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Future prosperity for all?
by Valerie Sartor
2008-06-08 09:39:46
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Today China must seriously address the impact of continued economic development upon the environment at large. The country's increasingly successful economic growth has unfortunately created constantly escalating harmful effects upon China's land and water resources - and it has impacted upon the rest of the natural world as well.

Many scientists from around the globe are studying this issue. Some of them, both Chinese and foreign, have realized that the answers may have existed long before such daunting questions ever came to the forefront. They are researching China's indigenous peoples – humans who have lived for thousands of years in harmony with their natural surroundings.

Accepting a pagan based ecology is not a new concept in the Western world but it is a new concept in China - even though the country has 56 (official) ethnic minorities: the middle Kingdom has a vast fund of ancient, innate and intuitive environmentally friendly knowledge. For example, in China's far northwest Xinjiang Province, high in the remote northern region live the Altaians, a mysterious Turkic people whose ethnic homeland lays in the Altai Mountains that border Kazakstan, Mongolia, and China. These people belong to the Finno-Altaic language group, which is related to Hungarian and Finnish.

Few tourists and Chinese travel to this cold, remote region yet it is one of the most beautiful places in Asia, home to endangered tigers, as well as wild bears, rare birds and other magnificent wildlife. (Expensive eco-tourism has just started to flourish there.) This beauty spot is also the traditional home of the Altaians and other minority peoples who live in Chinese Xinjiang. Besides the Altaians many of the native peoples descend from various Khazak and Mongolian lineages. All of them are still nomadic herdsmen who raise sheep and goats and horses. All of them live simply and all of them express deep respect for the earth.

In general, Altai beliefs describe the world as surrounded by the sky and the seasons, held in place by a tree. These people believe lakes, rivers, springs, mountains and other natural physical objects have 'spirit owners' that must be acknowledged and honored. Their holy people – shamans - negotiate between the natural and the spiritual world on behalf of the human community. Shamans also carry thousands of years of botanical knowledge regarding folk medicine and medicinal properties of native plants.

The Altai Mountains form the divide between China's closed, dry watersheds and the large river drainages that flow northward through Siberia (Russia) into the Arctic Ocean. The Katun River, which originates entirely within the Altai Republic, is still a pristine river. Water is very sacred for these people, especially springs and rivers. Altaians have numerous rituals that are still used to show respect to water. The Katun River is considered a living being, and Altaians convey their respect by not throwing stones into the river; they say prayers whenever a river is crossed. Water is not taken from rivers at night, because this may upset the spirit associated with the river.

Spring water, or arzhan, is particularly important. The local people know where all the springs are situated. Interestingly, springs with high mineral content do not freeze as fast as regular water so they are felt to be quite sacred. Altaians feel they have the power to cure illnesses. Local lore states that if a spring "agrees" to help someone ill the water will become milky; if the visitor's illness is incurable, a frog or snake will appear in the water. Traditionally entire families go on pilgrimages to certain springs to perform rituals that last several weeks. One ritual involves the family lining up with respect to the sun, with the father standing at the head of the line, and the family then requesting healing from the spirits associated with the spring. Even today Altaians still make efforts to respect and visit springs. They place offerings of pieces of light colored cloth or coins on nearby trees.

Many modern ethnographers and ecologists believe that ancient, indigenous knowledge is essentially scientific - it is gathered via empirical, experimental and systematic methods. Some argue that no inherent contradiction exists between the mythological and the scientific. Western science, established as a formalized knowledge system largely during the industrial revolution, can be viewed as considering and defining questions in a narrow and socially naïve way. Conversely, traditional knowledge can supply the non-linear and pluralistic perspectives that are being increasingly called upon to define a more socially harmonious context.

Certainly we who live on this planet, we who live in China, must go to any length toward keeping our land and water clean and safe for future generations. The rate at which China - and other parts of the world - is causing degradation to the planet is dangerous to not only the environment but also to all life forms, including our own human species. Ironically, Confucian ethics based upon respecting ancient traditions is still part of contemporary Chinese culture. Incorporating this respect, as exemplified by these wise Altaians, instead of blindly copying western capitalist economics, may not only be a pagan concept but ultimately, a lifesaving strategy that ensures future prosperity for all.

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Emanuel Paparella2008-06-08 16:03:39
Those "blindly copying western capitalist economics" need not go all the way back to Confucius. All they need to do is reflect on this statement by Thomas Jefferson: those who put economic interests ahead of freedom deserve to lose both.

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