It All Starts with Dancing
How the environmental humanities can learn from China
Dr. Annie Merrill Ingram
Director of Environmental Studies,
Davidson College, USA
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.
Chinese version of “It All Starts with Dancing”, translated by Xie Bangxiu, Wuhan, China.
爱大地。 在罗（Luo Jao）村，一家的主人小心翼翼地照管着他家门口的一些盆栽植物，院中还绕一棵树搭了一个棚子。（1）在罗村外的树林里，有一座祭司山神和土地神的小庙。（2）一位主业务农但自学成才的画家创作出精美、自然的画作，笔法古典，时有现代事物更新：这里一台拖拉机，那里一辆小轿车，但这些都只是衬托树木、山川和河流的细枝末节。（3）在永济（Yongji）外的一个村，一位深知自然环境的当地导游带我们登上了附近的一座山。我们见到了他的一位朋友，他在山上种了20,000多棵树——不为盈利，但求“与朋友分享果实”。在珠海联合国际学院，学生们为餐厅绘制了宣传“低碳饮食”的信息性海报。（4）在普陀山，甚至当地一个池塘里的锦鲤亦是信徒虔心敬献的结果。
共同体。 在永济附近的一个村里，一切都始于舞蹈。几年前，当地领导郑冰(Zheng Bing)在一次进城的途中看见女人们傍晚结伴跳舞，因此她想，何不在我们村里也这么做？这样，从初步涉足尝试到成规模的共同体活动，她打造了一整套综合网络，包含培训并支持生态农业、信用合作社、手工艺品合作社、日间托老所、乃至接待、教育、提供解决日常争端安全渠道的辩论社。在弘农(Hongnong)学院，何慧丽（He Huili）教授将道德教育与乡村卫生保健、农业指导以及多代、实地项目相结合。这两个乡村处处彰显着共同体意识。在弘农学院，你能看到奶奶、婴儿、妈妈、孩子聚在院子里荡秋千，农民、银行家、政府官员在下午的研讨会上与外宾切磋、商讨。（9）在永济附近郑冰的村里，邻居们在晚餐前聚在前面的人行道上闲聊。（10）