China: Landscapes, Cultures, Ecologies, Religions

Routledge Handbook of Religion and Ecology

Routledge Handbook of Religion and Ecology 

James Miller

Prepublication draft from Routledge Handbook of Religion and Ecology edited by Willis Jenkins, Mary Evelyn Tucker and John Grim, New York: Routledge 2016, 181-189

As the third largest country in the world, China has a vast geographic diversity: arid deserts and snow-capped mountains of Xinjiang in the far West; the unique landscape of the Qinghai–Tibetan plateau, source of the Mekong, Yangzi and Yellow rivers; the rich alluvial plains of Sichuan that provide much of China’s food; the northern grasslands of Inner Mongolia; the stunning, golden hues of the Loess plateau, source of much of China’s coal and minerals; the central province of Henan, which harbors a vast treasure trove of China’s ancient civilization, and is now home to over 96 million people; the densely populated coastal regions of Zhejiang, Fujian and Guangdong, now the base of much of China’s manufacturing wealth; and the southwestern province of Yunnan, bordering Laos, Vietnam, Thailand and Myanmar, home to much of China’s biodiversity and as well as 26 of China’s 55 recognized ethnic minorities.

In addition to its geographic size, China is also the world’s largest country by population, currently standing at 1.37 billion, approximately 19% of the world’s total. Of these, approximately 91% belong to the dominant Han ethnic group, with the remaining 9% divided among China’s official minority nationalities. China’s religious diversity matches its physical and ethnic diversity: China currently recognizes five official religions: Daoism, Buddhism, Islam, Catholicism and Protestantism. This administrative classification depends chiefly on an understanding of religion imported from the West via Japan in the late-nineteenth century. In this view, religions are distinguished in terms of people’s affiliation to institutional organizations, a model of religion derived from the European experience of ecclesial belonging. While it is common for Christians to distinguish themselves in terms of the church they “belong to,” this model of religious adherence is far from the norm in China’s religious history. Religious life in China has often centered on local temples owned collectively by village communities, or on Buddhist or Daoist pilgrimage sites operated by monastic lineages. Attempts to organize these activities into formal religions have usually been sponsored by the state in an attempt to organize, classify and monitor religious activities. After the Communist revolution in 1949, for instance, the multiplicity of Daoist lineages, city temples and mountain retreats were brought under the administrative oversight of a single, overarching body, the Daoist Association of China. Similarly, all Protestant denominations were forcibly “ecumenized” into a single “patriotic” association. These social-organizational dynamics were not motivated by internal religious demands to unify, but were the result of political demands of the modern nation state.

Such demands did not originate with the Communist party, but had begun earlier in the Republican period (1912–1949), during which leaders sought to unify China as a single, modern, nation state in part by replacing the diverse, diffuse and local local networks of social power with national, patriotic associations (Duara 1991). In this way, local religions that had formed around ancestral veneration, local gods and goddesses were deprecated as “cultural relics,” or reclassified and absorbed into the formal, state organizations of Buddhism and Daoism. At the same time practices associated with China’s Confucian heritage were not included as part of this classification scheme. Consequently “Confucianism” and the widespread practices of ancestral veneration, including annual tomb-sweeping are not commonly understood as belonging to a “religion.” Indeed Confucianism is not officially part of China’s “religious” landscape despite the fact that, from an anthropological point of view, many aspects of Confucianism can be understood as religious.

Rather than understanding religion administratively, this chapter presents an overview of China’s religious scene from the perspective of its diversity of the geographic spaces in which it takes place, with an understanding that the result is meant to be illustrative, rather than comprehensive. Five key spaces function as this chapter’s organizing themes: the Middle Kingdom; rivers; coasts; mountains; and margins.

The Middle Kingdom 

The Chinese word for China, Zhongguo 中國, is commonly translated as the “middle kingdom,” though in all likelihood this term was originally understood in the plural, referring to the kingdoms that occupied central China in the period of disunity known as the Warring States (475–221 BCE). The term has come to represent a key feature of imperial China’s social imagination of itself as occupying the central space within a cosmic frame, bounded on each side by “barbarian” nations, a square earth sitting under a rotating circular canopy of stars, spread out like an umbrella held up by a central axis mundi. The imaginative scheme of centre versus periphery functions as a key organizing principle not only of early Chinese geography, but also in terms of religion and culture. From within this scheme, the world’s peoples are divided into two basic categories: “Zhongguoren 中國人,” or people from the central kingdom(s); and “waiguoren 外國人,” people from the outer kingdoms. The earth is imaged as a three by three square, with China occupying the central location. This imagery is repeated throughout Chinese art, architecture and city planning, with the three by three or nine by nine squares symbolizing the full extent of the cosmos and China’s central place within it. The capital cities of Beijing, Xi’an and Nanjing, for instance, were laid out as square, walled cities. In Beijing, the imperial palace complex sits at the centre, and at the centre of this lies the “purple forbidden city” (zijincheng 紫禁城), and at the centre of this the Hall of Supreme Harmony with the imperial throne.

