International Perspectives

August 2016 | Volume 22, Number 2



Wilderness has been widely recognized as an important component of the world conservation movement and is a specific category (Category 1b) of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Protected Area Category System (Dudley 2008). It is sometimes advocated as a land classification providing opportunities for humans to experience natural and unfettered environments; it also makes important contributions to conservation by providing core areas for biodiversity, refuges for endangered species, baseline understanding of environmental change influences, protection of quality and quantity of drinking water, as well as safeguarding spiritual and intrinsic values of nature (Cordell et al. 2005). Wilderness is often considered a European concept that was exported and implemented outside Europe in English-speaking countries, including the United States, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. However, wilderness legislation and policies exist in other parts of the world (Martin and Watson 2009; Kormos 2008). In a symbolic move to “reimport” the wilderness concept to Europe, the European Parliament (2009) adopted a resolution in 2009 supporting the protection of wilderness in the existing Natura 2000 network. In Asia, Japan’s Nature Conservation Law set aside five IUCN Category 1b wilderness areas; Sri Lanka has a National Heritage Wilderness Areas Act and 9,000 km2 (3,475 sq. miles) of land protected as wilderness (Hayashi 2002; Kormos 2008; IUCN and UNEP-WCMC 2016). As the world responds to China’s increasingly important role in the world economy, in ecological conditions, and in politics, there is a growing interest in understanding Chinese perceptions of issues of international significance. Conservationists are interested in the potential benefits of and barriers to application of wilderness to Asian cultures (Watson et al. 2009). In particular, there is a great deal of interest in understanding “Wilderness and the Chinese mind.”

In the Chinese language, there are no exact equivalents of the word wilderness. In modern Chinese, wilderness is commonly translated as huāng yě (荒野). Huāng ( 荒)and yě (野)can be considered as synonyms, indicating places where plants and animals are not cultivated by humans. In modern Chinese, this has been extended to include places that have not been subject to human influence. Because land that has not been tamed by humans may threaten human survival, huāng yě has also adopted a connotation of being savage, violent, and dangerous (Wang 2010; Lin 2010; Hahn 2001). Huāng and yě can be separated and paired up with other words, such as dì ( 地 “land,” as in huāng dì) or yuán (原 “the plains,” as in yuán yě ) to describe wild land, wasteland, or fields that are original/primitive (Harris 2015). Kuàng yě (旷野)and mán huāng (蛮荒)are also sometimes used to describe wilderness. They convey additional connotations of vastness and spaciousness (kuàng 旷) and being savage and uncivilized (mán蛮) (Meng 2012).

Roderick Nash’s Wilderness and the American Mind (2001) is a classic text that traces the history of the concept of wilderness in the imagination and reality of the American people. There is no similar work on the relationship between wilderness and the people from the “Middle Kingdom” (the literal translation of the word China). This article is a first attempt at tracing “not so much what wilderness is but what men think it is” (Nash 2001) – in this case, what Chinese people have considered as wilderness in their relationships with nature. Making use of English- and Chinese-language studies, we highlight instances where wilderness has appeared prominently in the imagination or reality of those who have lived in what is today known as the Greater China region (mainland China, Taiwan, Macau, and Hong Kong). Ours is necessarily a selective and incomplete study: Chinese culture has evolved over 5,000 years and is continuously evolving through the lives of 1.5 billion people of multiple ethnicities on all 7 continents. An in-depth study would involve multiple years of dedicated effort that lies beyond the scope of the present short piece. As such, this article only barely traces the contours of the immense and intricate landscape that is wilderness in the Chinese mind. Our hope is to make a very modest contribution to a vast body of work still to be done.

