Articles on Confucianism
There are a few points to consider here: Zhuang Zhou is not a butterfly, dreaming is not awakening, and knowledge is not ignorance. Yet, these distinct situations interdepend and interchange to the point of where Zhuang Zhou is uncertain of where he is. The two contrasting moments correspond to the Confucian concept of li, ‘ritual’ and yue, ‘music’. The essense of li is control, and that of yue is ‘harmony’. Control holds back, while harmony blends. They correspond to Zhuang Zhou’s two moments in the dream of distinction then interchange, which also pervades our everyday life.
The word authentic comes from the Medieval Latin authenticus and Greek authentikos, meaning “original, genuine, principal”, from authentes or “acting on one’s own authority”. It derives from the term autos or “self, of oneself (independently)” and hentes meaning “being”, and the modern use of authentic implies that to be authentic, the contents in question should correspond to facts. In other words, authenticity refers to trustworthiness, reliability and consistency. An authentic document, for example, is understood to be genuine and original, or not a fake or copy, while authentic words are understood to come from the heart. Feelings and words should be aligned if they are to be considered authentic. Thus, a thing is authentic if it is what it professes to be. However, the question of authenticity becomes more complicated when authenticity becomes a characteristic attributed to human beings. After all, what does it mean to be truly autos-hentes or one’s own being? And is it even possible to truly represent oneself genuinely?
According to Varga (2020), although being oneself is somewhat inescapable, since whenever you make a choice or act, it is you who is making that choice or act, many of our thoughts, decisions and actions are not really are own and so they cannot genuinely express who we are. The issue here is whether we can ever be authentic in our day-to-day life in spite of influences that come from our families, friends, government, education, ideological affiliations, and even the language that we speak, which can affect the way that we think. If we are simply made up of these amalgam of influences, it would mean that our sense of self could not have existed without society. This argument goes so far as to make the metaphysical claim that our expressive self is only real because we as a society have made it real. So once we imagine it and give it a name and role, we cause it to be real. Consider the following dilemma: as far as we know, ‘Jennifer’ is a daughter, student, and friend. She is a Christian, an Australian, and only speaks English. We know of Jennifer as a kind girl. She was taught to express herself politely and has never in our presence made a condescending mark towards anyone. Do all these things point to an authentic Jennifer (where an authentic Jennifer would be one who acts in a way that reinforces her status as a kind, Christian friend and daughter), or is an authentic Jennifer the Jennifer beyond the labels and concepts, that is, the human that people happen to refer to by ‘Jennifer’? We will return to the Jennifer dilemma later.
Studies of contemporary Western culture are informed by conceptions of human agency, which emphasize individuality as the principal theme of personhood. Although the prevailing myth of individualism is that in eighteenth-century Europe, a few courageous men of reason fought against religious repression to set the individual free to find and express his authentic self, the development of individualism was gradual and much more complex than this myth suggests. The Enlightenment movement’s demand for liberty re-defined human beings as individual entities rather than as role-bearers in the system of social relations. People slowly gained an increasing awareness of what Charles Taylor (1989) refers to as “inwardness” or “internal space”, where the authentic self can be separated from public performance and perception. Furthermore, the growth of commerce created an expanding middle class of merchants, well-off farmers and urban craftsmen who advocated for private property and individual wealth accumulation (Foley, 2017). Underlying these developments was Christianity’s revolutionary idea: “we are all equal because we are all brothers” (Puyol, 2019). Although this concept of fraternity promised that every individual human being (whether child, woman, foreigner, poor, disabled, non-Christian, etc.) was equal in the eyes of God, fraternity did not translate into political equality because Christian equality was about the equal worth of souls and not the equal rights of men on earth. By the nineteenth century, these commercial, intellectual and religious movements and ideas promoted individualism and led to the development of capitalist entrepreneurism and Romantic individualism, where in the latter, the quest to find an authentic self translated into rejecting materialism and society and living solitarily in nature. A similar albeit mass version of Romantic individualism occurred in the 1960s, which Taylor (1998) called “an individuating revolution”. 1960s global youth culture produced expressive individualism, which rejected conformity and authority in order to discover or find your ‘true self’. The revolution promoted self-expression, equality and sensuality, but rather than simply being an excuse for self-indulgent hippyism (which 1960s youth culture is usually accused of), it was a way of shifting from the systems and times that suppressed individuality and creativity, resulting in the emergence of the Age of Authenticity.
Critics argue that the pursuit of authenticity and individualism has resulted in cultural decline as the preoccupation on one’s own feelings and attitudes is anti-social and destroys altruism and compassion towards others and community. Christopher Lasch (1979) has claimed that there are similarities between authenticity and Narcissistic Personality Disorder, which are both characterized by self-indulgence and a lack of empathy. For Bloom (1987), the preoccupation with authenticity has made the minds of the youth “narrower and flatter” (p. 61), while Bell (1976) argues that the traditional economic processes, “based on a moral system of reward rooted in Protestant sanctification of work” (p. 38), have lost their legitimacy and are replaced by hedonism and the search for extreme experience or “kicks” and “highs”. The obsession with authenticity has also led to a time where we are losing our sense of truth and reality. Criticism of public institutions has gone so far as to legitimize alternative ways of knowing, where conspiracy theories and alternative medicine, schooling and journalism are all part of the larger conversation that characterizes the era of post-truth that we currently live in. On the other hand, as Watts (2019) states, there is a kind of nobility in the pursuit of authenticity. It is now common to tell children to follow their dreams and pursue their passions rather than stick to a dreary job all their lives that we believe would at odds with their true selves. There is also a kind of desperation to have authenticity around us, from our expectations of honesty and transparency in our closest relationships to how our leaders present themselves, for there is “nothing more despicable than a person who isn’t genuine…who betrays their feelings in order to save face.” There is also a tendency in Western society to avoid the monotonous nature of ritual, “which keeps us chained to the past.” (Watts, 2019). Meanwhile, the romanticisation of romantic love has stayed with us because it feels spontaneous and unmediated, which shows how authenticity has turned into the new cultural currency.
The emphasis on authenticity and transparency in Western culture sits well with the philosophical school of Existentialism. Existentialism arose with the collapse of the idea that philosophy itself can provide substantive norms and rules for existing by specifying particular ways of living, while authenticity was advocated as the approach where I can engage in my life as my own (Crowell, 2020). The need to live an authentic life to live meaningfully adds another important layer in moral evaluations. For instance, by keeping my promise, I act in accordance to a duty to others, and if I keep acting so because it is my duty, than according to Kant, I am acting morally because I act for the sake of duty. But, from the existentialist perspective, by simply keeping my promise out of duty’s sake makes the moral act of promise keeping inauthentic because I am only keeping the promise because I believe it is required and expected of moral people to do so. To keep my promise authentically, I need to take ownership of this choice and commit myself to the act of keeping my promise because it is my own decision and action, and not because it is socially or morally required of me. Only then can I succeed in being myself authentically. By choosing to do things on my own account, I recover myself from being alienated and absorbed into the anonymous self that uncritically engages in the world. Thus, there is a kind of integrity in acting authentically: I can either occupy a role and time that was given to me by others and drift in and out of these roles while feeling separated from myself, or I can autonomously commit myself and become whatever I choose.
In classical China, there was a similar prevailing interest in how to live an authentic life. The Daoist school, for example, actively rejected the Confucian idea that the good life comes from embodying traditional social norms and rites and instead focused on taking care of one’s own interest. Harisson (2013) refers to this as the ethical egoist argument, where the right thing to do is to pursue one’s own interests and maximize one’s own good. Because, it is argued, we are naturally inclined to prioritize our own interests, it follows that following societal ethical recommendations about doing the right thing distorts our selfish nature and therefore compromises our authentic selves. But, whereas the Confucian scholar Xunzi, who also recognized human selfish nature, argued that it is up to moral education and rigorous practice of rites to correct human behavior, the Daoist Yang Zhu claimed that to live an ethical life, we must maintain what is genuine in our lives by avoiding artificial moral and social obligations. So, rather than finding the good life in appropriate social relationships and roles, we should actively retreat from our social life and get rid of material goods and power. Thus, the best life can be can be lived away from society and in harmony with the natural flow of Dao (the Way). An authentic life can be found in the natural world, beside rivers and mountains, which is more conducive to living authentically, that is, as our true selves stripped from others’ expectations and from our artificial social roles.
So, there are various ways of answering the Jennifer dilemma. For the Confucians, Jennifer’s authentic self comes from how others see her and the roles she is expected to play in her social relationships. Jennifer is only Jennifer because she is a daughter to her mother, an Australian national, and a Christian follower. She becomes more herself the more she honorably practices these roles and carries out the appropriate rites and rituals associated with her identity. Existentialists would argue that she is only truly Jennifer if she autonomously adopts her role as daughter, Christian, etc. as her own. If she is simply following these roles mindlessly because others expect her to, then she is harming her authentic self and will never find the satisfaction of taking control over her own existence. Finally, the ethical egoist Daoists would claim that an authentic Jennifer can only be found if she rejects her social roles and obligations as daughter, Australian citizen, Christian. Only once she retreats from the socially constructed ‘Jennifer’ can the real, authentic Jennifer live in harmony and simplicity.
The Confucian texts show us that we can learn from water, especially still water because the stillness of water provides us with a mirror to reflect on the nature of reality, and in this reflection, we have the opportunity to embody stillness and calmness of mind. The importance of water and stillness highlights the importance of wu-wei, the art of doing nothing. Translated as effortless action, skilled inactivity, or action through non-action, wu-wei calls for passivity, quietude, and the absence of contentiousness in order to smoothly accommodate the other. Such action takes discipline and strength, much like how a professional swimmer effortlessly glides across the water. Thus, rather than interpreting wu-wei as a strategy to control and influence others indirectly, wu-wei can literally mean doing nothing, waiting, and reflecting as still water.
In this episode, the role and function of the Confucian Sage is examined. Much like the psychotherapist in the West, the Sage purposely uses silence to allow individuals to reflect on their selves, their conceptions of personhood, and on their community of relationships. The mirror-like quality of the sage in this encounter provides an alternative to examining one’s life through self-perception or through the perception of others which can be biased and full of judgement. But while the psychotherapist tends to use silence strategically or as a tool that masks psychotherapeutic theories, definitions and diagnoses, the Confucian Sage continues to be passive and non-intrusive to send back an image of what is given. Thus, the emptiness and stillness of the Sage’s mind is a required part of providing people with self-insight and hopefully, moral betterment.
In the sixth episode, titled ‘The Absence of the Ego’, Professor Mortley examines Max Weber’s writings on Confucianism as the original critique and comparison between Chinese tradition and Western philosophy. Whereas Weber emphasizes the importance of the individual− individual will, personal responsibility, and the individual’s quest for self-realisation− in the West, the Confucian person must be well practiced in restraint and self-discipline to be considered humane and honorable. Self-cultivation in the Confucian tradition is not about pursuing a selfish desire, but about responding to other people in the greater community, and ritual is crucial in this.
Although a popular practice throughout Central and East Asia, shamanistic healing and divination was ridiculed and harshly repressed throughout the twentieth century, particularly in communist countries. The anti-religious repression throughout Soviet regimes, which resulted in the destruction of nearly 600 Russian Orthodox monasteries and convents in the Soviet Union (Smith, 2019), resulted in the complete disappearance of shamanism in some parts of Russia today. For example, Dr. Sundstrom notes that when it comes to shamanism among the Altaic people of Southern Siberia, “what remains are legends and reminiscences, but these can no longer be told by people with personal experiences of Altaic ‘shamans’ and their rituals” (Sundstrom, 2014). Yet, despite 70 years of atheist repression, missionary work and the transformation of society under the Soviet system, shamanism is in revival, not only in modern-day Russia but also throughout Eastern Asian countries such as China, Japan and Korea. To understand why shamanism is resurging, it is important to examine the history of shamanic practices, and its influence on religion and culture across the globe.
