Ancient Chinese Philosophy – Part 1/3 (Taoism)

This post marks the beginning of a three-part series of essays on ancient Chinese philosophy. I will be covering the historical contexts, key figures, and core tenets of three major Chinese schools of thought: Taoism, Legalism, and Confucianism. Ancient Chinese philosophy has interested me for a while, and I’m excited to delve into this topic with you guys. Sorry if this is a bit rambly and unorganized. Go ahead and drop a comment if you want, even if it’s just to tell me I’m full of shit. I’m learning right alongside you on a lot of this stuff.

China, 475 BC. The Zhou dynasty, a vast and powerful military empire, is finally on its last legs. The royal house of Ji, once an institution of immense political and military authority, is shattering. In the wake of the power vacuum, dozens of regional factions are clambering to secure their spot; the backdrop is war and chaos. This is the beginning of the Warring States period, a time of deep political and ideological upheaval in ancient China. Though the Zhou kings had seen total control for centuries, the inherent difficulties in maintaining such a massive decentralized empire were beginning to show.

When the Zhou initially took over, they legitimized their authority by formalizing the concept of the Mandate of Heaven – the idea that an emperor’s right to rule is handed down directly from Heaven, and that Heaven imparts this mandate only to virtuous and worthy rulers. There were also a number of signs that were said to signify when a ruler had become unworthy – including droughts, pestilence, famine, and natural disasters. If the populace began to notice signs that a particular dynasty had become corrupt or ineffective, it was the duty of that populace to overthrow and replace the unworthy emperor. This was how the Zhou dynasty rulers justified their military takeover of the previous Shang dynasty. Unfortunately for the house of Ji, this framework had the side effect of creating a built-in justification for the eventual removal of the Zhou dynasty itself.

Familial ties were also a major diplomatic tool for the Zhou. Local lords and vassals built relationships with the house of Ji by leveraging mutual blood lines or lineages – when none existed, kinship was built through marriage. The authority of the king was thus legitimized through this functional role as the head of what was effectively a giant bureaucratic family. However, these familial alliances could only withstand so much tension.

As the empire continued to expand, the various regional lords and vassals became increasingly concerned with their own sovereign territory, and less concerned with appeasing the dynasty as a whole. The tension between the regional lords and the royal house came to a boiling point in 770BC, when the capital city of Haojing was sacked by the Quanrong tribe, assisted by the Marquis of Shen. King You, the reigning Zhou ruler, was slain during the conflict, and the seat of Zhou royal power was pushed far eastward, to Wangcheng. This marked the transition from the Western Zhou to the Eastern Zhou, and signaled the eventual decline of the dynasty.

So here’s where we’re at: We’re nearing the end of the Spring and Autumn Period (771-476 BC), wherein more and more regional marquises and lords begin to stake their own claims and scrape self-determination and self-governance back from the Zhou. We are entering the aforementioned Warring States Period (475–221 BC), and the writing on the wall is clear. The Zhou dynasty is collapsing, and a new dynasty will soon take hold. But how will this new dynasty be structured, and what will the new ruling ideological paradigm look like? The need to craft a new framework for a functional and prosperous society became the impetus for the vast majority of Chinese philosophy at this time.

In a race to craft the new ruling philosophy, various political thinkers began to put forth new paradigms, giving birth to the 100 Schools of Thought. This is the period of competing ideologies that gave us our Big Three: Taoism, Legalism, and Confucianism. These different schools of thought arose out of a necessity to create a philosophical framework that would succeed where the Zhou had failed.

Enter my boy Laozi. Laozi is credited with authorship of the Tao Te Ching, the foundational text of Taoist thought. You know this dude is serious because ‘Laozi’ isn’t even his real name, just an honorific title meaning ‘Old Master’. He is a legendary figure in China, and his origin story is convoluted and debated – mostly as a result of his deification over the course of history. But here’s the hyper-condensed version.

Laozi was a court administrator for the Zhou dynasty during the period of conflict that was the Eastern Zhou. Witnessing the decline of the dynasty, he saw everything crumbling around him. He was living in an extremely volatile time, and change was clearly on the horizon. Now, to many thinkers, this was an opportunity to craft entirely new ideas. The old ways had seemingly failed, and it was necessary to change the way people governed and lived their lives. Laozi didn’t look at things this way. Instead of trying to look towards some bold new ideology, Laozi looked towards the past. He was of the belief that humanity had lost its way, and that in order to regain stability and peace we must return to a life of simplicity and harmony.

Now, what I’m not gonna pretend to do here is provide some kind of synopsis of Taoism as a whole. Taoism simply cannot be broken down into one comprehensive summary. It is an incredibly complex and ancient tradition stretching back millenia, with tendrils extending far beyond the scope of this post. What I will try to do is highlight a few important Taoist concepts, beliefs, and practices in order for us to get a better idea of the core messages behind the philosophy, and better understand how it took hold in ancient China.

