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Chinese Pollution, Chinese Philosophy



You owe it to yourself to read this interesting essay the intersection of Chinese philosophy and contemporary Chinese air pollution. Just a quick excerpt:

According to professor Liu, the Chinese word for pollution, 污染 [wu ran], has a very specific meaning. The first character of the word, 污 (wu), consists of 氵, the three dots of the ‘water’ radical that signified a meaning related to water, and the word 亏 (kui), which on its own means loss, or deficiency. The second character of pollution, 染 (ran), which also has the ‘three dots of water’ in it, means to infect, or to dye. In this sense, pollution in Chinese implies an action in which something foreign intrudes into something else, and by that, disturbs its purity. Taken literally, pollution is what happens when a foreign substance is mixed in with water, causing it to become impure.

Even though it might seem that the pollution is a recent problem, its seeds were sown much earlier, before China overtook the United States in 2015 to become the world’s largest economy, before China’s booming years in the 1990s when it became the world’s largest factory, and even before former leader Deng Xiaoping opened up China’s economy in the late 1970s to private enterprises and the rest of the world. According to the Professor, it was Mao who essentially changed China’s relationship to nature.

“In the past, Taoists believed that everything in the world, including humans, had to follow the rules of nature,” he explained. “But since Mao, we came to believe that we can manipulate the world to our own will.”

After the People’s Republic of China was officiated in 1949, Mao set out to transform the new nation from an agricultural society to an industrial powerhouse. Using newly developed scientific ideas and technologies, with much of its early stages based on the Soviet model, natural resources were all subjected to rapidly expand heavy industry, a maniacal increase in steel and coal production, and an amped-up agricultural yield by collectivizing traditional farms into agricultural co-operatives. Human lives were seen as natural resources too, and between 1958 and 1961, tens of millions of lives were lost in a famine caused by The Great Leap Forward, a Mao-led movement that urged farmers to prioritize steel production over farming, forcing many to melt their pots and pans in make-shift backyard furnaces to reach the steel quotas. The Professor traced the lineage of contemporary large-scale production and the technological conquering of nature back to Mao’s legacy.

“In the Mao era, [mankind] didn’t just think that [it] could manipulate nature, but believed that [it] should.”

These questions were very urgent to contemporary Chinese philosophers.

“What we care most about is: Is this the necessary road for humans, going from an agricultural to an industrial and then to a developed society? And in that, do we have to pollute?”

Of course, this was all just another way to get at the connections between personal wealth, national glory, and modernization, all of which has prioritized pollution over sustainability.

Read the whole, etc.

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  • Just_Dropping_By

    I’m not a fan of Mao, but it seems rather nuts to claim that large scale pollution in China only starts with industrialization under the Communists. There were certainly cholera outbreaks and other instances of epidemics caused by waterborne diseases associated with raw sewage in imperial-era China.

    • OK, but the scale issue here is completely different, as well as the intentionally of the pollution. While I am no expert on imperial China, if they were like the rest of the world, they didn’t really know what caused cholera. Pumping pollution into the air directly for national glory is a very different thing.

      • ajay

        There were certainly cholera outbreaks and other instances of epidemics caused by waterborne diseases associated with raw sewage in imperial-era China.

        Habitually using raw human waste as fertiliser will tend to have that effect.

    • sonamib

      Read the essay, it’s a lot more nuanced than that. Here’s another quote :

      Yet, some argue that the exploitation of nature in China started long before its introduction to the West. In “The Retreat of the Elephants: An Environmental History of China”, Mark Elvin finds a direct link between the disappearance of elephants in Chinese territory 3,000 years ago and the economical development and deforestation in these pre-modern times. For Elvin, this typifies a paradox in Chinese attitudes, where nature was seen as a source of wisdom and a transcendental experience on the one hand, but was also a resource to be tamed and exploited for human benefit. In his words, “classical Chinese culture was as hostile to forests as it was fond of individual trees” . In the years between 900 BCE and now, elephants retreated as their forest habitat was turned into farmland, and whole populations died from farmers intentionally exposing them to direct sun. As farmers defended their crops from trampling and plundering, elephants walked into city walls looking for resources that were no longer theirs, and up to the present day, the hunt for their ivory and trunks still continues, some of them displayed in Chinese herbal medicine shops, wrapped in red silk.

