Today virtually all axial-age civilizations are going through their own distinctive
forms of transformation in response to the multiple challenges of modernity.1 One of the most crucial
questions they face is what wisdom they can offer to reorient the human developmental
trajectory of the modern world in light of the growing environmental crisis.
China and the Confucian tradition face an especially significant challenge given
the size of China’s population and the scale of her current efforts at modernization.
A radical rethinking of Confucian humanism began in the late nineteenth and early
twentieth centuries, when China was engulfed in an unprecedented radical social
disintegration as the result of foreign invasion and domestic dissension. In the
late twentieth century, this reformulation continued in the “New Confucian movement”
led by concerned intellectuals, some of whom left mainland China for Taiwan and
Hong Kong when communism was established as the ruling ideology in the People’s
Republic in 1949.
In the last twenty-five years, three leading New Confucian thinkers in Taiwan, mainland
China, and Hong Kong independently concluded that the most significant contribution
the Confucian tradition can offer the global community is the idea of the “unity
of Heaven and Humanity” (tianrenheyi), a unity that Confucians believe also
embraces Earth. I have described this vision as an anthropocosmic worldview, in
which the human is embedded in the cosmic order, rather than an anthropocentric
worldview, in which the human is alienated, either by choice or by default, from
the natural world.2
By identifying the comprehensive unity of Heaven, Earth, and Humanity as a critical
contribution to the modern world, these three key figures in New Confucian thought
signaled the movement toward both retrieval and reappropriation of Confucian ideas.
Speaking as public intellectuals concerned about the direction of the modern world,
each of the three key thinkers articulated this idea of unity in a distinctive way.
Qian Mu (1895–1990) of Taiwan characterized the unity as a mutuality between the
human heart-mind and the Way of Heaven.3
Tang Junyi (1909–1978) of Hong Kong emphasized “immanent transcendence”: we can
apprehend the Mandate of Heaven by understanding our heart-and-mind; thus, the transcendence
of Heaven is immanent in the communal and critical self-consciousness of human beings
as a whole.4
Similarly, Feng Youlan (1895–1990) of Beijing rejected his previous commitment to
the Marxist notion of struggle and stressed the value of harmony not only in the
human world, but also in the relationship between humans and nature.5 Since all three thinkers
articulated their final positions toward the end of their lives, the unity of Heaven,
Earth, and Humanity sums up the wisdom of these elders in the Sinic world. I would
like to suggest that this New Confucian idea of cosmic unity marks an ecological
turn of profound importance for China and the world.
AN ECOLOGICAL TURN
Qian Mu called this new realization a major breakthrough in his thinking. When his
wife and students raised doubts about the novelty of his insight—the idea of unity
between Heaven and Humanity is centuries old—Qian, already in his nineties, emphatically
responded that his understanding was not a reiteration of conventional wisdom, but
a personal enlightenment, thoroughly original and totally novel.6 His fascination with the
idea of mutuality between the human heart-and-mind and the Way of Heaven, and his
assertion that this idea is a unique Chinese contribution to the world, attracted
the attention of several leading intellectuals in cultural China.7
Tang Junyi, on the other hand, presented his view from a comparative civilizational
perspective. He contrasted Confucian self-cultivation with Greek, Christian, and
Buddhist spiritual exercises, and concluded that Confucianism’s commitment to the
world combined with its profound reverence for Heaven offered a unique contribution
to human flourishing in the modern world. The Confucian worldview, rooted in earth,
body, family, and community, is not “adjustment to the world,”8 submission to the status
quo, or passive acceptance of the physical, biological, social, and political constraints
of the human condition. Rather, it is dictated by an ethic of responsibility informed
by a transcendent vision. We do not become “spiritual” by departing from or transcending
above our earth, body, family, and community, but by working through them. Indeed,
our daily life is not merely secular but a response to a cosmological decree. Since
the Mandate of Heaven that enjoins us to take part in the great enterprise of cosmic
transformation is implicit in our nature, we are Heaven’s partners. In Tang’s graphic
description, the ultimate goal of being human is to enable the “Heavenly virtue”
(tiande) to flow through us. His project of reconstructing the secular humanist
spirit is, therefore, predicated on an anthropocosmic vision.9
Feng Youlan’s radical reversal of his earlier position is an implicit critique of
Mao Zedong’s thoughts on struggle and the human capacity to conquer nature. His
return to the philosophy of harmony of Zhang Zai (1020–1077) signaled a departure
from his Marxist phase and a re-presentation of Confucian ideas he had first developed
in the 1940s, prior to the founding of the People’s Republic of China. The opening
lines in Zhang Zai’s “Western Inscription” state:
Heaven is my father and Earth is my mother, and even such a small creature as I
finds an intimate place in their midst.
Therefore that which fills the universe I regard as my body and that which directs
the universe I consider as my nature.