The most fundamental concept in Taoism is that of the Tao, commonly translated as ‘the Way’. The Tao is typically thought of as the natural order and flow of the universe. I know, super vague – but it’s meant to be. The Tao is actually not a concept that can be entirely communicated through language.

The Tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao;
The name that can be named is not the eternal name.

(Tao Te Ching, Verse 1)

At its core, Taoism is about living a life in harmony with the Tao. This presents an evident difficulty – we should all strive to live in harmony with the Tao, but nobody can actually tell us what the Tao is. This is because the Tao must be intuited through lived experience, and meditation on your place in the universe and the course that your life is meant to take. The Tao changes from person to person, time to time, place to place. This highlights an underlying concept present in much of ancient Chinese philosophy – the notion of reality as non-static and constantly changing.

This concept is further illustrated in the I Ching, ‘The Book of Changes’.

The I Ching is an ancient Chinese divination text, contemporary to the Zhou dynasty. When consulted, it gives the user life advice in relation to a specific question being posed. However, if consulted twice in a row with the same question, it is incredibly unlikely that the user will receive the same answer. To many people, this disproves the divinational power of the I Ching. If it cannot give you a consistent answer, there is no use for it. This criticism is rooted in a Western way of thinking. In ancient China, there is not much focus on trying to posit universalizable theories. In fact, the whole idea is contrary to the core philosophy of the I Ching. It emphasizes that nature is constantly in flux and is not guaranteed to be predictable or communicable, and human attempts to order nature according to a set of rigid laws and rules will ultimately fail. This is why you cannot recreate an I Ching reading just by asking the same question twice. The situation is completely different, as untold numbers of imperceptibly small changes have taken place from the time you did the first reading until now.

If you realize that all things change, there is nothing you will try to hold on to.

(Tao Te Ching, Verse 74)

Laozi was also very concerned with society’s increasing lust for material power and scientific progress. He believed that humans were not particularly special – they did not possess any inherent superiority over the rest of nature, they were simply part of it. We must not, according to Laozi, be blinded by unchecked ambition, material wealth, cultural norms or traditions, and other things that distance us from the natural order. Remember – reality is in constant flux, all power is impermanent, human pursuit and ambition is built on a false sense of superiority over the rest of the world. Material progress is an attempt to disconnect ourselves from what we really are. What we truly ought to do is practice wu wei. Remember this word. It is, like, THE fundamental Taoist concept besides maybe the Tao itself.

Wu wei is typically translated as ‘inaction’, but I like to think of it as ‘effortless action’. This helps differentiate it from the type of ‘inaction’ that entails sitting in your room playing video games and eating Doritos all day. Instead, wu wei is closely related to the Taoist notion of harmony with the natural order. It is about making sure our behavior is as closely aligned with the Tao as possible. This means never trying to force your life in a certain direction, never aggressively asserting your will on the world, never stubbornly maintaining a certain way of thinking or behaving, and straying away from excessive hubris and ambition. Instead, we should swim with the current as it comes – essentially, ‘go with the flow’. This is particularly apt because Laozi uses water as a metaphor for wu wei on a number of occasions.

Water is fluid, soft, and yielding. But water will wear away rock, which is rigid and cannot yield. As a rule, whatever is fluid, soft, and yielding will overcome whatever is rigid and hard.

(Tao Te Ching, Verse 78)

Like water, we must be fluid, and constantly shifting in the ways we comply to the demands of different problems. Like the nature of reality itself, we must be constantly changing, and cannot be tied down to rigorous ideologies, behavioral patterns, or ways of living. Water is weak and yielding, but through this fluidity, it is able to work around and erode even the largest obstacles. This sense of wu wei can only be achieved when we put our ego to the side, and abandon our long-held ways in favor of whatever is most conducive to the situation at hand.

The wise
teach without telling,
allow without commanding,
have without possessing,
care without claiming.

(Tao Te Ching, Verse 16)

Wu wei is about strategic passivity. In many Taoist manuals, it is said that rather than imposing a preconceived solution to a problem, we should let nature take its course, and adjust our own path based on what experience has revealed to be the best course of action. It is a means of reducing rigidity and stubbornness; a way to dissolve strict adherence to singular ways of thinking and doing things.

The nature of reality is constantly flowing and changing, like water. It is the ultimate goal of Taoism to align ourselves with this nature. In the immortal words of Bruce Lee:

You must be formless, shapeless, like water.

When you pour water in a cup, it becomes the cup. When you pour water in a bottle, it becomes the bottle. When you pour it in a teapot, it becomes the teapot. Water can drip, or it can crash.

Be water my friend.




Camus vs. Gilgamesh

“There is but one truly serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide.” – Albert Camus

Thus begins the Myth of Sisyphus, Camus’ exploration into the question of whether or not life is worth living.