The word ‘shaman’ originated from the language of the Evenkis, an ethnolinguistic group who come from north-east Russia, and it refers to a holy person who can communicate with spirits (‘saman’). The term can be applied to practitioners who live outside of Siberia and greater Russia, for instance, the bomoh in Malaysia and dukun in Indonesia, as the main function of these healers and holy people remains the same: (1) to heal, sometimes with the help of a spirit guide; (2) to perform divination, which includes revealing events that were unknown in the past, helping find lost objects, and predicting/changing the future; (3) to escort souls to the their new life; (4) to charm and communicate with animals and their spirits; and (5) to perform sacrificial rites, but only in exceptional cases (Hultkrantz, 2004, p. 148-49). Walter and Fridman (2004) add to this definition by noting that shamanism itself is an experience, which includes dismemberment and regeneration of the soul and body, and spirit flight (out-of-body experience) through trance. Indeed, a prevailing opinion in the literature on shamanism is that a key component of shaman practice is ecstasy, which refers to a specific mental and physical trance state that is achieved through a combination of techniques and the timing of cosmic events that allows the soul of the shaman to leave his or her body and go to another world or far away into space (Lifshitz et al., 2019). For the shaman, the practice of ecstasy is integral to their human condition and is experienced just like any other mental state, for example, a dream or imagination.
While shamanic practices are often seen as disjointed, mysterious, and based in superstition, shamanism exists in a larger cultural framework that puts forward a very specific worldview. As Kalweit (1984) states, in shamanism all beings and objects have meaning and share the same essence or animus. Thus, there is no difference between nature and culture as there is in Western philosophy. Instead, there is continuity and unity between different worlds, including the unseen world of the spirits. By accessing these other worlds and breaching the borders between the seen and unseen, the known and unknown, shamans, acting on behalf of humanity, create a system of exchange between the human and natural-spiritual worlds which can relieve psychological and social tensions for both the shaman and the group of people he or she talks represents.
Bowing to the Spirits in Ancient East Asia
One of the first recorded mentions of shamans exist in Chinese historiography. Michael (2015) points out that the title of WU 巫 was first used to describe very unusual people in the Shang Dynasty (1554-1046 BCE) oracle bone inscriptions and then later in various ancient texts dating back to the Warring States period (480-221 BCE). Thus, although Confucian classics such as the Zhouli and Liji tend to put forward an image of a monolithic early Chinese state religion based on Confucian thought, historical texts and archeological findings show that there were divergent forms of religious traditions and most of these were based on wuistic/shamanistic practice. Chinese poet and archeologist Chen Mengjia even goes so far as to state that “the ancient kings were wu” (Chen, 1936, p. 535), which implies that the wu were religious figures that often took on the roles of priest-rulers throughout ancient China. While Michael (2015) critics Chen’s claims by arguing that Chen fails to recognize the tension between shamanic authority and centralized authority by identifying ancient shamans with early kings, wuism would have certainly influenced the cultures of both the authorities and the masses. For instance, Sarah Milledge Nelson’s (2011) study on feminist theory and archeological interpretations in early East Asia highlights that archeological sites from Neolithic China show a number of traits consistent with shamanist practice. For one, music, which is used for entertainment and for calling spirits in shamanist rituals, is evident by the presence of flutes, chime stones, drums and bells in various ancient dig sites. By the Late Eastern Zhou period, the literature states that shamanism was widespread. In that state of Chu, for example, shamans were practicing out in the open as superstitious rulers often turned to female religious figures and astrologers to tell them the future.
Beyond ancient China, historical records indicate that shamans were also important figures in Korea and Japan. According to Nelson (1991, 2003), a number of queens from Korea’s Silla Kingdom were buried with a crown and belt made of gold that was inscribed with shamanistic symbols. Such findings suggest that leadership and shamanism was intertwined in Korean culture. Kim (1997) also states that female shamans appear regularly in Korean dynasty records up to the Yi dynasty (1392-1910), when Confucianism became the dominant state religion and women began to lose authority and status in public life. In Japan, shamanistic rituals were evident as early as 13,000 BCE and women shamans were noted to have influence over authorities during the Yayoi period (Fairchild, 1962). Women priests, soothsayers, magicians, and prophets all played shamanistic roles in Japan’s history and were first called “himikos”. As Fairchild (1962) writes, these women “interpreted the will of the gods and knew the art of dealing with the spirits. [They] divined and used ecstacy” (p. 57). He also notes that female shamans would perform divinations by shooting arrows and burning deer bones and turtle shells which would allow them to communicate with the gods and spirits and ask for help during difficult times. Because of these widespread practices, the word “miko” was later used to symbolize heaven and earth and a connecting link between them. The connecting link was often depicted as two hands and two dancing figures since shamans would regularly perform ‘violent’ sacred dances to entice the gods to come out of hiding and brighten the world again. Even Japanese Buddhism was significantly influenced by the popular shamanist beliefs in evil spirits or goryō. As a result, it was common practice for monks of the Buddhist sects Shingon and Tendai to practice exorcism of goryō spirits. By medieval times, almost all Buddhist monks worked with women shamans who acted as mediums during the exorcist rituals that spoke and sent messages to vengeful spirits (Parac, 2015).
