Archive for ‘Taoism’

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Does Confucius matter outside Asia?

JR can’t promise that this will be the last time he’s coming back to the Confucius Peace Prize (孔子和平奖) – but he’ll try not to dwell on it merely for the fun it has been.

Collateral Damage: the Noble and his Prize

Collateral Damage: the Noble and his Prize

A prize should highlight outstanding achievements. That should be the objective. Before naming a prize after someone, a jury or the founders of a prize need to think of what a name stands for.

We’ll show the rest of the world how the Chinese understand peace, Tan Liuchang, chairman of the “Confucius Peace Prize Committee”, reportedly told the Global Times.

Should a Confucius Prize encourage “ethnic”, rather than universal values?

The Granite Studio, in a post of nine random thoughts, links to sort of an obituary on the bankruptcy of the neo-traditionalism that the CCP has to turn to time and time again as it struggles to find a narrative to legitimate its authorian rule. If you simply want to scold a bunch of brain-washed fools, there’s little to add to that, other than a note of doubt that the party leadership had really much to do with the prize – except that the “civil society” which produced it is – undeniably -  the CCP’s very own brainchild – a politically overengineered society.

But JR isn’t only here to have fun. He is here to make a small contribution to future Confucius Peace Prize deliberations, too – to help to deepen mutual understanding, and friendship between nations.

Laozi might have recommended purity free from all desire and all intentional action. Couldn’t a Confucius Peace Prize – from true civil society, that is – make sense after all?  In 2009, Wang Zhicheng (王志成), a Chinese scholar, wrote a review of how Chinese Confucians – and there are many ways of how you might define yourself Confucian – think of Confucian ways in China today, and in today’s global society. Confucianism and its revival, Wang wrote, require post-modern, critical reflection. Can Confucianism contribute to the further development of global values – and if so, how?

A translation of Prof. Wang’s review starts here. It’s far from perfect, and if you can read Chinese, the original post will serve you much better.

I can’t tell if the ideas are promising. But they do address Confucianism itself.



A Peace Prize for Katya and Maria, Asian Correspondent, Dec 10, 2011


Friday, July 10, 2009

Taoism’s Inter-Civilizational Crossovers (1)

Related: Taoism and the Dialog of Civilizations, July 3


Much of the literature I’m using here is in German – not only when referring to Wolfgang Bauer or Karl Jaspers who wrote in German themselves.
For example, Lin Yutang wrote his “The Wisdom of Laotse” in English, for a North American readership. Nevertheless, I’m using a German edition of his writings. The same is true for Thomas Cleary’s “The Tao of Politics”. Therefore, some of my sources are farther away from the original than what they would need to be, but then, this is a blog and it must not consume but some of my pasttime.

As for two of the Taoist classics – Laozi and Zhuangzi -, I will mostly refer to them like if they were real people. I understand that they didn’t necessarily exist as individuals. But from childhood, I’ve been used to think of them as real people – people who actually never died.


Karl Jaspers, in “The Great Philosophers”, found that the only way to describe the Tao was to tell what it is not. Before the “ten-thousand things” which are everything we can see or be aware of, including ourselves, there is the immeasurable void, the negative, the non-existent. The void creates the things which exist, and it acts like a bellow while doing so.

One could say that the “Tao” exhales when making the world.

Both Buddhism and Taoism are metaphysical in their own ways, and Buddhism, as sinisized as its “Chinese edition” may be, came from abroad. It seems remarkable that both Buddhism and Taoism, according to legends, had to be quested for, while Confucius set off and promoted his ideas. Buddhism, so Chinese folklore and literature say, was fetched from “the West”, i. e. India. Chinese “delegation” led by a monk named Xuanzang (玄奘), and with the immortal monkey king Sun Wukong (孫悟空) as a delegation member, took a long, dangerous, but also highly entertaining journey to India – a road full of adventures.

I’ll try to describe how Taoism – probably the only great Chinese philosophy which went beyond what we can see and directly describe – has served as a bridge between Chinese and Western experience and thought. I’m almost taking it for granted that it did so, but don’t expect a smoking gun here. Still there is plenty of evidence in the parallels and references from the West to the East. Wolfgang Bauer, in “The Will to act and the Revolutionary Role of the Village”, in: “China and the Hope for Happiness – Paradises, Utopias, Ideals in China’s History of Thought”, described such cross references between imported Marxist thought and traditional Taoist ideas.1)

Obviously, serving as a bridge to an outside world wasn’t a Taoist “plan”. China and the world were one – from a Chinese perspective. The world had its center, and its barbarian territories, but this one world only ceased to exist when the barbarians forgot themselves and kicked the doors in.

Taoism explains the world, and how it comes into being. It usually doesn’t attach much importance to human or civilizational relations, or even criticizes such relations as an apostization from the Tao. But as Taoism looks behind differing civilizational statements, it is something one world may relate to as easily as different worlds.