Those of you who have studied mid-20th century existentialism are no doubt familiar with Camus. His works deal mainly with the internal state of man, and explore feelings of alienation from the world. In particular, the Myth analyzes the disconnect between the human desire for objective clarity and purpose, and the lack of response from the universe. Camus terms this disconnect ‘the Absurd’. The goal of The Myth of Sisyphus is to argue that we ought to live and flourish regardless of whether or not we exist in a meaningless and indifferent universe. Camus proposes a state of perpetual revolt against our absurd relationship with the universe by enjoying life for its own sake, appreciated in and of itself without the need to ascribe any purpose or meaning to it.

To illustrate his concept of revolt against the absurd, Camus provides the example of Don Juan, the legendary Spanish serial seducer. Don Juan is able to live happily and without melancholy, despite taking pleasure only in the present moment and having no hope for transcendent significance. He does not live in ignorance of his ultimate fate, but he does not bemoan it either – he continues living happily in defiance of it. It means appreciating what life has to offer, while also accepting the fleeting and meaningless nature of it all.

In his short story Summer in Algiers, Camus talks poetically about dancing, loving, and living under the Algerian desert sun. He paints a vivid portrait of enjoying life for its own sake, appreciated in and of itself without the need to ascribe any further meaning to it. It is the rejection of the notion that universal clarity of purpose is necessary to enjoy life.

The idea that life should be appreciated for its own sake is ancient. Many traditions have espoused this idea over the years – it stems back, quite literally, to the dawn of literature itself. In The Epic of Gilgamesh, that ancient Mesopotamian epic considered one of the earliest works of literature in existence, the value of life despite absurdity and impermanence is shown by the character of Utnapishtim. Utnapishtim was a man granted immortality by the god Enlil, destined to live for all eternity. When Gilgamesh and Utnapishtim encounter one another, Gilgamesh is in a deep state of mourning from the death of his closest companion. After suffering this loss, Gilgamesh begins to fear his own death, and seeks to obtain the secret of immortality from Utnapishtim. As he says in the epic:

“Because of my brother I am afraid of death; because of my brother I stray through the wilderness. His fate lies heavy upon me. How can I be silent, how can I rest? He is dust and I shall die also and be laid in the earth forever…  how shall I find the life for which I am searching?” [1]

Here, Gilgamesh has encountered the absurd. He is subject to the will of a chaotic and uncaring universe, and despite his impassioned cries for life, he knows it will eventually all end in dust. Utnapishtim, however, replies that impermanence is one of the most essential facts of life. We do not create anything with the expectation that it will last forever, but we create nonetheless. We recognize that all things are subject to eventual nullification, and yet we protest when this essential fact is applied to us. Every day we pursue motives and pleasures and ends that we view as valuable and important, even though we recognize them as inevitably impermanent. We betray the fact that we view impermanent things as valuable every time we pursue anything at all – for all things are impermanent, and pursuit of something implies that it is valuable to you. Though Gilgamesh will not live forever, he comes to realize value in being a great king and a hero to the Uruk people, and his legacy shines through his pursuit of valor in life. As Enlil, the god of fate, decrees at the end of the Epic,

“Gilgamesh, this was the meaning of your dream. You were given the kingship, such was your destiny, everlasting life was not your destiny. Because of this do not be sad at heart, do not be grieved or oppressed; I have given you power to bind and to loose, to be the darkness and the light of mankind. I have given unexampled supremacy over the people, victory in battle from which no fugitive returns, in forays and assaults from which there is no going back.” [2]

This heroic portrait stands in stark contrast to the immortal Utnapishtim, whose character is that of a lazy man with little to no motivation. As Gilgamesh says, “I thought I should find you like a hero prepared for battle, but here you are taking your ease on your back.” [3] Gilgamesh believed that immortality would imbue Utnapishtim with tremendous power, but in reality Utnapishtim has no desire to be a warrior and would much rather lounge on the beach. This is because he has no sense of urgency. Urgency is the motivator behind all valuable activity. It is clear that Gilgamesh has motivation in spades – enough to topple demigods, venture across the seas, endure starvation and do battle with numerous wild animals. This is because to him it was urgent that he attain immortality, and so he steeled himself to brave the trials and tribulations associated with this pursuit. This urgency is what compels us to make a difference and accomplish our goals before we die, and the opportunity at life is over. When you have all the time in the world, the motivation to act is severely dulled. For many people, having just a little extra time to accomplish a task can result in complacency and procrastination. Imagine if this ‘extra time’ was extended across all eternity. The character Siduri, potentially recognizing this problem, advises Gilgamesh to focus on fostering a good life rather than seeking immortality.

“As for you, Gilgamesh, fill your belly with good things; day and night, night and day, dance and be merry, feast and rejoice. Let your clothes be fresh, bathe yourself in water, cherish the little child that holds your hand, and make your wife happy in your embrace; for this too is the lot of man.” [4]

While death is inherent in mortality, so too is life.

[1] NK Sanders, “The Epic of Gilgamesh”. Page 18.

[2] NK Sanders, “The Epic of Gilgamesh”. Page 24.

[3]  NK Sanders, “The Epic of Gilgamesh”. Page 18.

[4]   NK Sanders, “The Epic of Gilgamesh”. Page 17.