 91% belong to the dominant Han ethnic group, with the remaining 9% divided among China’s official minority nationalities. China’s religious diversity matches its physical and ethnic diversity: China currently recognizes five official religions: Daoism, Buddhism, Islam, Catholicism and Protestantism. This administrative classification depends chiefly on an understanding of religion imported from the West via Japan in the late-nineteenth century. In this view, religions are distinguished in terms of people’s affiliation to institutional organizations, a model of religion derived from the European experience of ecclesial belonging. While it is common for Christians to distinguish themselves in terms of the church they “belong to,” this model of religious adherence is far from the norm in China’s religious history. Religious life in China has often centered on local temples owned collectively by village communities, or on Buddhist or Daoist pilgrimage sites operated by monastic lineages. Attempts to organize these activities into formal religions have usually been sponsored by the state in an attempt to organize, classify and monitor religious activities. After the Communist revolution in 1949, for instance, the multiplicity of Daoist lineages, city temples and mountain retreats were brought under the administrative oversight of a single, overarching body, the Daoist Association of China. Similarly, all Protestant denominations were forcibly “ecumenized” into a single “patriotic” association. These social-organizational dynamics were not motivated by internal religious demands to unify, but were the result of political demands of the modern nation state.

Such demands did not originate with the Communist party, but had begun earlier in the Republican period (1912–1949), during which leaders sought to unify China as a single, modern, nation state in part by replacing the diverse, diffuse and local local networks of social power with national, patriotic associations (Duara 1991). In this way, local religions that had formed around ancestral veneration, local gods and goddesses were deprecated as “cultural relics,” or reclassified and absorbed into the formal, state organizations of Buddhism and Daoism. At the same time practices associated with China’s Confucian heritage were not included as part of this classification scheme. Consequently “Confucianism” and the widespread practices of ancestral veneration, including annual tomb-sweeping are not commonly understood as belonging to a “religion.” Indeed Confucianism is not officially part of China’s “religious” landscape despite the fact that, from an anthropological point of view, many aspects of Confucianism can be understood as religious.

Rather than understanding religion administratively, this chapter presents an overview of China’s religious scene from the perspective of its diversity of the geographic spaces in which it takes place, with an understanding that the result is meant to be illustrative, rather than comprehensive. Five key spaces function as this chapter’s organizing themes: the Middle Kingdom; rivers; coasts; mountains; and margins.

The Middle Kingdom 

The Chinese word for China, Zhongguo 中國, is commonly translated as the “middle kingdom,” though in all likelihood this term was originally understood in the plural, referring to the kingdoms that occupied central China in the period of disunity known as the Warring States (475–221 BCE). The term has come to represent a key feature of imperial China’s social imagination of itself as occupying the central space within a cosmic frame, bounded on each side by “barbarian” nations, a square earth sitting under a rotating circular canopy of stars, spread out like an umbrella held up by a central axis mundi. The imaginative scheme of centre versus periphery functions as a key organizing principle not only of early Chinese geography, but also in terms of religion and culture. From within this scheme, the world’s peoples are divided into two basic categories: “Zhongguoren 中國人,” or people from the central kingdom(s); and “waiguoren 外國人,” people from the outer kingdoms. The earth is imaged as a three by three square, with China occupying the central location. This imagery is repeated throughout Chinese art, architecture and city planning, with the three by three or nine by nine squares symbolizing the full extent of the cosmos and China’s central place within it. The capital cities of Beijing, Xi’an and Nanjing, for instance, were laid out as square, walled cities. In Beijing, the imperial palace complex sits at the centre, and at the centre of this lies the “purple forbidden city” (zijincheng 紫禁城), and at the centre of this the Hall of Supreme Harmony with the imperial throne.

In this scheme, the king or emperor occupied the key location at the apex of the society of people from the middle kingdom, and therefore possessed the sacred duty of uniting heaven, earth and and all humanity. The Chinese character for king 王 is three horizontal lines one above the other, bisected vertically by a single line. According to traditional interpretation, the three horizontal lines represent the earth at the bottom, the heavens at the top and humanity in the middle. These three realms are united in the person of the king, the single vertical line that touches all three. In this way the king, or emperor, functioned so as to produce the “unity of heaven and earth” (tianren heyi 天人合一), the state of optimal flourishing among the three realms of the cosmos, thus bringing about wealth and prosperity for all.

This geographic schema was thus also the foundation for the state religion, which refers to the official religious life of the emperor conducted on behalf of the people. Tourists today can see the vestiges of this in Beijing’s most recognizable landmark, the Temple of Heaven, where the emperor traditionally conducted animal sacrifices on behalf of the state. The architecture of the site symbolizes the traditional conception of the universe, with the circular temple, signifying heaven, located on a square platform, signifying earth. Only the emperor was able to undertake such sacrifices on behalf of the people, and this ritual performance was the chief way in which the sacred geography of heaven, earth and humanity underwrote the divine authority of the emperor himself.

The cosmic pattern of heaven, earth and emperor concretely symbolized in the imperial architecture of the capital city was also reproduced in the social imagination of the nation’s geography itself. Five sacred mountains, also known as marchmounts, were designated as marking the boundary points of China’s north, south, east, west and center. These mountains were the location of further imperially sponsored rites to promote the harmony of heaven, earth and humanity. In this way the state religion functioned as a kind of religious ecological mechanism, focussed on the body of the emperor himself. This system was fully set out in a grand, unified cosmology synthesized by Dong Zhongshu (179–104 BCE), which became the basis of state Confucianism.

In this view, the emperor functioned as the sacred linchpin of the social, agricultural and cosmic order, ensuring that all three realms work together. Such a system also imposed an obligation upon the emperor’s person to constantly bring the three realms into harmony. Since the natural world was in constant transformation according to the seasons, the emperor also made corresponding changes to his life, wearing certain colors, and undertaking certain seasonal activities (see Miller 2012).

