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Landmarks in Chinese ecocriticism and environmental literature:the emergence of a new ecological civilization

By Scott Slovic | 2013-07-31
Zhuang Zi
The Chinese people, like people in many regions of the world, have always lived in close proximity to nature and with deep attentiveness to natural processes. This has simply been a matter of survival for many rural people, a way of securing food and shelter in challenging environmental conditions. What is unique in China are the core elements of environmental reverence that were articulated many centuries ago by Chinese philosophers and poets and are remembered even today in the twenty-first century. When we speak today of the emergence of an ecological civilization in China, we are, in a sense, referring to a re-assertion of traditional Chinese values rather than the creation of entirely new concepts, vocabularies, or attitudes.  If you ask the average, educated Chinese citizen what the two most important environmental phrases are, he or she will probably initially cite Zhuang Zi’s ziran da mei (translated into English as “nature is the most beautiful”) from the 4th century BC.
 
This statement implies a fundamental human humility in relation to the non-human world, an attitude very difficult to maintain as human communities strive to control their environmental conditions and gain access to desirable resources. Yet it is possible that by remembering this basic admiration for the extraordinary efficiency and beauty of nature human cultures in China and in other parts of the world may well learn to moderate our destructive, ill-considered practices. For instance, American author John McPhee, in a well-known book titled The Control of Nature (1987), points out the foolishness and failure of many American efforts to work against nature rather than with nature by building houses in landslide-prone places or by attempting to control powerful rivers with dikes and dams. On the other hand, such environmental visionaries as Paul Hawken, Amory Lovins, and Hunter Lovins, in the book Natural Capitalism: Creating the Next Industrial Revolution (2008), have highlighted “bio-mimicry” (or nature-imitating design) as one of the essential facets of sustainable design in the new century. This concept seems to grow directly out of Zhuang Zi’s statement quoted above, even if contemporary designers in other countries are not familiar with the concept of ziran da mei.
 
The other traditional phrase likely to be offered as an example of Chinese culture’s ancient awareness and veneration of the natural world is the concept of tian ren he yi (sometimes rendered in English as “the harmoniousness oneness of the universe and man”), which has been attributed to Song Dynasty (960-1279 AD) thinker Zhang Zai. This idea reverberates with the core Chinese principles of harmony and unity, important in both social and environmental aspects of Chinese society. While some scholars might interpret this phrase as justification for any human actions (if humans and nature are the same, then all human activities are, in a sense, natural), others would suggest that this is instead a variant of the essential notion of modern ecology: that all things are interconnected. As American writer John Muirfamously put it in his 1911 My First Summer in the Sierra, “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe”.  Basic environmental concepts from Chinese philosophy not only permeate international environmental thought but also motivate and guide current developments in Chinese academic culture.  For instance, the research group in eco-aesthetics at Shandong University, led by Professors Zeng Fanren and Cheng Xiangzhan, is devoted to exploring many aspects of Chinese and international ecological theory and philosophy, such as explicating the crucial distinction between ecological aesthetics (which focuses on the human presence within and connectedness to the non-human world) and environmental aesthetics (the school of aesthetic philosophy that seems to operate on the premise of human distance from the otherness of nature). Professors Zeng and Cheng have organized several important conferences, published many books and articles of their own (such as Zeng’s 2010 volume An Introduction to Ecological Aesthetics), and have inspired numerous postgraduate students to explore the connections between literature, philosophy, and public discourse vis-à-vis the natural world. Working closely with Professors Zeng and Lu Shuyuan from Suzhou University, Professor Cheng launched the Newsletter on Ecoaesthetics and Ecocriticismin 2011, publishing monthly reports on ecophilosophy, ecoaesthetics and ecocriticism, new trends in the field of ecocriticism, environmental justice, eco-education, and various other fields relevant to ecological issues.
 
 
 In addition to the concepts from traditional Chinese philosophy that are so central to Chinese environmental thinking even in the twenty-first century, classical Chinese literary works, such as the poetry of Han-Shan from the Tang Dynasty (618-907 AD), continue to attract the attention of Chinese readers and international readers and authors. As Chinese ecocritic Cheng Hong has documented in her article “Communication Across Space and Time: Contemporary American Nature Writers and the Ancient Chinese Poet Han-Shan” (Winter 2006), living authors such as Gary Snyder have confirmed the ongoing significance of Han-Shan’s meditations on the aesthetic and philosophical meaning of nature for human observers. Snyder echoes Han-Shan most directly in his 1959 collection Riprap and Cold Mountain Poems, especially in the final section of the book where he offers translations of Han-Shan’s work, such as the following:
 
Forever flowing like a passing river.
Spring-water in the green creek is clear
I roamed hundreds and thousands of miles.
Walked by rivers through deep green grass […]
I’ll sleep by the creek and purify my ears.
 
