Man and nature viewed as whole in traditional Chinese ethics

By WANG MINGDI / 12-08-2022 / Chinese Social Sciences Today

A man sets fish free to nature in Harbin, Heilongjiang Province, on Nov. 24. Photo: CFP

The relationship with nature is one of the basic relationships facing humanity. Since the dawn of its existence, the human race has survived and thrived in interactions with nature, all while understanding ourselves and the world. In so doing, conceptions of and thoughts on the relationship between humanity and nature were gradually formed.


In traditional Chinese ethics, Confucianism and Taoism both view humanity and nature as an organic whole, emphasizing that the two make up a “community of life” in which man and nature interact with and influence each other. Generally, the community of life can be interpreted along three dimensions: survival based on material needs, emotions for humans’ affective extension, and morality for the sake of realizing the meaning and value of life. 

Community of survival 

First, humanity and nature form a community of survival. For human beings, nature is not only an objective physical environment, but also the homeland we live within. It provides basic material underpinnings for human survival and development. The most fundamental motive for humanity to connect with nature is to meet survival needs and obtain the resources necessary to sustaining our existence. 

Therefore, the relationship between humanity and nature first manifests in a community based on the struggle for survival. We satisfy our own needs through activities that align with our purposes. However, our excessive exploitation of natural resources for our needs will not only affect nature, but also pose grim challenges to our own survival and development. 

In an agrarian society that relied heavily on natural resources, ancient Chinese had been well aware that it was far from enough to care only about human development when extracting natural resources. Consideration should also be given to the holistic survival and development of the community of life, comprised of humanity and nature, thus fostering basic attitudes and codes of conduct in this regard. The most typical among these was the concept of jieyong, or frugality. 

According to Xunzi, an ancient Chinese collection of philosophical writings attributed to renowned Confucian philosopher Xun Kuang, also known as Xunzi, “when grasses and trees are budding and growing, no saw or sickle is allowed to be taken into mountains and woods. Never hinder the growth of plants or cause them to become extinct. During the season of reproduction, fish traps and toxins are not allowed to be put into waters. Never impede animals from growing or cause them to die.”

Xunzi proposed that the utilization of natural resources should be preconditioned by a guarantee of natural species’ sustainable reproduction. We should harvest from nature at appropriate times, and use resources moderately, to ensure that the species involved do not face extinction. 

It is likewise necessary to respect the laws of nature in agricultural production to perpetuate nature’s sustainable provision of food, clothing, and housing for humanity. As Mencius or Mengzi, whose importance in the Confucian tradition is second only to that of Confucius, said, “if the seasons of farming be not interfered with, the grain will be more than can be eaten. If close nets are not allowed to enter the pools and ponds, the fishes and turtles will be more than can be consumed. If the axes and bills enter the hills and forests only at the proper time, the wood will be more than can be used.” 

The concept of frugality reveals that ancient Chinese viewed humanity and nature as symbiotic. They recognized that only on the premise of ensuring the survival of other creatures can humanity secure abundant resources it needs. In this way, humanity and nature complement each other and share one destiny. 

Although the combination of humanity and nature takes human survival as a point of departure, it heads ultimately towards symbiosis and coexistence between the two to become an interdependent “community of survival.” In this community, humans and other beings don’t appear individually, but exist in the world as different “kinds.” Individual lives pass away, but our proper treatment of nature is not only conducive to human survival, reproduction, and living, but also promotes the survival and development of various natural “kinds,” thereby perpetuating the existence, development, and prosperity of the entire community of survival. 

Community of emotions

Second, humanity and nature constitute a community of emotions. Although the humanity-nature community is formed in relation to human needs, it doesn’t necessarily follow that humanity should be the paramount ruler. Quite the opposite, the community made up of humanity and nature demonstrates the natural extension of human emotions. Humans have feelings not only for those of their kind, but also for other beings in nature. As Mencius stated, “the feeling of commiseration belongs to all men.” The inborn feeling of commiseration doesn’t merely apply to humanity, but to all lives. 

According to The Analects, “The Master [Confucius] angled, but did not use a net. He shot, but not at birds perching.” This represents a benevolent, measured approach to acquiring resources from nature. Humans are very empathetic. This empathy drives us to project interpersonal affections onto other creatures, which is an instinctive outward extension of human emotions. 