In this way the sacred geography of central capital and compass-point marchmounts was also paralleled by a sacred seasonality, east corresponding to spring, west corresponding to fall, and so on. Space and time were co-ordinated together in a single overarching cosmology focused on the body of the emperor himself. The geography of the traditional Chinese empire cannot therefore be fully understood without reference to the inner landscape of the body in which the solid yang structures of bones, sinews, flesh and organs correspond to mountains; and the fluid yin dynamics of qi (subtle breath or vital force) corresponded correspond to the flow of water through China’s landscape.


China’s five sacred mountains are usually known in English as the five marchmounts, or mountains in the “marches” or border regions of China. They occupy key positions in the sacred cosmography that underpinned the imperial order. Corresponding to the four directions, plus the centre, the marchmounts symbolized and marked out the cosmic limits of the empire. They also functioned as tutelary deities who protected the Middle Kingdom from external threats (Verellen 1995). They originated in an earlier set of four marchmounts associated in the Zuozhuan with “barbarian” tribes, and more specifically their leaders who acted as a buffer between the Chinese ruling house and foreign powers (Kleeman 1994: 227). By the Han dynasty, this scheme of four mountains was absorbed into the cosmological system of five phases, colours, direction, etc., with the addition of a fifth, central mountain, Mt Song in Henan. The four mountains that previously marked the borders of the empire by now lay well within Han territory and, during the reign of Emperor Wu of the Han, came under the direct patronage of the Emperor (Kleeman 1994). In so doing the mountains were fully integrated into the Han cosmology with the body of the emperor as the supreme node joining heaven, earth and human beings in a single, coherent, system. The Han empire, constructed on the subjugation and pacification of marginal peoples thus fully incorporated these border lands into Middle Kingdom by incorporating the sacred marchmounts into the sacred space governed by the emperor himself.

The emperor’s duty was to offer blood sacrifices at the mountains in order to propitiate the tutelary deities, ensuring success and prosperity for the dynasty. The trouble and expense of such rites meant that the most elaborate and sumptuous, the Feng and Shan sacrifices, were performed only five times in the Han Dynasty (Bokenkamp 1998: 384). These rituals were performed  at the foot of Mt Tai, the sacred mountain of the East, in present-day Shandong province. Due to this imperial patronage, the Eastern marchmount achieved pre-eminence among the five marchmounts, and to this day temples in its honour exist across China.

The religious traditions of Daoism and Buddhism also vied with state Confucianism for a claim over these spaces in an attempt to strengthen their relative position within the empire. Sometimes these traditions occupied the same space at the same time; at other times as the fortunes of religions rose and fell. The mountain spaces inscribed by one religious tradition would be overlaid by a new one in a complex rewriting of ritual space. For example, in his study of the Southern marchmount (Nanyue 南越), known as Mt Heng 恆山 in Hunan, James Robson (1995: 230) writes that “the sacredness of Nanyue was continually produced and reproduced throughout history by different religious traditions whose discourses and attempts to define the sacredness of the mountain were at times in direct competition.” The Daoist intellectual Sima Chengzhen, for instance, persuaded the Tang emperor Xuanzong to recognize the five marchmounts as the “terrestrial abodes of Daoist ‘perfected ones’ (zhenren 真人).” In so doing the emperor recognized the Daoist claim to imperial sites, thereby strengthening its position vis-à-vis Buddhism. This imperial recognition led to the gradual imprint of Daoist religious activity on the five marchmounts, and vied with a competing Buddhist layer that had been established on Nanyue since the mid-sixth century CE.

Mountains were not only significant in China’s religious heritage as contested sites of Imperial, Buddhist or Daoist patronage. They were also the residences of gods, recluses and unusual fauna, and the source of rare flora sought by alchemists in their quest for transcendence or “immortality.” Campany (2001: 127) notes in his study of the alchemist Ge Hong (283–343) that such seekers valued natural materials that were “hard to obtain, and located in barely accessible places;” and secondly, materials that had an unusual appearances, being “visually and morphologically anomalous, straddling taxonomic boundaries” (128). The combination of difficulty of access and strange appearance went hand in hand with their numinous qualities. In this way it can be said that the natural world is not in some way “flat” or “democratic” (see Miller 2008: 32), but rather possesses a hierarchy of power, accessibility and strangeness. Alchemists such as Ge Hong emphasized the value of these rare and powerful materials, believing they contained the power of transcendence when ingested. Just as the mountain has a roughly pyramid shape, the natural world itself can be understood by analogy as a pyramid in which the rare and valuable substances are the hardest to reach and fewest in number.

The Daoist fascinations with mountains as repositories of rare and precious substances also gave rise to the association between mountains, recluses and the revelation of religious texts. Daoists travelled to sacred mountains in search of techniques of meditation, teachings from Daoist masters and the transmission of Daoist texts revealing secret traditions of meditation and self-transformation. The Chinese term for mountain cave or grotto (dong 洞) also became the word we roughly translate as “canon” meaning a selection of religious texts. Mountain grottoes can thus be understood as locations for the revelation of sacred mysteries, whether through the intense meditation of the recluse, the transmission of oral teachings from a Daoist transcendent, or the initiation into an esoteric text. As Verellen (1995: 271) notes, the grotto can be understood by means of a close homophone tong 通, meaning to penetrate or connect, and Daoist cosmography came to envision an interconnected network of  “grotto heavens and blessed places” (dongtian fudi 洞天福地) that were deemed particularly auspicious sites for engaging in Daoist cultivation.

In addition, the altar space erected by the Daoist priest for the performance of rituals is also envisaged as a cosmic space bounded by the five marchmounts, with the priest at the middle. The image of the mountain is replicated over and again: the cosmic space of Daoist ritual is bounded by mountains; the body of the priest is imaged as a mountain; inside his body in the grotto-chambers of his organs dwell the spirits of the cosmos (Schipper 1993: 91–93). The network of mountains within mountains and grottoes connecting to grottoes functions as the basis for an economy of cosmic power in which the vital breath or qi flourishes and circulates, pervading the myriad dimensions of the cosmos, interpenetrating organs, caves, bodies and mountains in the ceaseless exchange of energy: life begetting life, inner begetting outer, physiology and geography interwoven in a dazzling, mysterious and endless overflowing of vitality.