“Black Magic and Superstition”: Shamanism in the Modern Age
Shamanist cultures continue to exist around the world with varying degrees of visibility. For example, the shamans or mudang in Korea are considered a pariah that live in poverty yet actively perform healing and spirit guidance to those who seek them. While shamans were demonized by Christian missionaries and banished from villages by Japanese colonial rulers and later Korea’s military governments, today mudang costume, music, and dance is promoted as “intangible cultural assets” by the Korean government. The resurgence is significant. According to the Korea Worshipers Association, there is an estimated 300,000 shamans, or one for every 160 South Koreans (Choe, 2007). In West Africa, shamanism is present through the griot (also called jeli/jail) figure- a highly respected male member of society that is often the object of personality cults (Arik, 1999). Their extended role includes acting as a spirit mediator, divine healer, story teller, and performer of poetry and music.
Today, while Japan and China are one of most technologically developed countries in the world, the shaman and belief in prophecy and sorcery, which are often attributed to societies in under-developed countries, is still popular. Japanese and Chinese shamans are practiced in mastering the channeling life force (ki or chi), and by understanding the bio-energetic anatomy of the human body, they are renowned for identifying blockages in the patient’s body that are brought on by stressors such as “karmic” disturbances (Arik, 1999). In Turkey, such healing occurs by mastering words and sounds, where the shaman is able to calm the energy of a person through songs, poems, and music (Ekinci, 2016).
The resurgence of shamanism today shows that even though globalization and modernization is associated with rationality, science and modern medicine, there is a resistance in popular culture that embraces what was once considered “false science” or “feudal superstition”. Indeed, in the current age of alienation and isolation, the need for connectivity and physical contact with others worlds makes the shaman play a crucial role in human survival.
The Centre for East-West Cultural and Economic Studies (CEWCES) is launching ‘The Confucian Way’, a Bond University broadcast series hosted by Emeritus Professor Raoul Mortley with Mr Alan Chan, which will outline an introduction to Confucian philosophy in East Asian traditions. The term “Confucianism” has meant many things in Western discourse and is often equated with being Chinese. However, Confucian culture is embedded and internalized in Japan, Taiwan, Singapore, Vietnam and South Korea, and is present in East Asian Diasporas around the world.
The Confucian Way series explores the many aspects and universal values of this philosophical tradition, even those which predate Confucius himself (述而不作, “I am a transmitter, not a creator”). Every Friday, a new episode of The Confucian Way will be posted, analyzing topics such as what is Ren, what is goodness, and what is the value of ritual in modern life.
To see the first episode of the series:
Source: “Dancer” by Chinese oil painter Tu Zhiwei.
As in most East Asian countries, Confucianism has had a considerable influence on the values and traditions of Taiwanese people. When it comes to sex and gender discrimination, male-centrality, dominance and superiority characterise the traditional ideals of Confucianism as well as the prevailing Han Chinese worldview and policies of Imperial and modern-day China (Du, 2011; Chang & Bairnier, 2019). The subordination of Chinese women is maintained through the family system, which operates on the patrilineal principles where family lines, corporations and all other kinds of property, are passed patrilineally, from father to son (Harrell, 2002). An important part of sustaining the patrilineal system is patrilocal residence, which prescribes that wives should move in with their husband’s parents or extended family at the time of marriage. In their discussion paper series, Landmann et al. (2017) found that in patrilocal residence, women are usually expected to take over housekeeping tasks from their in-laws and the burden of child and elder care increases.
