Image taken by Flickr user Lihi Koren

by Mary Wang
Title inspired by Through the fog: Descripting the present, curated by Nick Aikens

Jinan, China

Like many other tradition-respecting Chinese offspring, I make the trip back to China every year to visit my ageing grandparents. They’ve lived in the same place for over half of my life. Their house is in an area that, within a few years, has changed from an outer neighborhood to what is now the inner city. When I pulled on to their street, I passed their address a few times, but the heavy smog that had covered the city was so dense their building was barely visible.

I was in the city of Jinan, the capital of Shandong, a province next to Beijing. In many respects, Jinan is an average Chinese city: with its 8 million inhabitants, it’s big by most standards, except in China. Its population growth of 6 million people in twenty years is significant. Not unrelated to the previous two numbers, it’s so heavily polluted that on half of the days that I was there, the measured air pollution was six times as high as the average of New York City, which would be shocking anywhere else — except in China.

Jinan used to be distinguished by its natural springs. Jinan is often called ‘Spring City’ because seventy-two artesian springs are located within its borders, pushed up by the earth’s internal pressure into the city’s many lakes and springs. Looking into the waters of Da Ming lake, we used to see the leaves of weeping willow fondle the water, blushing lotus plants boating through, red pagoda’s mirrored in the water. Baotu Spring used to be visited by the Qianlong emperor (1711-1799), whose handwritten tablet still guards the pool, declaring it “the best spring under heaven.” My dad used to tell me how, when he was growing up, he simply dug a hole in the ground and drank the spring water that sprayed out. He said it was the sweetest water he’d ever tasted.

The city view today is comprised of vague outlines of buildings, with the fine lines smudged away as if someone had taken an eraser to quickly change the details in a drawing but hadn’t filled it anew

Nowadays, even Jinan’s tap water isn’t drinkable. In theory, it’s safe to drink once its boiled, but most people dislike its taste, a pungent mix of metal and chlorine. The springs have dried up, and the water in the lakes has stopped reflecting what hangs above it. While boating on the lake, I was told to stay away from the edge as much as possible to prevent the water from dirtying my clothes, and afterwards, I was told to wash my hands.

The water’s murkiness is reflected in Jinan’s skies, a thick layer of dust covering the city year after year like a winter’s blanket. It’s hard to describe the scene with words, though you wouldn’t be able to see much in a photo anyway. The city view today is comprised of vague outlines of buildings, with the fine lines smudged away as if someone had taken an eraser to quickly change the details in a drawing but hadn’t filled it anew, leaving only the grey pieces of dirty rubber on the canvas. The mountains that usually frame Jinan’s views have disappeared behind the dust clouds. The sun is still there, but only a suggestion, and you could stare right into it without a problem. Cars have to reduce their speed on the highway, as if driving in a blizzard. Flights are usually delayed, as planes have to hover above the city and wait for the narrow time-slot in which a breeze might momentarily clear up the dust for a safe landing.

In the month before I had arrived, Beijing, in the north of the country, had declared a ‘state of emergency’, twice. The pollution was so bad that it was deemed unsafe for people to go outside – a condition the media named the ‘air-pocalypse’. The Chinese term for the condition is 雾霾, an portmanteau which combines the word for fog and the word for dust storm. During these fog storms, schools were closed, half of the city’s five million cars were taken off the road, and building sites and factories were temporarily shut down.

In the hopes of avoiding the worst pollution, I cancelled my plans to visit Beijing, and decided instead to camp out in Jinan for my whole stay. But only once I arrived there did I realize that Beijing wasn’t half as bad compared to what I found in Jinan: my throat started hurting during the short walk from the airport to the car, and on the highway from the airport into the city, we had to break sharply a few times as clouds of dust suddenly sprang up and blocked our vision. Later, I found out that Beijing wasn’t even in the top ten of most polluted cities in China. Jinan, on the other hand, occupied number seven. As the capital, Beijing is the face of the country, the face that the foreign media sees most often, so measures were taken to keep its pollution under reasonable control. Jinan, like the other cities in the top ten, wasn’t visible enough for foreign eyes to see, and as a result, not important enough to warrant clearing up.

