The Unity of Man and Nature – Ancient Chinese Philosophy

The unity of man and nature is the highest cultural concept in ancient China. The relationship between man and nature is the motif of traditional Chinese culture, from which other ideas are derived. The idea of the unity of man and nature is not only an ontology of the universe, but also a view of nature and the world, as well as the concepts of values, ethics, governance, way of thinking, and culture, which is the highest value orientation of life and the fundamental spirit of Chinese culture, highlighting the characteristics of traditional Chinese ideology.

Confucianism believes that the nature of Heaven is the most righteous and noble, and the most virtuous and holy so that it can last forever. The virtuous nature of Heaven gives Man the spirit of integrity and harmony. If a person can understand the Tao and secure his supreme goodness and harmony, he will always be blessed and strong. This point of view is also found in The Book of Changes: “The harmony brings the most favorable auspices.” The concepts of “Heaven-to-Man bonds,” “convergence of Heaven and Man,” “Heaven and Man sharing the same nature,” and “oneness of Heaven and Man” advocated by Confucianism are the same with the unity of man and nature in essence. The ancient Chinese people re-constructed a whole cosmic schema centered on the concept of the unity of man and nature, in which Man gained freedom of movement and was able to maintain its existence, change, and evolution. Meanwhile, Taoism advocates that all things are equal, that Heaven and Earth have the virtue of cherishing life, that there is no difference in value among all creatures, and that human beings should respect the nature of all things and let them develop freely to achieve the unity of man and nature.

Heaven is the foundation and prerequisite for the creation of human beings and things. The nobility and objective priority of Heaven decide its duty of “creation.” On a biological basis, Man is created by Heaven. In this regard, Man’s physical body is a part of all natural things and should be nurtured together instead of hurting each other. As far as the human soul is concerned, Man is the master of all creatures and superior to any other creatures between Heaven and Earth. Compared with all other things, Man is inseparable from Heaven and Earth; on the other hand, he is independent and is the center of Heaven and Earth. This means that Man should be set as a priority among all things, and should be respected and honored. The man with the noble spirit and Taoism should be on an equal footing with Heaven and Earth, participating in their creation and cultivation. For Man has the natural human-heartedness (ren) and endowment that animals do not possess, Man becomes the master of all creatures.

Man has a noble spirit and is superior to all other creatures, which is shown in the following aspects: First, the difference between Man and other creatures lies in the fact that Man has a moral consciousness and can practice virtue and righteousness. In The Analects of Confucius, it says, “The Master angled, but did not use a net. He shot, but not at birds perching,” which reflects the human-heartedness of Man to follow the way of Heaven. Second, Man is a gregarious animal, thus forming a community. The sages gathered the people through moral rituals and set up a bridge over Heaven and Man by using human-heartedness as the medium. Third, Man takes it as his duty to nurture all things, obey the will of Heaven and Earth, and care for both Heaven and human beings with his benevolent heart. The responsibility of human beings is to act in accordance with the virtues of Heaven and Earth and the human spirit, which are given to Heaven and Earth by nature and then endowed to human beings by Heaven and Earth, mainly reflecting in the nature of Heaven, Earth, and Man. “Being able to fully actualize the essence of all things, he can assist Heaven and Earth in their transformation and sustenance. Being able to assist in Heaven and Earth’s transformation and sustenance, he forms a trinity with Heaven and Earth.” (The Doctrine of the Mean)

The unity of man and nature is a view of nature that conforms to the divine Tao, which requires Man to act in accordance with it. Just as Lao Tze said, “Let the kingdom be governed according to the Tao.” The highest pursuit of Man is Tao. Nevertheless, Tao is not out of the void but is the most substantial basis and natural state for the origin and existence of the universe. Therefore, Tao is the natural process of generating everything under Heaven, the law of nature, and the model that Heaven, Earth, Man, and other creatures must follow. Traditional Chinese culture emphasized “exploring the relationship between the Way of Heaven and the Way of Man and having a thorough understanding of the course of historical development and the changes involved therein” (Records of the Grand Historian), so the universal principle of the unity of man and nature was summarized. “Doing things before natural signs should be in accordance with nature; doing things after natural signs should also comply with natural timing.” (The Book of Changes) The natural world works in accordance with the law of nature: planting in spring, growing in summer, harvesting in autumn, and storing in winter. People should grasp the natural laws of all things so as to follow the natural laws of Heaven instead of contradicting them to achieve synergistic development.

In Chinese history, the fundamental approach of Yu the Great to control water is to take advantage of the situation, enlist the natural downward trend of water, and dredge the flooding river to the sea, rather than recklessly “blocking” it. This is true for nature and also for the people. That is the beginning of the principle of people first. Confucius(551-479 BC)said, “When the person in authority makes more beneficial to the people, the things from which they naturally derive benefit are not expensive….”Lao Tze said, “The sage has no invariable mind of his own; he makes the mind of the people his mind.” Both Confucius’s and Lao Tze’s words embody the methodology of state governance. It is the way to deal with all things in accordance with the laws of nature. The unity of man and heaven is the integration of natural law and humanism so that Man can assist in Heaven and Earth’s transformation and sustenance and form a trinity with Heaven and Earth. In this way, the highest state of harmony can be achieved.

