Daoism, Confucianism, and the Environment

Daoism, Confucianism, and the Environment

Religious and Philosophical Groups Are Quietly Emerging as a Powerful Force for a Greener China

In September, an unusual environmental organization was launched in one of the most ancient and significant sites in China—the Songyang Academy, Dengfeng, Henan. Founded in the eleventh century AD, this was one of the four Confucian Academies of China. The site was originally Buddhist; it became Daoist in the early seventh century, and Confucian in 1035.

All of that is but a footnote in history compared with the two ancient pine trees on the site, which were already so venerated in 110 BC that Emperor Wu of the Han Dynasty went there to worship them.

It was in the presence of these two great ancient trees that the International Confucian Ecological Alliance (ICEA) was inaugurated. It marked the first time a specific Confucian organizational response has emerged to the environmental issues confronting not just China, but (as ICEA’s title says) the whole world.

The Confucianists are planning to designate two cities as models of Confucian ecological values: Confucius’ birthplace of Qufu in Shandong and Dengfeng in Henan. Both commitments are part of their membership of the Green Pilgrimage Network (GPN), which links pilgrim places around the world in their journey to become greener.

Later this year, they will start work on developing an eight-year plan of environmental action based around their 500 temples and dozens of academies.

They also plan, in association with the Ministry of Education, to sponsor one hundred lecture events on Confucianism and ecology, and establish an academic board to oversee scholarly research on Confucian values and ecology. Next year they will celebrate the 2,565th birthday of Confucius with a huge gathering in Beijing focusing on ecology.

Meanwhile, in early November at Asia House in London, the China Daoist Association announced the further development of their twenty years of action on ecology. President of the Association, Master Ren Farong, spoke powerfully about his faith’s protection of sacred mountains; its involvement in developing Green Pilgrimage in China and commitment to stop the illegal wildlife trade, through restoring Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) to its proper, herbal foundations.

All this shows that the desire to find ways of being and living which reflect deep Chinese cultural traditions, wisdom, and insights is now a considerable movement not just amongst young Chinese but across all age groups. Daoism and Confucianism, as the two indigenous spiritual and philosophical traditions of China, are at the very core of the recovery of a specifically Chinese perspective on protecting our planet.

When they created their first statement on Daoism and the environment twenty years ago, the Daoists traced four principles.

  1. Follow the Earth

    The Earth respects Heaven, Heaven abides by the Dao, and the Dao follows the natural course of everything. Humans should help everything grow according to its own way. We should cultivate the way of no-action and let nature be itself.

    In a survey of the nine major sacred mountains of China (five Daoist ones: four Buddhist) in the late 1990s, it was found that where religious communities had managed to return to the sacred mountains after the Cultural Revolution, they had helped to protect a far wider range of biodiversity than on any comparable mountains. From this has come a program of Daoist temples identifying indigenous and threatened species and creating nurseries to sustain their recovery.

  2. Harmony With Nature

    In Daoism, everything is composed of two opposite forces known as Yin and Yang. The two forces are in constant struggle within everything. When they reach harmony, the energy of life is created. Someone who understands this point will not exploit nature, but will treat it well and learn from it.

    This is the philosophical, spiritual, and physiological basis of the program of the Daoists to oppose the use of endangered species—including tigers, elephants, and rhinos—in what passes for TCM. Daoists are now teaching that if by sourcing the ingredients you have disturbed the balance of yin and yang in the world, by harming rare species, or giving pain to other creatures, then the medicine will not work. Indeed it will harm you if you take it.

  3. Too Much Success

    If the pursuit of development runs counter to the harmony and balance of nature, even if it is of great immediate interest and profit, people should restrain themselves from it. Insatiable human desire will lead to the over-exploitation of natural resources. To be too successful is to be on the path to defeat.

    The critique of consumerism runs deep within the Daoist ecological program and at one level is symbolized by the Three Sticks Movement. Temples noticed that with increased wealth people were bringing huge bunches of incense sticks to burn at the shrines as if they could influence the gods by their excess. So the Daoists brought in a rule of simplicity. Just three sticks of incense is enough, one for Heaven, one for Earth, and one for yourself. In one small message is a big idea on how to live sustainably.

