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Ecological wisdom of the ages

Pan Yue

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Longstanding Chinese ideals, which seek balance between man and nature, could help humans find a better way of living, writes Pan Yue, China’s vice minister for environmental protection.

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Traditional Chinese thought not only calls for the unity of man and nature, but provides the tools that allowed China to practice this principle for thousands of years. This is of great significance in the quest to solve today’s financial and ecological crises. 

For the past century, China has studied the west and followed the western path of industrialisation. And while three decades of reform and opening up have brought astounding economic achievements, China has also concentrated into those 30 years levels of pollution it took the west a century to create.

China must not continue to follow in the footsteps of developed nations. Instead, it should take time re-examine western industrial civilisation and its own cultural traditions.

Western industrialism has its own characteristics and patterns. It is profit-driven and anthropocentric, runs on modern capitalism and is embodied in cities built on industry, commerce and finance. It has created great riches, but it has also done everything possible to shift its class, economic and social conflicts overseas.

However, industrial nations have found that they can export any kind of crisis except for one – the environmental crisis. Hurricanes hit both south-east Asia and New Orleans and rising sea levels will inundate both the small island nations of the Pacific and New York.

Faced with the inherent failings of western industrial civilisation, politicians and academics worldwide have started to re-examine the ecological wisdom of world cultures and ancient religions in search of solutions. In recent years, westerners with the necessary breadth of vision have turned to the east, and specifically to China.

China is unique and its most extraordinary characteristic is that, for thousands of years, it has maintained a nation state united by roots, language and ethnicity. This was possible only because of the deep ecological wisdom contained within the country’s cultural ideals. This wisdom permeates China’s ethics and institutions, is practiced in its way of life and perpetuated by its historical traditions.

The three schools at the heart of traditional Chinese culture are Confucianism, Buddhism and Daoism. Under their combined influences, the Chinese nation formed a unique cultural system – based on moderation, harmony and tolerance. This not only translated into ethical principles, but also informed a set of social systems and lifestyles, such as the civil service, the gentry and the education system. It advocated order, balance, tolerance and harmony, and is the root cause of the continuity of the Chinese nation. It is not, of course, without flaws, or it would never have led to revolution.

Some believe that the values of traditional Chinese culture, as a product of an agricultural age that no longer exists, are not applicable to today’s industrialised society. They are mistaken. All major religions stem from agricultural times, but they remain the spiritual pillars of civilisation and nurture the seeds of further progress. The Chinese tradition should not be abandoned. Its time has not yet passed.

The core of Chinese culture is the pursuit of the harmonious unity of man and nature. This value is expressed in actual institutions and lifestyles by the word du [literally “degree” or “limit”] – the concept of restraint, temperance, etiquette, balance and harmony. Du is the art of propriety, the balance of moderation and suitability, the wisdom of standing in society and acquiring knowledge. It represents the wisdom of the Chinese not just in politics, but in life and in human interaction with the environment.

This wisdom exists not just in the writings of the sages, but is strongly rooted in family values and social customs, and this is one of the great things about the Chinese tradition. In traditional society, a single set of principles linked state institutions and policy with the common people and the privileged; and the classical texts and texts of the sages with the lives of the public and the official class. These doctrines or dao [literally “the way”] apply to anything from the management of a household and making tea to commerce, swordsmanship and even drinking and the underworld.

Dao is spirit, principle and state. It links heavenly law and nature with human ethics and daily life. It seeks not the maximisation of material pleasure, but beauty and creativity, meaning that daily life in an ecological civilisation aspires to more than fame and riches. These may seem like minor things, but together they form the living practices of a healthy society. This steady, measured lifestyle moderates desire and seeks a rich and full spiritual life, capable of correcting the errors of consumerism and nihilism that western industrial civilisation has brought us.

Thousands of years ago, the parallel rise of western and eastern civilisation showed surprising similarities. Several millennia later, the two sides can surprise the world again, by joining forces on the platform of ecological civilisation. Although traditional Chinese culture is a product of an agricultural past, I firmly believe it contains universal values and can undergo a modern transformation. In just one century, China has transformed itself from an agricultural to an industrial civilisation. A further transformation to an ecological civilisation is entirely possible.


Pan Yue is vice minister at China’s Ministry of Environmental Protection.

This article was first published in the overseas edition of the People’s Daily.

Homepage image by Qiao Yuchuan shows Daoist philosopher Laozi.

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Tremendous Article!

