Earth is a sacred concept in Chinese tradition. How can we continue respecting it today?
EARTH & PSYCHIATRY
I was born and raised in China, a country with more than 3000 years of history. Although I chose to be a doctor as my lifetime career, and currently am practicing psychiatry in the United States, I am also a history junkie in my leisure time. Actually, I plan to study East Asian history and become an archeologist after retiring from the medical field.
Earth is an important, or sacred concept in Chinese tradition. In ancient Chinese mythology, NuWa, the mother of humanity, created humans out of soil. Five essential elements, including Metal, Wood, Water, Fire, Earth, became the foundation of Chinese philosophy, establishing the Feng Shui system we know today. It was also integrated into Chinese social structure: Heaven, Earth, Emperor, Parents, Teacher (Master) comprised the hierarchy of respect. Since the 15th century, Chinese emperors held ceremonies every year to worship Mother Earth at the Temple of Earth in Beijing, thanking her for the harvest this year and wishing for next year’s prosperity. This tradition continued until the fall of the Qin Dynasty in the early 20th century. The Emperor would also criticize himself publicly and pray for forgiveness in the case of any natural disasters such as floods or earthquakes.
Many of the aforementioned traditions no longer apply to modern China, but some of the values still hold true, such as respect for Mother Earth.
China currently has about 1.4 billion individuals, about 18% of the total world population, with only about 9% of total arable land. As the second largest financial entity, just after the US, China’s GDP consisted of approximately 18% of the world’s total GDP in 2020, with about 28% of global manufacturing. China paid a dear price for the boom of the economy. Pollution became so severe and widespread that it endangered public safety, similar to what happened in Western countries during the Industrial Revolution.
Thankfully, the Chinese government started to recognize this issue and has been enforcing more strict regulations, resulting in noticeable improvement in recent years. Take Beijing, the capital of China, as an example. According to the World Green Building Council, a member of the UN Global Compact, the state of Beijing has undertaken measures such as issuing policies advising on strategies of air pollution control, promoting the regulation of bulk coal and the reduction/replacement of coal consumption, resulting in significant improvement of air quality and consistent annual reduction of outdoor PM2.5 concentration from 2014 to 2018.1 At the same time, public awareness of environmental issues has been rising and more consumers are willing to change their habits due to concern about issues such as global warming.2
Increasing demands on Mother Earth can cause other issues, such as continuous deforestation, which is happening in the Amazon Rainforest, and many other places around the globe. This not only endangers natural habitats, but also introduces human beings to novel pathogens, such as AIDS, Ebola, and SARS. At the early stage of the pandemic, scientists already suspected COVID-19 also originated in wild animals, then spread to humans.3 The World Health Organization investigation just finalized the conclusion to confirm this.4
In my peer-support work for health care workers in Wuhan, China last year at the beginning of the pandemic,5 and in my current experience with Physician Support Line, I have seen too much suffering. This experience has led me to think that even with our advanced technology, we still need to respect the Mother Earth, and cherish what we already have.
With the fast evolving of human society, maybe more than ever, the ancient Chinese wisdom of respecting Mother Earth is old, but still gold.
Dr Cheng is the Medical Director of Addiction Service at Meridian Health Services and is a Volunteer Clinical Assistant Professor in Psychiatry at Indiana University School of Medicine Muncie campus.
To see more on Earth & Psychiatry, please see The Power and Potential of Earth Week and Psychiatry.
1. Qingqin W. Clearing the Air: How Beijing is building up to better air quality. World Green Building Council. Accessed April 8, 2021. https://www.worldgbc.org/news-media/clearing-air-how-beijing-building-better-air-quality
2. Wong S. Environmental quality in China - statistics & facts. Statista. January 11, 2021. https://www.statista.com/topics/2028/environment-in-china/
3. Zarocostas J. WHO team begins COVID-19 origin investigation. Lancet. February 26, 2021. https://www.thelancet.com/journals/lancet/article/PIIS0140-6736(21)00295-6/fulltext
4. World Health Organization. WHO-convened global study of origins of SARS-CoV-2: China Part. March 30, 2021.
5. Cheng P. Supporting frontline health care professionals: lessons from Wuhan experience. Psychiatric News. April 9, 2020. https://psychnews.psychiatryonline.org/doi/10.1176/appi.pn.2020.4b34