Confucianism Introduction

Religions of the World and Ecology Series

Confucianism and Ecology Volume

Mary Evelyn Tucker and John Berthrong, eds.



Introduction: Setting the Context”
Mary Evelyn Tucker and John Berthrong




Confucian Ecology
Confucianism has significant intellectual and spiritual resources to offer in the emerging discussions regarding attitudes toward nature, the role of the human, and environmental ethics. Its dynamic, organismic worldview, its vitalist understanding of ch’i (material force), its respect for the vast continuity of life, its sense of compassion for suffering, its desire to establish the grounds for just and sustainable societies, its emphasis on holistic, moral education, and its appreciation for the embeddedness of life in interconnected concentric circles are only some examples of the rich resources of the Confucian tradition in relation to ecological issues. A more detailed discussion follows of some of the key ideas of Confucianism regarding cosmology and ethics.

It should be noted that we are using the term Confucianism broadly, to cover the entire tradition. In a historical framework, however, Confucianism generally refers to the early part of the tradition in the Classical era (first millennium BCE) through the Han (206 BCE–220 CE) and T’ang (618–907 CE) dynasties up until the ninth century. Neo-Confucianism is a later development of the tradition that arose in the tenth, eleventh, and twelfth centuries and continued down to the twentieth century. A twentieth-century form of Confucianism, arising in Hong Kong, Taiwan, and the United States, is known as the New Confucianism.

Naturalistic Cosmology
Chinese naturalism as a primary ingredient of Confucianism in its broadest sense is characterized by an organic holism and a dynamic vitalism. The organic holism of Confucianism refers to the fact that the universe is viewed as a vast integrated unit, not as discrete mechanistic parts. Nature is seen as unified, interconnected, and interpenetrating, constantly relating microcosm and macrocosm. This interconnectedness is already present in the early Confucian tradition in the I Ching, or Book of Changes, and in the Han correspondences of the elements with seasons, directions, colors, and even virtues.

This sense of naturalism and holism is distinguished by the view that there is no Creator God; rather, the universe is considered to be a self-generating, organismic process.1 Confucians are traditionally concerned less with theories of origin or with concepts of a personal God than with what they perceive to be the ongoing reality of this self-generating, interrelated universe. This interconnected quality has been described by Tu Weiming as a “continuity of being.”2 This implies a great chain of being, which is in continual process and transformation, linking inorganic, organic, and human life-forms. For the Confucians this linkage is a reality because all life is constituted of ch’i, the material force or psycho-physical element of the universe. This is the unifying element of the cosmos and creates the basis for a profound reciprocity between humans and the natural world.

This brings us to a second important characteristic of Confucian cosmology, namely, its quality of dynamic vitalism inherent in ch’i. It is material force as the substance of life that is the basis for the continuing process of change and transformation in the universe. The term, sheng sheng (production and reproduction), is used in Confucian and Neo-Confucian texts to illustrate the ongoing creativity and renewal of nature. Furthermore, it constitutes a sophisticated awarenessthat change is the basis for the interaction and continuation of the web of life systems—mineral, vegetable, animal, and human. And finally, it celebrates transformation as the clearest expression of the creative processes of life with which humans should harmonize their own actions. In essence, human beings are urged to “model themselves on the ceaseless vitality of the cosmic processes.”3 This approach is an important key to Confucian thought in general, for a sense of holism, vitalism, and harmonizing with change provides the metaphysical basis on which an integrated morality can be developed. The extended discussions of the relationship of li (principle) to ch’i (material force) in Neo-Confucianism can be seen as part of the effort to articulate continuity and order in the midst of change. Li is the pattern amidst flux which provides a means of establishing harmony.

The Ethics of Self-Cultivation
For the Confucian tradition as a whole, the idea of self-cultivation implies a “creative transformation”4 such that one forms a triad with Heaven and Earth. This dynamic triad underlies the assumption of our interconnectedness to all reality and acts as an overriding goal of self-cultivation. Thus, through the deepening of this creative linkage with all things, human beings may participate fully in the transformative aspects of the universe. In doing so, they are participating in an anthropocosmic worldview rather than in an anthropocentric one. Tu Weiming uses this term to indicate that the human is a microcosm situated in the macrocosm of the universe itself.5 This calls for a sense of relational resonance of the human with the cosmos rather than domination or manipulation of nature.

In cultivating their moral nature within this triad, then, human beings are entering into the cosmological processes of change and transformation. Just as the universe manifests this complex pattern of flux and fecundity, so do human beings nurture the seeds of virtue within themselves and participate in the human order in this process of ongoing transformation. This is elaborated especially by the Han Confucians and Sung Neo-Confucians through a specific understanding of a correspondence between virtues practiced by humans as having their natural counterpart in cosmic processes. For example, in his “Treatise on Humaneness” chu Hsi (1130–1200) speaks of the moral qualities of the mind of Heaven and Earth as four, namely, origination, flourish, advantage, and firmness. These correspond to the four moral qualities of humans, namely, humaneness, righteousness, propriety, and wisdom. The cosmological and the human virtues are seen as part of one dynamic process of transformation in the universe. In Han Confucian thought these virtues are coordinated with seasons, directions, and colors.