All people are my brothers and sisters, and all things are my companions.10
The “Western Inscription” can be regarded as a core Neo-Confucian text in articulating
the anthropocosmic vision of the unity of Heaven, Earth, and Humanity. Accordingly,
Feng characterizes the highest stage of human self-realization as the embodiment
of the “spirit of Heaven and Earth.”11
A significant aspect of Qian, Tang, and Feng’s ecological turn was their effort
to retrieve the spiritual resources of the classical and Neo-Confucian heritages.
In the sixteenth century, for example, Wang Yangming (1472–1529) offered in his
“Inquiry on the Great Learning” an elegant interpretation of Confucian thought,
one with rich implications for modern ecological thinking:
The great man 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. That
the great man 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.12
By emphasizing the “humane nature of the mind” as the reason that the great person
can embody the universe in his sensitivity, Wang made the ontological assertion
that the ability to strike a sympathetic resonance with Heaven, Earth, and the myriad
things is a defining characteristic of being human.
To demonstrate that this is indeed the case, he offered a series of concrete examples:
When we see a child about to fall into the well, we cannot help a feeling of alarm
and commiseration. This shows that our humanity (ren) forms one body with
the child. It may be objected that the child belongs to the same species. Again,
when we observe the pitiful cries and frightened appearances of birds and animals
about to be slaughtered, we cannot help feeling an “inability to bear” their suffering.
This shows that our humanity forms one body with birds and animals. It may be objected
that birds and animals are sentient beings as we are. But when we see plants broken
and destroyed, we cannot help a feeling of pity. This shows that our humanity forms
one body with plants. It may be said that plants are living things as we are. Yet
even when we see tiles and stones shattered and crushed, we cannot help a feeling
of regret. This shows that our humanity forms one body with tiles and stones.13
These examples clearly indicate that “forming one body” entails not the romantic
ideal of unity, but rather a highly differentiated understanding of interconnectedness.
Neo-Confucian thinkers like Wang deeply influenced Qian, Tang, and Feng. The efforts
of the latter group to employ Confucian ideas to enunciate their final positions
may seem to be a matter of personal style. Yet all three were obviously convinced
that their cherished tradition had a message for the emerging global village; they
delivered it in the most appropriate way they knew. Their use of a prophetic voice
suggests that their Confucian message was addressed not only to a Chinese audience
but also to the human community as a whole. They did not wish merely to honor their
ancestors but also to show that they cared for the well-being of future generations.
Were they even conscious of the ecological implications of their final positions?
In the last decades of the twentieth century, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and even mainland
China were all marching toward Western-style forms of social organization. Modernization
was the most powerful ideology in China. By challenging China’s traditional agriculture-based
economy, family-centered social structure, and paternalist government, industrialization
seemed to seal the fate of Confucianism as no longer relevant to the vital concerns
of the contemporary world.14
Perhaps Qian, Tang, and Feng were nostalgic for the kind of “universal brotherhood”
or “unity of all things” that Max Weber and others have supposed must disappear
in a disenchanted modern world. However, while traces of romantic longing can be
seen in their writings, all three discovered a new vitality in the Confucian tradition.
In order to appreciate properly what these men accomplished, it will be useful to
recall the broad historical context in which they worked.
HOLISTIC CONFUCIAN HUMANISM
Prior to the impact of the modern West, Confucian humanism largely defined political
ideology, social ethics, and family values in East Asia. Since the East Asian educated
elite were all well versed in the Confucian classics, what the three contemporary
thinkers advocated as a unique Confucian contribution to the human community was,
in fact, a spiritual orientation once widely shared in China, Vietnam, Korea, and
Japan. The famous “eight steps” in the first chapter of the Great Learning
provide a glimpse of what Confucian humanism purported to be:
The ancients who wished to illuminate their “illuminating virtue” to all under Heaven
first governed their states. Wishing to govern their states, they first regulated
their families. Wishing to regulate their families, they first cultivated their
personal lives. Wishing to cultivate their personal lives, they first rectified
their hearts and minds. Wishing to rectify their hearts and minds, they first authenticated
their intentions. Wishing to authenticate their intentions, they first refined their
knowledge. The refinement of knowledge lay in the study of things. For only when
things are studied is knowledge refined; only when knowledge is refined are intentions
authentic; only when intentions are authentic are hearts and minds rectified; only
when hearts and minds are rectified are personal lives cultivated; only when personal
lives are cultivated are families regulated; only when families are regulated are
states governed; only when states are governed is there peace all under Heaven.
Therefore, from the Son of Heaven to the common people, all, without exception,
must take self-cultivation as the root.15
This holistic vision of a peaceful world rests on a carefully integrated program
of personal self-cultivation, harmonized family life, and well-ordered states. At
the heart of this vision is a sense that “home” implies not only the human community,
but also the natural world and the larger cosmos. Speaking directly to the above
passage, Wm. Theodore de Bary has observed, “Chinese and Confucian culture, traditionally,
was about settled communities living on the land, nourishing themselves and the
land. It is this natural, organic process that Confucian self-cultivation draws
upon for all its analogies and metaphors.”16
He noted that the farmer poet Wendell Berry made the Confucian point: “[H]ome and
family are central, and we cannot hope to do anything about the environment that
does not first establish the home—not just the self and family—as the home base
for our efforts.” De Bary concluded that:
If we have to live in a much larger world, because ecological problems can only
be managed on a global scale, the infrastructure between home locality and state
(national or international) is also vital. But without home, we have nothing for
the infrastructure, much less the superstructure, to rest on. This is the message
of Wendell Berry; and also the lesson of Confucian and Chinese history.17
The human in this worldview is an active participant in the cosmic process with
the responsibility of care for the environment. Thus in the classical period of
Confucianism we see a holistic humanism expressed in the Great Learning.
Furthermore, environmental concerns implicit in the Great Learning are explicitly
articulated in other core Confucian texts. A statement in the Doctrine of the Mean
succinctly captures the essence of this cosmological thinking:
Only those who are the most sincere [authentic, true, and real] can fully realize
their own nature. If they can fully realize their own nature, they can fully realize
human nature. If they can fully realize human nature, they can fully realize the
nature of things. If they can fully realize the nature of things, they can take
part in the transforming and nourishing process of Heaven and Earth. If they can
take part in the transforming and nourishing process of Heaven and Earth, they can
form a trinity with Heaven and Earth.18
Obviously, this idea of the interrelation of Heaven, Earth, and humans was precisely
what the three thinkers had in mind in stressing the centrality of the precept of
“the unity of Heaven and Humanity,” although for more than a century this idea had
been regarded as an archaic irrelevance in cultural China. The excitement of rediscovering
this central Confucian precept was a poignant reminder of how much had been lost
and how difficult it was to retrieve the elements of the tradition that remained
CRITICAL VOICES FOR AN ECOLOGICAL TURN: NEW CONFUCIANS AND THE EARTH CHARTER
Both from within the Confucian tradition and from without, critical voices have
emerged to criticize the Enlightenment vision of secularization, rationalization,
and development at any cost. Even at the height of the May Fourth Movement’s
obsession with Westernization as modernization, some of the most original New Confucians
had begun to question the individualistic worldview and utilitarian ethics implicit
in the Enlightenment project. Two key examples are Xiong Shili (1883–1968), who
elaborated a naturalistic philosophy of vitalism, and Liang Shuming (1893–1988),
who called for restraint and moderation in using natural resources.
Xiong Shili reconfigured Confucian metaphysics through a critical analysis of the
basic motifs of the Consciousness-Only school of Buddhism. He insisted that the
Confucian idea of the “great transformation” (dahua) is predicated on the
participation of the human in cosmic processes, rather than the imposition of human
will on nature. He further observed that as a continuously evolving species, human
beings are not created apart from nature, but emerge as an integral part of the
primordial forces of production and reproduction. The vitality that engenders human
creativity is the same energy that gives rise to mountains, rivers, and the whole
of the planet. There is consanguinity between humans, Heaven, Earth, and the myriad
things of nature. Since his naturalistic vitalism is based on the Book of Change
and some Neo-Confucian writings, the ethic of forming one body with nature looms
large in his moral idealism.19
Liang Shuming characterized the Confucian ethos as a balance between detachment
from and aggression toward nature. Although he conceded that China had to learn
from the West to enhance her competitive fitness for the sake of national survival,
he prophesized that in the long run the Indian spirit of renunciation would prevail.20 While
Liang merely hinted at the possibility of alternative visions of human development,
his inquiry generated a strong current in reevaluating and revitalizing Confucianism
at a time when Westernization dominated the Chinese intellectual scene.
The distinctive contributions of these two thinkers are critical to the ecological
turn of later Confucianism. Xiong highlights the naturalistic vitalism of the tradition
from its classical expression in the Book of Change to its Neo-Confucian
articulation in the notion of the fecundity of life (sheng-sheng). Liang
maintains that long-term human survival depends on the practice of moderation, a
hallmark of Confucian cultivation in attaining balance, harmony, and equilibrium.
Thus Xiong and Liang observe that the vitality of natural processes must be respected
and preserved through restraint.
However, neither Xiong nor Liang was able to sustain an argument in favor of a nonanthropocentric,
not to mention eco-friendly, ethic. The modernist trajectory was so powerful that
Confucian humanism was profoundly reconfigured toward a secular humanism. The rules
of the game determining the relevance of Confucianism to China’s modern transformation
were changed so remarkably that most attempts to present a Confucian idea for its
own sake were ignored outside a small coterie of ivory-tower academicians. Thus
the goals of modernization and economic development overrode broader humanistic
and communitarian concerns.
