The Tao of Chinese thinking

Well, we must’ve had a brain-freeze or something, because we forgot to include China expert Audrey Ronning Topping’s piece on Sino brain power in our October issue. Thank goodness for WAG Weekly, WAG mag’s wacky kid bro. Anyway, apologies to our Audrey and enjoy her take on our gray matter:

Human brain power has always been the molding force behind the development of societies and cultures. Centuries before Westchester was even heard of, ancient Greece had reached the highest degree of intellectual achievement, and a cultural explosion was taking place in China.

I find it interesting that often the most tumultuous political and social upheavals gave birth to the greatest thinkers, poets and painters. The House of Zhou (1027-256 BC) was considered China’s “Golden Age.” When it was crumbling and China was in anarchy, something fascinating happened that was to set a pattern throughout Chinese history.

During the Period of the Warring States (403-221 B.C.), China experienced one of its worst times. The ongoing wars eliminated the number of warring states from 1,800 to seven. Times were so chaotic that the philosophers, scholars and poets took to the hills rather than face man’s inhumanity to man. The corruption of worldly affairs sent them to seek solace in nature, to look within themselves to find new ways to grapple with social injustices. Amid the confusion of wars these ancient men of excellence displayed an originality and profundity of ideas that to this day has never been surpassed in China.

It began in the “Spring and Autumn Period” (722-481 B.C.) and continued through the period of the “Hundred Schools of Thought” (551-233 B.C.). During that time, 100 new and different philosophies emerged and free debates about the relation of man to the universe and man to society abounded. The central debate concerning the basic nature of man is still being discussed today by thinkers in both China and the West: Was man born good or evil?

Of the Hundred Schools of Thought at least four basic philosophies came to light:

  1. Confucianism 2. Legalism 3. Mohism 4. Daoism.

These four philosophical theories, not religions, have influenced China’s politics, thought and the character of its people. Western scholars of Chinese intellectual history sometimes like to compare Confucius to Socrates, Mencius to Plato, and Hsun Tzu to Aristotle. At the risk of oversimplification I will touch on the basic premise of each philosophy.


In the pantheon of classical Chinese thought, the first philosopher is Confucius (551-479 B.C.), who compiled the most important body of literature of ancient times, known today as the “Five Confucian Classics” – the “I Ching” (“Book of Changes”), the “Shu ching” (“Book of History”), the “Shih ching” (“Book of Odes”), “Li chi” (“Book of Rites”) and the “Ch’un-ch’iu” (“Spring and Autumn Annals”). Confucius believed in human goodness and became the main molder of the Chinese mind and character. His philosophies over the next two centuries touched every man, woman and child in China, as well as vast numbers of people in the Western world. But like many great geniuses, there was little interest in his works in his own time.

The House of Zhou had passed its peak when Confucius was born, but he looked back to it as the “Golden Age” and sought to sanction and refine the existing feudal system by looking to the past for guidance. Confucius was a humanist and idealist who advocated a return to government by virtue and merit. He believed that if men individually embraced the ideal of “ren” – humanity, benevolence, or perfect virtue – society could be spared the evil, cruelty and violence that was destroying it. To promote his philosophy, he taught 3,000 pupils and chose 72 for advanced training. He traveled for 14 years peddling his philosophies but failed to get any kings or officials interested in his Golden Age offer. He devoted his remaining years to writing and immersed himself in ancient studies. When Confucius died in 479 B.C. at 73, he was a broken man, unaware that his volumes would rank as the greatest classics in China, or that his “Book of Rites,” which gave detailed rules for the conduct of everyday life would, in fact, become the Confucian Bible.

Confucian teachings are detailed and complex. Like the Bible, most of the volumes attributed to him were actually written much later by Mencius and other disciples. At the core of his teachings was the concept of filial piety and ancestor worship: One must first serve one’s parents reverently and obediently and only then one may fulfill the other duties to emperor and society. The key to the Confucian code was respect. This was true in terms of lineage, class and position. Respect everyone in a higher position – children respect parents, younger brothers respect older brothers, sons respect their fathers, woman respects man, concubine respects wife, first wife respects second wife, illiterate respects scholar and so on up the pyramid until the ministers respect the mandarins and all kowtow before the emperor, who alone may kowtow before Heaven (Tien), which has bestowed on him the “Mandate of Heaven.” Filial piety became the cornerstone of all morality, though women were at the bottom of every scale.

In the twilight of the Warring States, Mencius (371-289 B.C.) carried the humanist standard of Confucianism. He advocated “Government by Personal Virtue” and believed the nature of man to be basically good. The purpose of learning, he said, was simply to “seek the lost heart” of childhood innocence. As a political philosophy, it stood in middle ground between two extremes, Legalism and Mohism.


This school strongly influenced the “First Emperor” of China, Qin Shihuang, who used it as a rationale for ruthless dictatorship. He unified China in 221 B.C., built the Great Wall by forced labor and was later admired by Mao Zedong. Legalism was the first philosophical totalitarianism. Its spokesman was Han Fei Tzu, pupil of Hsun Tzu (298-238 B.C.) His theory of human nature was the direct opposite of Mencius and Confucius. He burned the books of all opposing philosophers and buried 474 Confucius scholars alive. His dictum was: “Man’s nature is evil. All goodness is the result of conscious activity…Therefore, man must be transformed by the instructions of a teacher and guided by ritual principles.”

