Ecological wisdom of the ages

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.

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.