Desktop version

Home arrow Geography

  • Increase font
  • Decrease font

<<   CONTENTS   >>

Concepts of Nature

Like most societies, Chinese has no word for "nature" in the English-language sense. Words for "natural" conditions are often based on the root zi, "self." This implies the spontaneous, naturally occurring selfhood of something or someone as opposed to learned or imposed changes. Ziran (originally something like "self reality") has long been used to mean "spontaneous" and thus "natural" in the sense of "not deliberately made." Neologistic combinations like ziranjie (lit. "self real territory") and daziran (lit. "great self real") now mean "nature" or "the natural realm." Tianran, "heavenly spontaneous," was an old term for "the natural world" as opposed to human-made landscapes and items. Paolo Santangelo (1998: 62iff.) points out that this introduces a moral note, since heavens will was always considered to be a moral charge for humans (see also Lloyd 2007:138-41). Another term important in these contexts is shen, "spirit," which basically means a supernatural being but is extended in more or less the same ways as the Latin/English word "spirit."

Many of these terms go back to, or are used in, Daoism. The Dao—the great Way, or Flux, that is the "mother of the myriad things"—shows itself in the word ziran. The uncarved block (baopu), the original being, can potentially be made into anything—or can simply evolve into anything. This is much like certain deist concepts in the Western world, such as Spinoza's "eternal and infinite Being whom we call God or Nature" (Hadot 2006:168).

Another set of terms is based on sheng, whose root meaning is "to be born." This term is extended or used in various phrases that refer to anything in its natural or original state. It can thus mean fresh as opposed to preserved, raw as opposed to cooked, and so on. At some very early point, this word split off—or assimilated—another word, xing. Xing is probably a verbal noun developed from sheng. Xing is written with the character for sheng plus the "heart radical," a graphic particle used in many words to mark reference to inner states and qualities. Xing means "inborn" (this is not the xing that means "goings" or "phases"; the tones and characters are different). This xing means "nature" or "natural" in the sense of one's innate natural tendencies, as in ben xing "root nature," that is, "inborn nature." It is thus more of an essentialized, abstract quality than a specific personal self (zi). For instance, Xunzi (1999: 199) saw it as selfish, unsocial, and in need of fixing and defined it: ben xing "is what is impossible for me to create but which I can nonetheless transform." Conversely, Mencius saw it as basically good, and his psychologically sophisticated view was known to every Chinese schoolchild for hundreds of years through the classic children's primer Three Character Classic (probably by Wang Yinglin, 1223-1296). This is a rhymed primer of three-character lines. It begins: "People from birth have natures that are good at root; their natures are similar to each other, but learned ways make them different from each other."

The Chinese, of course, is much more economically stated ("natures root good"). "Natures" is xing in both places. Every traditional Chinese child who had any education at all began his or her training by memorizing this rhyme. It had an enormous effect on the Chinese world.

As seen here, xing was the word used when classical Chinese writers contrasted "nature" and "nurture" (jiao—see below—or similar words). These words can also be combined with ran and other words in the cluster. Another word is jing, made up of the radical for grain and the character for "clear and pure," the result originally meaning clean and pure grain but evolving into a term for semen, and then on to a metaphoric extension as "the unadulterated essence of things or a state of mind concentrated on a single purpose" (Rickett 1998: 29). Closely related is qing, the same "clear and pure" with a spiritual rather than a grain radical and meaning "inner reality" (Rickett 1998: 82). These words may originally have been fairly interchangeable. The Han Dynasty Comprehensive Discussions in the White Tiger Hall (Tjan 1949: 565-66) defined xing as innate dispensations of the yang, and identified five basic innate moral senses (Tjan called them "instincts"): ren (humaneness), sense of the right, sense of ritual, wisdom, and truth to ones word (xin, defined on 566 as "sincerity"). Qing is defined here as emotion, the working of yin; joy, anger, grief, happiness, love, and hate are listed. This forms a very concise summary of late Han psychology.

Finally, plants, cats, stones, and mountains were not traditionally referred to in terms of nature or humanity but were the Myriad Things. (Like the Greek myriad, the Chinese wan literally means "ten thousand" but idiomatically means "a very large number.") They could be called "things that are born," but there was no word for them as "nature" in contrast with "people."

The nearest thing to a nature/human dichotomy was the sacred trinity of heaven (tian), earth (di), and humanity (ren). (Ren is translated "man" in the older literature, but it is a gender-neutral word, as was "man" in earlier English. Much of the endless garbage in the Western literature about Chinese sexism is based on not realizing this point.) Cats and trees were part of earth, clouds and flying dragons part of heaven, and humans mediated between the two. A key part of this was the emperors major sacrificial rites at the Altar of Heaven and the Altar of Earth. These altars were always located in or near the capital and thus were rebuilt as the capitals shifted with the dynasties. The last imperial altars, dating from Ming and Qing times, survive today in Beijing.

The square Altar of Earth and the round Altar of Heaven were perhaps the most sacred altars of the old Chinese empire. Not only did the rites have to be done perfectly; the emperor had to have a properly humble and reverent mind. Any major disaster showed he had failed in this, and many emperors seem to have been quite sincere in their apologies and self-criticisms for failing in this regard when famine or plague struck.