His followers believed in strict adherence to the law and the shaping of man’s character by means of generous rewards and severe punishments. The Legalists advocated war as a means of strengthening the power of the ruler, expanding the state and making the people submissive by terror and harsh discipline. The state and its interests were ahead of all human and moral concerns. Political order and authority resided in a central administration and an absolute, semidivine monarch.

Han Fei Tzu, the teacher of the prime minister of Qin, was the organizing genius behind the First Emperor’s drive to imperial power. But when problems arose, the old teacher was rewarded for his contribution to the Qin state in the same manner he had advocated for others. He was cast into the dungeon, where he was mercifully allowed to drink poison rather than suffer the horrible Death of a Thousands Cuts.


On the other extreme was Mohzi, originally known as Mo Di. He was a pacifist who offered all-embracing, universal love as the prime governmental force in the world. He advocated disarmament and preached peace, utilitarianism and uniformity. “What is the will of Heaven that we should all obey?” he wrote. “It is to love all men universally? How do we know it is to love all men universally? Because Heaven accepts sacrifice from all.”

Mo Di was a lonely voice in the wilderness among Chinese thinkers. In a land where family loyalty stood above all, he insisted that love for one’s fellow men should be universal, without favor or prejudice.


Taoism (pronounced Daoism)

Next to Confucianism, the most influential Chinese philosophy was the Taoist school, whose founder, Laozi,(venerable gentleman), lived in the sixth century B.C. Laozi’s book the “Tao Tejing” is still popular today. Laozi’s philosophy is based on the mystic principle called the Tao or the Way – the eternal and changeless cosmic force believed to be the essence of life and the source of all being. The whole source of unhappiness, he believed, lay in man’s effort to control his destiny, thus impeding the flow of natural events. Life and death are only phases in the great cosmic circle of life. The visible world consists of phantoms that will pass. Only the invisible Tao remains eternal.

Taoism was often the philosophy of the gentleman in retirement, of political failure, the recluse and the scholar who abandoned human society in search of mystic harmony with the world of nature. Politically, Taoism stood for a minimum of organization or regulation in all public affairs and urged a do-nothing approach to all the problems of the world. During the last hectic years of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) many officials of the Empress Dowager’s court retreated into this philosophy.

The guiding principle of Taoist officials was to avoid the issue. The conduct of the bureaucrats could be described in eight Chinese characters meaning: “Cover up and fill up. Drift along. Take it easy.” Amazing as it seems, during the height of the Opium Wars, the emperor’s two most trusted advisors did little more than hang a “Do not disturb” sign in front of the door to the official court.


The ideal Taoist official

The Chinese Governor Yeh was a prime example of the Taoist mentality of many Chinese officials at that time. The Second Opium War was triggered by an incident so trivial that it is obvious the British were waiting for an excuse to make further demands.

A Chinese patrol boat spotted an illegal smuggling ship in Canton harbor flying the British flag. The commander boarded the ship, arrested 13 crew members and tore down the flag. The English consul protested, demanded release of the crew and an official apology. The indignant British protest note was sent to Gov. Yeh, who was more interested in painting and poetry then politics. He felt there was no harm in pacifying the British consul so he gave the crew back. The British consul, not satisfied, demanded the commander be severely punished for hauling down the British flag. This was too much, even for Taoist Yeh and he promptly sent the crew back to prison. The British responded by opening fire on Canton. Yeh chose to ignore the uproar and ordered his own forces to hold their fire. The British landed and marched into Canton. Enraged at the sight of the armed foreign soldiers, riots broke out. The Cantonese set fire to foreign properties and the British soldiers fired Cantonese homes. The French sent a fleet to assist the British.

In the meantime, Gov. Yeh – in accordance with the Taoist belief that everything works itself out in time – continued to paint his landscape scrolls and refused to discuss the situation even with his military advisers. In the autumn of 1857, the French and British made a full scale invasion of Canton. The city fell in three days. Yeh was taken prisoner. He dressed himself with great dignity in his official blue silk-brocade gown embroidered with peacock feathers and his Mandarin cap set with a coral button before he was carried off to prison in Hong Kong in his elaborate sedan chair. While in captivity he continued to paint and write poetry in the finest calligraphy. He soon charmed his English captors, who recognized a gentleman when they saw one. Unwilling to execute anyone with such remarkable skills they sent him to Bengal with his military attaché, two servants and his hairdresser. He died two years later in “the Hall where the Sea is Pacified. ” His body was returned to China to be buried with full honors. The Chinese did not consider him a coward for not resisting the British forces. Instead a fitting ballad praising Taoism preserves his memory:


You neither fight

                           Nor make peace

                           Nor prepare defense

                           You neither die for your duty,

                           Nor surrender

                           Nor flee to safety.        

                           It is a minister’s generosity

                           And a governor’s liberality

                           Which find no example in ancient

                           Nor an equal in modern history!


For more on brain power, check out October WAG. – Georgette Gouveia

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