The anthropocosmic view, then, of the human as forming a triad with Heaven and Earth and, indeed, affecting the growth and transformation of things through human self-cultivation and human institutions originates in Classical Confucianism, especially in Hsün Tzu (310–213 BCE), and finds one of its richest expressions in Chang Tsai’s Western Inscription (Hsi ming) in the eleventh century. This relationship of Heaven, Earth, and human becomes expressed as a parental one, and central to this metaphor is the notion of humans as children of the universe and responsible for its care and continuation.

To summarize, then, Confucianism may be a rich source for rethinking our own relationships between cosmology and ethics in light of present ecological concerns. Its organic holism and dynamic vitalism give us a special appreciation for the interconnectedness of all life-forms and renews our sense of the inherent value of this intricate web of life. The shared psycho-physical entity of ch’i becomes the basis for establishing a reciprocity between the human and nonhuman worlds. In this same vein, the ethics of self-cultivation and the nurturing of virtue in the Confucian tradition provide a broad framework for harmonizing with the natural world and completing one’s role in the triad. This is only suggestive of the rich possibilities available within the Confucian tradition for creating a more comprehensive ecological worldview and effective environmental ethics. The essays in this volume point toward such a range of intellectual resources in Confucianism for rethinking human-earth relations. This volume is but a beginning for future exploration.

Volume Overview
In order to demonstrate the past, present, and potential Confucian contributions to contemporary ecological discussions, this volume is thematically organized into five major sections. The first section presents two leading Confucian scholars’ analyses of the present ecological crisis in relation to Enlightenment values. The second section outlines the context of Confucianism’s response to the contemporary debate on ecology in terms of worldviews, ethics, and philosophical reconceputalization. The third section presents a partial catalogue of conceptual resources for the task of critique and reconstruction. These materials are drawn from the long history of Confucianism within the East Asian cultural matrix. The fourth section presents a series of philosophic reflections on how Confucianism can add its distinctive voice to the growing global conversation about ecology. The fifth section demonstrates how Confucianism can cope with some very specific contemporary issues, critiques, and case studies.

The volume begins with a foreword to the entire series on religions of the world and ecology, in which the series editors remind us that Confucianism is only one of a number of religious traditions struggling to come to grips with contemporary environmental degradation. Religions have been continually challenged historically to respond to crisis and change. Yet the modern ecological crisis is unique in its scope and destructiveness. Never before has humankind had to question, as Tu Weiming warns, whether or not the human is a viable species. Furthermore, it is now clear that any long-term solution to the ecological crisis will be based on reformulating human values to include the relation of humans to nature. Consequently, religions, as one of the principle civilizational repositories of shared human values, must find ways individually and collectively to address the ecological crisis as a matter of fundamental moral principles and attitudes.

This volume on Confucianism and ecology focuses on the specific contributions of Confucianism to the present debate. The five sections address the ecological crisis in three overlapping modes. These are historical, dialogical, and engaged. A number of the essays approach the question of Confucianism from a historical perspective and describe how Confucianism in East Asia developed views of nature, social ethics, and cosmology, which may now shed light on contemporary problems. Chapters with a dialogical approach link the history of Confucianism to other philosophic and religious traditions. The most pertinent dialogue is that of Confucianism and modernity as embodied in the Enlightenment project. The third mode displays how Confucianism has been and is now involved in concrete ecological issues ranging from economic and industrial development to the role of women as agents of ecological transformation.

The volume begins with Tu Weiming’s critique of the Enlightenment mentality. Tu argues that the modern Enlightenment project is the dominant human ideology for any analysis of the present ecological crisis. In fact, according to Tu, there has never been a more pervasive human ideology. The Enlightenment project created the modern world, which has become slowly aware that its technology has let the genie of ecological disaster out of the bottle of modernity. What began in the West as a search for liberty, equality, and fraternity has led to unrestrained industrialization and unsustainable urban sprawl on both sides of the Pacific Rim and beyond.

Wm. Theodore de Bary’s response to Tu Weiming isolates two of Tu’s main points, the need for rootedness and localization. From de Bary’s point of view, one of the main problems of the Enlightenment is that our easy sense of being rooted in the cosmos was one of the casualties of modernization. We have lost a feeling of connectedness with our world and with humanity. De Bary reminds us that many modern Western thinkers have lamented the loss of community and cosmic solidarity as well. To prove his point, de Bary cites a long passage from Wendell Berry, the American poet-farmer turned ecological activist. Berry himself was stimulated by readings from the Confucian tradition. In the end, de Bary argues that both Berry and Tu follow the classic teaching of the Great Learning (Ta hsüeh) that moves from the cultivation of the self to the proper ordering of the world. In this context, any ordering of the world begins with relearning to protect our local bioregion, cherish our families, and find a way to live in a harmonious manner with the larger cosmos.

