China’s diverse cultures and ancient wisdom offer lessons of reverence and respect for nature.
China is a land of rich biological, cultural, and linguistic diversity. Although fifty-six ethnic groups are officially recognized, there are many more groups both beyond and within the official fifty-six, characterized by ancestry, language, religion, and culture. These groups have coexisted for many millennia and shaped Chinese history; two of them (the Mongols and Manchus) established dynasties that ruled over China during much of the last millennium.
China’s most widespread philosophies, Confucianism, Buddhism, and Daoism, share a common theme of human beings and nature coexisting in a state of dynamic equilibrium.
China’s religious and philosophical traditions reflect this diversity. In contrast to the West, in China religion and philosophy are generally considered one and the same. China’s most widespread philosophies, Confucianism, Buddhism, and Daoism, share a common theme of human beings and nature coexisting in a state of dynamic equilibrium. Think of the Yin and Yang, for example. Underlying all this is the belief that we human beings are indebted to heaven and earth (天地 in Chinese) and must honor and respect them. Many Chinese ceremonies, such as those at weddings and thanksgiving feasts, include a prayer thanking heaven and earth. In a number of ways, these rituals are similar to those practiced by many other peoples around the world.
I grew up in the northern part of Shanxi, a Chinese province west of Beijing and close to Inner Mongolia. For much of Chinese history, Shanxi represented the northern border of China proper. It was a place where the Han Chinese, the most populous ethnic group in China, mixed with other groups like the Mongols and Manchus, whose influence — from architecture to foods and festivals — remains strong today in Shanxi and elsewhere in China. The exchange between cultures has been mutual: just as the Han Chinese have borrowed from other groups, in turn those groups have adopted many customs of the Han Chinese.
Although I have lived in North America for several decades, I study and follow many Chinese philosophical and religious traditions. One of them is the Chinese calendar. Did you know that, in addition to the lunar calendar that is used to mark holidays like the Chinese New Year, the Chinese also have a solar calendar? That calendar divides the year into twenty-four solar terms of about fifteen days each. The solar terms include well-known dates like the solstices and equinoxes as well as less well-known ones, many of which derive their names from natural phenomena that occur around the time of the solar term. For example, the Jingzhe solar term (惊蛰 in Chinese) occurring around March 5 of each year is named after insects beginning to move after a winter of inactivity.
Many Chinese believe that to lead a healthy and productive life, we need to go along with the flow of nature, not be detached from it.
For much of its history, China was an agrarian society, and farmers depended on the solar terms to guide them on when to plant, harvest, and carry out other important activities in the agricultural cycle. This wisdom, like the Farmer’s Almanac in the West, was gathered over time with the belief that farming should be done in tune with nature’s rhythms. In addition to using the solar calendar for farming, generations of Chinese have used it to guide their daily activities, such as what foods to eat, how to exercise and sleep, and what to wear. Many Chinese, both those living in China and those living overseas, believe that to lead a healthy and productive life, we need to go along with the flow of nature, not be detached from it.
I am keenly interested in China’s biocultural diversity and the way in which the worldviews of the country’s different ethnic groups reflect deeply held beliefs about the interdependence of people and nature. In 2013, I traveled to Yunnan, a province in southwest China that is home to many ethnic groups. One of them is the Naxi, who live primarily in northwest Yunnan and southwest Sichuan. The Naxi are believed to have migrated to that area from Tibet and the surrounding regions. One of the towns I visited in Yunnan, Lijiang, is well-known for its Naxi architecture and culture.
The Naxi’s traditional belief system is called Dongba, a word that also refers to Naxi priests and means “wise man” in their language. A core Dongba belief is that nature and man are half brothers. The nature god is named Shu, and the Naxi have many beliefs about Shu. For example, they consider rivers, trees, and animals to be part of Shu. Hence, they believe that cutting down trees is akin to cutting a part of Shu. If one cuts down more than is necessary, it is disrespectful of Shu, and one should apologize to the god by holding a ceremony. In other words, nature can nourish human beings, but we need to be respectful and thankful to nature. Instead, if we exploit nature excessively, then disease and natural disasters will result. The Naxi have evolved their legal system based on these beliefs, and many Naxi communities have committees of village Elders who remind members of these rules and punish any transgressors.