Laozi – if he was an existing individual rather than a collection of aphorisms from different or unknown authors – had his wisdom recorded only when he left the civilized world behind him. But on the border between the center and the barbarian territories, what he left for the records was still wisdom based on Chinese experience. Taoism is a transcending, but genuinely Chinese system of thought.

I’ll only touch on Western philosophy where it seems to show commonalities with Taoism, or where it gained substantial influence on Chinese life. As for Taoism itself, I’d like to look into its potential role in China’s present tense, and its future role.

1. Taoism

1.1. The Classics

There are differing opinions on when the Dao De Jing and the Zhuangzi were written. Wolfgang Bauer believed that the older chapters of the Zhuangzi book were written during the fifth or fourth century B.C., that the Dao De Jing is from the mid- or late fourth century B.C., and that at least some further chapters were added to the Zhuangzi only during the second century B.C..2) If Laozi and Zhuangzi were real people or only names to these written collections is also unclear. Zhuangzi is written in prose; the Dao De Jing, at least partly, is lyrical.
A third classic, the Huainanzi, was compiled during the second century B.C..3)

1.2. How Taoism sees the World

It could be seen as a problem: people who consider themselves spiritual, will probably describe Taoism as something spiritual, too, be it in philosophical or religious ways. People with no or little sense for spiritual matters may reject the idea that Taoism was meant to be spiritual.
We can probably leave this problem aside – the old Taoists may have either laughed or frowned at such an argument, as it would look unnatural and arbitrary to them. The Tao is the Tao. Philosophy, religion, materialism or spirituality are the ways of a man who spends his life on – in vain – trying to “cultivate” society and on counting beans.
But when discussing Taoism, when exploring it, or when translating its works, people will use certain terms according to their own ideas. A Jesuit translating and interpreting Taoist classics will use other terms than a Marxist colleague. It’s hard to be a real Taoist when you want to talk Taoism.
For sure, the old Taoists were quite indifferent about the things we perceive and between which we can see a difference: a deer is no horse, a man is no butterfly, etc.. Material manifestations are here, but we would try to look behind the manifestations: the root of the world, or, as faithful interpreters may say, the “Divine”.4) Taoism is about what drives all the material manifestations. Physicists had called the idea into question that everything we could see or perceive was merely material, Lin Yutang wrote in the 1940s: they had come to the atom from substance, and to the electron from the atom – but what was driving the electron?5)

The root of the world is comprehensive. Everything material is only its manifestation or creation. An old Taoist – who’d be as metaphysical as can be – wants to see what transcends the material or physical objects. Laozi calls it “Tao” and at the same time refuses to label the real Tao with a name at all. The Tao includes everything, all the opposites, too, even what exists, and what doesn’t.
But Laozi has decided to talk about the Tao after all, and that requires language, i.e. a name: “And I refer to it as ‘Tao’”.6)

Obviously, the capacity of language, the tool of man, who is one of the ten-thousand things himself, is limited. Therefore, Laozi reduces his talk to parables and aphorisms, based on a pattern: “The Nameless is the origin of heaven and earth, the Named is the mother of all things.”7)
Jaspers refers to the Nameless as the “Non-Existent”.8 ) So the world comes from the Tao which can be named, or from what exists, and this existence in turn comes from what doesn’t exist. This “process of becoming [the] world”, as Jaspers puts it, can’t be attributed to a certain point in time: [Laozi] apparently doesn’t see a linear world process with a sequence of clear-cut, constituting or catastrophic events. Rather, one would see in it a timeless, eternal presence of being. Hints to a world process in his descriptions may need to be perceived as everlasting action.9)

The Tao is “before the world, and therefore before all differentiation”10) One could say just as well that it is underneath the world.11) Laozi also emphasizes the Tao’s cyclical pattern: “The things of this world come from the existent, and the existent comes from the non-existent.”12) “Return is the action of the Tao”, and the Dao De Jing‘s sixteenth chapter states that “The ten-thousand things take shape and rise to act, but I’m watching how they return to rest”. Everything comes from the non-existent, exists in this world for a limited period and then returns to its original condition.13)

It seems that nothing more can be said about the Tao’s effect. In its 81 chapters, the Dao De Jing offers a variety of imagination and comparisons to point out this effect.

To be continued.


