Journal of Agricultural and Environmental Ethics

, Volume 25, Issue 1, pp 33–54

Policies, Regulations, and Eco-ethical Wisdom Relating to Ancient Chinese Fisheries


  • Maolin Li
    • Institute of OceanologyChinese Academy of Sciences
    • Graduate University of Chinese Academy of Sciences
  • Xianshi Jin
    • Yellow Sea Fisheries Research InstituteChinese Academy of Fishery Sciences
    • Yellow Sea Fisheries Research InstituteChinese Academy of Fishery Sciences

DOI: 10.1007/s10806-010-9288-9

Cite this article as:
Li, M., Jin, X. & Tang, Q. J Agric Environ Ethics (2012) 25: 33. doi:10.1007/s10806-010-9288-9


Marine ecosystems are in serious troubles globally, largely due to the failures of fishery resources management. To restore and conserve fishery ecosystems, we need new and effective governance systems urgently. This research focuses on fisheries management in ancient China. We found that from 5,000 years ago till early modern era, Chinese ancestors had been constantly enthusiastic about sustainable utilization of fisheries resources and natural balance of fishery development. They developed numerous rigorous policies and regulations to guide people to act on natural laws. Being detailed and scientific, the legal systems had gained gratifying enforcement, due to official efforts and folks’ voluntary participation in resource management. In-depth analyses show that people’s consciousness of ecological conservation was derived from the edification of kinds of ancient eco-ethical wisdom, such as totemism, nature worship, Zhou Yi, Taoism, Buddhism, Confucianism, Mohism, etc. All this Chinese classical wisdom have the same cores: “Nature and Man in One” spirit, frugality and “All things are equal” concept. The findings show that eco-ethical thinking is never inconsistent with social ethic systems, and it’s of great importance to give legal effect to usual ecological moral claims and eco-ethical requirements of the public in protecting the environment. The eco-ethical wisdom is efficient in assisting and urging people to fulfill humans’ obligation for nature. Finally, it’s believed that present world fisheries management will benefit a lot from all these ancient Chinese thoughts and practices. People are expected to make the most of the eco-ethical wisdom, strengthen fishery legislation and fully stimulate their voluntary participation in both marine fishery resources conservation and fishery cyclic economy.


Fishery resources managementPolicies and regulationsAncient ChinaEco-ethical wisdomEcological moral claimsSustainable development


Humans have always been dependent on marine ecosystems for important and valuable goods and services; however, as centuries elapsed, human exploitation has altered the oceans and coasts greatly through direct and indirect means (Jackson et al. 2001; UNEP 2006; Halpern et al. 2008; Rick and Erlandson 2009). Today, marine ecosystems are in serious trouble worldwide, and the prospect of global marine fisheries is far from optimistic (Allison 2001; Myers and Worm 2003; Stobutzki et al. 2006; FAO 2009). Yet, the demand for marine natural resources is still rapidly going up as human populations grow and grow, posting daunting challenges to conventional living marine resources management approaches (Beddington et al. 2007; Costello et al. 2008; Remoundou et al. 2009; Ward and Kelly 2009).

Congresses and governments are eager to seek effective fisheries policies and administrative measures to get access to the threshold of sustainable fishery development (FAO 2009; Symes 2009; Laxe 2010). In fact, ancients, even those who lived 5,000–6,000 years ago, are more forward-looking than modern persons. In ancient times, China was sparsely populated and rich in resources.1 However, Chinese ancestors gathered, caught, and used very few natural products, and strongly worshipped the virtues of thrift. Policies and regulations on restricting use of natural resources and implementing strict, unified management of public properties were formulated by almost every ruler during each dynasty, and the majority was enacted as laws. Such decrees are particularly common in each dynasty’s historical documents, playing important roles as patron saints in the history of the harmony of man and nature. Underlying these written items, kinds of improving Chinese traditional eco-ethical wisdom and various local institutions were more humanized, farsighted, intelligent, and popular with the public (Jenkins 2002; Daszak et al. 2008). Both these classical wisdom and conventions are born of and rooted in people’s production practices, mostly having been passed down for thousands of years. Being long lasting, they are outstanding representatives of mankind’s ecological wisdom and concepts on regional sustainable development.

Fishery, actually, is one of the oldest productive activities that came into being soon after the birth of humankind. So it has a considerably long history. Naturally, relating to fisheries, there’re also plentiful policies and regulations recorded in Chinese historical books and ancient literatures. Also, eco-ethical wisdom and folk conventions on fisheries are in endless supply and always waiting for latecomers to make much of them. Against the background, fisheries management, or we say fisheries governance, is one of the Gordian knots plaguing people worldwide for a long time (Yandle et al. 2006; Chuenpagdee and Jentoft 2007; Shelton 2009; Worm et al. 2009). Meanwhile, traditional ecological knowledge is globally receiving people’s re-examination and is propped up to accelerate its paces into production activities and people’s daily lives (Berkes 1999; Berkes et al. 2000; Huntington 2000; Wilson et al. 2006; Evans 2010).

As yet, on ancient Chinese fisheries management, only a few unstructured details have been reported in some Chinese published literatures that talk about problems in environment protection in old China. Thus, it’s necessary to conduct a systematic investigation into the history of fisheries management of ancient China. As a rudimentary study, briefly, this research chronologically quotes the classics, explains and analyses the representative legal provisions and administrative measures on ancient Chinese fisheries, introduces and delves into the relevant eco-ethical wisdom and folk institutions, aiming to help people obtain an initial understanding on ancient Chinese fisheries governance strategies and eco-ethical wisdom in terms of their important roles played in both fishery production practices and social management.2 Further, this ongoing study is expected to serve as a spark that ignites people’s interest in the application of ancient eco-ethical wisdom in marine fishery cyclic economy and sustainable management.

