‘Environmentalism’ and its Conceptual Affiliates in Pre-Modern Chinese Thought

Esmond Soh, Contributor & Writer, Cogito Collective


In 2019, I visited my ancestral home in Chaozhou, China where I managed to gain access to the ancestral temple of the Sohs. A fully refurbished and new building greeted my eyes (the stone stele in the temple suggest that the temple was completed in 2002 CE). What caught my eye, however, was neither the intricacy of the carvings that decorated the temple’s rooftop nor the litany of banners displayed in honour of the clan, but the declaration that one of the Soh family’s celebrated polymaths – Su Song (1101-1120 CE) of the Song dynasty (960–1279 CE) – was a ‘scientist’.

Author with an image of the Song dynasty polymath Su Song (1101-1120 CE), Soh Clan Temple, Helong village, Chaozhou, China. Photograph courtesy of Sung Chang Da, June 2019.

Why bring the title of a scientist if the stated goal of this paper revolves around ‘environmentalism?’ ‘Science’ and ‘scientists,’ as pointed out by Benjamin Elman, was a term imported into late imperial and early Republican China through Japan. As I have noted in an earlier issue of Cogito, the notion of ‘science’ in imperial China was an anachronism imposed upon the past by the historians of today. I will argue that the same is true about how we believe that the pre-modern Chinese possessed an indigenous counterpart to ‘environmentalism’ as we know it today.

Of course, this is not a paper about the evolution of the term ‘environmentalism’ in a linguistic sense. Before I provide a brief outline of my views, I wish to make clear three limitations of my study. Firstly, as Robert Marks rightly notes, the notion of ‘China’ was never set in stone in the past, and the political entity that we take for granted as China today is a modern-day byproduct of the nation-state and nationalism. ‘China’ was a vacillating body of polities that existed across the East Asian subcontinent, and thus I will not spend time quibbling on what it means to be ‘Chinese’ or otherwise. Secondly, for purposes of analysis, I interpret ‘environmentalism’ as “a concern with the preservation of the natural environment, especially from damage caused by human influence” as per the Oxford English Dictionary’s (OED) second definition of the term.

Finally, before I get lambasted by assertions that I am resorting to strawman fallacies, I want to make clear that this is both a commentary on the history of a concept in China (‘environmentalism’) and its explanatory power (however misinterpreted) in popular culture today. Clearly, not everyone who defines themselves as environmentalists will fall back on the definition of ‘environmentalism’ as suggested by the OED. Thus from the second argument onwards, I will be tapping on a mix of contemporaneous movements and philosophies that have chosen to align themselves with ‘environmentalism’ in one form or another.

Having said that, I preoccupy myself with three different, albeit interrelated arguments. Firstly, I provide a historical background of how our popular consciousness offers us an assumption that the Chinese of the past were ‘environmentalists’ as we interpret the term today. Secondly, I show how popular culture and various movements who claim an affiliation with environmentalism have latched onto these ahistorical claims. This section – possibly the lengthiest of all three – includes a critique of the ahistorical baggage that we subconsciously carry with us today. I thus demonstrate how the focus on the ‘environment’ in pre-modern Chinese thought remains on shaky ground. Finally, and in some respects counterintuitive to this essay, I will show how the prevailing problem that faces humankind is not about whether or not there was a Chinese precedent for the notion of ‘environmentalism’. Because the past and present represent continuities rather than detached extremes, there needs to be a bit more appreciation of the differences between history and philosophy when approaching a term as contentious as environmentalism. 

Environmentalism: An Alien Concept?

Elsewhere, Ramachandra Guha has provided a brilliant coverage of the historical roots that underpinned the modern-day environmentalist movement, and I see no point as to why I should parrot his views. To be sure, there are many dimensions and forces that gave birth to the environmentalist movement as we know it today, but one of the most significant works – besides Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring (1962) – would come from Lynn White Jr. (1907-1987) in 1967. 

Lynn White Jr.’s article – titled The Historical Roots of Our Ecological Crisis – spans only six pages, but it would become one of his most controversial works. Briefly, White made the claim that Judeo-Christian rhetoric and belief systems created an “occidental”, i.e. ‘Western’ worldview, antithetical to environmental well-being. White claimed that Judeo-Christian ethics created an anthropocentric worldview conducive to the abuse and control of the environment. 

Maybe it’s ironic that Science would accept a paper that touches on religion and environmentalism from a scholar who specialised in neither of them (White was a historian of medieval history). Whatever the reason, White was as much a product and a cause of the environmentalist ethic in the world. His views, which remain obsessed around a distinctively ‘Western’ tradition where the nature-loving Saint Francis of Assisi was depicted as the exception rather than the norm, should give us pause. In his construction of the West as environmentally-depraved, it is understandable that the solution to these problems could be found in its antithesis, that is the ‘East.’ White himself seems to subtly agree: In Roots, he praises “Zen Buddhism, which conceives of the man-nature relationship as very nearly the mirror image of the Christian view.” Nevertheless, Zen Buddhism, because of its rootedness in “Asian history,” according to White, was unlikely to stay in the West.

In Roots, we are presented with two tacit assumptions: The East is superior in terms of its appreciation of and care for the environment, whereas the West, with its Christian ethics, have fallen short. Secondly, models – if not their solutions – can be found in the Orient. Countless works have jumped on the bandwagon of an East-West dichotomy outlined by White, where the pre-modern Chinese, apparently, possessed a fondness for the environment. This mining of historical texts for references made to nature became a new direction for scholars of environmental ethics and thought, and in this context, we see how a body of works – for better or worse – have mushroomed.

Where East Meets West: Clean Breaks or Commonalities?

Because Confucianism and its Neo-Confucian successors had a huge role to play in the official political ideology of imperial China, it is difficult to write a paper on the thought of China without at least providing an outline of their role, and ‘environmentalism’ is no exception to the rule. At a very surface level, contemporary observers are bombarded with arguments that the Chinese have had a great reverence for nature given the number of references made to natural phenomenon, be it in through the Classic of Poetry (dated to circa 11th to 7th BCE, and said to have been compiled by Confucius), or through paintings, where humans take on a very small role vis-à-vis the physical landscape of waterfalls and mountains. The short-handed (and usually lazy) inference goes that the Chinese had always possessed a reverence for nature and its creations until the carnage unleashed by the Maoist interpretation of Marxism upon the environment, where the landscape was to be mechanically tamed and controlled to fit human ends.

Fan Kuan-Sitting Alone by a Stream (circa 11th century). Note the relatively small size of the shelters or homes in the left foreground vis-a-vis the mountainside of this painting.
Source: Wikipedia

On the point about the importance of natural imagery in Chinese literature and thought, I have already raised the prevalence of analogical reasoning in Chinese thought in an earlier issue of Cogito. To recapitulate some of my earlier points, I made the argument that Chinese thought was suffuse with analogical reasoning, where correlations were drawn between two otherwise irrelevant phenomena. That is why the Classic of Poetry – and despite all of its references to nature such as birds and mulberry trees – is better interpreted as a political-Confucian allegory in the context of its compilation rather than a text espousing an appreciation for the natural world.

King Yu (禹) as imagined by by Song Dynasty painter Ma Lin (馬麟). Hanging scroll, color on silk. Size 249 x 111.3 cm (height x width). Painting is located in the National Palace Museum, Taipei
Source: Wikipedia

Moreover, the Chinese – contrary to the stillness of mountain scenery in watercolour paintings – still prided Han Chinese civilisation. Thus, terra incognita was not always appreciated for its own beauty. Contrary to White’s belief that the notion of controlling nature was a ‘Western’ sentiment, the Chinese also had their own myths of flood engineering and control. The cultural hero – Great Yu – was then hailed as the founder of the Xia dynasty (circa 2070-1600 BCE) after he managed to divert the floodwaters of the Yellow River through a series of drains and dikes in prehistoric China. To commemorate the founding of the Xia dynasty metal ores were procured from nine regions of China, which were then fashioned into nine tripods decorated with the flora, fauna and (possibly) monsters of China. Great Yu was thus praised in the Mencius as an idealised Confucian ruler because he allowed Chinese civilisation to flourish by quelling the threat of floods, alongside other dynastic successors who torched mountains and forests to expand the amount of arable land available to humankind. White was clearly wrong when he suggested that the notion of subjugation and dominion over nature was ‘Western,’ a fact best demonstrated by how the semi-historical suppressor of China’s floodwaters was credited as the founder of China’s dynastic system.

One of the many fantastic animals found in the Classic of Mountains and Seas (ca. 4th century CE), reprinted in the Qing dynasty (1644-1911)
Source: Wikipedia

The other text that had caught the fascination of Chinese readers (and the author’s editor and friends) across millennia is the Classic of Mountains and Seas (circa 4th century BCE), where fantastical beings were featured as beings who dwelled in far-off regions. Why were the unknown and unexplored regions of the world depicted in such a manner? Richard von Glahn’s brilliant monograph demonstrated how the Chinese perceived the untamed wild as hosting bastions of uncanny monsters who could only be tamed by esoteric knowledge – such as the true name or a picture of the monster’s true form. Forests and mountains – although home to Taoist hermits and Buddhist ascetics – were also indigenous to mountain goblins modelled after wild primates. Great Yu’s inscription of plants and animals located throughout China onto the nine tripods was a symbol of his mastery over the untamed wild: After all, there was nothing outside of the Chinese ruler’s dominion once their true forms were carved onto the tripods for his subjects to recognise and control. These sentiments of fear, suspense and belief that only thorough knowledge of an unknown wilderness provided a key of controlling it certainly did not fit into the so-called naturalistic schema that the pre-modern Chinese are conflated with. 

Confucian Problems: Mencius, Fishing, Deforestation and Ox Mountain

Having said that, how about texts from the triad of Confucianism-Daoism-Buddhism? There are, to be sure, countless apologists, who insist that the Chinese of the past possessed a sentiment of environmental ethics that could, and should be quickly imbued into our ideologies of today. Here, I will first busy myself with Confucianism. On Buddhism, Daoism and its lay counterparts, more attention will be devoted to them in the subsequent sections. 

Mary Evelyn Tucker – through her reading of Neo-Confucian scholarship– concluded that the Neo-Confucians possessed a “naturalistic cosmology” in one of the many other works she authored on the relationship between Chinese thought, religion and environmentalist sentiment in the past and present. Li Tianchen also makes a case for “Confucian ecological ethics” in a compressed article. Suffice to say, I find these works neither convincing nor helpful in their jointly held contention that the Chinese were environmentalists (or possessed a nascent form of ‘environmentalism’) for two reasons. Firstly, a large amount of cherry-picking is involved, hence we observe an over-romanticised interpretation of ‘Confucianism’s’ – or any other denomination of Chinese philosophy – supposed harmony with the natural world. Secondly, and perhaps most worryingly of all – is that these works have noted – subtly or otherwise – that they have studied the past in an attempt to find an answer to the environmental problems of today. 

Mencius, Annotated and Commentated, a Yuan-Ming copy mended on top of a Song dynasty printing from the Jiatai reign period (1201-1204)
Source: Wikipedia

To be fair to these scholars, their interpretation of Confucian texts – although stretched to fit their respective agendas in many other instances – were not conjured out of thin air. The Chinese of old were not ignorant of their impact upon the environment, but it is clear that our current notions of environmentalism took on an incarnation very different from the concerns of the past. Donald Hughes noted in his study of how one Confucian scholar – Mencius (4th century BCE) – had explicated upon the environmental woes of China during the era of the Warring States (475-221 BCE) in his eponymous work, The Mencius. Two parts of The Mencius appear to show how the Chinese appreciated the need for environmental stewardship in order to prevent finite resources from being depleted:

If the seasons of husbandry be not interfered with, the grain will be more than can be eaten. If close nets are not allowed to enter the pools and ponds, the fishes and turtles will be more than can be consumed. If the axes and bills enter the hills and forests only at the proper time, the wood will be more than can be used. When the grain and fish and turtles are more than can be eaten, and there is more wood than can be used, this enables the people to nourish their living and mourn for their dead, without any feeling against any… Let mulberry trees be planted about the homesteads with their five mu, and persons of fifty years may be clothed with silk. In keeping fowls, pigs, dogs, and swine, let not their times of breeding be neglected, and persons of seventy years may eat flesh. Let there not be taken away the time that is proper for the cultivation of the farm with its hundred mu, and the family of several mouths that is supported by it shall not suffer from hunger… 

