Taoism (or Daoism) is a Chinese ancient philosophy which holds an all-encompassing, interconnected, and comprehensive perspective on how people and the universe interact. Over the past few years, a growing debate on Taoism's applicability to numerous academic disciplines has emerged. For instance, Prince (2005) has studied how the principles of Taoism can contribute to the study of leadership. Likewise, Zu (2016) demonstrated the utility of the Taoist perspective for examining social and sustainable risk and crisis in the world of business. Further, Yang et al. (2019) suggested that Taoism can contribute to better environmental education by encouraging people to pay respect to nature.
Contributing to this conversation, this article will explore how Taoist philosophy is embedded in China’s developmental policy shift over the past decades - moving the nation towards sustainability and environmental conservation. This article will begin by providing background regarding the fundamentals of Taoism and China’s policy shift, before then assessing China’s multifaceted eco-developmental trajectory. This will conclude by suggesting that Taoism could inspire countries to work together to resolve pressing climate issues.
Taoism and its principle of the harmonious coexistence of humans and nature
Proposed by Lao-Tzu and Zhuangzi, two leading Taoist philosophers, the essence of Taoism lies in three concepts. These are reflected throughout Tao Te Jing (道德經), the text that is a foundation of Taoism (Schönfeld & Chen, 2019).
One concept is “wu wei (無爲)”, which means doing nothing (Yang et al., 2019, p.1120). On the one hand, this idea has been employed by the Chinese people as mental consolation to achieve peace with oneself and the outside world (Zhang et al., 2022). Yet on the other hand, it commands one to take action that has minimal impact on others (Calabuig, 2019).
Another concept is the notion that “Humanity follows the Earth. The Earth follows the Heaven. Heaven follows the Way (Tao). And the Way follows its own nature” (He et al., 2016, p.235). Representing a Taoist cosmocentric view of the world, this proposes that humans ought to respect the earth, and that their activities should follow the rules of the earth and heaven, governed by laws of nature.
The last concept is “tian ren he yi (天人合)” which refers to the “unity of humans and heaven” (Lai et al., 2022, p.3). Not only does this thought highlight the equal status of humans and nature, but it also conveys that humans must not dominate. Rather, it is necessary for humans to live in agreement with the “rhythm of nature” (Yang et al., 2019, p.1122). Miller (2018) further emphasises this by arguing from the Taoist perspective that the world can prosper only if humans cease depicting the landscape of nature as being separate from the human body.
China’s developmental policy shift: A green leap forward
China has experienced exceptional economic growth in recent years due to rapid industrialisation in the 1980s (Li & Shapiro, 2020). Nevertheless, this has brought about socio-environmental repercussions to the country, including pollution, desertification, and water shortages (Economy, 2010). Not only have these issues continued to plague the Chinese economy and threaten the Chinese people’s well-being, but they have also endangered the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) political legitimacy, which the party has prioritised (Li & Shapiro, 2020).
To maintain this legitimacy, the CCP’s government began to alter the national development course to balance economic growth and environmental protection from the 1990s. In 2007, former Chinese President Hu Jintao announced the ambition to build an “ecological civilisation (shengtai wenming 生态文明),” which is the Chinese model for creating a more sustainable economy while addressing problems resulting from industrialisation (Hanson, 2019, p.1). In the following decade, Xi Jinping expanded this vision into policy, positioning it at the forefront of national development as part of the “China dream” (Li & Shapiro, 2020).
Yet this came in tandem with the state-backed restoration of Chinese traditional culture through the likes of Taoism, Buddhism, and Confucianism. For instance, the CCP has financed a number of international meetings between Buddhist and Taoist associations (Laliberté, 2020). Although there are no official statistics on the number of Taoists in China, a 2007 study on spirituality in the nation indicated that over ten million Chinese declared themselves to be strongly Taoist, while almost two hundred million said they occasionally practised it (Hruby, 2017). This highlights that Taoism has maintained a strong presence within modern China.
As such, through the dual elevation of environmentalism and Taoism, these goals have been suggested to align. Moreover, Taoism has been highlighted as a micro-foundation for China’s pro-environmental development trajectory over the past decades as China has actively sought to rebalance its economic prosperity and environmental protection.