Domesticity and restrictions on women’s role in society was also reinforced through several ancient writings that discussed the ideal ‘good women’ model. These rules maintained that women were expected to stay home, serve their husbands and parent-in-laws, and adopt behavioural restrictions so that harmony would be maintained within the family (Tamney & Chiang 2002). Although Chinese and Taiwanese society has undergone rapid and radical changes since post-Mao economic reforms, Raymo et al. (2015) state that traditional Confucian family doctrines continue to be manifested in multiple aspects of society, including men’s and women’s work and family roles.
That being said, communist and capitalist ideologies created new opportunities for Taiwanese women to challenge the dominant discourse of domesticity, especially with the emergence of new media and commercial advertisements that promoted Western lifestyle and ‘sexy’ body images. As Shaw (2012) asserts, while the ‘ideal’ woman of the past had been the strong, thrifty, family-oriented woman, in contemporary Taiwan, a double-burden has been created because, in addition to these virtues, the ideal woman now must also be slender, beautiful and eternally youthful.
As part of the emergence of the beauty industry and women’s leisure and exercise, the sport of belly dancing was introduced to Taiwan in 2002 and has been promoted as a beneficial exercise for toning muscles and enhancing women’s self-confidence (Chang & Bairner, 2019). Spreading all over the Taiwan, belly dancing is now popularly offered in dance classes and community universities, in which housewives, female office workers and retirees constitute the majority of the students. Chang and Bairner (2019) explain that a relatively low registration fee makes belly dance classes affordable and attractive to women of various social classes who use this sport as a means of women’s community, feminine solidarity, personal enjoyment, cultural exchange and artistry.
While consumerism, healthism, and globalisation have produced the rise of the new ideal Taiwanese woman, where sensuality in the feminine body is encouraged through community sports such as belly dancing, the constraints of traditional culture have not disappeared as the legacy of Confucian gender and sex discrimination remains. For instance, various studies (Hsieh 2003; Tsai 2006, 2008, 2009) show that marriage and family continue to be influential in women’s leisure participation. In Chang and Bairner’s (2019) participant observations and in-depth interviews, it was found that some people opposed their female family members from taking part in belly dance classes. As one participant noted:
“It’s actually not just opposition to belly dancing, they just don’t want you to go out. Our society still is kind of conservative…Usually the opposition of family comes from the husband or mother-in-law, the reason we usually hear from mother-in-law is something like ‘Others will gossip if my daughter in-law does this (belly dance).’ (p. 1335-1336).
A dance instructor interviewed also shared that several mothers in his class told him not to let their husbands and family members know that they were belly dancing and those that were strongly constrained did not show up to class at all. While it is far less common to see family preventing women from belly dancing in the West, opposition from husbands and elder relatives, especially mothers-in-law, continues to constrain women in Taiwan.
The reason why many women chose to hide their participation is because, for some, belly dancing continues to be associated with the image of the exotic, dancing woman in sexy shows. This ‘bad’ category of women, who make money by dancing, entertaining, and pleasing men are depicted as wearing sexy costumes, heavy perfume and makeup, and using their feminine charm to attract male customers. Therefore, to avoid being recognised as the ‘bad’ dancing woman, many belly dance interviewees emphasised the exercise component of belly dancing and avoided buying belly dance costumes.
In this case, even though foreign sports provided more opportunity for Taiwanese women to engage with their community and explore different ideals of womanhood, traditional Confucian practices and attitudes continue to restrict particularly married women’s expressions and movements even today.
A common misconception in mainstream texts and media is the idea that Confucianism has always been a doctrine for the ruling class whereas Buddhism and Daoism appeal to the “ignorant masses” (Welch & Seidel, 1979, p. 1). However, all three indigenous philosophies have contributed to shaping Chinese culture which views the universe as a harmonious and inter-related whole. While Confucianism puts emphasis on morality and how people should maintain proper relationships to achieve an ideal state of harmony (or ‘harmonisation’ depending on the translation of he, 和), Daoism is more individualistic and mystical, relying on instinct and consciousness rather than rules to govern social conduct (Jing, 2008).
