In Memoriam Ursula K. Le Guin

Ursula K. Le Guin

In memory of Ursula K. Le Guin who sadly passed away on Monday, I reproduce below her Dao Song, which she kindly contributed to Daoism and Ecology: Ways within a Cosmic Landscape (Harvard 2001). The book emerged out of a conference at Harvard in 1998, which she also attended as part of a forum that invited contemporary American practitioners and interpreters of Daoism to join in the scholarly conversation.

Acutely aware of her status as a non-Sinologist, and of the defensiveness of Sinologists towards popular American “versions” of Daoism, Ms. Le Guin wrote,

Defensiveness against cheapening and trivializing Daoism thus seems to me an inevitable, essential part of your work as scholars; and yet, like the ecologist, the conservationist, you don’t have the luxury of being absolutely defensive. Compromise is also inevitable. People will use the river and the desert. Daoist texts are popular. The barbarians are inside the gates – here I am.

Far from a barbarian, Ms. Le Guin was one of the most imaginative and sensitive interpreters of Daoist thought in the contemporary West. I am deeply saddened by her passing, and grateful to have met her, if only fleetingly, in Cambridge nearly 20 years ago.

Dao Song

O slow fish
show me the way
O green weed
grow me the way

The way you go
the way you grow
is the way

O bright Sun
light me the way
the right way
the one
no one can say

If one can choose it
it is wrong
Sing me the way
O song:

No one can lose it
for long


China in climate driver’s seat after Trump rejects Paris

File 20170605 16909 1qu1wo1
Protesters gather outside the White House in Washington D.C. after President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw the Unites States from the Paris climate change accord.
(AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

James Miller, Queen’s University, Ontario

With President Donald Trump’s withdrawal of the United States from the Paris climate change accords, it’s now clear to the world that action on climate change will rest increasingly in the hands of China, not America or the European Union.

Given the global nature of the climate crisis, the decisions that China’s leaders make over the next decade will have a profound impact around the world. Shockingly, as sea levels rise, the fate of America’s coastal cities, from Palm Beach to Boston, will increasingly be determined in Beijing, not Washington, D.C. One can only imagine Trump sitting like King Canute on a lawn chair at Mar-A-Lago as it slowly disappears beneath the sea.

Since China joined the World Trade Organization in 2001, global trade liberalization has made China the factory of the world, bringing wealth to corporate America and lifting hundreds of millions of people out of poverty. But as China rode the trade winds of globalization to become the world’s second largest economy, its coal-fired power stations and lower environmental standards combined to produce searing smog that now reduces life expectancy by up to 5.5 years in the country’s industrial north. The rapid increase in fossil fuels also propelled China to become the world’s leading emitter of greenhouse gases, the chief cause of global warming.

China morphing into clean energy champ

The good news is that China is in the midst of engineering a massive transition to an “ecological civilization,” one that transcends Western industrial modernity and emphasizes clean energy, sustainable cities and circular economies. China’s 13th five-year plan (2015-2020) envisions bringing the country’s installed solar capacity to 140 gigawatts to help cut greenhouse gas emissions. Its plan for rapid urbanization is also being accompanied by the development of over 200 new eco-cities that are already functioning as test labs for urban planners.

China’s economic rise and its environmental challenges are also being accompanied by an equally important third factor: the increasing significance of China’s traditional culture and religion in its social and political discourse. Most significant here is the positioning of Confucius as the patriarch par excellence of Chinese culture, and a bulwark against liberal Western values.

A Chinese migrant worker listens to radio on his tricycle cart parked next to a Beijing billboard promoting environmental protection. (AP Photo/Andy Wong)

Confucian values emphasize filial piety, deference to authority and the priority of family relationships over the individual. President Xi Jinping has deftly deployed these values in his anti-corruption drive. As China assumes the leadership of the global environmental movement, the question that arises now is how future climate change language and policy will be increasingly shaped by Chinese, not Western, values.

Over 2,000 years ago, China’s rulers embarked on two spectacular engineering projects. The better known of the two is the Great Wall, a vast and costly fortification against the barbarians of the north.

Walls or water? China opting for water

The second, lesser known, is the Dujiangyan irrigation system in Sichuan province, a UNESCO world heritage site. Still in use today, it uses a system of weirs and levees to regulate the spring floods along the Min river and provide water to over 5,300 square kilometres of land, producing some of China’s most fertile agricultural land. When I interviewed local officials during my fieldwork in China, they lauded it as a marvel of Daoist engineering for harnessing nature’s power instead of working against it.

The choice between walls and water is an apt metaphor for the decisions facing world leaders today. Trump campaigned on a wall with Mexico. President Xi, meantime, has strengthened China’s great firewall, which limits the choices and freedoms of Chinese citizens. While China’s leaders feared America’s power, it was only natural that they should seek to limit its influence.

But in the end, as China’s rulers discovered, walls ultimately crumble, while the power of water is eternal. The Dujiangyan irrigation system continues to this day and is an essential component in China’s food security system. As China’s Daoist philosophers wrote more than 2,000 years ago: “Nothing in the world is as soft and weak as water. But when attacking the hard and strong nothing can conquer so easily.” In the end, nature wins.

The ConversationJames Miller is the author of China’s Green Religion: Daoism and the Quest for a Sustainable Future (New York: Columbia University Press)

James Miller, Professor of Chinese Religions, Queen’s University, Ontario

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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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Weller R P 2014 Globalizations and Diversities of Nature in China in Miller J, Smyer Yu D and van der Veer P eds Religious Diversity and Ecological Sustainability in China Routledge, Abingdon 147–163

Wittfogel K A 1957 Oriental Despotism Yale University Press, New Haven

Zeng L 2012 Cultural Transformation and Ecological Sustainability among the Dai people in Xishuangbanna Sustainable China (accessed 15 July 2015)


james miller 00301083677_bdf1d56d

1月1日上午,由公共经济研究会中国乡村文明研究中心、中国人民大学乡村建设中心等单位主办,国家行政学院、中美后现代发展研究院等单位协办的第三届中国乡村文明发展论坛在北京国家行政学院会议中心盛大举行。本次论坛以 “乡村文化复兴开启文化为王新时代”为主题,来自世界各地的专家学者、地方领导、村支书、农民代表等共400多人参加了开幕式。 (More…)


