The Ecological Turn in New Confucian Humanism: Implications Ecological Turn in New Confucian...

download The Ecological Turn in New Confucian Humanism: Implications Ecological Turn in New Confucian Humanism 243 243 Tu Weiming The Ecological Turn in New Confucian Humanism: Implications

of 22

  • date post

  • Category


  • view

  • download


Embed Size (px)

Transcript of The Ecological Turn in New Confucian Humanism: Implications Ecological Turn in New Confucian...

  • The Ecological Turn in New Confucian Humanism 243


    Tu Weiming

    The Ecological Turn in New ConfucianHumanism: Implications for China andthe World

    TODAY VIRTUALLY ALL AXIAL-AGE CIVILIZATIONS are goingthrough their own distinctive forms of transformation inresponse to the multiple challenges of modernity.1 One ofthe most crucial questions they face is what wisdom they canoffer to reorient the human developmental trajectory of themodern world in light of the growing environmental crisis.

    China and the Confucian tradition face an especially signifi-cant challenge given the size of Chinas population and thescale of her current efforts at modernization. A radical rethink-ing of Confucian humanism began in the late nineteenth andearly twentieth centuries, when China was engulfed in an un-precedented radical social disintegration as the result of foreigninvasion and domestic dissension. In the late twentieth century,this reformulation continued in the New Confucian move-ment led by concerned intellectuals, some of whom left main-land China for Taiwan and Hong Kong when communism wasestablished as the ruling ideology in the Peoples Republic in1949.

    In the last twenty-five years, three leading New Confucianthinkers in Taiwan, mainland China, and Hong Kong indepen-dently concluded that the most significant contribution theConfucian tradition can offer the global community is the ideaof the unity of Heaven and Humanity (tianrenheyi), a unitythat Confucians believe also embraces Earth. I have described

    Tu Weiming is Harvard-Yenching Professor of Chinese History and Philosophy andof Confucian Studies at Harvard University.

    Tu.p65 08/29/01, 3:39 PM243

  • 244 Tu Weiming

    this vision as an anthropocosmic worldview, in which the hu-man is embedded in the cosmic order, rather than an anthropo-centric worldview, in which the human is alienated, either bychoice or by default, from the natural world.2 By identifying thecomprehensive unity of Heaven, Earth, and Humanity as acritical contribution to the modern world, these three key fig-ures in New Confucian thought signaled the movement towardboth retrieval and reappropriation of Confucian ideas. Speak-ing as public intellectuals concerned about the direction of themodern world, each of the three key thinkers articulated thisidea of unity in a distinctive way.

    Qian Mu (18951990) of Taiwan characterized the unity asa mutuality between the human heart-mind and the Way ofHeaven.3 Tang Junyi (19091978) of Hong Kong emphasizedimmanent transcendence: we can apprehend the Mandate ofHeaven by understanding our heart-and-mind; thus, the tran-scendence of Heaven is immanent in the communal and criticalself-consciousness of human beings as a whole.4 Similarly, FengYoulan (18951990) of Beijing rejected his previous commit-ment to the Marxist notion of struggle and stressed the value ofharmony not only in the human world, but also in the relation-ship between humans and nature.5 Since all three thinkers ar-ticulated their final positions toward the end of their lives, theunity of Heaven, Earth, and Humanity sums up the wisdom ofthese elders in the Sinic world. I would like to suggest that thisNew Confucian idea of cosmic unity marks an ecological turnof profound importance for China and the world.


    Qian Mu called this new realization a major breakthrough inhis thinking. When his wife and students raised doubts aboutthe novelty of his insightthe idea of unity between Heavenand Humanity is centuries oldQian, already in his nineties,emphatically responded that his understanding was not a reit-eration of conventional wisdom, but a personal enlightenment,thoroughly original and totally novel.6 His fascination with theidea of mutuality between the human heart-and-mind and theWay of Heaven, and his assertion that this idea is a unique

    Tu.p65 08/29/01, 3:39 PM244

  • The Ecological Turn in New Confucian Humanism 245

    Chinese contribution to the world, attracted the attention ofseveral leading intellectuals in cultural China.7

