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Steve Brett

Steve Brett

Steve is the co-founder of 3rd Space.

Regeneration @ the School of Human Ecology: A Shanghai Story

After connecting with Lionel Yang through social media over a period of years, when he was living and doing research in London, we heard that he had returned to China and started a School of Ecology on an island outside Shanghai. We were curious to find out more. This is his story.

Steve Brett

Steve Brett

Steve is the co-founder of 3rd Space.

Covid 19 and Returning to China

3rd Space: Welcome Lionel. So, could you give us some background about what you were doing in the UK prior to moving back to China last year.

Lionel: Hello Steve, yes. I took my wife and two children to London, in 2018. I was there to do a doctorate at the London campus of the University of West Scotland. The topic of my research was Sustainable Organisation in the Era of Human Singularity. My approach to this topic was to be from the point of view of consciousness. Now, I don’t want to give you the wrong impression. I was an obedient student. But from the first day I challenged what I saw as the limitations of empirical thinking in the approach of the University. Because to me development doesn’t happen in a linear sequence. Consciousness doesn’t work like that. But this kind of questioning was not allowed. They could not see consciousness as being relevant in a study of sustainable business organisation.

I wanted to approach my topic in a trans-disciplinary way. But I discovered there are only a few universities in Europe that allow this, such as in Finland and Switzerland. In those Universities it is understood that to study business you need to study philosophy, because philosophy is a study of humanity. But in the UK, disciplines are organised separately, and you have to follow this structure. This really surprised me. And I felt I would not be doing justice to myself, to force myself to approach my doctorate in this traditional manner.

3rd Space: So, what happened, did you decide to quit your degree?

Lionel: Well, I was intending to stay on and fight for my intellectual convictions. But because of COVID last year and the UK government’s decision to open up from any restrictions, I became afraid of my two young children getting infected. I found myself facing an existential dilemma. I thought I shouldn’t run away from the virus, but should stay and face it. But I was just too frightened for my children. My youngest was only two years old at the time, the other was six years old. So, in the end we decided to return to China, because we knew that China had a Zero Covid policy and the ability to contain the virus. We thought at least then the children would be safe.

Shanghai and Zero Covid Policy

3rd Space: That must have been a really difficult decision. So, you decided to return to China. Why Shanghai?

Lionel: I’m originally from the north of China. But Shanghai is a place I’m very familiar with. I started my career in Shanghai and lived there for twenty years, so I know it very well. But I never planned to return to China. So, when I came back, I was quite lost. In fact, I thought I’d made a big mistake by returning. Then, in March there was this unimaginable lockdown in China, which lasted for three months. It was nothing like people in the West can imagine. We were confined to our own house. We could not go out for fresh air, for three months. And every day you had to do a Covid test, sometimes twice a day, even if nobody was infected. As soon as the three-months lockdown ended, half of my friends left the country. I had never seen anything like that before.

3rd Space: But the Zero Covid policy extended longer than three months, didn’t it?

Lionel: Yes, it has been there since the beginning of Covid. In the first year the virus was so serious that this degree of containment did reduce the fatality rate. The most severe lockdown in Shanghai was for that three-month period. We are talking about 25 million people. In Shanghai we all live in gated communities. And one gated community comprises of about 10,000 people. After the three months lockdown the whole country implemented a new rule. If one person in the community tested positive, all of the 10,000 people living in that community had to go into lockdown again.  This meant you couldn’t go to work; you couldn’t do business. And if there were more than three cases in the district, the whole town would have to go into lockdown.

3rd Space: How did you cope with that whole experience?

Lionel: Well, I had to constantly go back to reading The Plague by Albert Camus to be able to get into the absurdity of it. After a certain point, it was no longer just about the uncertainty. It was absurd. Maybe I’m fortunate in the sense that because I had started the journey of the transformation of consciousness, I was able to do a bit of self-help. The Zero Covid policy only ended a month ago. I moved to the Eco Island one month before that.

3rd Space: How did you manage to do that? Weren’t you still locked down in Shanghai?

Lionel: In June they unlocked the city, with the condition that if anyone in your gated community got infected you would be locked down again. So, at that point my family and I decided it was too much. So, we escaped again! We ran for our lives to the island because this is an island where nobody wants to go, because it’s an Eco-Island. There is very little economic activity. But it’s one of the world’s best Eco islands. The whole purpose of the island is to preserve nature. It’s beautiful.

The Eco-Island

3rd Space: Did you already know about the island?

Lionel: Yes, we knew about the island. But to be honest, this was another reconciliation for me. I wasn’t ready to move to a place like that, to tell you the truth. Because I was literally born into urban life. So, to ‘move to the nature, forget about your economic life, live below a moderate life with your kids and family’, would be like economic suicide for me. But at the time, I thought that maybe doing something radically different would give me a different purpose for why I needed to live in China.