China’s physical landscape is defined by its hydrological cycle in which waters emerge from the Qinghai–Tibet plateau in the West, flow East through the three great rivers, Yangzi, Mekong and Yellow, and pour into the sea. This West to East flow can be understood through the Chinese term “Dao” meaning Way or Path, but also denoting a fluid vector by which the processes of life are never static but always in motion. These processes of life, or “ten thousand things” (wanwu 萬物) include all things, human, animal, vegetable and mineral. All are composed of or shaped by the flow of water, the streaming Dao that is the basic vector of the Chinese landscape (Miller 2006). As the Daodejing notes (ch. 4):

The Dao is empty [empties], yet using does not need to be refilled.

A deep spring (yuan)—it seems like the ancestor of the myriad living things. (Quoted in Allan 1997: 76)

Here Dao is envisaged as the flood of liquid vitality from which all phenomena emerge. As the first chapter of the Daodejing mentions, this Dao is not a thing with a name or form, but acts generatively to give birth to all the phenomena of the natural environment. In Wittfogel’s (1957) thesis of the “hydraulic state,” taming this flood of life was tantamount to gaining political power. Indeed, there is no doubt that one of China’s major early technological achievements was the construction of the Dujiangyan irrigation system (267–256 BCE) in present-day Sichuan province. A weir across the Min river regulates the flow during the spring floods, directing the flow into a network of irrigation channels that to this day provides water for 50 cities and irrigates 672,000 hectares of farmland (Miller 2013). Today this dam is regarded as a feat of “Daoist” engineering in which the flow of water is not blocked completely but productively distributed to promote the fertility of the landscape. As Miller (2013) notes the weir constitutes a concrete expression of the Daoist concept of wuwei 無為variously translated as “non-aggressive” or “effortless” action because “rather than damming the river completely the site employs a weir and irrigation system to channel and regulate water’s natural power.” A Daoist temple on the site to this day memorializes the architect Li Bin.

The second sense in which water functions as a category of religio-cultural life in China is in the concept of fengshui, literally “wind and water,” the cultural practice by which houses, tombs and other human structures are located to take advantage of the nature’s fluid powers, channelling good fortune, health and happiness to the earth’s human inhabitants, both living and deceased. The natural ecology of plants and trees is here directly connected to the religious ecology of spirits, ancestors and descendants. When the land flourishes, the ancestral spirits will be at peace and this economy of cosmic power will contribute to the flourishing of the family lineage and the future prosperity of the clan.

According to Coggins (2014), although the dominant method of Han Chinese expansion was the deforestation and reconfiguration of the landscape to support agriculture, fengshui forests and temple forests emerged as protected wilderness spaces valued by monastic leaders and local village communities for non-economic reasons. He writes (2014: 15): “Corporate groups in lineage villages had additional reasons to preserve certain forests and groves, reasons that transcended immediate economic concerns and reflected a profound regard for their own long-term viability.” This concern he traces to a seminal fengshui text, the Book of Burial by Guo Pu (276–324). The text notes:

The Classic says, qi rides the wind and scatters, but is retained when encountering water. The ancients collected it to prevent its dissipation, and guided it to assure its retention. Thus it was called feng shui (wind/water). According to the laws of feng shui, the site that attracts water is optimal, followed by the site that catches wind …  Terrain resembling a palatial mansion with luxuriant vegetation and towering trees will engender the founder of a state or prefecture. (Trans. Field 2001: 190)

“Attracting water” and “catching wind” may be understood as taking advantage of the natural fluid dynamics of physical and subtle energies, or qi, which animate the landscape and the body. The construction of water channels and preservation of “fengshui forests” may thus be understood as part of the Chinese attempt to take advantage of, without using up, the physical and subtle qi of the natural landscape. This would produce not only natural, biological fertility, but also socio-cultural fertility in the continuity of lineage from deceased ancestors to the as-yet unborn descendants. This “continuity of qi” functioned not only ecologically to bring the human world into dynamic correlation with the natural ecosystems and hydrological cycles, but also historically in the production of genealogical narratives by which Chinese communities are traditionally organized.


Traditional scholarship on Chinese religions divides gods into local and national categories. Local gods have their specific tutelary domains and are worshipped only by people living in those particular geographic areas. National gods, such as Guan Di, the Jade Emperor, or the God of Wealth, can be found throughout the country. Local gods, conversely, are worshipped only in specific regions. Prominent among these regional deities is Mazu 媽祖 (Matsu) a goddess associated with the South China sea whose temples are found throughout the coastal provinces of Fujian and Guangdong, and also Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan. According to tradition, Mazu was a girl who lived in the late-tenth century who was renowned for her assistance to seafarers. She was posthumously deified and attracted a wide cult throughout the southern China coastal area in the Ming dynasty. Over the past few centuries she has become one of the most popular local deities in China.

Devotion to Mazu is widespread throughout South East China’s coastal areas because of her association with seafarers and fishermen. She can be thought of in bioregional terms, corresponding to the Southern China Marine Ecoregion as identified by the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), that is, the sea area between Taiwan, mainland China, Hong Kong and Macau. Her worship emerges from the engagement of peoples with fish, coastlines, tides and the sea. Out of this complex of social, economic and ecological interaction developed a powerful bioregional religious tradition. Typically, Mazu temples are located in strategic coastal sites, and her statues watch over the marine activities of local seafarers. Indeed, residents of Macau attributed the fact that they escaped the 2003 Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrom (SARS )crisis that gripped Hong Kong to the prophylactic powers of the enormous Mazu statue that they had recently erected. Now Mazu is beginning to take on new political responsibilities as a symbol of harmonious relations between Taiwan and the mainland. A huge emerald statue of Mazu, valued at US$28.25 million, arrived in Taiwan from the mainland in December 2011. Both religious and political dignitaries attended the reception ceremony for the Mazu statue (Taipei Times 2011). Mazu’s bioregionalism thus opens her up to the possibility of being exploited for political ambitions, as a symbol of the unity of people on both sides of the Taiwan straits. Mazu’s significance thus demands analysis from a complex of religious, ecological and political perspectives.


