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Project October 24, 2014

Can Chinese Culture Save China's Environment?


Media file: tibetan_buddhist_temple_at_baiyu_morning_light.jpg
Early morning at the Tibetan Monastery at Baiyu in eastern Qinghai province. Image by Li Lei/ Face to Face Media. China, 2014.

In the midst of a worsening environmental crisis, with constant reports of contaminated soil and water and record levels of air pollution, China's government is appealing to traditional religions for help. The country needs to construct an "ecological civilization," officials say, and traditional culture has a key role to play.

The Communist Party's appeal for help comes at a time when millions of Chinese are returning to traditional faiths, and to temples and monasteries that were once banned. Only 40 years ago China was convulsed by a cultural revolution that defaced or destroyed symbols of religious faith across the country.

When investigative journalist and environmental activist Liu Jianqiang let it be known that he was becoming a Tibetan Buddhist, his friend, filmmaker Shi Lihong, was shocked. Both of them are part of a generation born in the 1970s during the cultural revolution and raised as atheists. Jianqiang, the respected editor of the international online journal chinadialogue is known for his hard hitting stories. But now, he said, he's burning out and is looking for some spiritual support. Of all the possible choices, Tibetan Buddhism is one of the more complex and demanding branches of Buddhism. While anyone can decide on their own to be a Han Buddhist, only those who have a Tibetan lama for a teacher can become Tibetan Buddhists.

Sinologist Martin Palmer, the executive director of the Alliance of Religions and Conservation, says the national trend toward religion is fueled by the desire for something more rewarding than a bigger salary and more consumer goods. Shi Lihong suspects that Liu Jianqiang has found something more than that. His conversion came after a year of traveling in the Tibetan plateau of China. Shi Lihong decided to travel there herself, with a film crew, to see if she could capture on camera what it is that inspired Jianqiang and others to take up ancient faiths such as Buddhism—and what it means for China's future.


teal halftone illustration of praying hands