Traditional Chinese paintings that show the natural world depend on just two colours to convey their meaning. Black ink on white paper is the only approach available to the artist. Another feature of these paintings is that a huge part of the natural world can be represented on paper that hangs from near the ceiling to a point close to the ground. Closer examination of scenes that show sweeping clouds, towering mountains, churning waterfalls and an expanse of trees will reveal small features that actually represent people who might otherwise be easily missed in the huge paintings. The contrast in scale between the people and the natural world represents a clear understanding by the artists of the need for humans to be humble within the natural world.
The rapid economic development of China over the past 30 years seems to be moving its people along a path that is quite different to what is represented by its deeply traditional painting. Most people in China realise that economic development has taken a toll on the natural world. Public notices promote the need for a low carbon lifestyle but these efforts to influence thinking are completely outnumbered by the stylish advertising that promotes new cars as part of a desired lifestyle.
The twice rescheduled United Nations-sponsored Convention on Biodiversity (Conference of Parties – COP – 15) is expected to take place in Kunming from 25th April to 8th May. The capital city of Yunnan province is located at almost 2,000 metres above sea level and is popularly known as Spring City due to its moderate temperatures all year round. The mountainous province is also where many of China’s ethnic minorities are living.
China’s vast land means that it has a huge variety of climates and ecosystems. Whether it is the tropical island province of Hainan, the fertile plains of the Yangtze basin, the western deserts or the bitterly cold northeast in winter, the full spectrum is represented here. Natural history books and television programmes show that Chinese people have a keen interest in the land and life systems that surround them. Like many other countries where good intentions are often expressed, the challenge in China seems to be trying to find a way of life that provides for the people in a balanced way without damaging the natural world. With an economy that is continuing to expand, it is difficult to see how the balance will be found.
The Convention on Biodiversity provides China with an opportunity to facilitate a step forward for the entire world in this crucial area of the life of our planet. Scientists agree that today’s extinction rate is hundreds, or even thousands, of times higher than the natural baseline rate. A tragic leaking of the life of our planet is taking place, each species dropping over the cliff of extinction and never to be seen again by our generation or any future generation.
Huge efforts have been made in China to conserve the panda for future generations. A great symbol of China, it shows how one species can capture the public imagination. What we probably fail to keep in mind is that all species, irrespective of size, hold just as much mystery and uniqueness as the panda.
While it is encouraging that a delegation from the Vatican will attend the convention in Kunming, representation at the convention by members of the Church in China is highly unlikely. Promotion of the event among Church people is probably going to be small due to the closure of the nationwide Faith Newspaper in mid-2020 and a winding down of the main websites run by the Church. Some creativity about sharing news about the convention is probably needed so that the country’s multiple Catholic mobile phone chat groups would facilitate the sharing of relevant information and how it is an important area of concern for the universal Church.
Last September, a Columban initiative saw seven religious sisters in China begin a 9-month online course in leadership, cosmology and ecology. Organised by the Deeptime Network in the US, the once-a-week classes provide the opportunity to engage in study and discussions with people in several countries. The course makes regular reference to the work of Thomas Berry and the views of Teilhard de Chardin, both of whom lived in China in the first half of the 20th century. It would of course be good if some of these religious sites and members of other faith groups in China could take part in the Convention on Biodiversity or its fringe events. However, such possibilities are highly unlikely.
On a more positive note, opportunities do exist for Church personnel in China to take part in educational activities related to ecological concern. During the past five years over 100 sisters, some priests and lay people, as well as some people with no connection with the Church, have taken part in ecological workshops with visiting Irish geologist and botanist John Feehan. The week-long workshops have provided the opportunity for participants to learn about the timescale and vastness of the universe, the diversity of the ecosystems on planet Earth, and the depths of beauty that are held in flowers and insect life as revealed when using hand lenses and microscopes.
Faithful to the direction offered by Pope Francis in Laudato Si’, the question posed by John during these workshops has consistently been, “what does this tell us about God?” Participants in those workshops have already begun to share their insights by facilitating similar workshops. Further workshops have been requested, part of a post-Covid experience that is hoped for by many people.
As the colourful Winter Olympics are being hosted near Beijing, there is also a realisation among many Chinese people that the collective creativity of the international community is needed in other areas of life. While there is a growing awareness of ecological issues within the Church in China and in wider society, it still feels that the genuine efforts being made by people are similar in scale to the people represented in traditional Chinese paintings, small in comparison to what surrounds them, but nonetheless a meaningful part of what is happening. Perhaps the upcoming Convention on Biodiversity in Kunming will see the emergence of an energy of Olympic proportions for people in all nations to contribute prophetically to a preservation of all forms of life on our fragile planet.