      The exploitation of nature is not unique to China, nor is the mythologising of it. Therefore, it’s less useful to turn around blindly to face the past, than to understand how what is taking place in China now, no matter how extraordinary, is still firmly grounded in patterns that have been set many dynasties ago. The craving for change has always been part of China, and with that, its longing for progress.

      • That’s the high point of the essay, aka the only part that’s worth anything.

      • ajay

        The craving for change has always been part of China, and with that, its longing for progress.

        I love this sort of insight into a culture that is clearly so different from my own. It reminds me of the Onion article “Nigeria Elects Black President”…

        Among his chief campaign promises was to increase funding for schools in Nigeria’s inner cities, outer cities, and middle cities–areas with a high concentration of blacks…During speeches, Adewale frequently emphasized issues of special concern to black Nigerians, including the economy, education, health care, and foreign policy.
        As Adewale began to rise in the polls, his opponent, longtime Nigerian parliamentary leader Nshange Oduma, also attempted to court black voters, visiting numerous Hausa and Yoruba neighborhoods. But in the end, analysts said, such efforts proved too little, too late.
        “The black vote is often the key to Nigerian elections,” said Bikot Ughegbe, a reporter for The Guardian, the country’s largest newspaper. “If you can win their support, you have an excellent chance of winning the presidency.

        • J. Otto Pohl

          The Black vote is also very important in Ghana.

  • Dilan Esper

    I have always disliked this sort of analysis, which is usually used to show why Chinese “values” require denying 1.3 billion people their human right to choose their government.

    China basically acts just like every other country on earth.

  • J. Otto Pohl

    It might not be necessary to move from agrarian societies to industrial ones and then to developed ones to use the phraseology of the OP. But given the greater poverty and misery in the former almost everybody wants to make the transition. This is fundamental to both capitalist and socialist versions of modernization. The second question is easier. The path of industrialization has historically required polluting. Certain technologies have been able to reduce the pollution. So far, however, they have not been able to completely eliminate the pollution that has accompanied industrialization.

    • sonamib

      The problem is, the early stages of industrialization aren’t actually better than an agrarian society. Being a wage slave working 10+ hours a day in dangerous conditions doesn’t sound more appealing than being a subsistence farmer. At least when you’re a farmer, the back-breaking work is concentrated only in the late summer months.

      Life only gets better when industrial workers manage to organize themselves into unions and get decent pay, benefits, and workplace safety.

      • J. Otto Pohl

        It is pretty clear that in China that industrial workers in state enterprises and their families were living much better than the rural population by the 1970s. The “iron ricebowl” alone made up for a lot. They were following a Soviet model that had been even more successful. By the late 1950s less than 30 years after serious industrialization started things had gotten pretty good for the nearly half of the Soviet population that lived in cities. Life for most of the 80% non-city dwellers in the Russian Empire in 1917 had been pretty poor. In the early 1930s they went from pretty poor to starvation. The Soviets never managed to elminate rural poverty but they did drastically reduce the percentage of the population living in rural areas and thus overall greatly increase standards of living. By 1989 almost two thirds the population of the USSR lived in cities.

        • sonamib

          The USSR is an odd example. Excluding the NEP years, the first decades of Soviet industrialization were brutal. There are probably better ways to industrialize a country than by overworking everyone and threatening to send them to forced labor camps.