苗建时(James Miller) 加拿大女王大学


道教是中国本土的有系统的宗教体系。道家重点关注获得“道”(作为不断变化的宇宙中的生命力不可名状的源头)。在道教2000多年的历史上,实现这一目标的方法虽然经过修正和调整,但大体可以理解为在身体的流体能量、社群和宇宙三者之间进行调整。道教关注内在身体的微妙能量,并且从事于冥想修炼的活动,旨在恢复和增强身体的机能,以获得长寿和精神超越。道家还崇拜等级复杂的神圣权力,包括最高层的三清(道本身的自然化体现)以及许多个人神(曾经是人,但在其生命的轨迹中实现了超越,有时也被理解为不朽)。 (More…)

video lecture: james miller speaks on china’s green religion at the university of southern california’s us-china institute

The monumental task that China faces in the 21st century is to create a way of development that does not destroy the ecological foundations for the life and livelihood of its 1.4 billion citizens. This requires a creative leap beyond the Enlightenment mentality and the Western model of industrialization. Can China’s cultural traditions, its religious values, ideals and ways of life, play a role in building a sustainable China?

The following video was recorded at the University of Southern California’s US-China Institute on November 19, 2014.

why china will solve the world’s environmental problems

Quick! Picture China’s biggest environmental problem.

China_Pollution-00b0aI bet you saw in your mind the polluted skies of Beijing and its citizens wearing face masks as they go to work. The western news media have been filled with alarming stories of China’s poor air quality, especially in the north, where China relies more heavily on coal-fired power stations.

But a recent Toronto Star story entitled China Wakes Up to its Water Crisis gets to the heart of an even more serious problem: China has only 7% of the world’s fresh water, but 20% of its population. While electricity can, in the long run, be produced by more renewable means, water cannot be manufactured out of nowhere.

China’s massive population and its relative scarcity of natural resources magnifies the impact of China’s environmental problems. As the world marches towards a population of 10 billion people, the reality that Chinese people face today will soon become the reality faced by the most of the world. China is now beginning to export its pollution to neighbouring countries and even to Africa and Latin America, which, like the Canadian tar sands, are undergoing massive natural resource development in part to meet China’s demands.

Soon the grim environmental reality that China’s citizens face could be shared by the rest of the world.

But here’s the good news.

There is no debate in China as to whether climate change is real. While some American leaders act like King Canute watching the ever rising tides that will eventually submerge them, the Chinese are already preparing sustainable megacities, and the massive sustainable agriculture systems that will feed them over the coming century. All of the world’s leading architectural and engineering practices are undertaking revolutionary work in China on the sustainable design of buildings and cities, and the whole world will benefit from the massive experimentation that is currently taking place in China.

Comparison of Countries' Actions and Policies on Climate Change

Comparison of Countries’ Actions and Policies on Climate Change

Since 2011, China’s environmental policies have been declared better than those of North America by Oxford University’s Smith School. While not as good as some countries, they are definitely moving in the right direction.

China has accepted that lower economic growth is the price worth paying for not destroying the planet, and in March this year China’s premier declared war on pollution just as China once declared war on poverty. It’s hard to imagine Western leaders declaring that their policy objective is to have lower economic growth than in previous years. The fact that this is occurring in a developing country makes this all the more remarkable.

China’s consumers are the second greenest out of seventeen countries measured in National Geographic’s Greendex. The report measures consumers’ attitudes towards recycling, eating vegetarian food, using public transport and other important lifestyle choices. Remarkably, Chinese consumers have become even more green as they have become rich. As the Greendex report highlights:

Chinese consumers’ Greendex score has consistently increased since 2008 despite rapid development in China. Consumers in the other emerging markets surveyed, including Brazil, Russia, and India, have not seen this upward trend in scores.

If this trend continues, it will be one of the most significant developments in consumer culture in the world.

Finally, China’s ancient cultural traditions, long neglected in the rush for modernization and development, have the capacity to underpin China’s postmodern engagement with a new and more sustainable form of civilization. While American Christians go to war on environmentalism, Chinese Confucians, Taoists and Buddhists have a long and complex history of recognizing the significance of the natural world for human wellbeing, as my new co-edited book on Religion and Ecological Sustainability in China demonstrates.

In the end, China will solve the world’s environmental problems, because it has to. While Canadians and Americans debate the reality of climate change, and wonder whether they can afford to invest in public transport infrastructure, Chinese people have no such luxury. Their investment in sustainability is already taking place. If it is successful, it will be a boon for the whole world.

Ecology, Aesthetics and Daoist Body Cultivation

Environmental Philosophy in Asian Traditions of ThoughtJames Miller. 2014. “Ecology, Aesthetics and Daoist Body Cultivation.” Pp. 225–244 in Environmental Philosophy in Asian Traditions of Thought edited by J. Baird Callicott and James McRae. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press.

Please note that the text below is the uncorrected draft. 



The Daoist religious tradition offers a wide repertoire of body cultivation practices that focus on generating a phenomenological sensitivity to the inner body and its location within the world. These practices can be understood from the contemporary Western theoretical perspectives developed by Merleau-Ponty and Richard Shusterman. Merleau-Ponty proposed that the body constitutes the basis for phenomenological experience but did not develop the idea of the experience of the inner body that is so vital to Indian and Chinese body cultivation traditions. Richard Shusterman proposed the concept of “somaesthetics” or methods of training the body’s experience of the world, but did not consider the value of this from an ecophenomenological point of view. Extending these theoretical perspectives to interpret Daoist cultivation methods reveals that Daoists aim to dissolve the experiential boundary between the body and the world and create an experience of the mutual interpenetration of the body and the world. Such an experience can form the aesthetic basis for cultivating ecological sensitivity.