The important thing to notice here is that there is no simple way in traditional Chinese to refer to nonhuman beings as opposed to the human realm. Zi and xing contrast the innate, human or not, with the acquired, human or not. The Myriad Things include people. As Kwang-chih Chang (2002) points out for China and David Barnhill (2005: 7) for Japan, East Asians did not contrast nature with humanity. They also did not contrast the natural with the supernatural. They contrasted living naturally with living unnaturally. Zhuang Zi (Graham 1981) held that humans in a confining society and horses in an overmanaged livery are alike failing to live their true natures; later thinkers agreed with this assessment.

Thus, as one would expect, there is no term equivalent to "wilderness" in Chinese. The nearest is an opposition of ye, "wild," to settled spaces—fields, towns, and cities. However, abandoned fields and settlements are ye. Even people can be ye. The ye ren, "wild man," is the Chinese Yeti, or Bigfoot, and the term can also be used for a real person who is uncontrolled and uncouth. The idea of wilderness can be, and is, expressed by descriptive phrases, but the lack of a simple word is revealing. Ye is normally unpleasant; wildlands as things of scenic beauty are called shan shui, "mountains and waters." When a Tang Dynasty poet equated them—"ye feelings are just for mountains and water" (i.e., "my feelings for mountains and water are feelings for the true wild")—he was doing it for effect. (The poem is in the Han Shan material but is stylistically rather different from pieces reliably by the original Han Shan; see Han-shan 2000: 191, with Bill Porters freer translation.) Another word, huang, is even more tightly coupled with deserted places; an abandoned village is a huang сип (сип means "village"); an abandoned forest area is a huang lin, and neglected vegetation is huang cao (wild herbage). This implies that forests and herbage should be cared for. The great fifteenth-century guide to famine plants is called the Jiu Huang Bencao— (Herbal for use in huang, i.e., when famine has desolated the land).

The striking difference between China and the West in attitudes toward the nonhuman realm was already clear by the Zhou. The Western world defines "civilization" as urban; the word comes from the Latin for "city," just as politics, policy, and politeness go back to the Greekpolis. This pro-urban bias goes back to ancient Sumer, as the Epic of Gilgamesh and many other texts show. The Arabs, too, in their medieval Golden Age, were intensely urban and—to use another revealing word—urbane.

In striking contrast, China defines civilized culture in terms of symbolic communication. The nearest Chinese equivalents to the English word "civilization" (as opposed to barbarism) are wen and Wen in Shang times meant "marks"—any mark made with a pen, brush, piece of charcoal, or the like on an available surface. It soon developed the secondary meaning of "created symbols"—more than just writing (there is a different word, zi, for written characters specifically) but less than "marks in general." Over time, it came to mean "civilized knowledge and behavior." In modern Cantonese, for instance, a common description of a graceless boor is that he "lacks wen" (mow man in Cantonese). Wenhua means, literally, "marks transforming," capturing the ideas that the symbols themselves change and that they transform people—for the better, theoretically. Zhongwen, "Chinese marks," is Chinese literate culture—the marks the Chinese have left on the world.

The Western idea that the more urbanized a landscape, the better, and the more natural the worse, does not exist as such in China. There is no sharp contrast and no devaluing of the natural (i.e., the ziran, as opposed to the ye). China had many hermits living in the wild not out of self-mortification (as in the West) but because they preferred it. China also produced a large percentage of the worlds nature poetry, and much of the very best thereof. (A rough but not uneducated guess, Chinese poets and China-emulating Japanese, Korean, and Vietnamese poets must have produced over 90 percent of the worlds nature poetry.) Rural life was prestigious; farmers were honored, though, admittedly, more in rhetoric than in substance.

However, many or most Chinese did tend to prefer urban life, just as the West did. In fact, they may actually enjoy some aspects of it that Westerners often claim to hate. As noted above, the modern Chinese phrase for the excitement, interest, enthusiasm, variety, and general fun of the city is renao, which literally means "heat and noise." Urbane and civilized as Westerners may be, they do not usually think of the heat and noise of a city as its good features. There is a continuum in Chinese thought from cities to wasteland. Cities were idealized, but the mountains, waters, and remote fields were idealized and loved too. Best of all was to live among humans but to have a wonderful garden for escape. This ideal occurs over and over, from the poetry of Tao Yuanming (367-425) to The Story of the Stone, and, for that matter, to today.

Emotions were seen as part of human nature. Like groves and grasses, they should be properly socialized and controlled. They should be expressed in a duly managed way, which is one reason "Han Shan" used ye to shock readers. Geoffrey Lloyd (2007: 74-79) provides an excellent and incisive account of Chinese emotion terms and early philosophizing about emotionality and compares these with Western concepts. Lloyd tends to stress the differences with the West. I find more similarities, but there are indeed some key differences. Chinese culture focuses more on sociability yet also places greater stress on the joys of solitary contemplation in the mountains. The extreme sociability of Chinese culture makes the value of lonely meditation a quite reasonable and even predictable balancing response. Human minds, at least the more introverted human minds, need occasional rest or escape from what the Chinese call the "red dust" (hongchen, originally a Buddhist term).

<<   CONTENTS   >>

Related topics