Unity of Heaven and Man

Daoism, Confucianism, and Buddhism are widely considered as the three most influential religions and philosophies in Chinese history. They share a common characteristic in that they consider all life-forms to be interdependent, interactive, and interrelated (Yu et al. 2014). Human beings are seen as an organic part of nature; nature is considered to be consistent with human culture (Han 2008). In Daoism, humans are seen as enfolded in a matrix of cosmic power, in the oneness that is all things; there is no distinction between humans and nature. Wilderness and domestic space are complements of each other. Building human paths through wild, natural spaces weave together the seemingly disparate elements of life into a seamless whole (Miller 2008; D’Ambrosio 2013). Confucianism considers humans to be the respectful son or daughter of the cosmic process. Humans should harmonize with nature and accept its appropriate limits and boundaries. The highest ideal is the “Unity of Heaven and Man” (Tu 1985). Chinese Buddhism considers the existence of all phenomena, including human existence, to be illusory. While most schools focus on spirituality and place little emphasis on their relationship with the natural world, some consider nature to be a manifestation of the ultimate reality and the world as a net of relationships (Sørensen 2013; Barnhill 2005). Scholars in the 21st century have often associated classical mountain and river (shan-shui 山水) poetry – a tradition heavily influenced by Dao-ism, Confucianism, and Buddhism – with wilderness appreciation. Shan-shui poetry originated in the third and fourth centuries CE. Landscape became a prominent and independent object for aesthetic consideration (Yip 1997). Wild nature functioned as much as a symbol as a concrete locality. Landscapes, especially mountains, were revered by Buddhists and Confucians as sources of enlightenment, and many poems contained references to Daoist classics (Yang 2000). Poems conveyed poets’ wish to return to their original “wild” roots, where one could express one’s freely flowing emotions, sense one’s interdependence with all land and nature, and live one’s freedom and wildness away from the bondage of society (Tan 2009; Wang 2010). The mountain and river landscapes were depicted as sites of raw, original nature. Under the poets’ brush, these were not horrific landscapes associated with danger or violence. They were idealized as safe sanctuaries where one could hide from criticisms of society, or places where one could sense the ubiquitous spirit in nature and pursue one’s spiritual enlightenment (Tan 2009; Yang 2000). Shan-shui poetry is considered to be the product of the contact between the poet and the landscape and has the ability to transcend the duality between subject and object (Wang 2010). Some poems convey the poets’ experience of oneness with the cosmos and attempt to bring the reader into the experience (Hinton 2005). Poems from before the Tang dynasty (618–907 CE) contained descriptions of places with few traces of human activity and where wild plants and animals lived without human influence. As population increased, landscapes with no human influence became rare; human presence, such as villages, footbridges, and cabins, became integrated into the landscapes of mountains and rivers in poems from later periods (Wang 2010).

Material First, Spiritual Second

Apart from shan-shui poetry, we have found few systematic analyses that have focused on the treatment of wilderness in classical Chinese culture. Yang (2000) showed that in China’s earliest poetry, dating from around the 2nd century BCE, wild nature was depicted as frightful and treacherous. Wild animals and plants, hostile conditions, and barbarians made wild nature highly undesirable compared to the comforts of the city and human civilization. Nearly 2,000 years later, in the 17th century CE, Chinese travelers and settlers to the newly annexed island of Taiwan also considered the impenetrable mountains, dense forests, and uncultivated lands to be worthless compared to comforts of their hometowns. After having listed the wild animals that could be found on the island, one of them wrote, “This is nothing more than wilderness. If you are looking for natural landscape scenery, there is nothing at all” (Teng 2006, p. 84). The new island lay far away from the imperial center, in a region of huāng that was considered to be cultureless, savage, and chaotic. As an agricultural nation, ancient Chinese laws have always sought to promote the expansion of agriculture into hitherto uncultivated land. Only land that was tamed and shaped by humans could become productive or beautiful. Around the same period, the north-eastern corner of China was coined the “Great Northern Wilderness” (Běi dà huāng 北大荒). Migration into the region from the south was prohibited by imperial rule. Population was kept low in the region, and agriculture was not developed. The region was preserved as a private royal park – a storehouse of wild game and plants for consumption of the imperial court. In the late 19th century CE, it was still described as an “unfortunate land” of “bleak desolation” due to the absence of human settlements (Shan 2014). Migration into the region began at the beginning of 20th century CE. In the middle of the century, the region was home to massive migration and land reclamation. Youths, soldiers, urban dwellers, and dissidents were sent to the region to convert vast expanses of wetlands to agricultural land that would feed the country. Conditions in the Great Northern Wilderness were harsh. People often had to work at -30°C (-22°F) temperatures with little mechanical assistance. To attract urban dwellers to migrate, government talks and writings portrayed the region as beautiful, wild, and fertile, waiting for humans to explore and transform it; a place where one’s manual labor could contribute to the glorious cause of the socialist nation. In reality, basic living conditions and hard labor meant that hunger, sickness, suicide, and death were not uncommon (Pan 2003; Wang 2008).