Here, Mencius urged for tighter state controls over aspects of fishing, husbandry and wood felling, which are sentiments that are definitely cognisant with modern day concerns about deforestation and overfishing. His prescription that the size of meshes used in fishing nets be regulated in order to prevent the overfishing of fish fry before they are big enough for the table echoes similar sentiments in other parts of the world. Elsewhere, The Mencius notes:

The trees of the Niu [Ox] mountain were once beautiful. Being situated, however, in the borders of a large State, they were hewn down with axes and bills – and could they retain their beauty? Still through the activity of the vegetative life day and night, and the nourishing influence of the rain and dew, they were not without buds and sprouts springing forth, but then came the cattle and goats and browsed upon them. To these things is owing the bare and stripped appearance of the mountain, and when people now see it, they think it was never finely wooded. But is this the nature of the mountain? And so also of what properly belongs to man; shall it be said that the mind of any man was without benevolence and righteousness? The way in which a man loses his proper goodness of mind is like the way in which the trees are denuded by axes and bills. Hewn down day after day, can it – the mind – retain its beauty? But there is a development of its life day and night, and in the calm air of the morning, just between night and day, the mind feels in a degree those desires and aversions which are proper to humanity, but the feeling is not strong, and it is fettered and destroyed by what takes place during the day. This fettering taking place again and again, the restorative influence of the night is not sufficient to preserve the proper goodness of the mind; and when this proves insufficient for that purpose, the nature becomes not much different from that of the irrational animals, and when people now see it, they think that it never had those powers which I assert. But does this condition represent the feelings proper to humanity? Therefore, if it receives its proper nourishment, there is nothing which will not grow. If it loses its proper nourishment, there is nothing which will not decay away.

Before we congratulate ourselves and celebrate the notion that there was a Chinese ‘environmentalism’ in The Mencius, two limitations must be surfaced. Firstly, in The Mencius, the focus remains very much upon human society rather than an inherent concern for the natural world. As noted earlier, Mencius praised the Chinese kings of old for taming the wilderness, be it through the building of dikes or the clearing of forests by fire. Hughes likewise argues that Mencius promoted “resource conservation within an anthropocentric framework” where human well-being was the priority, rather than the environment. We are also reminded that The Mencius was a series of policy prescriptions offered to Chinese rulers to stabilise their own bases of leadership, not a how-to-do kit for environmental conservation in the era of the Warring States. The questions which Mencius and his fellow colleagues preoccupied themselves revolved around the nature of governance, not the technicalities of environmental conservation. 

Back to the notion of analogical and correlative reasoning, we can also read both accounts in the light of idealised Confucian leadership and authority. In the first account, the idealised Confucian ruler was one who does not interfere with the natural flow of the seasons and cosmos by supporting appropriate economic activities in accordance with the seasons. In the second, we can also read the story of Ox Mountain as a socio-political allegory: Those who are not willing to conduct themselves on a day-to-day basis are essentially hacking away at their true selves with an axe, a phenomenon metaphorized by a deforested mountainside. 

Vegetarianism-Veganism and Environmentalism: The Dubious Link

Concepts of vegetarianism-veganism present within Chinese religion – organised Daoism, Buddhism or otherwise – is a dimension that I would like to address in this section. Beliefs about the sanctity of life – both animal and humans – have led to the publication of sacred texts that condemn the wanton killing of animals for food and the destruction of forests and rivers. It does not take us very long before we leapfrog to a questionable relationship between vegetarianism and environmentalism – with their modern-day baggage of environmentally friendly assumptions – as keystones of Chinese religion and culture. To be sure, I do not have many academic works to justify this association of religiously-inspired vegetarianism with environmental concerns, but this conflation appears fairly common for me to devote some coverage to in this essay. 

