Archive for July 3rd, 2009

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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