The Environment and the Dao


David Wright introduces the ancient tradition of Daoism and its call for respect for the whole environment in which people live.

The Daoist (or Taoist) religion of China is centred on nature and on the ideal path or Dao which is both the Way to be followed and the path which nature itself would follow were it not for human interference. For the Daoists the path of water down a mountainside, following the route of least resistance without being told or forced, exemplifies ziran, or spontaneous naturality. Trying to struggle against the natural world or to force nature to bend to your will is bound to fail. By relaxing and allowing events to take their course everything will eventually fall into place: wu wei er wu bu wei (by doing nothing everything will be done).

As a political philosophy Daoism is difficult to follow, but as a spiritual path it has been profoundly influential on Chinese philosophy, poetry, painting and calligraphy. Zen (or Chan) Buddhism is in many respects a fusion of Daoist and Buddhist ideas. Even Chairman Mao's writings contain elements of Daoist philosophy, although making revolution does not seem to have much in common with the idea of wu wei.

The Daoist view of nature has as a corollary a view of human beings as relatively unimportant, as simply a part of nature. We should therefore aspire to being simple and unadorned, with no illusions about our own significance in the cosmos. Chinese paintings often echo this view of nature by showing mountains and rivers with tiny human figures dwarfed by the grandeur of the scenery around them.

The scenery is not regarded as inert: the movement of water, clouds and wind is part of a constantly shifting organic balance of yin and yang forces, and both the earth and the sky manifest the movement of the mysterious energy-substance qi. Mines and other disturbances of the earth were sometimes resisted because of the belief that they would rupture the channels of this qi and bring disaster to the locality. Houses and temples were carefully chosen according to the qualities of the site, known as feng shui, or 'wind and water'. Ideally the yang qualities of the mountains to the north would be balanced by the yin qualities of moving water to the south. Emperors were able to create this environment artificially, as you can see if you visit the Forbidden City in Beijing, where an artificial mound to the north (Jingshan, or Coal Hill) is balanced by the stream running in front of the City's southern gates.

Feng shui is still taken seriously by some people in China, and the fengshui expert is certainly consulted in Hong Kong before work starts on a major building or a new business is set up. The fish tank, pot plants and strategically placed mirrors you see in many Chinese restaurants are believed to provide a fengshui environment in which everything will go well.

© Copyright Society for Anglo-Chinese Understanding (SACU) 2001 : China Now 153, Page 16

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the view of SACU.
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