China’s natural beauty captured the heart and soul of 2007 Ramon Magsaysay Awardee Tang Xiyang. Devoting his life to advocating its preservation, Tang used the weapon he knows best: his pen. Through his Greatness of Spirit and lyrical prose, he wrote words as beautiful and as graceful as the natural wonder it aims to protect.
To poets, artists, and musicians, nature is a great inspiration. To writer Tang Xiyang, pioneer of the environmental protection movement in China, nature is also a life saver. In his darkest hour, when political persecution and separation from loved ones all but sapped his will to go on living, “flowing waters,…singing birds, and rustling leaves” revived his spirit. These alone, he realized, made life worth living.
Now that nature is in distress, he is repaying the debt of gratitude by advocating its protection and preservation, especially among the youth. Exploring China’s rich and vast nature reserves and studying how other countries were managing their national parks and wildlife refuges, he showed his country of 1.4-billion people how they could arrest further degradation and address the environmental crisis.
For this he was chosen to receive the 2007 Ramon Magsaysay Award for Peace and International Understanding.
His message is simple: If man is to protect himself, he must protect nature. He once said in a TV interview that nature is “in pain” from centuries of exploitation. “When it has had enough, it can only wreak revenge on the human race by means of natural calamities.” Unlike man, who can complain to someone about his pain, he continued, nature has no one to complain to, so he offered to speak on her behalf.
Tang was in his 50s—and on a new lease on life from Mother Nature—when he embarked on his “green” career. A student at Beijing Normal University in the infancy of the People’s Republic, he became a political reporter for Beijing Daily in 1952, but was later denounced as a Rightist and was sentenced to hard labor in the countryside. There, he once wrote, “nature reclaimed me.”
He survived, but his wife was beaten to death by Red Guards, and for many years his two daughters were left to fend for themselves.
After his vindication in 1980, he started Great Nature magazine, which reported on China’s nature protection zones. Retiring 10 years later, he traveled extensively, getting to know Mother Nature more intimately, wrote books and gave lectures on environmental issues.
He has authored nearly a dozen books, mostly with the support of and in collaboration with Marcia Bliss Marks, an American university lecturer whom he met during a nature trip and later married. Nature was also Tang’s matchmaker.
The most well-known of these books is A Green World Tour, regarded as the bible of China’s young environmentalists. More than an a traveler’s account, the book rouses reverence for China’s natural treasures, which include the world’s highest mountain, Qomolangma, named after a goddess by Tibetans who marked it on their map as far back as 300 years ago, but is more popularly known today by is Western-given name, Everest.
In 1996, moved by an appeal from a reader to intervene in a government plan to fell a 100-square-kilometer forest in Yunnan province, Tang thought of organizing what became known as Green Camp for College Students. The plan threatened the snub-nosed golden monkey, which thrived uniquely in the area, located near Tibet (and believed to be the inspiration for the myth of Shangri-la).
Tang wanted to investigate the report, and took a group of students along to observe and gain field experience. That first camp, which drew 21 participants, created such an impact that the government abandoned its plan.
Every year hence, campers set off for primeval forests and wetlands and conduct research on biodiversity, desertification, water pollution, coastal ecology, protection of endangered animals and other pressing issues. They also help educate local communities.
Over the years, spin-off camps have spread out from Beijing to Shanghai, Nanjing and other cities, organized by the first groups of campers, most of whom have joined China’s environmental NGOs.
The mission of Green Camp is to foster concern for the environment and engage the youth in its protection, he told the Ramon Magsaysay Award Foundation (RMAF). “I think of it as a kind of school, where the students are educated about nature,” he said.
Although he is aware of its impact, he stressed that its purpose is “simply to create awareness…it is not the solution to our environmental problems.”
His function, he added, is to inform. And he does so in an engaging manner, with a child’s sense of wonder and, at the same time, a philosopher’s wisdom, so much so that his audience cannot but be compelled at least to rethink the way they regard their surroundings.
A Green World Tour is a grand adventure story, laden with anecdotes about exciting encounters with rarely seen animals and vivid images of panoramas from the beginning of time. The book, published in Chinese (1993) and in English (1999), has been well-received, reprinted many times over.
Being a former journalist, Tang investigates every topic that piques his interest in order to gather first-hand information and, wherever possible, gain personal experience.
“In Xishuangbanna I insisted on seeing the wild elephants before I left. On Fanjing Mountain I would not leave without seeing the snub-nosed golden monkeys…At Tangjiahe, I refused to go home before I could take a look at the gnu,” he wrote in the book’s Preface.