The name daojia, 道家 or “school of the dao” was created by the historian Sima Tan in the text, Shi ji (“Records of the Historian”), which was written in the 2nd century BCE and later completed by his son, Sima Qian. According to Sima Qian’s classification (liujia zhi yaozhi, 六家之要指), the Daoists are one of the Six Schools in Ancient China, which also include the Confucians, the Mohists, the Legalists, the Logicians and the Yin-Yang school (or school of Naturalists). The classification of Daoism as a single school meant that historians compiled a list of texts such as the Laozi, 老子 and Zhuangzi, 莊子 of the pre-Han period that shared similar views on themes related to cosmology and ontology. Some of these themes include discussing ‘the Way’ (dao, 道, lit. “path”) as the ultimate metaphysical force in the cosmos, and ‘wu’ (無, “nothingness” or “nonbeing”), as a state that is complementary to being rather than meaning non-existence. Through the idea of wu, Daoists went one step further than the Greeks by expanding the traditional definition of ontology as examining the ‘being’ or existence of a human being by dealing with the concept of nothingness. This resulted in heated debates during the 3rdand 4thcenturies over whether things in the world were born from nonbeing or being (Chai, 2012). The eventual consensus in the Daoist school was that dao gives birth to both nonbeing and being and so, dao itself must be beyond the sphere of existence and non-existence.
Once institutionalised, the experts and practitioners of Daoism began to promote self-cultivation practices or “techniques of the Way” (dao shu, 道術), which would help individuals realise the daoand live a more harmonious life. While some of these techniques included adopting a sceptical mind and finding meaning in indirect, non-argumentative writing, often in the form of poetry and parable (Hansen, 2007), the political implication of Daoist thought was its opposition to authority, government, and coercion. As Loy (1985)noted, the Daoist concept of “spontaneity” (or wu-wei, 无为, lit. “without exertion”) was contrasted to the Confucian practice of obediently following teachers and traditions. For the Daoists, rules and social conventions restrained individuals from expressing their true nature, while natural movement was a way of promoting freedom and egalitarianism. Hansen (2007) argues that from a Confucian perspective, the rejection of order through authority and rulers was anarchist since the role of government was to promote moral character, whether by education, attraction or force.
However, whether this is a correct understanding of Daoism is debatable. For instance, Emeritus Professor of Philosophy John Clarke (1983) points out that it has become commonplace to identify Daoism and anarchism in political discussions, and Andrew Vincent (1992) adds that “it is also asserted that anarchist themes are to be found within ancient Chinese texts like the Tao te Ching [Daodejing]” (p. 116). But for Feldt (2010), these claims have often been made in passing or without critical engagement. The Zhuangzi also tends to be overcited when linking Daoism to anarchism because it is one of the only pre-Qin philosophical classics that does not make normative political claims. Whereas other Daoist texts like the Daodejing (also called the Laozi) provide theories for rulership and legitimate political power, where the ideal government would exert a minimum amount of interference over individuals (Ames, 1983), the Zhuangzi is silent on political issues and suggests that people should stay away from politics and any external, dominating powers (D’Ambrosio, 2018). Since the creation of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, which was dominated by a Bolshevik-style state-party system, anarchist activity and Daoist thought have been isolated and marginalised in the Chinese radicalism movement. Anarchism in China was also more associated with Buddhism because of the large number of Buddhist monks joining the Guangdong anarchist movement in the early 1920s (Dirlik, 2012).
Chinese anarchist visions were largely influenced by the writings of Russian activist and revolutionary Peter Kropotkin (1901), who put forward a version of ‘socialist anarchy’ that called for the abolition of individual property and the emancipation of the individual from the State, which was thought to maintain and reproduce conditions of economic slavery. Although some Maoist policies that integrated agriculture and industry were in line with the anarchist movement’s goals of setting up a more equal society, the emergence of state-based and armed groups such as the Communist Party and the Kuomintang meant that the Chinese anarchist community quickly lost its influence amongst the political elite (Dirlik, 2012). In its historical context, Anarchia, meaning the absence of government in Ancient Greek (coming from the word an-arkhíaor “not authority”), is about organizing society without government or coercion. Mainstream anarchist movements are opposed to states, armies, slavery, the wages system, prisons, all forms of capitalism, bureaucracy, patriarchy, matriarchy, monarchy, oligarchy, and intimidation by gangsters (Rooum, 1995). Anarchism is not perfect freedom in that people are not universally assumed to be altruistic or good. Rather, the movement is based on the belief that although humans are imperfect and can be unpredictable, a non-coercing and non-authoritarian way of organizing society is ethically worth striving for. In other words, anarchism seeks to offer a plausible alternative to current systems of governance where, it is argued, modern-day forms of slavery and brutality increase inequalities and reduce individual opportunity. It should be noted that when anarchism was applied to China, the anarchists did not insist on an anarchism with Chinese characteristics, but tried to apply universal anarchist principles to China’s political situation.