You know, I’m a true believer in synchronicity. I believe that whatever you do, whatever step you make in life, it is meant for something to happen. You cannot explain the science of this. If you do a PhD on synchronicity, nobody is going to read your dissertation. But, through my own life experience I believe, we are thrown into this world to fulfil some destiny.

3rd Space: Yes. I believe that also.

Lionel: So, I convinced my wife that we had to move to the island. She was worried. She thought it was economic suicide because I was not going to be able to get a job. There’s no income, right? But I said, I am prepared to work as a security guard. I would work as a cleaner, as a sweeper, whatever comes.

3rd Space: So, what happened?

Lionel: What happened was totally unexpected. We moved to the island on 15th of November. In the first week, I was looking for interesting places to visit, and particularly to meet any interesting people. So, on a map I found that there was one homestay or hotel on the island. I later found out there were many more. The person who designed this hotel had done it so interestingly, that I decided to pay them a visit. So I went there, and I loved what this person had built. I asked him for a job. Anything he could give me, being a cleaner, whatever.

I was very surprised when the owner said no, I’m not going to hire you as a cleaner, but I want you to sit down and tell me, what you’ve done in your life. I wasn’t prepared to tell him that I was fighting for the transformation of consciousness, because I thought he wouldn’t understand. But I tried my luck. And you know Steve, it surprised me because he did understand, and he does understand. This surprised me because I had been attempting to do this in Shanghai city, and nobody really appreciated it. But this man from the island completely connected to the phenomenological layer of consciousness!

3rd Space: Fascinating. But of course, in some respects it makes sense that people who are living a simpler life, who are not part of the capitalist system, would be more connected to traditional Chinese thinking?

Lionel: Exactly. And since coming to the island, I have now met about a thousand people like him. And I’m targeting fifty of them to join the School of Ecology this year. These are entrepreneurs who not only understand phenomenology, but who are practicing it in the way they live their lives. When I reflected on why there are so many people like this on the island, I learned they all come from similar backgrounds. They moved to this island from the city many years ago, for one reason. They wanted to be rid of the consumerism and wealth creation trap.

3rd Space: That’s really interesting. I’ve often wondered about China because it’s one of the most ancient civilisations in the world. It has this extraordinarily deep philosophy, in its tradition. So, is this the attempt of Chinese people feeling starved in their soul for meaning, to return in some way to their own cultural tradition of thousands of years? Because it seems to have been completely suppressed by Communism.

Confucianism, Taoism and Wu Wei

Lionel: I want to tell you the truth. This is going to shock everything that Westerners think they know about Confucianism. And this is not just from me, but from the people I’ve met on the island. The Confucianism that has been given to the whole of China is wrong. The critical idea of Confucianism is humility. Confucius at that time interpreted that we need humility to become human. The whole Western and Chinese interpretation of Confucianism as obedience is wrong.

The twenty or thirty people who are part of the school now on the island, are also very critical about the way Confucianism and Taoism has been interpreted. By returning to the earth, they feel humility. On the island they relate to the five elements in the circularity of life. Earth, metal, wood, fire, and water [The Chinese five elements]. When you return to the earth you find humility. And then, your intellect is rising.

3rd Space: What do you mean by “your intellect is rising”?

Lionel: Plato said in order to have intellect, you have to go back to the One. This means you have to become One. When you return to the One, you are not fragmented. You experience the rise of your intellect and being as flourishing.

3rd Space: So, coming back to the interpretation of Confucianism and Taoism, the problem is particularly how Confucianism has been interpreted in China as obedience?

Lionel: Yes, it has been misinterpreted. We don’t know for sure what Confucius intended, because it was two thousand years ago. But even if this was what he intended, we’re going to overturn him. Because, what really matters is humility. In Taoism, Lao Tzu’s core philosophy was Wu Wei. But what exactly is Wu? It doesn’t mean ‘doing nothing’. This is how it has been misinterpreted. This misinterpretation is by the Chinese government. They are doing it because they want you to be an obedient citizen. Wu does not mean to do nothing. Wu is actually exactly what Heidegger says, it is stillness.

3rd Space: Yes, it’s a very sophisticated, spiritual understanding about the non-separation between doing and not-doing.

Lionel: In the whole Yin-Yang diagram there are two circles in between the Yin and Yang. It’s about correspondence.

3rd Space: Correspondence between the opposites, right?

Lionel: There are no such opposites. It’s a synthesis. People misinterpret Hegel as well. People think Hegel was speaking about opposites in his theory of the dialectic. But he never said that. All he said was that development moves in a spiral manner.

3rd Space: The point is, opposites don’t mean, dualism.

Lionel: It doesn’t mean a contradiction. The whole has been misinterpreted as well. The whole is not the shape. There is no such thing as ‘whole’. 

3rd Space: It’s not a ‘thing’.

