Having explored some of the themes is Western philosophy, I’ll now consider historical developments in Chinese philosophy. Of course, even the most successful attempt to compare formative bodies of thought over continental measures of space and millennial spans of time must inevitably be convoluted or vacuous or both.
My main argument in this post may already be familiar: whereas Western intellectual traditions have historically been dominated by individualism and analysis (in the last post I neologised “separationist”), China’s core paradigms are, in increasing order of abstraction, collectivist, holist, and/or monist.
Collectivism sees individuals primarily as parts of greater societal structures, such that the duty of each individual is to contribute to the prosperity of the whole. Holism is the understanding that events in the material and spiritual worlds are deeply interconnected, and by implication that the Western tendency toward analysis will only achieve incomplete or illusory understanding of the Universe. Finally, monism is in a sense the logical extreme of holism, holding that reality as composed of a single entity that binds all phenomena together.
These ideas are not entirely without precedent in Western history. For instance, Dutch philosopher Baruch Spinoza deduced an idealist form of monism from a handful of preliminary assumptions and the laws of logic. His argument goes something like: God is the infinite; nothing can be excluded from the infinite; therefore there is nothing that is not God.
In the following, I’ll highlight the three paradigms’ influence in the three major systems of thought in China – Confucianism, Taoism (aka Daoism), and Buddhism.
Early Confucian Thought
Confucius’ teachings have been reinterpreted and repurposed many times over the last two and a half millennia. But underlying its myriad historical and regional variants are the metaphysical notions of Universal order, harmony and interconnectedness. According to the Han scholar Dong Zhongshu (aka Tung Chung-shu):
Heaven, Earth and Man are the root of all things. Heaven begets them, Earth nourishes them, and Man completes them. These three complement each other as limbs, torso and head go together to make a body: no one of them can be dispensed with.
So each part of the Universe – man, nature, and the supernatural – depends on each other part for its sustenance. This is in stark contrast with the separationist and hierarchical Abrahamic religions, in which God is the custodian of mankind, and man is in turn ruler of nature.
According to Confucianism, human society can only flourish if it maintains harmony (intellectual, behavioural and spiritual) with itself and with the rest of the cosmos: a healthy cosmos nourishes mankind, which nourishes the cosmos, and so on. Each individual thus had strong incentive to do their bit in striving for the prosperity of all. The duty of the king, then, was to assure the material needs of his subjects so all may be free to contribute their utmost. (The Chinese character for king, 王, is eloquent of his role in uniting man with the other two components of the Universe.)
So whereas Western individualism atomises people into individuals, stressing their uniqueness, the roots of Chinese institutions are more collectivist, seeing the individual not only as integrated with the rest of society but as part of a cosmic whole, with a duty to cultivate and improve themselves and perform the greatest service they are capable of.
For citizens to be free in the conventional sense, the state must possess ultimate authority and the capacity to exercise total control. By contrast, if we understand freedom as cumulative, the freedom of one person becomes the freedom of all. In this framework, the more that coercive force is centralised, the less freedom there can be. This way of conceiving freedom is social rather than individualist: it approaches liberty as a collectively produced relationship to our potential, not a static bubble of private rights.
The high value Confucians ascribe to harmony in human affairs makes it more important to reconcile divergent views than to establish supremacy. Consequently, we see throughout history a greater tendency to incorporate new ideas and philosophies into existing paradigms. This is particularly clear in its relationship with Taoism.
Taoism and Synthesis
Taoism evolved in parallel with Confucianism; from their founding in the fifth century BC, their respective prominence varied regionally and over time. We shall see that the two schools are very much distinguished by their ethics, and by their roles in society and in the lives of their practitioners. Whereas Confucianism prescribed behavioural norms for individuals’ interactions, promoting self-cultivation and personal excellence in accordance with a moral code, Taoism was somewhat less concerned with society and more concerned with (super-)personal discovery of mystical universal truth.
Nevertheless, each would come to embrace elements of the other’s ontology. For instance, Confucians adopted Taoist ideas about the primacy of cycles in nature: these originally invited contemplation of eternity, one’s role in the present, and the futility of posterity, but were partially reinterpreted into a more “astrological” framework for explaining the fortunes of society and understanding patterns of harmony in the cosmos.
In Taoism, cycles could also symbolise the inevitability of change, which in turn contributed to the principle of wei wu wei, action without action. This held that to resist change was to interfere in nature and provoke negative outcomes (perhspas revealing another overlap with Confucianism, in the sense that both promote in their own way accommodation and synthesis over struggle and supremacy).
Several practices blossom from the central stem of the Tao, each threaded with the principles of holism and harmony. T'ai chi, kung fu, calligraphy, meditation, acupuncture, and others all serve to align the practitioner with the Tao, and in some way to stimulate in them a universal life-giving energy called qi.
Another instance of philosophical cross-fertilisation was the yin-yang symbol, which embodies the idea that what Westerners may naturally perceive as opposites (e.g. light and dark, hot and cold, active and passive) are in fact complementary aspects of a deeper unity. The point is not to grow attached to a conception or perception of light, say, on its own, but to understand that light is a shadow of something more fundamental – the unity of light and darkness. In combination with the theory of cycles, yin and yang represent the dynamic couplet whose tanrantistic oscillations underpin the development of all phenomena.
