Abstract Roel Sterckx

Both in China and the West, the past two decades have seen a boom in publications that draw on early China’s masters of philosophy in order to trace the origins of a Chinese environmental consciousness to its past. By selectively quoting exemplary anecdotes or stories from philosophical texts, these studies source ideas on environmental protection and sustainable development to China’s classical age. Underlying the argument here is a contention that Chinese philosophy and China’s religious traditions offer a more desirable framework for the relationship between human beings and the environment since, so it is alleged, the ancient Chinese did not insist on the domination and utilisation of nature. This paper will argue that such idealized insistence on nature-man harmony is a misconception on several counts. First, it fails to take into account the historical and social context of the texts adduced to make such claims; second, such analysis also fails to distinguish between the prescriptive and descriptive nature of sources. Commoners and farmers in early China did not experience their natural environment as the cosmic landscape or “unity-between-heaven-and-man” scholars and philosophers tend to invoke as the core concept in Chinese environmental thinking. The paper therefore argues that, for comparative conversations to be meaningful, we ought to qualify our methods and sources and refrain from extracting philosophers from the societies that produced them.