 
These lines of Han-Shan’s, recreated by the prominent contemporary American poet, emphasize several foundational ideas about the natural world that continue to have great meaning for people throughout the world so many centuries after they were originally written in China.  The first example suggests to the mind-teasing paradox of flowing water, which is at once fixed within the banks of a river or the frame of a rocky cliff and eternally in flux (much like tension between sameness and change ever-present in human lives). The second passage, because of Snyder’s use of the almost invisible verb “is,” implies the vibrant stability and calmness of nature—the clarity of the water evokes the poet’s own desired clarity of mind and calmness of spirit. And the third example, especially in the phrase “walked by rivers,” brings to mind the above-mentioned statement ziran da mei, hinting that the poet emulates nature (and especially water) in his own itinerant life. Water/nature is ever in motion, and human beings, who are literally made of water, also must inevitably change as they transit through their lives. In observing nature closely, we also observe ourselves, a lesson expressed in resonantly aesthetic form by poets and corroborated by such philosophical ideas astian ren he yi.
 
Two other leitmotifs in Chinese environmental literature concern the constant presence of nature in human experience and the struggle to understand our size/power in relation to the forces and phenomena of nature.  Early twentieth-century Chinese fiction writers, such as Shen Congwen and Lu Xun, make subtle use of natural phenomena in their “local color” stories, often depicting village life that shows human beings in close relationship with rivers and other aspects of nature. This depiction of human life linked essentially to natural systems emerges, too, in the more recent fiction of Shandong-based Zhang Wei, such as the story of a village that depends on the health of a nearby river for its glass noodle factories, the basic idea of the novel The Ancient Ship (Gu Chuan), published in 1987.  As for the question of human size, or scale, in relation to nature, some have shown human ambition to control nature; by contrast, consider some of the recent poems by Guangdong Province author Hua Hai, such as “The Little Sea” or “The Red Light on the Cliffs,” completed in 2009, which emphasize the limited power of human beings to control nature and the danger of our trying to race across the surface of the planet like an express train, allowing technology to control us rather than taking full control over our own technological achievements. Hua Hai, who represents the contemporary movement of eco-literature in China, has published his work in the book Open the Gate to Greenery and in other collections.
 
The distinguished American poet, essayist, and critic Robert Hass, from the University of California at Berkeley, once stated in a television interview that the United States had exported so much environmental destruction to the rest of the world that it was only fair for our country also to export some of the most helpful environmental science and art, attempts to ameliorate such damage. Perhaps the same thing could be said for a country like China in the twenty-first century. Due to the enormous human population and the nation’s rapid efforts to industrialize and strengthen its economy, there is inevitably significant environmental damage caused by Chinese society. And yet, at the same time, China is clearly becoming a leader in environmental science and technology and in the environmental arts and humanities and witnessing the expansion of the discipline of ecocritical research, the field of literary studies that explores through literature and other forms of human expression how we use language to understand and communicate our individual and collective relationships with the natural world. Chinese scholars have been active in this field for many years.  Wang Ning, of Tsinghua University, has been working in the field of ecocriticism since the 1990s and has recently published several important articles on the role of literature in espousing new ethical models for contemporary society’s environmental behavior, such as the essay “Toward a Literary Environmental Ethics: A Reflection on Eco-criticism” (2009).  Another senior scholar in the field of Chinese ecocriticism is Lu Shuyuan from Suzhou University, whose work in the field spans two decades and numerous books. One of Professor Lu’s especially significant achievements is the 2006 publication of the book The Space for Ecocriticism, which explores the poetic and spiritual dimensions of human nature and human culture in relation to the natural world.   One of the most significant aspects of this book is the chapter titled “The Semantic Field of the Chinese Character ‘’ and the Spirit of Ancient Chinese Ecological Culture.”  By examining the ecological, social, and spiritual aspects of this single Chinese character, which is one of the essential elements of Chinese geomancy (“feng-shui”), Lu seeks to “establish a harmonious human society and to promote the healthy development of human nature,” as he explains in the 5 September 2008 issue of the newsletter Spirit Ecology Report, which comes from the Spiritual Ecology research group in the Chinese Department at Suzhou University. Professor Lu has defined ecocriticism in his 2006 book as “a discipline that studies the relationship between the subject as a spiritual entity (human mainly) and its (natural, social, and cultural) environment of existence. It is related to the healthy growth of the subject on one hand, and to the equilibrium, stability, and evolution of an ecological system to which the spiritual powerfully contributes on the other” 。 Contemporary Chinese ecocritics also point toward Zeng Yongcheng’s 2000 book Literary Green Thinking: An Introduction to Literary Ecology as a foundational work of in the recent wave of ecocritical research in China. Professor Song Lili, an important ecocritic at Tsinghua University, reported to me in a November 2010 email, that she considers Zeng’s concept of the “rhythmic interaction between living things and their environment” to be “a theoretical approach which attempts to connect ecological literary study with the study of ecology and to try to patch up the missing link of the mechanics of ecology with literary art.”
 
