Chinese philosophy, by contrast with Western thinking, has from the start emphasized immanence and unity. Where Western dualism led to an opposition between man and nature, Chinese monism led to a harmony between the two. Most of Chinese philosophers share this unique view no matter how different their views may be.
The theory that man is an integral part of nature first originated in the Spring and Autumn, and Warring States periods (770-221BC). With the elaboration of Dong Zhongshu in the Han Dynasty (206BC-220AD), the theory was summarized and clearly presented by the Confucian School of idealists in the Song (960-1279) and Ming (1368-1644) dynasties. The theory, as a basic notion in Chinese philosophy, insists that the politics and ethics of human beings are a direct reflection of nature.
According to the famous scholar, Ji Xianlin, each of the four Chinese characters tian ren he yi respectively means nature, human beings, mutual understanding and friendship, and oneness. While Westerners always try to conquer and plunder from nature with its increasingly highly advanced technologies, the ancient Eastern sages admonish that human beings are just a small part of, and closely linked to, the world. These thoughts are universal in Chinese culture. For instance, traditional Chinese tea sets always have three parts: the lid, cup, and tray, respectively symbolizing heaven, people, and earth. In another example, Chinese stress reunions of the family, and consider harmonious family relationships a great fulfilment and pleasure in life, while the westerners are generally more individual, independent, and adventurous.
The proposition of tian ren he yi is also a Chinese idiom. The thought originated in the pre-Qin philosophy schools, but the idiom appeared much later, which was first presented by philosopher Zhang Zai in the Song Dynasty.
The word tian (heaven) has different meanings in various schools of Chinese philosophy, and can be summarized into three categories: the highest governance, nature in general, and the highest principles.
Human beings are an integral part of nature. According to Zhang Zai, human beings are a component of heaven and earth, or nature. Thus, human beings should also obey the laws of nature. The theory also holds the view that ethical principles are consistent with natural rules. The ideal of life is to attain harmony between man and nature.
In ancient China, there are three typical kinds of theories concerning relationships between man and nature: Zhuangzi"s theory of conforming to nature, Xunzi"s theory of transforming nature, and the harmonious relationship between humans and nature advocated in Yi Jing. Since the Western notion of "conquering nature" spread to China, Xunzi"s positive theory, by contrast with Zhuangzi"s passive attitude, has been highly valued.
However, emphasis on "conquering nature" may also lead to jeopardizing nature and destroying basic living conditions for human beings. On the other hand, the idea that advocates harmony of man with nature is of great significance on keeping an ecological balance. The theory is well balanced with emphasis both on alternating and complying with nature. People should neither subdue, nor destroy nature, and the relationship between the two should be coordinated and harmonized.