  4. Affluence In Biodiversity

    Daoism has a unique sense of value in that it judges affluence by the number of different species. If all things in the universe grow well, then a society is a community of affluence. If not, this kingdom is on the decline. This view encourages both government and people to take good care of nature.

So often the environmental movement is about instilling a sense of guilt and even fear. It doesn’t work. This is why Daoism encourages a positive view of the natural richness of nature as a cause for celebration. At Louguantai in Shaanxi province, where Lao Zi wrote the core Daoist book the Dao De Jing, the temple has become the major center of Daoist ecology. It runs monthly ceremonies to celebrate the cycle of nature. These attract thousands of people from the nearby city of Xi’an, who want to be put back in touch with the rhythm of nature.

Confucianism is new to this but its first ever Statement on the Environment in 2013 shows where it is going to put its energy over the next few years: into “a sustainable harmonious relationship between humans and nature.”

As the Shang Shu, one of the Five Confucian Classics, says so pithily in Chapter 22: “Just do what is right and proper and then all will be well.”

By Martin Palmer, Secretary General of the Alliance of Religions and Conservation, this article was first published by chinadialogue.





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<p>NIMBY—or “not in my backyard”—protests happen when residents attempt to protect their neighborhoods from the negative impacts of public or industrial facilities. Since the 2007 “walking protests” against a <a href="http://www...



How China Can Kick-start Carbon Capture and Storage

<p>China’s estimated total carbon dioxide&nbsp;emissions reached&nbsp;<a href=";pid=44&amp;aid=8" target="_blank">25 percent of global...



Food Safety Scandals Bring Reality-Check to “Chinese Dream”

<p>In the wake of China’s recent food scandal, Chinese premier Li Keqiang has vowed to enforce the toughest food safety regulations.</p><p>“We need to crack down on practices that violate laws and regulations with a heavy fist, and...



Water-Trading Could Exacerbate Water Shortages in China

<p>Large-scale engineering projects and rigorous state control are hallmarks of the Chinese developmental model, and both have been apparent in the country’s approach to water management.</p><p>A US$62 billion project to divert...



China Tops Table for Disaster-Induced Displacement of People

<p>More than a third of all people forced from their homes by disasters such as floods, storms, and earthquakes in the past five years were in China, says a new report from the leading international body on displacement.</p><p>...



Singapore’s Growth Story Holds Lessons for Water-Scarce China

<p>When the tiny city-state of Singapore gained independence in 1965, its social, economic, political, and environmental constraints appeared so formidable that many of those looking in from outside predicted a future of dismal dimensions...



Time to End Secrecy Over Chinese Overseas Fishing

<p>It is well-known that overseas fishing fleets are more cavalier in terms of respect for laws and regulations than their domestic counterparts. There are innumerable examples from all over the world of fishing with gears that are not part of...



Why Has Water-Rich Yunnan Become A Drought Hotspot?

<p>Yunnan’s drought continues. During China’s annual parliamentary session in March, the deputy party secretary of the southwest Chinese province, Qiu He, blamed spring floodwaters that flow through Yunnan and on into other countries for the...



Poor Rural Residents in China Seen as Easy Target for Environmental Lawsuits

<p>China today boasts a collection of ninety-five environmental courts, all of which were set up over the past six years. It is a trend that promises to re-shape Chinese environmental law.</p><p>But simply trumpeting this...



Why It’s Time to End China-Bashing on the Environment

<p>The major impact that international summits and treaties have had on China’s environmental governance is often overlooked. Environmental protection first emerged as an issue in China in 1972, after the country dispatched a delegation to the...



Morococha: The Peruvian Town the Chinese Relocated

<p>The headlines have been stark: a Chinese mining company moves an entire Peruvian town of 5,000 people five miles down the road to make way for its new mine.</p><p>It sounds like another story about an extractive corporation...



Writing Yunnan a Rubber Check

Chris Horton
<p>Our van stopped at a scenic vista on the contour road where verdant mountains undulated southward toward China’s border with Laos. Stepping out to take some photos, I was overcome by an acrid, unpleasant odor. I asked my local travel...



Chinese Nuclear Disaster “Highly Probable” by 2030

<p>Some members of the nuclear power industry rely too much on theoretical calculations, when only experience can provide real accuracy.</p><p>The lifetime of nuclear reactors is calculated in “reactor-years.” One reactor-year...



