Portrait of the Chinese Ecologist Chen Minhao (Essay, November, 2011)

Emanuel Pastreich

Circles and Squares

November 28, 2011


Portrait of the Chinese Ecologist Chen Minhao (陈敏豪)

I was a graduate student in Japan back in 1991, working on my master’s thesis at University of Tokyo and I had just started to think about returning to the United States for a Ph.D. program in East Asian studies. I was particularly interested in Ming literature, because it had had such an impact in Japan during the 18th century—my field of specialization. In my search for good graduate programs, I had been introduced to University of Indiana, specifically to Professor Lynn Struve, a scholar of Ming/Qing history with whom I thought I might study with in the United States. I wrote to her and learned that she would be spending the summer in Shanghai at Fudan University. I quickly bought a ticket and made an appointment to stay at the Peace Hotel (和平饭店) while visiting Shanghai. I arrived late in the evening in Shanghai and was shocked by what I found when I arrived at the hotel. The Peace Hotel that I had stayed in a few years previously had been completely transformed. No longer was the Peace Hotel a humble place where students stay for cheap. It had become a luxury hotel costing about four times what it had been two years previously. A Chinese friend of mine at University of Tokyo had recommended that I contact a professor named Chen Minhao at Jiaotong University (交通大学) who might be helpful when I was in Shanghai. Although I did not know him at all, I called him up immediately and asked him for his advice as to what I should do.

As soon as I called up Professor Chen he came over immediately to the hotel to meet me. An incredibly enthusiastic and considerate man, Professor Chen wouldnot rest until he had completely solved the problems that I faced. It seemed to be irrelevant that I was someone he had never met before referred to him by student he also did not know well. He immediately took me to the Shanghai Conservatory of Music (上海音乐学院) where he had a close friend who was a professor. I was given a very comfortable room there and more importantly, surrounded by enthusiastic students who made sure that I was well taken care of.

Professor Chen was a very energetic man, constantly talking and trying to be pleasant. He showed such an interest in me and my work at that stage that I felt almost a bit uncomfortable. Why was this man whom I did not know trying so hard to be nice to me? I started to worry that perhaps he wanted something from me. But the conversations revealed to me a deep commitment to humanity and to making a personal contribution to the world. Perhaps Professor Chen had also identified something in me that he thought showed potential. Perhaps he spied something in me of which I was not aware.

I spent a day at Fudan University talking with professors in the Chinese literature department and meeting with Professor Lynne Struve, but each evening Professor Chen took care of me and we continued our conversation. I felt badly as he took me to restaurants I feared were a bit too expensive for him.   He seemed to feel it was critical to talk with me as long as possible and to get my full attention. We talked about Chinese culture and literature, about contemporary China and its changes and about Japan and the United States. And he kept bringing up the theme of the environment, for some reason I could not understand.

Professor Chen was a highly educated and thoughtful man, but he has a slightly frantic style, and a penchant for praise that made his full depth less obvious to me. I just could not figure out what he wanted from me. Then I learned what Professor Chen had in mind. He asked me over a dinner at a restaurant in what was formally a banker’s house if I would please translate into English a proposal that he wished to present to the Nobel Committee. Professor Chen proposed in this letter that the committee should establish a new Nobel Prize for the “Harmonizing the Environment and Economics” to replace the current Nobel Prize for Economics  (将诺贝尔经济学奖改为促进环境与经济协调发展奖). I certainly did not disagree with the proposal, but I did not see its relevance and doubted the receptiveness of the Nobel Committee.

Professor Chen insisted that I had to translate the proposal into English as soon as possible, and I think he would have spent even more money trying to win me over if I had let him.

Well I had plenty of experience with Chinese trying to pursuade me to translate texts into English and this particular proposal did not seem all that critical. At the time my mind was primarily caught up with the details of the 18th century and cultural exchange between China and Japan. I did not grasp why this letter was so important for Professor Chen. The whole matter seemed rather irrelevant. But Professor Chen had made a great effort to make my stay in Shanghai pleasant that I agreed that I would read his book and translate the proposal into English.

In fact, that was my last trip to Shanghai. For a variety of reasons, although I have visited ten other Chinese cities since then, I have not had occasion to visit Shanghai again. I did speak with Professor Chen on the phone several times.

I ended up as a Ph.D. student at Harvard University. He continued to write me about that translation. I kept putting the translation off. After all, I had a lot of work to do when I arrived back in the United States. I had been out of the United States for more than five years and I had much to learn about expressing myself effectively in my own language. In some respects I had lost some of my writing skills. And I simply did not know the field of Asian Studies in the United States.

