Discovering Nature: Globalization and Environmental Culture in China and Taiwan

By Morton, Katherine | The China Journal, July 2007 | Go to article overview
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Discovering Nature: Globalization and Environmental Culture in China and Taiwan


Morton, Katherine, The China Journal


Discovering Nature: Globalization and Environmental Culture in China and Taiwan, by Robert P. Weller. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006. viii + 189 pp. £40.00/US$70.00 (hardcover), £15.99/US$27.99 (paperback).

Discovering Nature provides a fascinating account of the transformation of Chinese and Taiwanese responses to the environment across the 20th century. It explores the potential for an alternative Chinese environmentalism by looking at the interactions between indigenous and global understandings of nature in the contexts of China and Taiwan. The book is beautifully written, cogently argued, and rich in both theoretical and empirical insights. It is particularly refreshing that Robert P. Weiler avoids a simplistic dualism between the global and the local. Instead, he argues that the relationship between humans and the environment has diverse interpretations both globally and locally, with the potential for creativity and a reworking of ideas at different nodes of interconnection. Equally innovative is the way in which Weiler approaches the role of the state as an intermediary between the global and the local and as representing multiple sources of power.

In the opening chapters of the book it becomes clear that a single Chinese understanding of nature does not exist. In Chapter 2, appropriately named "Night of the Living Dead Fish", Weiler identifies three traditionally Chinese ways of thinking about nature, which he characterizes as "anthropocosmic resonance", "Buddhist compassion" and "the power of the center and the margins", that entwine the human with the physical world. Similarly, in Chapter 3 he deconstructs the notion of a single global environmentalism by separating out three different strands of thought - "nature as object", "nature for its own sake" and "nature as a pastoral ideal"-that have also shaped Chinese environmental behavior to differing degrees.

The remainder of the book looks at the dynamic interaction between traditional views of nature and the global spread of ideas, with a focus on the contemporary examples of nature tourism, anti-pollution movements and policy implementation. In Chapters 4-6 Weiler draws on Chinese idioms and religious symbols, as well as past fieldwork experiences, to construct various images of nature appreciation. The historically informed and highly engaging narrative makes up for the difficulties in presenting a complete picture of contemporary experience, especially on the mainland. Moreover, it allows us better to understand the influence of globalizing ideas over time. As Weiler notes, "globalizing ideas also flow through channels worn by history" (p. 79).

Across all three case studies, two important findings emerge, with significant implications for how we think about the changing nature of Chinese environmentalism. First, despite divergent political histories, the impact of global influences in China and Taiwan bas been remarkably similar. Both have imported models of national parks and environmental regulatory frameworks. They also share a tendency towards privileging élite over popular methods of environmental action.

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