Chen Lai: Why Can Chinese Culture Provide the Conceptual Foundation for Ecological Civilization?

2022-08-10 16:58

Beijing, August 10 (China News Service) – Title: Why Can Chinese Culture Provide a Conceptual Foundation for Ecological Civilization?

By Chen Lai, Dean of the Tsinghua Academy of Chinese Learning The ecological crisis has brought huge challenges to human beings that force us to come to a clear realization that human beings are a community of shared life and that we can survive only by working together.

Environment, climate and ecology are posing problems for the survival of human beings as a result of the development of industrial civilization over hundreds of years and the promotion of industrial development by modern Western civilization. In modern western ideology and culture, nature is regarded as the object of human conquest that can be organized and manipulated by human thinking. Human knowledge is emphasized as a force acting on nature. So, it becomes possible for human beings to exert forces on nature. It is difficult to establish an ecological view of nature in modern civilization, and ecological civilization cannot grow on the soil of modern civilization in a natural manner.

There should be a holistic solution to ecological problems. Unable to be solved merely by regulative measures put forward by the environmental protection authorities, they require the overall change of society and culture. Humans in the new era should not mechanically obey new environmental norms. Instead, they should rebuild the value relationship between humans and nature, establish a fundamentally friendly cultural attitude towards nature, and build ecological civilization. To achieve this, we must draw from the ecological wisdom of our ancient civilization.

Thousands of Years’ Chinese Civilization Is Inseparable from Its Focus on Environmental Ecology

Chinese civilization has been lasting for more than 5,000 years without interruption. Due to the huge geographical space and population size of Chinese civilization, its significance to the world lies not only in the valuable political experience it brings for the sustainable development of human civilization, but also in the precious experience it brings for the long-term sustainable development of human beings in face of nature.

As values and value principles lie at the core of civilization, corresponding value principles of ecological civilization are required. However, the values of modern times, especially what is publicized as the universal value of the contemporary western community, can no longer be the source of value for global sustainable governance. The transformation of ecological civilization requires the transformation of values. And attention needs to be paid to the resources and constructive solutions that Chinese culture can offer for such transformation of values.

The fact that the Chinese civilization has lasted for thousands of years is inseparable from its focus on the sustainability of environment and ecology. In a lot of literature of the Axial Age, such as The Analects of Confucius, Mencius, Hsun-Tzu, Ritual book by Dai Senior, Ritual book by Dai Junior, Rites of the Zhou and Guanzi, there were codes of conduct for ecological protection in ancient times, which were clearly incorporated into the normative system of “rites” at that time to serve as the ground for the relevant laws and orders of subsequent dynasties.

Among them, the most prominent one is Mencius’ idea “There will be much more aquatic products to eat, if we don’t use fine-mesh to fish; there will be much more wood available,if we cut down trees at the right time”. The pre-Qin philosophers were highly consistent in this regard, indicating that there was a profound understanding of ecological balance in Chinese civilization more than 2,000 years ago. Experience in maintaining ecological balance led to the summary and refinement of the code of conduct of “taking from nature at proper times with a proper degree and using what is taken thriftily” at a very early stage of the development of Chinese civilization. Therefore, the ecological wisdom, encompassing proper timing, moderation, balance, restraints and orderliness, was integrated into Chinese civilization at a very early time. Compared with the attitude of taking from nature in an unchecked manner as reflected in the behavior of “draining the pond to catch all the fish”, Chinese civilization was already mature in terms of ecological wisdom at a very early age.

Yancheng, which was built in the late Spring and Autumn Period, is located in today’s Changzhou, Jiangsu Province. With a history of more than 2,500 years, it is still intact. Photo taken by journalist Yang Bo from China News Service

The Ecological Significance of the Theory That “Man Is an Integral Part of Nature” Is the Overall Harmony Between Mankind and Nature

However, the code of conduct for ecological protection is not sufficient to reflect the ecological wisdom of Chinese civilization, nor can it reflect the philosophical view of nature or ecological concepts, which are the basis of ecological civilization. Various schools of Chinese culture have made diverse expositions on the view of nature from the perspective of ecological civilization.

