CHINA: A ROAD NOT TAKEN?

I made the generalization that the peoples of India and China mark roads not taken by western civilization. India certainly marks a road not taken.  In many instances, India developed and retained traditions and ways of doing things that Western civilization once tried but eventually rejected, e.g., polytheism.

The Hindu tradition of India differs sharply from Western religion.  So does the Buddhist tradition, a tradition that, eventually, was for the most part absorbed into Hinduism in India itself. But Buddhism found a new home in another very important country China.

Chinese civilization is not quite as old as that of India, dating back to around 2000 B.C.  But, if anything, Chinese achievements are even more impressive. For much of history, China had the most advanced civilization on earth.  The Chinese were the first to have silk, first to develop the fine porcelain we call china, the first to make printed books, the first to discover gunpowder, and even the first to make spaghetti!

Now in all these things (and more), China has influenced the West, and in this sense, it is not quite a road not taken (although maybe the way gunpowder was used shows important differences).

But in other ways, China has marked a road not taken--deliberately. The Chinese, with good reason, regarded all outsiders as culturally inferior.  They regarded themselves as the "middle kingdom," i.e. the central, most important area of civilization. They referred to themselves as "celestial empire." One emperor, responding to European overtures for trade said, “the celestial kingdom has everything it wants and needs nothing from without. “

This meant China had little incentive to trade with the West, and because there was little trade, there was little cultural exchange as well--at least until fairly modern times. 

China also marks roads not taken in the area of religion.  Many Chinese eventually adopted Buddhism, a religious philosophy very different from those of the West.  China also developed two particularly important religious philosophies of its own, Confucianism and Taoism.

 CONFUCIANISM

Confucious (Kung Fu Tzu) lived around 560-480 B.C.  This was a time of trouble and disorder for China. Confucius travelled from place to place, promising a return of order and stability if governments would adopt the principles he taught.  He had relatively little success during his own life, but his disciples preserved his teachings and spread them.  Eventually, Confucianism dominated political thinking in China.

Confucius stressed the following:                             ~

1.  A return to way of ancestors.  Ancestral tradition is valued in the West, but not nearly to the degree it is among the Confucians.  For us, “old fashioned” is a negative idea, while “modern” is positive.  Confucius said he was not born with knowledge, but loved antiquity and was earnest in of seeking it there.

2. Reverence for parents.  Again, there is a similarity: "Honor thy father and mother,"  says the ten commandments.  But, in general, the Western attitude is (or used to be) that parents sacrifice for the sake of their children. In Chinese society, the children sacrifice for their parents. It is not unusual for a man to sell himself into slavery to provide suitable funeral for his father!  After his father’s death, there is a three years of mourning during which a good son carries on the household exactly as did his father!

3.  The cultivation of five cardinal virtues (kindness, uprightness, decorum, wisdom, and truth.  The values are similar to those of the West, but different in their application.  For centuries, in order to have a government job in China, one had to pass a test in Confucian philosophy.

While in the West, we generally try to gain good government by getting the rules right (passing just the right laws, getting just the right constitution, etc.), the Confucians emphasize instead the character of those in office.  To try to get a just society through rule-making the Confucians dismiss as legalism.  Far more important to them is character.

Now there character issue is *part* of what we look for in our Western leaders, but we often place our main emphasis on something else.  Here is what Confucians look for:

Confucian Sayings

To learn and at due time to repeat what one has learnt: is that not after all pleasure? That friends should come to one from afar: is that not after all delightful?  To remain unsoured even when one’s merits are not recognized by  others: is that not after all what is expected of a gentleman?

Is virtue a thing remote?  I wish to be virtuous, and Lo! Virtue is not hard.

Good government obtains when those who are near are made happy, and when those who are far off are attracted.

The scholar who cherishes the love of comfort in not fit to be deemed a scholar.

The superior man is modest in his speech, but exceeds in his actions.

What you do not want done to yourself, do not do to others.

There are three things the superior man guards against.  In youth, lust.  When he is strong, quarrelsomeness.  When he is old, covetousness.

Without recognizing the ordinances of heaven, it is impossible to become a superior man.

