Hosted by the Chinese Studies Department of the Institute of Asian and Oriental Studies, the three-day conference “Humanistic Scholarship in the Anthropocene: Approaching China from a Sustainability Paradigm” (Zurich, May 15–17, 2015) offered both critical reflection on our ecological crisis and productively engaged with historical, philosophical, religious, and aesthetic passageways towards a more sustainable future.
We live in the geological age of the anthropocene. It is not yet clear whether the anthropocene began with the industrial revolution, the discovery of the Americas, or even earlier still. However, there exists a broad scientific and social consensus that humanity impacts our planet now on a global scale and determines, as Prasenjit Duara (National University of Singapore) pointed out, “the sustainability of the earth more than any other force.” How do we respond to this fundamental change in our relationship to our planet? And how can humanities scholars working on China contribute to sustainable solutions? Heeding Gayatri Spivak’s call to “imagine ourselves as planetary subjects rather than global agents,”  the conference, organized by Andrea Riemenschnitter and Justyna Jaguścik, aimed to address these questions and to foster a multidisciplinary approach to eco-critical Asian studies.
The first panel centered on the role that art and aesthetics play both in encouraging forms of green activism and in legitimating political ideologies of exploitation. Sheldon Lu (University of California at Davies) strongly emphasized the vitality of Chinese-language eco-cinemas. These movies not only retrain our perception of the world through an “aesthetic of slowness,” but can also foster novel spaces for social commentary and a new sense of planetary morality. Meng Yue (University of Toronto) stressed in her paper that awareness of environmental issues alone is not enough, as we are both the victims and culprits in the production of chemical fertilizers, plastic, hormones, etc. Drawing on the works of English conservationist Eve Balfour, she distinguished a non-chemical view on life from the “logic of the chemist,” which does not factor life itself into the science of plant growth and crop productivity. She explained that during the early stages of China’s modernization there were, at least at the discursive level, possibilities for agricultural development through non-chemical farming. However, this changed completely by the 1930s, when a Marxist developmentalist discourse began to frame nature conservation and ecological resistance within the antagonism of the rural peasant and the urban worker. The multilayered entanglement of environmental discourses, politics and art was also the topic of Andrea Riemenschnitter’s paper. She analyzed a variety of unofficial responses, both humorous and critical, to Xi Jinping’s state campaign of the “China Dream.” Especially the recent “burst in environmental topics” in contemporary Chinese art suggests that there is growing discontent with the government’s underspecified green vision. Riemenschnitter put a big question mark behind the capability of the state’s dream machinery to trigger sustainable solutions from below. Economic growth at any cost still trumps environmental and social reform.
In the second panel Mike Douglass (National University of Singapore) and David Strand (Dickinson College, Carlisle) focused on urban transformation in China and Asia more broadly. Both argued that the idea of the city as propeller of growth is winning out on the city as shared living space, but they also showed, on a more hopeful note, that urbanization is not a priori an antagonistic force to sustainable living. Douglass explained that while urban growth in the post-colonial era had always been an important cornerstone of national development, this changed by the 1990s, when a neo-developmentalist paradigm came to dominate urban development throughout Asia. Neo-developmentalism emphasizes corporate driven development, but differs from neoliberalism in its belief in a strong state to secure investment, restrict migration and limit participatory governance. Asia’s fast-paced urbanization has been accompanied by an increasing demand for green spaces. The pressures of real-estate development and population density on green infrastructures have, according to David Strand, not only resulted in demands for public park conservation and construction, but have also given balconies, drainage systems, roof-tops and abandoned buildings new recreational, alimentary, and spiritual roles. Strand showed that parks are more than simply the “green lungs” of the city, but are increasingly important “entangled spaces,” which shape our community values and foster new human and non-human coalitions.
