what is the social function of wilderness?

The Chinese word, 荒地 (huāng dì) translates into English both as “wasteland” and as “wilderness”. More specifically, huāng dì usually refers to “land that has not (yet) been converted into arable fields”. At first blush, this dictionary translation alarms me because, as an American, wilderness refers to (yes) untamed places where the infinite creativity of the universe might be experienced – primordial forests, huge swathes of desert, the looming vastness of an ocean voyage, no matter the size of my ship. Wilderness, for me, is not simply good, but sacred -beyond the human in some foundational way; it is where we go for enlightenment. In contrast, wasteland oozes, disgusts, evokes images of wasted land, industrialization gone array – dystopian visions of Gotham. So how is it that the dictionary definition of huāng dì is both wilderness and wasteland?

Confusion arises because both Taoist and Chinese Buddhist traditions include wilderness moments. In fact, the rivers and mountains aesthetic is a wilderness tradition in the specific sense of finding oneself or god or enlightenment outside society. Moreover, like the American wilderness tradition as I know it, the point of following those rivers to the mountain is to go through the untamed in order to find, understand, and ultimately live a more fully human life.

The difference between wilderness and wasteland is critical to American conversations about sustainable lives. On the one hand, we turn to wilderness for inspiration. On the other hand, we look to wastelands – not only dystopian Gotham, but also battlefields – in order to understand the limits to human society. Likewise, the Chinese Buddhist idea of 出家 refers both to leaving the human and finding one’s humanity there. More colloquially, of course, chū jiā means to become a monk or nun.

Excluding the possibility of human enlightenment beyond society – in the wilderness, so to speak – has constituted one of the limits to socialism with Chinese characteristics. It also explains the limited dictionary definition of huāng dì because the Party both represented and embodied [social] enlightenment, remapping Chinese traditional cosmographies in terms of modern progress and industrial utopia. Full stop. Thus, in Maoism searching for human meaning outside society became a fundamental sin (religions were systematically suppressed) and a crime (access to non-socialist societies was also limited).

So what do the differences between huāng dì and wilderness/wasteland teach me?

I understand the gifts of the American tradition to be a respect for and social efforts to protect wild spaces – actual living, breathing, effervescent wilderness. I understand the gift of the Chinese tradition to be the reminder that going into the wilderness is a social act and therefore does challenge conventional lives and goals and, yes, the best laid urban plans. Thus, cultivating opportunities for people to experience wilderness is not safe in any conventional sense of the word. Nevertheless, wilderness may be the only way to revitalize the deadening effects of those social processes that result in wastelands.

So now I’m wondering, might “fields” and “田” be common ground for Sino-American discussion about sustainable globalization? Both traditions valorize fields / tián as the place where humanity makes itself at a fundamental level. Fields / tián represent a commitment to feeding ourselves through our own labor – one of the core values of Chinese attempts to reclaim huāng dì. More importantly, perhaps, fields often mark a border between society and wilderness. Consequently, when wastelands become fields, it is possible therein to begin the work of cultivating humanity, again.

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