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A Chinese Relationship with Nature
Painting by Ma Lin, scholar under a pine tree

A Chinese Relationship with Nature

This has not really come into my books but I have been thinking about it for years. Since I’ve recently finished my study of Daoism, I think I can explain something of what I know.

To start with: I posit that there are cultures which venerate nature. Perhaps most notably in East Asia we have Japan where Shinto IS nature worship (see Kami). Japanese worship nature in a deep way as they see the Kami (demi-gods) which they believe are present in most beautiful places. About half a million Japanese hike to the summit of Mt. Fuji every year and they aren’t just doing it for the great view

In Catholic Europe, there was a strong aspect of nature veneration (derived from the Bible, since God created the world and said it was good, ergo nature is fundamentally good as it reflects God’s intentions(. This is a quote from the Book of Genesis: “God made the wild animals of the earth of every kind, and the cattle of every kind, and everything that creeps upon the ground of every kind. And God saw that it was good“.

Saint Francis certainly said things which directly equated God with nature. See the Franciscan web site Praying Nature where they call him the “patron saint of those who promote care for nature”. Certainly the Catholic Church and the Europeans have caused their fair share damage to the natural world but you can argue with a Catholic on theological grounds that nature is good in and of itself – and you will win.

In the United States the veneration of nature found expression in our invention of the national parks, most notably Yellowstone, the Grand Canyon, and Yosemite. This was thought to be a non-denominational religious expression which all Americans could support, and the people who helped create these parks were correct, as evidenced by the continued popularity of our great national parks. The creation of our national parks was also mixed up with the idea of American exceptionalism. I mean, who doesn’t think America is a divinely blessed nation because we have the greatest natural wonders in the world? Anyone? 

Shen Zhou - Shan shui painting 1467
Shen Zhou – A Shan shui painting, 1467

So, what about China?

To start, I look at the major philosophical systems in China: Confucianism, Daoism, and Chinese Buddhism. 

Confucianism is profoundly humanistic in its approach to all problems. Nature is here to serve man. There is no divinity in nature, and the natural world is best when it is controlled and serving the needs of the people. If it would feed more people and make everyone richer, then go ahead and flatten the mountains and turn all the deserts into farmland.

Neo-Confucianism has a somewhat different attitude towards nature, because the Song Dynasty neo-Confucians attempted to explain the world using ideas like Chi (energy) and flow, and change. These forces could only be understood by observing nature very carefully. So the neo-Confucians would argue in favor of preserving wild places, places of natural beauty, but only because this is how one can learn about the true nature of the world. Meaning: the study of nature was a means to a very good end. However, since neo-Confucianism is basically nonsense (sorry but it was a religion without a divinity) and all their ideas about chi, and flow, and change produced not single useful discovery, consequently people stopped paying attention to the neo-Confucians in the 1600s. 

Daoism is all about perfecting the man and ultimately transcending human limitations in both lifespan and power. Yes, the Daosits really are trying to attain  personal immortality – this is not a joke. Most Daosist believed a man had to go out into wild mountainous areas to properly start on the path of immortality, but not because of the beauty of the mountains of China, but because it was believed you could not follow the way when you were mixed up in society. Also, the mountains were very helpful because that is where you found the rare, even magical herbs and minerals which you needed to consume in order to purify your body of Yin influences. Some famous Daoists, having learned all they needed in their years living alone in the mountains, returned to the city and lived among the ordinary people. So, we don’t really find nature worship within the Daoist world.

Chinese Buddhism is divided into at least two major schools. Chan (better known in the US as Zen Buddhism, from the Japanese pronunciation) DOES NOT CARE – about much of anything. Nothing matters. Cut down all the forests, pave over the parks, go ahead! The world of the senses is all one big illusion and it does not matter. The world that we see, touch, feel, hear, smell has no value. In fact, when nature is attractive, it is hurting your chances of attaining enlightenment. Chan Buddhists can live anywhere, the middle or the capital or in some rural area, it just doesn’t matter. Chan Buddhism largely vanished from China around four hundred years ago, but still lives on in Japan.