Prehistoric Times

In China, the prehistoric times last from about 1,700,000 years ago to about the twentyfirst century BC. Since the most primitive fishing sprouted among immemorial humans, fisheries had been in progress; essentially, the potential for the destruction of fisheries resources had been co-existing. With the passage of time, social productive forces were in development, especially the fishing tools were being improved and improved, then the exploitation and utilization of aquatic resources were all the time increasing. Once the rate of use of natural resource grew beyond the natural reproductive rate, it would give rise to a decline in labor productivity and catches. In the practices of fishery production, mankind had gradually come to understand that, if people wish to maintain fisheries resources enduring, they need to implement protection. The formation of the consciousness of resources conservation was by no means fortuitous. Then with the civilizing progress and wisdom growth of mankind, primordial forms of policies and regulations came into being, under the influence of humans’ animal instinct of storing food, primitive economic sense and primitive religious beliefs. Both primitive fishery development and social features had been affected by the management concepts to some extent.

Primitive Fisheries and Initial Period of Fisheries Policies and Regulations

Chinese fisheries can be traced back to the early stage of the Old Stone Age. A certain ancient Chinese book believably had documented the situation on Yuanmou Man’s fishing.3 In 1930s, a large amount of fish skeletons and sea clam shells were found among the remnants of the Upper Cave Men, who lived 18,000–50,000 years ago (EBHFC 1993). Some fish bones had been processed into their daily adornments. In coastal areas of China, from Liaoning Province to Hainan Island and Guangxi Province, people discovered numerous shell mounds, the largest of which is 500 m long, 300 m wide, and 2.5 m thick (EBHFC 1993). Evidently, the ancients’ exploitation of aquatic resources is not in a small order of magnitude. Seasonal changes in food abundance made people pay great attention to the progress of food consumption. People learned to save and to be abstinent gradually.

After entering the clan commune period, tribal leaders developed kinds of regulations to promote the economic use of natural resources. For instance, Yellow Emperor, the father of the Chinese Nation, taught people “they would reap profits sustainably if they implement seasonable permissions and bans on gathering natural products and catching wild animals strictly.”4 Yellow Emperor lived at a time more than 5,000 years ago. Later, his great-grandson, Emperor Ku, called on members of his tribe “to exploit natural products moderately and utilize them frugally.”5 It may be from that time that the habit of thrift began casting into the blood of Chinese people.

In the late primitive society, the invention of boats, nets, net sinkers, fishing hooks, harpoons, fish baskets, buoys, and other instruments greatly enhanced the fisheries’ productivity. The development of productive forces brought about problems on resource allocation and utilization, and contributed to changes in social management system at the same time. Yu Shun, one of the heads of Huaxia (China) tribal confederation, established the original national institutions. He set up Yu, Ji, Zhi Zong, and other offices. Yu is in charge of managing mountains and waters, or we say, it’s responsible for managing hunting and fishing. It probably is the world’s earliest fisheries management department. Yi is the first person presiding over the work of Yu. He had made important contribution to Chinese fishery development.6 Regretfully, Yu’s management provisions were lost.

In the initial period of Chinese fisheries management, humanistic cultivation was highly valued and conscientiously performed. First and foremost, people were taught to practice frugality and comply with the seasonableness.

Representatives of the Primary Eco-Ethical Wisdom

Before the creation of written words, human society lingered in the stage of savagery and the stage of barbarism for quite a long time. During the period, humans were weak in power and often were in dread of some natural phenomena, so people stood in awe of Mother Nature. People of that time kept very cautious and reverent in getting along well with their living environments. Externally, they developed expression measures and rites that seem approximately stylized.

Totemism (Totem Worship)

Totemism, being considered as human beings’ earliest cultural phenomenon, can be regarded as the origin of mankind’s eco-ethical thoughts. In China, totem culture found its root in the depths of history. With its richness and meaning that cannot be ignored, totemism constitutes one aspect of Chinese culture.

The ancients had respected many kinds of animals including aquatic animals as their totems. The animals were prohibited from being hurt, killed, and eaten, in that they were enshrined as the ancestors of certain clans or certain tribes when some kinds were venerated as deities deserving of paying homage. The 7,000–5,000-year-old Chinese ruins of the Yangshao Neolithic culture tell people that fish and frogs had been the totems of some primitive tribes (Underhill 2008). While according to legends and historical materials, the Da Wu tribes, the Xia tribe and the Xian Zhou tribe had worshipped fish totems. From ancient times till the early stage of modern times, the tortoise, or the combination of a tortoise and a snake, has been revered as Xuan Wu, a god in charge of water and representative of winter and the north. It shows that ancient people had worshipped tortoise totem. In the Yangtze River Basin, some districts had the history of venerating Zhu-po-long, which is Alligator sinensis. Even today, among China’s 55 national minorities, many still have the worship of fish totem, such as Shui People, Gaoshan People, Hezhe People, Dong People, Buyi People, Zhuang People, Yao People, Lisu People, Man People, etc. (He 2006). In Longlin County, Guangxi Province, the Zhuang People deem that no interspecific difference exists among all animals including humans, so they call all animals including themselves “fish” (Huang 1990).

Totemism should be extolled because it teaches people to regard cosmic inventory including human beings and the nature as an organic whole, as a large system formed from the intercommunion and interpenetration between life and life, between lives and non-living things. Totemism lays emphasis on harmony and equilibrium, thus helps to eliminate the tense and antagonistic relationships between man and nature.

