How did the concept of “harmony between humanity and nature” shape today’s Chinese civilization?

Shi Yuanfeng and Luo Haibing, China News Service 


Since ancient times, the relationship between humanity and nature has been one of the three important relationships that human beings have to deal with. Liang Shuming once discussed the three major relationships concerning human beings: the relationship between humanity and nature, the relationship among human beings, and the relationship between one and oneself. Before the outbreak of modern ecological crisis, the relationship between humanity and nature had not attracted enough attention.

From a historical perspective, the development of human civilization is a process of gradually understanding, transforming and constructing nature. In China, the conception of “harmony between humanity and nature” is dominant, advocating the harmonious coexistence of humanity and nature, and advocating awe and conformity to nature.

Recently, Wu Genyou, professor of the School of Philosophy at Wuhan University and the dean of the Institute for Advanced Study in Dialogue of Civilizations at Wuhan University, gave an exclusive interview to CNS “W.E. Talk”, explaining why China’s perception of humanity and nature has shaped the roots and background of today’s Chinese civilization.  

CNS: Confucianism, Taoism and Buddhism have their own interpretations on the idea of “harmony between humanity and nature”, which is one of the most important ideas in Chinese philosophy. What do you think is “harmony between humanity and nature”? Is there a new interpretation today?

Wu Genyou: The idea of “harmony between humanity and nature” as we understand it today mainly means that humanity should follow the laws of nature in the use of natural resources. It actually contains two aspects. Firstly, humanity passively adapts to and follows the laws of nature, which mainly refers to the “harmony between humanity and nature” in the era of nomadic and agricultural civilizations. The second is to make full use of the laws of nature to serve the better survival of human beings. In Marxist philosophy, the idea of “harmony between humanity and nature” actually has two stages. The first stage is the humanization of nature, that is, the transformation of nature according to the will of humanity and the use of natural resources to serve the needs of them. The second stage is humanized nature, that is, humanity comprehensively follows the laws of nature to transform nature. For example, the green, ecological and recyclable use of natural resources advocated by the Chinese government today for the benefit of mankind is to move towards the direction of “humanized nature”.

Aerial photograph of the Grand Canal. (Photo provided by Mao Jianjun of China News Service)

Although the concept of “harmony between humanity and nature ” that we strongly advocate today is related to the traditional Chinese idea of “harmony between humanity and nature “, it mainly focuses on the relationship between humanity and nature in the second aspect of this idea. It is to make full use of and continuously develop new green technologies, so that human beings can make full use of natural resources to continuously improve the quality of human life under the premise of meeting ecological requirements. Therefore, advocating the “harmony between humanity and nature ” is not to be completely driven by the force of nature in a blind way, but to make full use of the laws of nature under the thinking of ecological science and vigorously develop green technology to improve the quality of life of all human beings. 

CNS: China not only has the cognition of humanity and nature, but also emphasizes “learning to be a perfect character”. There is also an expression of “know thou-self” in ancient Greek philosophy. Is there any western philosophy that is corresponding to China’s “harmony between humanity and nature”?

Wu Genyou: As far as the long history of Western philosophy is concerned, there are of course sporadic ideas of respecting nature in the West, but on the whole there is no idea similar to the Chinese idea of “harmony between humanity and nature”. In particular, there is a lack of comparing the “natural heaven” to a spiritual being rich in the virtues of fortitude and tolerance as a whole. This is mainly determined by its philosophy, religion and modern capitalist production-lifestyle.

Although ancient Greek philosophy is very rich, the natural heaven has not become the object that human beings imitate, but the object that needs to be conquered. Over fifteen hundred years of the Christian ideological tradition in the Middle Ages is completely shrouded in the atmosphere of theology. Nature, as well as the natural blood relationship in human life, is transformed by the relationship between humans and God into subsidiary or secondary things. In the Enlightenment in the 17th and 18th centuries, the state of nature became a barbaric and primitive state that most philosophers needed to deny. Although Rousseau affirmed to a limited extent that the state of nature was higher than the evil of private ownership in the process of civilization, and believed that human beings in the state of nature had freedom, he did not think that the state of nature was an ideal state that human beings should keep, and clearly pointed out that freedom in the state of nature would soon be lost due to violence. As a part of the postmodern ideological trend, various ecological philosophies and green environmental protection organizations in contemporary Western countries have systematic and radical concepts of respecting nature, and even put forward the concept of “animal rights”. However, in terms of the reality and truthfulness, their ideas fail to exceed the concept of “humanized nature” proposed by Marx and Engels.

If we have to find a Western concept corresponding to the “harmony between humanity and nature”, I personally believe it is the concept of “humanized nature” put forward by Marx and Engels. 

CNS: If we look at the situation of human beings in the context of the entire universe, does the interconnectedness of heaven, earth and human beings transcend geographical boundaries? Can this enlighten human beings to shoulder the responsibility of caring for nature as active participants in the cosmic process?

Wu Genyou: This is a complicated question. Briefly speaking, there may be two diametrically opposed viewpoints. One is that humans are so insignificant in nature that we should simply give up understanding the laws of nature. The other is the positive attitude we must advocate, that is, human beings constantly explore the laws of nature through the accumulation of knowledge, and then make use of the laws of nature, so as to take the responsibility of the protection of the natural environment for the permanent existence of human beings.