“Though my encounters with these exotic animals and plants were brief and, on occasion, fleeting, achieving my purpose was a meaningful, dynamic, and beautiful process which entailed hardship and such dangers as beasts of prey, poisonous snakes, mountain floods and injuries from accidental slips,” he said, arguing that “one must experience some danger in life.”
He regales the reader with wonderful sights, such as in the panda’s natural habitat, in Sichuan’s Wolong Nature Reserve: “We were surrounded by virgin forest—soaring firs, spruces, and bronze birches, with vines and bamboo thickets filling in the empty spaces. Lichens and mosses of all colors of the rainbow deepened the air of mystery pervading the forest…For me, after living nearly half a century in a city, it was like coming home to Mother Nature…”
He fascinates with little known facts, such as those about golden monkeys, a species native to Guizhou province: “Fossils…have been discovered in…a county not far from Mount Fanjing [a famous Buddhist shrine more than 200 years ago], indicating that the monkeys were living there as early as the fourth century. Only 300 to 500 of these monkeys remain on earth.
“Numerous naturalists, zoologists…had gone to Mount Fanjing to look for golden monkeys,” he wrote. “For 70 or more years no one saw a single one.” Tang did.
The book also takes Chinese to task for “denuding forests, reclaiming farmlands from prairies…and hunting giant pandas, tigers, and wild elephants,” while imparting lessons learned from visits to national parks across Asia, North America, and Europe. There, he discovered, people had awakened to the damaged they had done to nature and were now “recovering prairies and marshes…and reserving bushes and grass in their parks for butterflies and dragonflies.”
In France, for example, Tang learned the importance of understanding inter-relationships in managing livelihoods while protecting nature. “Some destruction of nature was caused by people intending to protect nature but who did not understand what they were doing,” he wrote.
“Nature conservation requires more than good intentions; it needs science. The more scientific information one has, the better one understands the simple truth, and vice versa,” he continued.
It took three years to write the book, a collaboration between Tang, whose English had become poor from disuse, and Marcia, whose Chinese was far better than his English.
Ever since they met in 1981 during an excursion in Xishuangbanna—he to see wild elephants and she, to watch birds—the couple had been traveling together and sharing their love for nature and philosophies on life.
With Marcia’s help, Tang was able to publish his first book, Living Treasures, in New York, in 1986. It was also to her that he first broached the Green Camp concept and got the support to get it started, even though she had been stricken with cancer by then.
Marcia died the day the first campers set off for the endangered forest in Yunnan, as though passing on the torch to the next generation. But she had recorded a send-off message, which was played at the camp’s opening ceremony. Her message read in part:
“Be quiet and let nature come to you. Don’t plod on unseeing, unaware…You’re young enough to retain a sense of wonder. Actually, we’re all young enough, but sometimes we bury this sense of wonder under cares and concerns that we rather needlessly pursue. Wonder goes along with creativity and inspiration—without it we would have no great writers or artists and no great scientists. Nature not only fosters a sense of wonder but [also] confirms its truth and validity.”
The message is published in full in a chapter of A Green World Tour, titled “Marcia Travels with Us,” which details her illness and how she courageously coped with it and graciously faced her death.
Tang has been told that readers shed tears over this chapter. That is why, he wrote in its Preface, the book “walked through a life full of ups and downs. I ‘walked’ this book, not with my legs, but with my heart, my emotions, and my life.”
Echoing Marcia’s farewell message, Tang wrote a commentary inspired by Japanese economist’s book, Apes that Wear Pants. The title referred to man, Tang explained, and “’pants’ have given him all kinds of qualities: mysterious and dissolute, honest and hypocritical, religious and evil, civilized and absurd, protective and destructive, peaceful and bellicose. My experience…and my ‘green’ philosophy make me think sometimes that man would fare better without ‘pants.’”
Now 77, Tang remains active. Two years ago, he delivered 130 lectures in 17 cities. He has just published another book, Green Camp (2007), three years after the widely publicized Wrong, Wrong, Wrong, a compilation of views of more than 180 environmentalists and his own thoughts on man’s faulty attitudes toward nature and why it is important to stop making the same mistakes.
Tang believes that nature follows its own law, and that while man can conquer disease, “there are some things that only nature can control,” like death.
“In nature one can find the most beautiful painting, the most touching melody and the most sophisticated philosophy…Nature can give me everything,” he once said in an interview. “I believe in nature as I believe in God.”