Nature Worship

On the basis of totemism, as people’s understanding of nature got further deepenings, the early inhabitants gradually moved toward the supernatural worship of all natural objects. Then the animistic views came into being, and the worship of natural gods commenced coming into people’s lives. For instance, Chinese ancestors took for granted that there lived River Gods, Sea Gods, Village Gods, Mountain Gods, and other gods on every corner of the earth. The gods were believed to be in charge of the various parts of local natural variation.7 For each god, people should be keen on building temples to worship and offering sacrifices to him, all year round.

In those days, people needed to practice divinations to obtain the gods’ views on the things they were going to do. They needed to pray to the gods to forgive all their wrong doings. The gods were thought to be stern but fair-minded, so people exerted themselves to exercise utmost restraint, fearing that their occasional overdoing would offend one god and provoke scourge to themselves. For example, in southern Yunnan Province, the Dai People had offered worship to local Water Gods for hundreds of centuries. People paid great attention to preserving regional water ecosystems that consist of water systems, water-conservation forests, water catchment areas, and so on. The prohibition against defecating and urinating in rivers, dumping rubbish in waters and lakes, killing gravid or young fishes, etc. was strictly enforced (Wu and Xie 2008). Even today, these practices still are performed. Since water is crucial to fish, the belief has been greatly benefiting the protection of regional water and fisheries resources.

Gradually, the natural god concepts went further to include the belief that everything in the world is on the chain of the universe of life as a whole, and cannot be separated from each other. We can see that people’s world views had transferred from reverence for life to reverence for everything. It’s reported that nature worship was one of the few religious beliefs that had the most extensive coverage and the longest duration in China (He 2008). Actually, nature worship had prevailed over almost every stage of Chinese ancient history.8 Even these days, in China’s vast rural areas and ethnic minority areas, it still has a very broad mass basis. Obviously, as quite a valuable tool in coordinating the relationship between man and nature, it also is an important representative of Chinese traditional eco-ethical wisdom.

Historic Times

In China, the historic times began from about the twentyfirst century BC, lasting for more than 4,000 years. During a large part of the period, the scale and output of fisheries production got rapid expansions, when human population and social civilization unceasingly grew. Both fisheries resources and aquatic ecosystems had been greatly influenced by human activities. However, the multiplication of human knowledge had helped people to better catch on how the good management and sustainable development of fisheries could be achieved. Policies and regulations on fisheries were in continuous advancement.

Traditional Fisheries and Growth Stages of Fisheries Policies and Regulations

The historic times of ancient China is constitutive of ancient times and mediaeval times. During this period, fisheries gradually became improved and perfected. Fisheries management had its own different characteristics at different times.

Ancient Times (From the Twentyfirst Century BC to 221 BC)

The enhancement of production efficiency and the appearance of government apparatus together accelerated the transformation of primitive society to slave society. In the twentyfirst century BC, when Da Yu established the Xia Dynasty (about 2070–1600 BC), China became a slave society. About a thousand years later, Chinese feudal suzerain system emerged and prospered. Several hundreds of years later, a feudal landlord system came up. During these periods, most of the time, massive seashells continued to be gathered to serve as widely-used currency and daily decorations.9 Fish skin was used to make clothes, armors, decorations, etc.10 Meanwhile, due to the popularization of junks, refined nets, bronze tools, and other instruments, social productive forces got rapid advancement. In the nineteenth century BC, the 9th monarch of Xia Dynasty, Si Mang, commanded Jiuyi tribes to fish in the sea. “The tribes caught lots of large fishes.”11 In the Zhou Dynasty (1046–256 BC), ocean navigation and pelagic fishing technology had developed considerably.12 Besides, under authorities’ and slave-owners’ support, fish culture had been moving forward.13 The development of aquaculture can make people reduce the exploitation of natural resources and weaken the anthropogenic interference with natural ecology, to some extent.

Although the nation gradually started to attach importance to aquaculture, on account of the widespread use of sophisticated fishing methods and advanced fishing tools, especially large fishing nets like Gu, Jiu-yu, or Bai-nang-gu,14 over-fishing and resource deterioration occurred on several occasions in more than one watershed. The first time is soon after Xia Dynasty’s emergence. In response, Da Yu immediately formulated a national policy, “Using nets are forbidden in waters during the 3 months in the summer, so that aquatic animals can grow.”15 The policy, actually being the first legislative decree on the protection of fisheries resources in both Chinese and global history, was honored as “Yu’s Ban” and emulated by later emperors. In the early Shang Dynasty, Emperor Shang Tang often required his people to exercise self-restraint in obtaining biological resources.16 Tang’s deeds had been unanimously appreciated by all the vassals. About 600 years later, King Wen of Zhou Dynasty asked his son King Wu to strengthen the management of forests and waters and to push on the conservation of biological resources, because he thought that the rise and fall of a nation have to rely on one thing that whether the ecological systems are good. He said “…Unseasonable fishing activities are prohibited, so that aquatic lives can grow up…Relying on these measures, more and more aquatic animals will appear in the waters, when more and more terrestrial animals will also turn up in the forests. Thus the orphans, the widows, the coolies, the handicapped, the sick, and others could have some things to depend on for existence.”17 Before this, “To prohibit from over-fishing and damaging waters” had been set as a basic national policy by King Wen.18 Thus it’s demonstrated that Chinese forefathers had put restraint and seasonableness on a very important position in the productive practices. In 517 BC, in the discussion between King Jing and Vassal Shan Mu Gong, the conservation of forests and waters was considered as the foundation of national economy and people’s livelihood.19

