Skip to main content
Conceptualizations of Earth and Land in Classical Chinese Texts
Religious Studies Faculty Publications
  • Deborah A. Sommer, (司馬黛蘭), Gettysburg College
Document Type
Book Chapter
Publication Date
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.
Citation Information
Sommer, Deborah. "Conceptualizations of Earth and Land in Classical Chinese Texts." In James Miller, Dan Smyer Yu, and Peter van der Veer, eds. Religion and Ecological Sustainability in China. London: Routledge, May 2014: 29-47.