China’s Green Religion: Daoism and the Quest for a Sustainable Future

China’s Green Religion: Daoism and the Quest for a Sustainable Future In many ways China’s Green Religion has its origins some twenty years ago in the Harvard conference series on World Religions and Ecology (1996–1998) and subsequent books published by Harvard University Press. Miller was the primary editor of the book in the Harvard series titled Daoism and Ecology: Ways Within a Cosmic Landscape (2001). Daoism and Ecology explored the place of nature in Daoist traditions and suggested how this could be of value in constructing a contemporary ecological ethics. Miller’s contributions went beyond those of a conventional editor. He wove together the responses to the papers presented at the conference into reflections on major themes in Daoism and ecology that have become defining questions for the field. There is no other volume among the ten in the Harvard series that has this special feature. Daoism and Ecology is thus particularly helpful for teaching because students can become even more engaged with the debates that arose among the Daoist scholars and practioners at the Harvard conference. In the last fifteen years, Miller has developed an ambitious program of research that flows out of his concern for understanding both classical and contemporary Chinese views of nature and environment. His productivity has been remarkable in quality and quantity. In the area of Daoism and ecology, Miller has, without doubt, become one of the world’s leading scholars. He has contributed to several volumes John Grim and I have edited, including a volume on Religion and Ecology: Can the Climate Change (Daedalus 2001), an article for the Encyclopedia of Religion (Macmillan 2005), and more recently the Routledge Handbook on Religion and Ecology (Routledge, 2017). This new book from Columbia University Press explores Daoist views of nature in relation to growing environmental problems in China and around the world. The environment is an urgent topic of discussion in contemporary China, and is the focus of work conducted both in academic and public policy settings. In government, academia, and NGOs there are those who are beginning to view traditional Chinese religions such as Daoism and Confucianism as vital resources for a transition to an ecologically sustainable society. In this spirit there are numerous conferences being held that are focused on the idea of creating an “ecological civilization” for China. This is certainly an aspirational ideal, but one that is gaining some traction since the Chinese Communist Party adopted it as a goal in 2007. “Ecological civilization” appeared in the Chinese constitution in 2012 and is frequently mentioned by President Xi Jinping and other government officials. Indeed, several years ago Miller accompanied John Grim and myself to discuss these topics with Pan Yue, the vice minister of the State Environmental Protection Administration in China. Pan Yue is a major spokesperson for the importance of drawing on Chinese religious traditions for environmental ethics for China. Miller’s new book, China’s Green Religion, broadens the discussion of what Daoism is and how it best enters into the environmental arena. There is perhaps no scholar in the West better placed than James Miller to understand and contribute to this ongoing discussion of Daoism and ecology. This is because of his deep knowledge of China’s religious traditions, as well as his genuine interest in ecological sciences, environmental ethics, and emerging public policies. He is a scholar who is widely read and capable of synthesizing knowledge from across various disciplines in novel ways. Indeed, this is evident in China’s Green Religion. It is a tour de force of rich ideas on Daoism that move the conversation well beyond conventional ideas. It is a thought-provoking book that references a broad range of scholarship from China and the West. Its particular perspective of not trying to “save the world” is invaluable. It asserts instead that we simply need to recognize that we are already part of the world—profoundly entangled in it and a microcosm of it. The contributions of China’s Green Religion are three-fold: China has the possibility of broadening and deepening the dialogue on ecological civilization. Heretofore, there have been some publications that draw on conventional notions of Daoism as having an inherent ecological philosophy due to passages drawn from Laozi or Zhuangzi. This proof texting is insufficient for the task of developing a more comprehensive integral ecology that embraces both humans and nature. Meanwhile, Sacred Mountains: How the Revival of Daoism is Turning China’s Ecological Recovery Around, by Allerd Stikker (Bene Factum Publishing, 2014) describes the establishment of the first Daoist ecological temple in China. While this is a valuable initiative, it may be fair to say that more is claimed than has been actually achieved at this temple. Miller’s book, on the other hand, has depth and traction for a genuine and robust Daoist ecological philosophy and practice, not only for China but also for the West and the world at large. In the West, China’s Green Religion can be seen in relation to discussions on “new materialism,” which have been largely oriented to Western philosophical ideas. This movement is attempting to break down the notion that matter is inert and that all reflexive agency rests in the human. Instead, “new materialism” is illustrating the profound interconnections of ecosystems and species in ways still not fully understood or appreciated. Miller’s book illustrates why this Western intellectual context needs to be broadened with reference to non-Western traditions, such as Daoism and, I would suggest, Confucianism and Buddhism as well. Among the new materialists, Jane Bennett, for example, titles her book Vibrant Matter (Duke University Press, 2010), but makes virtually no significant reference to qi, which is the quintessential expression of vibrant matter and central to the worldview of Daoism and Confucianism. Qi as matter/energy or material force is the dynamic life force of humans, nature, and the cosmos. It is why Tu Weiming speaks of a “continuity of being” in the Chinese worldview. To cultivate qi is to be in touch with the dynamic flow of the living world. For a planetary dialogue toward a flourishing future, Miller’s book presents a highly original interpretation of Daoism. From an ecocritical perspective, he develops the notion of the subjectivity of nature in Daoism as a counterpoint to modern Western notions that deny such subjectivity, seeing it as only a human quality. If human well being and nature’s well being are seen as separate, he argues, we will continue to undermine the vital life systems of the planet. Miller proposes instead that Daoist understandings of the porousness of the body and the world can reorient humans and nature. Qi flows through inner and outer landscapes, providing an experiential basis for the interpenetration of the human body and Earth’s body. A new appreciation for how nature supports us materially, spiritually, and aesthetically thus arises. The transformative power of topographical places can be the occasion for new ways of knowing and being that are mutually enhancing. These ideas are rich, provocative, and necessary for a future that is not simply sustainable but flourishing. In conclusion, Miller contributes a perspective that is grounded in careful research, related to contemporary issues, and inspiring as a lifeway for modern humans. This is the kind of interdisciplinary scholarship and experience that students long for from a teacher, something quite rare in the study of Chinese religions, where specialists tend to be highly trained Sinologists who do not often have the ability to make connections across disciplines. In this regard, Miller is clearly unusual. China’s Green Religion demonstrates a high degree of Sinological training, but also ecocritical breadth. Most significantly, Miller has the ability to engage contemporary ecological questions in a clear and accessible manner. I trust this book will be widely read and used in academia and well beyond. © The Author(s) 2017. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of the American Academy of Religion. All rights reserved. For permissions, please e-mail: journals.permissions@oup.com. http://www.deepdyve.com/assets/images/DeepDyve-Logo-lg.png Journal of the American Academy of Religion Oxford University Press

China’s Green Religion: Daoism and the Quest for a Sustainable Future

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Publisher
Oxford University Press
Copyright
© The Author(s) 2017. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of the American Academy of Religion. All rights reserved. For permissions, please e-mail: journals.permissions@oup.com.
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0002-7189
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1477-4585
D.O.I.
10.1093/jaarel/lfx050
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Abstract

In many ways China’s Green Religion has its origins some twenty years ago in the Harvard conference series on World Religions and Ecology (1996–1998) and subsequent books published by Harvard University Press. Miller was the primary editor of the book in the Harvard series titled Daoism and Ecology: Ways Within a Cosmic Landscape (2001). Daoism and Ecology explored the place of nature in Daoist traditions and suggested how this could be of value in constructing a contemporary ecological ethics. Miller’s contributions went beyond those of a conventional editor. He wove together the responses to the papers presented at the conference into reflections on major themes in Daoism and ecology that have become defining questions for the field. There is no other volume among the ten in the Harvard series that has this special feature. Daoism and Ecology is thus particularly helpful for teaching because students can become even more engaged with the debates that arose among the Daoist scholars and practioners at the Harvard conference. In the last fifteen years, Miller has developed an ambitious program of research that flows out of his concern for understanding both classical and contemporary Chinese views of nature and environment. His productivity has been remarkable in quality and quantity. In the area of Daoism and ecology, Miller has, without doubt, become one of the world’s leading scholars. He has contributed to several volumes John Grim and I have edited, including a volume on Religion and Ecology: Can the Climate Change (Daedalus 2001), an article for the Encyclopedia of Religion (Macmillan 2005), and more recently the Routledge Handbook on Religion and Ecology (Routledge, 2017). This new book from Columbia University Press explores Daoist views of nature in relation to growing environmental problems in China and around the world. The environment is an urgent topic of discussion in contemporary China, and is the focus of work conducted both in academic and public policy settings. In government, academia, and NGOs there are those who are beginning to view traditional Chinese religions such as Daoism and Confucianism as vital resources for a transition to an ecologically sustainable society. In this spirit there are numerous conferences being held that are focused on the idea of creating an “ecological civilization” for China. This is certainly an aspirational ideal, but one that is gaining some traction since the Chinese Communist Party adopted it as a goal in 2007. “Ecological civilization” appeared in the Chinese constitution in 2012 and is frequently mentioned by President Xi Jinping and other government officials. Indeed, several years ago Miller accompanied John Grim and myself to discuss these topics with Pan Yue, the vice minister of the State Environmental Protection Administration in China. Pan Yue is a major spokesperson for the importance of drawing on Chinese religious traditions for environmental ethics for China. Miller’s new book, China’s Green Religion, broadens the discussion of what Daoism is and how it best enters into the environmental arena. There is perhaps no scholar in the West better placed than James Miller to understand and contribute to this ongoing discussion of Daoism and ecology. This is because of his deep knowledge of China’s religious traditions, as well as his genuine interest in ecological sciences, environmental ethics, and emerging public policies. He is a scholar who is widely read and capable of synthesizing knowledge from across various disciplines in novel ways. Indeed, this is evident in China’s Green Religion. It is a tour de force of rich ideas on Daoism that move the conversation well beyond conventional ideas. It is a thought-provoking book that references a broad range of scholarship from China and the West. Its particular perspective of not trying to “save the world” is invaluable. It asserts instead that we simply need to recognize that we