The Chinese religious imaginations of nature in mountains, rivers and coasts may alternatively be understood in terms of center and periphery, or valleys and hills (see Weller 2014). This figure of center and edge is replicated throughout the multiple imaginations of nature in Chinese tradition, from food practices, garden design, to urban planning and even China’s Great Wall. Of particular interest in the contemporary period is the multiple imaginations of nature that take place at the borders of China’s land mass, home to extraordinary cultural and ecological diversity.

In the southern province of Yunnan, for instance, the concept of “holy hills” among the Dai ethnic minority has preserved fragments of old-growth rainforests from massive deforestation and replacement with rubber plantations (see Zeng 2012). At the same time, the traditional complex of religion and ecology among the Blang people is being rewritten as the people transform their indigenous agricultural practices through the development of a cash economy based on growing highly lucrative Pu-er tea (see Miller and An 2013).

More significant from the point of view of securing China’s continued access to water is the fate of China’s nomadic Tibetan people in the area of the Qinghai–Tibetan plateau, the source for China’s three major rivers systems. Since 2005 these herders have been subject to forcible resettlement, known euphemistically as “ecological migration” (Qi 2014). The reason for this resettlement was to create a national nature preserve in this area so as to help preserve water supply downstream. Alarm bells rang in spring 1996 when for the first time in thirty years the water supply in the upper reaches of the Yellow River was cut off. In 1997 the interruption lasted 226 days and no water flowed along 706 km of the river (Qi 2014, 182). As a result of the drastic measures undertaken by the central government, the culture and religion of these nomadic peoples has been changed forever, attracting widespread criticism in the Western media (Jacobs 2015). Ecologists are uncertain as to whether the resettlement will have any positive effect upon preserving the water supply. Nonetheless it is clear that at the margins of China’s fragile environment the stakes are enormous. Without Tibet’s pristine waters, the lives of millions of ordinary Chinese people may be at severe risk. As a result of China’s massive modernization and development, the traditional complex of ecology, culture and religion that has persisted for centuries at China’s margins will likely soon disappear.


China’s central government recently announced plans to create a new megaregion “Jing-Ji-Jin” by comprising the previous cities of Beijing and Tianjin and the less-developed regions of Hebei province in between. The new region will be approximately the size of Kansas and will have a population of over 100 million people (Johnson 2015). Similar long-term plans are under way for the Pearl River Delta region, combining the cities of Hong Kong, Macau, Shenzhen, Guangzhou and Dongguan. As China builds hyper-dense megacities in order to house, feed and provide employment for its massive urbanizing population, it is clear that the traditional networks of religion, landscape, ecology and environment will undergo unprecedented transformation. As President Xi Jinping builds China’s connections westwards in a new Silk Road stretching towards central and southern Asia, this transformation will encompass China’s traditionally poorer, more marginal and ethnically diverse regions and religions just as much as its rich eastern coastal provinces.


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Is Green the New Red? The Role of Religion in Creating a Sustainable China

jnl_cover_ncJames Miller. 2013. “Is Green the New Red? The Role of Religion in Creating a Sustainable China.” Nature and Culture 8.3: 249-264.


The Chinese Daoist Association has embarked upon an ambitious agenda to promote Daoism as China’s “green religion”. This new construction of a “green Daoism” differs, however, from both traditional Chinese and modern Western interpretations of the affinity between Daoism and nature. In promoting Daoism as a green religion, the Chinese Daoist Association is not aiming to restore some mythical utopia of humans living in harmony with nature, but instead to support a nationalist agenda of patriotism and scientific development. At the same time, as I shall argue, this agenda may deliver positive benefits in the form of protecting the local environments around important sacred sites that are located in areas of outstanding natural beauty.


China, culture, Daoism, environment, religion, sustainability


That religion might play a role in creating a sustainable future for the world’s largest emitter of greenhouse gases might seem at best to be hopelessly idealistic, and at worst a category mistake. Though the ideological frameworks espoused by China’s modernizers over the past century have undergone remarkable reforms and revolutions, they have remained consistent in relegating religion to the arena of reactionary forces that hinder China’s quest for political and economic autonomy. Religion, like global warming, the energy crisis, or social unrest, is just one more problem that China’s leaders have to grapple with in steering the Chinese economy toward a peaceful and sustain- able future. Despite the recent resurgence of interest in traditional Chinese culture, religion has not been emphasized. In elevating Con- fucius to the status of national hero, for example, China’s rulers are hoping that the spiritual crisis afflicting China’s people, endlessly tossed about in a swirling sea of social transformation, will be resolved by the nontheistic, nonreligious, and ultimately nonthreatening values of filial piety, social responsibility, and educational self-improvement. The government’s uncharitable and ideologically charged view of religion is, unsurprisingly, not shared by China’s religious organizations. The Chinese Daoist Association, in particular, is working to construct an image of Daoism as China’s green religion and to position Daoism as a source of ecological wisdom that can make a positive contribution in China’s transition to an ecologically sustainable economy. In doing so they are drawing on a wealth of philosophical insight, moral values, and historical practice that are particularly relevant to the way the contemporary ecological crisis is culturally construed and represented in China. These values are oriented toward a nationalist agenda aimed at preserving elements of Chinese heritage and contributing to the future success of the Chinese nation.

