Author and translator Martin Palmer shares six works that address China's environmental challenges and philosophical history
Martin Palmer is Secretary General of the Alliance for Religions and Conservation, a secular organisation that helps faiths develop environmental programmes based upon their own teachings and traditions. He named six books that speak to China's environmental challenges for chinadialogue.
Daoism takes its name from Dao, the Chinese word for “way”. It was always the “bohemian” alternative to the highly structured world of Imperial China and as such represents a very different aspect of Chinese culture. I can think of no greater guide to this world than the book of 4th century BC philosopher Chuang Tzu (Zhuang Zi). I had the joy of translating this into English and it is one of the funniest, feistiest, alternative books of wisdom and philosophy you could ever read.
The Daoist vision is of a world of two mighty forces, yin and yang, which would destroy each other if they could. Our role is to maintain the balance. This is the key to developing culturally relevant environmental programmes in China. It is the basis, for example, of my organisation's new programme with WWF International on Traditional Chinese Medicine. You cannot be healed by having your yin and yang rebalanced at the expense of the cosmos.
Written over 500 years ago, the Monkey stories are about taming pride, arrogance, selfishness and violence with compassion, mercy, faith, love and wisdom. They are about an arrogant monkey king whose very behaviour threatens the balance of the world and even of Heaven itself.
This part Mao liked. He held up Monkey as a model of the true rebel against all forms of old authority. The arrogant, destructive, selfish monkey, in other words, was a model for elements of Communism in China. Mao ignored the fundamental point of the story, which is that while Monkey’s behaviour challenged some old-fashioned ideas, it endangered the well-being of almost everyone else.
Contemporary China is now trying to explore the second part – the need for compassion to combat selfishness, generosity to overcome greed and companionship to overcome the lonely world of the single child. This is a book of vital insights that have helped China understand itself for hundreds of years.
Whatever one says about the Communist Party’s rule since 1949, it is important to remember the collapse, corruption, chaos and violence that came before. This extraordinary book, which inspired the film The Last Emperor, reminds us why many welcomed the Communists’ triumph in 1949. It was written by the last Emperor’s English-language tutor, a passionate Scot, and takes us to the late 1920s.
As a picture of old and early Republic China it shows what was lost and what chaos there was. It is easy to forget how far China has come, albeit at great cost to its traditions, people and environment.
This extraordinary book reminds us of the struggles and aspirations that originally motivated the rise of the people’s resistance and the emergence of the Communist Party. It is a true story by one of the 20th century’s greatest journalists and writers, the American Helen Foster Snow, writing here as Nym Wales.
With a Communist ideology which no-one now believes in and a Party that has repeated many of the mistakes of the past, it is perhaps important to recall the vision which once inspired this revolution. It cannot be recreated but should be honoured for its intentions, even if the end result was so far from the original goals.
The Great Leap Forward wrought untold damage on China’s countryside, nature and people – disasters that have yet to be recovered from. It was the triumph of ideology over reality and left, according to Becker’s research, 35 million people dead from the resulting famine.
In The Song of Ariran, we saw the vision and hopes that led to Communism in China. In this book, we see the betrayal of those ideas and the people they were meant to help. This, along with the Cultural Revolution, are the reasons no-one in China believes in Marxism or Communism except as a useful structure to keep the country ticking along. Faith in ideology has been destroyed.
Those who were children during this terrible time are in power or rising to power now. They do not want to see anything like this again in their lifetimes – or the lifetimes of their children and grandchildren. This desire for stability combined with a fear of hunger and poverty lies behind some of the mad drive for wealth, consumerism and growth fuelling China today.
In trying to understand our place within nature, poets can guide us in ways that no other writers can. No-one was ever converted by a pie chart or even a hockey stick graph! In my organisation we will not use a term – for example, the hideous phrase "eco-system deliverables" – unless we can be shown a poem in which this term is used. If no-one uses it in a poem it means it is not loved, and therefore doesn't mean much.
The Awen collection has wisdom, humour (another thing most environmental writers find hard to do) and insight for any culture, but because of the Chinese knowledge of editor Jay Ramsay, it has a tremendous amount to offer to Chinese culture as well.
In times when one can become deeply depressed by the usual environmental outlook with its apocalyptic data, the realism, imagination and vision of poets can inspire, encourage and equip us for walking the Dao – the Way – into the future. It is the beauty of language, not the brutality of data, that will move the heart.
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