Traditional Chinese Confucianism regards human beings as “the heart of heaven and earth” and advocates that human beings should “understand the way of development of everything between heaven and earth and help them evolve” in the universe and integrate into the evolving torrent of the universe with a positive attitude. Confucian Lu Jiuyuan of the Song Dynasty and Confucian Wang Yangming of the Ming Dynasty both regarded the things in the universe as our personal responsibility and indeed have a sense of responsibility for nature. The concept of “everything is connected” and “caring for everyone and everything” with “the benevolence to the unity of everything” shared by Confucians in the Song and Ming Dynasties can be regarded as the cosmic ethics in the ideological system of “harmony between humanity and nature”. This kind of ethics, if transformed and reformed in modern times, may become an ethical sentiment shared by mankind in the era of globalization. In fact, humanity’s responsibility to the universe is our own responsibility to ourselves. The earth has no consciousness, so it neither care whether there are people or creatures on or below its surface, nor care whether it is out of the orbit of the solar system. If human beings do not care about the ecological environment of the earth, the direct consequence is that human beings will not be able to survive on the surface of the earth. Developing outer space and emigrating to other planets are only a dream for human beings in the foreseeable future.

CNS: Is there any commonality between the basic values represented by the Western Enlightenment and the core values of Confucianism? Can different cultures of the world come together to form a civilization of dialogue?

Wu Genyou: Among the basic values developed since the Western Enlightenment, apart from the abstract concept of human rights and the concept of individual freedom based on atomism, other values such as equality, fraternity, fairness and justice not only have basic commonalities with the core values of Confucianism, but also complement each other, thereby enriching the mental world of modern human beings. Briefly, there are three aspects of values developed during the Enlightenment that can coexist with Confucian values.

First, the humanism developed by the Enlightenment in response to Christian theology and the church’s contempt for the real conditions of humans has a high degree of commonality with the classical humanism or people-oriented thought of Confucianism.

Second, the Enlightenment advocated the significance of knowledge, rationality, science and technology in humans’ happiness and life improvement, and believed that nature had its own internal order. This point has a high degree of commonality with the core ideas of Confucianism, such as following natural seasons, climates and rules, respecting spirits and gods and keeping aloof from them, and advocating ethical rationality.

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Ruins of Yin in Anyang, Henan Province (Photo provided by Zhang Chang of China News Service)

Third, the Enlightenment advocated the idea of respect for individuality and equality for all. In Confucianism, there are also spirits of respects for individual will, such as “a man of the common people cannot be robbed of his free will”, and humanitarianism like “caring for everyone and everything”, such as “we all share the same ancestry”. The Enlightenment respected the idea of individual property rights. In the legal provisions from the Han and Tang Dynasties to the Ming and Qing Dynasties, there were express provisions that personal property was inviolable, but there was no very strong modern capitalist legal expression that “private property is sacred and inviolable”. Although the concept of human rights and freedom developed by the Enlightenment is a contribution to human civilization, the embryonic state of these ideas can be found in the traditions of Confucianism respecting human moral dignity and Taoism emphasizing individual ideological preferences and they can complement each other. If human rights are not coordinated with the concept of human social responsibility and obligation, and if freedom is not combined with human moral efforts to be good and upward, there will be adverse social consequences.

As far as the “golden rule” acceptable to all human civilizations is concerned, the basic requirements of “no one should do to others what one does not want others to do to oneself” and “to achieve success, one should help others succeed as well” are the basis for exchanges and dialogue among major human civilizations.

CNS: Does China’s perception of humans and nature shape the root and background of today’s Chinese civilization?

Wu Genyou: This is a good question! Indeed, traditional China’s cognition of humans and nature, especially the relationship between humans and nature, has shaped the root and background of Chinese civilization. Roughly speaking, this issue can be explained from three aspects.

First, the people-oriented thought has been developed in classical China since the Western Zhou Dynasty. The backward small state Zhou defeated the Shang, a great civilized country at that time, relying on the advanced political concept of “attaching importance to the lives of the people”. The core content of the idea of “only the one with virtues deserves the right to rule” developed in the political civilization of the early Western Zhou Dynasty was to require the core figures of the ruling group to protect the people like heaven does. “Respecting morality and protecting the people” is an advanced political and ideological weapon for “the minor state Zhou to defeat the great state Yin”.

Second, the understanding of the nature and law of the “five elements” (i.e., water, fire, wood, metal and earth) and the understanding of the relationship between natural celestial phenomena (common signs) such as rain and cold wind, and agriculture and animal husbandry in Shang Shu, as well as the requirement of hunting and cutting down trees in proper seasons put forward by ancient officials administered mountains and forests, which are repeatedly mentioned in the Book of Rites, all reflect that the ancient Chinese philosophers formed the rational thought of following the natural law earlier in the era of nomadic and agricultural civilizations.

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The statute of Dayu in Shaoxing, Zhejiang Province. (Photo provided by Zhang Liangzong of China News Service)

Third, as far as the relationship between humans and nature is concerned, King Yu’s success in water control made the ancient Chinese sages not only adopt an attitude of fighting against nature rationally, but also strive to find the laws of nature and obey the laws of nature to control nature when dealing with the relationship between humans and nature. King Yu actually not only inherited his father, Gun’s idea and techniques of building embankments to stop water, but also developed a new method of diverting water flow, so that water flows to low-lying areas according to the natural law. Applying this successful experience of dealing with the flood to the political governance of human society is to use the system of rites and music to restrain the emotions and desires in human nature, and use the art form of poetry and music to cultivate people’s temperament. In fact, it is a method of combining restriction (water blocking) and dredging.

To sum up, the secular rational attitude gradually formed in the interaction with nature and in human life experience is to strive to coordinate the relationship between humanity and nature and among humans, guide the people to be worthy of their ancestors’ expectations with the historical rationality of “cautiously performing the funeral rituals to deceased parents and sincerely paying homage to them”, and leave room for future generations to survive and develop. On the basis of the idea of “harmony between humanity and nature”, the Chinese civilization has been shaped with a clear sense of responsibility, full of the ethical feelings of “the unity of all things” and humanitarianism. (end)


The interview record was first published on January 9, 2022 by China News Service.


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