Cultural Frames for the Ecological Crisis

Before examining the current activities of the Chinese Daoist Association with respect to nature and the environment, it is helpful to consider the cultural frames that shape the way that Daoism and nature are seen to be related, both in China and the West. This is because the ecological crisis is not simply amenable to scientific analysis and technological remediation, but has also been consistently construed by Western social science and humanities theorists such as Plum- wood (2002) as a philosophical, cultural, and even spiritual crisis: it is a crisis in the way that human beings envision themselves in rela- tion to their natural environments; and it is a crisis that has a specific cultural genealogy and normative taxonomy. In terms of genealogy, the ecological crisis has been associated most clearly with the values of instrumental rationality that arose in the European Enlightenment era. The worldview that regards nature as having only an instrumental value in relation to human goals—and not having any intrinsic value in and of itself—is, according to this analysis, a uniquely modern, Western view. Viewed from this perspective, the ecological crisis has become identified on the cultural level not as a universal problem confronting human beings everywhere and always, but as a problem identified in particular with Western intellectual history, colonial ag- gression, and industrial development.

Given this dominant cultural framing of the ecological crisis, it is hardly surprising that modern Western devotees of “environmentalism” should look beyond the West for sources of wisdom and value in addition to critically engaging their own traditions. In fact, the cultural genealogy of the ecological crisis lends itself to a normative taxonomy of ecological wisdom that privileges modernity’s others. It is commonly assumed by my students, for instance, that Lynn T. White Jr.’s famous essay (1967) is an indictment of Christianity as a whole: they tend to overlook White’s positive framing of Franciscan Christianity because it does not fit into their normative expectations regard- ing the Western tradition. Conversely, they are often positively pre- disposed toward Asian values to be found in Buddhism or Daoism for the simple reason that they view these traditions as “others”, opposed to the dominant discourse of modernity.

The identification of the ecological crisis with Western philoso- phy and history entails a corresponding cultural taxonomy of non- Western marginalized “others”, such as women, indigenous societies, and colonized peoples. In the normative taxonomy of the ecological crisis adopted by environmentally concerned cultural commentators in the West, these “others” become identified as possessing an eco- logical wisdom and living “closer to nature”, often without any con- crete evidence one way or the other. (As regards women’s supposed affinity to nature, see Ortner [1974].) Indeed, there exists a distinct body of research that questions the extent to which indigenous soci- eties have exhibited cultures that can be construed as “environmen- tally friendly” by today’s standards (e.g., Pine 1982). This in itself is evidence of the power of the cultural framing of non-Western others in relation to the natural world. As regards Daoism, for instance, Goldin (2005) takes pains to explain “Why Daoism Is Not Environ- mentalism.” Although this mistitled article focuses narrowly on the philosopher Zhuangzi, who cannot properly be said to represent Daoism as a whole, its significance, like others of its type referring to non-Western traditions, is that it reveals the normative cultural frame by which such traditions have come uncritically to be associated with ecology and environment.

This reverse-Orientalist prejudice is one reason for the role Dao- ism could play in China’s quest for a sustainable future. Take, for in- stance, the way Daoism has been framed by Doris LaChapelle:

Now after all these years of gradual, deepening understanding of the [D]aoist way, I can state categorically that all these frantic last-minute efforts of our Western world to latch on to some “new idea” for saving the earth are un- necessary. It’s been done for us already—thousands of years ago—by the [D]aoists. We can drop all that frantic effort and begin following the way of Lao Tzu [Laozi] and Chuang Tzu [Zhuangzi]. (1988: 349, quoted in Paper 2001: 10)

As Paper (2001) notes, this is a hopelessly simplistic view of Daoism, conflating over two thousand years of tradition with just two Daoist texts. But on the other hand, it would be wrong to dismiss the cultural power that LaChapelle’s view may have in the West, or even, for that matter, in China. Indeed, the views of academic scholars such as Pa- per may pale in significance when faced with a dominant cultural paradigm, ill-informed and uncritical though it may be. If Daoism and ecology are identified in the public imagination simply because they are viewed as opposed to the dominant discourse of Western moder- nity, the disapproval of historically sophisticated scholars such as Pa- per may be relatively unimportant. Note here that I am not arguing in favor of a kind of expedient ignorance with respect to China’s tradi- tions. I am simply noting that one reason for the possibility of Dao- ism’s role in China’s quest for sustainability may simply be the fact that it is identified, rightly or wrongly, as an Other to the cultural hegemony of instrumental rationality.

While the views of LaChapelle may seem far from the contemporary Chinese scene, contemporary Chinese intellectuals such as Tu Weiming have made a similar move in positing a sharp distinction between the Enlightenment mentality and “traditional Chinese philosophy”:

The modern West’s dichotomous world view (spirit/matter, mind/body, phys- ical/mental, sacred/profane, creator/creature, God/man, subject/object) is diametrically opposed to the Chinese holistic mode of thinking … Informed by Bacon’s knowledge as power and Darwin’s survival through competitive- ness, the Enlightenment mentality is so radically different from any style of thought familiar to the Chinese mind that it challenges all dimensions of the Sinic world. (2000: 201)

In this argument, Tu is explaining why Chinese modernizers paradoxically embraced Western values in their quest for national autonomy: it was, he argues, a strategic necessity. As such, the rejection of Chinese tradition is not, as it were, an ontological necessity for modern China, but simply an expedient necessity that may be reversed. As China experiences the downside of Western-style industrial modernization, it is no surprise that it should once again return to its traditions, in a kind of “back to the future” moment: since modernization and Westernization were conflated in the politically expedient cultural sleight of hand of China’s modernizers, logic would dictate that a questioning of those values should create cultural space for the reassessment and reemergence of China’s traditions.

This is not to say, however, that the resurgence of tradition in con- temporary China does not have its critics. He Zuoxiu, a noted theoretical physicist closely allied to the Communist Party, sparked a debate about the unscientific nature of Chinese medicine, and in 2005 engaged in a debate with environmentalists over whether or not the concept of “revering nature” (jingwei ziran, 敬畏自然) was anti- scientific. He wrote:

I want to challenge the contention that people ought to respect and hold na- ture 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 re- duce losses incurred in natural disasters. Reverence and awe make no sense. (2005: 20).