In this scheme, the king or emperor occupied the key location at the apex of the society of people from the middle kingdom, and therefore possessed the sacred duty of uniting heaven, earth and and all humanity. The Chinese character for king 王 is three horizontal lines one above the other, bisected vertically by a single line. According to traditional interpretation, the three horizontal lines represent the earth at the bottom, the heavens at the top and humanity in the middle. These three realms are united in the person of the king, the single vertical line that touches all three. In this way the king, or emperor, functioned so as to produce the “unity of heaven and earth” (tianren heyi 天人合一), the state of optimal flourishing among the three realms of the cosmos, thus bringing about wealth and prosperity for all.

This geographic schema was thus also the foundation for the state religion, which refers to the official religious life of the emperor conducted on behalf of the people. Tourists today can see the vestiges of this in Beijing’s most recognizable landmark, the Temple of Heaven, where the emperor traditionally conducted animal sacrifices on behalf of the state. The architecture of the site symbolizes the traditional conception of the universe, with the circular temple, signifying heaven, located on a square platform, signifying earth. Only the emperor was able to undertake such sacrifices on behalf of the people, and this ritual performance was the chief way in which the sacred geography of heaven, earth and humanity underwrote the divine authority of the emperor himself.

The cosmic pattern of heaven, earth and emperor concretely symbolized in the imperial architecture of the capital city was also reproduced in the social imagination of the nation’s geography itself. Five sacred mountains, also known as marchmounts, were designated as marking the boundary points of China’s north, south, east, west and center. These mountains were the location of further imperially sponsored rites to promote the harmony of heaven, earth and humanity. In this way the state religion functioned as a kind of religious ecological mechanism, focussed on the body of the emperor himself. This system was fully set out in a grand, unified cosmology synthesized by Dong Zhongshu (179–104 BCE), which became the basis of state Confucianism.

In this view, the emperor functioned as the sacred linchpin of the social, agricultural and cosmic order, ensuring that all three realms work together. Such a system also imposed an obligation upon the emperor’s person to constantly bring the three realms into harmony. Since the natural world was in constant transformation according to the seasons, the emperor also made corresponding changes to his life, wearing certain colors, and undertaking certain seasonal activities (see Miller 2012).

In this way the sacred geography of central capital and compass-point marchmounts was also paralleled by a sacred seasonality, east corresponding to spring, west corresponding to fall, and so on. Space and time were co-ordinated together in a single overarching cosmology focused on the body of the emperor himself. The geography of the traditional Chinese empire cannot therefore be fully understood without reference to the inner landscape of the body in which the solid yang structures of bones, sinews, flesh and organs correspond to mountains; and the fluid yin dynamics of qi (subtle breath or vital force) corresponded correspond to the flow of water through China’s landscape.


China’s five sacred mountains are usually known in English as the five marchmounts, or mountains in the “marches” or border regions of China. They occupy key positions in the sacred cosmography that underpinned the imperial order. Corresponding to the four directions, plus the centre, the marchmounts symbolized and marked out the cosmic limits of the empire. They also functioned as tutelary deities who protected the Middle Kingdom from external threats (Verellen 1995). They originated in an earlier set of four marchmounts associated in the Zuozhuan with “barbarian” tribes, and more specifically their leaders who acted as a buffer between the Chinese ruling house and foreign powers (Kleeman 1994: 227). By the Han dynasty, this scheme of four mountains was absorbed into the cosmological system of five phases, colours, direction, etc., with the addition of a fifth, central mountain, Mt Song in Henan. The four mountains that previously marked the borders of the empire by now lay well within Han territory and, during the reign of Emperor Wu of the Han, came under the direct patronage of the Emperor (Kleeman 1994). In so doing the mountains were fully integrated into the Han cosmology with the body of the emperor as the supreme node joining heaven, earth and human beings in a single, coherent, system. The Han empire, constructed on the subjugation and pacification of marginal peoples thus fully incorporated these border lands into Middle Kingdom by incorporating the sacred marchmounts into the sacred space governed by the emperor himself.