Mainline or “traditional” Chinese Buddhism has a great fondness for setting up monasteries in really spectacular and beautiful locations. They like to be isolated because the mainline Chinese Buddhists think that attaining enlightenment is a very tricky thing, and even the smallest missteps are nearly impossible to recover from, at least in your current lifetime. They also believe in “public relations”, and they found (over a thousand years of experience) that impressive temples in great locations, were successful over time. So, is natural beauty helpful to attaining enlightenment? No, not really. Do they worship nature? Again, no. But they absolutely don’t want anyone to destroy the scenic beauty of the land surrounding their monasteries, because it would hurt their temple in the long run.

Painting by Ma Lin, scholar under a pine tree
Painting by Ma Lin, scholar under a pine tree

What about the artists? And the poets? What about the Chinese folk religion? 

It is true that landscape paintings are a huge part of Chinese art. But Chinese art (as we have learned over the last 30 years) is always about something. Its never “just a painting of a bird on a tree”. No, the bird (for example, a dove) means a new idea from a junior government official, and the tree (for example: an old pine) represents the senior minister of Personnel. And the dove, sitting as it does, indicates there is a new proposal for changing the way the government evaluates its officials. And so on… We have lost the “code” for understanding much of the Chinese art which exists today but it seems safe to say that Chinese landscape paintings are rarely an expression of veneration for nature as nature, instead, they are puzzles, with concealed meanings intended for the highly educated elite. True, the commoners just saw a painting of an impressive mountain covered with pine trees, but that is not what the painting meant. If you come from an exhibition of Chinese landscapes and paintings of birds on tree branches thinking, “Wow, the Chinese really care about the natural world”, Sorry, but no. The paintings were offering a commentary on something else. Note that is this is the way Chinese language operates as well: the words are pictures, but because they are expressing abstract concepts, the pictures rarely follow a direct translation.

As for poetry, Chinese poetry is utterly untranslatable. A good Chinese poem is like 4-dimensional chess. There is the surface meaning, there is the meaning which is suggested by the sounds of the characters which indicates other but unwritten characters, and there are meanings taken from the relation of characters physically (you should attempt to read a Chinese poem both backwards and forwards, top down and then bottom up, and as well as diagonally). Lastly, nearly all Chinese characters are composed of other characters (or fragments of characters) and you should look at these sub-elements of characters and see what they mean or suggest when taken on their own. It would take twenty pages to explain a good Chinese poem which is just twelve characters long. That said, so far as I know, the Chinese poets did not write poems which venerated nature. However, I could be wrong. I am not an expert on this matter, there is a lot of Chinese poetry, of which I have read very little.

Lastly, we have Chinese folk religion. Here we do find nature worship. The common people did worship gods who controlled the rivers, and the seas, and caused storms, and they believed dragons controlled the rains. This is all old and primitive and even somewhat “lower class”. But since the people believed in the power of these “local gods”, the government went along with it, more or less. So yes, if you dig deep enough, you can find elements of nature worship in China. For another example, they did believe that mining too deeply would anger the mountain spirits which would then cause disasters for the near-by villages. In fact the government of China attempted to stop some mining in some places for fear that they were angering the local mountain spirits. Meanwhile, the people did offer sacrifices to the gods of the ocean, for safe passage for their boats, and for good fishing. 

One of the most important yearly events is the Clear and Bright festival. Also called grave sweeping day. Everyone is supposed to go outdoors to the ancestral tombs and make offerings to the spirits of your ancestors. In simple terms: this is a day when everyone goes into nature and worships spirits. Clear and Bright is such an ancient tradition, no one even knows why it is called Clear and bright.

Feng shui is also a form of nature worship, in a very odd way. I’m not going to go into Feng Shui because (like acupuncture) there is no coherent doctrine, and in practice it varies greatly based on who is talking about it.

In conclusion, I think it is safe to say that there are elements of the Chinese attitude towards nature which mirrors the worshipful animism found in Japan. There once was a common proto-Asian culture which spread across all of east Asia and those ancient cultural roots can still be found in Chinese culture, attenuated as they are. However, the dominate ideology found in Confucianism, Buddhism, and Daoism treats nature as NOT sacred and argues that nature (the natural world) has no intrinsic value. You cannot expect to make a successful argument with an educated Chinese today on the basis of “protecting nature is just an inherent good”. This is not their world view. For the Chinese, protecting nature has to be justified on other grounds.

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