          • J. Otto Pohl

            The worst brutality of industrialization was aimed at the rural population in the USSR during 1928-1933. The collectivization of agriculture by dekulakization in order to extract resources including labor (GULag prisoners and special settlers) for industrialization. It was also the rural populations that suffered famine in the 1930s not the urban ones. So even under the worst years the urban population had a much better life in the USSR than the rural one. But, by the time Khrushchev took power the life of factory workers and other urban dwellers had gotten much better than it had been. By the early 1960s and the start of the Brezhnev years things had become quite good in the urban areas. China wasn’t as successful in developing under Mao. But, working in a factory in a city was generally much better than living in the countryside.

          • wengler

            Slave labor and the company store? Free land provided you kill the people living on it first?

          • delazeur

            I don’t know enough about this to argue one way or another, but the argument isn’t about whether or not early industrialization was brutal. It’s about whether it was more or less brutal than the preceding subsistence farming.

            • sonamib

              It’s about whether it was more or less brutal than the preceding subsistence farming.

              Well, yes, I’m arguing that the early industrial period is more brutal than subsistence farming. Did you know that there were about 50 holidays a year* before the industrial age? When transitioning to an industrial economy, most European countries dropped that numbber down to 10 or less. One-day week-ends were still the norm. That’s just one of many ways industrial workers had less free time than they had before.

              *”Week-ends” were just Sunday though.

              Life does get better when the workers are paid enough to be able to buy some of the mass produced goods, but that takes a while.

              • Hogan

                People in England didn’t stop farming and move to cities to work in factories because farming was so awful. They stopped farming because the land they lived on was enclosed and repurposed for sheep raising, and they had nowhere else to go.

                • ajay

                  The Inclosures in England were more about taking common land (not the land people lived on) that was previously used predominantly for pasture (not farming) and repurposing it for farming (not pasture). You may be getting them mixed up with the Highland Clearances, which were more about hoofing subsistence farmers off the land altogether and using it for sheep farming instead.

                • galanx

                  There were also a lot of new and more enforced laws aimed at “poachers” i.e. the local people who had traditionally hunted and trapped in the forested areas- yes, these had often been officially the preserves of the nobility and gentry, but it became much more strict as game meat became a commercial commodity and more labour was needed for factories.

                  There was a flood of writing against the idleness of the rural poor, and the need to impose upon them some form of controlled labour- for their own good, of course.

              • J. Otto Pohl

                But, the early industrial period did not last very long in the USSR. It was basically one generation before things improved dramatically for urban dwellers. At the same time conditions in rural areas dramatically deterioriated during early industrialization and never came close to being equal to the level developed in urban areas later. The massive improvement in living standards for urban dwellers in the USSR occurred without any independent unions capable of collective bargaining. Life in a city like Moscow or even Bishkek (Frunze) was always infinitely better than on a kolkhoz or even a sovkhoz.

                The Chinese influenced by the Soviet model also had by the late 1970s a division between a much better off industrial urban population and a much worse off rural population. The urban population wasn’t two thirds the population like the USSR, however. It was instead around 18%. So on the eve of Deng’s reforms there was a clear divide between the better to do urban population and worse off rural population as a result of socialist industrialization under Mao. Not sure how anybody could argue that life on a collective farm was better than working in a factory by this time.

                • sonamib

                  The massive improvement in living standards for urban dwellers in the USSR occurred without any independent unions capable of collective bargaining.

                  Ok, fair enough.

                  Life in a city like Moscow or even Bishkek (Frunze) was always infinitely better than on a kolkhoz or even a sovkhoz.

                  Well, if the government purposefully makes rural life more miserable, then it’s natural that urban life becomes more desirable. See Hogan above.

                • galanx

                  Having lived in China in the mid-80s, before the economic liberalisation,yea, city-dwellers generally had it much better than the peasants.

  • This is hilariously bad, self-inflicted orientalism, complete with pseudo-philosophical folk etymologies, worshipful citations to 19th century social theory (WEBER!), natural-industrial dichotomies, bourgeois ‘return to tradition (that never really existed)’ movements. There’s a moment of sanity in the citation of Elvin’s Retreat of the Elephants but it doesn’t take.

    What was the point of citing this, again?