Becoming impure

To understand the history and legacy of the city’s pollution is to understand its Confucian underpinnings. Confucius was born in Qufu, a town 100 miles south from Jinan, and the Confucius temple-complex still stood there as his legacy. Even though Confucianism underpinned China at least as much as Christianity does to the West, its legacy was particularly strong in Shandong, the province that housed Jinan as its capital. Anything from the local cuisine to its social etiquette is a direct reflection of the Confucianist view of society, one with a clear definition of social hierarchy and harmony.

I spoke to Professor Liu, the head of the philosophy department at Shandong University, a nationally regarded university that is also the biggest in the region, about the historical roots of Jinan’s pollution. Professor Liu often uses Chinese concepts to understand Western notions, and he considered himself to be in the thought lineage of Confucius. The way he spoke was decidedly Chinese, and his speech was filled with proverbs from Chinese classics. In describing China, he would often say ‘our China.’ As he spoke, it became clear to me that he didn’t consider me part of that ‘our.’ Yet, I listened.

According to professor Liu, the Chinese word for pollution, 污染 [wu ran], has a very specific meaning. The first character of the word, 污 (wu), consists of 氵, the three dots of the ‘water’ radical that signified a meaning related to water, and the word 亏 (kui), which on its own means loss, or deficiency. The second character of pollution, 染 (ran), which also has the ‘three dots of water’ in it, means to infect, or to dye. In this sense, pollution in Chinese implies an action in which something foreign intrudes into something else, and by that, disturbs its purity. Taken literally, pollution is what happens when a foreign substance is mixed in with water, causing it to become impure.

Even though it might seem that the pollution is a recent problem, its seeds were sown much earlier, before China overtook the United States in 2015 to become the world’s largest economy, before China’s booming years in the 1990s when it became the world’s largest factory, and even before former leader Deng Xiaoping opened up China’s economy in the late 1970s to private enterprises and the rest of the world. According to the Professor, it was Mao who essentially changed China’s relationship to nature.

“In the past, Taoists believed that everything in the world, including humans, had to follow the rules of nature,” he explained. “But since Mao, we came to believe that we can manipulate the world to our own will.”

After the People’s Republic of China was officiated in 1949, Mao set out to transform the new nation from an agricultural society to an industrial powerhouse. Using newly developed scientific ideas and technologies, with much of its early stages based on the Soviet model, natural resources were all subjected to rapidly expand heavy industry, a maniacal increase in steel and coal production, and an amped-up agricultural yield by collectivizing traditional farms into agricultural co-operatives. Human lives were seen as natural resources too, and between 1958 and 1961, tens of millions of lives were lost in a famine caused by The Great Leap Forward, a Mao-led movement that urged farmers to prioritize steel production over farming, forcing many to melt their pots and pans in make-shift backyard furnaces to reach the steel quotas. The Professor traced the lineage of contemporary large-scale production and the technological conquering of nature back to Mao’s legacy.

“In the Mao era, [mankind] didn’t just think that [it] could manipulate nature, but believed that [it] should.”

These questions were very urgent to contemporary Chinese philosophers.

“What we care most about is: Is this the necessary road for humans, going from an agricultural to an industrial and then to a developed society? And in that, do we have to pollute?”

There is one similarity to be found amongst many of these studies – the assumption that industrialization is a natural, or necessary end-goal.

This question has been asked by Western scholars in a different way: why did it take so long for China to industrialize? China and Europe were technologically equal in the 1500s, while Chinese society contained even more technological innovations around the 1300s, inventing power-driven textile spinning machines and efficient ways to melt iron long before the British caught up. Why then, did industrialization sweep across Europe first?

Max Weber, in his studies of capitalist development and Chinese religious culture , put forth a notion that the Protestant work ethic contributed to the emergence of capitalism in Western Europe while the values embedded in Confucianism were exactly what prevented the same process to take place in China. The Protestant work ethic, driven by the urge of man to prove himself worthy enough for salvation in the after-life, led to a strong urge to be economically successful. In pursuit of that, the world was to be rationalized into mechanized systems for predictability and productivity. A degree of rationalism was found in Confucianism as well, but it failed to instigate industrialization. Summarizing the full content of his analysis here would not do it justice, but it is enough for now to say that Weber saw the Confucianist society as one that, because of its pacifist character and the lack of a notion of an after-life, didn’t have the will to pursue methodical control. His analysis didn’t acknowledge that Confucianism was exactly a system to control both nature and society, and as time went on, more and more criticism started to emerge on Weber’s view. Other scholars, for example, attributed China’s technological plateau to the totalitarian hold of the state . Yet, there is one similarity to be found amongst many of these studies – the assumption that industrialization is a natural, or necessary end-goal.

Dusting the heart

Another reason the Professor is particularly concerned with pollution is partly because of the nature of Chinese philosophy itself. The characters for philosophy in Chinese are 哲学 (zhe xue). He explained that the first one, 哲 (zhe), means philosophy, and it was a word that already existed in the early Classics, dating over 2000 years ago. The second character, 学 (xue), which means ‘the study of’, has also existed for a long time. Even though it was the Japanese who had put these two characters together as the translation for the Western word ‘philosophy’,the character 哲 had its own significance in China. Within the character sat the character for intelligence, 慧 (hui), which in itself consisted of the word for broom, 彗 (hui), sitting above the word for heart, 心 (xin).

“In ancient times,” the Professor explained, “[The character] ‘哲’ implied to sweep away the dust that is on the heart. The term literally means the study of how to make our heart clearer and brighter, like a mirror.”

In Jinan, it was so dusty outside that I had to wrap my body and hair as if I was traversing a desert. The cars all looked like they hadn’t been washed in decades even though everyone was washing their cars all the time. At night, rays of neon light were reflected through the dust particles, creating uncanny tableaus in which darkness and light seemed to be blurred into an impressionistic painting, in which it was no longer possible to read what the sign was supposed to advertise. The visibility was so limited that when I woke up in the morning and looked out of my bedroom window, I sometimes would just see nothing.

My dad always says that it’s important to have a room with a view because the reach of visibility paralleled the depth of the heart. In Jinan, the limited visibility restricted what people could perceive as their immediate environment. It was impossible to read people’s expressions as they were all hidden behind hoods and masks – no one smiled at each other, nor looked each other in the eye. People seemed to have surrendered to the pollution already, and instead of fighting the condition, they resorted to checking tomorrow’s smog factor as if it was the weather, something that would come and go. Once, I was taken out for lunch in an upscale restaurant with floor to ceiling windows that were supposed to look out on the mountain, except that we couldn’t see the mountain through the fog, so instead, we turned our heads away from the window and stared at our food.

According to the Professor, the problem of pollution had to do with the question of desire.

“Philosophy can do many things,” he said. “One of them is to make people less greedy.”

He explained that, alongside with the pollution, income inequality had risen in the past thirty years to an unprecedented scale. Compared to now, life in ancient times was reasonably equal. There weren’t many large landowners, and it was hard to accumulate any wealth in an agricultural society.

“In Confucianism, the agricultural life has always been the ideal. We strived for things like, Small Country, Little People, 小国寡民 , or The Sounds of Chicken and Dogs Are Alike, 鸡犬之声相闻 .”

The country’s development had led to an exaggerated pursuit of wealth, which then fed into the profit-based thinking that was the root of the environmental destruction. In prioritizing growth, the government refrained from setting regulatory limits, and anyone from money-hungry private enterprises, ambitious local leaders to families in search for a better life, was willing to look away from the future, only seeing the immediate present.

