Is China's Growing Religiosity Fueling Its Emerging Environmentalism?


A Christian church located on the shore of Dushu Lake, near Suzhou, China. Kaicheng Xu/Getty Images
A Christian church located on the shore of Dushu Lake, near Suzhou, China. Kaicheng Xu/Getty Images

The people of China are rediscovering their religion — and possibly a new age of Chinese environmentalism as well.

As Javier C. Hernández examines in the New York Times, hundreds of millions of Chinese have taken to religion in recent years — including the traditional paths of Buddhism, Confucianism and Taoism as well as monotheistic imports like Christianity and Islam.

While the People's Republic of China instituted a policy of state atheism at its founding in 1949, it relaxed its policies in the 1970s, eventually allowing (ostensibly) free practice of religion in 1978. It hasn't been entirely smooth sailing since then — just ask followers of the Falun Gong religious movement — but modern Chinese have found both opportunity and permission to explore religious ways of life in the 21st century. In 2013, President Xi Jinping expressed hope that traditional Chinese faiths would help fill a moral void in the citizenry.

Yellow Crane Tower, on the Yangtze River in Wuhan, is one of the Four Great Towers of China, and an important site in the Taoist tradition. The Chinese government eased a ban on religion in the 1970s, and religious practices, both traditionally Chinese and imported from Western faiths, have flourished.
Yellow Crane Tower, on the Yangtze River in Wuhan, is one of the Four Great Towers of China, and an important site in the Taoist tradition. The Chinese government eased a ban on religion in the 1970s, and religious practices, both traditionally Chinese and imported from Western faiths, have flourished.
Artur Widak/Nur Photo/Getty Images

Where does environmentalism come into play? Given the heavy politicization of both religious faith and environmental issues in the United States, it's easy to forget how heavily organisms and biological systems play a part in religion. From Edenic gardens and holy mountains to bestial gods and winged angels, nature is written into the fabric of our global faiths.

The observation even helps underline famed biologist Edward O. Wilson's biophilia hypothesis: that humans have an innate tendency to focus on life and lifelike processes. Interested in learning more about the concept of biophilia? Check out the Stuff to Blow Your Mind podcast episode "The Biophilia Hypothesis."

As modern Chinese people engage with religious worldviews, they also contemplate the biophilic principles within — messages of stewardship and harmony. As such, Chinese spiritual leaders have spoken out against overdevelopment and pollution, invoking notions of Buddhist karma, Christian sin and Taoist balance to make their case. Plus, it doesn't hurt that President Xi Jinping has also championed a return to China's ecological roots.

Hernández points out that politics plays a role in this, too, as such initiatives could enable China to take on a larger leadership role in global environmental issues. As the United States backs away from the Paris climate accords and clashes with G20 nations over environmental issues, many commentators see the possible ascent of a China once Red, now increasingly green.