In fact, human feelings toward nature are quite rich. We appreciate and admire the magnificence of rivers and mountains, revere and fear powerful natural phenomena, and care for and sympathize with lives in nature. From Confucian perspectives, benevolence is the most important emotion mankind has for other creatures. Mencius said, “the superior man is affectionate to his parents, and lovingly disposed to people generally. He is lovingly disposed to people generally, and kind to creatures.” From filial affection for parents to respect for elders, and then extending these feelings to other humans and all creatures on the planet, benevolence is naturally carried on to other living beings. By compassion, humanity is consciously aware that it shares a community with other natural beings, and thus has a reciprocal duty to care for them. 

Famed Neo-Confucian scholar Zhang Zai’s philosophy of min bao wu yu (meaning all men, and even men and objects, are cognates) further transformed humanity’s benevolence for natural lives into a firm family bond. Zhang regarded the world, consisting of Heaven and Earth, as a big family, and considered Heaven and Earth to be the shared parents of humanity and other species. All human beings are brothers and sisters, and all objects are companions. As such, other creatures are not only different kinds of beings but are also “family members.” Following Zhang’s thought, the emotion held for all creatures is also not merely a simple, general love, but the most important and closest bond similar to love in a family. In this sense, humanity’s benevolence for other beings is further moralized, evolving from a natural display of emotions to moral standards that should be met. 

Community of morality

Third, humanity and nature make up a community of morality. In the boundless world, humans are the most distinctive beings among all creatures. In the community of life, humanity is the most essential component. Ancient Chinese had long juxtaposed humanity along with Heaven and Earth as a trinity of the universe, and endowed the unique human race with the mission of constructing a value system for society. 

From a Confucian viewpoint, humanity is noble exactly because of morality, and the moral basis for humans stems directly from “tian,” literally Heaven. According to the Book of Changes, the greatest attribute of Heaven and Earth is the giving and maintaining of life. 

Confucianism holds that Heaven and Earth are constantly changing and developing entities for life; they give birth to all creatures in the universe. When tiandao, the way of Heaven or the natural law, succeeds, transformations in living types never cease. The perpetuation of all creatures is a concrete manifestation of tiandao, and thus Heaven has the virtue of enabling continuous reproduction of life. Since humanity and nature, as a whole, are subject to tiandao, humans should observe the natural law and inherit Heaven’s merit in sustaining creatures generation after generation. 


Confucianism regards benevolence for natural lives as the basic moral principle and roots it in Heaven’s virtue of ensuring the perpetuity of life, which provides ontological evidence for Confucian ecological ethics. According to Confucianism, the dao, or “ways” of humanity and Heaven are interlinked. Rendao, the way of humanity, originates from the way of Heaven, and the latter is the basis for human moral codes. 

Hence, respect and care for nature is not purely for satisfying survival and affective needs; it is also embodied as a moral requirement. It is a specific implementation of Heaven’s merit for enduring life in humanity, and a crucial channel through which humanity carries out the natural law and fulfills its own moral obligations. It is also a philosophy of ecological benevolence that integrates the holism of life and the individualism of morality.  

In the moral community, constituted by humanity and nature, humans practice benevolence by loving and protecting other lives, discern the vastness and profundity of Heaven and Earth, and grasp the essence of changes, thus internalizing the virtue of ensuring creatures’ continuous existence into their own life. The ultimate goal is to cultivate an ideal personality and achieve a unity between humanity and Heaven. 

In summary, Confucian ethical thought contains the ecological ethics of regarding humanity and nature as a community of life. Confucianism attaches importance to the existence, prosperity, and continuation of this community, in which the tie bonding all creatures is not only the fight for survival, but also human empathy, and the virtue of benevolence that makes life meaningful. 

Survival, emotions, and morality are the three dimensions of the humanity-nature community of life. In fact, they also represent three vital needs of humanity. In other words, the community of life involving humanity and nature is not theoretically constructed by philosophers, but an inevitable outcome of human activities in reality. 

Currently, the proposition that humanity and nature make up a community of life has gained increasing prominence in China’s ecological conservation. Exploring and analyzing the philosophy on this life community in traditional Chinese ethics is illuminating to the practical and theoretical construction of China’s ecological civilization. 

Wang Mingdi is from the School of Philosophy at Heilongjiang University.