Despite the best efforts of Habermas and others, the project of modernity, grounded in the values of the European Enlightenment has been undergoing severe internal and external challenges. The source of those criticisms lies in the way that the project of modernity grasped the disembodied concept of autonomous reason formulated in the Enlightenment period in such a way that it became the sole source of authority and value in the social and cultural sphere. The Korean-American philosopher Hwa Jol Jung wrote:

European modernity is set to prejudge truth-claims by the criterion of Enlightenment. While privileging and valorizing the authority and autonomy of reason for allegedly human (material) progress and emancipation, it marginalizes, disenfranchises, and denigrates the (reason’s) Other whether it be (1) body, (2) woman, (3) nature, or (4) non-West which happen to be four central postmodern landmarks and subversive possibilities. While its protagonists insist on modernity as an unfinished project, its postmodern antagonists consider it as a failure and are determined to unpack and audit it.[1]

The most interesting and useful approach of late modern intellectuals to this problem has been the attempt to rethink the foundational dualism which underpins this whole project, namely the Cartesian dualism between the disembodied mind, the res cogitans, and the res extensa, the body that occupies space and time and houses our mental functioning. In my view, the most profound problem engendered by this way of thinking about thinking is that it divorces reasoning from the biological and evolutionary matrix that has made it possible. If reason can be reinscribed within the body and, ultimately, within the fifteen billion years of cosmic evolution, then this will go a long way to bridging the divide between humanity and nature. The body, then, should be the site par excellence for environmentalism as a social movement. In fact, I would go so far as to say that the failure of the environmental movement can be attributed largely to the way it perpetuates the type of dichotomous reasoning that precipitated humankind’s divorce from nature in the first place. So long as environmentalists urge others to respect, heal, or value nature as an object beyond the hermetically-sealed walls of their bodies, they subtly and unconsciously reinforce the absolute separation of the mind from the world.

To rewrite environmentalism thus requires rewriting the discourse so as no longer to perpetuate the false reification of nature as a thing outside the body, and the false reification of the mind as a wholly abstract and non-material central processing unit within human bodies. This is by no means unheard of in the West. The French philosopher of science, Gaston Bachelard, developed a theoretical understanding of the way that the human imagination is implicated in the materiality of human experience. Merleau-Ponty’s concept of “limbed experience” also drew attention to the somatic character of experience. Contemporary neuroscience is also beginning to understand the mind as a function of the whole body, not just the brain. Despite this, the Western tradition is not particularly known for its deep insight into the notion of “bodily experience” and in many ways lags behind the insights generated in Indian and Chinese cultures and religions. Hindu, Buddhist and Daoist traditions, for instance, have focussed for centuries on systematically cultivating an experience of the inner body and on understanding this experience in terms of broader cosmological concepts. In so doing they connect the lived experience of the body with the broader contexts of space, time and the fabric of the natural world. While contemporary environmentalists may not live in the same metaphysical world as these religious practitioners, they do inhabit the same bodies. The premise of this essay derives from this principle: rather than focussing on worldview and cosmology as a point of contact between religion and ecology, it would be better to foucs on somatic experiences as a way to overcome the dichotomy between body and world. What follows thus focusses on Chinese somatic traditions, specifically Daoist body cultivation, as non-discursive techniques for reinscribing the body within the world and the world within the body.


The French philosopher of science, Gaston Bachelard (1884-1962), developed a theory of the “material imagination,” which drew on the earliest foundations of Western science, namely, the four elements known to Greek natural philosophy: earth, air, fire and water. According to Bachelard the human imagination invests these elements with a poetic quality that elicits a “passionate liaison” between humans and their objects.[2] These affective bonds evoke what he termed the “intimate beauty of materials; their mass of hidden attraction, all that affective space concentrated inside things.”[3] Bachelard’s concept of the “material imagination” thus signifies the way in which human imagination is grounded in the very materiality of nature: the imagination engages the material character of the world; and it does so not in intellectual or disembodied way but through the affective, poetic character. He writes:

It is not knowledge of the real which makes us passionately love it. It is rather feeling which is the fundamental value. One starts by loving nature without knowing it, by seeing it well, while actualizing in things a love which is grounded elsewhere. Then, one seeks in it detail because one loves it on the whole, without knowing why.[4]

For Bachelard, then, the foundation for the connection between the mind and the world lies in the affect, the feelings and sensations that the natural world evokes in us. This affective bond precedes epistemology and ontology, and it has the power to shape our imagination and our creativity. It is because humans do not simply perceive nature but imbue it with value (even “over-rating” it) that we have the capacity to engage in the creative transformation of the world.[5]

The seductive power of the material imagination was viewed by Bachelard as the initial foundation for the human understanding of nature, a phenomenon that could give rise to science, but which science in its objectivity had to overcome. In fact science, to Bachelard, seemed increasingly incapable of understanding the natural phenomena that were most evocative for the human imagination. Take for example his discussion of fire:

Contemporary science has almost completely neglected the truly primordial problem that the phenomena of fire pose for the untutored mind. In the course of time the chapters on fire in chemistry textbooks have become shorter and shorter. There are, indeed, a good many modern books on chemistry in which it is impossible to find any mention of flame or fire. Fire is no longer a reality for science.[6]

Bachelard’s analysis suggests to me that science’s objectivity impels it to overlook the psychic affect of natural processes with the result that societies become increasingly blind to affective dimension of material experience. The process of modernization, therefore, entails a loss of the “affective space” that mediates between humans subjects and their lived environments. Though firmly committed to the principles of materialism and science, Bachelard was one of the first modern scientists to recognize and understand the precise nature of this loss. He laments, for instance, the loss of phenomenological depth that occurred in the transition from oil lamps to electric lighting turned on with the flick of a switch.[7] Electric light does not have the nearly as much capacity to evoke the material imagination as a flickering flame. The “administrative light” of an electric bulb, bound up in processes of bureaucracy and mechanization was typical of the modern condition. The spaces inhabited by humans thus become increasingly abstracted spaces, homogenized, geometrized and quantified.

This theme is picked up by later French thinkers. Baudrillard, for instance, noted how bodily engagement with labour and tools in traditional societies became replaced by mere “gestures of control.”[8] Heating houses becomes no longer an effort of collecting wood and lighting fires but regulating the thermostat in the hallway.[9] The post-modern condition, moreover, is characterized by technological forms that aim to simulate (and stimulate) the affective bonds that were lost in the transition to modernity. Thus, we have electric fires that look like real log fires, and online social networks that compensate for the loss of community in the abstract space of modernity.  Such simulations and virtualizations are testament to the deep-seated poetic power of the material imagination, rooted in millennia of physical engagement of human bodies in their physical contexts. The psychological power of such phenomena cannot be underestimated.

