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    Greater China
     Jul 21, 2012


BOOK REVIEW
The 'real' story is the less obvious
Three Ways of Thought in Ancient China by Arthur Waley

Reviewed by Dmitry Shlapentokh

The reviewer's task could be manifold. One aspect could be the attraction of the reader's attention to that part of the book that he might gloss over without understanding its centrality, or at least importance, for the narrative. And this would be the case with Three Ways of Thought in Ancient China on several ancient classical Chinese philosophers: Chuang Tzu and Mencius and those who in the book are called "the realists".

Chuang Tzu, one of the leading proponents of Taoism, would most likely be appreciated by Western readers; this would especially be the case in the 1960s during what could be called the hippie

 

era. The reason is clear: Taoism is a sort of existential philosophy, or religion if you wish. It is absolutely asocial and, in a way, relativistic.

The proponents assume that a person has no social obligations and should accept life as it is with a major focus on internal tranquility. In this content stage - calmly acceptive of all vicissitudes of life - the person should wait for death, with no promise of the afterlife. Death is lapsing into nothingness; but this is the great consolation for the dead, who have no troubles.

While the premises of Taoism could well be accepted by the Western reader, one might remember Zen Buddhism with its quite similar philosophy so popular in the 1960s and much blended with Taoism in Chinese thought; the case would be more complicated with Mencius, the leading Confucianist.

Indeed, while Westerners, especially the hippies of the 1960s, could well be interested in Taoism, others, those who look for "eternal" China, the template for thousands of years of the country's existence, would look at the work of Mencius.

Indeed, for the majority of those foreigners who have just a superficial knowledge of China or even the Chinese themselves, Confucianism is the very embodiment of China, its "external" spiritual framework regardless of all influences of imported creeds, from Marxism to Western liberalism. Confucianism emphasizes the hierarchy and mutual responsibilities between rulers and rulers and the proponents of the creed visualized the state as a big, well-organized, family. In Arthur Waley's view, it was a fig leaf of the regime at best and the unworkability of the creed was actually acknowledged by Confucius himself.

Both Taoism and Confucianism are among the most, if not the most, popular philosophies coming from China. Still, as the author of Three Ways of Thought in Ancient China notes, they, paradoxically enough, had never played a substantial role in shaping Chinese political culture and Chinese history. Waley notes that there was no Chinese dynasty, were no Chinese rulers, who actually ruled according to not just Taoist principles - Taoism was, in fact, an asocial teaching - but even Confucianism, which, formerly had been a state ideology and the basis for civil-service exams until the end of imperial rule.

The story presented in Waley's book provides a good example of the unworkability of Confucianism with its noble calling. According to the story, Confucius was informed about a certain bandit who defied all the major values that Confucius believed and are the very foundation of any society; and he believed that he could easily persuade the bandit to abandon this way of life.

Despite the warning, Confucius indeed approached the bandit and tried to convince him that he would live a much happier life if he would abandon his amoralism and criminality. The bandit was hardly convinced, and the sage barely escaped with his life. One might note that the same story was true of Plato, who barely escaped from a despot whom he tried to convince that following the virtuous life would be in his best interests. Confucianism was unworkable, the author states, regardless of the fact that Confucianism with its moral underpinning had been a fig leaf for Chinese monarchs for millennia.

It was not Confucianism but "realism" that was the driving force of the Chinese authoritarian/totalitarian states. It had been really a functional philosophy, at least from the author's point of view. The "realists" were unquestionably the ideologists of the totalitarian regime, at least from Waley's perspective. Indeed, the author notes that many of the ideas of the "realists" look like quotations from current newspapers. One should remember that the first edition of Waley's book emerged in 1939, the year of the beginning of World War II, a time when most of Eurasia, from the Atlantic to the Pacific, was controlled by totalitarian regimes.

"Realists" discarded any supreme moral guidance of individual life. Similar to Taoists, "realists" were relativists, or, to be precise, immoralists, at least at first glance. In the context of their views, everything that was ordered by the state should be done and those who believed in eternal moral guidance - as was the case, for example, with Confucianism - should be exterminated. The state, in their view, had no other goal but itself. Economic vitality was essential for the survival of the state, and this required that the majority of the people engage in agriculture.

The state's other major function was endless expansion. So those who were not engaged in food production should be engaged in war. And the realists provided advice to the ruler on how to push the people to engage in these activities. One could assume that "realism" was the philosophy of self-seeking Machiavellians who, similar to the author of The Prince, provided advice to the ruler on how to keep power, mostly for the sake of power.

There is a clear temptation to look at "realism" from this perspective. One should remember that some realists provided detailed advice to the courtiers/advisers of the ruler as to how to keep the ruler's confidence and save their job and life. Still, if one would look closer at the realists' program, it is not Machiavellianism, as it is usually understood. The realists' program actually implied concern with public interest. Their emphasis on agricultural activity is related to the basic necessities of any ancient state, actually any state - the provision of the food supply for the people. It was especially important in a society where the food supply was unreliable.

