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  • China's Green Religion: Daoism and the Quest for a Sustainable Future by James Miller
  • Hal Swindall (bio)
James Miller. China's Green Religion: Daoism and the Quest for a Sustainable Future. New York: Columbia University Press, 2017. xxiii, 200 pp. Hardcover $60.00, isbn 978-0-231-175586.

This is the third volume on Chinese religion and ecology by James Miller, who is a well-established scholar of Daoism. Indeed, Miller is about the only sinologist anywhere who analyzes Chinese religion from an ecological viewpoint and vice-versa, making this theoretical application of an ancient philosophy to modern problems even more unique. Other readers of Laozi, including me, have perceived ecological implications in his lines, but Miller [End Page 84] outdoes them all in his updating the Daoist vision of nature. Like most environmental thinkers, he links his interpretation of Daoism to contemporary socio-political issues, especially equality and ways communities can balance their needs with nature. Overall, this book is a critique of neoliberalism that suggests ways in which both humanity and the planet can prosper together; Miller calls nature's capacity to support human flourishing its "subjectivity," which he connects to human subjective being in the world.

Miller's premise about Daoism in his introduction is that "rather than being a tradition of social harmony and quietism (which is perhaps the quintessential conventional Confucian and Western interpretation), [it] has largely functioned as an argumentative, polemical, and countercultural tradition" (p. xx). The rest of the book uses this definition to advocate a radically different idea of humanity's relationship with nature, which Miller envisions as mutually supportive rather than one-sidedly exploitive. Thus, his first chapter departs from the traditional Western understanding of religion as focused on the transcendent to focus on the applicability of religion to earthly realities; likewise, he rejects the Western concept of the "buffered," self-directed individual as separate from nature and other individuals for the "porous" conception of the body and nature that existed in most premodern societies, including China (pp. 2-3 and 8). He argues that the traditional academic disciplines and their divisions of knowledge derive from the modern view of self in society: "the world of inner, mental subjectivity; the world of nature and the environment; and the world of theology and the supernatural" laid the foundations for today's academic disciplines and modern institutions (p. 10). The Daoist tradition, in contrast to the Western one, does not conceive of any dichotomy between human and divine; rather, they both permeate each other (pp. 13-14).

Miller further argues that "cultural views of nature are entwined with views of ethics and, ultimately, religion," ergo "one cannot truly understand how we think about nature without understanding how we think about religion" (pp. 15-16). Most contemporary Westerners and East Asians would disagree with this, or at least university-educated ones would, so the fact that Miller is a Western academic makes his reasoning all the more arresting. However, he outdoes himself by maintaining that traditional Daoist philosophy is "pragmatically better" than modern society's for three reasons: it fits more with evolutionary and ecological science, its spirituality is more creative, and its ethical framework is more suited to "a flourishing world" (p. 18). To illustrate his point, Miller cites the 2015 Nobel prize for medicine winner Tu Youyou, who credited the medieval Daoist theologian Ge Hong's pharmacology as a direct inspiration for her work. From her example, he concludes, "humans [must] paradoxically recognize their dependence on the environment in order [End Page 85] to transcend it" (p. 25). Such a transformation of the ancient to the modern and the human to the natural as Tu's is Miller's whole argument in a nutshell.

Miller introduces a kind of extended metaphor that runs through the rest of the book in chapter 3, entitled "Liquid Ecology." He starts with the Daoist idea of qi, the vital breath or energy that is the basis of all life and nature. Defining qi "as a kind of liquid vitality" because it flows through everything, including the landscape and all life forms, he identifies this property as the reason why qi is so tied...


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