Ancient Chinese Philosophy Wrap-up

Part Ten – Final Segment

As we close out this series on Confucian and Daoist philosophy, there’s one question that keeps scratching at the edges of each reading for me: What happens when we try to apply any of this to our complicated, fragmented, 21st century lives? Does it hold up, and what does it hold, especially at scale? As a very incidental observer of global politics, it’s helpful for me to compare the functionality of China and Taiwan through this lens.

In China, President Xi Jinping’s expressed admiration for Confucius’ teachings has been well-documented, and the influence can be seen in his emphasis on morality and each citizen’s indebtedness to society. Confucian values are evident in his apparent intentions to rule with both benevolence and absolute, undiluted power. The corresponding questions around human rights mirror the disconnect I’ve noted in both The Analects and Mengzi: Are some people somehow more capable or deserving of making good choices for themselves and others? To what do we attribute that supposed capacity, when there are so many circumstances and influences in our lives that are beyond our control? 

Confucian thought simply doesn’t allow for any measure of personal agency beyond just doing your best within the strict confines of whatever your lot happens to be, and it tends to reinforce stratifications among social positions. To be clear, the idea that the opportunity to live comfortably should be privatized is a utopian vision held by those in power: it is clearly not liveable for the majority of people, and requires government monopolies on violence while clinging desperately to the hope that those in power will provide for those who aren’t, with little to no recourse if (when) rulers choose to be tyrants instead. On the other hand, when a nation is lucky enough to have benevolent rule, the superficial circumstances of its people as a whole do improve substantially, and “socialism with Chinese characteristics” has improved the lives of billions of people. The levels of censorship and constraint that accompany these improvements don’t seem sustainable, though, because “In all things, the Way does not want to be obstructed, for if there is obstruction, there is choking; if the choking does not cease, there is disorder; and disorder harms the life of all creatures.” (Zhuangzi 140)

But reading The Daodejing and Zhuangzi (especially the outer chapters, which may not have been written by Zhuangzi) can feel unrealistic, too. At one point, “The Perfect Man” is said to be able to “walk under water without choking, can tread on fire without being burned, and can travel above the ten thousand things without being frightened…[because he has grasped that] things have their creation in what has no form, and their conclusion in what has no change.” (Zhuangzi 122) This sounds great – who doesn’t want to be superpowered? – but it doesn’t match the reality most of us experience.  

Similarly, just the thought of choosing to rest and work less (a central tenet of Daoism) is met with fear and accusations of privilege in a world where the false and even paradoxical connection between success (aka financial wellbeing aka getting to choose how you spend your time) and hard work and even just earning the right to live is reinforced with increasing intensity from the time we’re babies being evaluated for developmental milestones while our parents scurry around playing Mozart and buying toys to turn us into perfect preschool geniuses. “It’s not realistic to just play and explore and enjoy being a human with this other tiny human,” people will half-scream while they schedule 19.5 minutes for Creativity Fostering Activities followed by Relaxation On Command.

That description sounds so sarcastic, but it comes from a place of deep compassion for anyone who might recognize part of themselves there. It comes from my training in classical Chinese medicine (rooted in Daoism) and my knowledge about the way trauma and stress are held -and healed!- in the body. How can I care as much as I do about the pain others are experiencing and not want to address the root causes in our society as I understand them? 

It’s disorienting and maybe even terrifying to believe that all one has to do is “Hold on to the great image and the whole world will come to you./ They will come and suffer no harm;/ They will be peaceful, secure, and prosperous.” (Daodejing 35) We can live up to that truth.

So it was with true amazement and relief that just this week I learned about Audrey Tang and her incredible success with digital democracy in Taiwan. Her emphasis on transparency and fun in public spaces has returned real-world results, such as one of the most successful responses to the COVID-19 pandemic in the world, and ongoing expansion of trust among citizens and government officials in a country that ranks among the highest in the world for being bombarded with misinformation from outside its borders. 

In explaining her approach to creating effective internet spaces for democratic participation, she has quoted Chapter 11 from the Daodejing: “By adding and removing clay we form a vessel./ But only by relying on what is not there, do we have use of the vessel…/ And so, what is there is the basis for profit;/ What is not there is the basis for use.” 

I don’t know whether Audrey Tang can walk under water or atop fire, but her unconventional life and work are tangible proof that the world benefits from people who are more interested in empowering others than hoarding recognition and power for themselves. We don’t have to be perfect, as long as we’re continually moving toward better alignment with the way things really work (and therefore away from misguided attempts to control what we can’t control). If you’re interested, here are a few interviews/ talks she’s given – I hope they anchor you with hope and possibility as much as they have for me.

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