The second group of essays, by Rodney Taylor, P. J. Ivanhoe, and Michael Kalton, situates the Confucian response to the ecological crisis within the larger discussion of religion and the environment. Taylor, by reviewing how Confucians such as Tu Weiming and Okada Takehiko look at humanity’s place in the cosmos, comes to the conclusion that Confucianism has the resources for serving as a modern environmental philosophy. Although Confucianism is traditionally considered to be humanistic in focus, Confucians such as Chang Tsai (1020–1077) always viewed human beings as part of the larger cosmos. Taylor locates Confucianism’s contribution both in its historical past and as a dialogue partner for Western philosophers and theologians. Ivanhoe extends the discussion to relate early Confucian reflections on nature to contemporary theories of environmental philosophy. Ivanhoe shows how it is possible to link the thought of Hsün Tzu to the analytical side of modern philosophy. Here again we see how Confucianism, although deeply committed to human flourishing, is always embedded in a primordial cosmic reality. Ivanhoe explains how Hsün Tzu was deeply impressed with the coordination of nature and how human beings must learn to play a role within the larger web of life. This is described in the Confucian cosmology of the interaction of Heaven, Earth, and humans.

Kalton moves on from the historical richness of the Confucian tradition to ask how it can be reconceptualized for the twenty-first century. Kalton builds on the history of Confucian thought and envisions what a modern Confucian philosophy would have to look like in order to be sensitive to the ecological crisis. He shows how this can be done by taking key Neo-Confucian ideas such as principle (li), material force (ch’i), and self-cultivation and applying them to the contemporary situation. He underscores the importance of Confucian reflections on principle and the vital matrix of material force for constructively reconceptualizing our relations with the natural world.

The next section deals in greater detail with various conceptual resources drawn from the Chinese, Korean, and Japanese contexts. Tu Weiming begins with a classic statement of the Confucian concern for the continuity of being. It is this Chinese Confucian focus on the relatedness of being that Tu holds up as the foundation for future Confucian ecological speculations. It is a statement of Tu’s vision of the anthropocosmic nature of Confucianism as an inclusive humanism that is rooted in the regenerative rhythms of the cosmos.

Joseph Adler returns to one of the founding figures of Neo-Confucianism, Chou Tun-i (1017–1073). Adler attends to a key cosmological metaphor of responsiveness (ying) as a method to unlock Chou’s vision of nature and humanity. Adler provides us with careful readings of some of Chou’s texts that reveal how this seminal thinker demonstrated that Confucian social ethics ought to be expanded to include the natural world as well. As Adler reminds us, the Neo-Confucians were famous for their sensitive understanding of living things, so much so that it was reported that Chou was worried about cutting the grass outside the window of his study.

Toshio Kuwako focuses his attention on the thought of Chu Hsi (1130–1200), the grand synthesizer of the Northern and Southern Sung Neo-Confucian philosophy. According to Kuwako, Chu’s genius lay in his ability to take the more random reflections of his Sung colleagues and weave them into a coherent philosophic whole. One of Chu’s chief concerns was to demonstrate that the virtue of humaneness (jen) not only refers to humanity but to the correlation of all living beings and nature.

The next two essays, by Young Chan Ro and Mary Evelyn Tucker, continue the historical discussion of the Confucian resources for ecology through the exploration of the crucial concept of material force (ch’i). In addition to being one of the paramount concepts in the pan-East Asian philosophic lexicon, ch’i functions as a prime resource for reflections on nature and cosmology. Ro guides us through an examination of the Korean Yi Yulgok (1536–1584), one of the most famous of the Yi dynasty Neo-Confucian philosophers. As Ro explains, Yulgok was known for his balanced presentation of ch’i as the connective cosmological link between all beings. Ch’i operates as a foundation for all ecosystems and allows for a place for both humanity and all other entities. In fact, if we consider Yulgok’s arguments seriously, then we must attend to nature as an interconnected web of nature that we disregard at our own peril. Tucker’s essay surveys the broad theme of ch’i in key Chinese Neo-Confucian figures. She then discusses how the Japanese Neo-Confucian Kaibara Ekken (1630–1714) developed an ecological philosophy based on ch’i theory. As with Kuwako and Ro, Tucker makes the case that reflection on ch’i is not only important for our understanding of the East Asian development of Neo-Confucianism but may also provide us with a way to think about humanity and nature in a global context.

The next three chapters are broad-ranging philosophic reflections on contemporary ecological concerns. Chung-ying Cheng attempts a complex interweaving of cosmology, ecology, and ethics. Cheng argues that at the heart of the Confucian vision lies an inclusive humanism based on the relational patterns of the Book of Changes (I Ching). Cheng believes that if we can revive this kind of relational, processive axiology, then we have an opportunity to reverse the dualistic and agonistic patterns of thought that have dominated Western philosophy since the Enlightenment. In much the same spirit, John Berthrong tries to show how Classical Confucian metaphors can be employed by modern New Confucians as they seek to respond to the ecological crisis. Building on the work of Mou Tsung-san, one of the most important of the New Confucians, Berthrong illustrates how the fundamental trait of concern-consciousness can guide the tradition into a strengthened understanding of nature. Robert Neville concludes the trio of philosophic studies by advancing the notion of “posture,” or “orientation,” as important for Confucian ecological reflection. For Neville, posture is related to the notion of ritual or habit, namely, how a human being relates effectively and reciprocally to the wider world, including both humans and nature. Clearly, one of the pressing concerns of the modern world is for humanity to find a balanced way or structure, such as is suggested in the Doctrine of the Mean (Chung yung), that allows for the intrinsic value of nature to be preserved and enhanced as it pertains to human flourishing.

The final triad of essays, by Huey-li Li, Seiko Goto and Julia Ching, and Robert Weller and Peter Bol, move from the theoretical to the practical. As Li notes, whatever rich resources the Confucian tradition might have to contribute to contemporary concerns, many feminists remain unconvinced. Feminists often charge that Confucianism is incurably patriarchal in structure. Li underscores the inevitable contradictions between theories and practices. She observes that despite numerous Taoist and Confucian texts focusing on the unity of nature and humanity, modern East Asia is as highly industrialized and polluted as many other parts of the world. However, Li argues that if we pay proper attention to the notion of heaven (t’ien), we might find a means to address ecofeminist critiques of Confucianism in a constructive manner.

Goto and Ching remind us that not all cultural exchanges occur exclusively through the medium of ideas. They provide us with a study of two famous parks, Kosihikawa Korakuen Park in Japan and the Würlitzer Park in Germany. In outlining some of the Confucian influences on landscape gardening, Goto and Ching underscore the broader cultural and aesthetic matrix in which Confucianism spread beyond China to East Asia and even to the West.

In the final chapter, Robert Weller and Peter Bol directly address the present ecological crisis by asking: How is it possible to promote sound ecological attitudes and policies in contemporary China? They point out that Chinese cosmology is based on a theory of cosmic resonances that shows nature is best understood in terms of pulsating harmonies. Another feature of the Weller and Bol essay is an exploration of popular culture as illustrated by the continued use of traditional almanacs and the persistence of feng shui, or geomancy. The authors note that, as modern Taiwanese try to deal with ecological degradation, they often resort to the language of kinship and cosmic resonance. Whatever ideological means the Chinese may involve in formulating sound ecological policies, some of the underlying motivations and explanations will, no doubt, continue to rely on traditional sources.6

The essays in this volume, then, show a living Confucian tradition seeking to find a useful retrieval of resources to respond adequately to the growing destruction of the environment in Asia and beyond. Of course, the Confucian world is not alone in this task. All the major religious traditions have become more aware in recent years of the challenge presented by unrestrained development and subsequent pollution. Moreover, they are ever more conscious that, although they may have resources to construct better attitudes and policies toward nature, they have not done so adequately in the past. While further research and discussion is vital, this volume is meant to be an initial step toward lessening the divide between rich conceptual resources and efficacious environmental practices in the contemporary world.



1 Frederick F. Mote, Intellectual Foundations of China (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1971) 17–18.
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2 See Tu Weiming’s article, included in this volume, “The Continuity of Being: Chinese Visions of Nature,” originally published in Confucian Thought: Selfhood as Creative Transformation, Tu Weiming (Albany, N.Y.: State University of New York Press, 1985)
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3 Tu Weiming, Confucian Thought: Selfhood as Creative Transformation, 39. Professor Tu notes, “For this reference in the Chou I, see A Concordance to Yi-Ching, Harvard Yenching Institute Sinological Index Series Supplement no. 10 (reprint; Taipei: Chinese Materials and Research Aids Service Center, Inc., 1966), 1/1.”
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4 See Tu Weiming’s essays in Confucian Thought: Selfhood as Creative Transformation.
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5 Tu Weiming uses the term “anthropocosmic” widely. See especially, Weiming, Confucian Thought: Selfhood as Creative Transformation and Centrality and Commonality.
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6 The understanding of the ecological role of traditional sources, such as geomancy and Chinese medicine, is discussed by E. N. Anderson in Ecologies of the Heart (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996).
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    Copyright © 1998 Center for the Study of World Religions, Harvard Divinity School.
Reprinted with permission.

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