The policies and regulations are also recorded in many other ancient literatures. Yi Zhou Shu made it clear that the months suitable for fishing are “January and March in spring, October in autumn, December in winter.”20 The 4 months are precisely out of the period from April to August when fish stocks multiply. Both Li Ji and Lüshi Chunqiu state that draining waters was prohibited for ever and fishing was not allowed from the second month of spring until when winter came.21 Similarly, it’s emphasized in Dadai-liji, “When December comes, fishermen start to be permitted to work on waters.”22 Now we see that more than 3,000 years ago, the ancients had developed the usual practice of considering problems from an ecological point of view. To guarantee the juveniles could be hatched and get a suitable habitat, they made the regulations of forbidding fishing in fish idiophases and growth phases. These are the earliest measures of setting up closed fishing seasons in the world history, which adequately reflect the eco-ethical wisdom of the management echelon and the laboring people of ancient China. Besides, it’s recorded in Guan zi, “Though water areas are immense and water animals are numerous, meshes of fishing nets must be under meticulous supervision. Fishing nets can absolutely not be of one format. It isn’t because we are partial to water animals. We are afraid that our wrong doings will whittle away the subsistence roots for generations of people.”23 The words mean that even if the fisheries resources are quite rich, after all, they are limited; the fishing net meshes must be controlled in size, so that a part of fish, especially the young ones, can escape from the claws of fishermen. Ancients are honorable for their great ideological level in consciously seeking well-being for future generations.

In Zhou Dynasty, special agency had been established to manage water areas and fisheries. It’s named Yu Bu or Yu Heng and its officials are named Yu Ren, Chuan Heng, Ze Yu, Chuan Shi, Shui Yu, Bie Ren, etc. The division of the officials’ duties is in great detail.24 For instance, Yu Ren presides over fish tribute and fishery decrees, Chuan Heng takes charge of managing waters and Shui Yu is in charge of bans and arrangements on fishery production. The officials had made the grade very well. They dealt with the violators of the policies and regulations quite severely. Whether being a nobleman or being a slave, substantially, people were treated equally. There are many examples, while merely one is chosen out and shown in the footnote.25 It could be imagined that there was a big strictness Chinese ancestors had endeavored to seek after in enforcing the laws and regulations. Besides, the chapter Di Guan of Zhou Li wrote of “Chuan Heng takes charge of carrying out bans on fisheries and perambulating the bans’ enforcement among folks. The men who violate the bans are to be arrested and be sentenced being guilty of the capital punishment.” Catchers who caught water animals in the closed fishing areas would be punished by losing their lives. Such heavy punishments were capable of warning all others to restrain their desires.

The management measures gained powerful support and promotion from the Hundred Schools of Thought, which have been casting a far-reaching influence on the following world. For instance, the Confucian originator, Confucius (551–478 BC) only had done some fishing with fishing rod, but never with fishing net, during his lifetime.26 Fu Zijian, a student of Confucius, secured an official position in governing Shanfu District of Shandong Province. Then Confucius let his student Wuma Qi go there to investigate Fu’s political achievements. Wuma went there and made his rounds incognito. Soon Wuma found that the night fishers there released the fish they caught frequently. Being puzzled, he asked the fishers why they did so. He was told that the big ones caught were pregnant, and the little ones caught were young, both were under official protection. Wuma was exultant for Fu’s effective governance succeeding in encouraging people to consciously protect fisheries resources.27 Guan Zhong (725–645 BC) thought “As a ruler, if he can’t carefully protect the nation’s forests, waters and fields, he never can be trusted and elected to be the monarch of the nation.”28 Here it was chosen to be the grounds on which to select a monarch that whether the man can fulfill good management of forests, waters, and other natural resources.

During the period of Chinese ancient times, there were a lot of policies and regulations on fishery resources conservation. In conclusion, they are in regard to five aspects:
  1. (1)

    Bans on fishing young or pregnant aquatic animals. For example, “It’s forbidden to fish Kun (fish spawns) and Er (fingerlings),” “No catching pregnant animals, no killing little lives” and “Little animals are prohibited to be killed and to be sold or bought.”29

  2. (2)

    Bans on unseasonable fishing. For example, “Only when otters can get more fish than they are able to consume, fishermen are allowed to work in the waters.”30

  3. (3)

    Bans on poisoning aquatic animals. For example, “When aquatic animals are in the stages of incubation, nets and poisons are rejected to approach waters” and “Poisons that may harm animals cannot be taken outside the city gates.”31

  4. (4)

    Bans on damaging waters. For example, “No draining rivers and lakes, no drying up reservoirs and ponds,” and “No emptying the waters to get fish.”32

  5. (5)

    Bans on over-fishing. For example, “It’s sure that you will get fish by draining the pond to catch fish, but in the next year, you will get nothing” and “If efficient fishing tools, like little-mesh fishing nets are never used in waters, water animals can have the room to thrive and people will never worry about experiencing hunger.”33


Valuably and meaningfully, as early as 3,000–2,000 years ago, in Zhou Dynasty, especially during the Spring and Autumn Period and the Warring States Period, the nationwide climax of thoughts and practices on conserving and managing fisheries resources, in a scientific, sensible, and sustainable manner stood out.

Mediaeval Times (From 221 BC to 1840 AD)

From the Qin Dynasty, China’s 2,132-year-long centralized authoritarian society of patriarchal clan system began. During the time, the exploiting classes started to base the national economy on plant production. Fisheries became sideline production. But now it seems that although fishery production had been to some extent kept down, in the dynasties with patriarchalism, people had an even clearer realization of the vital poles fishery resources conservation played in fishery development. Therefore, increased attention had been devoted to conserving aquatic animals.

