Daoism and Environmentalism in China Sample Assignment

Ecological Thinking in Daoism and Environmentalism in China

What we do collectively depends on what we collectively think; and the corollary to this, that to change what we collectively do depends on changing what we collectively think, led us to the conclusion that if we are to change what we do to the environment, we must begin by changing what we think about the environment.

-- Lynn White, Jr. “The Historical Roots of Our Ecological Crisis”

We used to see stars in Hangzhou. We used to. And kids in Beijing used to go to school without having to wear masks with cartoon characters on them.

I spent sixteen years in in Hangzhou. I thought I knew the place well. But now I realize I don’t. Each summer when I go back to visit my family and friends I hardly recognize it: a perpetual yellow smog covers Beijing; a new factory was built where my grandparents’ old house once stood; tour boats sailing on Qiantang River have engines that make enough noise that I can hear them every now and then. As I make these observations, I am guessing this is the kind of “solastalgia” Naomi Klein identifies in her recent book, This Changes Everything,  “the homesickness you have when you are still at home” (165) despite or in the faceof environmental degradation as an aftermath of industrialization and extraction. I miss biking in the city without much traffic and the solitude I enjoyed running along Qiantang River. It frustrates me to see the city I once loved turned into just another “metropolitan,” while most people are enraptured by this “modernization,” oblivious to the environmental change as a byproduct of globalization. 

There is a silver lining, though.

“Only mass social movements can save us now” (450), Klein writes. In her book, she envisions a picture of tomorrow where “blockadia”--the local actions led by indigenous people around the world against extractive projects such as open-pit mines and gas fracking--generates a shift in moral values that will enable us survive climate change. Klein argues that despite the dispersed nature of these protests the shared interest of fighting pollution will impel different communities, including indigenous people, fishermen, and ranchers, to form alliances and fight against the big corporations that are responsible for pollution and climate change. What excites me in this vision is the possibility that indigenous peoples’ ecological thinking and land-use practices might lead the crusade against those corporations and their extractive projects. The wins that blockcadia-type actions have achieved so far are encouraging: local protests have expedited fracking bans and moratoria in cities from Vermont to Quebec. One of the philosophical underpinnings of these blockadia-type movements draws from indigenous traditions and the land-use philosophy of indigenous people does in the United States. Aldo Leopold in his classic work called this type of thinking the “Land Ethic.”

Having witnessed the drastic environmental deterioration that industrialization has brought to my own hometown of Hangzhou, it makes me wonder: What will it take for environmental activism to work here? And is there something in our own roots that can inspire my generation to start a new chapter of environmental activism in China? Inspired by Klein’s idea of tracing one’s ancestry, I realized that a revival of Daoism could provide the philosophical grounds environmental activism thinking in China.

Daoism is a school of thinking that arose during the Warrings States period (6th century BC).  Lao Tzu, the founder of Daoism, wrote the Tao Te Ching, which roughly translates as “the way of integrity.” Chuang Tzu, a disciple of Lao Tzu, interpreted his master’s philosophies in his work, The Writings of Chuang Tzu. These two fundamental texts of Daoism have inspired Chinese scholars and artists for centuries. Daoist philosophies were also embraced by several emperors, despite the dominating influence of Confucianism.

The principle doctrine of Daoism is Dao: something intangible and ineffable that forms the basis of existence of all beings in universe. Dao lies in nature and is omnipresent. Similar to western ecological thinking, Daoism underlines the connection between humankind and nature. Lao Tzu advocates learning the laws of Nature (Dao) and uses them to guide the activities of society. He advises, for example, that “the best way to life is to be like water,” as it “provides for all people” and to “live in accordance with the nature of things” (Lao Tzu, Verse 8). The harmony of man and nature in Daoism agrees with Leopold’s Land Ethic. In his monumental work A Sand County Almanc, Leopold proposes a “land ethic” to “include soils, waters, plants, and animals” (171) in our community as the principle of environmentalism. Daoism, correspondingly, emphasizes the unity of humankind and nature, and that all things are equal because we share the same origins as “Heave, Earth, and all things are born of the existent world.” (Lao Tzu Verse 40).