Having visited China several times over the last five years, I have been heartened by the obvious re-flowering of traditional Chinese values with the encouragement of the Central Government. The underpinning of peace, unity and harmony characteristic of traditional philosophy indeed fits perfectly with the requirements of an environmentally sustainable society and it seems clear to me that China is making that transition nearly as quickly as is possible. The wounds and impact of the Cultural Revolution that sought to excise Chinese traditional values in favor of Western Marxism seem to have been nearly completely healed and replaced with Deng's openness and scientific pragmatism that is eliminating poverty and moving toward harmony with nature. Congratulations to the people of China!



China's environmental problems existed prior to industrialization

The concept of the so-called "harmony between heaven and man" is not the mainstream traditional culture. In ancient China, people also did their utmost to tap natural resources, though with less power, causing much forestry degradation. I'm sceptical about those who claim that "Chinese culture saves the earth". What is their real purpose? Are they aiming to save the earth or simply to popularize traditional culture? Such a claim presumably has a large market in modern western society. However, if China keeps resisting widely acknowledged and accepted "universal values" and instead popularizes a vague set of principles as "universal values", will it be really effective?




Nature unity

The idea of “universal values” is dangerous, no matter who is putting it forward. On the question of “what is bad”, it is easier to form unified view. But when it comes to “what is good”, it is easy to have endless and trivial arguments.

The union of nature and man is not mainstream traditional culture. But if we admit that Chinese civilization comes down in one continuous line, it is not hard to find that natural unity is the core spirit of many mainstream traditional cultures.


这是一个非常讨喜的愿景,可从历史上看来,却似乎不是如此。如果你看了Mark Elvin的大作——《大象的撤退》(The Retreat of the Elephants),一本关于过去两千年中国环境历史的书籍;那么,你便很难拒绝这样一个结论——传统中华文明如同今日中国文化一样,对于环境皆具有毁灭性的影响。我不认为这是一个价值上的问题:中国宗教信仰,像许多哲学以及宗教系统一样,教导人们尊重自然并与之和谐相处。但一个不断膨胀的国家必将产生惊人的消耗,这与传统智慧有着很大冲突,尽管,国家的需求最终总是在冲突中取胜。如果传统中国与自然和谐相处的话,那为何中华文明的摇篮——黄河河曲,为何会在工业时代到来之前就变成沙漠?为何中国森林的系统性退化发生的时间远在工业时代到来之前,或是根本无法和西方资本主义扯上关系?我觉得该是时候结束这些伤感的叨絮,并认认真真看看历史了。

I wish it was true

This is a very pleasant vision, but history does not bear it out. If you read Mark Elvin's masterpiece, The Retreat of the Elephants, an environmental history of the last 2000 years, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that traditional Chinese civilisation was a destructive of the environment as today's China. I do not think this is a question of values: China's religious beliefs, like most systems of philosophy and religion preach respect and harmony with nature. But the demands of an ever expanding state are in conflict with this traditional wisdom and the demands of the state always win. If China traditionally lived in harmony with nature, why is it that the cradle of Chinese civilisation -- the great bend of the Yellow River, turned to desert, long before the industrial era? Why was China systematically deforested long before the industrial era or Western capitalism had anything to do with it? I think it is time we stopped repeating these sentimental cliches and took a serious look at history.


很遗憾我尚未拜读过Mark Elvin的这本书,但此书的书摘隐约提到了“象牙贸易”(据公元前548年之时史料记载)。这种贸易其实也可以经由《周礼》上的记载——作为八种手工业材料之一——而佐证。不过,大象的撤退,与其说是传统中华文化无法挽回的劫难,倒不如说是人性使然——无论是垂涎象肉的民风,还是因“热爱”开疆扩土而殒命的昭王。


To Yugong,
(Sorry to bring you such inconvenience with original reply in Chinese:)

It’s hard to define “tradition”!

It is a pity that I haven’t read this book by Mark Elvin yet, which mentions ivory sales according to historical records from 548 BC. Actually, ivory sales can be demonstrated in the Rites of Zhou, which mentions ivory as one of the eight materials of the handicraft industry. However, the folk custom which advocated coveting elephants’ meat and King Zhao who “loved” expanding territory showed that the elephants’ retreat was decided by the nature of human beings rather than being a disaster of Chinese traditional culture.

