It All Starts with Dancing How the environmental humanities can learn from China
Dr. Annie Merrill Ingram Davidson College, USA
1. Potted plants tended by homeowner in Luo Jao village.
2. Luo Jao Temple with spirits honoring spirit of mountain and earth
3. Nature Painting made by self-taught artist and farmer in village outside Yongji
4. Low Carbon Diet advocated by students at United International College in Zhuhai
5. Taoist wisdom offered on plaque at site where Laozi wrote the Daodejing
6. Wind painting done by artist at United International College in Zhuhai.
7. Young girl doing calligraphy at elementary school in Guangzhou
I came to China as a complete novice, with vague impressions of horrible air quality in the cities and dense crowds of people everywhere. In a little over a week, I’ve seen more beauty than I can possibly capture in words or photographs. I’ve met amazing people who are genuinely committed to transforming China into a more ecological civilization. And everywhere we go, we encounter generosity, hospitality, warmth, and friendship.
As a professor of environmental studies, I’ve been asked to address the question, “What can the environmental humanities learn from China?” Here are a few brief first impressions.
Love for the earth.In Luo Jao village, a homeowner carefully tends a collection of potted plants outside his door, and the small shed in the courtyard is built around a tree. (1) In the woods outside Luo Jao, there’s a small temple honoring the spirit of the mountain and the spirit of the earth. (2) A self-taught artist whose main profession is farming does beautifully detailed nature paintings in the classical style, with modern updates: a tractor here, a car there – but always as small details otherwise dwarfed by trees, mountains, and rivers. (3) In a village outside Yongji, we hiked up the nearby mountain, led by a local guide with deep knowledge of the natural environment. We met a friend of his who has planted more than 20,000 trees on the mountain – not for profit, but “to share the fruit with friends.” At United International College (UIC) in Zhuhai, students have developed informational posters for the dining hall that advocate a “low carbon diet.” (4) At Putuoshan, even the koi in a local pond are the result of devotional practice.
“Treasures of the Past.” Chinese culture is long and rich, with philosophical and spiritual traditions that advocate harmony and respect for nature. At the place commemorating where Laozi wrote the Daodejing, stone plaques advocate for connections between nature and the Way. (5) The Mo family temple at Hui Tong village includes signage that details the history of the temple, the village, and the Mo family. UIC’s commitment to whole person education includes instruction in music on the qin, a traditional stringed instrument, as well as in archery, shadow puppetry, and painting. (6) Two elementary schools in Guangzhou focus on specific Chinese practices: one is world-renowned for instruction in wushu (martial arts) and another in calligraphy, and in both places, very small children showed impressive accomplishments. (7) At the Ruyige Buddhist center at Putuoshan island, even the meals were daily examples of exquisite attention to harmony and beauty. (8)
Community. In a village near Yongji, it all started with dancing. Years ago, on a trip to the city, local leader Zheng Bing saw women dancing together in the evening and she thought, why not do that in my home village? From those first forays into community activity, she has developed a fully integrated network that includes training and support for organic agriculture, a credit union, a handicraft cooperative, day care for the elderly, and even a debating society that entertains, instructs, and provides an important escape valve for daily disputes. At the Hongnong Academy, professor He Huili combines moral education with rural health care, agricultural instruction, and multi-generational, place-based projects. In both rural locations, the sense of community is everywhere apparent. At Hongnong Academy, grannies, babies, moms, and kids on the swing gather in the courtyard; farmers, bankers, and government officials confer with foreign visitors in an afternoon seminar. (9) In Zheng Bing’s village near Yongji, neighbors get together on the front sidewalk before supper to chat. (10)
We can learn a lot from these few, brief examples. A love of the earth that nurtures the small potted plant, reveres the spirits of nature, appreciates the aesthetics of landscape, and advocates for conscious decisions, even at mealtime. Dedication to preserving the treasures of the past that includes the wisdom of the Dao, a student’s careful attention to classical painting techniques and subjects, a whole school devoted to continuing the rich tradition of calligraphy, or a single plate that captures harmonious aesthetics and Buddhist mindfulness. I wish that each of you reading this could have experienced the rich, generous, and warmly welcoming communities that we visited: their hospitality never wavered, and we drank many a cup of green tea while learning a little about their lives.
9. Farmers, bankers, and government officials confer at Hongnong Academy
10. Yongji Elders get together for a visit before supper to chat.
8. Food beauty at Ruyige Buddhist center at Putuoshan island
Chinese version of “It All Starts with Dancing”, translated by Xie Bangxiu, Wuhan, China.