The unity of man and nature also embodies taking virtue and righteousness as the highest value. As human-heartedness is inclusive and has endless ethical resources, people with it as their nature also take it as the highest value, which is reflected in the saying, “A case involving human life is one of supreme importance.” Confucianism’s idea of “universal fraternity” is considered in the context of the unity of man and nature cosmology. As the core of humanity, human-heartedness has become the center of the universe, the essence of which is “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” To achieve virtue is to transcend human beings and embrace the state of all creatures after the complete realization of human nature. To promote the virtue and the Way of Heaven, Man must follow the nature of Heaven respectfully and practice the virtue of Heaven in life.

On the one hand, Confucianism believes that Man is the master of the universe and the spiritual heart of Heaven and Earth. Nurtured by Heaven and Earth, Man shines with a brilliance that no other creature has, thus giving him a special status. On the other hand, Man demonstrates a spiritual state of compassion for all creatures and tolerance of all things. Man adheres to the “five virtues” of human-heartedness, righteousness, propriety, wisdom, and faith and regards Heaven and Earth as the origin, reflecting his morality and responsibility. According to Confucianism, only humans are the most precious in Heaven and Earth, manifesting their humanism toward life. Starting from the benevolence of life, Man regards all natural things as a moral community, blesses their lives, respects their rights, helps them grow, and becomes an indispensable benefactor of all things in Heaven and Earth, thus embodying the dignity and highest value of Man. The Wisdom of Man comes from nature, so he should obey and patronize nature, and not transform or destroy it. Confucian “human-heartedness” involves a recursive hierarchy of affinity, equivalence, and operability. According to The Analects of Confucius, when the stable caught fire, Confucius eagerly inquired whether people were hurt but not horses, reflecting the concept of differentiating morality from relatives to strangers, from human beings to objects, and from the near to the far.

The idea of “the differentiation of love (ai you cha deng),” first of all, requires a man to cultivate himself to achieve his goal and put himself in the place of his parents and family members according to his own joy, anger, sorrow, and personal feelings; secondly, he should not kill birds, animals, insects, and fish wantonly; finally, he should love flowers, trees, mountains, rocks, fields, showing his endless love to all creatures. When Cheng Hao (1032-1085), one of the famous Neo-Confucians in the Song Dynasty (960-1279), saw the weeds growing in front of the window of his teacher Zhou Dunyi (1017-1073), he was puzzled and asked his teacher why he did not remove them. Zhou replied that “both human beings and grass have the same nature of the divine creation and should be respected and protected accordingly.” This unique Confucian way of moral concern and logic of reasoning is conducive to a proper understanding and appreciation of the “Great Unification” and other ideas of governance.

The concept of “the unity of man and nature” is a fundamental ideology and cultural tradition in China. Its idea of “governance by virtue,” “governance by ritual,” and “great unification” is of great value in guiding the self-cultivation (修身xiu shen), family management (齐家qi jia), and governance of the state (治国zhi guo). The Book of Rites reads, “When the great Tao was in practice, the world was common to all; men of talents, virtue, and ability were selected; sincerity was emphasized, and friendship was cultivated,” which is the consistent embodiment of the ancient Chinese concept of governance. The key to governance is virtue and propriety. To cultivate oneself, manage one’s family, and govern the state, one must set virtue and respect propriety. Without virtue, people cannot act in accordance with the rites, cannot be self-governing, and then cannot govern the country. All activities, either for self-cultivation, family management, or governance of the state, are based on morality, human-heartedness, righteousness, rituals, and music. Therefore, it is legal to comply with it but illegal to disobey it.

In ancient China, building a harmonious society was the mainstream of state governance. Traditional Chinese culture’s concept of the unity of man and nature believes that Man, Heaven, and Earth share the same nature. So Man is closely related to Heaven and Earth, forming a reciprocal relationship among them. Man and the universe resonate and harmonize with each other through simultaneous interaction. People integrate themselves into nature through experience and spiritual transformation, a process of “mutual closeness” that informs the interdependent relationship between Heaven and Man. For this reason, governance ideas such as people as the root of the state, righteousness over profit, rule through non-action, and humanistic cultivation became mainstream in ancient China.

Ancient Chinese viewed the individual, the family, the state, and the universe from the perspective of oneness, which is embodied in their aspiration of “cultivating the moral self, regulating the family, maintaining the state rightly, and making all peaceful.” The basis for legitimizing the political order must be righteousness, benevolence, justice, rituals, and music, which must be in line with the spirit of humanity. The history of Chinese civilization has lasted for more than 5, 000 years, and China has become the only civilization in the world that has never been interrupted. The Chinese nation has experienced unity, division, and unity again, reflecting the continuity of the “Great Unification” concept of governance guided by the idea of the unity of man and nature. In the case of an individual, he should comply with virtue and propriety physically and spiritually; in the case of a family, the relations of the family members should be in line with virtue and propriety; in the case of a country, the monarch, ministers, people, and things are unified in virtue and propriety; in the case of the whole country, the central government, other vassal states, people, and things are unified in virtue and propriety. If all of them have been done, the great harmony of the world can be achieved.

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