But Professor Chen kept writing me short letters asking me how my studies were going. Eventually, I was able to block out some time in my schedule and sit down to read through carefully his proposal for the Nobel Prize. I slowly and laboriously translated it into English. Much of the wording seemed overly flowery, and the topic was quite distant from anything that I was working on at the moment. I finished it up and mailed it to Professor Chen in the spring of 1993.

He immediately sent me back an extremely enthusiastic letter praising my translation and its importance for him. I was a bit skeptical about the quality of my translation (and to some degree the original) and the whole matter seemed like a bit of a distraction, a favor that I had to do for a friend.

I would never meet Chen Minhao again. But I feel that I have grown to know him ever more closely since that time. We did correspond by letter, and later by email after that time. And he occasionally mailed me books and papers that he had written. I imagined a date I would visit Shanghai again, but that day did not come.

In 1995, as a prepared to study in Korea, I received a large package from Professor Chen that contained his book, Ecology: The Ecosystem: Prospects for Culture and Civilization (生态:文化与文明前景). I flipped through the book and placed it on my bookshelf without much thought. Many years later I would rediscover that book and learn that it was one of the most insightful and prescient books I have ever read.

It was not until I was in Washington D.C. in the spring of 2005, ten years after I had received the book, that the book’s significance started to dawn on me. I spent my time working on variety of conferences and seminars in Washington D.C. related to diplomacy and security. I was teaching at George Washington University and working at the culture center of the Korean Embassy organizing events to introduce Korea at the time.

I had started writing about international relations from around 2000, and put great emphasis on the need to expand our conception of what “security” means. But it was in 2005, when I saw the absolute lack of discussion concerning the importance of the environment for security and international relations, that I grasped that there was something seriously wrong.

The words of Professor Chen came back to me and I started to grasp the importance of his writings, and for the first time understood why it was so important for him to have me translate his writings into English. I started reading his book again and thinking about what he had intended. Here was a profound truth, like the man in the tale of the “Pearl of Great Price” (无价宝朱), a man who carried a great treasure sewn in the lining of his coat but never knew it.

It was my turn to go out into the world and argue for the importance of the environment, to try to do in the United States was Chen Minhao had tried to do in China. Thereafter, I tried to organize events in Washington D.C. to discuss issues related to the environment, in most cases with very little success. I worked together with David Steinberg of Georgetown University and Larry Wilkerson of William and Mary University to organize a conference on “non-traditional security threats” that would focus on the environment. In spite of considerable effort, the funding was not forthcoming.

After I arrived in Korea in 2007, I started working with several researchers in the Daedeok research cluster on issues related to technology and society. Eventually I served as the cofounder of the Daejeon Environment Forum, a group bringing together researchers from a variety of research institutes to discuss how we could make Daejeon a more environmentally friendly city. I wrote a widely-circulated article calling for Daejeon to be transformed into an ecocity that could be a model for Asia. I continue that work related to the environment to the present day, as part of both my academic and my personal life.

I spoke with Professor Chen several times on the phone while living in Korea. He was happy to hear from me and expressed his hope that I would come to visit Shanghai again. He also spoke of his own failing health and the limits on his own action. Then I ceased to hear from him. Eventually I called his number last year (2010) and learned that he had passed away.

I have spent some time reading through Professor Chen’s ideas as expressed inhhis book Ecology: The Ecosystem: Prospects for Culture and Civilization (生态:文化与文明前景, 1995). I realized not only how much I have learned from Professor Chen, but also how much I still have to learn.

I think that as a product of Yale and Harvard I was biased and unable to fully comprehend what he had to say. Professor Chen was such an unassuming and humble figure, and he did not dress in the proper manner of an Ivy League professor, when I met him in 1992. It never occurred to me just how important and visionary his work was. Professor Chen called for us to completely revise our very concept of civilization and culture in response to the ecological crisis. In 1992 his words sounded hopelessly idealistic. By 2010 they were a concrete plan for survival.


Here is a short passage from his book:


“This is a different age. The significance of ‘national security’ is no longer a matter that can be fully covered by military concepts. Whether or not people are willing to recognize it, the fact is that now simple military threats have been replaced by a new set of complex threats. The environmental crisis, which is in no way limited by national borders, extends its threat to every single country. It is a “non-military threat” to the survival and development of every citizen of the world. As for the massive military power that has been built up by nations on the basis of traditional “national security” concepts, although I grant that it is extremely massive, in the face of this threat it is powerless.”




282 生态:文化与文明前景 陈敏豪



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