If a gentleman is frivolous, he will lose the respect of his inferiors and lack firm ground upon which to build up his education.  First and foremost he must learn to be faithful to his superiors, to keep promises...and if he finds he has made a mistake, then he must not be afraid of admitting the fact and amending his ways.

A gentleman can see a question from all sides without bias.  The small man is biased and can see a question only from one side.

I do not see what use a man can be put to, whose word cannot be trusted.  How can a wagon be made to go if it has no yoke-bar or a carriage, if it has no collar-bar?

If you raise up the straight and set them on top of the crooked, the commoners will support you.  But if you raise the crooked and set them on top of the straight, the commoners will not support you.

In vain I have looked for a single man capable of seeing his own faults and binging the charge home against himself.

 If the ruler himself is upright, all will go well even though he does not give orders. But if he himself is not upright, he will not be obeyed.

This just a sampling of Confucian wisdom. Practical standards, sometimes a bit strange to our ears, but for the most part, easy to understand, and maybe even apply to our own lives. Far different are the teachings of another important Chinese religious philosopher, Lao Tzu founder of Taoism.

TAOISM:

 Here's a typical Taoist passage:

"The Tao that can be told is not the Tao; the name that can be named is not the eternal name. The nameless is the origin of Heaven and Earth; the Named is the mother of all things. Therefore, let there always be nonbeing, so we may see there subtlety, And let there always be being, so we may see there outcome. The two are the same, but after they are produced they have different names. They both may be called deep and profound. Deeper and more profound, the door of all subtleties.

Now note that the Taoists specifically say that Taoism cannot be taught in the way we typically approach things in the West.  This lecture stuff is not for them!  So do know that what I say below, a true Taoist would argue is *not* really what there believe is all about.  Still, in my typical Western analytic way, this is what I come up with.

"Tao" means the "way," and, apparently, what Taoists are trying to find is the way to inner peace and contentment. How do you get this inner peace?

1. Simplicity. Cease from strife and, especially, from warfare.  The world is composed of pairs of opposites symbolized by the Yin Yang: male/female, hot/cold, light/dark, dry/moist.  The trick is to see these principles *not* as conflicting, but as working together to form a natural harmony.

 

 2. Anarchy.  Rules get in the way of finding this natural harmony. The less government, the better.  Obviously, this is very different not just from West, but from Confucianism.

 3. Wisdom.  What is Taoist wisdom?  Well, it’s easiest to say what it is not.  Unlike Confucius who says we have to study to become wise, the Taoists say learning (especially book learning) is bad!

True words are not fine-sounding; fine sounding words are not true.  Good people do not argue; Argumentative people are not good.  Wise people are not learned; the learned are not wise.

So how do we get this wisdom?  Well I guess we just sort of absorb it be listening to Taoist masters.

The sage has no fixed opinions; the opinions of ordinary people become his own.  I am good to people who are good; I am also good to those who are not good: that is the goodness of virtue.  I believe honest people; I also believe the dishonest.  This is the trust of virtues.

When beauty is recognized, ugliness is born.  When good is recognize, evil is born.  Is and is not gives rise to each other; difficult requires easy; long is measured by short; high is determined by low; sound is harmonized by voice; Back follows front.  Therefore the sage applies himself to non-action, moves without speaking, creates the ten thousand things without hindrance, lives, but does not possess, acts, but does not presume, accomplishes but takes no credit.  Since no credit is taken, his accomplishments endure.

Do not exalt heroes, and people will not quarrel.  Do not value rare objects, and people will not steal.  Don’t display things of desire, and their hearts will not be troubled.

And then there’s this from the Taoists:

"Abandon learning, and there will be no sorrow!"

Well, we shall see.  I suspect the Confucians among you (who love to learn and from time to time repeat what they have learned) will have a much happier time than those who adopt the Taoist philosophy on this coming midterm.

[Taoism, by the way, has in many places degenerated into a set of magic rituals and formulas.  The original teaching of Lao-Tzu are more faithfully followed in Zen Buddhism which blends Buddhism and Taoism.]