In the third panel Simona Grano and Zhang Yuheng (both University of Zurich) presented a comparative analysis of two tree conservation movements in Taipei and Nanjing, respectively. They argued that environmental movements in China are unlikely to become catalyzers of democractic change as in Taiwan. Mike Schäfer (University of Zurich) discussed recent developments in global climate change media coverage. With the exception of the U.S. and Great Britain, a “societal turn” in global climate change media coverage has taken place: we have shifted our focus from understanding climate change to analyzing its political, economic, and social ramifications.
The fourth panel analyzed post-secular and post-human approaches to environmental ethics. Prasenjit Duara argued that it is necessary to replace linear, “tunneled” histories of nations with the idea of “circulatory histories.” Circulatory histories are shared histories, as he explained, which take into account both the different experiences of events by different people and the often oblique routes, through which histories and ideas travel. One example is the transpacific shuttling of ideas between Bengali reformer Ram Mohan Roy, Henry David Thoreau, Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr., which helps understand certain intellectual convergences between environmental movements in the U.S. and India. Duara also showed that while eco-spiritual movements in Asia today draw on very different spiritual resources and traditions, they all share a non-dualistic worldview and, in difference to Western deep ecology movements, do not regard nature as sacred for intrinsic values, but rather as a by-product of the moral and natural order. Kenneth Dean analyzed Daoist cosmological thought and the forms of environmentalism these have fostered in Daoist ritual networks across China and Southeast Asia. He argued that while Confucianism has a strongly human-biased outlook on the world, Daoism has a much broader understanding of organic, inorganic, and cosmological interconnectedness. Drawing on examples from the Putian plane in Fujian, Dean argued that rituals are an important form of collective negotiation of communal values, which are increasingly also directed towards ecological issues.
Justyna Jaguścik (University of Zurich) observed in the works of Zheng Xiaoqiong a blurring of biologic divisions of life forms by foregrounding the shared toxicity of bodies and landscapes. Zheng is known in China as the leading poetic voice of female migrant workers. However, the gendered plight of the factory worker in Zheng’s poetic oeuvre is but one node in an expansive economy of pain, toxicity and marginalization. Iron and chemicals are in Zheng’s work no longer symbols of industrial achievement, since they now pierce the body and pollute the soil. Jaguścik analyzed Zheng’s poetic intervention into China’s industrialized landscape as specifically eco-feminist, because it foregrounds the dominance of patriarchal traditions in the exploitation of nature. Haiyan Lee (Stanford University) presented a paper on anthropomorphism and newly emerging forms of animal writing in Chinese literature. Modern Chinese literature is, in Lee’s words, “a predominantly anthropocentric enterprise.” However, recently there has been a small explosion in animal-themed novels, which reconfigure the human-animal relationship on aesthetic and moral grounds. Lee drew on Winnicott’s psychoanalytic theory of the “transitional object” in childhood and Bonnie Honig’s concept of the “public thing” to analyze the fictional re-discovery of the South China tiger in Zhongguo hu (“The Chinese Tiger,” 2008) by Li Kewei. She argued that the environment in general and mega-fauna preservation more specifically fit the criteria of these analytic concepts particularly well. The tiger as “transitional object” and “public thing” can enchant us and create affective communities of solidarity, but also forces us to acknowledge our indebtedness to animals themselves.
The conference contributed to the discussion on environmental challenges in at least three fundamental ways. Firstly, it addressed the shortcomings of technology and corporate driven solutions to environmental problems. Secondly, it engaged with new perspectives on local environmental knowledge, green protests and spiritual communities of environmental care, which are emerging in China and across East Asia today. And thirdly, it theorized new possibilities for eco-critical scholarship through such concepts as “circulatory history,” “metropolitan conviviality,” “the precariate,” “insurgency movie,” and “heavy metal poetry,” to name just a few. Overall, the conference demonstrated a constructive engagement with green narratives emerging from China and East Asia today, providing a welcome counterpoint to the reductive focus on the apocalyptic scenarios of the anthropocene.
 Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, Death of a Discipline, New York 2003, p. 73.
(Asia & Europe Bulletin, 5/2016, pp. 12–13)