The theory that “man is an integral part of nature” is a representative proposition of Chinese culture as it reflects the basic concept of the relationship between man and nature in Chinese civilization. Ecologically, it emphasizes the overall harmony between mankind and nature, rather than seeing the two as being split, opposite, contradictory, and conflicting. Contemporary ecological culture is fundamentally man’s attitude towards nature. Instead of exploiting nature and taking from nature, man should get close to nature and live in harmony with it. And this is the original wisdom of the theory that “man is an integral part of nature” in Chinese civilization.

“Tao follows the law of Nature” is an idea of Taoism and its meaning is that Taoism must conform to and follow the life state of all things. There is also a saying by Lao Tzu, “he can help the myriad creatures be natural, but dares not act”, which also advocates maintaining the nature and the natural growth process of all things and restraining from hindering things becoming themselves and from destroying the natural process all things.” “Tao follows the law of Nature” refers to the removal of interventions in the natural process of all things so that all things exist and develop in accordance with their nature. All that people have to do is be there for their development.

“Assist Heaven and Earth in their transformation and sustenance” is a Confucian understanding of the relationship between nature and man. “Heaven and Earth” represent nature here, and “assist” means offering assistance. People play a more positive role in this concept than in “he can help the myriad creatures be natural, but dares not act” because they are not inactive in the face of nature, nor do they give up on taking any action whatsoever. Instead, they can do something, which is assisting heaven and earth to transform and nourish all things. People need to follow the mandate of nature and be of assistance to nature. But by assisting nature, people do not go against it.

“All existence is an organic whole” is a common belief in Chinese philosophy. Chuang Tzu already said that “all things and I are one”. And Seng Zhao also believed that “heaven and earth are of the same root as me, and all things are one with me”. All the above views hold that all things and I are an inseparable whole and they reveal the idea that man and nature are an organic whole. Man and thing constitute a community of shared life and are closely related and connected.

“All living creatures have Buddha-nature” affirms that human beings and all things in nature have intrinsic value. Buddhism maintains that all things, instead of merely human beings, have Buddha-nature. Neo-Confucianism of a later age confirms that grass, wood, tiles and stones have conscience. So, it is believed in the Doctrine of Essence of the Chinese culture that everything is good in nature and is thus of meaning and value. Buddhism also emphasizes that “all living beings are equal”, indicating that humans do not have the privilege to dominate other species, which prevents humans from acting arrogantly to all things in nature.

Laojun Mountain in Henan. Published by China News Service, with photo by Wang Zhongju

The Ecological Idea of “Benevolence” Demands Treating All Things with Love of Ethics

“Benevolence for the people and love for things” was proposed by Mencius. It is a breakthrough compared with Confucius’s theory of benevolence in that on the one hand, it extends benevolence from the sphere of self-cultivation to the political sphere, and on the other hand, it extends benevolence to things, marking the first time that things in nature are included into the scope of ethics.

Chuang Tzu once said, “Benevolence means to love people and benefit all”, advocating benefiting things, not loving things. Hui Shi said, “If all things be regarded with love, heaven and earth are of one body (with me)”, linking the theory of everything in one with the theory of loving all things without a clear explanation of the relationship between the two. Neither of their statements is as clear as that of Mencius.

Confucius believed that “The benevolent person loves others”. Influenced by Mencius, the idea “The benevolent person loves people and things” was developed in Confucianism in Han Dynasty. Zhu Xi explained: “Love means taking at proper timing and using thriftily.” In fact, thrift utilization does not qualify as love as the matter is not an ethical one.

Mencius put people and things against each other. Zhang Zai of the Song Dynasty inherited this and proposed that “People are my brothers and all things are my kinds”, which required “me” to develop a deeper understanding of my ethical responsibilities and obligations to all things. In Western Inscription, the whole of nature, including human beings, is viewed as a family. Humans should treat all things as family members and should be obliged to them correspondingly as a result of the ethical relationship between human beings and all things.