To preserve this unity and achieve Dao, one should remain in a state “wuwei,” which roughly translates “action through non-action.” This is another fundamental concept in Daoism: to act without force, yet not complete inaction. To apply the principle of  “wuwei,” one must not use “forces against the world” (Verse 30), as “the peace of earth lies in its inaction.” Inflicting forces on nature, by contrast, will result in retribution because “whatever is not in keeping with Tao will come to an early end” (Verse 30). Lao Tzu further cautions people, “things that are forced, grow for a while but then wither away” (Verse 55), which is comparable the idea of sustainable development in modern environmental ethics. Instead of forcing nature according to our will, Daoist ethics instructs that one should respect and enjoy the spontaneity of nature (Ziran) with an attitude of  “wuwei.”

Since Daoist scholars believe in “wuwei” as the best way to rule the society, the majority of them did not seek active political participation. Nevertheless, Daoist philosophy has had great influence over the ruling class until the arrival of “little red book.” As a result of the forced atheism of the Maoist era, the influence of Daoist thinking waned under the repression of the Communist Party. Together with his advice of “wuwei” on governance, Lao Tzu’s perspective of humankind and nature has been annihilated from our modern culture in China. After the Cultural Revolution, Deng’s economic reformation of “open door policy” brought rapid industrialization to China, which gave rise to a new phenomenon: cancer villagers.

Cancer villages, as the name itself suggests, are the places with extraordinarily high incidences of cancer in the population due to water contamination. Scientists and journalists first noticed the trend in 1990s, but the Chinese government refused to acknowledge the connection between industrial pollution and increasing outbreaks of cancer in these areas until 2013. Many of the researchers who studied the problem were hesitant to report the phenomenon due to political pressure. The causality should have been undeniable; in fact, studies done by epidemiologists show a probability factor as high as 80 to 90 percent (Yang, Fang).  Various reports confirm the “cancer clusters” occur at rural villages with high levels of cancer-causing metals in water. The majority of the villages are located along the major rivers and their tributaries, which are “the prime location choices for industries that require cheap water, labor, and transportation” (Lee). The high rural population density makes these villages into what Chris Hedges call “sacrifice zones,” places that have been “environmentally destroyed, communities destroyed, human beings destroyed, families destroyed” for the financial interest of corporations. Those sacrifice zones prove the fact that the Chinese government prioritizes the economic development of urban cities over the well-being of people and land in rural areas.

For cancer-village residents, being marginalized also means little democracy or control over their land. In a capitalist world, the lack of economic power and the lack of political power are two sides of a coin: poverty is always accompanied by limited sovereignty. The villagers have little influence or even information when a new factory is about to open on their land; the corporations, meanwhile, pay the local government officials to ignore their violations of pollution laws and even pass their proposals to open new mines. The toxic extractive activities further disempower the villages by destroying their other economic drives: fish stock and crops die because of polluted water. Shangba, for instance, is a village whose main source of income used to be agriculture, but that was made impossible because mining in nearby Dabao Mountain caused metal contamination of Hengshui River, Shangba’s only natural water source. The acidic mine water that flows from Dabao Mountain, according to ecologist Lin Chuxia, “caused severe pollution to grains, fruits and vegetables” (Yang, Fang). As a result, the agricultural business of Shangba diminishes, which means that farmers have no alternative employment opportunities but to work for mining companies. The corrupted system of environmental management forms a vicious cycle that perpetuates itself and undermines alternative development possibilities of sacrifice zones.

Despite the polarized distribution of economic and political power in urban and rural areas, there is also a discrepancy in enforcement of environmental protection laws. Under the pressure of international community, the Chinese government has been making efforts to promote sustainable growth in recent years. The introductions of eco-friendly policies, however, serve to be “the criteria for annual evaluation and promotion” of local officials and are consequently concentrated in urban areas. Because these environmental programs are administered and funded by local governments, they are unlikely to be carried out in rural areas whose governments lack “administrative power and financial support” (Lee). The economic and political disparity further creates a divide in environmental protection between urban and rural cities, which is rejected in Daoism.