This so-called “dualistic monism” is taken further in traditional Taoist thought, which identifies the Tao as the author of all apparent reality. The Tao is the single, monistic root entity which begets all apparent diversity as efflorescence. The opening chapter of Laotzi’s (aka Lao Tsu) Tao Te Ching (aka Daode Jing) reads
The Way that can be followed is not the eternal Way.
The name that can be named is not the eternal name.
The nameless is the origin of heaven and earth
While naming is the origin of the myriad things.
Therefore, always desireless, you see the mystery
Ever desiring, you see the manifestations.
These two are the same –
When they appear they are named differently.
This sameness is the mystery,
Mystery within mystery;
The door to all marvels.
One who seeks the Tao must embrace a totality beyond logic and language, which are incapable of representing it and in fact impede its appreciation by restricting the mind’s capacity for contemplation to a familiar and mundane subset. Taoism wrests its adherents away from communication and relation – the world of Confucian theory – and into a realm of pure thought.
According to the Zhuangzi, another foundational work of Taoism, an appreciation of the Tao requires the casting off of personal identity and attachment to the body. Transcending not just human desires, but the ego itself would be antithetical to Western individualism – and the result is one who is aware that they are merely a unique manifestation of the universal Tao.
A summary in the words of Fritjof Capra,
The most important characteristic of the Eastern world view is the awareness of the unity and mutual interrelation of all things and events, the experience of all phenomena in the world as manifestations of a basic oneness. All things are seen as interdependent and inseparable parts of this cosmic whole; as different manifestations of the same ultimate reality.
Now, you may be unsurprised to learn that Chinese intellectual history is not adequately represented by a bunch of happy priests swapping mysticisms for thousands of years. In order to gain some perspective on the growth of Buddhism, the third pillar of mainstream Chinese thought, it’s instructive to delve into the messy business of politics. (As with everything I write, the following is a simplification and a distortion: the development of religious and intellectual movements, their fortunes, their alliances and their persecutions, is an intricate story. China is a big country; 2500 years is a long time; a lot happened.)
We are used to seeing populations manipulated and weaponised (sometimes unwillingly; sometimes willingly; sometimes gladly) by the powerful, through hijack of their religion or culture – take the civilising mandate of European colonisers, or the rise of jihadist Islam. In China, both Confucianism and Taoism became politicised, violent, and ultimately discredited in many parts of the country.
Several characteristics of Taoism and Confucianism turned out to facilitate the amassing of power by autocrats. For instance, Taoism’s emphasis on adaption to external circumstances, and its confidence in cyclic reciprocation, rendered its adherents passive to disempowerment. Its emphasis on contemplation and introspection, on transcending the physical and mental self, may have numbed the devout to their changing material circumstances as the elite silently enriched themselves at the expense of the peasantry. On the Confucian side, the tenets of obedience and duty to society, and faith in its meritocratic organisation and the wisdom of kings, meant they too were easier to control.
This pliance notwithstanding, both Taoism and Confucianism had a form of social mobility at their heart which initially checked the power of any would-be elite. Confucians believed in education for all as a route to self-improvement; and in striving for the most efficient society, they prioritised individual ability over social class, meaning that anybody could rise in the ranks of social and political influence. (Moreover, the more introspective brand of Confucianism due to Mengzi posed a significant impediment to external control, as it held individuals, rather than their rulers, to be the principal sources of moral wisdom.)
Taoism was also non-elitist, not only because it had little to say about societal structure, but also because it held that every person had an equal chance of grasping the Tao, and no external authority was required to do so.
Nonetheless, it seems plausible that even these egalitarian values could yet be distorted into instruments of control: the reality of social progression and meritocracy is stripped away, leaving the (placatory) promise of it. This ends up legitimising oppression, and raises the status of oppressors, who are free to maintain circumstances favourable to themselves.
The Precarity of Ossified Harmony
Centralised power often imposes a centralised and dogmatic system of thought to justify itself. And so the prevailing Confucianism, with all its Taoist influences, became in the hands of the Sung elite increasingly ubiquitous and dogmatic: the existing diversity of alternative interpretations and practices was abolished, leaving only caricatures of the most authoritarian and prescriptive elements of the philosophy – elements pertaining to social behaviour, authority, duty, shame and guilt.
As discussed, Confucianism is fundamentally a holistic theory: its nature is to explain the interrelations between many things that seem at first glance to be unconnected. It had always evolved in tandem with an increasingly complex society; but following the suppression of alternative philosophies, its scope and utility had to broaden – it alone had to make sense of the human mind, institutions, culture, metaphysics, nature and the cosmos, and place them into a coherent and exhaustive system of relationships.
Problems start to arise when a holistic theory becomes monolithic – when it and it alone has to consistently encompass everything (analytic theories are much less unwieldy, which is perhaps one reason that science has made such impressive progress). And just like humourism in Enlightenment Europe (see the previous post in this series), the priests of the elitist Confucianism started to get things wrong: their cosmic cycles were seen to fail, they lost confidence in making tangible predictions.