The emperor’s duty was to offer blood sacrifices at the mountains in order to propitiate the tutelary deities, ensuring success and prosperity for the dynasty. The trouble and expense of such rites meant that the most elaborate and sumptuous, the Feng and Shan sacrifices, were performed only five times in the Han Dynasty (Bokenkamp 1998: 384). These rituals were performed  at the foot of Mt Tai, the sacred mountain of the East, in present-day Shandong province. Due to this imperial patronage, the Eastern marchmount achieved pre-eminence among the five marchmounts, and to this day temples in its honour exist across China.

The religious traditions of Daoism and Buddhism also vied with state Confucianism for a claim over these spaces in an attempt to strengthen their relative position within the empire. Sometimes these traditions occupied the same space at the same time; at other times as the fortunes of religions rose and fell. The mountain spaces inscribed by one religious tradition would be overlaid by a new one in a complex rewriting of ritual space. For example, in his study of the Southern marchmount (Nanyue 南越), known as Mt Heng 恆山 in Hunan, James Robson (1995: 230) writes that “the sacredness of Nanyue was continually produced and reproduced throughout history by different religious traditions whose discourses and attempts to define the sacredness of the mountain were at times in direct competition.” The Daoist intellectual Sima Chengzhen, for instance, persuaded the Tang emperor Xuanzong to recognize the five marchmounts as the “terrestrial abodes of Daoist ‘perfected ones’ (zhenren 真人).” In so doing the emperor recognized the Daoist claim to imperial sites, thereby strengthening its position vis-à-vis Buddhism. This imperial recognition led to the gradual imprint of Daoist religious activity on the five marchmounts, and vied with a competing Buddhist layer that had been established on Nanyue since the mid-sixth century CE.

Mountains were not only significant in China’s religious heritage as contested sites of Imperial, Buddhist or Daoist patronage. They were also the residences of gods, recluses and unusual fauna, and the source of rare flora sought by alchemists in their quest for transcendence or “immortality.” Campany (2001: 127) notes in his study of the alchemist Ge Hong (283–343) that such seekers valued natural materials that were “hard to obtain, and located in barely accessible places;” and secondly, materials that had an unusual appearances, being “visually and morphologically anomalous, straddling taxonomic boundaries” (128). The combination of difficulty of access and strange appearance went hand in hand with their numinous qualities. In this way it can be said that the natural world is not in some way “flat” or “democratic” (see Miller 2008: 32), but rather possesses a hierarchy of power, accessibility and strangeness. Alchemists such as Ge Hong emphasized the value of these rare and powerful materials, believing they contained the power of transcendence when ingested. Just as the mountain has a roughly pyramid shape, the natural world itself can be understood by analogy as a pyramid in which the rare and valuable substances are the hardest to reach and fewest in number.

The Daoist fascinations with mountains as repositories of rare and precious substances also gave rise to the association between mountains, recluses and the revelation of religious texts. Daoists travelled to sacred mountains in search of techniques of meditation, teachings from Daoist masters and the transmission of Daoist texts revealing secret traditions of meditation and self-transformation. The Chinese term for mountain cave or grotto (dong 洞) also became the word we roughly translate as “canon” meaning a selection of religious texts. Mountain grottoes can thus be understood as locations for the revelation of sacred mysteries, whether through the intense meditation of the recluse, the transmission of oral teachings from a Daoist transcendent, or the initiation into an esoteric text. As Verellen (1995: 271) notes, the grotto can be understood by means of a close homophone tong 通, meaning to penetrate or connect, and Daoist cosmography came to envision an interconnected network of  “grotto heavens and blessed places” (dongtian fudi 洞天福地) that were deemed particularly auspicious sites for engaging in Daoist cultivation.

In addition, the altar space erected by the Daoist priest for the performance of rituals is also envisaged as a cosmic space bounded by the five marchmounts, with the priest at the middle. The image of the mountain is replicated over and again: the cosmic space of Daoist ritual is bounded by mountains; the body of the priest is imaged as a mountain; inside his body in the grotto-chambers of his organs dwell the spirits of the cosmos (Schipper 1993: 91–93). The network of mountains within mountains and grottoes connecting to grottoes functions as the basis for an economy of cosmic power in which the vital breath or qi flourishes and circulates, pervading the myriad dimensions of the cosmos, interpenetrating organs, caves, bodies and mountains in the ceaseless exchange of energy: life begetting life, inner begetting outer, physiology and geography interwoven in a dazzling, mysterious and endless overflowing of vitality.