In this regard, the link between religious vegetarianism-veganism and environmentalism is, at best, a dubious one that was teleologically produced by contemporaneous concerns rather than having historical origins. Crudely speaking, religious vegetarianism-veganism became engaged in a marriage of convenience with environmental ethics as far as this essay is concerned. One cannot deny the contribution of Chinese vegetarianism-veganism to the international environmentalist cause. However, meat and its related products, such as leather, were avoided by devotees not because neither them nor their religious leaders were cognisant of humankind’s impact upon the natural world. Instead, as I will demonstrate, the partaking and use of animal products was banned because the latter was associated with pollution on both the material and spiritual fronts. Once we pry away the layers of modern-day assumptions embedded into our interpretation of the past, a very different historical picture emerges: protecting the environment became an incidental aspect of spiritual practice, not vice versa. 

Clearly, belief systems that dissuade against the killing of animals for food are intertwined with concerns that are spiritual rather than environmental in nature. Vincent Goossaert explains how eschatological works revealed through spirit-writing in the nineteenth century suggested that an apocalypse could only be avoided by the faithful if devotees began abstaining from killing animals from meat. The half-hearted, we are told in one instance, are urged to give up animals that have contributed greatly to the wellbeing of agrarian China, namely cows and dogs.

One of the many vegetarian halls affiliated with the Great Way of Former Heaven’s teachings in Singapore. Photograph by the author, July 2019.

These notions of abstaining from meat and the adoption of a vegetarian-vegan diet had inspired other aspects of Chinese religion that fall outside of the triad of Confucianism-Taoism-Buddhism. Similarly, the Great Way of Former Heaven, a Chinese sect which proliferated in Southeast Asia throughout the nineteenth and eighteenth centuries, are home to a network of vegetarian halls that live up to their namesakes. The still-ongoing Festival of the Nine Emperor Gods in Southeast Asia requires its devotees to undergo a vegan diet for the first nine days of the ninth lunar month. This, as Cheu Hock Tong notes in his study of the Festival in Malaysia, extends to an aversion to all animal products, such as leather and blood.

One of the many temples dedicated to the worship of the Nine Emperor Gods in Southeast Asia, Penang island, Malaysia. Photograph by the author, August 2018.

Devout Chinese in China and abroad may have had abstained from the burning of forests and killed animals for food, but to assume that they were ‘environmentalists’ as we understand the term today is to be grossly ahistorical. Conversely, as Robert Marks notes, Buddhist monks and their monasteries were conferred with expanses of land – some mountainous and others agricultural – throughout the Sui (581-618 CE) and Tang dynasties (617-907 CE). These communities “did not simply sit in their hilltop monasteries meditating,” but were involved in en masse deforestation for the construction of new monasteries and the expansion of arable land. These developments – unsurprisingly – had their own respective impact upon the population of animals living in these territories. 

The point I wish to make here is that those who abide by vegetarianism-veganism are not necessarily as concerned about the well-being of the environment (or animals, for that matter) as compared to their own spiritual and material well-being. Although we know today that the consumption of meat contributes to an enormous carbon footprint – beef being a chief culprit – I doubt that Chinese devotees in China before the 1990s had knowledge of these processes that are covered by the ontologies and epistemologies of environmental science today, much less couched their own religious practices under the umbrella of these discourses. Religious practices undertaken by the Chinese faithful may have improved the environment incidentally, but they were never ‘environmentalists’ as we understand the term today. No one then cared about their carbon footprints, much less entertained sentiments about how going vegan is apparently the way to save the world from the brink of an environmental apocalypse. The focus of these practitioners’ concerns and anxieties had nothing to do with the environment: It was ultimately their own spiritual purity as defined by the absence of killing and unnecessary destruction of their surroundings that mattered, rather than their embrace of environmentally friendly practices. 