As this excerpt notes, science is associated with humanistic progress; conversely, being “antiscience” is regarded as a kind of reactionary nonsense. This is, in fact, an argument that goes back to the early days of China’s modernization. In 1915, Chen Duxiu, one of the founders of the Chinese Communist Party, published a famous essay in his jour- nal New Youth (Xin qingnian, 新青年) in which he called for a new kind of leader to help modernize China: someone who was inde- pendent, not servile; progressive, not conservative; aggressive, not re- tiring; and cosmopolitan, not isolationist (see Lawrance 2004: 2–3; Miller 2006: 31). This value system was used in particular to attack China’s traditional monastic forms of religion. Chen writes that “it is our natural obligation in life to advance in spite of numerous difficul- ties” (quoted in Lawrance 2004: 3). This meant that now was not the time to live in hermitages on remote mountainsides. In the worldview of China’s modernizers, informed by Marx’s theory of religion as a narcotic, to treat nature with reverent awe, or to introduce “spiritual- ity” into environmental issues, could only be a step backward. From such a theoretical perspective, religion cannot possibly do anything constructive in terms of dealing with environmental issues.

In responding to He Zuoxiu’s charge, however, Liang Congjie, the head of Friends of Nature, China’s leading environmental nongovern- mental organization, criticized He’s humanistic, anthropocentric val- ues. Of particular interest here is the fact that Liang saw no reason to shy away from associating reverence for nature with China’s tradi- tional values. “Numerous Chinese classical works,” he writes, “have shown that we have always placed great value on nature, far more than just being a tool” (2005: 14). This theme was also invoked by Vice Minister Pan Yue of the State Environmental Protection Agency as early as 2003. In an essay on “Environmental Culture and National Revival,” he wrote that “China’s environmental culture is an inheritance from and further development of traditional Chinese culture,” and went on to cite numerous examples of environmental values in Confucianism, Daoism, and Buddhism (2007: 6–7).

It would be a mistake, however, to interpret the association of tra- ditional Chinese culture and environmentalism as a romantic return to some premodern idyll. Notwithstanding the fact that there is no clear historical evidence that traditional China was any more environ- mentally “reverent” than premodern Europe (see von Glahn 1987; Elvin 2004), the invocation of traditional Chinese values should rather be seen as a patriotic argument consistent with the development of Chinese national identity. As Pan Yue makes clear at the start of his essay:

The rejuvenation of the Chinese nation is a century-old dream—the un- remitting pursuit of Chinese people living all over the world. A key founda- tion of national revival is cultural revival. The rise in the culture of environ- mentalism in the world creates a great opportunity for the revival of Chinese culture. The development of a socialist environmental culture with Chinese characteristics is to strive for the revival of Chinese culture and the rejuve- nation of the Chinese nation. (2007: 1)

The association of environmental values with traditional Chinese cul- ture is thus presented as part and parcel of China’s quest for self- determination. To be an environmentalist is to be a patriotic Chinese citizen and an advocate of Chinese values.

In the present ideological climate, therefore, while there is space in the cultural imagination within China and beyond for religion to play a constructive role in how humans come to envision themselves in relation to the wider environment, this space is ideologically charged—and by no means uncontested—in China in ways that are different from the West. In particular it seems that foreign religions, notably Christianity, will have little role to play; and there will be more space for Daoism to assert itself as a “green religion” not sim- ply because of the normative taxonomy of “environmentalism” in a Western sense, but because Daoism is the indigenous religion of China. Rarely does Daoism appear in the Chinese press without the epithet Zhongguo (Chinese) attached to it. In the pluralist context of modern China, Daoism’s unique identifier is that it is the only truly “Chinese” religion.

Daoism and Ecology

Until recently, the main way of assessing the possible contribution of Daoism to the fostering of an ecological consciousness in China was either historical or theoretical. Indeed, the volume of essays produced in the Harvard University series (Girardot et al. 2001), which I co- edited, aimed to provide evidence that the affinity between Daoism and ecology was more than a romantic wish of contemporary envi- ronmentalists for an exotic non-Western Other. Rather, environmen- tal values were actually grounded in the worldview of Daoist religion and concretely manifested in Daoist history.

This worldview is founded on the understanding of the “Way”, or Dao, a spontaneously emerging principle of cosmic creativity. This principle is manifested in the transformative powers of the natural world, leading to a core value of naturalness (ziran), and an ethic of nonassertive action (wuwei). Liu Xiaogan explains the philosophical foundations of this ethic as follows:

Dao represents forever the unknown final reason of the world surrounding us, reminding human beings of their limitations. As average members of the ten thousand things in the universe, humans have no power to do what they wish without facing unexpected consequences. Therefore, prudent behavior and action, namely, wuwei, are important and beneficial. (2001: 324)

The counterintuitive insight preserved in the Daoist tradition is that awareness of a fundamental mystery grounding the world should impel humans not toward technological dominance but toward creative engagement. In Liu’s terms, the ethic of nonaction means “better re-sults, not pure negating of all actions” (2001: 332).

It is also instructive to consider the application of wuwei in Daoist history. Take, for example, the early Daoist religious movement known as the Way of the Celestial Masters (Tianshi dao), founded in 142 CE, which constitutes one of the two main lineages of Daoism to- day. In its early days, this movement functioned through a text the Celestial Masters adopted and transmitted, known as the One Hundred and Eighty Precepts (Yibai bashi jie, 百八十戒). In his study of this text,

Kristofer Schipper (2001: 82–83) notes that not less than twenty [of the precepts] are directly concerned with the preservation of the nat- ural environment, and many others indirectly:

14. You should not burn [the vegetation] of uncultivated or culti- vated fields, nor of mountains and forests.

18. You should not wantonly fell trees.

19. You should not wantonly pick herbs or flowers.

36. You should not throw poisonous substances into lakes, rivers, and seas.

47. You should not wantonly dig holes in the ground and thereby destroy the earth.

53. You should not dry up wet marshes.

79. You should not fish or hunt and thereby harm and kill living beings.

95. You should not in winter dig up hibernating animals and insects.

97. You should not wantonly climb in trees to look for nests and destroy eggs.

98. You should not use cages to trap birds and [other] animals.

100. You should not throw dirty things in wells.

101. You should not seal off pools and wells.

109. You should not light fires in the plains.

116. You should not defecate or urinate on living plants or in water that people will drink.

121. You should not wantonly or lightly take baths in rivers or seas.

125. You should not fabricate poisons and keep them in vessels.

132. You should not disturb birds and [other] animals.

134. You should not wantonly make lakes.

In answer to the question of why the earliest Daoist communities were concerned with the state of the natural environment, Schipper draws the conclusion that the natural environment functioned as a kind of sanctuary, in the sense of a sacred space and in the sense of a place of refuge from the human world. There is also, he argues, a more fundamental point at stake here, which is evident in the language used: the precepts are directed at members of the community, and in fact we know that they were adopted as the code of practice for the heads of the Celestial Masters community, known as libationers (jijiu 祭酒). The precepts, thus, are to be understood not as abstract laws (“it is illegal to light fires in the plains”), but rather as admonitions di- rected at the community leaders (“you should not light fires in the plains”). The implication of the imperative “you should not” is that the libationer himself, and by extension the community as a whole, will suffer the consequences of failing to abide by the precepts.

Concern for the natural landscape in which Daoist sites were lo- cated even became a matter of national pride for sites that were the subject of imperial patronage. Mt. Wudang, for instance, attained national prominence in the Ming Dynasty when it came under the pa- tronage and protection of the imperial court. The court even issued edicts in 1417 and 1428 to prevent deforestation in the area and to protect the aesthetic balance of religious architecture and natural environment (Yang 2010). Even if the imperial court was motivated nar- rowly by the desire to preserve a site in which it had invested much religious and financial capital, it cannot be denied that the designa- tion of a particular space as sacred motivated concrete measures to protect the environment.

A second example can be seen at Mt. Qingcheng, now a UN- ESCO World Heritage Site. During a field visit in 2002, I noted that one of the several signs along the path that leads up the mountain recorded the actions of the abbot Peng Chunxian in the Republican era of the early twentieth century. Abbot Peng decreed that all who would visit him “should plant a tree along the mountain path.” This, declares the sign, demonstrates the essence of Daoism’s “return to na- ture.” Although, according to Elvin (2004: 470–471), such instances were historically the exception rather than the rule, they nonetheless provide a historical basis upon which contemporary efforts to associ- ate Daoism and ecology can be founded.

Such official efforts by the Chinese Daoist Association (CDA) go back at least to 1995, the date of their Declaration on Global Ecology. On the final page, the declaration summarizes the ecological aims of the CDA 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 pur- poses, 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)

This statement is instructive for understanding the contemporary engagement of Daoism and ecology because it locates this engagement not principally in an abstract theoretical statement about the Way of nature, but rather in terms of a practical concern for “environmental engineering,” which is to say, creating a particular type of environmental space that is conducive to Daoist practice. It is worth considering, then, that particular environments might have a topographical as well as historical significance in terms of the practice of Daoist religion.

Although the Daoist priestly tradition is one in which portable al- tars can be erected at any time and place to meet the liturgical desires of the community, the tradition has also favored specific locations and features for meditation. According to the Tang Dynasty patriarch Sima Chengzhen, Daoists should meditate in chambers where light and darkness are in balance, and should sleep in rooms with their bodies facing south and their faces turned to the east (see Kohn 1987). The attention paid to the physical space in which meditation should take place, in this case the meditation chamber, gives a clue as to one rea- son why Daoists were anxious to preserve the natural environments in which monasteries were located. Such locations might be valuable not simply for historical reasons—that they were “sanctuaries” or “sa- cred spaces” inhabited by Daoists over the centuries—but because of their particular environments and topographies. Caves, for instance, are of particular importance as meditation sites because they provide a controlled environment that enables the practitioner to focus more readily on the meditative discipline of inner observation. Indeed, one might even make the argument that the urban Daoist’s “chamber of seclusion” was in fact modeled on the cave as the ideal space for Daoist meditation. Following this line of interpretation, it can also be argued that trees on mountains are desirable not only for aesthetic reasons, but because of their filtering effects on the sunlight: ample fo- liage creates a balance of yin (shade) and yang (sunlight) in the prac- titioner’s environment and thus lends itself to successful meditation. From this perspective, Daoism can be understood as a religion that demands the preservation of very specific environmental features for the continuance of its traditions. This denotes a religious sensibility that is not always present in other religious traditions and gives a spe- cific reason for why Daoists have historically engaged in the protec- tion of their immediate environments. In this regard it may not have been concern for nature in and of itself that motivated Daoist environ- mental protection efforts, but rather a concern to preserve those fea- tures of the landscape that were relevant to their religious activities.

In 2008 the CDA outlined its ecological agenda when it published the Maoshan Declaration along with an accompanying Eight- Year Plan. Together these represent the CDA’s most recent attempt to systematize and oversee the practical engagement of Daoists with their local environments, and in so doing represents Daoist organizations and temples not simply as religious institutions but also as places of environmental education, demonstration sites of green technology, and spaces that are practically engaged with China’s future well-being. It is instructive to note that the focus of these plans is not to create sustainable environments in China’s rapidly expanding urban conglomerations, but to preserve a certain experience of nature in mountain Daoism. The association of Daoism and ecology is not general, but particular: it is focused on specific sites and specific environments.

A field visit to Maoshan in 2010 gave significant insight into the way Daoism and nature are represented together in contemporary Chinese culture. The evidence suggests that just as Daoist organiza- tions are competing and also collaborating with local governments and other enterprises for control of the natural spaces in which monasteries are located, they are also engaged in ideological conflict over the meaning of these spaces. The battle over administrative con- trol over natural spaces where Daoist sites are located is, like the de- bate between He Zuoxiu and Liang Congjie, an ideological contest over the meaning of nature. This suggests that in contemporary China, as in the West, the meaning of nature is contested in part by means of its association with concepts such as “the sacred” (see Szerzynski [2005] for discussion of this in the West). However, the precise mean- ings invoked in the conflict over nature and religion are somewhat different in China.

