Books: a tradition of protecting life

In The World of Nature and Self, Mang Ping and others trace China’s views on animals back through time. The country has long taken a holistic view, says Shen Cheng.

The World of Nature and Self – Chinese People’s Faith, Life and View of Animals
Mang Ping and others
China University of Political Science and Law Press, 2009

Recent years have seen China’s treatment of animals come in for much criticism both at home and abroad – for the eating of wild animals, mistreatment and eating of cats and dogs, bear-bile farming and the use of live animals as feed in zoos. China seems to have become a cruel nation, and the Chinese uncivilised.

But this new book, written in the main by Central Institute of Socialism professor Mang Ping, holds that China has a long-standing culture of protecting animals and respecting life, and that the Chinese view and treatment of the natural world is “the richest and most enchanting aspect of China’s traditional wisdom, and the Chinese view of animals is borne of this.”

Starting from the faith, lives and view of animals of the early Chinese people, the book utilises traditional culture, folk society and China’s female populations to present a history of thousands of years of respect for nature and life. It also introduces the “gratitude and awe” with which China’s ethnic minorities viewed nature and animals.

The book’s contributors are mostly long-standing experts in the field of animal-protection thought in traditional Chinese culture, and for many years have been at the frontline of animal protection in China.

The World of Nature and Self quotes from the classics, which makes for an interesting read. Passages from The Classic of Mountains and Seas, the Analects, The Spring and Autumn and the Shurangama Sutra are included, along with Buddhist and Daoist texts, and the fairy tales and folk stories of China’s ethnic groups.

The volume shows how, unlike the west’s focus on the welfare of the individual animal arising from a tradition of Christian charity, China’s idea of “protecting nature” takes a more holistic view. “Ancient Chinese … viewed the entire universe as a whole. In such an organic whole, everything was connected and had a spirit. This belief determined the view of nature held by early Chinese.”

China’s traditional culture does not put humanity and animals in opposition. Ancient Chinese saw the similarities between people and animals, believing that animals had emotions as humans did, and that man and all natural life could “communicate, exchange, share experiences and even exchange places”. So people would treat nature as they wished to be treated themselves.

The book explains that this blending of man and nature, and the love of man and protection of nature, has been a constant feature of Chinese culture for thousands of years. The modern animal-protection movement first sprouted in the 1920s. That era saw Lu Bicheng, the pioneer who prompted the foundation of the Chinese Animal Protection Association; and Feng Zikai and Li Shutong, who used painting and poetry to show traditional ideas of protecting nature. Lao She, Bing Xin and others held protection of nature close to their hearts, and this is often shown in their works. The civilised lifestyles advocated by the New Life Movement during the Republic of China included “opposing cruelty to animals”.

Mang Ping holds that “this is a great and ancient tradition, and one that has been almost abandoned and forgotten during the rapid process of modernisation. Reclaiming that tradition and its significance in modern life is our most urgent task.” But “under the impact of almost a century of political, social, cultural and ideological reform, these traditions have been criticised, slandered and forgotten … our modern society is already far removed from that great spirit.”

In an era where economic growth is everything, we have also become separated and opposed to nature and animals.

Today’s animal-protection movement in China started in the late 1980s, with celebrities’ concern for companion animals. Since the mid-1990s, international environmental NGOs have arrived in China, bringing new ideas. Animal welfare and animal rights – the main schools of thought in animal protection in the west – have influenced China’s own movement, and gradually become the mainstream.

Nowadays an increasing number of animal protectionists and groups have accepted the idea of animal welfare – but they face a clash between this western idea and traditional Chinese thinking. Animal welfare looks to reduce the suffering of animals, while traditional Chinese culture seems to more worry about “living”.

One experienced animal-protection activist said that “the biggest problem our project [protection of companion animals] faces isn’t the clash between animal welfare and the mistreatment of animals – it’s the clash between animal welfare and the Chinese tradition of ‘better to live poorly than die well’.

So although the idea of the unity of man and nature may be largely lost, it has not entirely disappeared. The book ends with case studies from two decades of animal-protection activities in civil society, demonstrating the return and strengthening of the awareness of animal protection – so there is hope.

Two days before the launch of this book, a draft of a new animal-protection law was presented by legal scholars from the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences’ Institute of Law, North-West University of Politics and Law, and Zhongnan University of Economics and Law. Many cast doubts on the proposed legislation, asking if China needs such a law and holding that western ideas of animal protection are not suitable for China.

The book allows everyone – animal protection workers, the public or experts proposing legislation – to be aware of the Chinese tradition of animal protection, and also brings this tradition to the attention of the west. This also helps activists to consider matters from a traditional point of view, explaining how the public should view animal protection, and thus making it more easily accepted.

Shen Cheng is a project official with the animal-protection group ACTAsia