Moving into the 21st century, a number of researchers in Canada and the United States examined how Chinese immigrants have engaged with the concept of wilderness in their newly adopted countries. Johnson et al. (2004, 2005) reported that immigrants from Asia were generally less likely than white Americans to visit a wilderness, and Chinese immigrants were less likely than white Ameri-cans to hike and camp. In Canada, Lo (2011) reported that outdoor activities in wilderness areas were not popular among Chinese families who preferred to play badminton or walk in the mall on weekends. To first- and second-generation Chinese immigrants from the Greater China region settling in Vancouver, Canada, wilder-ness was often associated with places that were barren, desolate, hostile, undesirable, and abandoned. To those who had previously been sent by the Chinese government to work in the Great Northern Wilderness, wilderness had the additional connotation of punishment. Many of the immigrants who came from the urban centers of Hong Kong and Taiwan found the wide open spaces of the Canadian wilderness overwhelming. The lack of familiarity and lack of skills for wilderness survival made them fearful toward wilderness; they wanted comfort and safety in their recreational activities. Some immigrants from rural China associated wilderness with the rural, impoverished countryside in China where they (or their family members) walked, worked, and slept outdoors as a matter of toil and survival and not of spiritual escape or choice. In general, the longer an immigrant lived in Canada or the United States, however, the more likely his or her concept of wilderness approached that of the Canadian or American ideal (Ged-des 2002; Hung 2003; Johnson et al. 2004). Han (2006) interviewed Chinese tourists in three UNESCO World Heritage sites in China. She surmised that her respondents would consider camping in the wilderness to be troublesome and dangerous, and that eating in the wind and sleeping in the dew would be a humiliation. In reality, many perspectives on the human-nature relationship have existed throughout Chinese history (Weller 2006). In fact, examination of China’s environmental history showed that the ideal of “Unity of Man and Heaven” has not prevented humans from massively using nature’s resources for power and profit (Elvin 2004; Roetz 2013). At the beginning of the 20th century, China was exposed to the Western concept of nature and rapidly adopted the nature-culture dichotomy (Weller 2006). Throughout the next 70 years, China was embroiled in revolutions, wars, and civil wars. Natural resources were often heavily utilized to advance political and social goals (Shapiro 2001). From the last quarter of the 20th century onward, poverty alleviation, economic development, economic growth, and wealth creation were of the highest priority to the Chinese government (Harris 2006). Out of Marxist historical materialism arose the common Chinese saying, “Mate-rial first, spiritual second,” reflecting a widespread belief that material abundance is the source of spiritual happiness (Yu et al. 2014), leaving little room for nature conservation or appreciation.

Opportunities and Challenges

Rapid industrialization in the late 20th and early 21st centuries in the Greater China region has raised the standard of living of its citizens. Yet it has been accompanied by pollution, deforestation, desertification, and other environmental and public health problems that have, in turn, combined to bring about greater state-led and citizen environmentalism (Shapiro 2016; Grano 2015; Choy 2011). Some citizen environmental organizations have included the words huāng and yě in their titles, indicating that the concept of wilderness has shed some of its repugnance. The efforts of organizations such as Society of Wilderness (Taiwan) and Wild China Film (mainland China) to promote nature conservation through management of wildlands and wildlife photography are probably contributing toward cultivating positive meanings of wilderness in the imagination of the Chinese public (Grano 2015; Zhang and Barr 2013).