Embedded within Taoism? Analysing China’s multi-level eco-developmental trajectory through a cultural lens
Xi Jinping declared in 2018 that “China must accelerate the construction of ecological civilisation, and promote the creative transformation and innovative development of its excellent traditional culture (emphasis added) with greater vigour and more practical measures” (Jiang & Zhang, 2020, p.2). This statement not only sheds light on the ambition to boost the country’s transition to a low-carbon economy but also highlighted the importance of incorporating philosophical and spiritual Chinese traditions into the national development process.
At the national level, the Chinese government has undertaken a number of programs to promote green growth and resolve environmental challenges throughout China while maintaining its political legitimacy. To exemplify this, environmental preservation, social equity, and sustainable development have been incorporated into and presented as the main pillars of the Five-Year Plan (FYP), China’s national development plan (Li & Shapiro, 2020). As part of its efforts to achieve the national low-carbon targets established in the FYP, China created eco-cities during the 2000s, for example, Chongming Eco-Island in Shanghai and Guiyang City in Guizhou (Liu et al., 2018). As such, the Taoist tenets of respecting nature and the harmonious coexistence of humans and nature have acted as a psychological driving force to the Chinese government’s policy shift towards sustainability and the environment.
At the corporate level, inspired by the Taoist spiritual narrative, many Chinese state-owned enterprises and private companies have incorporated environmental awareness into their strategy and activities. Xing and Starik (2017) demonstrate how Taoist leadership can efficiently foster the eco-friendly attitudes and behaviours of the company’s employees. Yao and Shang (2020) found that entrepreneurs who believe in Taoist philosophy are positively correlated with a company's investment in the environment. Similarly, Lai et al. (2022) demonstrate that the Taoist concept of “tian ren he yi” encourages corporate practices on the environment by minimising the management's pressure to meet economic performance targets and boosting investment in environmental protection. Taken together, Taoist philosophy motivates businesses and their employees to prioritise sustainability which, in turn, accelerates the construction of ecological civilisation.
At the individual level, Taoist thought of the harmony between humans and nature is profoundly embedded in Chinese people’s daily lives. Magerison et al. (2019) show that Taoism strongly influences Chinese accountants to incorporate environmental awareness into their work. A majority of them emphasise the reciprocal relationship between humans and nature which is at the core of Taoist philosophy (Magerison et al., 2019, p.338). Wang et al. (2020) affirm this by demonstrating that Taoist thought on connectedness to nature motivates Chinese tourists to behave in an environmentally friendly way in hotels. Likewise, Lou et al. (2022) found that Taoist values encourage Chinese urban residents to actively sort waste. As such, the Taoist principle not only guides their eco-friendly behaviours but also prompts them to reconsider their relationship with the environment.
Through this, Taoism is revealed to be embedded in China’s attempts to build an ecological civilisation at all levels of society.
While this article will not fully explore this connection, the role of ancient philosophy within sustainable development is proven fascinating through comparison of the cases of China and Japan. Despite certain cultural differences, China and Japan have several commonalities, one being that both nations are influenced by Confucianism, Taoism, and Buddhism (Breen & Teeuwen, 2001). Consequently, Japan appears to be using Shintoism - an indigenous religion - to position itself as a leader in environmental issues and sustainable development. In terms of spirituality, Shintoism’s concept of Chinju no Mori (sacred shrine forests) stresses environmental conservation and the harmonious coexistence of deities, humans, and nature, which seems comparable to the concepts of Chinese Taoism that have been used to propel national development (Rots, 2015).
Overall, this resemblance highlights how ancient philosophies remain prominent in the contemporary attitudes and policy approaches of East Asian nations.
As has been demonstrated in this article, the Taoist philosophy of respecting nature and the coexistence of humans and nature has regained momentum in post-Mao China, and has subsequently been a driving force behind the nation’s quest to build an ecological civilisation in recent years - reverberating from a policy shift to greener development.
As such, linking to the wider context, studying Taoist philosophy is ever-important nowadays in light of the global efforts to combat the climate crisis. Not only does Taoism invite us to reconceptualise our relationship with nature, but it may also inspire countries across the world to collectively solve the ecological crisis and steer global sustainable development for years to come.
This article represents the views of contributors to STEAR's online digital publications, and not those of STEAR, which takes no institutional positions.
Breen, J. & Teeuwen, M. (2001). Shinto and Taoism in early Japan. In Shinto in History: Ways of the Kami. London: Routledge. https://www.taylorfrancis.com/chapters/mono/10.4324/9781315027890-10/shinto-taoism-early-japan-john-breen-mark-teeuwen
Calabuig, C. (2019, September 26). Daoism and the construction of sustainable societies. Interfaith Center for Sustainable Development. Retrieved from https://interfaithsustain.com/daoism-and-the-construction-of-sustainable-societies/
Economy, E. C. (2010). The economic explosion and its environmental costs. In The River Runs Black: The environmental challenge to China’s future (2nd Edition, pp. 59-94). Cornell University Press.
Hanson, A. (2019). Ecological civilization in the People’s Republic of China: Values, actions, and future needs (ADB East Asia Working Paper Series no. 21).
Hruby, D. (2017, March 30). Taoist monks find new role as environmentalists. China Dialogue. Retrieved from https://chinadialogue.net/en/nature/9669-taoist-monks-find-new-role-as-environmentalists/
Jiang, W. & Zhang, H. (2020). Traditional Chinese culture and the construction of ecological civilization: From cultural genes to practical behaviours – Case studies in Confucianism, Buddhism and Taoism. Chinese Journal of Urban and Environmental Studies, 8(2), 1-13. https://doi.org/10.1142/S2345748120500116
Lai, J., Liu, B., & Wang, H. (2022). Does the “tian-ren-he-yi” belief system promote corporate environmental performance? Frontiers in Psychology, 1-11. https://doi.org/ 10.3389/fpsyg.2022.886114
Li, Y. & Shapiro, J. (2020). China Goes Green: Coercive environmentalism for a troubled planet. Cambridge, UK: Polity Press.
Lou, S., Zhang, X., & Zhang, D. (2022). What influences urban residents’ intention to sort waste? Introducing Taoist cultural values into TPB. Journal of Cleaner Production, 371, 1-14, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jclepro.2022.133540
Prince, L. (2005). Eating the menu rather than the dinner: Tao and leadership. Leadership, 1(1), 105-26. https://doi.org/10.1177/1742715005049355
Rots, A. P. (2015). Sacred Forests, Sacred Nation: The Shinto environmentalist paradigm and the rediscovery of Chinju no Mori. Japanese Journal of Religious Studies, 42(2), 205-33. https://www.jstor.org/stable/43686903
Wang, S., Wang, J., & Zhou, K. (2020). How and when does religiosity contribute to tourists’ intention to behave pro-environmentally in hotels? Journal of Sustainable Tourism, 28(8), 1120-37. https://doi.org/10.1080/09669582.2020.1724122
Xing, Y. & Starik, M. (2017). Taoist leadership and employee green behaviour: A cultural and philosophical microfoundation of sustainability. Journal of Organizational Behavior, 38(9), 1302-19. https://doi.org/10.1002/job.2221
Yao, S. & Zhang, W. (2020). Is private entrepreneurs’ religiosity conducive to environmental investment? Evidence from China. Sustainability, 12(4), 1467. https://doi.org/10.3390/su12041467
Yang, F., Lin, J., Culham, T. (2019). From intimidation to love: Taoist philosophy and love-based environmental education. Educational Philosophy and Theory, 51(11), 1117-29. https://doi.org/10.1080/00131857.2018.1564659
Zhang, C., Liu, L., & Xiao, Q. (2022). The influence of Taoism on employee low-carbon behaviour in China: The mediating role of perceived value and guanxi. Psychology Research and Behaviour Management, 15, 2169-81. https://doi.org/10.2147/PRBM.S371945
Zu, L. (2016). Sustainability risk and crisis management: A Taoism’s perspective. In A. Habisch & R. Schmidpeter (Eds.), Cultural Roots of Sustainable Management (pp. 65-88). Cham: Springer. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-28287-9_6