Over the centuries, as primeval nature yielded to a vast human habitat in China, the Chinese came to see themselves not as creatures of nature but as its masters. Environmentalist Tang Xiyang believes that this mentality lies behind the predatory assault on China's environment today. In China, he says, under the pressure of rapid industrialization and the material yearnings of 1.4 billion people, "nature has been badly damaged." Healing it is his passion.
Born in 1930, Tang Xiyang emerged from a youth amid war and revolution as a hopeful believer in the new China. He attended Beijing Normal University in the heady inaugural years of the People's Republic and, in 1952, joined the Beijing Daily as a reporter. In 1957, however, he was denounced as a Rightist. During the next twenty years, he was made to toil in a rock quarry, sweep the streets, and write confession after confession. In the Cultural Revolution, his wife was murdered by raging teenagers, and Tang himself was torn from his two young daughters to labor in the countryside. There, paradoxically, he found himself "surrounded by flowing waters, . . . singing birds, and rustling leaves." His despair lifted and, he says, "Nature saved me."
Exonerated in 1980, Tang became editor of Great Nature magazine and began exploring China's nature reserves. In Yunnan, he met fellow nature-lover Marcia Bliss Marks, an American who became his wife and partner. As they explored China together, Tang wrote prolifically about the richness and variety of China's wildlife and animal habitats. Later, the pair toured fifty national parks and wildlife refuges in Europe, North America, and Asia. Tang's book about their trip, A Green World Tour, introduced its readers to nature preservation as a global movement and became the bible for China's young environmentalists. Tang challenged them to become "great travelers, explorers, scientists, and vanguards for nature conservation."
In 1996, the year Marcia died, Tang invited twenty-one university students to spend their summer holidays in Yunnan, where local officials planned to harvest logs on a one-hundred-square-mile swath of old-growth forest, the unique habitat of the golden monkey. The research and publicity arising from Tang's Green Camp helped pressure the government to change course. Buoyed by this success, Tang began organizing Green Camps every year, dispatching a fresh team of students to a different site each summer-from Tibet's primeval forests to the beaches of Hainan. Graduates of Tang's Green Camps have now organized spin-off camps all over China and can be found today among the staff members of China's environmental NGOs. Meanwhile, Tang himself lectures tirelessly throughout the mainland-delivering 130 lectures in seventeen cities in 2005 alone.
He tells audiences that nature follows its own law. If the natural law is violated, "nature will seek revenge." This is why preserving the habitats of brown-eared pheasants and red-crowned cranes and golden monkeys is inescapably linked to preserving a healthy habitat for humans.
Society also follows certain laws, he says. China has paid a heavy price for its errant legacy of "feudalism, autocracy, and violence." Tang has concluded that democracy is better. Indeed, without democracy, he says, "there can be no everlasting green hills and clear waters."
Finally, Tang stresses that preserving nature is not China's problem alone. It requires global cooperation. "China needs to know the world," he says, "and the world needs to know China."
Tang's friends marvel at his workload. At seventy-seven, he remains passionately engaged. Still, although he never lets up, he has learned to get to the point quickly. His latest book, summarizing his views, is called Wrong, Wrong, Wrong.
In electing Tang Xiyang to receive the 2007 Ramon Magsaysay Award for Peace and International Understanding, the board of trustees recognizes his guiding China to meet its mounting environmental crisis by heeding the lessons of its global neighbors and the timeless wisdom of nature itself.