Public Fury After Chinese Environment Minister Keeps Job

<p>In his eight years as China’s environmental protection minister, Zhou Shengxian has failed to keep almost a single promise. I say “almost”: he has kept his word at least when it comes to his own career—as promised, he has not quit.</p...



Baby Milk Restrictions Cause Outrage in Mainland China

<p>The Hong Kong government’s recent listing of baby formula as a “reserved commodity” and a 1.8kg per person per day export limit has sparked widespread criticism—as well as becoming a hot topic at China’s annual session of parliament [the...



Chinese Fracking Plans Prompt “Water-Grabbing” Fears

<p>China has become one of Asia’s leaders in expanding unconventional shale-gas extraction in the name of energy self-sufficiency and national autonomy. Experiences of “fracking” worldwide, however, suggest the costs to China of joining this...



Environmentalists Unconvinced by Wen Jiabao’s Green Words

<p>China’s outgoing premier Wen Jiabao vowed that the government would solve the country’s ever-worsening pollution in his final work report yesterday as he opened the annual session of parliament.</p><p>But coming amid rising...



China Criticized over Tiger Farms and Illegal Ivory

<p>China is under pressure to regulate its rampant trade in illegal ivory and tiger parts ahead of the <a href="" target="_blank">Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES)...



Drought and Earthquakes Pose “Enormous Risk” to China’s Nuclear Plans

<p>When the Fukushima nuclear disaster struck, China was building new nuclear power capacity at a rate unprecedented in world history: 40 percent of all reactors planned or under construction were in China. Targets for installed nuclear...



Could Smartphones Help Clear China’s Congested Roads?

<p>The extraordinary growth of China’s cities is well-known. Today, 160 Chinese metropolises have over one million inhabitants and more than half the population lives in urban areas, which are growing at two to three times the rate of Western...



Air Quality in China: A Snapshot

<p>Nearly five weeks ago, Beijing experienced its worst day of air quality on record: Levels of PM2.5—small particulates that can cause lung, cardiovascular, and respiratory disease—soared to more than thirty times the level considered safe by...



China’s Disappointing Absence from U.N. Water Summit

<p>After recent heated debate over China’s mega-dam plans, any visitor to the launch on February 11 of the U.N.’s much-vaunted&nbsp;<a href="" target="_blank">...



A Progress Report on U.S.-China Energy & Climate Change Cooperation

Leah Thompson
<p>In his second inaugural address, President Barack Obama committed to confronting climate change, stating, “The path towards sustainable energy sources will be long and sometimes difficult. But America cannot resist this transition; we must...



Nuclear Fusion: An Answer to China’s Energy Problems?

<p>The global nuclear sector has been through something of an apocalyptic patch since <a href="" target="_blank">the disaster at Fukushima</a>—from...



Xi Jinping Must Tackle Corruption and Boost Innovation in Food Sector

<p>In January 2013, Australia’s biggest supermarket chain Woolworths began restricting sales of baby formula to four tins per customer after a massive increase in demand stripped shelves bare of popular brands such as Karicare.</p><p...



Climate Change, Not Grazing, Destroying the Tibetan Plateau

<p>Sanjiangyuan—which literally translates as the “three river source area”—feeds China’s mightiest rivers. The 300,000-square kilometer region, high on western China’s Qinghai-Tibetan plateau, provides a quarter of the Yangtze’s water, almost...



U.S. Cities Suffer Impact of Downwind Chinese Air Pollution

<p>Around 9,000 feet up, on a remote mountaintop in the state of Oregon, a group of researchers are on the lookout. It is not planes or wildlife they are tracking but pollution clouds.</p><p>The monitoring site is run by Dan Jaffe...



We’re Winning the Air Pollution Data Battle—So What Next?

<p>Last year, China made a breakthrough in the publication of air quality data, as more than sixty cities started to monitor and publish levels of the dangerous air pollutant PM2.5. But the figures themselves were depressing. With PM2.5—fine...



Officials Failing to Stop Textile Factories Dumping Waste in Qiantong River

<p>The Qiantang River is the most important river in China’s eastern Zhejiang province, one of the country’s most developed regions. On its banks, textiles plants work to supply fashion labels around the world. But they are polluting the...