Lao Tzu pronounces that good governance (the Sage) lies in equal treatment of all, and “none are especially dear or is there anyone he (the Sage) disfavors” (Verse 5).  He further exemplifies a good governor as one who “does not value the objects held by a few by only that which is held by everyone” (Verse 64). The divergence between the rich and poor areas in China contradicts this definition of governance, and so do the discriminating policies of the current government. Lao Tzu reminds us that “the high, the low, the great, the small -- all are given light, all get a place to rest” (Verse 5); therefore, everyone, regardless of their economic status and ethnicity, should be entitled the right to clean air and water. They should also have the same degree of democracy and political influence over the government’s environmental policies and decisions. Their voices and opinions are equally, if not more, valuable than that of the people living in cities, because they have a closer relationship with the land that their lives depend on and they have better knowledge of their land.

In this way, the villagers realized the increasing cancer incidences in the early 2000s and initiated petitions with evidence (Tan & Shen 2013); the government dismissed their petitions, which disabled early control of pollution that could have saved thousands of lives. These lives are not any less valuable than the lives of people elsewhere, nor are their needs any less urgent than the needs of economic growth of urban cities. Therefore only when activists recognize social inequality as the fundamental cause of unregulated corporate activities can environmentalism proceed in China. As Klein contends, environmental movements “will bring together all of these still living movements” if activists confront the prevailing economic and political system. In a society that adopts Daoist ethics of equality denying the inhabitants in cancer villages their rights to clean water is unethical and will be condemned.

To achieve this fundamental shift in our ideology, to have a value of social equality, Klein argues, the only path is through grassroots movements that change our perceptions of the land. The Chinese government has always followed an anthropocentric development policy: “grow first and clean up later.” The land is seen as a means to an end; we exploit land and extract its resources to achieve GDP growth. Contrary to our approach of manipulating the land, Lao Tzu characterizes the relationship between land and people as interdependent and “such is their unity that one does not exist without the other” (Verse 52). His articulation of the stewardship relationship with the nature echoes indigenous people land use philosophy: “You don’t take and take and take…You take what you need and then you put back into the land.” (Klein 396). N. Scott Momaday, an Native American writer and activist, also discusses the fact that in such capitalist economies, people “conceive of the land in terms of ownership and use” and treat is as “a lifeless medium of exchange”; he argues that we should instead treat land with respect and reverence, in the manner in which Momaday’s own ancestors lived (568). The fishermen and farmers in China’s cancer villagers have a similar perception of land ,and their protests should receive more media coverage and attention. Their traditional fishing and agriculture methods would demonstrate ways to use the land without “ownership,” which could induce the shift in our cultural values that makes the excessive extraction projects socially and morally unacceptable.

Daoism also identifies a cause-effect pattern in the dynamics between man and nature, as “what is forced is likely to return” (Lao Tzu Verse 30), which has been proven by multiple cases, from the cancer-village phenomenon to climate change as a whole because of human activities. There are ways to use the land without “force” that have been employed by different societies, from indigenous peoples of the Americas to ethnic minority groups in China, for thousands of years. For all of us to adopt their ways of “working synergistically” with the earth, we must first realize that manipulating the landscape and natural systems and engineering it all to our will is wrong--and unsustainable. According to Lao Tzu, this realization comes when one observes the laws of Dao in nature and comprehends the causal relationship between human activities and the change in environment that will, in return, affect our health.

Not only does Daoism emphasize the interconnectedness between nature and people, it also underlines people’s relationship with one another. In the conversations with his disciples, Chuang Tzu repeatedly stresses that “ten thousand things are all one” (69), and there are no “boundaries.” This ideology can guide environmental activism in the sense that the movement cannot be “performed by a small tribe within a culture” (Klein 459), or led by the elite scholars of environmental organizations in Beijing. Instead, it should be a movement of communities of different social backgrounds, from university students to mine workers. According to Lao Tzu, all human beings are born of the same origin because Dao is what “give(s) life to a thousand things” (Verse 42). There is no reason that different communities should not work together to for the collective good. Just as the way water unites people in different regions of British Columbia territory influenced by the Northern Gateway pipeline (Klein 345), Daoism can help to re-form the bounds that have been severed by apartment complexes and skyscrapers and bring together the generation raised in a society motivated by capitalist acquisitiveness.