If we are to take Bachelard seriously, then poetry is as important as physics for understanding the human experience of the world. Indeed, this is the reason why in his Psychoanalysis of Fire, Bachelard undertakes a survey of the poetic rather than the physical ways in which fire has sparked the human imagination. The consequence of this way thinking about experience and imagination is of particular importance for environmentalists. It suggests that human imagination is driven at a fundamental level by aesthetics. Those who are concerned about the human relationship with the natural world should be concerned with discourse about the aesthetic experience of nature, as much as moral and legal issues, or indeed scientific issues. If Bachelard is right, then aesthesis, or feelings about nature underlie, our imagination and perception of the world. So long as the enlightenment mentality and the processes of modernization overlook the aesthetic realm as foundational for the human engagement with the natural world, then they will be incapable of addressing the ecological crisis in any seriously meaningful way.


If Bachelard is right about the primordial psychic power of material phenomena, then this should lead us to develop a philosophical account of the nature of lived experience as a psychosomatic unity rather than the Cartesian account of a res cogitans and a res extensa. Indeed this has been the major project of Merleau-Ponty and other philosophers who were convinced that the Heideggerian emphasis on lived experience should point us in the direction of the body not simply as the container for experience but as the generative matrix of those experiences. Indeed, it is not simply that the body functionally generates an “experience” of an external “world” but rather that the body provides the spatial location that is necessary for the perception of a phenomenological world. Without a body there could be no experience of the world as it is given to us, and without a world there could be no body. He writes:

My body is not an object, but a means, an organization. In perception I organize with my body an association with the world. With my body and through my body, I inhabit the world. The body is the field in which perceptions localize themselves.[10]

The emphasis here on the carnal unity of the body and the world is particularly significant for ecological discourse. Of particular note is the famous statement that the body as

flesh is not matter, is not mind, is not substance. To designate it, we should need the old term ‘element,’ in the sense it was used to speak of water, air, earth, and fire, that is, in the sense of a general thing, midway between the spatio-temporal individual and the idea, a sort of incarnate principle that brings a style of being wherever there is a fragment of being. The flesh is in this sense an element of Being.[11]

Merleau-Ponty regards the body akin to Bachelard’s elements, that is to say, as the fundamental building block of our lived experience of the world.

In The Visible and the Invisible, Merleau-Ponty develops his understanding of perception with the notion of reversibility, that when perception is understood as being constituted in the flesh, then to perceive the world is also to be perceived by the world: one cannot touch without being touched; one cannot see without simultaneously presenting oneself to be seen by the world. In contrast to Descartes’s cogito, we can say tango et tangor (I touch and I am touched). Whatever we touch, perceive and even think, we do so from within a world, not from outside it.

This approach to phenomenology has been instrumental in generating what has been termed the “enactive approach” of embodied cognitive science.[12] According to Colombetti and Thompson, this “dynamical systems approach has challenged the idea that cognition is the manipulation of abstract representations according to syntactic rules, and has proposed instead that cognition emerges from the coupled interactions of the brain, body, and environment.”[13] This approach is, moreover, challenging the dominant tradition of cognitive science that draws on Cartesian understandings of the mind/body dualism. Colombetti and Thompson summarize this field as follows:

In summary, according to the enactive approach, the human mind is embodied in our entire organism and embedded in the world, and hence is not reducible to structures inside the head. Meaning and experience are created by, or enacted through, the continuous reciprocal interaction of the brain, the body, and the world.[14]

But Merleau-Ponty’s work has been significant not simply for rethinking the process of embodied cognition, but also on the other side of the coin, for thinking about the lived world that is generated through the process of cognition. Indeed his work has been instrumental for a new line of ecological phenomenology that seeks to explore the value of phenomenology for contributing to a holistic, ecological, systemic view of the relationship between the body and the world. One of chief protagonists of this movement is David Abram. In an early essay, published in 1988, Abram first alludes to the ecological possibilities of Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenology. He writes:

His work suggests a rigorous way to approach and to speak of the myriad ecosystems without positing our immediate selves outside of them. Unlike the language of information processing and cybernetics, Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenology of the flesh provides a way to describe and disclose the living fields of integration from our experienced place within them. The convergence of Merleau-Ponty’s aims with those of a genuine philosophical ecology cannot be too greatly stressed.[15]

Despite the work that has been undertaken in Western philosophy to recuperate the body as the foundation for the human experience of the world, such work remains remarkably abstract given that its focus is on the body. Two criticisms are readily apparent. The first is that made by the American pragmatist philosopher Richard Shusterman who criticizes Merleau-Ponty for emphasizing the way in which somatic perception operates spontaneously. Most of us most of the time do not need to think about or reflect upon how precisely we are constructing our bodily experiences of the lived world. The great marvel of perception is that we do not have to consciously think about how to navigate a crowded party without bumping into a waiter carrying a trayful of cocktails: we just do it. But Shusterman wants more than simply being able to be successful in ordinary pursuits. He advocates what he calls “somaesthetics” that is training the body’s perceptual engagement with the world so as to achieve greater pragmatic benefits. He writes:

While I share Merleau-Ponty’s appreciation of our inexplicit, unreflective somatic perception, I think we should also recognize that it is often painfully inaccurate and dysfunctional. I may think I am keeping my head down when swinging a golf club, though an observer will easily see I do not. Disciplines of somatic education deploy exercises of representational awareness to treat such problems of mis-perception and misuse of our bodies in the spontaneous and habitual behavior that Merleau-Ponty identifies as primal and celebrates as miraculously flawless in normal performance.[16]

The problem, as Shusterman sees it, is that if perception is somatic, then it can and should be trained somatically so as to create pragmatically better representations of our place in the world. The value of such representations, however, may extend beyond purely physical activities such as tennis and golf. Theoretically at least it should be possible to engage in training so as to overcome the false reification of self and world so as to arrive at a perception of the self within the world and not outside of it. In short why not use somaesthetic disciplines—the training of the habits of bodily perceptions—so as to bring about an ecological sensitivity?

