Image of Photo of Prof Adam Yuet Chau and cover of his book Religion in China

Homo Arborealus: the intermeshing of regimes of tree-mindedness

The China Centre lecture on Thursday 3 March 2022 was given by Professor Adam Yuet Chau, Professor of the Anthropology of China, Faculty of Asian and Middle Eastern Studies, University of Cambridge, and Fellow and Director of Studies at St John's College, Cambridge.

Professor Chau’s lecture addressed the issue of ‘tree-mindedness’ in China today. He traced the lineage of tree-mindedness in China, stretching back to the recommendation made by Sun Yatsen in 1915, that March 12 should be set aside each year for national tree-planting. It has remained the day on which across China the mass of the Chinese population participates in tree-planting. Alongside the mass of the population, China’s leaders, from Mao Zedong, Zhou Enlai and Deng Xiaoping, to Xi Jinping and Li Keqiang, have all participated in the national tree-planting day. Planting ‘friendship trees’ has also played a role in China’s international relations. Professor Chau examined the way in which production units have mobilised huge numbers of people to participate in tree-planting, involving complex logistical arrangements for people, saplings and equipment.

Professor Chau explained the role that tree-planting has played in a single county in north-central China, where he conducted fieldwork. His objective in the research was to understand the community’s sense of compulsion to plant trees and protect them. The local temple was the cornerstone of the massive re-forestation efforts in the county. Donations to the temple were used to support the tree-planting operation, which has a spiritual purpose through its contribution to the construction of an ‘ecological civilisation’.

The Q&A session discussed the following issues: Joseph Needham’s involvement in tree planting in Inner Mongolia in 1958; the role of trees in western culture; the relationship of trees to human beings’ attitudes to death, including yew trees in churchyards in the West; the way in which large-scale tree-planting is organised in China today; the possibilities for tree-planting to be linked with the huge aquifer under the Taklamakan Desert in Xinjiang province; the linkage between ‘tree-mindedness’ in China and global cosmopolitan tree-mindedness; and the significance of the term of ‘homo arborealus’, which Prof Chau used in his lecture.

Adam Yuet Chau is Professor of the Anthropology of China teaching in the Department of East Asian Studies, University of Cambridge, and is a Fellow at St. John’s College. He is the author of Miraculous Response: Doing Popular Religion in Contemporary China (Stanford University Press 2006) and Religion in China: Ties That Bind (Polity 2019), and edited Religion in Contemporary China: Revitalization and Innovation (Routledge 2011). He is interested in developing better ways of conceptualising Chinese religious culture. One of his out-reach ambitions is to stop people from asking the question ‘How many religions are there in China?’ He is currently working on other book projects investigating the idiom of hosting (zuozhu) and forms of powerful writing (‘text acts’) in Chinese political and religious culture. He is also editing a volume entitled Chinese Religious Culture in 100 Objects, with more than 100 contributors from all over the world.