As Amartya Sen and others have argued, however, it is now clear that the modernization
process, used simply for utilitarian ends of development, is insufficient for the
full range of human flourishing.21
Instead, there is a broader understanding emerging that development must include
not only economic indicators but consider human well-being, environmental protection,
and spiritual growth as well. To this end, there is a growing awareness in the world
community of the need to develop a more comprehensive global ethic for sustainable
This coalesced in the “Earth Charter” that was developed over the last decade since
the United Nations Earth Summit was held in Rio in 1992.23 An international committee spent three
years drafting the charter before its formal release by the Earth Charter Commission
at a meeting in Paris in 2000. Hundreds of consultations were held with organizations
and individuals throughout the world to ensure that it would be an inclusive people’s
charter. The charter sets forth principles of ecological integrity, social justice,
democracy, nonviolence, and peace.
The Earth Charter enjoins us to “respect Earth and life in all its diversity,” “care
for the community of life with understanding, compassion, and love,” and “secure
Earth’s bounty and beauty for present and future generations.”24 As the charter puts it,
“humanity is part of a vast evolving universe. Earth, our home, is alive with a
unique community of life.” For Confucians, the “community of life” is expressed
as consanguinity between the earth and ourselves, because we have evolved from the
same vital energy that makes stones, plants, and animals integral parts of the cosmos.
We live with reverence and a sense of awe for the fecundity and creativity of nature
as we open our eyes to what is near at hand.
When measured against these principles of a global ethic for sustainability, a narrowly
conceived modernization process such as China’s is inadequate. This critique is
an important external counterpoint to modernization within an Enlightenment framework.
If China’s modernist project had followed the democratic ideal of building a society
that is “just, participatory, sustainable, and peaceful,”25 as formulated in the Earth Charter, it
could have had a salutary effect on China’s overall conception of development. A
counterfactual exercise is in order. Surely the global issues mentioned in the Earth
Charter are far from being resolved in the modern West, but had they been put on
the national agenda for discussion in China, the Chinese intellectual ethos could
have been much more congenial to the culture of peace and environmental ethics.
After all, “eradicating poverty as an ethical, social, and environmental imperative”26 and
promoting human flourishing as well as material progress are both socialist and
Confucian ideals. Although “upholding the right of all, without discrimination,
to a natural and social environment supportive of human dignity, bodily health,
and spiritual well-being”27
may appear to be a lofty goal, it is compatible with the Chinese notion of realizing
the whole person. Furthermore, “affirming gender equality and equity as prerequisites
to sustainable development” and “ensuring universal access to education, health
care, and economic opportunity”28
are clearly recognized modern Chinese aspirations. The traditional Confucian sense
of economic equality, social conscience, and political responsibility could have
been relevant to and significant for debate and conversation on these vitally important
matters. The cost of the secularization of Confucian humanism was high. The single-minded
commitment to progress defined in materialist terms has substantially confined the
scope of the national agenda to wealth and power. As China completely turned her
back on her indigenous resources for self-realization, she embarked on a course
of action detrimental to her soul and her long-term self-interest.
CONFUCIAN HUMANISM AS AN ANTHROPOCOSMIC VISION
Qian, Tang, and Feng saw the potential for Confucian humanism to occupy a new niche
in comparative civilizational studies. As a partner in the dialogue among civilizations,
what message can Confucians deliver to other religious communities and to the global
village as a whole? To put it simply, can Confucian humanism informed by the anthropocosmic
vision deepen the conversation on religion and ecology? Specifically, can the Confucian
self-cultivation philosophy inspire a new constellation of family values, social
ethics, political principles, and ecological consciousness that will help cultural
China develop a sense of responsibility for the global community, both for its own
benefit and for the improvement of the state of the world? Can Confucian thinkers
enrich the spiritual resources and broaden the Enlightenment project’s scope to
embrace religion and ecology?
The idea of the unity of Heaven and humanity implies four inseparable dimensions
of the human condition: self, community, nature, and Heaven. The full distinctiveness
of each enhances, rather than impedes, a harmonious integration of the others. Self
as a center of relationships establishes its identity by interacting with community
variously understood, from the family to the global village and beyond. A sustainable
harmonious relationship between the human species and nature is not merely an abstract
ideal, but a concrete guide for practical living. Mutual responsiveness between
the human heart-and-mind and the Way of Heaven is the ultimate path for human flourishing.
The following four salient features constitute the substance of the New Confucian
Fruitful Interaction between Self and Community
Since the community as home must extend to the “global village” and beyond, the
self in fruitful interaction with community must transcend not only egoism and parochialism,
but also nationalism and anthropocentrism. In practical ethical terms, self-cultivation
is crucial to the viability of this holistic humanist vision. Specifically, it involves
a process of continuous self-transcendence, always keeping sight of one’s solid
ground in earth, body, family, and community. Through self-cultivation, the human
heart-and-mind “expands in concentric circles that begin with oneself and spread
from there to include successively one’s family, one’s face-to-face community, one’s
nation, and finally all humanity.”29
In shifting the center of one’s empathic concern from oneself to one’s family, one
rises above selfishness. The move from family to community prevents nepotism. The
move from community to nation overcomes parochialism, and the move to all humanity
counters chauvinistic nationalism.30
While “[t]he project of becoming fully human involves transcending, sequentially,
egoism, nepotism, parochialism, ethnocentrism, and chauvinist nationalism,” it cannot
stop at “isolating, self-sufficient humanism.”31 If we stop at secular humanism, our arrogant
self-sufficiency will undermine our cosmic connectivity and constrain us in an anthropocentric
A Sustainable Harmonious Relationship between the Human Species and Nature
The problem with secular humanism is its self-imposed limitation. Under its influence,
our obsession with power and mastery over the environment—to the exclusion of the
spiritual and the natural realms—has made us blind to ecological concerns.32
An ecological focus is a necessary corrective to the modernist discourse that has
reduced the Confucian worldview to a limited and limiting secular humanism. Confucianism,
appropriated by the modernist mindset, has been misused as a justification for authoritarian
polity. Only by fully incorporating the religious and naturalist dimensions into
New Confucianism can the Confucian worldview avoid the danger of legitimating social
engineering, instrumental rationality, linear progression, economic development,
and technocratic management at the expense of a holistic, anthropocosmic vision.
Indeed, the best way for the Confucians to attain the new is to reanimate the old,
so that the digression to secular humanism, under the influence of the modern West,
is not a permanent diversion.
Mutual Responsiveness between the Human Heart-and-Mind and the Way
In the appeal of scientists at the Global Forum Conference in Moscow in 1990, religious
and spiritual leaders were challenged to envision the human-Earth relationship in
a new light:
As scientists, many of us have had profound experiences of awe and reverence before
the universe. We understand that what is regarded as sacred is more likely to be
treated with care and respect. Our planetary home should be so regarded. Efforts
to safeguard and cherish the environment need to be infused with a vision of the
Obviously, the ecological question compels all religious traditions to reexamine
their presuppositions in regard to the earth. It is not enough that one’s spiritual
tradition makes limited adjustments to accommodate the ecological dimension. The
need is for none other than the sacralization of nature. This may require a fundamental
restructuring of basic theology by requiring the sanctity of the earth as a given.
Implicit in the scientists’ appeal is the necessity of a new theology, adding nature
as a factor that must enter into, and transform, the traditional understandings
of the relationship between God and human beings.
For the New Confucians, the critical issue is to underscore the spiritual dimension
of the harmony with nature. As Wing-tsit Chan notes in his celebrated Source Book
in Chinese Philosophy, “If one word could characterize the entire
history of Chinese philosophy, that word would be humanism—not the humanism that
denies or slights a Supreme Power, but one that professes the unity of man and Heaven.
In this sense, humanism has dominated Chinese thought from the dawn of its history.”34
The “humanism that professes the unity of man and Heaven” is neither secular nor
anthropocentric. While it fully acknowledges that we are embedded in earth, body,
family, and community, it never denies that we are in tune with the cosmic order.
To infuse our earthly, bodily, familial, and communal existence with a transcendent
significance is not only a lofty Confucian ideal but also a basic Confucian practice.
In traditional China, under the influence of Confucian thought, Daosist ritual,
and folk belief, the imperial court, the capital city, literary temples, ancestral
halls, official residences, schools, and private houses were designed according
to the “wind and water” (fengshui) principles. While these principles, based
on geomancy, can supposedly be manipulated to enhance one’s fortune, they align
human designs with the environment by enhancing intimacy with nature. Similarly,
Chinese medicine as healing rather than curing and the mental and physical exercises
such as the ritual dance of the great ultimate (taijinqun) and various forms
of breathing disciplines (qigong) are also based on the mutual responsiveness
between nature and humanity.
Self-Knowledge and Cultivation to Complete the Triad
Confucians believe that Heaven confers our human nature and that the Way of Heaven
is accessible through self-knowledge. They also believe that to understand the Mandate
of Heaven we must continuously cultivate ourselves. This is completing the triad
of Heaven, Earth, and humans. Nature, as an unending process of transformation
rather than a static presence, is a source of inspiration for us to understand Heaven’s
dynamism. As the first hexagram in the Book of Change symbolizes, Heaven’s
vitality and creativity is incessant: Heaven always proceeds vigorously. The lesson
for humans is obvious: we emulate the constancy and sustainability of Heaven’s vitality
and creativity by participating in human flourishing through “ceaseless effort of
The sense of “awe and reverence before the universe” is prompted by our aspiration
to respond to the ultimate reality that makes our lives purposeful and meaningful.
From either a creationist or an evolutionist perspective, we are indebted to “Heaven,
Earth, and the myriad things” for our existence. To repay this debt we cultivate
ourselves so as to attain our full humaneness amidst the wonder of existence.