The other emphasis on the state's expansion is actually related to the other basic need of the ancient states: a strong sense of security, both external and internal. Both attributes were essential for the survival of the people, not just the state.

The actual concern with public good was also seen in other advice of the "realists". According to this advice, the ruler should actually be withdrawn from exercising power, at least should play no role in making decisions in concrete matters. The realists pointed out that the ruler should not engage in the direct rule of the realm, for he could not make decisions that would benefit the state.

The reason for this is simple enough: The ruler is a person who is subject to whims, influence and emotion. The law, created under the direct influence of the ruler, should be independent from him, ensuring that the state's actions are the most beneficial to the ruler and the state and actually the majority. But if these actions are beneficial for the majority, why should society be ruled by a despot formally not bound by anything?

The point here is that as the "realists" noted, average people, the masses in general, hardly understand their long-term common interests and would never sacrifice their personal or group interests to those of the society/state as a whole, especially if results are not observable early on. In the realists' view, the state should be focused on two major functions: war and food production. While war and related expansion are related with security, both internal and external, agriculture is essential for the food supply for the country. All of this is essential not just for the survival of the state but for the survival of the people.

Moreover, despite external similarities between the ideas of the "realists" and totalitarian thinkers/practitioners of the 19th and 20th centuries, rightfully admitted by Waley, they are actually a different species from one important perspective. While totalitarian rulers of modernity had some grand, preconceived goals - the triumph of the "master race" as a manifestation of millenarian eugenics, the creation of an ideal worldwide society - communism or the worldwide khalifat - "realists" had no such abstract goal. Their drive was very practical - the basic survival of both the state and the people and the assumption that people could not survive without the state and state-imposed duties upon the majority.

People could well understand this, but it led to no practical action. One of the leading "realists" noted with an air of irony that one could not find in any house many books on agriculture, but actually quite a few on the rice paddies were seen. Each house had a copy of Sun Tzu's Art of War; still no one wanted to fight. It was only terror, fear of the most ferocious punishment that could prompt the people to follow the demands of the state. Only brutal power and fear of the most serious punishment would compel the people to follow the rules. Thus, as one could assume, the "realists" despite their external immoralism became in essence great moralists, for they actually called upon the ruler to save the people from themselves.

What was the implication of the works of the "realists" for China? One might note that despite the fact that they were the ideologists of China's unification by Qin Shi Huang, the role of realists - not often discussed either inside or outside China - could not be compared to the influence of Confucianism. Yet "realism", actually the totalitarian regimes of the Oriental type, where everything belonged to the empire/state, not only has profound implications for China but, paradoxically enough, has quite positive implications.

The despotic design of the "realists", the foundation of Oriental despotism, was discarded in the 19th and early 20th centuries when Westerners pointed to the Orientalist political/economic culture as the reason for China falling behind the West. This led Chinese intellectuals and politicians to search for Western templates that could elevate China to the level of Western power. Some picked up Western democracy and the market.

Others - Marxism allegedly - also planned for the future in the context of a democratic regime. Still, Marxists asserted that true grassroots democracy could be achieved only by the socialization of private property. When these principles were applied to real life in China - and of course elsewhere - the results were quite different from the Marxist dream of the 19th century. Instead of a democratic regime, a system quite similar to that designed by the "realists" emerged. And the leaders of Red China - Mao Zedong first of all - immediately reinterpreted the realists' political/philosophical dictums.

What was seen as a backward philosophy was reinterpreted as a leap to the future. It was thus assumed that a peculiar "Qin Shi Huangism" of a sort, with absolute power of the state over economic and sociopolitical life, is a peculiar form of modernity. And this was not just an intellectual ploy. Indeed, centralized power, state control over the high command of the economy and the emphasis on stability regardless of what it takes, made it possible for China to make tremendous economic progress and navigate through economic crises much better than most of the countries of the West.

Still, despite this fact, "realism" - the tradition of Oriental despotism, which is at the core of China's prosperity and should be the basic framework of the country in the foreseeable future - was rejected, possibly with disgust, not just by the majority of Westerners but even most likely by the majority of Chinese. For this reason, most readers of the book would pay attention to Taoists and Confucianists but not to "realists", regardless of the reviewer's assumption that they should pay much more attention to them than to the noble calls of Mencius and Chuang Tzu.

Three Ways of Thought in Ancient China, by Arthur Waley. Oxfordshire: Routledge, 2011.

Dmitry Shlapentokh, PhD, is associate professor of history, College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, Indiana University South Bend. He is author of East Against West: The First Encounter - The Life of Themistocles (2005).

(Copyright 2012 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)





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