China’s physical landscape is defined by its hydrological cycle in which waters emerge from the Qinghai–Tibet plateau in the West, flow East through the three great rivers, Yangzi, Mekong and Yellow, and pour into the sea. This West to East flow can be understood through the Chinese term “Dao” meaning Way or Path, but also denoting a fluid vector by which the processes of life are never static but always in motion. These processes of life, or “ten thousand things” (wanwu 萬物) include all things, human, animal, vegetable and mineral. All are composed of or shaped by the flow of water, the streaming Dao that is the basic vector of the Chinese landscape (Miller 2006). As the Daodejing notes (ch. 4):

The Dao is empty [empties], yet using does not need to be refilled.

A deep spring (yuan)—it seems like the ancestor of the myriad living things. (Quoted in Allan 1997: 76)

Here Dao is envisaged as the flood of liquid vitality from which all phenomena emerge. As the first chapter of the Daodejing mentions, this Dao is not a thing with a name or form, but acts generatively to give birth to all the phenomena of the natural environment. In Wittfogel’s (1957) thesis of the “hydraulic state,” taming this flood of life was tantamount to gaining political power. Indeed, there is no doubt that one of China’s major early technological achievements was the construction of the Dujiangyan irrigation system (267–256 BCE) in present-day Sichuan province. A weir across the Min river regulates the flow during the spring floods, directing the flow into a network of irrigation channels that to this day provides water for 50 cities and irrigates 672,000 hectares of farmland (Miller 2013). Today this dam is regarded as a feat of “Daoist” engineering in which the flow of water is not blocked completely but productively distributed to promote the fertility of the landscape. As Miller (2013) notes the weir constitutes a concrete expression of the Daoist concept of wuwei 無為variously translated as “non-aggressive” or “effortless” action because “rather than damming the river completely the site employs a weir and irrigation system to channel and regulate water’s natural power.” A Daoist temple on the site to this day memorializes the architect Li Bin.

The second sense in which water functions as a category of religio-cultural life in China is in the concept of fengshui, literally “wind and water,” the cultural practice by which houses, tombs and other human structures are located to take advantage of the nature’s fluid powers, channelling good fortune, health and happiness to the earth’s human inhabitants, both living and deceased. The natural ecology of plants and trees is here directly connected to the religious ecology of spirits, ancestors and descendants. When the land flourishes, the ancestral spirits will be at peace and this economy of cosmic power will contribute to the flourishing of the family lineage and the future prosperity of the clan.

According to Coggins (2014), although the dominant method of Han Chinese expansion was the deforestation and reconfiguration of the landscape to support agriculture, fengshui forests and temple forests emerged as protected wilderness spaces valued by monastic leaders and local village communities for non-economic reasons. He writes (2014: 15): “Corporate groups in lineage villages had additional reasons to preserve certain forests and groves, reasons that transcended immediate economic concerns and reflected a profound regard for their own long-term viability.” This concern he traces to a seminal fengshui text, the Book of Burial by Guo Pu (276–324). The text notes:

The Classic says, qi rides the wind and scatters, but is retained when encountering water. The ancients collected it to prevent its dissipation, and guided it to assure its retention. Thus it was called feng shui (wind/water). According to the laws of feng shui, the site that attracts water is optimal, followed by the site that catches wind …  Terrain resembling a palatial mansion with luxuriant vegetation and towering trees will engender the founder of a state or prefecture. (Trans. Field 2001: 190)

“Attracting water” and “catching wind” may be understood as taking advantage of the natural fluid dynamics of physical and subtle energies, or qi, which animate the landscape and the body. The construction of water channels and preservation of “fengshui forests” may thus be understood as part of the Chinese attempt to take advantage of, without using up, the physical and subtle qi of the natural landscape. This would produce not only natural, biological fertility, but also socio-cultural fertility in the continuity of lineage from deceased ancestors to the as-yet unborn descendants. This “continuity of qi” functioned not only ecologically to bring the human world into dynamic correlation with the natural ecosystems and hydrological cycles, but also historically in the production of genealogical narratives by which Chinese communities are traditionally organized.


Traditional scholarship on Chinese religions divides gods into local and national categories. Local gods have their specific tutelary domains and are worshipped only by people living in those particular geographic areas. National gods, such as Guan Di, the Jade Emperor, or the God of Wealth, can be found throughout the country. Local gods, conversely, are worshipped only in specific regions. Prominent among these regional deities is Mazu 媽祖 (Matsu) a goddess associated with the South China sea whose temples are found throughout the coastal provinces of Fujian and Guangdong, and also Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan. According to tradition, Mazu was a girl who lived in the late-tenth century who was renowned for her assistance to seafarers. She was posthumously deified and attracted a wide cult throughout the southern China coastal area in the Ming dynasty. Over the past few centuries she has become one of the most popular local deities in China.