Taxi Drivers in China Have Highest PM2.5 Air Pollutant Exposure

<p>A study conducted by Greenpeace has revealed that taxi drivers suffer the greatest levels of exposure to PM2.5 air pollution: three times that of the average person, and five times the world standard.</p><p>The study, carried...



Car-Driving Officials in China Urged to Get on a Bus

<p>China’s new leadership has asked government officials to travel simply and, in normal circumstances, not to close roads to ease their journeys. In a recent visit to the Qianhai area of Shenzhen, south China, incoming president Xi Jinping...



China’s New “Middle Class” Environmental Protests

<p>China’s urban residents (or the new “middle class”) protest on the streets only very rarely. Discontent is expressed almost exclusively online, via angry typing. But this has changed over the last five years—protests have come offline and...



China’s Environment in 2012

<p>From mass protests to trade wars, shale-gas drilling to hazardous cosmetics, it’s been a topsy turvy twelve months for China’s environment. Here’s a quick refresher of the year that was.</p><h2>January</h2><p>The...



Environmentalist Liu Futang Found Guilty of “Illegal Business Activities”

<p>Well-known Chinese environmentalist Liu Futang has been convicted of carrying out “illegal business activities,” given a three-year suspended prison sentence, and fined 17,000 yuan.</p><p>Liu Futang, <a href="http://www...



Russia’s Siberian Dams Power “Electric Boilers” in Beijing

<p>The underdeveloped, sparsely populated Eastern Siberia region that shares a 4,000-kilometer border with China has vast resources to offer its heavily populated and fast-developing neighbor. Hydroelectricity is key among them.</p><p...



Millions Await News of Test-tube Panda Taotao’s “Return” to the Wild

<p>On October 11, at the age of two years and two months, giant panda Taotao went home.</p><p>This was China’s second attempt to introduce a giant panda born through artificial insemination into the wild. Unlike last time, however...



An Insight into the Green Vocabulary of the Chinese Communist Party

<p>After years of neglect, the environment is gradually gaining more attention from China’s leaders. The most noticeable manifestation of this is in their vocabulary.</p><p>Six months ago, Hu Jintao, speaking at the opening of a...



China’s Low-Carbon Zones Lack Motivation, Guidance, and Ideas

<p>None of China’s so-called low-carbon industrial zones currently live up to the name. That’s the conclusion to draw from the work of the U.S. Institute for Sustainable Communities (ISC), which this year released a <a href="http://www...



Clampdown on Gold Dredging in China Sees Switch to Mongolia and Russia

<p>The Heilongjiang basin, in northeast China, was attracting gold prospectors as early as the late Qing dynasty, which collapsed in 1912. Panning for gold is damaging for rivers and wetlands, but at the time the region was sparsely populated...



Overfishing Pushes 80% of Chinese Fishermen Towards Bankruptcy

<p>In mid-September, the fishing season got under way as usual in Ningbo, on China’s east coast, after the three-month season when fishing is forbidden. Over 2,000 steel-hulled boats headed out to sea. But, on board, there was little cause for...



Chinese Boycott Airline China Southern After Mysterious Death of Dog

<p>On the morning of October 10, a high-profile lawsuit against China Southern, one of China’s “big three” airlines, opened at Chaoyang People’s Court in Beijing. The plaintiffs? Zhao Nan and Chen Lei, a couple from Tianjin, north China, who...



China’s New Leaders Must Respect Environmental Rights

<p>China has achieved remarkable economic successes over the last three decades. For years, it has led the world in GDP growth. But widespread industrialization and urbanization, along with growth based on increased use of resources, mean the...



Top Clothing Brands Linked to Water Pollution Scandal in China

<p>China is the major hub of the international textile industry, exporting US$200 billion worth of textile and apparel products in 2010—accounting for 34 percent of global exports.</p><p>It’s provided cheap T-shirts and other...



Decline of Bees Forces China’s Apple Farmers to Pollinate by Hand

<p>In the last fifty years, the global human population has nearly doubled, while the average calories consumed per person has increased by about 30 percent.</p><p>To cope with the ever growing demand for food, more land has been...