Mencius succinctly articulated this human attitude toward Heaven as self-knowledge,
service, and steadfastness of purpose:
When a man has given full realization to his heart, he will understand his own nature.
A man who knows his own nature will know Heaven. By retaining his heart and nurturing
his nature he is serving Heaven. Whether he is going to die young or to live to
a ripe old age makes no difference to his steadfastness of purpose. It is through
awaiting whatever is to befall him with a perfected character that he stands firm
on his proper destiny.36
Self-realization, in an ultimate sense, depends on knowing and serving Heaven. The
mutuality of the human heart-and-mind and the Way of Heaven is mediated by cultivating
a harmonious relationship with nature. Through such cultivation, humans form
a triad with Heaven and Earth and thus fully realize their potential as cosmological
as well as anthropological beings. This sense of mutuality, achieved through completion
of the triad, precludes the imposition of the human will on Heaven and transforms
the human desire to conquer nature.
SUSTAINING THE ECOLOGICAL TURN: THE ROLE OF THE PUBLIC INTELLECTUAL
The Copenhagen Social Summit in 1995 identified poverty, unemployment, and social
disintegration as three serious threats to the solidarity of the human community.
Globalization intensifies and enhances the felt need for rootedness in primordial
ties. Our community, compressed into a “village,” far from being integrated, blatantly
exhibits differentiation and outright discrimination.37 For developing societies such as China
to appreciate the environmental movements of the developed world, the contradiction
between ecological and developmental imperatives will have to be resolved. The ecological
advocacy of elegant simplicity is not persuasive if one considers development, in
the basic material sense, a necessary condition for survival. Only if China comes
to feel a responsibility not just for nation-building but for nature itself can
China become a constructive partner on global environmental issues. She could be
encouraged to do so if the developed world, especially the United States, demonstrates
moral leadership. Without encouragement and reciprocal respect from developed countries,
it is unlikely that she will independently embark on such a path. Fortunately, mutually
beneficial dialogues on religion and ecology between China and the United States
have already begun.
The ecological turn, as an alternative vision, is particularly significant in this
regard. To make it sustainable and, eventually, consequential in formulating policies,
the need for public-spiritedness among intellectuals is urgent. The emergence of
a public space in cultural China provides a glimmer of hope. Although full-fledged
civil societies in the Chinese cultural universe are found only in Taiwan and Hong
Kong, the horizontal communication among public intellectuals in several sectors
of society in the People’s Republic has generated a new dynamism unprecedented in
modern Chinese history. If we define public intellectuals as those who are politically
concerned, socially engaged, culturally sensitive, religiously sensitive, and ecologically
conscientious, they are readily visible and audible on the political scene.38 Indeed, public intellectuals
in academia, government, mass media, business, and society are articulating a variety
of ecological and spiritual messages relevant to China’s quest to join the modern
world. The New Confucians may never “find the unifying thread, the balancing mean,
the underlying value, or the all-embracing conception”39 that can serve as a standard of inspiration
for all concerned citizens of the nation. However, they are strategically
positioned to generate new discussions on the ecological way “as macrocosm, overarching
unity, and ultimate process”; indeed, as a necessary reference for “the human enterprise
in its fullest dimensions, deepest reflections, and most dynamic activity.”40
Given the current political climate in China, religion is a particularly delicate
matter. Whether religion will play an active role in shaping China’s development
strategy is not yet clear. The possibility of a sound environmental ethic depends
heavily on the ability of Chinese intellectuals to transcend a narrow nationalism
informed by secular humanism and their willingness to take religion seriously in
considering human integrity and self-fulfillment. The government’s appeal to science
and national security as a way of outlawing superstition, as in the case of the
Falungong, has not been effective in dealing with the outpouring of religious sentiments
throughout the country. Its technocratic approach to religious issues merely reflects
an increasingly unworkable instrumental rationality. Religion as a vibrant social
force is widely recognized by public intellectuals in government, academia, business,
and the mass media. Although it is difficult to predict precisely how religious
and ecological discourses will converge in China, tolerance of religion often entails
sensitivity to ecology. When public intellectuals in China begin to appreciate the
profound religious implications of the ecological turn and the importance of retrieving
and reappropriating indigenous spiritual resources to develop an environmental ethic,
they will be ready to take part in a dialogue among civilizations concerning religion
In a broader context, for religious and spiritual leaders to play a significant
global role in articulating a shared approach to environmental degradation, they
must assume the responsibility of public intellectuals themselves. As the Millennium
Conference at the United Nations in September of 2000 clearly showed, unless religious
and spiritual leaders can rise above their communities of faith to address global
issues as public intellectuals, their messages will be misread, distorted, or ignored.
China is particularly suspicious of the intentions of religious and spiritual leaders
if they are exclusively concerned about the well-being of their own communities.
Yet the time is ripe for spiritual and religious leaders outside China to engage
Chinese public intellectuals in mutually informative and inspirational conversations
on religion and ecology.
The New Confucian ecological turn clearly shows that a sustainable human-Earth relationship
will depend on the creation of harmonious societies and benevolent governments through
the self-cultivation of all members of the human community. At the same time, Confucians
insist that being attuned to the changing patterns in nature is essential for harmonizing
human relationships, formulating family ethics, and establishing a responsive and
responsible government. As Mary Evelyn Tucker notes: “The whole Confucian triad
of heaven, earth, and humans rests on a seamless yet dynamic intersection between
each of these realms. Without harmony with nature and its myriad changes, human
society and government is threatened.”41
Since each person’s self-cultivation is essential for social and political order,
the public intellectual is not an elitist, but an active participant in the daily
affairs of his or her society. The Confucian idea of the concerned scholar may benefit
from the wisdom of a philosopher, the insight of a prophet, the faith of a priest,
the compassion of a monk, or the understanding of a guru, but it is the responsibility
of the public intellectual that is the most appropriate to the embodiment of this
idea. The Confucians remind us that, in order to foster a wholesome worldview and
a healthy ecological ethic, we need to combine our aspiration for a harmonious relationship
with nature with our concerted effort to build a just society.
Public intellectuals in China should impress upon the political leadership that
it is in an advantageous position to “promote a culture of tolerance, nonviolence,
as recommended by the Earth Charter. They should recognize that since the Chinese
people are well disposed to Mahayana Buddhism and religious Daoism as well as inclusive
Confucian humanism, they can appreciate the value of the coexistence of Heaven,
Earth, and the myriad things and can “treat all living beings with respect and consideration”43 as an
expression of their humanity. Furthermore, as an increasing number of public intellectuals
in the academic community have already forcefully articulated their ecological concerns,
they should be encouraged to “integrate into formal education and life-long learning
the knowledge, values, and skills needed for a sustainable way of life.”44 Many liberal-minded public
intellectuals have openly suggested that the major challenge in Chinese political
culture is democratization at all levels, which must begin with greater transparency
and accountability in governance at the top. As the rule of law, rather than the
rule by law, is widely accepted as the legitimate way to provide access to justice
for all, the ideal of “inclusive participation in decision making”45 is no longer unimaginable.
New Confucians fully acknowledge that in their march toward modernization in the
cause of nation-building, their primary language has been so fundamentally reconstructed
that it is no longer a language of faith, but a language of instrumental rationality,
economic efficiency, political expediency, and social engineering. They are now
recovering from that mistake. Their reanimated anthropocosmic vision may inspire
a new worldview and a new ethic. This ecological turn has great significance for
China’s spiritual self-definition, for it urges the nation to rediscover its soul.
It also has profound implications for the sustainable future of the global community.
I am indebted to Rosanne Hall, Lucia Huntington, Ron Suleski, and Mary Evelyn Tucker
for searching criticisms of and editorial suggestions on earlier drafts of this
1 For a contemporary discussion
on the axial-age civilizations, see Shmuel N. Eisenstadt, ed., The Origins and
Diversity of Axial Age Civilizations (Albany, N.Y.: State University of New
York Press, 1986).
2 See Tu Wei-ming, “Embodying
the Universe: A Note on Confucian Self-realization,” World & I (August 1989):
3 Qian Mu’s last essay, “Zhongguo
wenhua dui rennei weilai keyou di kongxian” (The Possible Contribution of Chinese
Culture to the Future of Humankind), first appeared as a newspaper article in United
News in Taiwan (26 September 1990). It was reprinted, with a lengthy commentary
by his widow, Hu Meiqi, in Zhongguo Wenhua (Chinese Culture) 4 (August 1991):
4 For an elaborate discussion
on this, see Tang Junyi, Shengming cunzai yu xinling jingjie (Life Existence
and the Spiritual Realms) (Taipei: Xuesheng Book Co., 1977), 872–888.
5 Feng Youlan, Zhongguo xiandai
zhexueshi (History of Modern Chinese Philosophy) (Guangzhou: Guangdong People’s
Publishers, 1999), 251–254.
6 See Hu Meiqi’s commentary in
7 For example, Ji Xianlin of
Peking University, Li Shengzi of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, Cai Shangsi
of Fudan University, and a number of other senior scholars all enthusiastically
responded to Qian’s article. My short reflection appeared in Zhonghua Wenhua
(Chinese Culture) 10 (August 1994): 218–219.
8 Max Weber, The Religion of
China: Confucianism and Taoism, trans. Hans H. Gerth (Glencoe, Ill.: Free
Press, 1951), 235.
9 Tang Junyi, Shengming cuizai
yu xinling jingjie, 833–930.
10 Chang Tsai (Zhang Zai),
“The Western Inscription,” in Wing-tsit Chan, trans., A Source Book in Chinese
Philosophy (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1963), 497.