are already part of the world—profoundly entangled in it and a microcosm of it. The contributions of China’s Green Religion are three-fold: China has the possibility of broadening and deepening the dialogue on ecological civilization. Heretofore, there have been some publications that draw on conventional notions of Daoism as having an inherent ecological philosophy due to passages drawn from Laozi or Zhuangzi. This proof texting is insufficient for the task of developing a more comprehensive integral ecology that embraces both humans and nature. Meanwhile, Sacred Mountains: How the Revival of Daoism is Turning China’s Ecological Recovery Around, by Allerd Stikker (Bene Factum Publishing, 2014) describes the establishment of the first Daoist ecological temple in China. While this is a valuable initiative, it may be fair to say that more is claimed than has been actually achieved at this temple. Miller’s book, on the other hand, has depth and traction for a genuine and robust Daoist ecological philosophy and practice, not only for China but also for the West and the world at large. In the West, China’s Green Religion can be seen in relation to discussions on “new materialism,” which have been largely oriented to Western philosophical ideas. This movement is attempting to break down the notion that matter is inert and that all reflexive agency rests in the human. Instead, “new materialism” is illustrating the profound interconnections of ecosystems and species in ways still not fully understood or appreciated. Miller’s book illustrates why this Western intellectual context needs to be broadened with reference to non-Western traditions, such as Daoism and, I would suggest, Confucianism and Buddhism as well. Among the new materialists, Jane Bennett, for example, titles her book Vibrant Matter (Duke University Press, 2010), but makes virtually no significant reference to qi, which is the quintessential expression of vibrant matter and central to the worldview of Daoism and Confucianism. Qi as matter/energy or material force is the dynamic life force of humans, nature, and the cosmos. It is why Tu Weiming speaks of a “continuity of being” in the Chinese worldview. To cultivate qi is to be in touch with the dynamic flow of the living world. For a planetary dialogue toward a flourishing future, Miller’s book presents a highly original interpretation of Daoism. From an ecocritical perspective, he develops the notion of the subjectivity of nature in Daoism as a counterpoint to modern Western notions that deny such subjectivity, seeing it as only a human quality. If human well being and nature’s well being are seen as separate, he argues, we will continue to undermine the vital life systems of the planet. Miller proposes instead that Daoist understandings of the porousness of the body and the world can reorient humans and nature. Qi flows through inner and outer landscapes, providing an experiential basis for the interpenetration of the human body and Earth’s body. A new appreciation for how nature supports us materially, spiritually, and aesthetically thus arises. The transformative power of topographical places can be the occasion for new ways of knowing and being that are mutually enhancing. These ideas are rich, provocative, and necessary for a future that is not simply sustainable but flourishing. In conclusion, Miller contributes a perspective that is grounded in careful research, related to contemporary issues, and inspiring as a lifeway for modern humans. This is the kind of interdisciplinary scholarship and experience that students long for from a teacher, something quite rare in the study of Chinese religions, where specialists tend to be highly trained Sinologists who do not often have the ability to make connections across disciplines. In this regard, Miller is clearly unusual. China’s Green Religion demonstrates a high degree of Sinological training, but also ecocritical breadth. Most significantly, Miller has the ability to engage contemporary ecological questions in a clear and accessible manner. I trust this book will be widely read and used in academia and well beyond. © The Author(s) 2017. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of the American Academy of Religion. All rights reserved. For permissions, please e-mail: journals.permissions@oup.com.

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Journal of the American Academy of ReligionOxford University Press

Published: Mar 1, 2018

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