For him, these issues also had to do with conflicting notions of time. He explained that there are two types of time in China. The first one is the time we experience with our inner selves, our subjective time. This was the type of time that could go very fast the one second, and move extremely slowly the next. This was the type of time that you would take if you’d just want to sit around all day and drink tea. This was how the ancients experienced time.

“Confucius said that time is like flowing water. The past, the present, and the future are all part of this flow together,” he said.

He called the second type of time mechanical time, which was the time of the clock. The day is divided into twenty-four hours, the hours divided into sixty minutes, the minutes divided into sixty seconds. Our lives are divided into work-shifts, and we have to calculate how much we can do in eight hour periods, how much money we earn in monthly terms, how much we sleep on a daily basis. The nature has been bent by people to fit into this mechanical time, and as a result, is being exhausted. The Professor saw how this rigid time had also trapped Chinese people, leading to increased pressure, stress, and the feeling of being constantly rushed by time, yet, it is exactly the person who lives within this system that doesn’t feel like he has time. Instead, he feels collapsed by it: unable to look at the future or the past, only seeing the immediate present.


Yet, some argue that the exploitation of nature in China started long before its introduction to the West. In “The Retreat of the Elephants: An Environmental History of China”, Mark Elvin finds a direct link between the disappearance of elephants in Chinese territory 3,000 years ago and the economical development and deforestation in these pre-modern times. For Elvin, this typifies a paradox in Chinese attitudes, where nature was seen as a source of wisdom and a transcendental experience on the one hand, but was also a resource to be tamed and exploited for human benefit. In his words, “classical Chinese culture was as hostile to forests as it was fond of individual trees” . In the years between 900 BCE and now, elephants retreated as their forest habitat was turned into farmland, and whole populations died from farmers intentionally exposing them to direct sun. As farmers defended their crops from trampling and plundering, elephants walked into city walls looking for resources that were no longer theirs, and up to the present day, the hunt for their ivory and trunks still continues, some of them displayed in Chinese herbal medicine shops, wrapped in red silk.

They work the land, plant some seeds, read the Classics, and forget about the fast-paced machinery of the city. In the city, they feel, their time is meaningless.

The exploitation of nature is not unique to China, nor is the mythologising of it. Therefore, it’s less useful to turn around blindly to face the past, than to understand how what is taking place in China now, no matter how extraordinary, is still firmly grounded in patterns that have been set many dynasties ago. The craving for change has always been part of China, and with that, its longing for progress.

Besides figures in philosophy, also the general public is rediscovering the value of the past. Buddhism, Taoism and Confucianism are quickly reclaiming territory that had been lost from Mao’s Cultural Revolution to China’s economic boom. Reprinted Confucius’ teachings became new bestsellers, parks outside were populated by people practicing Qi Gong and Tai Chi, despite the pollution, and pharmacy franchises selling Chinese herbal medicine were popping up in shopping malls.

“There is a whole movement of city-dwellers moving to the countryside, or into monasteries in Tibet. There, they work the land, plant some seeds, read the Classics, and forget about the fast-paced machinery of the city. In the city, they feel, their time is meaningless.”

And it wasn’t just the laymen. Also philosophers, some of whom were his colleagues at the university, where doing something similar. Designating themselves as ‘countryside philosophers’, these scholars return to the disappearing countryside to look for old ways of being together. Others established ‘test zones’ on the countryside in which they experimented with traditional ways of living.

It seems these Chinese dwellers aren’t so much looking for an alternative life as rediscovering the pleasures of old ways. They are looking for an uncontaminated life, but one that is as environmentally and culturally pure, while also seeking a solution more effective than current Western ways. Evan Osnos described the current revival of Confucianism in China in a New Yorker article as ‘Confucius Comes Home’, a movement quite the opposite to when Mao called to smash old traditions during the Cultural Revolution, leading to the destruction of hundreds of temples and countless cultural artifacts. Nowadays, Peking University and other respected schools have created mid-career courses that promised to reveal “commercial wisdom” in ancient philosophy, while around the country, tourists flock en masse to the few surviving Confucius temples, of which the most famous is in Qufu, his birth place. Osnos traced the budding of this revival to the early 1990’s, when the Communist Party needed an ‘indigenous ideology’ to restore its image after it violently cracked down on the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests.

