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December 22, 2009

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Discovering a life of harmony

EVER since graduation, Elyse Chen has shifted to a vegetarian diet and rides a bike or take public transport to work. Even as demand for automobiles is exploding, Chen says she will not buy a car because of the pollution it generates and the unsustainable spending on fossil fuel and maintenance.

Chen, age 27, is one of a growing population of young urban white collars who are attracted to LOHAS (Lifestyle of Health and Sustainability).

LOHAS tackles major problems of modern living, including eating based on meat and processed foods, pollution and destruction of the environment. Another problem is the loss of connections between body, mind and spirit in stressful city living.

"I started off not eating meat because it felt more comfortable and because I wanted to protect animals," says Chen, who works in a Beijing-based corporate social responsibility consultancy and is passionate about environmental and social issues.

"But then I found out that meat production pollutes even more than cars, so I switched completely to vegetarian. Sometimes I feel the end of the world is near with so much commercial pressure. I feel it's my duty to try to relieve that pressure," she says.

LOHAS first developed in North America and Europe where, some argue, values are increasingly shifting to a post-consumerist age. As a holistic lifestyle, LOHAS emphasizes the quality of life rather than the quantity of consumption.

Now these concepts have found their way over to China.

Last week the second international LOHAS forum was hosted in Beijing, drawing more participants and media interest than last year.

According to Dr Shen Li from Beijing Normal University, one of the pioneers of the movement in China, LOHAS' popularization is driven by negative forces such as high-profile food safety scandals and pollution.

"LOHAS is much needed here because problems in food, agriculture and pollution are severe," says Li.

Chinese tradition

In the West, organic farming and supermarkets have developed to address food safety and pollution, and they are also influencing China. But pioneering local organizations and companies are finding their own unique solutions with Chinese characteristics.

LOHAS would seem to resonate particularly in China, with a deeply agrarian history and emphasis on balance between man and nature. Traditional Chinese medicine, for example, with its concept of holistic treatment lends itself particularly well to LOHAS.

The Phoenix Farm on the outskirts of Beijing, for example, combines Western biodynamic farm practices with Chinese TCM food therapy.

First developed in the 1930s, biodynamic farming recognizes that chemical fertilizers and pesticides degrade the soil. It is a form of organic farming with homeopathic compost enriched with fermented herbal and mineral preparations. Thus, it restores nutrition to the soil as well as the link between soil, plants and animals.

But in addition to these methods, the Phoenix Farm produces mainly vegetables considered crucial for health in TCM such as the Chinese yam. The farm also has a TCM food therapy center and organic tea house which encourages visitors to become educated on how illnesses can be prevented with the right healthy foods.

"Western medicine treats the symptoms of illnesses, but TCM recognizes that many illnesses, such as diabetes, can be prevented by a change in diet," says Lee Yan, founder of the farm.

"We are lucky that with TCM traditions, the idea of treating a farm as a whole living organism is easily accepted," says Lee. "We also avoid overemphasis on the quality of the soil that's prevalent in biodynamic farming - soil is only the foundation on which to understand how to unlock the body's natural balance."

More familiar organic farms and supermarkets have also taken root. The first organic supermarket in Beijing, Lohao City, for example, has quickly expanded to 18 stores in five cities in just three years.

According to Yu Chongzheng, founder of Lohao City, in the past couple of years China has been making the transition from the world's factory to the world's marketplace. The competition by luxury brands to enter China shows that people are willing to pay more for quality.

According to Yu, the battle now is for consumer trust, especially in the organic food industry where running a truly organic production line is a lifelong commitment.

However, with a plethora of organic certifications and uncertainty over food safety standards overall, it's hard to guarantee authenticity of organic produce that ends up at city supermarkets.

Part of the problem is the increasing decoupling of the city from the countryside, making it hard to establish trust with consumers who are most interested in the product.

While support for sustainable living tends to start with wealthy urban white collars, one Chinese NGO called Global Village of Beijing has recognized that real change is often more possible from the countryside.

Founder and activist Sheri Liao started her career as a researcher with the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. According to Liao, the Chinese countryside with its deep memories of older agricultural practices has the most potential for complete change.

"Actually organic farming and green living doesn't need a great deal of education. The countryside was originally very close to the earth and they still have ecological knowledge - but they're giving it up to copy the city. We want to stop that at the roots," says Liao who was also the environmental adviser to the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games.

Their flagship project, the Life of Harmony (LOHO) Community of Daping Village in Sichuan Province, was started last year just after the earthquake in May. Liao chose a village that was devastated by the quake as it represented a unique opportunity to reconstruct its physical and socio-economic structure from scratch.

Set in beautiful mountain scenery, Daping's reconstruction involves six aspects including sustainable and quake-resistant rebuilding using a mix of traditional and modern techniques, new green streams of income from organic farming, handicrafts and eco-tourism, plus a center for TCM treatment and illness prevention.

Liao is also building an education center as part of the eco-tourism project that teaches visitors about LOHAS.

In a rare economic model, the NGO links the village to a market for healthy foods in neighboring cities. The small scale of production and proximity to the food source establishes trust in the market.

The NGO is also fully invested in the village with a 15-year contract and 51-percent stake in its economic success. Finally, it has a unique governance model made up of an association of the villagers, the NGO and local government so that once set up, its economic model can be sustainable.

"With this project I want to show what is possible, and so far these changes have been more easily accepted in the countryside," says Liao.

However, the eco-tourism project is in the very early stages and overall success remains to be seen. The project is unfolding against a backdrop of rapidly increasing mass tourism in China that puts pressure on national heritage sites all over the country.

Body, mind, soul

The search for alternatives to a materially driven society has given rise to a plethora of alternative medicines and new age theories.

But in China, traditional methods such as martial arts and TCM again provide a wealth of material. Dr Zhang Mingliang, for example, is a trained TCM doctor in the Emei school who is combining his knowledge with Buddhist and Taoist meditation and concepts, and martial arts. The Emei school refers to Mt Emei, one of China's four Buddhist mountains.

He recently was invited by the National Sports Bureau to write a series of books on traditional methods for maintaining health.

Other innovations combine the Chinese breathing exercise tai chi with the more well-established Indian technique of yoga. An example is a popular course pioneered by veteran yoga expert Lin Min, yoga instructor to the Chinese table tennis team.

The leading martial arts establishment, Shaolin Temple, has planned its own set of "Chinese yoga" classes using gentle kung fu techniques (see Shanghai Daily "Shaolin to unveil secret yoga class," September 5, 2008).


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