China of Qin Dynasty was a state with a sound legal system. From the higher levels to the grassroots, officials were excellent in fully mobilizing the force of laws to govern the country. In 1975, old bamboo slips inscribed with the law of Qin Dynasty were unearthed in large bulk in Hubei Province. The article entitled “Field Law” mentions “…It’s forbidden to poison aquatic animals, set traps and use nets in the open until when July comes…” It means that before autumn, it was routine fishing moratorium. People’s behavior control over time was very important. The masterwork Lüshi Chunqiu tells us that there were varieties of bans in four seasons and “At improper time, Gu, Bai-nang-gu and all the other fishing nets should be stored far away from waters, persons except officers from fishery regulation divisions are not allowed to use boats to get in waters.”34 Such legal provisions are concrete and practical.

Throughout the dynasties from Qin, Han to Tang, Song, Yuan, Ming and Qing, people had reached a consensus on protecting animal offsprings so that the populations could survive and multiply. On this, there are so many examples, with only three of them are listed below. An administrative regulation stated in Huai Nan Zi (a masterpiece of Western Han Dynasty) is “Fish with a length of less than a chi (1 chi = 0.231 m, during 202–9 BC), are prohibited to being caught.”35Feng Su Tong Yi of Eastern Han Dynasty records a legal provision “It’s illegal to kill baby animals and young animals.”36 In the winter of 509, Emperor Xuan Wu of Northern Wei Dynasty gave an order to all people, declaring “The nation completely prohibits killing the pregnant, and the prohibition lasts for ever.”37

However, from Han Dynasty onward, fisheries resources had been suffering from some damage because of population increases and famine occurrences. In response, Tang Dynasty’s imperial court nationalized all the mountains and waters. Such unified management measures had done good to the conservation and revivification of national fisheries resources. The government issued decrees to inhibit harmful fishing tools and fishing methods many a time. For example, the ordinance brought forth by Emperor Gao Zong in 673 commands “to prohibit making Sai to catch fish and round up beasts.”38 Meanwhile, there were bans on animals’ breeding periods. For example, the decree put forth by Emperor Dai Zong in 775 calls on people “to forbid hunting, fishing and catching in the capital and its environs from January to May, permanently.”39

For the subsequent dynasties, this paper will simply introduce several representative laws and regulations. In 961, Emperor Tai Zu of Song Dynasty ordered the nation “not to catch fish and birds in spring and autumn.”40 In 1271, Emperor Shi Zu of Yuan Dynasty put forward a decree “Households residing close to waters are allowed to build fish ponds.”41 In Ming Dynasty, the Court established the department Yu Heng to unifiedly manage natural resources. Yu Heng was in duty to enforce the bans on laying nets in waters in unbefitting days and many other laws.42 For Qing Dynasty, Qing Shi Gao records some decrees on banning people from catching breeding fish and fishing in spawning and nursery grounds for fishes. It shows that the rulers were keen on promoting natural conservation and pushing family pisciculture forward.

Representatives of the Mature Eco-Ethical Wisdom

It can be seen that both Chinese totemism and Chinese nature worship were committed to build, preserve, or restore the harmony between man and nature. In Chinese primitive society, the concept of “the syncretism of nature and human” had taken root among the masses. After entering the stage of civilization, Chinese society was in rapid development, so was the eco-ethical wisdom. In the ideological world, types of new thoughts swept through the whole nation successively for several times. However, almost each kind of Chinese ancient thought had been clearly stamped with the deep imprint of the “Nature and Man in One” spirit, in all aspects of it, in every level of it, in all the proof methods of it and in the whole reasoning process of it (Li 1986). “Nature and Man in One” spirit, is the concept of the deepest level in Chinese ancient thoughts, meanwhile is a strong mainstay shared by various schools of thought in old China. In the following, the paper will make a brief analysis of the situation, by introducing several mainstream schools of thought.

Zhou Yi—Ecological Wisdom of Harmony

Zhou Yi made a brilliant beginning in composing works that cares about ecological harmony in Chinese history. Its eco-ethical wisdom is mainly in four aspects:
  1. (1)

    The “Nature and Man in One” theory that believes that nature is the source of all lives and all values, man is an integral part of nature, so man ought to love and preserve nature, ought to love and conserve all lives in nature.

  2. (2)

    The ecological moral wisdom system that integrates natural balance and human morality into an organic large-scale system, which possesses the function of internal feedback and dynamic regulation. Noble moral characters and behaviors are upheld.

  3. (3)

    The ecological conservation and frugality concept that advocates that in order to avoid nature’s punishment, man should care for natural resources, and should be frugal in consuming all things, especially for animal resources.

  4. (4)

    The eco-harmony wisdom that emphasizes that only if ecological ethic system and social ethic system can be blended and move toward unification, people may enjoy peace and prosperity.


Taoism—Ecological Wisdom of Preserving Simplicity

Among all kinds of great traditional thoughts, Taoist school is thought to have supplied the world with the most profound and most perfect ecological wisdom (Dong 1991). Laozi and Zhuangzi, the two most important representatives of Taoists, thought that everything is equal to one another and has its own intrinsic value. They objected that people imposed the concept of inequality on the natural world. They were opposed to humanity’s being self-important and self-centered. They warned people not to treat nature as their objects to overmaster and to predominate. They were always against people’s behaviors of offending against the natural laws to despoil natural resources and harm the environment, just for the sake of their own desire. They put forward that the key to protect the natural environment from being damaged lies in checking humans’ materialistic pursuits.43 Taoism is the religion that teaches people to return to nature and to be integrated into the life of nature wholeheartedly. For example, more than 2,300 years ago, Zhuangzi had once taught people to earnestly appreciate and respect fish’s enjoyment of life.44

Buddhism—Ecological Wisdom of Benevolence

Buddhist doctrines teach people to blur and even to eliminate the boundary between a man’s body and his surroundings. Buddhism shows utmost respect for the existence value and the right to subsistence of all lives. In terms of theory, every sentence in Chinese Mahayana sutras is advocating and highly praising the merits and virtue of benevolence (Shi 1995). In terms of practice, Buddhists’ ahimsa, vegetarianism, and habit of freeing captive animals have brought immeasurable well-being to mankind and the earth. It must be mentioned that ahimsa and vegetarianism are particularly effective in conserving wildlife resources, and further in keeping a balance of nature. Deeds of freeing captive lives have always been subject to people’s attention. Both governments and the public have been enthusiastic about financing the construction of Free Life Ponds, which are used to setting live aquatic lives free.45 Buddhism supplies us with some panaceas in healing certain kinds of ecological deterioration that spread over universally before our eyes.

Confucianism—Ecological Wisdom of Kindheartedness

According to the Confucian cosmological metaphysics, man and nature should have all things in sweet community. Man should regard nature as his parent, realize that all lives and himself are interlinked and syncretized with each other.46 Confucians appreciated moral goodness instead of the ability to earn money. They made great efforts to persuade social elites into cultivating kindheartedness instead of pursuing too much loaves and fishes. The Confucian school used to look upon things from a view of ecological totality, thus contributing to us a lot of profound eco-ethical wisdom. The most interesting also lies in that Confucians taught everyone to show filial piety and respect for nature. By tradition, fish were deemed as the symbol of being auspicious and prosperous. They were in good esteem among people. Generally speaking, all these practices had a certain correlation with both fish totem worship and other religious concepts including the Confucian thinking.

Mohism—Ecological Wisdom of Practicing Frugality

Mohists, the concentrative philosophical representatives of the laboring class that consisted of peasants and small producers, were always very keen on practicing and advocating frugality. They usually had a good knowledge of nature and a good command of laboring skills so that their concepts were always practical and provident. They thought highly of showing a universal love to all lives. They strongly detested and rejected any extravagance and waste, opposed to wars and damaging things. They called on people to lead a frugal life that one should never consume more than his basic demand.47 Such views are quite beneficial to social sustainable development, especially when the environment has been polluted, or when ecological unbalance has happened, or when natural disasters frequently occur. Supposedly, if we eat much less fish from now on, more big or pregnant fishes will have life to swim in waters. Then marine ecological resurrections are on their way.


Based on current general fisheries management demand, the study analyzed ancient Chinese fisheries governance strategies and the underlying eco-ethical wisdom. We have harvested lots of findings, while merely the key parts of which are chosen out and presented above. After a comprehensive analysis of all the findings, some discussion is conducted and shown as below.

Currently, global fisheries have come up with plenty of problems. To some extent, it can be said that the ecological equilibrium of the oceans is determined by marine fisheries’ sustainable development. Experts said that the problems in ocean resource management derive from failures of governance (Crowder et al. 2006). Seeking for effective measures to manage marine fisheries is a difficulty faced by governments of coastal countries. Surely, we are starved of new, more effective governance systems.

In Chinese ancient history of about 5,000 years, successive rulers have put forth numerous policies and regulations to manage fisheries resources. The laws and administrative measures along with folk institutions in promoting fisheries’ sustainable development are quite common in historical writings. Though common, they are of immeasurable value, both culturally and scientifically. Obviously, Chinese ancestors had attached great importance to the conservation of fisheries resources. In terms of setting closed fishing periods, delimitating closed fishing areas, setting fishing effort limitations, putting forth bans on fishing objects and fishing tools, etc., they all had made quite detailed consideration and put forward systematic governance measures. They had developed very strong punitive measures in order to avoid the occurrence of even a small mistake. Particularly commendable is that they always carried out resources management from a view of large-scale ecological harmony that regards humans as an integral component that is equal to other parts of nature. The rulers used to be keen on setting an example of a lovely son of Mother Nature by personally taking part in conserving natural resources. Their management measures tell us that they were sincere, righteous, humble, and far-sighted. The policies and regulations are an invaluable cultural heritage in need of thorough study and worthy of modern people’s full and in-depth exploitation. It’s believable that present global fisheries will benefit a lot from such ancient Chinese wisdom.

Generally, policies and regulations function as a concrete manifestation of the public will of a nation or the populace. As small as a primitive tribe or a village, as large as a country or the globe, all magnitudes of crowds have to employ certain rules to harmonize and handle the relationships and affairs that people get involved in. Humans, as the aggregate of all the social relations, also are in no time able to live outside of any of the innate connections between humankind and nature. Most basically, we have to depend on our Mother Nature for clean air, fresh water, and enough food. Among the rules employed by humans, some are solely used to deal with matters on people’s social interrelationships, while some are exclusively focused on regulating and coordinating people’s rights of possession and disposal over natural resources. However, people’s obligations to nature, the root of humanity’s survival that had been highly revered since time immemorial, in present days, are becoming more and more frail and lowly. The only good news is that we have enacted some laws on natural resources and environment protection.

Factually, laws and administrative measures often are unfamiliar and ambiguous to the folks, therefore they usually can’t take effects as expected. After all, we think that the right powerful tool that excels at reconciling people’s different opinions and prompting them to fulfilling mankind’s obligations for nature, is none other than the varieties of eco-ethical wisdom in the world. With a civilization more than 5,000 years old, China may prove to be the country possessing the richest resource of eco-ethical wisdom. Integrally and systematically, the resource is incarnated in most of the policies and regulations and the majority of the folk institutions relating to ancient Chinese fisheries. Needless to say, the resource also is perfectly embodied in many other things and in even more things that modern persons still are unable to understand. In this paper, we have made an attempt to carry out a preliminary categorization and analysis of the resource of ancient Chinese eco-ethical wisdom, and finally to obtain some findings on the succession relations among several representatives of eco-ethical wisdom of specific times.