Devotion to Mazu is widespread throughout South East China’s coastal areas because of her association with seafarers and fishermen. She can be thought of in bioregional terms, corresponding to the Southern China Marine Ecoregion as identified by the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), that is, the sea area between Taiwan, mainland China, Hong Kong and Macau. Her worship emerges from the engagement of peoples with fish, coastlines, tides and the sea. Out of this complex of social, economic and ecological interaction developed a powerful bioregional religious tradition. Typically, Mazu temples are located in strategic coastal sites, and her statues watch over the marine activities of local seafarers. Indeed, residents of Macau attributed the fact that they escaped the 2003 Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrom (SARS )crisis that gripped Hong Kong to the prophylactic powers of the enormous Mazu statue that they had recently erected. Now Mazu is beginning to take on new political responsibilities as a symbol of harmonious relations between Taiwan and the mainland. A huge emerald statue of Mazu, valued at US$28.25 million, arrived in Taiwan from the mainland in December 2011. Both religious and political dignitaries attended the reception ceremony for the Mazu statue (Taipei Times 2011). Mazu’s bioregionalism thus opens her up to the possibility of being exploited for political ambitions, as a symbol of the unity of people on both sides of the Taiwan straits. Mazu’s significance thus demands analysis from a complex of religious, ecological and political perspectives.


The Chinese religious imaginations of nature in mountains, rivers and coasts may alternatively be understood in terms of center and periphery, or valleys and hills (see Weller 2014). This figure of center and edge is replicated throughout the multiple imaginations of nature in Chinese tradition, from food practices, garden design, to urban planning and even China’s Great Wall. Of particular interest in the contemporary period is the multiple imaginations of nature that take place at the borders of China’s land mass, home to extraordinary cultural and ecological diversity.

In the southern province of Yunnan, for instance, the concept of “holy hills” among the Dai ethnic minority has preserved fragments of old-growth rainforests from massive deforestation and replacement with rubber plantations (see Zeng 2012). At the same time, the traditional complex of religion and ecology among the Blang people is being rewritten as the people transform their indigenous agricultural practices through the development of a cash economy based on growing highly lucrative Pu-er tea (see Miller and An 2013).

More significant from the point of view of securing China’s continued access to water is the fate of China’s nomadic Tibetan people in the area of the Qinghai–Tibetan plateau, the source for China’s three major rivers systems. Since 2005 these herders have been subject to forcible resettlement, known euphemistically as “ecological migration” (Qi 2014). The reason for this resettlement was to create a national nature preserve in this area so as to help preserve water supply downstream. Alarm bells rang in spring 1996 when for the first time in thirty years the water supply in the upper reaches of the Yellow River was cut off. In 1997 the interruption lasted 226 days and no water flowed along 706 km of the river (Qi 2014, 182). As a result of the drastic measures undertaken by the central government, the culture and religion of these nomadic peoples has been changed forever, attracting widespread criticism in the Western media (Jacobs 2015). Ecologists are uncertain as to whether the resettlement will have any positive effect upon preserving the water supply. Nonetheless it is clear that at the margins of China’s fragile environment the stakes are enormous. Without Tibet’s pristine waters, the lives of millions of ordinary Chinese people may be at severe risk. As a result of China’s massive modernization and development, the traditional complex of ecology, culture and religion that has persisted for centuries at China’s margins will likely soon disappear.


China’s central government recently announced plans to create a new megaregion “Jing-Ji-Jin” by comprising the previous cities of Beijing and Tianjin and the less-developed regions of Hebei province in between. The new region will be approximately the size of Kansas and will have a population of over 100 million people (Johnson 2015). Similar long-term plans are under way for the Pearl River Delta region, combining the cities of Hong Kong, Macau, Shenzhen, Guangzhou and Dongguan. As China builds hyper-dense megacities in order to house, feed and provide employment for its massive urbanizing population, it is clear that the traditional networks of religion, landscape, ecology and environment will undergo unprecedented transformation. As President Xi Jinping builds China’s connections westwards in a new Silk Road stretching towards central and southern Asia, this transformation will encompass China’s traditionally poorer, more marginal and ethnically diverse regions and religions just as much as its rich eastern coastal provinces.


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