Lionel: It’s not a ‘thing’. You have to synchronise with the whole. The Wu is going back to humility and through humility you become One. And through that you are able to move in a circularity, in a spiral of the Way. This is what Hegel was expressing. So, I have been able to bring Western thinking into Chinese thinking. The reason this is important is because we need more interpretations. That’s what the Chinese don’t have. The Chinese cannot rely on a two-thousand-year-old historical tradition.

3rd Space: So, what you’re saying is that this East-West connection is very important. It’s a way of reinvigorating human thinking.

Lionel: Yes, it’s very important. Because the Western world has done a very good job in the last three centuries in re-interpreting, re-contextualising philosophy within the current context. That interpretation is for us to face our existence in modern life. You can’t get that in Taoism; you can’t get that in Confucianism. You can’t bring back a five-thousand-year-old tradition, because it’s not in today’s context.

The Transformation of Human Ecological Consciousness

3rd Space: So, you made these connections with people on the island, and it sounds as if there was an amazing correspondence between you; also because you were bringing Western philosophy to them. So, how did that develop into the School of Human Ecology, and what exactly is the School of Human Ecology?

Lionel: In the School of Human Ecology, we have a set of methodologies. The methodology is the guidance of a phenomenological consciousness and hermeneutics. [According to H.G. Gadamer, ‘the hermeneutics experience’ is the experience of being a bridge to ‘the gap between different languages, times, and even different levels and realms of experience’, as Richard Palmer explains]. “It [the methodology] is to develop your consciousness through sensitivity, synchronicity, and synthesis with others.

We always use these words in our practice to remind ourselves that it is for one purpose only, to flourish our long-term thinking. Long-term thinking is a symbol of infinity in which human ecology can flourish. In Chinese, ecology means nature, it means going back to your human being[ness]. The nature of your being. What is the nature of being? It is the phenomenological and hermeneutic nature in which human ecology flourishes. If you are not in touch with your phenomenological self, if you can’t see yourself through others, you cannot know your being, your nature. So, it is not just about connecting to nature and the environment. The human is the part of nature that needs to re-constitute to become one with nature and the environment.

Isn’t that the problem with the Western world as well? All the greenwashing, all the unsustainable solutions, and sustainability development. The United Nations’ implementation of sustainable development goals, SDG, were wrong at the beginning because they see nature as separate from the human being. This is what I have been fighting for. You cannot say, I don’t need to wake up my consciousness, I can simply do new things with old thinking. That is simply impossible.

3rd Space: So, what does the School of Human Ecology consist of?

Lionel: Well, first I should explain that the owner of the hotel whom I met when I first came to the island donated a place for me to have the school.

3rd Space: That’s fantastic.

Lionel: He’s an amazing person. We have four rooms, it’s like a retreat house.

To give you an idea you of a typical day at the school, in the morning we come together to have a dialogue to recondition our consciousness. How to pursue consciousness to bring about meaningful change to yourself and others? Social life especially. Because I’m really concerned about social life. So this means not just changes in yourself. But changes in others through who you see yourself differently. The first layer is phenomenological. It is all about getting to see yourself through others. A symbiotic continuous communication through others. It means caring for others. It means that through others you find your own existence.

The second layer is, how do you interpret the meaning of the relationship with others in a meaningful way? This is called hermeneutics. In a certain sense we are thrown into this world as Heidegger says. We have to really reflect on this thrown-ness. This is where we find our calling.

Entrepreneurship and Creativity

In the afternoon, we get down to real business planning. Because everyone is a business owner. And they all know they need to reinvent their business on the island. That they can’t continue to use the old business model of wealth creation and consumerism. So, what we try to do is real social construction in practice, in which these business owners are not just individuals but see themselves as part of an eco-system. It means they are interdependent. They feel that they are all aspiring towards a common purpose, and the common purpose is to raise to another level of creativity together.

We are trying to bring back the country aesthetics. For example, here in the countryside prints influenced by William Morris are everywhere, and people print them themselves. It’s hard to say who influenced who between England and China in this, because we discovered that these prints have been around for several hundred years. What the participants in the School of Ecology realise is that to bring back the tradition of aesthetics in the countryside, they need to raise the level of their own creativity, so that it’s continually developing. That is their aspiration.

It’s quite paradoxical because I didn’t intend to do this in China. I intended to do it in the West, because I thought it was probably needed more there. I didn’t intend to do it in the Eco Island. Maybe it’s as they say, that if you really want to do something different you have to give up everything. I think the process of coming to this island was a process of giving up everything.

So, we have hope. And the hope is in this new group of entrepreneurs who are not aiming for wealth creation, not aiming for consumerism, but are exploring long-term thinking as a symbol; who believe that there needs to be ecology where human beings are part of nature, before they start new initiatives; who can start from zero because they live with the earth, away from the city. And so set a good example for the world to follow.

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