Confucian Statement on Environment

An Op-ed in the South China Morning Post argues that Confucianism can help with China’s (and the world’s) environmental problems. In addition, the piece mentions:

Last month, a major new development in Confucian ideas and commitments was launched. The Confucianists of China issued their first ever statement on the environment. In it they questioned the destructive basis of contemporary Chinese development and proposed instead a vision of humanity playing a caring role, not a destructive one.

This statement argues that what the world needs is a spiritual humanism founded on Confucian values: “What Mencius reminds us of is a core Confucianist value that this world is a precious heritage passed on to us from our ancestors and it is a resource entrusted to us by numerous generations yet to come.”

Any thoughts?

20 replies on “Confucian Statement on Environment”

  1. This is quite intriguing. It is even more curious that Martin Palmer is the one being interviewed. Leaving that point aside, Palmer cites these lines from Mencius: 「孟子曰:牛山之木嘗美矣,以其郊於大國也,斧斤伐之,可以為美乎?是其日夜之所息,雨露之所潤,非無萌櫱之生焉,牛羊又從而牧之,是以若彼濯濯也。人見其濯濯也,以為未嘗有材焉,此豈山之性也哉?」I wonder if Palmer was only referring to these specific lines or to the entire paragraph? If the former, then he’s taking Mencius’ words out of context; if the latter, then one must question the appropriateness of adopting Mencius’ reference to Nature which, as we all know, is a very poetic metaphor for cultivating the mind, so as to speak to modern China’s environmental degradation. It seems a very roundabout way of doing things. Now, had Palmer (or the newspaper) not quoted the above but the lines that followed, could the argument still be made that Mencius was as genuinely concerned about the natural world as say, Zhuangzi? For me, standing on Zhuangzi’s side of the fence, the answer is no. Could this thus be a case of conveniently citing an authoritative figure so as to lend credence to a cause that is beyond the scope of the originally intended meaning? Furthermore, what is meant by “spiritual humanism” and one “founded on Confucian values” at that?

  2. I agree, David: Mencius doesn’t seem to be concerned about the natural environment, except as a danger, e.g. in 3A4:

    ‘In the time of Yao, when the world had not yet been perfectly reduced to order, the vast waters, flowing out of their channels, made a universal inundation. Vegetation was luxuriant, and birds and beasts swarmed. The various kinds of grain could not be grown. The birds and beasts pressed upon men. The paths marked by the feet of beasts and prints of birds crossed one another throughout the Middle Kingdom. To Yao alone this caused anxious sorrow. He raised Shun to office, and measures to regulate the disorder were set forth …

    But the important point in the Op-Ed may be this:

    an eight-year programme of projects based on the Confucian ethos of protecting all life is soon to be launched, under the direction of Professor Tu Weiming of Peking and Harvard universities.

    I don’t see anything about it in Tu’s web site.

  3. Thank you David for bringing up Zhuangzi.
    It is indeed time the Confucians join in to what the Daoists have been doing for many centuries.

  4. Even if Confucianism does provide an environmental ethic, the idealism in this op-ed elides the larger political problem. At present there is a multifaceted ideological crack-down unfolding in the PRC. Constitutionalism, which some Confucians (including Jiang Qing) have embraced, is now under direct assault from Party thought workers (see: (a Chinese description is here:

    Chinese journalists are now being urged to return to the study of Marxism (

    In short, the Party is working hard to impose a stricter state-socialist/Maoist-Marxist orthodoxy in the ideological/intellectual realm. This does not bode well for Confucianism in China, which does not seem to have any presence in the plans of Xi Jinping and other top leaders.

    Confucianism is rapidly becoming more irrelevant, politically, in the PRC.

  5. Steve, et. al…Who’s in this group “the Confucianists of China”? Does it include Bai Tongdong, Fan Ruiping, Jiang Qing?? Just curious.

  6. True as that is, Sam, I think we could also be looking at the political mantra of Xi Jinping. Recall that Hu Jintao’s mantra was built upon the idea of a harmonious world, to be achieved through four areas: 1. multilateralism should be upheld to realize common security; 2. mutually beneficial cooperation should be upheld to achieve common prosperity; 3. the spirit of inclusiveness must be upheld to build a world where all civilizations coexist harmoniously and accommodate each other; 4. the UN needs “rational and necessary reform” to maintain its authority, improve its efficacy and give a better scope to its role in meeting new threats and new challenges. (points made in his speech at the 64th meeting of the UN, 2009). To me, point 3 clearly paves the way for the op-ed article in the SCMP. Notice, however, there is no mention of the environment per se. Could it be that recent discontent in China over the state of living conditions has gotten out-of-hand warranting the soothing, wise words of Mencius? Afterall, we wouldn’t want people to take notice of the mountain itself now would we?

    • David, yes, it would seem that Mencius might be useful as a soothing response to the increase in public discontent over environmental degradation. But the regime is not moving in that direction. Wen Jiabao’s dilute Confucianism (it never really had much of a concrete political effect) is now passe, as Xi raises the red flag…

  7. Good point, Sam. One would think, given Xi’s background (and that of his wife, who is a famous singer) he would be more liberal in directing Party policy.