‘If humans and nature coexist harmoniously, then the world will be filled with joy and good fortune.’
Professor Yang Fuquan of the Yunnan Academy of Social Sciences, a renowned scholar on the Naxi, summarized the essence of Naxi traditional beliefs with the following statement, which he wrote in the Dongba pictographic script used by the Naxi: “If humans and nature coexist harmoniously, then the world will be filled with joy and good fortune (人和自然和谐，世上就会有吉祥之音).”
The Naxi have developed an elaborate set of rituals to honor Shu and nature. For instance, they use the Chinese solar calendar and believe that one should not fell trees or hunt immediately after Lixia , the solar term signifying the beginning of summer, because that is when plants and animals are growing. They also worship Shu, both in manmade structures such as temples and monuments and at natural sites in Lijiang and the surrounding communities. For example, the Jade Dragon Snow Mountain, located outside Lijiang, is a sacred site for the Naxi, where they conduct many ceremonies honoring Shu and other gods.
In China, the Naxi have played a key role in maintaining the forests around Lijiang; this has led to about seventy percent of those forests being nationally protected and additional greenspace being created in Lijiang over the past decades. Besides the Naxi, other ethnic groups in China are active in conservation efforts. For example, the Tibetans consider the Amnye Machen mountain in Qinghai Province to be an important holy site. They are aware that the snow atop the mountain is melting quickly due to climate change and are working to document and raise awareness about the melting. Many of these ethnic groups’ beliefs and conservation efforts are not well-known within or outside China, and I think it is important for the Han Chinese and other people outside China to learn about and learn from them.
I am convinced that having such beliefs reflected in our lives can lead to important conservation outcomes. Many people worldwide, regardless of their religious faith or personal creed, act on beliefs of this sort as they go about their daily lives. I practice Buddhism, which teaches that excessive desires lead to suffering and that we should endeavor to help others in need. To put these beliefs into an environmental context, we understand that if we continue to pillage the earth’s resources and do not respect nature, we will continue to cause suffering in the form of climate change, natural disasters, and diseases. In addition, as we continue to depend on the earth and its resources for our lives and livelihoods, it is our duty to protect and care for the earth. These beliefs have led me to try to live a sustainable lifestyle and find ways to support organizations that care for the environment and conservation.
Conservation and environmental protection remain areas where we can and must continue to cooperate and learn from one another.
Despite the current tensions between China and the West, and China in many ways closing itself off to the rest of the world, conservation and environmental protection remain areas where we can and must continue to cooperate and learn from one another. We are in the early stages of a sustainability revolution in our economy, and both China and the United States want to lead that effort. But above all, issues like climate change and loss of biodiversity affect all of us regardless of borders or nationality. Collaboration in these areas is essential.
While misinformation or lack of information about one another is a major challenge, I am hopeful that, as the COVID-19 pandemic subsides, students, researchers, and professionals will continue to interact with and learn from one another, and in doing so will dispel misconceptions, including those about the respective countries’ environmental goals and practices. China is not monolithic. For people in the West, learning about China’s diverse peoples and their practices is a way to understand China at a deeper level. Many of the practices are not new: they reflect centuries of wisdom underscoring the importance of respecting, revering, and having reciprocity with nature.
Acknowledgments: I would like to acknowledge the following people for providing photos or for their help with this story: Professor Yang Fuquan, Yunnan Academy of Social Sciences; Rose Niu, Chief Conservation Officer, The Paulson Institute; Kyle Obermann, freelance photographer; Allison Hanes, primatologist and documentary filmmaker; Christina Casler, water engineer, Meta.
Thomas Hou was born in China and is now a lawyer living in New York City with his wife and two sons. He is passionate about the environment and enjoys meeting people from and learning about different cultures.