“Top Communists gave speeches at meetings devoted to Confucianism, and state television launched a series about traditional culture intended, it said, “to boost the people’s self-confidence, self-respect, and patriotic thought”. In February, 2005, the Communist Party chief, Hu Jintao, quoted Confucius’ observation that “harmony is something to be cherished.”

I visited Qufu’s Confucius temple at the end of my trip. To call it a temple is misleading – it was more like a Russian doll centered around the location of the straw hut in which Confucius was born, around which successive emperors, in the two thousand or so years that have passed, have added new rings of worship structures. Making my way to the inside of the complex was like physically traveling through time, stepping through dragon-decorated outer gates on which the paint was still bright red on to inner walls in the core of the complex whose surfaces were left naked by colors that had long flaked off. Each of the rings was preceded by a gate, on top of which the commissioning emperor left a written tablet, a textual reminder of how Confucius’ teachings had been reinterpreted with every new ruler. In one of the inner gardens stood a stone tablet three times my height, displaying a Confucianist text. A crack that had split the tablet in the middle, a legacy from when students attempted to destroy it during the Cultural Revolution, had been mended. The fissure was still clearly visible, but it didn’t look entirely out of place. Like other cracks and breaks, this too had become another page in the temple’s history.

It was clear that Confucius’ legacy was still very much alive. In his article, Evan Osnos described how Qufu, in marketing itself, had ‘adopted comparisons to Jerusalem and Mecca’, and now calls itself ‘The Holy City of the Orient’, receiving 4,4 million visitors in 2013, which was more than Israel that year. In honoring his lineage, everyone with the surname Kong, the Chinese name Confucius is a translation of, was given free entrance to the temple. Further up in the town, the Kong family cemetery held the grave of Confucius and generations of his direct descendants, of which many went on to occupy important governing positions. The whole cemetery was the size of nearly 200 soccer fields, in which over 100,000 members of the Kong family have been buried, with graves added to this day.

But Qufu’s city walls couldn’t keep out the dust. The pollution in Qufu was even worse than in Jinan. Even though the town itself and its attractions were maintained meticulously, it could not resist the winds blowing in smog from the adjacent rural areas, where there the stakes in keeping up the appearances were a lot smaller. Within Qufu, it was clear that the town depended on Confucius’ legacy for its survival. The town didn’t contain many other industries than tourism, so most locals in the city center depended on Confucius for their daily bread in some capacity, whether they were working as drivers, tour guides, or selling a range of traditional foods from the area. Qufu’s buildings were all rebuilt in the traditional architectural style when it was designated a ‘special tourist zone’ a few years ago, except for its elaborate visitor’s center, which looked more like an Olympic stadium.

My grandpa is the only one in my family who has visited Qufu. He passed by the city when he still worked as a driver, but never stepped out of the car to visit the temple because he didn’t want to waste the time of his bosses. He used to drive around Party officials back in the day, and they were too busy building the country his offspring would grow up in. My seven-year old cousin has never visited, though his mother is now planning a trip as he had just started memorizing ancient Confucianist texts in school. The temple he’ll see won’t be the same as what my grandpa would have seen. No matter how dense the history is of the Confucius temple, its walls are now covered in a layer of dust.

Mary Wang

Mary Wang is a Chinese-Dutch writer who recently received her MFA in non-fiction from Columbia University. Her pseudonym is Dr. Wang, with which she investigates the spread of Chinese medicine across the world as a bemused medical layman. The project’s findings will be distilled in bookform, and some of the fingers are currently set in a podcast called ‘Ask Dr Wang’, which can be found on

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