Wilderness and the Chinese mind

Direct contact with nature gave me newfound appreciation of China's hinterlands, writes Gao Shan
<p>Gao&nbsp;Shan pictured hiking (Image: Author)</p>

Gao Shan pictured hiking (Image: Author)

The concept of wilderness in China has been neglected for thousands of years. Despite the fact that Chinese philosophy encompasses a spirit of what is called “harmony between nature and human beings,” wilderness has long-been considered negatively in Chinese culture.

When you talk about the concept of wilderness with Chinese people, the majority will imagine an uncultivated place full of wild grass and of little value.

While I began my doctoral degree in philosophy at the University of North Texas after graduating from Beijing Normal University, I became disappointed that I could not find scenic spots similar to those back home. However, one trip left me with an altogether new viewpoint on wilderness.

In December 2007, I participated in a course on field environmental philosophy, also known as "Tracing Darwin’s Path". This was based in Punta Arenas, in the UNSECO Cape Horn Biosphere Reserve in southern Chile. It is an interdisciplinary study offered by the Sub-Antarctic Biocultural Conservation Program at the University of North Texas in partnership with the University of Magallanes (UMAG) and the Institute of Ecology and Biology (IEB) in Chile.

This was the first time in my life that I encountered pristine wilderness. I hiked about eight hours a day with my biology professor and a group of students from different disciplines. At night we camped in the wilderness. Despite having never taken a biology class, this course had a lasting influence on me.

I was totally conquered by the beauty of wilderness: the vastness, the tranquillity, and the diversity of life. It was a divine experience. It seemed to me that I was connected to some transcendental power. In the Chinese philosophical tradition, the concept of God does not exist in the same way that it does in Christianity, for example, so transcendental power is attributed to an energy force which is difficult to describe in words.

When I returned from that trip, I immediately made the decision that my doctoral dissertation would be about the beauty of nature. Environmental aesthetics is a research area of my major advisor professor Eugene Hargrove. Before I went to Chile, I wrote an essay criticising the professor’s view that the beauty of nature is the foundation for environmental ethics. I wrote: “For me, bread should be listed number one. It is difficult for people to appreciate the beauty of nature if their basic needs are not satisfied.”

However, my trip to Chile changed my view and I started to support my advisor’s view on environmental aesthetics. The title of my dissertation became: Environmental Aesthetics as the foundation of Environmental Ethics: China and the West.

While writing my dissertation, I spent the weekends visiting wilderness areas around Texas. I also organised a Friends of Nature Club for friends interested in joining. To physically experience wilderness is much more powerful than through theoretical research.

But before experiencing it firsthand, I learned a lot about environmental philosophers and conservationists such as Aldo Leopold, John Muir, and Holmes Rolston. At that time, it was very difficult for me to understand why they created such theories and why they loved wilderness so much. But after two years of personal exploration and appreciation with a group of my friends, I gained a deeper understanding of their theories and their passions.

In 2013, I visited John Muir’s memorial park and Aldo Leopold’s nature centre in Wisconsin. I was tearful when I came to John Muir’s memorial park as it reminded me of the stories he wrote on that area of farmland. From there on, I became full of passion for wilderness and all kinds of nature.

In 2014, I was offered an associate professor position in the philosophy department of Soocow University in Jiangsu province, southeast China. My passion for wilderness drives my research and teaching on environmental philosophy. Currently, I am working on a book titled Chinese Philosophy Goes into Wilderness. I argue China's effort to establish national parks is an important part of its strategy to implement “ecological civilization”.

If Chinese philosophy cannot go into wilderness, then Chinese ecological civilization cannot be carried out effectively. Promisingly, many academic societies and journals have started to focus on this topic. The Wilderness Society, an American non-governmental organisation is also preparing for its conference in Yunnan province in China next year.

Each month, I invite professors or environmental conservationists to give talks through an online platform called International Forum on Environmental Humanities. The mission of this forum is to foster academic communication and cooperation between China and the West and to support public participation in the conservation of wilderness areas. To date, I have organised about 16 academic events. I would like to thank professor Ricardo Rozzi, who is the initiator of the Tracing Darwin’s Path course, for having given me that unique opportunity.