11 Feng Youlan, “Xin
yuanren” (New Origins of Humanity) in Zhenyuan liushu (Six Books of Feng
Youlan in the 1930s and 1940s) (Shanghai: Eastern Chinese Normal University Press,
1996), vol. II, 626–649.
12 Wang Yangming (Wang Yang-ming),
“Inquiry on the Great Learning,” in Wing-tsit Chan, trans., A Source Book in Chinese
13 Ibid., 659–660. Since Wang
Yangming wished to demonstrate that the mind of the small man can form one body
with all things as well, he used “he” rather than “we” in the text.
14 Joseph Levenson, Confucian
China and its Modern Fate: A Trilogy (Berkeley: University of California
15 The “Text” of The Great Learning.
Although I have made a few changes in my translation, it basically follows Wing-tsit
Chan’s version. See Wing-tsit Chan, trans., A Source Book in Chinese Philosophy,
16 Wm. Theodore de Bary, “‘Think
Globally, Act Locally,’ and the Contested Ground Between,” in Confucianism and Ecology:
The Interrelation of Heaven, Earth, and Humans, ed. Mary Evelyn Tucker and
John Berthrong (Cambridge, Mass.: Center for the Study of World Religions, Harvard
Divinity School, 1998), 32.
17 Ibid., 32–33.
18 Zhongyong (Doctrine
of the Mean), XXII. See Tu Wei-ming, Centrality and Commonality: An Essay
on Confucian Religiousness (Albany, N.Y.: State University of New York Press,
1989), 77. This translation is slightly different from Wing-tsit Chan’s version,
cited in the book.
19 Xiong Shili, Xin Weishilun
(New Theory on Consciousness-Only) (reprint, Taipei: Guangwen Publishers, 1962),
vol. I, chap. 4, 49–92.
20 Liang Shuming, Dongxi wenhua
jiqi zhexue (Eastern and Western Cultures and their Philosophies)
(reprint, Taipei: Wenxue Publishers, 1979), 200–201.
21 Amartya Sen, Development
as Freedom (New York: Knopf, 1999).
22 See Hans Küng and Karl-Josef
Kuschel, eds., A Global Ethic: The Declaration of the Parliament of
the World’s Religions (New York: Continuum, 1993).
23 The Earth Charter .
29 Huston Smith, The World’s
Religions (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1991), 182.
31 Ibid., 186–187.
32 See Thomas Berry, The Dream
of the Earth (San Francisco: Sierra Club Books, 1990) and Brian Swimme,
The Universe Story: From the Primordial Flaring Forth to the Ecozoic Era—A Celebration
of the Unfolding of the Cosmos (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco,
33 Quoted in Mary Evelyn Tucker,
“The Emerging Alliance of Religion and Ecology,” in Steven L. Chase, ed., Doors of
Understanding: Conversations on Global Spirituality in Honor of Ewert Cousins
(Quincy, Ill.: Franciscan Press, 1997), 111.
34 Wing-tsit Chan, trans.,
A Source Book in Chinese Philosophy, 3.
35 The Book of Change,
“image” of the first hexagram, qian (heaven).
36 Mencius, VIIA:1.
See D. C. Lau, trans., Mencius (Harmondsworth, U.K.: Penguin, 1970), 182.
My translation of the first line is different.
37 Tu Weiming, “Global Community
as Lived Reality: Exploring Social Resources for Development,” in Social Policy &
Social Progress, Special Issue on the Social Summit, Copenhagen, 6–12 March
1995 (New York: United Nations, 1996), 47–48.
38 The case of Qu Geping merits
special attention. Since the Stockholm Conference on the Environment in 1972, he
has been instrumental in developing an infrastructure within the governmental system
for dealing with environmental protection in China. As chairman of the Environmental
Protection and Resource Conservation Committee of the National People’s Congress,
he plays a pivotal role in formulating national policies and encourages nongovernmental
agencies in raising environmental concerns. For a retrospective look at his own
career, see Qu Geping, mengxian yu qidai: Zhongguo huanjing baofu di guoqu yu
weilai (Dreams and Anticipations: The Past and Future of China’s Environmental
Protection) (Beijing: Zhongguo huanbao kexue chubanshe, 2000).
39 Wm. Theodore de Bary, Neo-Confucian
Orthodoxy and the Learning of the Mind-and-Heart (New York:
Columbia University Press, 1981), 216.
40 Ibid. It should be noted
that although de Bary’s main concern here is the Way in the “learning of the mind-and-heart,”
the ecological implications are self-evident.
41 Mary Evelyn Tucker, “The
Emerging Alliance of Religion and Ecology,” in Chase, ed., Doors of Understanding,
42 The Earth Charter.
44 Ibid. Currently more than
a hundred programs (including departments and research centers) focusing on the
environment have been developed in China’s institutes of higher learning. While
the majority of these programs are primarily concerned with technical engineering
issues, quite a few of them have integrated subjects in the social sciences and
the humanities in their multidisciplinary approaches to environmental protection.