I mentioned earlier that two major criticisms have emerged of Merleau-Ponty’s abstract discussion of the phenomenology of the body. The first was Shusterman’s criticism that Merleau-Ponty emphasized the spontaneous nature of perception and neglected to consider the way perception and experiences can be shaped through somatic disciplines. The second criticism focuses on Merleau-Ponty’s reluctance to speak about the depth of the inner body. While his philosophy makes it perfectly clear that perception depends upon a depth of field for experience, he does not consider that this depth, or experience of dimensionality, can also be applied to the perception of the inner body. The Indian philosopher Sundar Sarukkai commented on this in a 2002 essay published in Philosophy East & West. Discussing Merleau-Ponty and his interpreters he writes:

But nowhere in these discussions do we find any detailed attempt to explicate the idea of the ‘inner’ body. The lack of such a discussion suggests that these writers view the body as a homogeneous entity, because of which there is little possibility of articulating a phenomenology of the inner body. I believe that the most important reason for this continued ambiguity regarding the notion of inner with respect to the body is to be found in the absence of a tradition of lived experience of the inner body in the West, one that could have been used by Merleau-Ponty in a manner similar to the case histories of Schneider.[17] In contrast, the phenomenological experiences of yoga strongly suggest the possibility of a lived experience of the inner body.[18]

Before discussing yoga, Sarukkai gives the example of eating in order to argue for the phenomenological experience of dimensionality or depth within the inner body. He writes:

The body experience of eating is equivalent to the phenomenological experience of dimensionality and thus is intertwined with the notion of ‘inside.’ The process of eating is never visible to us. Further actions related to eating, such as mashing the food, swallowing, and so on, are all events in the ‘dark side’ of the body. We can never ‘see’ ourselves eating, but we experience it all the time. We experience swallowing the food; we experience its passage through the food pipe into the region of the stomach. These experiences all constitute an experience of dimensionality, an expression of the ‘inside’ of the boy. We are usually unaware of these processes except in times of pain and distress of the inner body. But practices like yoga allow us a continuous, conscious grasp of the inner body.[19]

Sarukkai’s approach is instructive in that it opens up a new dimension to the question of embodied experience, one that embodied traditions such as Yoga, Tantra or Daoist body cultivation can function as interlocutors, and not mere as data to be studied. In the second half of this paper I analyze the depiction of the inner body that emerges in Daoist body cultivation, and I suggest that this depiction can be instructive not simply for Shusterman’s project of understanding somaesthetic disciplines, but also for Abram’s project of eco-phenomenology.

Somatic Disciplines

The argument, put briefly, is that the traditions of Daoist body cultivation can be understood as non-discursive somatic disciplines that inscribe the body within the world and the world within the body. As such they may be fruitfully illuminated by Merleau-Ponty’s analysis of the reversibility of phenomenal perception. Secondly, I wish to advance the hypothesis that training in these somatic disciplines can overcome the experience of the world as other, and can provide the aesthetic or sensory foundation for ecologically responsible patterns of behavior. In short, the visual and sensual experience of the body inside the world and the world inside the body can constitute the proper aesthetic grounds for ecologically sensitivity praxis.

To those who are familiar with early Daoist philosophy, such a project might seem rather surprising. In comparison to the deep attention paid to the body’s inner workings in Yoga, early Daoist texts emphasize spontaneity and unreflective skill when it comes to the body’s engagement with the world.[20] In describing the meditation technique known as “sitting and forgetting” (zuowang), the Zhuangzi ch. 6 puts the following words in the mouth of Confucius’s favourite student Yan Hui:


I smash up my limbs and body, drive out perception and intellect, cast off form, do away with understanding, and make myself identical with the Great Thoroughfare. This is what I mean by sitting down and forgetting everything.[21]

At first glance it might seem that this passage advocates an understanding of perception that goes against Merleau-Ponty’s limbed and lived experience of the world. “Do away with limbs and body” says Yan Hui. The key to understanding such a passage, however, is to recognize that zuo wang or “sitting and forgetting” is actually somatic discipline the aim of which is to “forget” or discard conventional phenomenal perception in order to arrive at a state of equivalence (tong) with the Way. The foundation of this method of somatic discipline lies in paying attention to the limbed experience of reality, even if the ultimate goal is somehow to move beyond such an experience. But as Merleau-Ponty would surely agree, the only way to there is from here. The foundation for many Daoist practice lies first of all in becoming sensitive to the way that our body conditions our experience of the world, that is to say, paying attention first of all to the “here” rather than the “there.” If the Daoist is to attain some kind of all-pervading unity with the Way, this cannot be done except from within the bodily experience of the world.

It would be a mistake, therefore, to spiritualize one’s interpretation of the Zhuangzi in the manner of perennial philosophy. Making oneself identical with the “Great Thoroughfare” should not be interpreted as a kind of neo-Platonic mystical intellection of Being-Itself. At least, that is not how the Daoist tradition came to understand unity with the Way. We know this because the Daoist tradition developed an extraordinary repertoire of physical cultivation practices that focus, like Yoga, upon the inner body. Daoists, however, tend to express the goal of cultivation slightly differently from Yoga: the aim is not so much liberation from the world, that is, the realm of phenomenal experience; but rather dissolving the boundaries between the lived body and its lived environment. To put it more bluntly, the goal is not transcendence, but translucence, that is to say the body thoroughly pervading and being pervaded by the world. Before I go on to explain this idea of pervasion 通 more fully, it is worth while focusing briefly on some of the methods by which Daoists have cultivated their bodies.

The Way of Highest Clarity

The Way of Highest Clarity (上情道) which existed as a distinct tradition for about 1,000 years from the 4th century onwards. This tradition advocated and refined a tradition of internal visual meditation, in which the body was perceived as a rich and splendid cosmos inhabited by gods. This meditative practice was generally known as cun 存 which is normally translated in textbooks as “visualization” since the goal of such a practice was to bring about a vision of a god inside the body. The term 存 however has a rich web of meanings that deserves careful explication. In modern Chinese it is combined with 在 to form the binome 存在, commonly translated as “existence.” More accurately, however, this binome might be translated as “to persist in a particular location” for it refers not to an abstract concept—existence as such—but to the haecceity or “this-ness” of some discrete particular. The metaphysical presupposition is that to exist means to assume a particular temporal and spatial condition. To exist temporally means to have the quality of persistence that occupies a temporal duration that has a beginning and an end. To exist spatially means to occupy a particular finite space. Such an view coheres with the Heideggerian insight into the givenness of Dasein: existence is irreducibly locative.

