China's Green Religion

Daoism and the Quest for a Sustainable Future

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James Miller
  • New York, NY: 
    Columbia University Press
    , May
     224 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


With his new book, China's Green Religion: Daoism and the Quest for a Sustainable Future, James Miller seeks to develop an ideology that allows people to address today’s pressing environmental concerns. He roots these concerns in the dominant ideology, which he terms “modernity” or “modern neoliberal ideology” (xiv). For Miller, modernity is founded in the flawed relationship between human beings and our environment. We seek our own prosperity while ignoring the devastation in our wake, destroying in our ignorance the necessary conditions for our own survival. Miller believes an ideology founded on “an ecocritical analysis of ideas found within Daoism” can supplant modernity and better confront the world’s problems (xvi). 

Miller executes his project in eight short chapters. The first explains that our modern division of the world into human, natural, and supernatural realms was produced by specific historical circumstances (10-11, 2). Daoism crosses these divisions (17-18, 31), which explains why scholars and policymakers have failed to grasp its potential contributions to the world’s current problems. Later chapters explore the relationship between body and environment. The West, following Descartes, sees the environment as the backdrop for human action. Fundamentally distinct from humans and bereft of its own subjectivity, it exists only for us to exploit (12, 26-27, 19). Daoism, however, sees nature as possessed of its own agency, which is the fundamental ground for human subjectivity (33, 36, 38). The Daoist conception of “liquid nature” breaks down the opposition between the human body and the cosmos; the latter, far from being separate from our bodies, plays a direct role in their formation and functioning—a process Miller calls cosmic “insistence” upon a “porous” human body (34-35, 76-77, 84) via the liquid qi that flows freely between the two (44, 46-48, 60). Transforming that body via meditation and visualization is central to Daoist practice. Daoist “locative” cosmology situates self-cultivation in specific places, whose qi pervades the porous body of the practitioner. This attunement to place “produces sensitivities that can influence practical and moral decision-making,” forming the ground for the political change Miller advocates (110). However, the pragmatic benefits of Daoism have been largely ignored by Western sinologists, who—trapped in the logic of modernity—have focused on “study[ing] Daoism for the sake of Daoism, or China for the sake of China,” (141). In concert with larger ideological changes based on Miller’s model of Daoism, a scholarly reorientation towards sustainability can transform “both the self and the world to produce an overall continuity of flourishing,” (163).

The polemical nature of Miller’s project sets the book beyond the traditional boundaries of sinology and religious studies, but not beyond their criticism. Religionists will object to the premise of his work, which is grounded not in Daoism’s historical context but in an “internal dialog between [his] reading of the tradition and [his] concern for contemporary environmental issues” (109; cf. 18, where he claims his framework allows one to "understand ... Daoism on its own terms.")  They will argue that his conception of religion and his characterization of their departments (as concerned with “theology and the supernatural”) are behind the times (10). He acknowledges religion’s constructed nature (citing, e.g., Talal Asad), but seems uninterested in the extensive work on the principles of its construction done by Asad and others (e.g., Manuel Vásquez, More Than Belief, Oxford University Press, 2012). For Miller, religions are “networks of symbol systems” (164) centered around “religious texts and other foundational documents” and “concerned with the immaterial world” (4). The first assumption understands religions as unified wholes that demand interpretation, an approach that has been replaced by a focus on praxis and materiality: see Vásquez (231-57), and Tomoko Masuzawa, “Culture,” in Mark C. Taylor's Critical Terms for Religious Studies (University of Chicago Press, 1998), or the journal Material Religion (2005-present), which criticizes the hermeneutic approach in its first issue. Miller’s latter two assumptions have been rightly criticized as relics of Protestant theology. The scholarship here is too extensive to cite; for an introduction, see Ivan Strenski’s Thinking About Religion (Blackwell, 2006). Finally, Miller repeatedly presents ecocritical Daoism as “decolonized” Daoism, but fails to engage postcolonial studies; missing, too, is sustained dialogue with scholarship on nature, body, and place—terms that are central to his analysis. The foundation of his new ideology thus lacks critical elements.

Sinologists, particularly those versed in Daoism, will have other objections. Miller’s translations are occasionally quaint or odd. More importantly, his ecocritical Daoism ignores or minimizes important data. Miller characterizes early medieval (220-589 CE) Daoism as “countercultural,” (xv, xxi). But Daoists held important posts and instructed emperors: see Richard Mather’s “K’ou Ch’ien-chih and the Taoist Theocracy at the Northern Wei Court, 425-451” (Holmes Welch and Anna Seidel, eds., Facets of Taoism, Yale University Press, 1979). They also agreed with the government on important points: both opposed popular cults, destroying their temples and banning the worship of local gods (Facets of Taoism). Similarly, the organization of the Daoist Canon itself—our chief primary source—is a blatant attempt to court imperial favor (Michel Strickmann, “The Longest Taoist Scripture,” History of Religions 17.3/4, 1978). Miller also glosses over different conceptions of the body and the cosmos. See Stephen Bokenkamp’s “What Daoist Body” (Purposes, Means and Convictions in Daoism: A Berlin Symposium, Harrasowitz, 2007) and Livia Kohn’s Laughing at the Tao (Princeton University Press, 1995).

Challenging modernity is a noble goal, and the tools of conventional scholarship have an important role to play. By abandoning them, Miller misses an opportunity to demonstrate their continuing relevance. But one wonders whether ecocritical Daoism is necessary at all. Public intellectuals like Naomi Klein in This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate (Simon and Schuster, 2014) already address capitalism and the environment with rigor and accessibility; scholars like David Harvey in A Brief History of Neoliberalism (Oxford, 2005), and Thomas Piketty in Capital in the Twenty-First Century (trans. Arthur Goldhammer, Harvard University Press, 2014) provide strong and readable accounts of neoliberal capitalism. The same (see Harvey, A Companion to Marx’s Capital, Verso, 2010) sometimes offer alternatives. Instead of looking for answers in early medieval China, perhaps it is better to start closer to home.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Timothy Swanger is a doctoral candidate in Religious Studies at Arizona State University.

Date of Review: 
October 12, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

James Miller is professor of Chinese studies and director of the interdisciplinary graduate program in cultural studies at Queen's University in Canada. He is the author of The Way of Highest Clarity (2008) and Daoism: A Beginner's Guide (2008) and the editor of Chinese Religions in Contemporary Societies (2006), Religion and Ecological Sustainability in China (2014), and Daoism and Ecology (2001).


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