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December 1, 2010 in The China Beat


Copyright December 1, 2010 Guobin Yang. Used by permission.


Liang Congjie, professor of history and founder of China’s first environmental NGO, Friends of Nature, died on October 28, 2010 at the age of 78. His death was widely noted in the Chinese and international media: obituaries appeared in theNew York Times, The Atlantic, and other major English newspapers and magazines. The major web portal dedicated a special section on its web site to Professor Liang. Friends of Nature, the organization which Professor Liang co-founded and led for many years, has posted a collection of commemorative essays from his former colleagues, friends, and followers and admirers. Much has been written about the man and his work by those who knew him best.

I met Professor Liang only once, when I interviewed him in his office in Beijing on December 20, 2004. Yet I have read his essay collections and occasional writings. I have followed the work of Friends of Nature for many years and interviewed some of its staff and volunteers. I receive and read regularly the newsletters sent by Friends of Nature. In 2007, when Brill began to publish the English version of the annual China Environment Yearbook edited by Friends of Nature, I had the honor of becoming a member of its international advisory board (the other member being Judith Shapiro) and have read all of the four yearbooks published so far. All this provides the “data,” so to speak, for my understanding of Professor Liang and his social impact.

Professor Liang’s role in the founding of Friends of Nature is well known. In my view, the significance of this event can only be fully appreciated by putting it in its historical context. Liang and his colleagues (Yang Dongping, Liang Xiaoyan, and Wang Lixiong) began to “lobby” government officials to establish such an organization in 1993. Still in the dark shadows of June Fourth, Chinese intellectual life at that time was quite dull. Between the aftershock of June Fourth and the rising tide of commercialism and market economy, the Chinese intellectual world was splintering. Many university faculty and graduate students left academia to “jump into the sea” of business, as others desperately tried to give meaning and relevance to a life in the ivory tower. In magnitude, the collapse of this intellectual world had few historical parallels. It may not be too much of an exaggeration to say that it comes close to the collapse of the Confucian world as captured byJoseph Levenson.