Much intellectual discourse about Chinese philosophical and religious views of nature focuses on ideals such as harmony between humans and the natural world, or “forming one body with heaven and earth” (tian ren he yi). But when it comes to historical studies of Chinese environmental history, it’s hard to find instances of where this ideal was concretely realized. Mark Elvin concludes his monumental history of China’s environment with the following observation
The religious, philosophical, literary, and historical texts surveyed and translated in the foregoing pages have been rich sources of description, insight, and even, perhaps, inspiration. But the dominant ideas and ideologies, which were often to some degree in contradiction with each other, appear to have little explanatory power in determining why what seems actually to have happened to the Chinese environment happened the way it did. Occasionally, yes, Buddhism helped to safeguard trees around monasteries. The law-enforced mystique shrouding Qing imperial tombs kept their surroundings untouched by more than minimal economic exploitation. but in general, no. There seems no case for thinking that, some details apart, the Chinese anthropogenic environment was developed and maintained in the way it was over the long run of more than three millennia because of particular characteristically Chinese beliefs or perceptions. or, at least, not in comparison with the massive effects of the pursuit of power and profit in the arena provided by the possibilities and limitations of the Chinese natural world, and the technologies that grew from interactions with them.
But when it comes to the history of religion in China, (rather than philosophical ideas), the story is quite different. Chinese religions demonstrate a continuous attempt to grapple with the natural world, imploring the heavens to aid the productive bounty of the earth. For popular Chinese religion in particular, the natural world is also depicted as a dangerous force capable of producing death and destruction on a massive scale. (More…)