    • ajay

      pseudo-philosophical folk etymologies

      …this rang alarm bells for me too; I don’t speak Chinese, but making up etymologies from the components of a character is the kind of thing that causes linguistics types to get agitated on a regular basis. http://itre.cis.upenn.edu/~myl/languagelog/archives/002248.html

      • ThusBloggedAnderson

        That’s what I thought. And it’s especially useless here, as “an action in which something foreign intrudes into something else, and by that, disturbs its purity” is what an English dictionary tells ya “pollution” means.

        One can roughly say, I think, that the more relaxed regime of Deng &c had a more “Taoist” flava, and that the current regime is tilting “Confucian,” but that’s not any more helpful IMHO than discussing whether the U.S. today is Hamiltonian or Jeffersonian.

      • Jean-Michel

        Your suspicions are justified. 污 “impure” is actually a visual simplification of 洿, which is itself a phonetic-semantic compound: the left-side “water” component relates to the meaning and the right-side component indicates the pronunciation. As with so many other characters, the pronunciation of the phonetic and its derivative have diverged over the millennia—夸 is kuā, 污/洿 is —but in Old Chinese they were both pronounced as roughly *kʷʰˤra and *qʷˤa, which were close enough to share a common phonetic element. But Old Chinese etymology is a relatively new field and found only in specialized dictionaries (compare the situation in English, where plenty of general-use dictionaries provide at least a basic etymology), so I’m not surprised that even a well-educated man like Professor Liu would seek to explain it through a purely semantic analysis. (Incidentally, while it’s not actually relevant, the meaning of 夸 is “to boast,” not “loss” or “deficiency.”) With the exception of “water,” the significance of the components of 染 is unclear—the Shuowen (the oldest source of character etymologies, dating back to the 100s A.D.) claims it’s a phonetic-semantic compound of “water” and 杂, but there’s no evidence 杂 was ever pronounced anything like 染 (and the character 杂 itself isn’t even in the Shuowen), and so later writers came up with various attempts to explain the character by relating the process of dying to wood or trees (木), and the number nine or the verb “to bend” (九).

        • galanx

          Folk etymology is something that many educated Chinese have a huge fascination with, often ignoring the phonetic elements as somehow unworthy.

          They have imbibed the idea that written Chinese is ideographic and are constantly trying to find ways to analyse words to come to their own desired conclusions.

          It’s funny to see this adopted by Western Young earth Creationists, seeking confirmation for Bibllical stories in ancient Chinese vharacters. One such is that the Chinese word for ‘flood’ shows eight people in a boat. For a start , it’s the word for boat, not flood…

      • wjts

        Right. No one would begin an article on pollution in the U.S. with something like, “The word ‘pollution‘ ultimately derives from a Latin prefix meaning ‘before’ and the verb ‘luere’ – ‘to smear’, itself cognate with words for ‘filth’ and ‘mud’. For the English speaker, then, pollution is literally the pre-smearing of filth on a previously pristine surface. The sexual connotations should be obvious – indeed, the earliest uses of pollution in English are as a synonym for ejaculation in the absence of sexual intercourse. It is unsurprising that American society, which has a historically uneasy and conflicted view of sex and sexuality, would turn to such metaphors to describe environmental contamination.”

        • ajay

          “In conclusion, America is a land of contrasts.”

        • skate

          Nice abstract, wjts. What conference you presenting the paper at?

          • wjts

            AASLGS* – American Association of Self-Loathing Graduate Students. Unsurprisingly, we’re meeting at a bar again this year.

            * Pronounced “ass-slugs”.

    • Origami Isopod


  • BiloSagdiyev

    “In the past, Taoists believed that everything in the world, including humans, had to follow the rules of nature,” he explained. “But since Mao, we came to believe that we can manipulate the world to our own will.”

    This was poignantly portrayed in the recent movie, Le Dernier Loup. (Awkward retitled for English-speakers as Wolf Totem.)