While there are some similarities between anarchist beliefs and Daoist principles, there are also fundamental differences. For example, although both Daoism and anarchism see freedom of the individual as a crucial aspect to human relations and existence, the meaning of freedom in anarchism is socio-political, where an ideal society would be free from oppression and authority, whereas the Daoist freedom is based on metaphysics. In the Daodejing (道德經), it is written that humans should have the freedom to cultivate their natural and simple character that originally comes from the dao. For instance, in chapters 8 and 9 the ideal human condition is described as natural governing “without desire which is like the softness of water that penetrates through hard rocks. His work is of talent like the free flow of water. His movement is of right timing like water that flows smoothly. A virtuous person never forces his way and hence will not make faults.” In that case, the cultivation of the self involves action without force. An individual is free in their creativity and accessing this freedom means not holding on to things such as desire and success. While some writers appeal to the noncoercive and nonauthoritarian conception of wu-weias one of the key links between Daoism and anarchism, there are various ways of translating wu-wei. Roger Ames and David Hall (1983) use the term “noncoercion”, but Ames (1994) also generalised the meaning through the terms “noncoercive activity”, “nonaction”, “doing nothing”, and “acting naturally”. D.C. Lau (1963) uses “nonaction”, while Edward Slingerland (2003) refers to wu-wei as “effortless action”. The different translations can have different meanings when discussing political authority. For example, a government that “does nothing” or is non-active seems like an appeal to anarchism, whereas governing through “noncoercive activity” or natural action is to voluntarily govern without relying on force. But the authority would still remain. Thus, Wu-wei is not simply the lack of authority or action. In chapter 43 of the Daodejing, the Sage is advised to do nothing (with a purpose), and in chapter 48 it is stated that a person should arrive at the point of non-action where “there is nothing which he does not do.” Thus, there is still activity, intention, and spontaneity in the meaning of wu-wei as the dao can only be expressed and realised beyond actions and words.
Finally, at no point does Daoism outright reject a ruling authority or the state. This is because, as Xiao Gongquan (1979) states, “what Lao Tzu attacked was not government in and of itself, but was any kind of government which did not conform to “Taoistic” standards” (p. 299). In other words, it is believed that society should be governed by a sage-ruler that follows the standards and spontaneous workings of the dao, which involves allowing citizens to realise their individual freedoms by not applying an excess of laws. In chapter 57 of the Daodejing, Lao Tzu says “Govern the state by being straightforward; wage war by being crafty; but win the empire by not being meddlesome…Hence the sage says, I take no action and the people are transformed of themselves”. Here Lao Tzu puts forward the idea that the state should be non-intrusive with minimal or no taxation and laws so that people can live without unnecessary competition or strife. For Robert Eno (1990), Confucius himself adopted such as Daoist attitude as his political theory was a justification for staying away from government at least until a sage would become a proper ruler. The development of a rule-based, authoritarian Confucianism would later contrast Daoism’s natural spontaneity and scepticism to social control, but to equate Daoism with Western anarchism is to ignore the cultural and historical differences in how both schools of thought developed and influenced Chinese society.
It should be noted that while traditional Confucianism spoke more of virtuous rulers teaching their citizens about correct conduct and moral behaviour, by the early Ming dynasty emperors began adopting an official neo-Confucian theory of foreign policy that allowed for the legitimate use of force (see Feng Zhang, “Confucian Foreign Policy Traditions in Chinese History,” The Chinese Journal of International Politics8 (2): 2015, p. 197-218. https://doi.org/10.1093/cjip/pov004).