Confucianism and Daoism

Animals in Traditional Chinese Thought

Authored by: Deborah Cao

The Routledge Handbook of Religion and Animal Ethics

Print publication date:  October  2018
Online publication date:  September  2018

Print ISBN: 9781138592728
eBook ISBN: 9780429489846
Adobe ISBN:


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The Chinese people and Chinese culture have had a long-standing and ambivalent interest in animals. The Chinese culture has always been human centred, both ancient and contemporary, but animals have also been very important to Chinese life. In traditional Chinese philosophy, animals are considered part of the moral cosmos as in Confucianism and Daoism (Taoism) in search of the betterment of life and society. In traditional Chinese thought, humans and animals are part of the moral universe of the exemplary humans who should be models of benevolence and compassion, and such compassion and benevolence extend beyond humans to other life forms in nature. There is no strict delineation to distinguish animals and humans as both are considered part of the cosmos, in contrast to Western philosophical thoughts. One of the most important and enduring ideas in traditional Chinese philosophy is the notion of ren tian he yi (humans and heaven as one, or humans and Nature as one). Human and animal worlds lie in a continuum, with no firm or essential divisions between the two. By and large, in traditional Chinese thought, animals are considered to assume a normative standing. Literally everything under the sun and beyond has a place or role in the ongoing process of nature and both humans and animals are part of the productivity, richness, diversity and beauty that are central features of this Chinese conception of Heaven and Earth. This paper will explore the various aspects of these ideas in Confucianism and Daoism and how they may be related to contemporary Chinese context and to the status of animals in China today.

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