Although Western Inscription confirms the ethical relationship between human beings and all things in nature and determines the ethical responsibility of human beings to things, it is still different from Mencius’s “love for things”. It was Cheng Hao who truly developed Mencius’ idea. He proposed that “The benevolent person regards heaven, earth and all things as a whole”, uplifting “all things in one” with benevolence and elevating the ethical attitude of “benevolence for the people and love for things” to the Confucian ecological world view “The benevolent person views the heaven, earth and all things as a whole and one with himself. If he recognizes something as being one with himself or a part of himself, then he can get anywhere. But if he doesn’t, then it naturally has nothing to do with him.”

This means that from the standpoint of benevolence, the oneness of man and all things means that man should regard everything as a part of his own body as everything is closely related to himself. People need to be fully aware of this. Things are not others, but myself and a part of me. With this kind of self-consciousness, people will be full of love for all things. So, this is a new argument for Mencius’ “love for things” theory and its purpose is to elicit love for things. Consequently, this argument entails more ethical connotations than responsibilities.

Wang Yangming said: “If a man is extremely benevolent, then heaven and earth are in one body with him”, and “How can a person look at his limbs and body parts without love?” To elevate “heaven and earth as one” or “all things as one” to benevolence is to bring out ethical emotions – love towards things. It can be seen that from the ecological view of benevolence, the relationship between man and nature is defined as an ethical one, requiring all things be treated with ethical love. Zhu Xi’s explanatory note for Mencius’s “benevolence for the people and love for things” is that “love means taking at proper timing and using thriftily.” In fact, timing and thrift usage are just norms, not ethical love. Benevolence requires loving things as a part of one’s body.

In the ecological restoration area of Sigutang mining area, Yuannan Township, Luxi County, Pingxiang City, Jiangxi Province, more than 3,000 mu of Gannan navel orange trees are full of fruits, and a bumper harvest is in sight. Published by China News Service, with photo by Li Guidong

“Bestow Benefits on Future Generations” and Never Take a Short-sighted View Towards Life

“Planning for the long term and for future generations” is an intergenerational ethical responsibility. As “bestowing benefits on future generations” and never taking a short-sighted view towards life is emphasized in Chinese culture, the Chinese people exploit and utilize resources in a sustainable way. “One generation planting the trees in whose shade later generations rest” is also upheld as a part of the values of Chinese culture.

Instead of only thinking of themselves with no regard for their descendants, the Chinese people “keep their living environment as it is for their descendants”. This is all because the Chinese culture is not individual-oriented at the root. Individuals only belong to one generation, but people are viewed in Chinese culture as being intergenerational with the coexistence of different generations. Human life is not only the continuation of the ancestors’ life, but also the origin of the life of descendants. Therefore, people should not only be grateful to their ancestors of previous generations, but also bring benefits to posterity. Only by doing so do they fulfill their mission and responsibility as human beings.

In comparison, the existing ecological discourses are based on the Western culture and are basically utilitarian and power discourses that adhere to “nature has the right to exist”, “animals have an inalienable right” and “future generations have the same right to exist as the present generation”. In the Chinese civilization, on the other hand, attention is paid to enhancing moral consciousness with the scope of ethics being expanded from “the relationship among people” to “the relationship between man and things”. It is believed that nature should not be excluded from human moral care. Instead, ethical relationships, responsibilities and emotions should be established between people and things. This is the contribution of Chinese civilization to ecological values. (The End)

About the Author:

Chen Lai, a famous contemporary philosopher and historian of philosophy, Dean of the Tsinghua Academy of Chinese Learning, one of the first senior professors of liberal arts, Member of the National Committee of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, Researcher of China Central Institute for Culture and History (CCICH) and Member of the Academic Degrees Committee of the State Council. Academically specializing in the history of Chinese philosophy, he mainly studies Confucius philosophy, Neo-Confucianism of Song, Yuan, Ming and Qing dynasties and modern Confucius philosophy, publishing more than 40 monographs. Many of his books and papers have been translated into English, French, Korean, etc.