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Department 1

Religious Studies


Many studies have explored conceptualizations of heaven (tian 天) in early Chinese thought, but few if any have explored understandings of heaven's later cosmological counterpart, earth (di 地). This article examines Chinese understandings of earth and land (tu 土) in pre-Qin 先秦sources. In ancient texts such as the Book of Odes (Shi jing詩經) and Book of Documents (Shang shu尚書), the earth is not yet the paired counterpart to heaven that it will become in later Warring States (fifth-third centuries BCE) texts. Older works often depict earth and land as passive recipients of heaven's forces or human activity. Earth and land are not inherently fecund sources of fertility but must be activated by meteorological forces or agricultural labor. Earth and land provide benefits or beneficence (li 利) for human beings, who believe themselves entitled to earth's resources. Earth and land are commoditized, deforested, taxed, parceled into enfeoffments, platted out as cities, and formed into agricultural grids.

It is only in later texts such as the Daodejing 道德經, Zhuangzi 莊子 , and Book of Rites 禮記that earth becomes a counterpart to heaven. Although earlier attitudes toward earth and land do not disappear, in these later works, earth is also sacralized. It becomes a numinous, generative power and receives ritual offerings of gratitude and recompense. This article examines these varied conceptualizations of earth and land in these texts as well as in the Analects (Lunyu論語) of Confucius and in the Xunzi 荀子.


This book chapter was originally prepared for the international conference and book workshop “Religious Diversity and Ecological Sustainability” convened at Minzu University of China (中央民族大学) in Beijing from March 6-9, 2012. The conference was sponsored by the Max Planck Institute for the Study of Religious and Ethnic Diversity in Göttingen, Minzu University of China, and the Yale Forum on Religion and Ecology. The essay was translated into Chinese for this conference volume by Xu Yang 徐洋and Meng Man 孟曼of the School of Ethnology and Sociology 民族学与社会学学院of Minzu University.

A longer English version of this article is available as the book chapter "Conceptualizations of Earth and Land in Classical Chinese Texts," which appears in Religion and Ecological Sustainability in China (London: Routledge, 2014: 29-47), the English-language edition of the conference volume. This work is edited by James Miller, Dan Smyer Yu, and Peter van der Veer.

The English version available from the publisher at: