Chinese culture

Monster or God? The Mao Zedong Legacy

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The sunlight of Mao Zedong Thought illuminates the road of the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution (1966). Shanghai People’s Fine Arts Publishing House Propaganda Group (上海人民美术出版社宣传画组)

Chairman Mao remains an elusive figure in the West. Described as a “tragedy of a vision and a symbol” (Gupta, 1974, p. 19), he is often known through Chinese propaganda posters. These artworks often feature Mao’s face as the sun, providing light and direction for the land and people under the leadership of the Communist Party. With the Army being responsible for propaganda art during Mao’s leadership, he was often made into a God-like, muscular figure engaging in heroic deeds from the stories of his victories, all the while being surrounded by happy faces. Mao’s wife, Jiang Qing, even created the ‘three prominences’ which were to be featured in all artworks depicting Mao and the revolution. They included stressing positive characters, which were smiling hyper-realistic, ageless and large soldiers, workers, and educated youths. These figures symbolized the desirability of strong and healthy bodies as both men and women were masculinized by being dressed in colours such as army green and worker blue, with short-cropped hairstyles and large feet. Heroic themes also needed to be stressed to demonstrate the importance of proletarian ideology and communist revolutionary spirit. The colour red is prominent in most propaganda visuals and symbolises fiery revolutionary thought and the winning of good over evil. The final prominence was the centrality of the main characters, Mao and the people of the revolution, who were usually positioned in such a way that viewers of revolutionary propaganda always seemed to be looking upwards as if the image was taken upon a stage (Landsberger, 2019).

While these depictions turned Mao Zedong into a personality cult, after his death he was increasingly portrayed as a monstrous figure. For instance, in Jung Chang and Jon Halliday’s 2005 biographical book, Mao: The Unknown Story, they describe Mao as one of the greatest monsters in the 20th century, and they compare him to Hitler and Stalin by claiming that he sacrificed thousands of innocent lives in his quest to become the leader of China. Further, Li Zhisui, Mao’s personal physician, wrote a book called The Private Life of Chairman Mao, which described Mao as a “monstrous lecher” who was indifferent to the suffering of his people. Despite these dualistic depictions of Mao as a hero-God and callous monster, he was the first leader of the People’s Republic to initiate what was known as “grassroots socialism,” which aimed to create a modern, industrialised Chinese state. The ideological basis of the state was based on Mao’s official writings and was known as Mao Zedong Thought (MZT, Mao Zedong sixiang, 毛泽东思想), which took many of Mao’s texts and turned them into select writings to make certain ideas fit convenient circumstances. Over time, MZT existed in various forms that responded to various political issues that were of concern to the Communist Party at particular times. Although many Third World postcolonial revolutionaries would consider MZT a viable political model, Maoism is often viewed by commentators outside of China as ‘militant fanaticism’ (Tang, 1973), while China itself continues to struggle to produce and promote a viable Chinese Marxism as it deals with increased income inequality due to its “Factory to the World” economic model.

Mao Thought developed in the context of civil war: the Kuomintang (KMT), led by Chang Kai-shek, represented the “revolutionary national bourgeoisie,” which aimed to create national liberation through a revolution led by the bourgeoisie in alliance with the workers and peasants (D’Mello, 2009). In an attempt to eradicate their primary opposition, the Chinese Communists, the KMT, who were supported by America, launched a civil war (1928-35) in which many Communists were murdered. Mao survived these attacks and with his adaptation of Marxism-Leninism to Chinese circumstances, a new “Maoist” ideology of the CCP was eventually formalized by 1945. After the Japanese were defeated, Mao Thought became the state policy of the Communist government on the founding of the People’s Republic in 1949. In the ‘Report on the Revision of the Party Constitution’, Mao Thought was described as ‘Chinese Communism’, ‘Chinese Marxism’ and the ‘Sinicization of Marxism,’ and it was believed to represent “the hopes and aspirations of the millions of oppressed and exploited throughout the world” (The U.S. Leninist Core, 1978). Although Maoist Thought was formulated in many ways, it was original for a Communist Party to strategically gain power through peasant support, which Mao initiated right before the civil war in 1927. The use of a peasant movement as a class basis for revolution differed from the previous communist takeover in Russia, which based their movement for liberation on the proletariat (Wittfogel, 1960). Thus, by basing Marxist theory on the material reality of China’s underdevelopment, Mao created a Communist vanguard led by poor peasants, who initiated a peasant-cum-guerrilla movement in the countryside. This approach was summed up by Mao with the phrase “from the masses, to the masses”, and came with the democratisation of the Leninist vanguard party. Just like Lenin, Mao’s vanguard had a revolutionary elite drawn from intellectuals, workers and peasants, at its core, but the difference was that the workers and peasants in Mao’s vanguard were promised greater representation over time. Mao also applied Marx’s “materialist dialectics” to help understand and resolve the multiple “contradictions” that the Communist Party would face, including internal conflicts and opposition that sometimes resulted in disunity. According to Mao, the one basic law that underlies all motion, change or development is the unity of opposites (or yin-yang in Chinese traditional philosophy). Therefore, the process to get to a higher stage of Communism will be long, complex and tortuous, where the formal aspects of the tradition, such as state ownership of the means of production, are not necessarily guarantees that the bourgeoisie will not make repeated attempts to restore and promote the inequalities of Capitalism (Mao, 1935).

In 1940, Mao declared that the aim of the Communist Party’s efforts is to build a new nation-state with a new political organisation, a new economy and a new culture for the Chinese people. Eighteen years later, the ‘Great Leap Forward’ social experiment took place where, in an attempt to quickly industrialise the country, communities in China were assigned production of a single commodity, steel. It led to economic failure since uneducated farmers produced low quality steel that was useless for industry. Since harvest sizes declined, a famine occurred and millions of people, particularly in the poorer inland regions, died. Criticised for his role in this entirely avoidable catastrophe, Mao initiated the 10-year ‘Great Cultural Revolution’, a policy meant to enforce Communism by removing any traces of the capitalist, traditional and cultural elements of Chinese society through violent class struggle. Young student revolutionaries formed the Red Guards, a stormtrooper group that used torture, humiliation and destruction of property and historical-religious artefacts to punish “capitalist roaders” and other class enemies (Ho, 1978; Landsberger, 2019). Anti-Confucianism peaked during this period to the point where the Red guards raided and desecrated Confucius’s birthplace and burial ground. Mao also launched the ‘Anti-Lin Bao and Anti-Confucius Campaign’ in his last years as leader of China, attacking both his designated successor and China’s ancient Sage (Hu, 2007). These painful experiences continue to stain China’s history. As Brown (2016) states, the Chinese Communist Party likes to promote a simple historical narrative, with clear cut messages about the winners and losers of past struggles. By contrast, policies like the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution are a mess of awkward contradictions that are seldom mentioned nowadays.

Despite the issues with Mao’s political rule, hardly any Chinese politicians have come out to denounce the former Chairman. Since the Cultural Revolution, the only ‘critique’ that the Communist Party have put forward about past policies and leaders was the famous ‘Resolution on Certain Historical Questions of the CCP since the Establishment of the People’s Republic’ in 1981 under the supervision of Deng Xiaoping. However, the Resolution only concluded that Mao’s “contributions to the Chinese revolution far outweighed his shortcomings” and that “his contributions were primary, his mistakes secondary.” The Resolution noted that there may have been errors of judgment during the Cultural Revolution, but there is seldom mentioned about the increasingly authoritarianism that came under Mao’s rule. Deng Xiaoping even noted that “We must affirm the historical position of comrade Mao Zedong and uphold and develop Mao Thought. We must hoist high the flag of Mao Thought not only today but in the future.” In late-2003, fourth-Generation leader President Hu Jintao also declared Mao to be a “great proletarian revolutionary strategist and theorist”, while in 2011, a 32-metre Mao statue was erected in the middle of Xiangjiang River in Changsha, Hunan Province (Moore, 2009). In 2019, the ‘Mao fever’ continued: President Xi paid his respects to Mao ahead of celebrations to mark 70 years of Communist rule, by visiting Mao’s mausoleum and bowing three times to his statue (Aljazeera, 2019).

Mao Zedong Thought was distinctly original in its application to China’s material reality of underdevelopment. Although it failed to successfully industrialise China, as a military strategy, it allowed the Communists to apply guerrilla warfare to drive out the KMT, defeat the Japanese and establish an independent republic. While the West (and some Chinese) authors have made Mao to be evil, monstrous and Hitler-like, his legacy and continued presence in Chinese society allows him to remain as a respected father in people’s memories.  

Quote of the week from the Zhuangzi

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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 Confucian Way 12: Wu-wei, the Art of Doing Nothing

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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.

Quote of the week from the Book of Lord Shang

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The original phrasing in chapter 4, section 4.2 uses “to attack” rather than “to govern” to mean that only when the people are attacked and thereby weakened can strong governance be established. The Book of Lord Shang puts forward the argument that people will only follow state order out of fear and so to create a strong and functioning state, a strong army should be created to deter people from doing wrong by inflicting heavy punishment.

The Book of Lord Shang is one of the most important, yet least studied, texts in Chinese philosophy and political culture. Along with the Analects, it is one of the foundational texts of early Chinese political thought that provides lengthy chapters about land management, state-society relations, historical evolution, and human nature. The book is the earliest surviving text from the Legalist School and is largely attributed to the thoughts of Shang Yang (Gongsun Yang or Lord of Shang), the successful politician whose state reforms allowed the Qin Empire to prosper during the tumultuous Warring States period. The Qin vision for long lasting governance was to empower the state by establishing total control over its material and human resources, an idea that is repeatedly put forward in chapter 4.

Throughout the fourth chapter, the moral norms of Chinese traditional culture, including rites and music, goodness and self-cultivation, are ridiculed with calls for the creation of a regime in which “villains…rule [the] good” (4.3); and an army that wins by doing “whatever the enemy is ashamed of” (4.1). Moreover, the textual style of using short and energetic sentences creates a “take it or leave it” approach to the text, where policies are proclaimed, but the justification for such action is rarely ever elaborated on. Despite the provocative ideas and lack of explanation in some sections, the text gives much insight into the Warring States period and the formation of the Chinese empire.

The Confucian Way 11: The Mirror of the Mind of the Sage

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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.

The Mandate of Heaven and Revolution in Modern China

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The Strait Times, 2019.

The story goes that in early January, 1368, Zhu Yuanzhang, the future emperor of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), had eliminated his contending rivals, but when his followers urged him to take the throne, he hesitated. He said that he would not make such a decision on his own and that he would consult the high heavens for guidance. So he set up an alter to worship the supreme cosmic deity and prayed that if the heavens approved the new ruling house, January 23rd would be a bright day and he would mark it as the day of enthronement. On the scheduled day, the sky miraculously cleared up after several consecutive days of snow and interpreting this as an auspicious sign, Zhu claimed he attained the Mandate of Heaven (Tianming) and announced the founding of the Ming Dynasty. In an effort to rebuild the Chinese empire, Zhu initiated a series of social programs and legal documents that came to be known as the ‘Ming Constitution’, which covered all aspects of empire, including governmental institutions, cultural policies, and social customs. ‘The Great Ming Code’ set forth a value system and legal culture that not only had a profound impact on the subsequent Manchu-Qing Dynasty (1644-1912), but also affected the ruling establishments of neighboring countries, such as Japan, Korea and Vietnam (Jiang, 2011).

Both the Ming Constitution and the Ming Code worked to establish emperor Zhu as the ‘Son of Heaven’, where he was believed to act as a mediator between the spiritual-heaven realm and the earthly human realm with the purpose of establishing a harmonious cosmic-social order that would bring peace and prosperity to his subjects (Goldstein, 2017). Importantly, if the rulers would violate the cosmic order by abusing their power and acting immorally, heaven would send down a warning by bringing disaster on society and revoking the Mandate to rule. Thus, it was normal for dynasties to rise and fall according to a regular pattern of popular protest, rebellion and a new mandate to rule, which was often given by various divine omens. The system allowed political challengers, whether peasants or foreign invaders, to make bids for the kingship by rebellion and created checks and balances so if the imperial family grew increasingly corrupt, the dynasty would lose its Mandate. Although the Mandate was on some level an important tool used by the ruling elite to justify state power, it was not only used as a means of behavioral control. The Mandate attempted to embody an ideal cosmic order based on the Heavenly principle (tianli, the ultimate origin of the universe) and human sentiment (renqing, human compassion based on the Heavenly principle).

In key Confucian texts, it is written that the ruler in the Mandate of Heaven “is a boat and the people are water. Water can carry the boat and overturn it, too” (Xunzi, “Wangba” chapter), and “The people are the most crucial and important, the next is the state, and the least is the king” (Mencius, “Jinxinxia” chapter). These exerts highlight that there is some humility to the emperor’s authority. The emperor does not have a ‘right’ to rule, but a duty to fulfill according to heavenly destiny. In that case, the heavenly appointed role holds the ruler accountable to the people for if his duties are not performed well, then he risks losing the Mandate to rule (Zhao, 2009). To be a well-performing emperor, a Chinese ruler needs to receive many years of intensive education in Confucian classics, history, calligraphy, and statecraft from Confucian officials at an early age. This required training is meant to ensure that China’s politico-legal cosmology was modelled on a higher moral order that could create structure and peace in times of high instability brought about by, for example, foreign ‘barbarians’, greedy imperialists, natural disasters, epidemics or internal corruption. In fact, according to the Mandate, the emperor was to assume responsibility for any natural disasters and the common people viewed disasters and famines as a sign of unfit rule and possible dynastic change. The emperor’s performance legitimacy and duty to rule for his people inspired thousands of peasant (and sometimes foreign-led) rebellions throughout China’s history, and the country’s rebels and revolutionaries were often romanticized and glorified in literature.

The Mandate’s mythology was still an influential force in the 20th century. For instance, the father of the Chinese Revolution, Sun Yat-sen, who was a convert in Christianity and trained in Western medicine, visited the Ming tombs and proclaimed the downfall of the Manchus upon the founding of the 1912 Republic. The people-led revolution also inspired Mao Zedong’s doctrine of “People’s War”, which played an important role in the Communist victory in 1949. As Perry (2001) states, “Like Mencius’s Mandate of Heaven, Mao’s Mass Line insisted on the reciprocal linkage between leader and led in staking a claim to higher political morality” (p. x). Thus, whereas Stalin’s communist revolution looked to the secret police to enforce a top-down order, Mao made it clear that the masses were to engage in government-sponsored class struggle campaigns so that revolution could be achieved from below. While mass campaigns were thought to be over in the Deng Xiaoping era, popular protests have continued in the post-Mao era. From the Democracy Wall Movement (1978-79), the 1985 anti-Japanese demonstrations, the 1989 student uprisings to the 2019 anti-government protests in Hong Kong, protestors have remained active and unafraid of violent reprisal. With market-oriented reform widening the gap between rich and poor, and with the Chinese Communist Party increasingly centralizing state power, dissent has also spread on the Chinese internet. In 2016, a letter calling for President Xi Jinping’s resignation was signed by loyal members of the Communist Party and leaked on various websites before being pulled down by authorities (Rauhala & Xu, 2016). 20 people were detained over the incident (Sudworth, 2016). The anti-Xi Jinping movement also created the online nickname for the President, Da si bi (大撒币), which literally means to “giving big money”, but the sound of the three Chinese words can also sound like saying “stupid”. The nickname refers to how President Xi gives big money in exchange for global influence, but he is stupid for doing so because he is only representing the interests of the party and not the people (Zhou, 2019).

Challenging the Mandate was never easy. The necessity for political protest and revolution as a feature of China’s politico-legal cosmology and history was well suited to its 20th century communist takeover. Although stripped of its religious-cosmological aspects, Marxism put forward the necessity of revolution to abolish the bourgeois state. As Engels notes, “[force] is the midwife of every old society which is pregnant with a new one, that it is the instrument with which social movement forces its way through and shatters the dead, fossilized political forms” (cited in Lenin, 1918). In other words, it is revolution and human struggle that moves societies from one historical stage to the next and without properly serving the people by allowing for social inequality and economic hardship to become widespread, it is a given that rulers risk losing their ‘mandate’. In the Analects, Confucius also puts forward a theory on how good ruler conduct makes revolution unnecessary. He states that it is important to “Advance the upright and set aside the crooked, then the people will submit. Advance the crooked and set aside the upright, then the people will not submit” (2:14). Although revolution is seemingly necessary for just political change, Confucian texts do not outline what makes revolts successful. For Karl Marx, the one class capable of leading countries to political freedom was the proletariat since it is more realistic to expect a radical revolution to get rid of oppressive economic and political structures like capitalism than to expect the bourgeoisie to lead the way through political democracy (Fiddick, 1978). According to Tiruneh (2014), by examining the literature, two types of revolutions can be identified: spontaneous and planned. Without any significant organized effort, spontaneous revolutions occur when many factions of a society suddenly and without prior planning take part in protests and quickly seek to overthrow the current political-economic system. The purpose of spontaneous revolutionary action is that officials are unable to predict the onset of a popular uprising spreading rapidly across a country like that of the 1911 Chinese Revolution and 1917 Russian Revolution. Planned revolutions, on the other hand, are more guerilla-led or deliberately organized by revolutionaries. Revolutionary efforts can be anticipated and the fight for political-economic freedom will take a longer and harder road. What makes either revolution successful is strong leadership, where far-sighted individuals are able to unite normally opposed groups of people into large-scale political movements. As well as revolutionary ideology, popular support, access to resources and organizational strength, success in revolutionary efforts usually comes down to whether the military is either acquiescent or supportive of or otherwise defeated by popular uprisings and revolutionary fighters (Perry, 2001; Tiruneh, 2014).

In China’s current political situation, the government has tried to avoid any popular uprising or revolutionary efforts by replacing the radical, revolutionary communism as the ideological foundation of the political system to traditional, conservative Confucianism. For instance, in the 4th Plenary Session of the 16th Congress of the CCP Central Committee held in September 2004, former President Hu Jintao called for the creation of a “harmonious society” and new development policies were directed towards the underprivileged Chinese population (Jin & Nahm, 2019). To avoid a peasant rebellion, the government abolished all agricultural taxes, increased the provision of subsidies for farming, and removed the one-child policy, while also strengthening the Letters and Petitions Bureaus in the State Council and People’s Congress to avoid riots and protests. The government also launched its Western China development project that aimed to manage the widening regional inequalities. However, the Chinese state cannot sustain its role based only on performance legitimacy alone because it runs the risk of promising to deliver too much welfare to too many people. Without ideological and legal-electoral legitimacy, the Chinese government has had to resort to acting paternalistically and coercively, which has resulted in the high cost of surveillance technologies and locally spread and difficult to track resistance. Because there is limited opportunities for compromise between citizens and the state who are diametrically opposed in their understanding of state legitimacy, revolution or at least local (or even digital) rebellion seems inevitable.

The Confucian Way 10: Water, Stillness and the Mirror of the Sage

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This episode opens with a passage from the Zhuangzi that talks about water that is so still that it forms a mirror-image that can be used to reflect on human behaviour and relationships. The stillness and reflection of the mirror can be compared to the still and silent mind of the Sage, whose complete clarity of the world can accurately reflect on the nature of reality. By looking into the mind of the Sage, you can see yourself and your relationships as they really are, despite what might be thought or said by others. This idea of the mirror image is similarly explored in Western philosophy through the Greek and Roman myth of Narcissus, in Plato’s writings, as well as by St. Paul and Lacan, where the mirror can both reinforce hubris and act as a means of self-recognition and self-understanding.

Quote of the week from the Early Buddhist Schools

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Chan, W-T. (1963). A Source Book in Chinese Philosophy. Princeton University Press.

Buddhism first arrived in China after an official received instruction on Buddhist scriptures from a foreign envoy around 2 B.C.E. The adoption of Buddhist beliefs was successful because it adapted to the beliefs of popular religious practices and what emerged was two Chinese Buddhist movements based on dhyana (the concentration school) and prajna (the wisdom school). The goal of the dhyana movement was to meditate to the achieve calmness and remove ignorance and delusions from the mind, while the prajna school was more concerned with gaining the wisdom that things with no self-nature possessed.

As time went on, Indian Buddhist concepts found their Chinese equivalent. For example, tathata (translated as “ultimate reality”) was translated by the Taoist concept “original non-being” (pen-wu or pure being). Thus, like the Neo-Taoists, Chinese Buddhists regarded ultimate reality as quiet and empty in nature and as transcending all being, names, and forms.

One of the early seven schools of Buddhism went further with the idea of ultimate reality with the theory of non-being of mind, where it argued that one should not have any deliberate or purposeful mind towards the many things around us. The inherent nature of reality or ultimate truth is believed to be empty because this enables our minds not to cling onto anything unreal or imaginary. However, the theory does not go into nihilism to say that the many external things outside of the mind are empty or meaningless, but rather that it is important to cultivate the non-being of mind to foster a tranquil spirit.

On the Politics of Metaphysics

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‘Metaphysics’ by Nikita Krivoshey. Retrieved from http://www.nikitakrivoshey.com/metaphysics.htm.

The term metaphysics derives from the Greek phrase ta meta ta physika meaning “the works after the Physics”, and it refers to the study of things outside of human sense perception. The name was originally created in c. 70 B.C.E. by the Greek philosopher Andronicus of Rhodes. Misinterpreted in Latin as meaning “the science of what is beyond the physical”, metaphysics actually means the science of the inward or the study of the essential nature of things. It is a type of philosophy that uses broad concepts that helps define reality and our understanding of it, and as a mode of inquiry, metaphysics uses logic based on the meaning of particular terms to explain things which are not easily discovered or experienced in everyday life, including the nature of the human mind (and whether there is such a thing as consciousness or soul), the definition and meaning of existence, and the nature of space, time and causality.

The origin of the study of philosophy itself, beginning with the Pre-Socratics, was metaphysical. For instance, the philosopher Plotinus argued that reason in the world and in the rational human mind reflects a universal and perfect reality that exists beyond our limited human reason. He called this perfect reality “God”. For Aristotle, who named his collection of fourteen books Metaphysics, metaphysics refers to a number of things, including things that do not change, “being as such” and “first causes” (Van Inwagen, 2014). Nowadays, such points of inquiry are often positioned to be in conflict with the modern sciences that attempt to measure concepts like truth and reality from the physical world. Critics of metaphysics such as Francis Herbert Bradley (1952) argue that metaphysics is the “finding of bad reasons for what we believe upon instinct,” and others have claimed that the study is simply full of “meaningless gibberish” and “downright absurd” (Peirce, 1905, p. 423). From this critical point of view, the attempt to prove the existence of a soul, spirit or other non-human realities that cannot become an object of scientific enquiry is seemingly impossible. However, the belief that everything can and should be explained scientifically in terms of natural causes, where only what is seen or sensed is considered real or meaningful to humans, is problematic because scientific observation tends to produce the reality which it hopes to explain. The so-called final “truths” of scientific enquiry and ability to know only that which physically is perceived to exist in a Newtonian mechanistic model of the universe fails to explain the existence of paradigm shifts, where scientific laws and realities are proven to be false in light of new research or technology, and how human interpretation and context-dependence influences scientific discovery and explanation. The idea that scientific knowledge is limited by human perspectives, cognitive biases and epistemic interests is highlighted by Jan Faye (2014), when he states that:

A human agent A understands a state of affair, P, in a certain context, C, in the terms of a theory, T, if, and only if, A’s belief regarding P connects (in the epistemically correct way for A; i.e., in accordance to A’s epistemic norms, N, of understanding) with A’s cognitive system, including A’s background knowledge, beliefs, and assumptions (A’s worldview) (p. 54).

In that sense, what we claim to be facts and truths is heavily affected by a variety of influences outside of our control and outside of human sense perception. According to Ananda Coomaraswamy (1977), in traditional civilizations such as in India, metaphysics provided the vision or theory to explain phenomena that was beyond the phenomenal plane since the aim of metaphysics is not to physically prove anything beyond reasonable doubt, but rather to make ideas and concepts reasonably intelligible and demonstrate their consistency. In modern philosophical terminology, metaphysical studies that have an important impact in research and general knowledge claims are ontology (the philosophical study of being where arguments are made for the existence/non-existence of X), cosmology (the science of the origin of the universe), and epistemology (the theory of knowledge).

While there is no single word in the Chinese language that corresponds precisely to the term ‘metaphysics’, Chinese philosophy has a long tradition of examining cosmological becoming and the ultimate nature of reality, particularly through texts like the Yijing and Daodejing. Although there is a lack of historical evidence to explain who composed these scriptures, there is a general theme in both of the texts that suggests that all things, physical and non-physical, are interconnected and constantly in motion and changing. Everything arises spontaneously from an ultimate source (called the dao  道, “the way”), which cannot be objectified but is accessible to cultivated people (Perkins, 2015). To be alive is to be constantly changing, and nature shows us the consistent patterns of spontaneous movement, transformation, and flourishing that can be observed and followed, particularly through the patterns and interactions between the polar forces of yin 陰 and yang 陽. The two phenomena compromise the complementary opposites that make up existence, such as darkness and light, rest and motion, softness and firmness, dividedness and unbrokenness, female and male, which correspond to the physical realities of day and night, sun and moon, heaven and earth, and water and fire. Yin is always symbolized as the phase of difference, while yang is the phase of identity in the process of change. The implication is that every single relationship is based on difference, which creates the potential for change. Thus, there is always possibility for actual change and if relationships do change then they became an inevitable feature of reality.

An important part of the yin-yang relationship is the ability to accept change and embrace difference in the other. This basic outlook is fundamentally different from the assumptions of European metaphysical inquiry, which historically struggled to deal with the problem of difference. As Blaney and Inayatullah (2016) explain, difference was hard to incorporate in the West, which historically had to deal with violent religious schism and the ‘discovery’ of new continents and people. These events threatened the legitimacy of European cosmology by undermining its creation myths of a (white) anthropomorphic God who put things in the world through purposeful design. In response, theorists constructed an ‘empire of uniformity’, which understands difference as something that needs to be contained, denied, or dealt with through threats and violence. The end result was a knowledge and political system that constructed a reality where people needed to be homogenized, where places needed to be bounded into states, and where borders acted to keep the system intact. Such a Eurocentric design of the world had a profound impact on global politics, ethics and knowledge production. According to Quijano (2000), at the heart of this Eurocentric metaphysical worldview lies a binary way of thinking, which constructs a white, progressive, modern European identity in opposition to a black/indigenous/Asiatic, underdeveloped, traditional and barbarian ‘Other’. The organization of power along these lines, where resources and decision-making are in the hands of the former group, exists on both a transnational and national level in societies, and works to undermine and deny the spiritualized and connected relationship with the universe that the latter groups subscribed to.

Acknowledging the violence that is associated with denying, devaluing and destroying the cultural and social worldviews of the Other groups is part of the work of anti-colonial metaphysics, which seeks to deconstruct the dominant Anglo-European worldview and assumptions, epistemologies, and ontologies that influence how the majority of the world acts and interprets the world. For McDonnell (2014), it is about revitalizing these traditions and giving them application and due recognition in modern contexts. For example, working from an African development framework, McDonnell examines African epistemologies, where there is an emphasis on the whole, and where truth is negotiated between groups of people, rather than being something out there, dismembered, and atomized. Emotional and material knowledge in this context exists within many places, where both the physical and spiritual world coexist and are conceptualized as necessary for balanced and harmonious interactions in the world. In African ontologies, the nature of existence and understanding of reality is determined by both these physical and spiritual relationships which confirms peoples purpose and places in the greater cosmos, where nature, humans, and spirits are integrated and codependently interact with each other without exploitation.

In the Chinese philosophical tradition, knowledge is similarly centered on the harmonization of the self and world, which differs from Western and Buddhist philosophical perspectives where knowledge is for overcoming the world and the self. Cheng (1989) explains that in the Chinese worldview, people are constantly and continuously expected to seek enlightenment about things and themselves. Knowledge here is not just a matter of forming universal principles and abstract concepts, but about gaining direct insight into the nature of the self, of one’s relationships, and of things in the world. Thus, knowledge is a matter of self-fulfillment and informs a person’s network of relationships. A person’s state of being-in-the-world is both limited and controlled by the person’s past, but also freeing and spontaneous as the person has some power to affect the future through self and historical reflection. The existential experience places individuals in a position where they can feel both stability and instability, freedom and bondage, and confidence and uncertainty because she or he is situated in a network of relationships which are both essential for growth, but need appropriate strengthening and development by cultivating virtue through reflection.

Such understandings help open the way to re-establishing anti-colonial metaphysical worldviews that de-mystify and de-Orientalize the Other in order to allow other voices to enter the larger discussions and understandings about how societies should be governed and how nature can be incorporated into global development.

Quote of the Week from the Analects

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In the Analects, dao or the Way is always being communicated: it is heard (as in the passage above, 4:8), spoken and studied (6:12), corrected (1:4), walked (5:7), and wasted or absent (3:24). The dao can be born (1:2), can be strengthened (15:29), and it can be great or small (19:4).

While dao is a ‘general’ mass term (for example, X can be dao and Y can be dao, yet these two dao-things can still be distinct), this mass-like behaviour has led many in the West to translate dao as ‘being’ or “condition, state, circumstance, presence”. However, the way that dao is interpreted in Chinese is more practical than metaphysical, where writers change the usage of dao regularly. For example, certain people can be said to have dao (Confucius has a dao; kings can have dao; some villages have dao). Heaven or nature also has dao, and there can be different dao depending on the period of history.

For Hansen (1989), it is more appropriate to think of the general mass term of dao as the English noun ‘discourse’. Just like dao, the inner structure of discourse remains indeterminate. Similarly, X can be a discourse and Y can be a discourse that together form a combined discourse, while apart they remain as separate discourses. This interpretation provides a framework to understand the relation between dao and action and behaviour so that dao acts as a guiding or prescriptive discourse. That is, a ‘way’ to do something. A particular way of hearing, for example, where one listens but does not pass judgement of right and wrong, good and bad, beautiful or ugly.