As labfat said above, the theory that man is an integral part of nature was not the main trend of traditional culture but Zhuang Zi’s belief or wish. However, not all people believe this theory, for example the king’s policies could clash with nature. Traditional culture differed for each king. Folk custom changed a lot from the period of Yao and Shun to the Zhou Dynasty, not to mention the period afterwards. Maybe the theory of unity of nature was a memorial speech to the period of Yao and Shun.




A puzzling article

The struggle of man against the elements in harsh landscapes is the subject of a number of famous old paintings. This contrasts with the moderation, harmony, and tolerance which the article states are central to traditional Chinese culture.

The article describes historic China as a nation united by ethnicity and language. This presumably excludes those parts of recent China which are characterised by ethnic minorities.




A puzzling view

There are plenty of problems in modern Chinese society. The living condition of ethnic groups is surely one of them. However, I don't think Chinese people, from the government to the grassroots, have any tendency to squeeze the minority groups out, but rather have a harmonious and tolerant attitude towards them. I think the reason why they have failed to find their position in modern Chinese society is not because they are ethnic groups, but because they are "disadvantaged groups" (similar to the problems encounted by farmers, workers and poor people) This should not be singled out to judge the tolerance of the Han people.
The survival or perishment of ethnic groups and their culture is not an issue specific to China but rather a world-wide debate.



About limit

“Du”(Limit) is one of the core beliefs of Chinese culture. It pursues dynamic and rational circumstances, where everything plays its rightful part, a philosophy that is quite different from western progressive ideas of “constant advancement”. This belief in limit stops excessive destruction of ecology.


时至今日,有意义的讨论应是中国文化中的潜在的积极意义,应在原有的理念上有所发挥,而不是拘泥于古代有限的想法。当下的许多问题是古代先哲们没有见过的,我们又怎能苛求他们为当代提供现成的答案?很难说中国的先哲们或中国文化有着环保意识,更不用说百姓了,但对“度”的追求以及讲求“天人相应/合一”的确对当下人类的发展有着重要的思想启示,这就是中国文化的积极意义。或许Mark Elvin是对的,中国的环境一直在退化,但这不足以否定中国传统文化的意义,现在人们已意识到环境问题,现在也能提供一些高端的技术支持,但环境问题依然严峻,可见,并不是拥有什么样的理念就能解决什么样的问题,同理,虽然中国文化对环境相对“友好”,但这并不意味着它能解决环境问题,我们只能说,它对此有贡献。另外,我想指出的是,“度”、“天人相应”不只是一种理念,同时是一种方法论,而当下解决环境问题,可能需要这样的方法论。

It is an inspiration rather than answers.

Nowadays, meaningful discussions should have potential positive significance for Chinese culture, or the development of pre-existing beliefs, rather than being wedded to the limited thoughts of ancient times. Many of our current problems were not familiar to our ancestors, so how can we expect them to provide ready-made answers for the modern world? It is hard to believe that the Chinese sages or Chinese culture had a sense of environmental protection, not to mention ordinary people. However, the pursuit of limit and natural unity does offer inspiration to modern human development, which is the positive side of Chinese culture. Maybe Mark Elvin is right that the environment in China is degenerating. However, this is not enough to deny the significance of traditional Chinese culture. People today are aware of the environmental problems and have the ability to provide high technology, but the problem is still severe. Therefore, holding a belief is not equal to solving the problem. Similarly, although Chinese culture is friendly to the environment, this doesn’t mean that it can solve environmental problems. It is just helpful. Moreover, I want to mention that limit and natural unity are not just beliefs, but also a methodology, which we need now if we are to deal with our environmental issues.




Every country has its own Ecological Wisdom

Excellent article
Simply expressed, ecological wisdom is “whatever we take from the earth, we must give back to the earth.”
To uphold ecologically wise values, people must determine what can be done to practice sustainability in their own daily lives and then tackle the vast problems confronting all of us – pollution prevention, waste management, renewable energy and energy efficiency, conservation, liberation of animals from cruel practices, biodiversity, and enforcement of environmental laws currently not in force.
The pollution and misuse of our most basic natural resources – air and water, due to rapacious capitalistic enterprises is also appalling. Over half the total amount of water consumed in the United States goes to irrigate land growing feed and fodder for livestock. Enormous additional quantities of water must also be used to wash away animal excrement. It would be hard to design a less water-efficient diet-style than the one we have come to think of as normal. To produce a single pound of meat takes an average of 2,500 gallons of water – as much as a typical family uses for all its combined household purposes in a month.

Dr.A.Jagadeesh Nellore(AP),India

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