Writings about nature and environmental concerns have flourished. At the beginning of the 21st century, novels focusing on the relationship between humans and wolves in the wild became best sellers and won widespread acclaim (He 2009). The academic fields of ecocriticism (Estok and Kim 2013) and environmental ethics (Lin 2010) have matured since their beginnings in the 1970s and 1980s. After having focused on interpreting theories developed by authors from Western countries, including those concerning wilderness protection, scholars are now developing concepts applicable to the specific situations in China. There is also a revival of interest in incorporating traditional Chinese views of nature into China’s transition to an ecologically sustainable economy (Miller 2006).

Despite being the most populated country in the world, large areas of China have extremely low population density. More than half the area of China’s national nature reserves lies in the sparsely populated western regions (Wu et al. 2011) (Figures 1 and 2).

Figure 1 – China’s largest nature reserves lie in the sparsely populated western regions. Composite map illustrating population density (areas colored in green to red) and the locations of protected areas exceeding 10,000 km2 (3,861 sq. miles) (red boundaries) in China. Boundaries of protected areas derived from IUCN and UNEP-WCMC (2016). Base map of population density provided by China Data Center (2015) based on 2010 county population census.

Figure 2 – At an average altitude of 4,000 meters (2.5 miles) above sea level, the Qinghai-Tibet plateau in western China is one of the least populated regions of China and of the world. Nomadic pastoralism is one of the traditional livelihoods. Photo by Claudia Cheng.

According to the World Database on Protected Areas, there are currently more than 2,000 protected areas in China covering 1.6 million square kilometers (617,763 sq. miles). None of them has been reported as being managed as an IUCN Category 1b wilderness area (IUCN and UNEP-WCMC 2016). Yet China’s nature reserves in sparsely populated regions are good matches for Category 1b wilderness areas, which are “large … slightly modified areas, retaining their natural character, … without permanent or significant human habitation, managed so as to protect the long-term ecological integrity of the area and undisturbed by significant human activity” (Dudley 2008).

On the other hand, many of China’s protected areas are, in reality, “paper parks.” Managers lack sufficient resources to implement their mandate of conservation. Mining has taken place even in areas with the highest level of protection. National parks have the additional role of generating income and employment (Yeh 2013). The government continues to have plans to develop the western regions, especially for the extraction of natural resources (Su and Cui 2016; Yeung and Shen 2004). From the social perspective, people living in the sparsely populated regions of China are among the poorest of the country. Both limiting their access to local natural resources and sometimes resettling them to places outside protected areas raise additional issues of social justice (Yeh 2013; Han 2006). Outside protected areas, there has been little incorporation of the concepts of wilderness into land management practices in China (Wu et al. 2013). There has been documentation of loss of wild areas (Zhang 2011). Protect-ing areas wholly as wilderness areas is considered by some to be an imported Western perspective and has rarely been voiced in the Chinese literature (Ma et al. 2009; Han 2006). Increases in population and urbanization continue to place insatiable demands for land. Many opportunities as well as challenges are likely to continue to shape the relationship between the Chinese people and wilderness in the 21st century.

In countries that now have legal regimes of wilderness protection (c.f. Martin and Watson 2009), wilderness was also often once considered as undesirable, as wasteland by the first settlers (e.g., Nash 2001; Hall 1992). Public opinion started to change when the human footprint expanded so much that wilderness became a rarity, a commodity that was worth valuing. Is it possible that Chinese people are following a similar trajectory? The mindset of “material first” in China has resulted in rapid economic development as well as deterioration of the environment. Severe sandstorms and air pollution have caused significant human suffering. The Chinese population is, as a consequence, becoming increasingly aware of the costs of prioritizing utilitarian orientations toward nature at the expense of environmental quality. What is more likely is that differences in the past (arising from environmental and cultural history) and the present (linked more to this historical time period, advances in technology, characteristics of governance, and increasing availability of information) will continue to dictate a relationship with wilderness that will remain unique to the Chinese mind.


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TINA TIN grew up in the city of Hong Kong and caught the wilderness bug while studying in Alaska and conducting research in Antarctica. She now lives not too far from the wild summits of the French Alps; email:


RIVER YANG grew up in the city of Xi’an, the ancient capital of China, and was educated in China and the United States. River has participated in three World Wilderness Congresses and continues to explore wilderness concepts around the world. She now lives close to wilderness in Missoula, Montana; email: