China and its deep ideas, tailor-made for royal ears
As the environmental adviser to Britain’s Prince Philip, Martin Palmer noted that Queen Elizabeth, who has just celebrated her 90th birthday, has reigned longer than he has been alive.
It is that longevity that has allowed Palmer, 62, who also is a Sinologist, to help interpret the richness of Chinese cultures for the royal family for many years, since he met them in the 1980s.
Palmer meets Prince Philip, who is 94, three or four times a year and talks with the queen once every two or three years.
Taoism, Confucianism and the introduction of Chinese values in dealing with challenges of environmental protection and global warming are among their talking points.
“I think the interesting thing about the royal family and in particular about the queen is primarily longevity, a prime Chinese value,” said Palmer, secretary-general of the Alliance of Religions and Conservation, an environmental organization founded by Prince Philip in the United Kingdom.
For the queen’s 90th birthday, celebrated twice this year, Palmer links longevity to Chinese values. He credited, first, “a tremendous sense of duty, which in her case is very much founded upon filial duty — a great Confucian virtue”.
The royal couple have asked how Confucianism shapes China, and what are the traditions of meditation and the core philosophical concepts of heaven, earth and humanity.
Palmer recalled the queen also asked why there were no wars between these belief systems, intrigued as to how the different traditions of Taoism, Buddhism and Confucianism work side by side in China.
In 1985 Palmer met the royal family for the first time when he was invited to talk to Prince Philip, who at that time was the international president of the World Wildlife Fund.
Palmer had written a book for the WWF, looking at how different religions view the natural world, depending on what they believed about its origins.
Palmer was following the same cultural path as President Xi Jinping did in his speech to UNESCO in March 2014, when he was visiting France. Palmer called Xi’s speech one of the most interesting speeches by a Chinese president in recent years.
Xi spoke very powerfully about China’s cultures, traditions and civilizations, which should be part of recipe to bring China out of the dilemmas it faces, he said.
Palmer said “ecological civilization”, a phrase often used in Chinese policy, is a fascinating expression that he first came across in 2006 when he had been working with Taoists in China on protecting their sacred mountains and on their moral and spiritual influence on China, which he has been doing since 1995.
This is a concept, he said, that reflects the notion that the Chinese have begun to care not just for themselves but for people who are less fortunate than themselves, and for the forests, the rivers and the fish after the rapid development of the past three decades.
“These had been shown in the Chinese classics for thousands of years and this is a rediscovery of Chinese civilization because it could shape how we lived,” he said.
“And so I have watched over what is now 10 years, this rediscovery, reevaluation of the best of cultural tradition.”
The old Confucian phrases of benevolence, or ren li, are rooted in what it is to be a good human being, he said.
“So when ecological civilization came along, for me, I could trace its history.”
Palmer said the idea of having phases of ecological civilization — which has become one of the overriding developmental components of the Communist Party of China since 2012 — should be given global recognition.
Now one of the problems is that the West has so devalued its own notion of civilization that it does not quite get it when a country said it wants civilization, Palmer said.
“This is China’s great gift, that we can have an ecological civilization, which will come into being. So I think that the significance of ecological civilization is that it is a profound challenge to a Western, materialistic world.”
For years he has translated Buddhist, Taoist and Confucian texts into English.
“I am translating at the moment the Three Kingdoms, and that wisdom that is embedded in those texts and stories, that is what I understand by civilization,” he said.
Palmer said he is in talks with different organizations in China, including the Party’s cultural and communication units, about making a six-part series tied to the Silk Road. It would look at the way that ideas, stories, beliefs and religions, and philosophies traveled back and forth along the Silk Road and shaped the great religions of the world.
“The China side is very excited by this. I suppose they don’t meet many Westerners who know as many stories from Chinese history as I do,” he said.
For years, as a Christian, Palmer has led a simple life, and has also benefited from Chinese wisdom, which is about enjoying what one can legitimately enjoy, as written in the ancient Chinese classics.
“For me it is about enjoying the good things in this life,” Palmer said, “but making sure that is not at the cost of anyone else or at the cost of creation.”
The significance of ecological civilization is that it is a profound challenge to a Western, materialistic world.” environmental adviser to Britain’s Prince Philip
the video interview