In addition to the important research groups in eco-aesthetics at Shandong University and spiritual ecology at Suzhou University, another major center for environmental humanities research and teaching in China is the Eco-Literature Team based at Xiamen University and led by Professor Wang Nuo, who was himself once a postgraduate student of Zeng Fanren at Shandong University. In addition to benefitting from the influence of Professor Zeng, Wang Nuo spent a year doing research at Harvard University in the United States, where he had the chance to meet American ecocritic Lawrence Buell and read such works as Buell’s The Environmental Imagination (1995), a central example of American ecocriticism. Upon returning to China, Professor Wang published the book Ecoliterature in Europe and America(2003), which was an important foundation of the contemporary Chinese ecocritical movement. He and his team members at Xiamen University have published a series of book-length studies of Chinese and international ecocriticism in recent years, helping to make such ideas available to Chinese readers. As I reported in my 2008 overview of ecocriticism for the Encyclopedia of Environmental Ethics and Philosophy, Professor Wang and his Xiamen colleague Zhang Begui “have offered a prognosis for the future of the field—both literature itself and the scholarly examination of [environmental] literature. They write that the field of ecoliterature will prosper so long as the ecological crisis is with us, and that the field will decline only when it achieves its purpose of a ‘reliable, sustainable, and secured environment’”.
 
Although I have given particular attention here to several scholars who have been instrumental in creating entire research teams and in publishing particularly notable books and articles in the field of ecocriticism and eco-aesthetics in the past decade, I should hasten to mention that there are many other active scholars doing important work in this field that is attracting the attention of environmental thinkers throughout the world. Other leading ecocritics in China, to mention only a few, include Chen Hong (Shanghai Normal University, an expert in Anglophone animal literature, including the work of Ted Hughes in the United Kingdom), Cheng Hong (Capital University of Economics and Business, an expert in American nature writing and translator of such important America texts as Terry Tempest Williams’s contemporary classic, Refuge: An Unnatural History of Family and Place), Wei Qingqi (Jinling College, Nanjing, author of numerous ecocritical articles and of the 2010 book Towards a Green Canon: “New Period” Literature in an Ecocritical Vision), Yang Jincai (Nanjing University, a specialist in nineteenth-century American literature and the author of recent studies of Chinese ecocriticism), Hu Zhihong (Sichuan Normal University, author of the 2005 overview of Chinese ecocriticism titled “The Perspectives and Criteria of Ecocriticism”), Liu Bei (Shandong Normal University, author of various ecocritical articles and the 2012 book Literary Studies in an Age of Environmental Crisis: A Guide to Western Ecocriticism), and Song Lili (Tsinghua University, author of recent studies of twentieth-century canonical Chinese literature in relation to environmental ideas). In addition to scholars whose major work focuses in the area of ecocriticism, distinguished Chinese critics, such as Zhao Baisheng of Beijing University’s Institute of World Literature, have organized high-profile conferences in the field of ecocriticism and environmental literature, inviting numerous Chinese and international scholars and writers to come together and share ideas and promoting the work of leading Chinese environmental authors, such as Xu Gang.
 
In 2012, Harvard University scholar Karen Thornber published a monumental new book titled Ecoambiguity, focusing exclusively on East Asian environmental literature from the classical period to the present. Her study emphasizes the “ambiguities,” or paradoxes, inherent in East Asian societies, especially China, Japan, and Korea, with regard to their ideas about nature, such as the simultaneous veneration of nature and exploitation/destruction of nature. Such ecoambiguities continue to challenge societies throughout the world in the early twenty-first century—this is certainly not a uniquely Chinese conundrum. However, Chinese scholars and writers are playing a major role in helping academics, politicians, artists, and fellow citizens to work through these challenges toward a more sustainable future.
 
On my desk at the University of Idaho in the United States, I have a copy of the new book Ecological Literature, edited by Liu Qinghan from Lanzhou Jiaotong University, which concludes with the editor’s ardent “Suggestions on Ecological Protection to the Policy-makers at All Levels around the World.” Professor Liu begins his statement with the following words (offered in both Chinese and English): “Dear policy-makers at all levels around the world, I beseech you to put your great concerns over ecological issues into action”. He then proceeds to offer twenty-seven specific suggestions, such as developing a new “eco-construction” industry to replace high-energy-consumption industries and high-polluting industries and developing laws to prevent the wasting of food (in the United States, for instance, it is estimated that as much as 40% of food goes to waste). Although we still have a long way to go in overcoming our environmental crisis, I personally take hope from the energetic and insightful work of Liu Qinghan and his many colleagues in the field of Chinese ecocriticism and environmental literature. Let us all learn to put our concerns—and our words—into action.
 
Scott Slovic, who taught for seventeen years in the Literature and Environment Program at the University of Nevada, Reno, in the United States, recently became Professor of Literature and Environment at the University of Idaho.  From 1992 to 1995, he served as the founding president of the Association for the Study of Literature and Environment (ASLE), and since 1995 he has edited the journal ISLE: Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and Environment. He is the author, editor, or co-editor of seventeen books in the field of ecocriticism and has also published more than 200 articles about American and international environmental literature. Professor Slovic first came to China in 2006 as a Fulbright visiting professor at the Quangdong University of Foreign Studies (“guangwai”) and has since visited China many times to teach intensive courses and attend conferences. His book Going Away to Think: Engagement, Retreat, and Ecocritical Responsibility was published in Chinese translation by Peking University Press in 2010. Two of his articles on ecocriticism have also appeared in Chinese in the Journal of Poyang Hu.
 
                                                                                                       (Edited by Jiang Hong)