Quotes of the Week
Determinism and fatalism are explained here not as something beyond human control or understanding, but as a necessary truth of human existence. Nowhere in Chinese thought is this expressed more strongly. The main principle that is put forward is to be silently in harmony with one’s capacity and condition to righteously live out one’s allotted life-span. To lack sincerity in this and not recognize the true nature of reality is to live in disarray and chaos.
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.
The rhythm of Ding, the cook, is described in the third chapter of the Zhuangzi. To be an expert, as Ding, is to be experienced and natural. This passage of the Zhuangzi reflects the naturalness and ease of Ding’s expertise in undoing the ox.
The rhythmicality is reinforced by the poem’s reference to ‘The Mulberry Forest’, a legendary piece of dance music named after a place called Mulberry Forest in Song territory. In this forest, it is said that the legendary Emperor Tang cut his hair and fingernails short, and offered himself up for sacrifice in exchange for rain to relieve a seven-year drought. The music is used to dance and pray for rain and good crops.
Just like the Mulberry tune, the musicality of the cook’s knife joins life and death as an art. How the ox is cooked and eaten influences affects how the people are nourished, and this ‘how’ is a reflection of the art that synthesizes nature and culture, life and death, and the human and animal (Wu, 1989). All of these things become one another in Ding’s culinary-cosmic dance, where the knife cuts and slithers through the ox and turns it into a feast. Providing such an aesthetic to taking and disassembling life allows the people to feast and be nourished by the animal’s suffering.
We are back! Every week, we will post quotes from the texts of the main philosophical traditions of ancient China, which include Legalism, Confucianism, Taoism, Buddhism and Mohism. Each of these philosophies has individually and collectively influenced China’s governance, family and social structure, communications, arts, and contemporary philosophy and science.
Several questions are central to the teachings and debates that make up China’s philosophical schools, such as the issue of how to sustain order (zhi) or harmony (he)? To what degree should we rely on institutions? Is leadership crucial to governance? Is there a human nature? What sorts of roles, relationships, or hierarchies should structure our societies and should we allow these structures to be challenged?
Understanding the unique interplay between the main traditions provides an important perspective into ancient and modern Chinese society, and can help us understand China’s future trajectory.