(November 4, 2010) Francesco Sisci, the Asia Editor of La Stampa, writes about the recent passing of one China’s foremost environmentalists, Liang Congjie.
The Cultural Revolution, the Great Leap Forward and other extremes protrude so far from the pages of China’s history that they tend to obscure the many far-sighted individuals whose contributions were significant yet largely ignored in their lifetimes.
Among them, perhaps nobody falls into this category as well as Liang Congjie, father of Chinese environmentalism, who passed away last week in Beijing, aged 78. Dressed in a dapper, out-of-fashion English suit and a bowtie in the early 1990s, when most Chinese still donned drab Mao Zedong suits and were thinking of fast development and growth, Liang had founded the association Friends of Nature, preaching the need to cut emissions and pollution.
Twenty years ago, he was arguing that China needed to take care of the environment, protect animals, decrease the fumes that were choking the big cities, and put a limit on the sale of cars. In a nutshell, he was saying what now everybody knows and sees – China must rein in the carbon emissions suffocating cities and the waste poisoning major rivers.
When he spoke, people listened carefully and politely bowed their heads, but they didn’t take action. It is not clear why it had happened this way. Was the juggernaut of pollution already too big and too fast to stop? Now carrying the weight of industrial growth and the expectations of millions of consumers who want better lives in the cities, it is still rolling at break-neck speed.
Thousands of people fall into this category: they say the right thing, but people around them don’t hear it. Ancient Greeks would call it a curse of the gods: they give you the gift of seeing things in advance and the damnation of not being believed. The ancient Greeks witnessed it at the beginning of their civilization, when the Trojans, pushing for the end of the war, didn’t listen to Cassandra, their soothsayer, who was shouting, “Don’t bring that wooden horse into the city!” In fact, Cassandra’s fellow citizens did just the opposite: they brought the horse into the city, the horse (invading soldiers carried inside) led to their destruction, and even the wise soothsayer didn’t escape her demise that horrible night.
So, Liang Congjie was one of the many Chinese Cassandras: nothing special – it happens every day and everywhere. Yet he was special because he was a third-generation Cassandra trying to protect his country. His father, Liang Sicheng, the father of Chinese architecture, as now celebrated as the one who tried to stop Mao from his foolish idea of tearing down old Beijing. The elder Liang argued that the old cities should be preserved and new cities should be simply built next to the ancient ones.
Culture, he said, is made of bricks, mortar, and wood, as well as of ink on paper – and one is weaker without the other. But Mao didn’t want simply to make a new China. He wanted to settle his vendetta against the old one and to sit triumphantly on the wasteland of his predecessors, the ones who didn’t recognize his talents and made him a revolutionary. So Liang Sicheng’s plans were shelved, and he famously cried sitting on Beijing’s city walls the night before the demolition started.
His was already chapter two of their family tragedy. Chapter one had started over half a century earlier when Sicheng’s father, Liang Qichao, tried to guide an ill-fated movement to reform the crumbling Qing Empire.
Liang Qichao and his older friend and “accomplice”, Kang Youwei, thought of changing the failing empire as the Meiji reformation movement had just changed Japan and set it on course to become a modern power. They failed, and their emperor, young Guanxu, was arrested and then killed. Kang and Liang narrowly escaped death, and Liang Qichao ended up believing that communism could possibly save China.
Liang Congjie then was no simple prophet. He was the target of a curse that stretched from generation to generation, as if Greek tragedy interloped with the Buddhist hell in which the sins of the fathers spawn the damnation of the sons. Moreover, it is hard to see what tragedy was worse, the end of the empire, the dissolution of peerless monumental cities, or the beginning of the poisoning of the air and water on an almost global scale.
Yet the problem is not just within China – it is all of us who are around China. When in the summer of 1992, in Ostia, near Rome, Liang Congjie was speaking of the coming tragedy of Chinese pollution, I scoffed. I thought China had many problems but pollution was not one of them. He looked at me and shrugged because he knew people would not believe him, and yet he continued to tell what he thought was right without shouting, crying, or making heroic poses.
To his decency and modesty, perhaps even more than to his clairvoyance, we owe respect and the self-criticism to avoid repeating the mistakes we made with Liang Congjie and his forefathers.
Liang is survived by his wife, a son and a daughter.
Francesco Sisci is the Asia Editor of La Stampa. His e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org. Originally published in Asia Times Online on November 04, 2010.