The Environment Was Never Alive, But People Are Living

The final part of this essay revolves around the futility of this debate, as to whether or not the pre-modern Chinese had a semblance of environmentalism. As I have argued throughout the first two parts of this essay, the answer is probably ‘no.’ When we think otherwise, we are essentially keeping a decades-old myth alive, namely where the East and West are portrayed as two completely incommensurable entities. To be fair to ourselves, such myths are alive simply because they are so powerful and ‘commonsensical:’ It is easier for us to portray a wizened East Asian looking from a cloud-covered mountaintop than say, an aged Caucasian man. What I did in this essay was to unpack the many assumptions that kept this myth alive: environmentalism is a modern-day concept that has no place in the China of old. When we see such so-called instances of ‘environmentalism,’ these impressions are better characterised as cherry-picking at best, or a reflection of our own contemporaneous concerns at worst.

But why should we limit ourselves to merely recognising that environmentalism was an anachronism in China’s history and belief systems? What I really wanted to do in this short piece was to show how we tend to a) romanticise the past and its related ideologies; and b) to demonstrate how historicity and philosophy – despite their occasional overlaps – have caused their own problems where accuracy is concerned. But this does not mean that historical and philosophical inquiries are doomed to sleep in different beds. For example, while we should caution ourselves from simply equating Confucian ethics with environmental ethics (like what Tucker and Li had done, see above), we could still ultimately tap upon common values indigenous to Chinese thought and link them to environmentalism. This is where nuancing comes in, and the task of drawing the line becomes especially important when the scale of environmental damage and unsustainable living is made known today. History and the present (there is an aptly-named journal titled Current History) – like environmentalism and Chinese thought – are two sides of the same coin: They are connected yet independent of each other at the same time. The difficulty of separating a Chinese past from an environmentalist present, I suggest, can be best explored by a modern-day assimilation of environmentalist thought into Chinese thought, as I will show in the final section of this essay.

Towards an Ecological Civilisation?

Earlier, I have brought up the Maoist rampage of the Chinese countryside. To a degree, it is certainly possible for us to pin the blame of China’s environmental problems upon the materialist ethos espoused by Marxism and its Maoist counterpart. Buying wholeheartedly into this version of events, however, leads us into the same pitfall as Lynn White’s suggestion that humankind’s environmental concerns could ultimately be traced to Judeo-Christian beliefs. Lynn White is certainly right to map out the relationships between religion, culture and environmental ethics, but he had only scratched the surface of a very complex problem.

The theoretical barrier between ideology, history, culture and environmental ethics in the Chinese schema is actually very fluid. The purported determinism embodied in Marxism should not be the be-all-end-all of our analysis, for it has demonstrated great potential in embracing change. Although the Chinese have received a poor press coverage for its environmental woes in its “growth at all costs” domestic policy since the Deng reforms, reality – particularly since the post-2000s and with Hu Jintao’s ascent to political prominence – paints a much more complex picture. Paradoxically, and despite China’s poor showing at the international table – namely her feet dragging at the Copenhagen Conference of 2009 – domestic environmental problems have been tackled with increasing reforms at different levels of government.

“Promoting Ecological Civilisation, Beautifying China: Teaching Materials Compiled by Members of the Chinese Communist Party.” Photo by the author, bookshop in Guangzhou, June 2019.

As a final example, it may surprise non-Chinese readers that the Marxist-Maoist guidelines of China have been re-modelled to include environmental conservation and ethics as well. This has led to the birth of a concept that has received – unfortunately – little coverage outside of Chinese scholarship, namely the notion of an ‘ecological civilisation.’ Cynics may argue that this is an instance of rhetoric conjured up to paper over glaring environmental damage at best, but the increasing use of the said-term in state level discourses and master plans that span across many dimensions of Chinese society should give such assertions pause. An ‘ecological civilisation’ thus remains much more than a buzzword, but a representation of the Chinese’s commitment to phasing out environmentally damaging practices and industries that have taken root across the past fifty years. The Chinese consciousness – at least at an official-state level – had readily assimilated and engaged with environmentalism, albeit on terms relevant to the official Marxist-Maoist outlook of the Chinese Communist Party. Environmentalism is now officially a part of the Chinese worldview and masterplan, but would it work given the damage done thus far? Only time will tell.

About the author:

Esmond Soh is a student of Chinese religion in Southeast Asia. His other research interests include human-environment interactions and historical anthropology in general.

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