1) Probably only available in German. Wolfgang Bauer: Der Wille zur Tat und die revolutionaere Rolle des Dorfes, in China und die Hoffnung auf Glueck – Paradiese, Utopien, Idealvorstellungen in der Geistesgeschichte Chinas, Munich 1989, first published in 1974, p. 512.
2) Bauer:1989:62
3) Cleary:8
4) Weischedel:15
5) Lin Yutang:22
6) Jaspers:923
7) Lin Yutang:41, first book (quoting Laozi, chapter 1, “About the Absolute Tao”)
8 ) Jaspers:905
9) Jaspers:904 -
“[Laozi] scheint keinen zeitlichen Weltprozess mit einer Folge einschneidender, gruendender oder katastrophaler Ereignisse zu kennen. Eher wuerde man aus ihm eine zeitlose ewige Gegenwart des Seins entnehmen. Was bei ihm vorkommt, ist vielleicht als ein immerwaehrendes Geschehen aufzufassen…”
10) Jaspers:902
11) Lin Yutang:64
12) Lin Yutang:151, fourth book (quoting Laozi, chapter 40, “About the Principle of Return”)
13) Lin Yutang:85


Bauer, Wolfgang: China und die Hoffnung auf Glück – Paradiese, Utopien, Idealvorstellungen in der Geistesgeschichte Chinas, Munich 1989, first published in 1974

Cleary, Thomas (editor): Das Tao der Politik (The Tao of Politics), translated by Ingrid Fischer-Schreiber, Bern, Munich, Vienna, 1991

Jaspers, Karl: Die großen Philosophen, Vol. 1, Munich, published in 1957, 1988, 1991

Lin, Yutang (editor): Die Weisheit des Laotse, Frankfurt a. M. 1955, translated by Gerolf Coudenhove  (The Wisdom of Laotse, 1948)

Weischedel, Wilhelm: Die philosophische Hintertreppe – 34 große Philosophen in Alltag und Denken, Munich 1975

Friday, July 3, 2009

Taoism and the Dialog of Civilizations

A number of contemporary New Confucian scholars are to some extent aware of the Second Axial Age, writes Wang Zhicheng (王志成), professor at Zhejiang University’s Humanities College, in an article on his blog. The axial age was a term coined by Karl Jaspers, a philosopher and psychiatrist who taught during the 20th century. A second axial age is what Wang Zhicheng believes is coming. More generally, he advocates a dialog of civilizations, in which Confucianism should play an adequate role.

What strikes me is the degree to which Wang equates Confucianism and Chinese civilization, and how he leaves other defining Chinese religions and philosophies out. Taoism and Buddhism aren’t mentioned in his essay at all.

One might go too far by saying that Confucianism is totalitarian – although another Confucian, Tu Weiming,  seems to view traditional Confucianism this way:

Tu believes that a thoroughly politicized Confucianist society would be more into persecution and coercion than a purely Legalist society, because Confucianism didn’t only dominate peoples’ body, but also wanted to control peoples’ minds, whereas Legalism only wanted to control those who didn’t obey the law.

Either way, a move from Confucianism to Confucianness – becoming ready for dialog, just as Confucius himself was ready for dialog – doesn’t look convincing to me if it doesn’t include an awareness of Chinese civilization’s own diversity. Wang Zhicheng and Tu Weiming both seem to attach a lot of importance to ecological awareness and religious plurality. This is where Taoism comes into play. Dialog with Confucianism is great, but it isn’t enough if we want a dialog with Chinese civilization.

More than half a century ago, Lin Yutang, himself a Taoist, started a dialog with the American public, and soon, it would become a dialog with a wider Western public. In The Wisdom of Laotse*), he explains the difficulties in understanding the Dao De Jing, which leaves a lot of room for different interpretations in Chinese already. Lin’s approach to make understanding easier is add a matching Chuang Tse text (Zhuangzi) to each Lao Tse (Laozi) aphorism, topic by topic. This was apparently quite a new approach, and as Chuang Tse is very lively prose, Lin Yutang’s combining it with the Lao Tse aphorisms helped readers to get a more palpable idea of Lao Tse.

The whole history of Taoism looks like a struggle to remain as open and metaphysical as possible, while making itself understood to a more general public at the same time, and to become applicable for politics. It shouldn’t be forgotten that Confucianism and Taoism were once competing schools. When Confucianism became China’s dominant doctrine and religion, Taoism became the “night side” of Chinese thought and feelings – many mandarins, or so the saying goes, were “Confucianist during the day and Taoists at night”. But Taoism isn’t just a hidden ecological or scientific pulse generator for Confucianism. Taoism is a system of thought in its own right.

During the coming weeks, I’d like to indicate how Taoism served as a bridge between China and the West – how it apparently helped Chinese people to understand Western thought, and how it had been in place long before Western scholars came to conclusions similar to Taoism’s. Taoism goes far beyond discussing inter-personal relationships. It tries to explain the world. Such thoughts aren’t bound to a given kind of society with a given local, civilizational tradition.

Traditionally, Taoism seems to be reluctant to answers questions. Even the Huainanzi, a rather practical and political Taoist guide, tells us about the – though unavoidable – shame of entering worldly affairs. And Bertolt Brecht put an old legend into a poem, about an ordinary borderpost asking Lao Tse questions, and getting answers in written.

If the old sages don’t offer their advice without our asking these days either, we should keep asking questions.

Update: continued here »


*) “The Wisdom of Lao Tse”, edited by Lin Yutang, New York, 1948; Frankfurt, 1955


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