It’s reported that of the four earliest civilizations of the world, only Chinese civilization is still alive today, mainly due to its great inclusiveness and assimilatory power. In history, China once was an open-minded and highly tolerant nation. The public’s varied practical demands spawned a variety of living ideals and ways of thinking. Thus in thousands of years, on the vast land, there had successively emerged and thrived a lot of schools of thought. Taoism, Confucianism, Mohism, Buddhism, Neo-Taoism, Neo-Confucianism, etc., all had been following and carrying forward the spirit of “Nature and Man in One,” and being committed to building a harmonious world in which all lives are regarded and respected equally. Although seemingly a little Utopian, these philosophical schools actually had been paying great attention to practical endeavors. For thousands of years, they had done their utmost to persuade people to show more love for nature and be frugal in consuming natural resources. They thought that nature is our mother and we should be humble and tender, and not do any harm to her body. In the final analysis, all of such thoughts derive from Zhou Yi, composed more than 3,100 years ago, which is thought to be the first book on eco-ethical wisdom. However, the instructive Chinese eco-ethical wisdom is rooted in the wisdom and belief of our ancestors of much more ancient ages. In remote antiquity, people stood in awe of nature. They wished to be complying with nature, so totemism and nature worship were created. Ancients were also thirsty for understanding of nature like us. But referring to understanding nature’s innate character, they were more knowledgeable than us. So nowadays our pell-mell development has invited global ecological imbalance and rapidly degrading well-being to us. It requires us to conduct in-depth reflection.

Meanwhile, we find that the traditional Chinese eco-ethical thinking is consistent in nature with the theory of deep ecology, which is current in the West nowadays. So we think that the former is also of great significance in guiding the world’s environmental practices. Moreover, historical data has showed that under the combined effect of folk eco-ethical awareness and local traditional ecological knowledge, various patterns of ecological agriculture had been spontaneously springing up in many regions, and rapidly coming to the fore with their miraculous multiple advantages (Wu and Zhao 2005). Now we see that Chinese ancestors had bequeathed us an immense amount of treasure that they gained from their hands-on experience over thousands of years. We should no more desolate the treasure. By extension, actually, we should respect all of our ancestors’ ecological wisdom including the Chinese wisdom and make the most of them. For fisheries management, we should employ the wisdom even more.

The result of applying eco-ethical wisdom in fisheries management is that fishery economic growth becomes less conflicting with ecological health, while fishery policies and regulations turn more coordinated with community-based popular will. In the view of ancient Chinese eco-ethical wisdom, the quality of economic development is valued instead of the speed of economic growth. The 64 hexagrams in Zhou Yi exquisitely represent the changes happened on every thing, the changes being ceaselessly moving in circles repeatedly.48 It’s just the best theoretical model for cyclic economy. During the process of cyclic economy, materials are utilized as few as possible and made the most of. Jie Gua in Zhou Yi tells us “That we have seasons because nature is moderate. To be moderate, so that waste doesn’t occur, and harms don’t happen to us.”49 Fisheries’ sustainable development will ultimately rely on large-scale cyclic economy. To develop fishery cyclic economy, we are required to be moderate in both minds and deeds. We should be frugal in exploiting resources. Meanwhile, the ancient eco-ethical wisdom and folk institutions also have granted us the detailed principles to plan and establish cyclic economy. If we make sufficient study of them, we will be enlightened.


The history of ancient Chinese eco-ethical wisdom demonstrates to us that an ecological ethics system is never inconsistent with a social ethics system, and governing the country by law must be combined with governing by morality. Needless to say, law is not a panacea. However, giving legal effect to usual ecological moral claims and eco-ethical requirements is of great importance in protecting the environment. In ancient times, Chinese ancestors paid great attention to constituting stringent and detailed legal systems to promote fisheries management. They thought that bad or unsuccessful fishery administration was capable of causing harm to social stability and natural balance. To avoid things that may undermine the government’s credibility, they were circumspect and hard-working in formulating and carrying out fishery policies and regulations. The management measures had greatly benefited the fishery resources conservation and local sustainable development. In comparison, current fisheries management is weaker in governments’ emphasis and people’s voluntary participation. We are lacking in a rigorous and all-round legal system on fisheries. Although in a few places, the midsummer moratorium system has been established, the reproduction and releasing of certain commercial marine organisms has been set in motion in large scales, in the world, there are popular failures to take the long-term ecosystem effects of fishing into account and common failures to enforce unpalatable but necessary reductions in fishing effort on fishing fleets and in the numbers of fishermen and fishing communities. On pelagic and transnational marine fisheries regulation, we get caught up in more problems. For better or for worse, this paper argues that the first few steps we should take are to learn from the experience of ancestors, to strengthen legislation and to increase efforts in policy advocacy and education.


See Chinese classics Hua Ce in Shang Zi, Dao Zhi in Zhuang Zi Zhu and Wu Du in Han Fei Zi. Like here, all of the ancient Chinese literatures cited in this paper are from the same source, which is Wenjin Ge Si Ku Quan Shu (Complete Library in Four Branches of Literature). The specific details are shown in the Appendix.


All of the definitions of the historical eras in this article are based on Zhong Guo Tong Shi (A General History of China) [Bai Shouyi (Chief Ed.). Zhong Guo Tong Shi. Shanghai: Shanghai People’s Press, 1995–1998].


Recorded in Chinese classic Hai Wai Nan Jing in Shan Hai Jing Guang Zhu.


See Chinese classics Wu Di Ben Ji in Shi Ji and Wu Di Ben Ji in Shi Ji Zheng Yi.


See Wu Di Ben Ji in Shi Ji.