    Chinese Party meddlers vs. Mongolian sheepherders and wolves. At times, the visiting party outsiders say things like, “Don’t you realize there’s a famine in the east?!” Uh, yeahhhh, I wonder how that happened.

    In this specific case, the thinking was, “Kill all the wolves! More sheep! Profit! Er, uh, I mean, Food for the Masses!”

    • galanx

      “In this specific case, the thinking was, “Kill all the wolves! More sheep! Profit! Er, uh, I mean, Food for the Masses!” ”

      Like the even sillier “Kill all the birds because they eat grain” – hundreds of people beating pots and pans to keep the birds flying, only to discover that birds also eat bugs. Or the “Chairman Mao says plant more wheat and rice” campaign in Tibet, forcing the locals to stop planting barley, which can actually grow under those conditions.

      But that is one of the tragic aspects of the GLF- it wasn’t terrorism or trying to destroy some particular ethnic/social/economic element- they actually did think they were going to create more prosperity for the masses.
      It was only later that the Chairman got the idea that material prosperity meant undermining the Revolution

  • Robespierre

    I’m glad the author didn’t wholly miss the irony of a nature-celebrating country full of terraced rice paddies.

  • Eli Rabett

    It’s really quite simple for anybunny who ever has gone to China. The cities are full of coal furnaces which are used for heating as well as coal burning electricity generator. None of these had any pollution controls and the coal that they burn is not the highest grade. You can look at pictures of London before 1955 and see the same thing. Indeed, if you look at Monet’s pictures of the Parliament you see the same thing before 1900.

    You could also have seen the same thing in pre-Soviet eastern Europe.

    Hell, in New York before ~1960 walls of buildings were black from burning coal for heating

    While you can wave your hands at various philosophical constraints, the key is money and the availability of non polluting ways of heating and generating electricity, enough money to clean up the household heating, enough money to place filters on coal burning electrical generation plants and most importantly, enough money to get rid of coal.

    Sorry Erik, this is a straight out engineering economics issue.

    • Eli Rabett

      FWIW, household heating is the largest contributor to pollution in China’s cities


      It is a consequence of urbanization, the provision of zone heating by coal as a BENEFIT to the urban population, more than direct industrialization, as shown by the sharp increase in the winter months.

    • sonamib

      Yeah, I was wondering if it was heating related. Because there never was that kind of horrible smog in Brazilian cities, air pollution comes primarily from transportation there. It’s still enough to cause some seriously bleak days in São Paulo, but nothing on China’s scale.

      • Eli Rabett

        Right. The issue in Brazil (and LA) is the nitrogen oxides from gasoline engines which are precursors to ozone. The smog results from reaction of the ozone with other hydrocarbons in the air. With coal and diesels the smog is from small particles which result from the combustion.

  • LeeEsq

    I’m going to join the critics of this article. The Chinese innovated many industrial or at least porto-industrial manufacturing and natural resource exploitation techniques during their long history. They were the most commercial and technologically advanced society for a good chunk of human history. Certain aspects of Chinese philosophy might have something of an environmentalist tendency but like most humans, the Chinese enjoyed their wealth and creature comforts and went for them even if it meant pollution.

  • I would be surprised if very many philosophers in any civilization were seriously in favor of industrial progress, major technological changes to the earth, and so on.

    • J. Otto Pohl

      Adam Smith? Karl Marx? Most people on both the right and left dealing with issues of political economy since the late 18th century?

      • There’s Francis Bacon.

        Arguably there’s Marx, though I’m guessing you can find the opposite in Marx too, and a lot of strands of more recent Marxism (like the Frankfurt School, not to mention) have been pretty anti-technology. Admittedly the Leninist variety isn’t.

        Economists mostly aren’t what I mean by philosophers. Nineteenth century writers who approved of progress and economic development in abstract terms, were also aware of what was going on in Manchester, and approved of it? Maybe a very few. Herbert Spencer, maybe.