With a holist theory, a crack in one corner can spread throughout the whole structure. And since Confucianism’s capacity for re-interpretation and renewal had been all but destroyed by political interests, the incremental burden of each failure eventually caused its credibility to crumble. Time was ripe for something new.
Influence of Buddhism
There’s no single consistent picture as to what Buddhism in China meant or why it flourished. But the political sullying of Confucianism and Taoism, and the increasing levels of exchange between Indian and Chinese scholars, certainly left the populace receptive to and aware of new systems of thought. Buddhism, though utterly alien in many respects, still offered a number of core principles which could be compared and even integrated with existing Chinese paradigms.
For instance, Buddhism taught that true insight into the nature of life and the mind required the release of all attachment to material and mental constructs associated with the ego. Capra again:
The Buddhist holds that the idea of a separate, individual self is an illusion, an intellectual concept that has no reality (maya). To cling to this idea of a separate self leads to the same pain and suffering (duhkha) as the adherence to any other fixed category of thought.
The goal of reaching towards a deeper reality beyond phenomena, through transendence of the self, resonated with the surviving adherents of Taoism. Through new techniques of meditation, through the illustrations of new stories which introduced new perspectives and interpretations, Buddhism touched upon dormant currents of monism. The Buddhist concept of dharma was translated into Taoism’s Tao, nirvana (freedom from worldly ills) was translated into wu wei, and so on.
Buddhist teachings gained popularity even in the strongholds of Confucian elites in southern China, whose scholarship and refinement could be tested and expanded by new texts and materials. The Confucian dedication to popular education was reawakened, and new forms of morality and compassion introduced by Buddhists found Confucian parallells.
Like Taoism (before its corruption as a tool of social stratification), Buddhism’s foundational principles and ultimate aspirations were to some extent accessible to all, and hence it was uniquely placed to reknit social fissures. Indeed, Buddhism was instrumental in reuniting northern and southern China in the centuries after the country was fractured by invading Mongols.
In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, when rapid industrial progress in the West prompted a bitter self-examination by the Chinese political elite, who wondered how their great nation with its history of culture and technology had fallen behind.
At this time, the popularity of Chinese Buddhism had declined somewhat; its remaining adherents saw a chance to revive it as an opportunity to recover cultural unity across south-east Asia – it was, they claimed, the only ideology that could compete with the might of a West in thrall to globalising industrial capitalism.
Such initiatives did not prevail for a number of reasons. Buddhism had by that time been compromised by its synthesis into neo-Confucianism, and on a more political level by Japan's weaponising it against China. It was furthermore regarded as passive and pacifist, and hence no real match for the miliaristic expansionism of Western powers.
There's also the consideration that, in times of widespread poverty and other immediate ills, a spiritual philosophy of eternity simply cannot compete with materialist and explanatory theories of history and society such as Marxism, which saw mushrooming popularity in China at that time.
Following this thought, I'd even claim that the idealist core of Chinese thought was in the end an impediment to technological progress, because idealism tends to subordinate human existence to metaphysical abstractions, and in so doing it diminishes the distinction between the natural and the supernatural. Granted, technological progress had been made under idealist paradigms in earlier periods of history; but in the modern age they rendered any systematic scientific (materialist) understanding the world an impossibility.
(I feel this discussion begs the question of whether it's possible to be a "material holist", and if so what that means. We've already met ideal holism – for instance Taoism – and ideal analytism – for instance in the individual soul or Cartesian ego –, and mainstream science represents a form of material analytism. What fills the gap of material holism?)
So we’ve seen some ways that the underlying philosophies of collectivism, holism and monism manifest in the intellectual traditions of Confucianism, Taoism and Chinese Buddhism. Common to all is some sense that the interests of the individual self is to be sacrificed, either for the common material good, or for insight into the underying unity of the Universe. Ridding oneself of one’s self was central to Eastern philosophy long before Westerners began to analyse it out during the Scientific Revolution.
Such values are reified by other Eastern traditions. Within the great diversity of Hindu traditions, for instance, we find Buddhist-like teachings that, through introspection, we may access a true self (Atman) which is free from corruption by ego and hence common to all humanity. This is ultimately identified with a supreme, non-material, reality (Brahman). We find Taoist-like teachings of dualistic monism, in the inseperable fusion of consciousness and matter (puruṣa and prakṛti) as the foundation of the Universe. And we find Confucian-like concepts of duty to an over-arching cosmic order (Rta).
Interestingly, another major religion of Eastern India, Jainism, seems to bear more resemblance to Western thought. In Jainism, each human is said to have a separate consciousness or soul (jiva; so the teaching is not monistic), and the goal for each individual is to seek bliss for their jiva by conquering the needs and sufferings of their body (so the teaching is not collectivist and is somewhat supremacist).
In the next and final post in this series, I’ll collect some of the main conclusions so far and attempt to relate them to agricultural tradtions.