In his analysis of the term cun the Sinologist Edward Schafer notes:

Here ts’un is used as a transitive verb, taking the divine being whose appearance is desired as its object. It would be inadequate to translate this word as ‘visualize’: the adept’s efforts produce more than a mental picture. The word means ‘to make sensibly present,’ ‘to give existence to’—almost ‘to materialize.’[22]

In Highest Clarity cultivation, therefore, adepts are seeking to materialize the perception of cosmic powers within the inner space of their bodies.

A typical example is as follows:

以正月本命日甲子甲戌日平旦帝,君太一五神壹共混 合,變為一大神,在心之內。號曰天 精君,字飛生上 英,貌如嬰兒始生 之狀。是其日平 旦,當入室接手於兩膝上,閉氣冥目,內視存天精君 坐在心中,號曰大 神,使大神口出紫氣,鬱然以繞我心外九重氣,上銜泥 丸中,內外如一。

In the first month, on your fate day, the jiazi day, and the jiaxu day at dawn the Five Spirits, the Imperial Lord and Supreme Unity merge together into one great spirit which rests in your heart. His title is the Lord of Celestial Essence, his courtesy title Highest Hero of Soaring Birth, and his appearance is like an infant immediately after birth. On this day at dawn, enter your chamber, clasp your hands together on your knees, keep your breath enclosed and shut your eyes. Look inside and visualize the Lord of Celestial Essence sitting in your heart. He is called a great spirit. Make him spew forth purple qi to coil thickly around one’s heart in nine layers, and let it rush up into the niwan. Inner and outer [dimensions] are as one.[23]

As this brief but highly typical passage makes clear, Highest Clarity meditation is characterized by generating rich perceptual experiences in the inner body, described in terms of gods spewing forth energy which floods the various organs of the adept. The cryptic statement at the end indicates the overall goal: 內外如一 the inside and the outside are the same. I interpret this statement as an experience of the translucence of the body. Whereas Merleau-Ponty focused on the way the phenomenon of depth constructs an experience of the world as existing as a horizon surrounding the body of the individual, the goal of Daoist cultivation seems to be to attempt to dissolve the boundary between the body and its environment so that the inner and outer dimensions are perceptively and sensually experienced as a unity.

The metaphor of translucence is even thematized in certain Daoist hagiographies as a quality that applies to the body of the adept. In the Esoteric Biography of Perfected Purple Yang 紫陽真人內傳 the protagonist, Zhou Ziyang 周紫陽 concocts a recipe for conquering the three death-bringing worms that were thought to inhabit the mortal body. The result of ingesting the herbal concoction for five years was that Zhou’s body “produced a glossy sheen so that it was possible to see right through to his five organs 身生光澤,徹視內見五臟”.[24] In this case the theme of translucence is even applied to the materiality of the Daoist’s body.

Adepts who attained this level of translucence were also though to be able to travel great distances in an instant, hear what was taking place far away, and make themselves visible and invisible at will.[25] It is intriguing that these “magical” powers are all concerned at some level with perception. They suggest that the perceptual world of the successful Daoist practitioner is bounded by a much further horizon than that of the ordinary human. Whereas ordinary people have limited vision and hearing, the empirical sensitivity of the Daoist adept is much greater.

I am not arguing here that such Daoist practices were undertaken for purposes that could be considered remotely akin to today’s environmentalism. What I am saying is that Daoist tradition exhibits a range of practices that depend upon what we can anachronistically refer to as an ecological sense of self, a sense of the body and its environing context being inextricably embedded in each other. Such practices are of interest to the project of rewriting environmentalism because they suggest that non-discursive modes of somatic discipline can bring about an experiential awareness of the body in the world and the world in the body.

The Daoist tradition contains various famous images of the body as a landscape, the most widely known of which is the 內經圖 or Diagram of the Internal Pathways, a late nineteenth-century stone stele housed at the White Cloud Monastery in Beijing. The stele depicts the human body as a landscape of streams, mountains, stars, human figures and deities. Broadly speaking these represent the energetic pathways, the meridians of qi which flow through the body, and also specific energy points within the body. As Louis Komjathy writes:

The Neijing tu is an illustration not only of the meridians of qi running through the body, but also of the Daoist body as terrestrial and cosmological landscape and as the dwelling‐place of inner luminosities or effulgences. From a Daoist perspective, the human body corresponds to, embodies, various “external” presences—mountains, altars, colors, rivers, constellations, temples, spirits, forests, and so forth. The Neijing tu maps the landscape which is the human self. … The Neijing tu may be understood as the “Internal Landscape Map.”[26]

In his analysis of the Neijing tu, Komjathy is clear that its purpose is to depict the internal landscape of the body as revealed through the traditions of body cultivation practiced within the Dragon Gate (Longmen 龍門) lineage of the Way of Complete Perfection (Quanzhen dao 全真道), the major sect of monastic Daoism that exists in present-day China. The map in fact draws on a long tradition of representing the “internal” body using images from the “external” world. Such imagery at its heart transgresses the intuitive psychology that is based on strict categories of inside and outside. As we saw earlier, the Daoist tradition has an interest in breaking this default conception of the way the body is related to the world, and in positing a psychosomatic unity of the “internal body” and the “external world.”

It is my contention that the transgressive emphasis on the unity of inner and outer experience can be used as the basis for developing an aesthetic sensitivity to environmental concerns. Consider for instance, the problem of moral proximity, that moral reasoning does not easily extend to situations that are beyond the perceptual horizon of the moral agent. For instance, it is easier to kill an enemy soldier by pressing a button on a computer and launching a missile across the world than it is to walk up to someone and strangle them to death. Similarly it is easy to be offended by someone dumping litter on the street in your hometown than by the environmental and social effects of waste being transported across the world to be dumped into landfills or picked over by child laborers in desperate poverty. Equally, it is difficult for some people to be concerned by the rapid extinction of species in distant places. The issue here is that because of the limits to our senses, and the limited range of our aesthetic powers, we are unable to formulate the necessary moral vigor to bring about a change in behavior. What we put beyond the horizon of our perception, we condemn to aesthetic and moral irrelevance.

