Religion and Ecological Sustainability in China

Religion and Ecological Sustainability in China front CoverJames Miller, Dan Smyer Yu and Peter van der Veer, eds. 2014. Religion and Ecological Sustainability in ChinaNew York: Routledge.

This book sheds light on the social imagination of nature and environment in contemporary China. It demonstrates how the urgent debate on how to create an ecologically sustainable future for the world’s most populous country is shaped by its complex engagement with religious traditions, competing visions of modernity and globalization, and by engagement with minority nationalities who live in areas of outstanding natural beauty on China’s physical and social margins. The book develops a comprehensive understanding of contemporary China that goes beyond the tradition/ modernity dichotomy, and illuminates the diversity of narratives and worldviews that inform contemporary Chinese understandings of and engagements with nature and environment.

Gene Anderson reviews the book on

This edited volume deserves serious attention from those interested in China and in the environment, and I hope its absurdly high price will not discourage people from looking into it. Like most (if not all) collections of papers, it is uneven in quality, but the best papers are seriously important and worthwhile. I have too little space here to hit all the high points, but a few that are particularly useful and innovative include Deborah Sommer’s on early Chinese concepts of the earth (much more interesting than you might have thought); James Miller’s paper on an early Daoist sect; Chris Coggins on fengshui groves and their exceedingly important role in saving forests and large trees until the Communists destroyed most of them; Rebecca Nedostup’s on how borrowed western “rationalist” concepts of religion from 19th-century cultural evolutionism led to pernicious devaluing and attacking Chinese traditional religions; and Emily Yeh’s really stunning and wide-ranging paper on Tibetan attitudes toward the environment, the changes of these in modern times, and the various western-world idealizations of them. I am in awe of these papers; I’ve been working on this material for 50 years and I never got close to making all these points. There are many other valuable papers here.

Much of this book (not the paper by Coggins or Yeh, however) represents book-driven, text-based approaches. My approach comes from human biology and has been field-driven and broadly materialist. So I had a lot to learn here. But, also, a thoughtful point emerges. Book-driven research inevitably leads to privileging elite positions and meditative, thoughtful takes on the world. This can lead to seeing the Chinese as sages living in a world of visions. No paper herein does that, but I can imagine casual readers being lulled into that view. In contrast, the field approach in human ecology can lead to a crassly materialist approach in which too much attention is paid to uses of plants and animals relative to the subtleties of the thought behind such environmental management. I have fallen into this trap on occasion, and Ole Bruun catches me up on it in his paper in this volume. Fair point, but essentializing traditional belief and religion is also shaky as a strategy, depriving us of the lessons we could be learning. That is my one real criticism of this book: there is very little on what the world can learn from China’s successes and failures in managing the environment, or from traditional Chinese (Han and minority) views and ideas about environments. This is a pity, since there is in fact a great deal that the world environmental and conservation community could learn–some good ideas and some (or many) cautionary notes. The editors would no doubt respond that this book is about documentation and analysis, not about recommendation, but in a world where long-predicted catastrophes and nightmare scenarios are rapidly becoming reality, can we afford to do that? Would a medical text on drug-resistant tuberculosis ignore the treatment side?

That said, this is a collection that no one interested in Chinese environmental history can afford to miss.

Read a fuller description of the book on my blog.

Table of Contents

  Title Author
  Acknowledgments James Miller, Dan Smyer Yu and Peter van der Veer
  Introduction Dan Smyer Yu, with James Miller and Peter van der Veer
  Part I: Ecology and the Classics
1 Ecology and the Classics Mary Evelyn Tucker and John Grim
2 Conceptualization of Earth and Land in Classical Chinese Texts Deborah Sommer
3 “The Great Virtue of Heaven and Earth:” Deep Ecology in the Yijing Joseph A. Adler
4  “Hard-Hearted” and “Soft-Hearted” Ecologies: A Rereading of Daoist and Confucian Classics Chen Xia and Peng Guoxiang with James Miller
5 Gods and Nature in Highest Clarity Daoism James Miller
6 When the Land is Excellent: Village Feng Shui Forests and the Nature of Lineage, Polity, and Vitality in Southern China Chris Coggins
  Part II: Imagining Nature in Modernity
7 Finding Nature in Religion, Hunting Religion from the Environment Rebecca Nedostup
8 Globalizations and Diversities of Nature in China Robert P. Weller
9 Is Chinese Popular Religion Compatible with Ecology? A Discussion of Fengshui Ole Bruun
10 Ecological Migration and Cultural Adaptation: A Case Study of the Sanjiangyuan Nature Reserve, Qinghai Province Qi Jinyu
11 Reverse Environmentalism: Contemporary Articulations of Tibetan Culture, Buddhism, and Environmental Protection Emily T. Yeh
12 Earthwork, Home-Making, and Eco-Aesthetics among Amdo Tibetans Dan Smyer Yu