That kind of materialistic pursuit in capitalistic societies, so rightly criticized by many environmental activists from both Henry David Thoreau to Naomi Klein, is at the center of the global climate crisis. Thoreau expresses his opposition to consumerism repeatedly in Walden. He believes “most of the luxuries and many of the so-called comforts of life are not only not indispensable, but positive hindrances to the elevation of mankind” (Thoreau 15). Klein indicates that our “frenetic consumption” and “voracious lifestyle” is irreconcilable with the limited resources available on earth (86). This sort of unrestrained greed, which neoliberalists find justifiable and even necessary for development, has led to China’s fetish with GDP growth above all else. It seems as if the well-being and wealth of our society is equivalent to material gains. Daoism, by contrast, offers an alternative definition “happiness” and the means of pursuing it through “wuwei.” Chuang Tzu exemplifies this idea and announces, “I take inaction to be true happiness” (191). According to Chuang Tzu, “true happiness” arises in the process of “obtaining Tao,” and to do so, one should practice the actions of “reduction.” His view is compatible with Thoreau’s endorsement of “simplicity” and “frugality,” which could be the guiding principle of “de-growth”--the new model of development that Klein argues is necessary. She specifies that in order to live within in the ecological limits economic growth in nonsustainable sectors should be discouraged while individuals should consume less. Instead of gaining gratification through consumption, we need to reevaluate what is meaningful to us: our connection with one another and the earth. The mining companies will hence lose ground if we realize there is no longer the need for endless expansion of Chinese economy: the health of those living in cancer villages and water quality of those places should trump the pursuit of export-based economic growth.  

The fight against the mining companies will be hard. It always has been. Like the way it was for those students and workers who died in front of Tiananmen Square fighting for democracy and civil liberty in 1989. Yet it was not futile; the process unleashes a kind political imagination that gives people an understanding of their personal power. It is also a moral imperative to resist because, as Chris Hedges puts it, “if we don’t fight, we’re finished.” The act of resistance itself is a representation of our morality and values. Not fighting is wrong. We owe it to the victims in cancer villages, to the kids in Beijing who have never seen clear sky for even one day in their lives, and to ourselves the right to have clean water and air. I believe that we are capable of compassion and empathy, of consciousness and morality that have long been suppressed under the authoritarian control of the Communist Party, as Daoism ideology has been. I still hold onto my faith in our humanity because I want to see those stars again, those brightly blazing stars.


Chuang Tzu. The Complete Writings of Chuang Tzu. Tran. Burton Watson. New York: Columbia University Press, 1968. Print.

Hedges, Chris. Interview by Bill Moyers, Moyers & Company, July 20, 2012. Video.

Klein, Naomi. This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2014. Print.

Lao Tzu. Tao Te Ching. Trans. Johnathan Star. New York: Jeremy P. Tarcher/Penguin, 2008. Print.

Leopold, Aldo. A Sand County Almanac. New York: Oxford University Press, 2001. Print.

Liu, Lee. "Made in China: Cancer Villages." Environment: Science and Policy for Sustainable Development 52.2 (2010): 8-21. Academic Search Premier. Web. 04 Dec. 2014.

Momaday, Scott N. “A First American View His Land.” American Earth: Environmental Writing Since Thoreau. Ed. Bill McKibben. New York: The Library of America, 2008. 718-25. Print. 

Thoreau, Henry David. Walden. New York: Imperia Press, 2013. Print.

White, Lynn, Jr. “The Historical Roots of Our Ecological Crisis.” Science 155.3767 (Mar. 10, 1967): 1205.

Yang, Chuanmin, and Qianhua Fang, “A Village of Death and its Hope for the Future.” Trans. Roberta Raine. Nanfang News Evening Edition (Guangdong, China), 18 Nov. 2005. Web. 05 Dec. 2014