Evidence of ideological conflict can be seen in the use of signs that aim to offer visitors to Maoshan the “correct interpretation” of the natural spaces through which they are traveling. Two examples of this can be found in the Huayang Cave and the Feichang Path. The Hua- yang Cave was a site for Daoist meditation, associated in particular with the Highest Clarity Patriarch, Tao Hongjing (456–536 CE), who took as his epithet “Hermit of Huayang” (Huayang yinju, 华阳隐居).

The main entrance to the Huayang Cave, however, makes no refer- ence to the religious significance of this sacred space, noting it only as a cultural relic famous for its wall carvings dating from the Tang (608–906 CE) to the Qing (1644–1911 CE) dynasties. It no longer functions as a living sacred space, but as a “cultural relic” under the “protection” of the Jiangsu Province Cultural Relics Protection Unit. Another sign close by gives a geological explanation for how the cave came to be formed. The uninformed observer will thus be educated solely as to the secular, scientific value of the space, whose sacred quality exists only as a cultural memory.

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

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

Two further themes are in evidence at the Maoshan site and exist in intriguing juxtaposition to the nexus of religion and nature. The first theme to be noted is a deliberate attempt to educate people about en- vironmental issues. Again, this is through the use of signs in Chinese and English, which urge people to take care of the environment and respect the plants and animals that live in the space through which they are traveling. Such education also extends beyond the open space into the temple, where recycling bins exist side by side with regular bins, and injunctions to conserve water appear by the taps. Such small efforts at environmental education further reinforce the sense that the mountain space and the temple space are particularly deserving of careful respect. Indeed, the paved road up to the top is lit at night by lamps that are charged by solar panels during the day. This sense of environmental care, however, stands in stark contrast to the festive spirit of the many visitors, whose principal objective in coming to the mountain peak is to participate in the spectacular and ostentatious offering of enormous sticks of incense. For people who do not get many opportunities to participate in traditional rituals in sa- cred natural spaces, it would seem particularly strange not to make as grand and joyous an offering as possible. In this sense, the “official” culture of conservation proclaimed throughout the site is studiously ignored by those for whom the site is chiefly a space for conspicuous ritual celebration.

The second theme that is juxtaposed alongside that of religion and nature is that of nationalism. The Maoshan site is significant in modern history not for its Daoist religious associations, but as a site that is sacred to the Fourth Army in its battle against the Japanese, who invaded China in 1937. During my field visit, a school of army cadets was also visiting the site, which, as well as featuring temples and cultural relics, is the location for a patriotic monument and grand museum dedicated to the army. An informant told me, in fact, that the renovation of the entire site had been carried out by the People’s Lib- eration Army, including the building of an excellent road to the monastery on the peak. As a result, the entire mountain complex is designated by the Chinese government as an AAAA tourism site (only one step lower than the highest AAAAA designation), and it is a site for “red tourism”, a program established by the central government in 2004 to emphasize the “ideological essence” of “communist ideology, traditional Chinese virtues, and patriotism” (Li and Hu 2008: 158).


Historical evidence as well as contemporary fieldwork reveal a complex set of issues when it comes to the relationship of Daoism and ecology in China. These issues, furthermore, are somewhat different from what one might expect based on the normative taxonomy of “environmentalism” in relation to non-Western others, which struc- tures popular cultural (mis)understandings in the West. Far from Dao- ism being construed as a premodern “worldview” sympathetic to a romantic feeling for wilderness spaces, Daoists have engaged in prac- tical works to preserve specific natural spaces for specific religious reasons. Moreover, under the patronage of the state, whether in the Ming Dynasty or today, sacred sites and their environments can also be protected for nationalistic and patriotic reasons. In these cases, the impetus to preserve the landscape of sacred sites may not derive from a particular “respect for nature” except inasmuch as the nature in question is unequivocally identified with a uniquely Chinese heritage. This would be similar to the way in which pandas are protected by the state because of their status as national icons.

Under this complex of cultural meanings, the meaning of “green” spaces such as Maoshan is quite ambiguous. On the one hand, “green” is associated with Chinese tradition and Daoist respect for life and the flourishing of nature. On the other hand, “green” is also as- sociated with a patriotic agenda and with modern technology such as solar panels. The Chinese Daoist Association, in allying itself with a green agenda, is clearly aligning itself with the values of modern Chi- nese nationalism as well as technological development. In this sense, one could argue that “green is the new red:” it is a symbol for Chi- nese national identity and the technological development that will ensure China’s survival in a resource-hungry world. If Daoism has something to offer to the greening of China, it is not in the sense of fostering a worldview of a universal ecological consciousness or “sav- ing the planet”. That is a trope that owes its origins to Christian mil- lenarian theology and has little relevance in traditional Chinese culture (Kohn 2001: 379).

Rather, Daoism and ecology engage most clearly in the particular spaces in which Daoists have sought to engage in meditative cultiva- tion. In this regard, Daoist ecology is thoroughly implicated in Chi- nese national identity. While the abstract modernity of urban living is seamlessly replicated from Shanghai to Stockholm, “nature”, it would seem, constitutes, by contrast, the particular differences associated with various nations and their cultural identities. While it may be pos- sible to build replicas of Venice in Las Vegas or Macau, the majesty of the Alps or the Himalayas retain a particularity of experience that can- not be so easily copied. Here nature is a source of experience that de- fies the banality of modern urban life. The particularity of meaning that emanates from unique natural spaces aligns well with the Chinese Daoist Association’s agenda to preserve features of Daoist spaces in contemporary China. As John Lagerwey (2010) notes, the history of religion in China has been one of continuous contractual negotiation between the state and local society. As much as the green agenda of the Chinese Daoist Association may rhetorically serve the ideologies of nationalism and modernization, it may yet hold out the prospect of protecting marginal, local, and natural spaces.


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