Can Confucian thought help us rise above the dome?

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blue skysThe state of China’s environmental health, specifically air quality, continues to be a hot topic throughout China and the world. Public concern has sparked huge debate, particularly with the release of the documentary Under the Dome.  Additionally, the National People’s Congress (NPC) has put pollution at the very forefront of its agenda. As environmental concerns grow worldwide, revisiting Confucian texts and commentaries from an environmental perspective could help enlighten modern society in facing this challenging issue.

Confucian philosophy holds that there is basic order in the universe and a natural harmony linking human kind and the moral universe known as tian or Heaven. This moral universe includes humankind’s relationship with Earth. Earth can be understood as the source of economy and nourishment, as well as our environmental heritage. Scholars of Confucius may pinpoint the environmental problem to a lack of balance between Earth’s sustainable development and the quest for profit at all costs.

Sam Crane, a professor of Chinese Politics and ancient Chinese philosophy at Williams College, points out in his article titled “Green Confucius” that, “Profit has infected the relationship of man and environment and, ultimately, has undermined the ability of many Chinese people to protect their social relationships (think of all of the health problems that have harmed families as a result of pollution).”

Self-awareness with regard to the balance of relationships must be created across a wide spectrum in 21st century life, this includes not only with people and societies, but relationships with the environmental resource base as well.

In an article titled Confucian Ethics and the Environment, scholar Li Tianchen uses ancient Chinese sources to attribute “ecological and environmental protection as a matter of concern to the national economy and people’s livelihood.” He draws attention to the following quote by Xunzi, an ancient Confucian philosopher who emphasises human responsibility towards nature:

“Respond to it with peace and order, and good fortune will result. Respond to it with disorder, and disaster will follow. If the foundations of living (i.e., agriculture and sericulture) are strengthened and are economically used, then Nature cannot bring impoverishment…But if the foundations of living are neglected and used extravagantly, then Nature cannot make the country rich.”

confucius quote

The loss of Confucian wisdom has led to an environmentally regressive trend in which the xiaoren – the Confucian term for a petty-minded self-seeking individual – reigns supreme. The people, corporations and systems that put profits ahead of other considerations may be contrasted to the junzi, the morally noble person. The junzi is viewed by Confucius as the role model who upholds a nurturing relationship between nature and humanity.

Deputy Minister of the Environmental Protection Ministry Pan Yue once said that “the core of traditional Chinese culture, both Confucianism and Taoism, is harmony between Man and nature and it should be revived as a way to tackle today’s environmental problems.”

Could going back to Confucian insights help ignite a new sense of environmental awareness and ultimately lead to a rise above the dome?

Let us know your thoughts by leaving a comment!

3 thoughts on “Can Confucian thought help us rise above the dome?

    Rosita Dellios said:
    March 16, 2015 at 4:36 am

    From a yin-yang perspective, before China switched to a market-based economy in 1978 it suffered from underdevelopment and poverty. It languished in an excess of stagnating yin. But since the reforms China’s economy became dynamic and 500 million people were lifted out of poverty [1]. A certain balance was reached. After a time, however, being the ‘workshop of the world’ also entailed becoming the industrial smokestack of the world. The ‘made in China’ label carried with it a huge cost to the environment and people’s health. This meant that too much successful yang had swung into an over-abundance of yin darkness, under a cloud of pollution. While the junzi quality of development and poverty alleviation was to be commended, the system became increasingly xiaoren when corruption and disregard for the environment set in. It all comes back to the way in which the global economic system is interpreted. If consumerism becomes an end in itself, rather than a means to a better life – one that incorporates a healthy environment – then there is no light at the end of the tunnel (or above the dome). So China has gone from the extremities of poor nation to a leading world economy to a potential ecological disaster zone and now, hopefully, to a new era as a self-described ‘eco-civilisation’[2] – a would-be junzi power.

    [1] World Bank, ‘China Overview’, 2015:
    [2] ‘Eco-Civilization: China’s Blueprint for a New Era’, The Climate Group, Feb. 2014


    […] are the Confucian teachings on the issue of the environment? Further to our earlier post, ‘Can Confucian Thought Help Us Rise above the Dome’, here are some […]


    bohemiotx said:
    September 23, 2016 at 5:03 pm

    “The Western Inscription,” by Chang Tsai (11th century) has become “the favored Confucian response to the ecological crisis,” according to Dr. John Berthrong. The Harvard Forum on Religion and Ecology summarizes the Western Inscription as, “Describing the essential kinship of all beings with Heaven and Earth, it maintains that compassion is the highest expression of kinship.”


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