See Wu Di Ben Ji in Shi Ji.


See Chinese classics Da Huang Bei Jing in Shan Hai Jing, Da Zong Shi and Qiu Shui in Zhuang Zi Zhu.


See examples from Chinese classics Shan Hai Jing, Chun Qiu Zuo Zhuan Zhu Shu, Chu Ci Zhang Ju, Lie Xian Zhuan,Bo Yi Ji and so on.


See Chinese classics Xiao Ya and Lu Song in Mao Shi Zhu Shu.


See Chinese classics Min Gong Er Nian in Chun Qiu Zuo Zhuan Zhu Shu and Yi Bing in Xun Zi.


Recorded in Chinese classic Xia Ji in Zhu Shu Ji Nian. Jiuyi tribes are the general name of the minority nationalities that inhabited in eastern China in ancient times.


See Chinese classic Jin Cang in Guan Zi.


See Chinese classics Da Ya in Mao Shi Zhu Shu, Wan Zhang Shang in Meng Zi Zhu Shu, Bi Yi in Lüshi Chunqiu and Yang Yu in Qi Min Yao Shu.


See Chinese classics Shi Qi in Er Ya Zhu Shu and Bin Feng in Mao Shi Zhu Shu.


See Chinese classic Da Ju Jie in Yi Zhou Shu.


There is a famous story: “Once Tang saw a person arranged nets in four directions in the wild. The man wanted to lure in and round up animals as many as possible. Tang got annoyed and ordered him to open nets of three sides. Tang prayed that all animals could leave in the ways they would like to take. If some ones didn’t follow the advice, they may have no option but to walk right into the trap.” See Chinese classics Yin Ben Ji in Shi Ji, Bi Gua in Zhou Yi Zhu and Bi Gua in Zhou Yi Ben Yi.


See Chinese classic Wen Zhuan Jie in Yi Zhou Shu.


See Chinese classic Luo Shu Wei in Gu Wei Shu.


See Chinese classic Zhou Yu Xia in Guo Yu.


Like here, the month names in this paper are all months in the traditional Chinese lunar calendar. See Chinese classic Yue Ling Jie in Yi Zhou Shu.


See Chinese classics Yue Ling in Li Ji Zhu Shu and Chapter 1–12 in Lüshi Chunqiu.


See Chinese classic Xia Xiao Zheng in Dadai-liji.


See Chinese classic Ba Guan in Guan Zi.


See Chinese classics Di Guan and Tian Guan in Zhou Li Zhu Shu.


Once upon a time in summer, in Lu State, the king Xuan Gong took his men to cast a net and catch fish wantonly in a deep pool of Si River. Officer Li Ge went up and tore the net. He reprimanded Xuan Gong “···Now it's when fishes have just gone into their gestation periods. Your majesty, your deeds will make the fish offsprings couldn't be brought forth and grow up. You even employed a net. How insatiably avaricious you are!” As a monarch, Xuan Gong wasn't angry at being dressed down. He said “I made mistakes and Li Ge comes to correct me. What a nice thing it is! The torn net is a fine net, because it makes me learn the right method to run a country. ···” The story is excerpted from Chinese classic Lu Yu Shang in Guo Yu.


See Chinese classic Shu Er in Lun Yu Zhu Shu.


Recorded in Chinese classic Qu Jie Jie in Kongzi Jia Yu.


See Chinese classic Qing Zhong Jia in Guan Zi.


See Chinese classics Lu Yu Shang in Guo Yu and Wang Zhi in Li Ji Zhu Shu.


See Chinese classic Wang Zhi in Li Ji Zhu Shu.


See Chinese classics Wang Zhi in Xun Zi and Yue Ling in Li Ji Zhu Shu.


See Chinese classics Yue Ling in Li Ji Zhu Shu and Shang Ren in Wen Zi.


See Chinese classics Yi Shang in Lüshi Chunqiu and Liang Hui Wang Shang in Meng Zi Zhu Shu.


See Chinese classic Shang Nong in Lüshi Chunqiu.


See Chinese classic Zhu Shu Xun in Huai Nan Hong Lie Jie.


See Chinese classic Guai Shen in Feng Su Tong Yi.


See Chinese classic Shi Zong Ji in Book of Wei.


Sai is a tool made of bamboo or wood strips, used to plug up water for fishing. See Chinese classic Gao Zong Ben Ji in Tang Shu.


See Chinese classic Dai Zong Ben Ji in Jiu Tang Shu.


See Chinese classic Tai Zu Bei Ji in Song Shi.


See Chinese classic Shi Huo Zhi in Yuan Shi.


See Chinese classic Zhi Guan Zhi in Ming Shi.


Recorded in Chinese classics Chapter 19 in Lao Zi Zhu and Qu Qie in Zhuang Zi Zhu.


Recorded in Chinese classic Qiu Shui in Zhuang Zi Zhu.


See examples from Chinese classics Qifu Hui Lie Zhuan in Sui Shu, Tang Fang Sheng Chi in Yu Hai and Zhen Zong Ben Ji in Song Shi.


See Chinese classics Shi Xun Jie in Yi Zhou Shu, Ben Jing Xun in HuaiNan Hong Lie Jie and all chapters in Chun Qiu Fan Lu.


Recorded in Chinese classic Jie Yong and Fei Yue in Mo Zi.


See Chinese classic Fu Gua in Zhou Yi Zhu.


Recorded in Chinese classic Jie Gua in Zhou Yi Zhu.



This research was supported by the National Key Basic Research Development Plan of China (Grant No. 2006CB400608). We wish to thank Prof. Alasdair D. McIntyre from University of Aberdeen and several anonymous reviewers for their constructive comments.

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