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.
When examined from this perspective, religious rituals function somewhat like technologies, or means by which human beings seek to dominate the natural world and bring it into alignment with human needs. When such ritual technologies fail, and disasters and devastation strike, religions again play a role in restoring the relationship between humans and their environment.
In fact, Chinese religious culture surprisingly reveals a more realistic and pragmatic pattern of engagement with the natural world than lofty philosophical ideals. In temples across time and space, Chinese people, from the highest offiicial to the lowliest peasant, all alike have prayed for blessings upon their crops, freedom from floods and famine, and healing for the sick. Praise for nature’s fecund powers was always tempered by a realistic anxiety about its capacity to destroy the living, a quite natural anxiety for those who lived on the land.
Although China has witnessed extraordinary economic development and urbanization, such deep-seated instincts about the role of religion in helping humans to negotiate nature’s power continue to the present day.
As the above news report indicates, following the recent devastation brought by typhoon Morakot to Taiwan, Daoist associations in China, Hong Kong and Taiwan collaborated on performing rituals, offering prayers and raising money for those affected in Taiwan.
The continuing performance of these rituals demonstrates three important points about the place of religion in contemporary China:
- Religion is the natural response of human beings to natural disasters. As much as religious philosophies may emphasize lofty ethical and spiritual ideals, or secularists emphasize humanistic reason, there is no getting away from the practical value of the lived experience of religious rituals for ordinary people. This is religions’ biggest “value add” to human culture.
- Religion is playing an increasingly significant role in the quest for China’s reunification. The government is keen to sponsor religious activities that incorporate mainland, Taiwanese and Hong Kong religious associations. They understand that religious forces can be used as a means to foster national unity, just as much as they can be used as a means to foster ethnic discord. Government policy aids religion where it helps achieve the goal of national unity, and suppresses religion where it hinders that goal.
- In response to this stick and carrot approach from the government, Chinese religious associations are increasingly emphasizing the social and humanistic aspects of their religious traditions. This is, in effect, a way of giving value for money to the societies in which they are embedded and which support them financially, politically and culturally.
As climate change brings unpredictable changes to global weather systems, this aspect of religion will continue to play an important role in Chinese society.