    Tang Junyi, on the other hand, presented his view from acomparative civilizational perspective. He contrasted Confu-cian self-cultivation with Greek, Christian, and Buddhist spiri-tual exercises, and concluded that Confucianisms commitmentto the world combined with its profound reverence for Heavenoffered a unique contribution to human flourishing in the mod-ern 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 thephysical, biological, social, and political constraints of the hu-man condition. Rather, it is dictated by an ethic of responsibil-ity informed by a transcendent vision. We do not become spiri-tual 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 cosmo-logical decree. Since the Mandate of Heaven that enjoins us totake part in the great enterprise of cosmic transformation isimplicit in our nature, we are Heavens partners. In Tangsgraphic description, the ultimate goal of being human is toenable the Heavenly virtue (tiande) to flow through us. Hisproject of reconstructing the secular humanist spirit is, there-fore, predicated on an anthropocosmic vision.9

    Feng Youlans radical reversal of his earlier position is animplicit critique of Mao Zedongs thoughts on struggle and thehuman capacity to conquer nature. His return to the philosophyof harmony of Zhang Zai (10201077) signaled a departurefrom his Marxist phase and a re-presentation of Confucianideas he had first developed in the 1940s, prior to the foundingof the Peoples Republic of China. The opening lines in ZhangZais Western Inscription state:

    Heaven is my father and Earth is my mother, and even such asmall creature as I finds an intimate place in their midst.

    Therefore that which fills the universe I regard as my body andthat which directs the universe I consider as my nature.

    All people are my brothers and sisters, and all things are mycompanions.10

    Tu.p65 08/29/01, 3:39 PM245

  • 246 Tu Weiming

    The Western Inscription can be regarded as a core Neo-Confucian text in articulating the anthropocosmic vision of theunity of Heaven, Earth, and Humanity. Accordingly, Fengcharacterizes the highest stage of human self-realization as theembodiment of the spirit of Heaven and Earth.11

    A significant aspect of Qian, Tang, and Fengs ecologicalturn was their effort to retrieve the spiritual resources of theclassical and Neo-Confucian heritages. In the sixteenth cen-tury, for example, Wang Yangming (14721529) offered in hisInquiry on the Great Learning an elegant interpretation ofConfucian thought, one with rich implications for modern eco-logical thinking:

    The great man regards Heaven and Earth and the myriad thingsas one body. He regards the world as one family and the countryas one person. As to those who make a cleavage between objectsand distinguish between self and others, they are small men. Thatthe great man can regard Heaven, Earth, and the myriad things asone body is not because he deliberately wants to do so, but becauseit is natural to the humane nature of his mind that he do so.12

    By emphasizing the humane nature of the mind as the reasonthat the great person can embody the universe in his sensitivity,Wang made the ontological assertion that the ability to strikea sympathetic resonance with Heaven, Earth, and the myriadthings is a defining characteristic of being human.

    To demonstrate that this is indeed the case, he offered aseries of concrete examples:

    When we see a child about to fall into the well, we cannot help afeeling of alarm and commiseration. This shows that our humanity(ren) forms one body with the child. It may be objected that thechild belongs to the same species. Again, when we observe thepitiful cries and frightened appearances of birds and animals aboutto be slaughtered, we cannot help feeling an inability to beartheir suffering. This shows that our humanity forms one body withbirds and animals. It may be objected that birds and animals aresentient beings as we are. But when we see plants broken anddestroyed, we cannot help a feeling of pity. This shows that ourhumanity forms one body with plants. It may be said that plantsare living things as we are. Yet even when we see tiles and stones

    Tu.p65 08/29/01, 3:40 PM246

  • The Ecological Turn in New Confucian Humanism 247

    shattered and crushed, we cannot help a feeling of regret. Thisshows that our humanity forms one body with tiles and stones.13

    These examples clearly indicate that forming one body en-tails not the romantic ideal of unity, but rather a highly differ-entiated understanding of interconnectedness.

    Neo-Confucian thinkers like Wang deeply influenced Qian,Tang, and Feng. The efforts of the latter group to employConfucian ideas to enunciate their final positions may seem tobe a matter of personal style. Yet all three were obviouslyconvinced that their cherished tradition had a message for theemerging global village; they delivered it in the most appropri-ate way they knew. Their use of a prophetic voice suggests thattheir Confucian message was addressed not only to a Chineseaudience but also to the human community as a whole. They didnot wish merely to honor their ancestors but also to show thatthey cared for the well-being of future generations.

    Were they even conscious of the ecological implications oftheir final positions? In the last decades of the twentieth cen-tury, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and even mainland China were allmarching toward Western-style forms of social organization.Modernization was the most powerful ideology in China. Bychallenging Chin