Desertification in Tibet’s Wetlands Threatens the Yellow River

<p>The “kidneys” of the Tibetan plateau are failing.</p><p>The Zoige Wetland National Nature Reserve, which sits on the northeastern fringe of western China’s Qinghai-Tibet plateau, contains the largest alpine peat wetlands in the...



Sinking Shanghai “Not Prepared to Admit” Climate Change Threat

<p>It’s been a brutal summer for much of urban China. From the <a href="" target="_blank">once-in-sixty-years storm</a> that lashed Beijing in July, killing...



Chinese Fear Price Hikes After Electricity Reforms

<p>This summer, Chinese people have been thinking twice before turning on their air conditioners.</p><p>In July, tiered electricity pricing came into effect across China, except in the far western regions of Tibet and Xinjiang...



Milk Price War Puts Squeeze on China’s Dairy Farmers

<p>China’s dairy industry has been in a precarious state since 2008, the year of the Sanlu milk-powder scandal, when babies across the country were poisoned by melamine-tainted infant formula. This incident revealed to the world the flaws in...



China’s South-North Water Transfer is “Irrational”

<p><em>Ruth Matthews, executive director of the Water Footprint Network, tells Tom Levitt how food has come to dominate our water use and why China may need to re-think its South-North water transfer project.</em></p><p...



Tibetans Fight Tourism on Holy Lakes

<p>Mining, dam construction, sand excavation, poaching, and grassland degradation are seriously damaging the Qinghai-Tibet plateau, the world’s most fragile ecosystem. But without a second thought, the tourism industry has joined their ranks...



Can New Trials Boost Chinese Wind?

<p>For the last half year, the National Energy Administration (NEA) has been making its interest in Inner Mongolia’s western regions crystal clear. This part of north China, rich in wind-power potential, has hosted group after group of energy...



Official Shrugs Off Public Food “Panic”

<p><em>Wang Guowei heads up the policy and legislation department at the State Council Food Safety Commission. He spoke to Xu Nan and Zhou Wei about the nature of China’s food safety problems and the ongoing policy response.</em>...



Data Gaps Hobble Carbon Trading

<p>Late last October, China’s top economic planning body—the National Development and Reform Commission—instructed the cities of Beijing, Tianjin, Shanghai, Chongqing, and Shenzhen, plus Hubei and Guangdong provinces, to get ready to run...



Doomed Toilet Scheme Was “Valuable Experience”

<p>For a large share of the 750 million urban people worldwide who lack adequate sanitation, flush toilets connected to municipal sewers are not a viable option due to poverty, water shortages, groundwater contamination risks, and other issues...



Eco-toilet Scheme Ends in Failure

<p>The large banner at the front gate of what used to be called Daxing Ecological Community has been changed to read “Civilized City.” A showroom by the nearby supermarket is locked up and empty while a little further away, near a scenic lake...



Protests Show Chinese Kids’ Fears

<p>The decision to cancel the metal refinery project in Shifang last month after protesters clashed with the police has been widely reported in the Chinese and global media. This is not the first time a project has been shelved due to public...



Guangzhou’s Rubbish Charge Struggle

<p>Like many of China’s rapidly growing cities, Guangzhou is under siege from landfill. The southern city produces about 18,000 tons of household waste every day, 14,000 tons of which needs to be disposed of after sorting and recycling. That...



China’s Overseas Food Footprint

<p>For the last three decades, China’s factories have turned out goods for export markets, while Chinese citizens have paid the environmental price of industrialization in the pollution of their air and water and in the contamination of their...



Shifang: A Crisis of Local Rule

<p>China has been engrossed in the mass protests in Shifang, Sichuan province, where on the morning of July 2, locals and police clashed during demonstrations against a planned molybdenum and copper refinery. The next day, the government <a...



Why Big Dams Don’t Work

<p>The record of Africa’s large dams is one of widespread environmental destruction to the continent’s major river systems, upon which millions of people depend for their livelihoods; forcible resettlement and human rights abuses; corruption...



Restoring Eco-balance

<p>In the late 1970s, China was swept by a wave of economic growth, and with it a wholesale attack on nature. Grain was planted on grasslands and profits extracted from rivers. Land was reclaimed from lakes and seas and forests were felled for...