    • ajay

      I would be surprised if very many philosophers in any civilization were seriously in favor of industrial progress, major technological changes to the earth, and so on.

      I would be very surprised if many weren’t. “Industrial” is a bit of an anachronism for most of them, but I doubt you’ll find many expressing a moral preference for, say, barren ground over a flourishing farm, or an empty hillside over a prosperous town.

      • Jean-Michel

        “It is only he who is possessed of the most complete sincerity that can exist under heaven who can give its full development to his nature. Able to give its full development to his own nature, he can do the same to the nature of other men. Able to give its full development to the nature of other men, he can give their full development to the natures of animals and things. Able to give their full development to the natures of creatures and things, he can assist the transforming and nourishing powers of Heaven and Earth. Able to assist the transforming and nourishing powers of Heaven and Earth, he may with Heaven and Earth form a ternion.” -Confucius, The Doctrine of the Mean

        • galanx

          OTOH most of the dominant strands of philosophy for most of history have been pretty anti-merchant, anti-materialist, pro- aristocracy/landowner, with the common people being relegated to the role of virtuous peasants.

        • ajay

          I have no idea whether you are posting that as an example or a counterexample.

          • Jean-Michel

            Example. In Confucianism (to simplify tremendously) mankind is subject to Heaven and Earth but occupies an exalted place of its own (The Book of Documents: “Heaven and Earth is the mother of all things, man is the soul of all things”) and is above what we might today call “nature” (Xunzi: “Water and fire have qi but no life; grass and trees have life but no awareness; birds and beasts have awareness but no righteousness; but mankind has qi, life, awareness, and righteousness, and is therefore the most noble thing in the world”). It would be wrong to interpret this as equivalent to the Biblical injunction giving man authority over God’s creation (Xunzi, for instance, had no special interest in man’s relationship with grass, trees, birds, beasts, etc.) and Confucius’ reference to “assist[ing] the transforming and nourishing powers of Heaven and Earth” is better understood as a sort of moral cultivation and not the planting of crops or whatever. (Much later there were serious attempts to unpack what these statements might’ve implied about man’s relationship to the environment, e.g. by Japanese Neo-Confucianists like Kaibara Ekken.) But the idea of mankind as occupying a special place in the order of things by virtue of his “transformative” powers argues against the rejection of development, as does the Confucian embrace of the role played by artisans and scholars who were dependent on the surplus created by farmers—as much as Confucianism idealized farmers, agrarianism as an ideal was associated more with certain schools of Daoism than Confucianism.

  • Bitter Scribe

    There will always be tension between industrial development and environmental protection. Ideally, the government will be in charge of the latter and keep the former in check as needed. In a totalitarian system like China’s, the government is in charge of both and is free to ignore or downplay environmental protection, because it’s free to ignore the people who suffer from pollution.

  • Justaguy

    “In the past, Taoists believed that everything in the world, including humans, had to follow the rules of nature,” he explained. “But since Mao, we came to believe that we can manipulate the world to our own will.”

    This is an anachronistic reading of ziran 自然, the word that means nature in contemporary Chinese. In pre-modern Chinese there was no word for nature in the sense of that which is not manmade. 自然 means natural in the sense of acting natural – acting in accord with one’s essential character. When Yan Fu translated Darwin’s Origins of the Species at the turn of the 20th Century he used 自然 to translate the Western idea of nature as that which is not manmade. Then modernizing intellectuals and Christian missionaries reinterpreted Daoism in light of this new reading of 自然 and turned it into something that was about the natural world in a way that is not a plausible reading of the historical meaning of the Dao De Jing.

  • And yet some conservatives still believe that environmentalism is a Communist plot.

    Mind you they believe pretty much everything is a Communist plot.

  • Pseudonym

    For him, these issues also had to do with conflicting notions of time. He explained that there are two types of time in China.

    Right, and the reason that there aren’t more women in physics is that menstruation gives them a cyclical rather than linear view of time.

    ETA: I’m with Eli Rabett on this one.

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