In this three minute video presentation, I give good reasons why we should be optimistic about how China is dealing with its environmental issues, and how the whole world can benefit.
Tag Archives: environment
why china will solve the world’s environmental problems
Quick! Picture China’s biggest environmental problem.
I 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.
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.
Is Green the New Red? The Role of Religion in Creating a Sustainable China
James Miller. 2013. “Is Green the New Red? The Role of Religion in Creating a Sustainable China.” Nature and Culture 8.3: 249-264. http://dx.doi.org/10.3167/nc.2013.080302
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 .) 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  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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the philosophy of qi in an era of air pollution
In a recent column in Nature, Qiang Wang argues that responsibility for transforming China’s environment lies with its citizens. He points to several instances in which local protests have successfully prevented new industrial activity, and argues that this heralds the beginning of a new relationship between Chinese citizens, the state and the environment.
China is witnessing the beginnings of a civil society in which the Chinese people spontaneously defend their right to a healthy environment, independent of organizers, political goals and commercial interests.
The issue here is the scale at which people are engaging with environmental issues. Fighting against the development of a local chemical factory does not necessarily signal the development of an transformative ecological consciousness, but could simply be the result of a NIMBYism that governments across the world have to contend with.
The issue of air quality, however, is different.
Qiang Wang writes:
Chinese citizens who want to drink clean water can buy a water purifier; those worried about poisoned milk can buy imported milk. But when the air is polluted, there is no option but to fight.
The broad scale of China’s air quality problems, and the fact that smog cannot easily be evaded, means that it has the potential to engender a large scale transformation in attitudes towards environmental issues. Far from simply being the concern of local citizens for local issues, the issue of air quality is so widespread and so immediately felt that it demands transformative action.
Traditional Chinese culture views the body not as a discrete object set apart from its environment, but as a dynamic system in which vital fluids are exchanged between the inner body and their environment. Central to this view is the concept of Qi (Ch’i) 气 a complex term sometimes translated as vital breath, spirit, or pneuma. The most fundamental form of Qi is the air we breathe that gives us life.
One important connection between contemporary ecology and traditional Chinese culture, therefore, lies in the way that bodies are engaged with their environments. In both cases we can say that Qi or breath is the basic medium through which this engagement takes place. Qi is the conduit, the vital fluid, that circulates between the two in a constant dynamic exchange.
From this perspective it is easy to see that healthy environments help to produce healthy bodies. Although they are two distinct systems, bodies and ecosystems are connected at the most fundamental level through Qi, the flow of breath that keeps us alive.
The philosophy of Qi also urges us to think about health not simply in physiological terms but in broader ecological terms. Our health derives from the food we eat, the air we breathe, and the water we drink. This traditional Chinese view has enormous potential to foster a broad ecological consciousness in China and across the world.
daoist religion and ecotourism: a visit to maoshan
In May this year I had the opportunity to visit Maoshan (Mt. Mao) a Daoist mountain sacred to the Shangqing (Highest Clarity) tradition of Daoism that I studied in my most recent book. Located in Jiangsu province, it is about an hour’s bus ride south of Zhenjiang, a stop on the main high speed railway from Shanghai to Nanjing.
I was interested to visit Maoshan not only because of my historical research, but because it was the site of the Maoshan declaration, which in 2008 committed China’s Daoist Association to a ten year program of ecological protection.
The result of my visit is a mixed assessment of the possibilities and problems associated with the practical implementation of Daoism and ecology. I’ll be presenting the full details of my conclusions at the forthcoming SASASAAS conference at Furman University on September 24-25, but I’d like to present some key findings now.
First of all, the encounter between Daoism and Ecology has to be understood from the perspective of China’s engagement with modernity and especially science. “Ecology” in Chinese does not signify a Romantic attachment to nature undefiled by human habitation, but rather a modern, scientific and ultimately technological enterprise. To make Daoist sites more “ecological” means to install green technology such as solar panels, and to showcase Daoism not as a “traditional” culture but as modern and scientific.
Secondly, the encounter between Daoism and Ecology is an economic enterprise. A chief incentive for Daoist sites to engage in ecological protection is to respond to the demand for ecotourism. As such Daoist sites work with local governments to develop the whole areas surrounding Daoist temples as ecotourism sites. Engaging with ecology thus helps drive economic development. As a case in point, the Maoshan site was developed not only by the Daoist Association but by the People’s Liberation Army which operates a memorial to soldiers of the 3rd Army who fought in the Anti-Japanese War of 1937-45. Nearby the museum is a garish 99 metre high statue of Laozi, the legendary author of the Daode jing. Maoshan is thus an ecotourism site, a patriotic memorial, and a Daoist temple site, all in one. As a result it obtained AAAA tourism designation, the second-highest national ranking, making it a prime location for “red”, i.e., patriotic tourism activities.
The current implementation of “Daoism and Ecology” in China thus resists simplistic Western notions of Daoism as “the Way of Nature.” It is also a way of economic development, a way of science and modernity, a patriotic and even militaristic way. This should not be surprising to scholars of religion who are well-attuned to the complexities and contradictions that religious cultures historically inhabit. But it may be surprising to those who have sought to frame “Eastern religions” as somehow more authentically connected to nature than the monotheisms of Western religion. Yes, the Daoist conception of nature does have much to contribute to the discussion on religion and ecology, but the practical implementation of this concept in China is caught in a complex political, ideological and economic web.
new directions in religion and nature
I was in LA last weekend to attend the Sixth Annual Conference on Daoist Studies which was organized by my former teacher, Livia Kohn, and LMU Professor Robin Wang. The conference drew the usual mix of academics and practitioners (which was itself the subject of an interesting meta-analysis by Elijah Siegler). My rationale for attending the conference, however, was that one of its focus themes was religion and ecology. I wanted to see how far the field had evolved since I co-edited the first book on this topic, Daoism and Ecology, Ways within a Cosmic Landscape, in 2001, and I’m delighted to report that there has been some excellent progress.
The majority of essays in that volume, nearly a decade old now, focussed on correlations between environmental concepts and philosophical and religious concepts in the Daoist tradition. Some focussed more on cultural practices such as fengshui or meditation, but there was generally a lack of historical detail and also theoretical innovation. But it was the first stab at creating such a field, so one can’t be too critical.
On the other hand, the papers presented at this year’s conference revealed a greater emphasis on historical detail and also a willingness to engage theoretically innovative frameworks and methods coming from cognitive science and evolutionary psychology. (More…)
does environmental science lead to environmental action?
I have just finished teaching my undergraduate course on religion and the environment. Most of the students are in engineering or environmental science, and the course fulfills a humanities requirement for them. It’s been fascinating teaching scientists about religion, as you can imagine, but it’s also been hard.
One of the most serious problems that I’ve had to deal with among my students is the basic assumption that seems to be taught in environmental science, namely that knowing more about the environment is the best way to generate action on the environment. (More…)
is china’s one child policy environmentally ethical?
By James Miller
I’ve been following Andrew Revkin’s dot Earth blog at the New York Times. The tag-line of the blog is “Nine Billion People. One Planet” and is premised on the demographic likelihood that by 2050 the world’s population will have increased from six to nine billion, effectively adding another two Chinas to what we have already.
At the same time, the populations of China, Brazil and India are developing their economies at a relatively rapid rate which means that those populations will be commanding a larger ecological footprint than they are doing already. China’s 2001 ecological footprint was 1.5 global hectares per person. Canada’s was 6.4. Assuming that China’s economic development will bring about an expansion of its ecological footprint, the results could be catastrophic to say the least. (More…)
environmental law or environmental ethics?
By James Miller
The image of China in the Western media is often that of a monolithic totalitarian state, run by a cabal of shady figures in Beijing whose decisions affect the lives of downtrodden millions. When I bring visitors to experience the incredibly vibrant new China, the most common reaction I get is “I did not expect it to be like this!” This tells me that many people in the West have a strong idea of what China is like. It’s just the wrong idea.