The Environment, Confucianism, and the Chinese Road to Development

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By Alessandro Benedetti 

Throughout 2015 the record levels of air pollution in Beijing, the busy capital of the People’s Republic of China, made news many times. Pollution has been on average very high – some days up to 25 times the approved limit – to the point of becoming hazardous for people. [1]

Although air pollution is increasingly a problem for Beijing’s inhabitants and other major cities in the country, Chinese environmental problems do not stop here. Deforestation, loss of natural resources and water pollution are part of a larger picture of the price paid for rapid economic growth

What 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 ideas.

Although Confucian teaching is characterised as primarily humanistic, this does not cancel out environmental ethics. If anything, it adds to it. This may be seen in the idea of ‘ecological civilisation’ which combines human development with environmental protection. This is a policy which the Chinese government has endorsed and now seeks to implement, with pilot projects already underway. [2]

To think of environmental ethics as part of society is a very Confucian consideration. Confucius often referred to the connection between humanity and heaven (tianrenheyi) suggesting that all aspects of human activity should be ethically based for the creation of a harmonious society.[3] Wang Yangming (1472-1529), a Neo-Confucian scholar, wrote in his “Inquiry on the Great Learning”:

“The great man [junzi = morally noble person] regards Heaven and Earth and the myriad things as one body. He regards the world as one family and the country as one person. As to those who make a cleavage between objects and distinguish between self and others, they are small men [xiaoren = uncultivated person]. That the great man [junzi] can regard Heaven, Earth and the myriad things as one body is not because he deliberately wants to do so, but because it is natural to the humane nature of his mind that he do so.”

Although Confucius did not talk specifically in regards to the environment many later Confucian scholars elaborated on this topic.

One of the most famous early Confucian scholars, Meng Zi (Mencius, thought to have lived 372—289 BCE), was the author of what is considered to be among the earliest recorded ecological commentaries:

“The woods on Ox Mountain were once beautiful. Because they were on the edge of a large country, they have been attacked with axes and hatchets, so how could they remain beautiful? …People seeing its denuded state assume that it never had been otherwise, endowed with rich resources. Yet how can this state be the true nature of this mountain?”[4]
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From Ma Yuan’s Water Album – The Yellow River Breaches its Course (Retrieved here)
How is Confucianism helping China combat pollution?

In its quest to rise peacefully, China has always taken his own path of development. While learning from western countries, particularly the United States, China has added ‘Chinese characteristics’ to borrowed concepts, thus trying to remain faithful to its own values.

The United States although representing only 5% of the world’s total population has been responsible for the production of 22% of greenhouse gases. Far from taking the American model as a reference for its modernisation, China and its political class has had to gradually find a point of reference indigenous to its own culture.[5] This is where the blueprint of ‘ecological civilisation’ carries the Chinese cultural characteristic of humans being part of, and not separate from, Heaven and Earth.

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President Obama shakes hands with Chinese President Xi Jinping during their meeting at the start of the climate summit in Paris. November 30, 2015 (Retrieved here)

While much is yet to be done, the increasing adoption of references by Chinese politicians, educational institutions and scholars to Confucian writings and ideals demonstrates a commitment to a more Confucian turn in development discourse. This includes the ‘Chinese dream’ of an ‘ecological civilisation’ and a real contribution to the creation of a ‘harmonious world’ in which filial piety extends to Mother Earth.





[5] Martin Lu, Rosita Dellios, R. James Ferguson (eds), Toward a Global Community: New Perspectives on Confucian Humanism (Centre for East-West Cultural and Economic Studies, Bond University, and International Confucian Association, Gold Coast, Australia, 2004).

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