Stillness conquers heat

2010-09-02Asia Times

BEIJING - Laozi parts ways with Confucius, as they have different interests in the world and in their thinking. Laozi moves west from the great plains of central China to the borders of the Chinese civilization, and to the state of Qin, because "if the sun rises from the East, people came from the West", reasons Laozi.

In the state of Qin, where customs and manners are still not as corrupted as in the smaller and more ancient states of the central plain, the local people are struck by Laozi, a man with white hair but still with the face of a boy, untouched by the passing of time. They talk with him and then are sure that this man can help them to be great.

So starts Laozi's Biography, a quasi novel by Yu Shicun that deals with the other half of the Chinese soul, the darker and more ethereal side of the Chinese binary system of yin and yang. On one side sits the Confucian method and practical mind, and on the other towers the fascination with nature and mysteries harkened in the ancient cryptic verses of Laozi, a central figure in Taoism, who, according to Chinese tradition, lived in the 6th century BC.

The book could well be the beginning of a watershed. Just a few years ago, Yu Dan's modern interpretation of Confucius' Dialogues started the Confucian craze in China. But for millennia, Confucius only captured one side of people's feelings. It concerned public appearance, ethical behavior and service of the great ideal of saving the country.

Yet, this ethical behavior left out quite a bit. These ideas especially failed if an official was dismissed and left aside or if the country refused to be saved. Then, for centuries, Chinese officials turned to Laozi and his Taoist discipline.

Laozi's influence was so strong that most officials turned to Laozi even without being disappointed by public politics. His Taoist ideas were the kernel of their deepest soul - a private religion and the one thing that gave them balance and connected them to nature, the cycle of life, and thus eternity.

Then, with the fall of communism and the new rediscovery of Confucianism, China could not but help to also dig out Laozi's Taoism.

This is about the Tao, the way, originally a small path in the mountains, the easiest way to move up and down the difficulties of life.

It is a concept central to Chinese thinking and way of acting - to China's own being. The concept is vague but also precise, linked to the idea of water, which takes the shape of the object holding it without changing nature. It is the yielding of a woman.

The way is the Chinese cosmic order, the closest thing China has to the god or gods of Judaic or Greek tradition. In the movement to rediscover China through rediscovery of Confucianism, the Tao had to emerge as well.

Yu's Laozi gives modernity to the Tao. He says, ''Every life comes from a mother, the mother is the way'' (p 12). Why does everybody look for treasures?, he asks. Why is everybody on some kind of a treasure hunt? Is it because treasures can bring unlimited wealth and luck? Yet, what is treasure? It is the lower half of a woman's body - the half that gives birth, generates life and from the non-existing creates existence. It is the miracle of life, and it is the quasi-religious element we have in Taoism.

On the other hand, Yu doesn't neglect modern scholarship, which reveals that Laozi was no pacifist nor some kind of ancient hippy. He was a philosopher of politics and war.

Yu presents Laozi as talking to the Qing king (not emperor as at the time Qin had not unified the empire) and his warriors. Warriors need a religion or a great ideal to be warriors. They need a deep sense of life and death to face death and give death without turning into a beast or a demon that seeks death for the gory pleasure of blood.

This spiritual quality in Laozi is more important than the strategic interpretation of yielding to greater force to find the right moment to strike or than the strategic idea that there is not one weapon - one technology, we would say now - to win all battles. One needs to adapt one's army to circumstances, the weather and the terrain.

Moreover, behind the military strategy, as in all ancient Chinese thought, there is the art of politics, which strengthens the state by providing the backbone that enables the army to withstand the enormous economic and also cultural strain of war.

Here the right Way, the spirit of Tao, is most important. Politics is about rule, but if the social rule becomes too tyrannical, the domestic order plunges into chaos (p 43). On the other hand, order starts falling apart with minimal stress, so the wise ruler intervenes as soon as he sees the first cracks appearing - he does not wait (p 66).

Here, the value and sensibility of the ruler plays a huge role. No one knows events before they occur, warns Yu, but the sage ruler sees dangers and possibilities for positive developments at a very early stage.

This sensitivity to outside events, the readiness to be a vessel of water coming from outside, is what became quintessential Taoism, something that we can hardly find in Confucianism, and something that is deeply Chinese.

Yet this readiness is a deeper layer of the Chinese being. In a way, it is the engine moving the Confucian machine. It is something that touches all souls, including those of the Westerners who, over about a century, have piled up hundreds of Laozi's translations.

Laozi, then, is bound to be influential in China – possibly more so than Confucius – and also abroad. Then the Chinese government, wishing to expand its soft power, ought to consider going beyond simply teaching the Chinese language in the Confucius Institutes scattered around the world and perhaps move to Tao Institutes, teaching Laozi and the basics of Chinese reasoning. In the process of teaching, the Tao Institutes would also help to reveal what foreigners do not grasp about basic Chinese ideas.

This, in turn, could be extremely important as China is spreading its wings into the world, yet the world doesn't really understand China, and China does quite get what the world is fussing about. (2010-09-02 Asia Times)


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