Dirty Truth about China’s Incinerators

<p>Xie Yong could be called a pioneer. He is one of very few to date to sue a Chinese government agency over its unlawful refusal of requested data. His crusade for change has little to do with civic altruism, however. Xie’s struggle is...



The Double Life of Dali Lake

<p>Every spring, migratory birds start arriving at Dali Lake in Inner Mongolia just as the fish-breeding season gets under way. This has been the time—at least until recently—when herders living around the lake have heard the sounds of...



Rio and China’s Global Future

<p>We have a common predicament, and solving it requires humanity to work together. But state actors are, to a large degree, controlled by the confrontational logic of international politics. The dualities and contradictions common in...



The Diplomacy of Air Pollution

<p>On June 5, World Environment Day,&nbsp;China’s environment ministry published its annual “<a href="" target="_blank">state of the environment</a>”...



In Ecuador, Home Truths for China

<p>“We need to make contact with the Chinese media as urgently as possible.” I was on my university campus in New York when I received this call for help from an Ecuadorean NGO on March 5.</p><p>Some 4,000 kilometers south, in...



What’s Coming Out of China’s Taps

<p>China’s urbanites use a lot of water. Every day, more than 4,000 water-treatment plants supply 60 million tons of water to 400 million people living in Chinese cities. Despite the impressive figures, the water industry is grappling with...



Hot Air?

Michael Zhao
<p>It has been a busy season for U.S. diplomatic activity in China. Given the tensions aroused by U.S. involvement in the Bo Xilai scandal and the flight of the blind activist Chen Guangcheng, perhaps it should come as no surprise that even...



A Fallacy of Steel and Glass

<p>Among its many environmental challenges, China faces an enormous increase in energy consumption by buildings over the coming decades. Bricks and mortar already account for 25% of China’s total primary energy consumption, but are currently...



We’re All Farmers Now

<p>At a monthly “friends of farming” dinner held by <a href="" target="_blank">Green Heartland</a>, an NGO based in Chengdu, west China, Chen Xia quietly reads an ode to the land against...



Unplugging from China

<p>Apparent preparations by US energy giant AES Corporation to withdraw from China have raised eyebrows lately. Earlier this year, it emerged that the firm—one of the world’s biggest independent power generators—had engaged an investment bank...



Europe Can Do Better

<p>Since 2005, the European Union and China have sought to develop dialogue and cooperation in the area of climate-change policy. This has taken place primarily within the framework of the EU-China Partnership on Climate Change, agreed at the...



Keeping an Eye on China’s Bankers

<p>Last August, a major pollution story broke in China: 5,000 tonnes of toxic chromium tailings <a href="" target="_blank">had been dumped</a> near a...



As China Grows Rich, Rainforests Fall

Craig Simons
<p>An incredible forest lies on its side in this gritty industrial town in southeastern China. On the southern bank of the Yangtze River nine-foot-diameter kevazingo trees from Gabon rub against Cambodian rosewoods and Indonesian teaks. Nearby...



Chinese Demand Stokes U.S. Coal Battle

Craig Simons
<p>TRINIDAD, Colorado—When the New Elk mine reopened amid windblown prairies last winter, it attracted little attention. But the mine—a long shaft boring through some of the world’s most valuable coal—strikes at the heart of a growing debate...



China’s Rising Consumer Class Sparks Climate Change Fears

Craig Simons
<p>TUOJIA VILLAGE, China—When you think about China’s growing greenhouse gas emissions, you probably don’t think of people like Zhang Chao or his father Zhang Dejun. Zhang Chao, a thirty-five-year-old middle school teacher living in small city...



China’s Rise Creates Clouds of U.S. Pollution

Craig Simons
<p>At more than 9,000 feet along the crest of Oregon’s Cascade mountain range, the top of this snow-covered peak normally enjoys some of America’s cleanest air. So when sensitive scientific instruments picked up ozone—the chief component of...



North Vietnam and China: Reflections on a Visit

Martin Bernal
<p>Early this year I went to Hanoi by way of China. After spending a week in Peking I went to North Vietnam for just over a month and then returned to China, where I stayed in Changsha and Canton for two weeks. Later I spent three and a half...