If we are serious about cultivating an environmental ethic that can pay attention to the globalized nature of environmental issues, then we also need a method of cultivating the aesthetic sensitivity to ecological devastation that seems to be beyond the horizon of our ordinary experience. Paradoxically, the Daoist tradition seems to work on expanding the horizon of experience not by encouraging people to travel across the world or by “expanding their minds” but by developing disciplines for experiencing the depth of the lived world within the depth of the living body. This is an extremely valuable insight for developing an eco-aesthetic sensitivity. I am not suggesting that this is what Daoists have historically done, but I am suggesting that this is what the tradition is capable of.

Qi Cultivation

The Neo-Confucian tradition of course pursued such insights with a great deal of philosophical force, focused on understanding the relationship between vital force (qi 氣) and principle (li 理) in shaping the dynamics of the cosmos. While I have a great deal of respect for the metaphysical speculations of Confucian philosophy, I would contend that eco-aesthetic sensitivity is generated in the realm of practice rather than theory. I would like to conclude by giving one example of how this can take place. This example is found in an autoethnographic study written by Denver Nixon of the effects of practicing Qigong, a type of moving meditation, under the instruction of a Daoist master in China. In his account of this practice, Nixon compares his own experience of practicing Qigong with accounts of how those suffering from chronic illnesses can develop an internal dialogue with their own bodies. He writes:

Kathy Charmaz (1991) describes the manner in which those suffering from chronic illness tend to develop a dialectic self, comprised of the physical self and the monitoring self. By going through the ordeal of illness, people develop a heightened sense of awareness of their own bodies, and can thus respond to their body’s needs. This monitoring self, once created, usually remains after the illness has subsided. Regarding her ill body, Sara Shaw explained, “I got to know it; I got to understand it. … I got to respect it. … [I got to know] how my body was doing, how my body was feeling” (Charmaz 1991: 70-72). In the case of illness, the process of sensitive self-monitoring typically requires a level of self-objectification or personification; “dialogue” with one’s sick kidney, for example, may demonstrate this type of “split”.[27]

Nixon goes on to use this as a comparison for explaining how the practice of qigong affected his own perceptual sensitivity:

During my research, it seemed that qigong also cultivated sensitivity and awareness, but in a way that did not objectify and thereby bifurcate experience along an inward/outward fracture. That is, the awareness generated through the practice of qigong does not stop at the skin, but rather “knows” the body as whole and part of its environment.[28]

Nixon seems to be suggesting, therefore, that even basic Qi movement practices can have the effect of reshaping the mode of awareness of our bodies within their lived environments. He concludes that this practice may even be considered an alternative epistemology, one that complements normative approaches that privilege discursive knowing over practical knowing. Nixon’s interest in this approach is similar to my own, that is to say, attempting to assess the extent to which somatic disciplines can not merely improve your golf swing, but contribute to your ecological sensitivity. According to Nixon:

Substituting or complementing normative epistemic approaches with those less privileged may facilitate different, if not more comprehensive, environmental understandings. It appears that qigong, by breaking the discursive mediation and bifurcation of reality and improving present, perceptive depth, sensitizes the practitioner to the emerging context within which they are increasingly undifferentiated, and thus allows them to engage with it “harmoniously.”[29]

In Nixon’s experience, therefore, Qigong led to an increased sensitivity to the emerging context of his lived world, and overcame the conventional bifurcation of reality into subject and object. It did so by improving “perceptive depth,” which we may interpret as reshaping the mode of bodily perception and engagement with the lived environment. This sense of the unity of the body with the emergent phenomena of the world is termed “pervasion” 通 in the Daoist tradition.

Pervasion (tong 通) and Eco-Aesthetics

Pervasion may be understood as the somatic experience of the mutual constitution of the lived body and its lived environment. The term appears in the quotation from Zhuangzi, cited above, in which the Yan Hui wishes to make himself “identical with the Great Thoroughfare” or Great Pervasiveness (tong yu da tong 同於大通). This experience is thematized in the Daoist with the metaphor of “translucence,” with depictions of the inner landscape of the body, and through the experience of qi as the psychophysical stuff that constitutes the vitality of the lived body and the lived world. While Confucian philosophy reflected deeply on the harmonious unity of nature and humanity (tian ren he yi 天人合一), it was the Daoist tradition that sought to enact such a unity through non-discursive somatic practices.

If the approach of embodied cognition is correct, then it would seem that the unity of the world and the lived body is predicated on the body as the system that enacts experience. The problem faced by environmentalists, however, is that this process of cognition takes place unconsciously so that our minds generate a perception of a world that is external to our bodies and a perception of our bodies as an invisible interior, fundamentally disconnected from the world that envelops them. Though embodied cognitive science and embodied religious traditions may perceive that this dualism is constructed as part of the process of cognition and not intrinsic to the reality of things, this does not accord with the ordinary experience of ordinary people. Only theoreticians in laboratories, philosophers in libraries, and monks in monasteries come close to understanding the ways that our bodies enact the world that we experience. Overcoming this fundamental dualism of self and other, body and world, is simply counterintuitive to conventional perceptions. And yet it is necessary for generating an aesthetic awareness that can be the foundation for ecologically responsible action.

I would like to conclude this essay by repeating the point that I made at the beginning of this: So long as people urge others to respect, heal, or value nature as an object beyond the hermetically-sealed walls of their bodies, they subtly and unconsciously reinforce the absolute separation of the mind from the world. Such an approach to environmentalism is doomed to failure. Embodied traditions such as Daoist cultivation could play an important role in teaching people how to overcome this dualism, and how to create alternative experiences of the world not as external to body, but within the body. The Daoist experience of pervasion is predicated on the possibility of the world flooding into the body and the body flooding into the world. Such transgressive experiences may serve to break down the ordinary perception of a world disconnected from the body of the individual. In their place such experiences could generate an ecological aesthesis, a psychosomatic sensitivity to the mutual implication of the lived body and the lived world. Such a sensitivity could serve as a much-needed complement to discursive modes of environmental action, such as earth charters, policies, ethics and legislation.


Abram, David. “Merleau Ponty and the Voice of the Earth.” Environmental Ethics 10.2 (1988).

Bachelard, Gaston. L’Eau et les rêves. Essai sur l’imagination de la matière. Paris: Corti, 1942.

______. The Psychoanalysis of Fire. Trans. Alan C. M. Ross. Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 1962.

Baudrillard, Jean. Le Système des objets. Paris: Gallimard, 1968.

Charmaz, Kathy. Good Days, Bad Days: The Self In Chronic Illness and Time. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1991.