    Bill, do you know if Du is actively involved or simply lending his name? While he has done much to “popularize” Confucian ethics, Cheng Zhongying’s doctrine of benti is, for me, the more original and lends itself better to not only incorporating discussion of the environment from an ethical perspective, but a phenomenological one too.

  8. I appreciate these comments. Especially those that relate directly to current thinkers in China. Of course there is a difference between the concrete and the ideal. We should never give up on the latter. I wonder why Neo-Confucianism isn’t mentioned here. While I know the impact of Mencius on folks such as Wang Yangming, Neo-Confucians appear to have a much more robust “environmental ethic.” Indeed, I believe one can find a philosophy of restoration there.

    • Tu Wei-ming and Mary Tucker edited two volumes titled Confucian Spirituality. I believe that the theme of spiritual humanism is addressed there also.

  9. David,
    I think Tu Wei-ming has done most to frame Confucianism as the basis for a “spiritual humanism”. Here’s a pdf by him that mentions Confucian “spiritual humanism” in relation to the environment (not sure of publication date):

    And here is a youtube of a presentation he gave at Stanford discussing Confucianism as a “spiritual exercise”:

  10. Samuel, kind thanks for the book title.
    Sam, thanks for the utube and article links.

    If anyone is interested, here are the links for the other two lectures in the series:
    1. Confucian Humanism as Scholarly Inquiry (
    2. Imagining Confucian Democracy (

    In his lecture on Confucian Humanism, Du answered my question regarding “spiritual humanism.” He defines it as xiushen 修身 (self-cultivation). Looking through the Mencius and Zhongyong, xiushen refers to perfecting one’s character/mind through acts of duty/benevolence.

    For example, in the Zhongyong we see:

    In the Mencius:

    It’s quite brilliant, actually, but goes against everything Daoism stands for! The question, then, is Du translating xiushen in this way to distinguish Confucian spirituality from that of Daoism? But what about Neo-Confucianism, as Samuel rightly pointed out?

  11. I’d say the few comments there are in Analects and Mengzi (Kongzi wouldn’t fish with a net, limiting periods of gathering firewood, etc.) point at best to a kind of what environmental ethicists call weak anthropocentrism, which argues for the human benefits of protecting the environment. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing: it avoids some significant philosophical difficulties and may be more effective at actually mobilizing support. I agree with Samuel that Neo-Confucianism may be more promising, as Wang Yangming for example emphasizes having sympathy for animals, plants, and even stones. Yet in practice I think that’s going to end up as a hierarchical structure with humans on top. I don’t know of any Neo-Confucians who didn’t give priority to human interests over those of the natural world.

    I don’t think Daoism is that promising myself. It may be good as justifying prevention, but I don’t see a good case for significant intervention to correct existing problems: that seems very youwei to me. Zhuangzi’s encouragement of avoiding political involvement is also not very helpful. I think political action has to be part of the solution.

  12. Spiritual humanism sounds like an oxymoron if one is in a philosophic mood. To the Party, it’s an obvious insult.

    Confucian values apply to both the Party and its Confucian critics. As long as xiushen 修身 is not realized and exists as an idea, then this is just a case of the pot calling the kettle black.

  13. Hello everyone! I’m completely new here, but I just want to say that this is a very interesting site with a phenomenally involved community.

    I understand this is quite sudden, but I would love to request everyone’s expertise on a research proposal I am working on. I am currently in the middle of a graduate program that focuses on international water management policy and law. One theme that I am very, very interested is the roles that tradition and religion play in establishing a culture of environmental conservation. I would love to delve into a study that examines the impact of Confucianism (e.g. through its emphasis on family values) on local water management. Unfortunately, my knowledge on Confucianism is rudimentary at best. I am trying to frame a project in a specific locality, but am completely lost as to where I should conduct case studies – does anyone have any tips as to interesting regions, cities, and/or communities (a multi-level approach might be fascinating!) that I might want to look into?

    I would absolutely love any sort of input anyone may have. Sorry for barging in – I’m a newbie, but I have found everything on here fascinating so far! Please reply to this post. I will be checking this page on a regular basis for the next week or so.

    Dear admin – I’m really sorry for shifting the focus on this comment thread. Please delete comment if necessary.



    • Hi Seigi, Welcome to our conversations! I don’t know anything about your topic, but one good person to ask might be Kenneth Pomeranz at the University of Chicago.

    • Hello Bill,

      Thank you for your response! I will definitely get in contact with him. I really appreciate your help.

    • What does Confucius’ teaching have anything to do with environmental conservation? The former speaks to a holistic worldview of life while the latter comes from a fundamentally different mindset in dealing with the problems of living.

      How does a good man cope with the pains of a wrong way of life? He doesn’t because he does not need to and therefore has no need to know how.

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