Humans Must Conquer Nature: Philosophical and Religious Sources of China’s Anti-Environmental Ideology
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Traditional Chinese philosophy is well known for its monistic cosmology in which heaven, earth, and human beings are mutually implicated in an evolving organic process known as the Way (dao). This vision is broadly shared by Daoists and Confucians and was the cosmological foundation of the state ideology of Imperial China. Tu Weiming refers to this as an "anthropocosmic" vision, which he contrasts with Cartesian dualism, instrumental rationality and the entire logical underpinnings of the Western Enlightenment mentality. This logic, according to standard interpretations of Chinese modernization, was adopted in toto by the May 4th generation of Chinese modernizers in the early 20th century. The implication of this view is that the ills associated with modernization, including in particular the alienation of human subjectivity from objective nature, derive from the Western Enlightenment mentality and are not endemic within Chinese culture. This paper argues, however, that the history of Chinese concepts of nature has not been uniform or monolithic, and there exists within traditional Chinese culture, philosophy and religion a wide range of views about the relationship between human beings and their natural environment. In particular, the paper draws attention to the history of more dualistic paradigms in which nature and human beings are viewed as being pitted together in a struggle for supremacy. The conclusion to be drawn from this is that the origin of China's contemporary environmental woes cannot be located simply in the rejection of traditional Chinese culture and the adoption of Western enlightenment values. In fact Mao's glorification of the human struggle with nature has deep roots within Chinese culture and history.