Colombetti, Giovanna and Evan Thompson. 2007. “The feeling body: Towards an enactive approach to emotion”. In Developmental Perspectives on Embodiment and Consciousness edited by Willis F. Overton, Ulrich Müller, and Judith Newman, 45-68. New York: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Jung, Hwa Jol.“Enlightenment and the Question of the Other: A Postmodern Audition.” Human Studies 25 (2002): 297–306.

______. 2007. “Merleau-Ponty’s Transversal Geophilosophy.” In Merleau-Ponty and environmental philosophy: dwelling on the landscapes of thought edited by Sue Cataldi and William Hamrick, 235-258. Albany: SUNY Press

Kaplan, Edward K. “Gaston Bachelard’s Philosophy of Imagination: An Introduction.” Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 33.1 (1972): 1-24

Komjathy, Louis. “Mapping the Daoist Body Part One: The Neijing tu in History.” Journal of Daoist Studies 1 (2008): 67–92

Lane, Jeremy F “Towards a Poetics of Consumerism: Gaston Bachelard’s ‘Material Imagination’ and Narratives of Post-War Modernisation.” French Cultural Studies 17.1 (2006): 19-34

Miller, James. The Way of Highest Clarity: Nature, Vision and Revelation in Medieval China. Magdalena, NM: Three Pines Press, 2008.

Nixon, Denver Vale. “The Environmental Resonance of Daoist Moving Meditations.” Worldviews: Environment, Culture, Religion 10.3 (2006): 380–403

Sarukkai, Sundar. “Inside/Outside: Merleau-Ponty/Yoga.” Philosophy East and West 52.4 (2002): 459-478

Schafer, Edward. “The Jade Woman of Greatest Mystery,” History of Religions 17:3/4 (1978): 387–398.

Shusterman, Richard. “Body Consciousness and Performance: Somaesthetics East and West.” The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 67.2 (2009):133–145

Varela, Francis. J., Evan Thompson, Evan, and E. Rosch, The Embodied Mind: Cognitive Science and Human Experience. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1991.

Watson, Burton, trans. 1968. The Complete Works of Chuang Tzu. New York: Columbia University Press



[1] Hwa-Jol Jung, “Enlightenment and the Question of the Other: A Postmodern Audition” Human Studies 25 (2002): 298

[2] Gaston Bachelard, La Poétique de l’espace, (Paris: PUF/Collection ‘Quadrige’, 7e édition, 1998 [1957]), 33; quoted in Jeremy F. Lane, “Towards a Poetics of Consumerism: Gaston Bachelard’s ‘Material Imagination’ and Narratives of Post-War Modernisation” French Cultural Studies 17.1 (2006): 21.

[3] Gaston Bachelard, La Terre et les rêveries de la volonté (Paris: José Corti, 1948), 9; quoted in Lane, “Poetics,” 20.

[4] Gaston Bachelard, L’Eau et les rêves. Essai sur l’imagination de la matière, (Paris: Corti 1942), 155; quoted in Edward K. Kaplan, “Gaston Bachelard’s Philosophy of Imagination: An Introduction,” Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 33.1 (1972), 4.

[5] Kaplan, “Gaston Bachelard,” 5.

[6] Gaston Bachelard, The Psychoanalysis of Fire, trans. Alan C. M. Ross, (Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 1964), 2.

[7] Lane, “Poetics,” 23

[8] Jean Baudrillard, Le Système des objets, (Paris: Gallimard, 1968), 77.

[9] Lane, “Poetics,” 28

[10] Maurice Merleau-Ponty, “Husserl et la Notion de Nature (Notes Prises au Cours de Maurice Merleau-Ponty)” Revue de Metaphysique et de Morale 70 (1965): 261; quoted in Hwa-Jol Jung, “Merleau-Ponty’s Transversal Geophilosophy,” in Merleau-Ponty and Environmental Philosophy: Dwelling on the Landscapes of Thought, ed. Sue Cataldi and William Hamrick, (Albany: SUNY Press, 2007), 241.

[11] Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Le Visible et L’Invisible (Paris: Gallimard, 1964),139–140; quoted in Jung, “Transversal,” 242–243.

[12] See Varela et al., The Embodied Mind: Cognitive Science and Human Experience, (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press,1997).

[13] Giovanna Colombetti and Evan Thompson, “The feeling body: Towards an enactive approach to emotion,” in Developmental Perspectives on Embodiment and Consciousness ed. Willis F. Overton, et al., (New York: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates: 2007), 46.

[14] Colombetti and Thompson, “Feeling body,” 56.

[15] David Abram, “Merleau Ponty and the Voice of the Earth,” Environmental Ethics 10.2 (1988), 119.

[16] Richard Shusterman, “Body Consciousness and Performance: Somaesthetics East and West,” The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 67.2 (2009): 139.

[17] Schneider suffered head injuries and consequently many mental disorders. Merleau-Ponty used his case notes as evidence to refute empiricist and intellectualist theories of perception.

[18] Sundar Sarrukai, “Inside/Outside: Merleau-Ponty/Yoga,” Philosophy East and West 52.4 (2002): 462

[19] Sarukkai, “Inside/Outside,” 466.

[20] Shusterman, “Body,” 136.

[21] Burton Watson, trans., Chuang Tzu: Basic Writings, (New York: Columbia, 1964), 87.

[22] Edward Schafer, “The Jade Woman of Greatest Mystery,” History of Religions 17:3/4 (1978): 387–398.

[23] Central Scripture of the Nine Perfected (Jiu zhen zhong jing 九真中經) trans. adapted from James Miller, The Way of Highest Clarity: Nature, Vision and Revelation in Medieval China (Magdalena, NM: Three Pines Press, 2008), 173.

[24] Miller, The Way of Highest Clarity, 123.

[25] Miller, The Way of Highest Clarity, 65.

[26] Louis Komjathy, “Mapping the Daoist Body Part One: The Neijing tu in History,” Journal of Daoist Studies 1 (2008): 82–83.

[27]  Denver Vale Nixon, “The Environmental Resonance of Daoist Moving Meditations,” Worldviews: Environment, Culture, Religion 10.3 (2006): 389-90.

[28] Nixon, “Environmental,” 390.

[29] Nixon, “Environmental,” 395.