BEIJING - There has been a succession of dynasties in China’s long history, but Chinese culture has always followed the same basic ideology. This ideology is composed of ideas from three sources: the Book of Changes, Confucianism, and Taoism. Today, if we want to export the soft power of Chinese culture, we must first identify the core values of these traditional concepts, and then prove that they can still inspire us in modern times.
The Book of Changes
The Book of Changes, a compendium of divination also called the I Ching, is one of the oldest Chinese classic texts. Like its name implies, it is a book that explores change. Before the invention of writing, it taught people how to understand change and to predict both the good and the bad fortune that comes as a consequence of change.
Fu Xi, a legendary ancient Chinese ruler (2800-2737 BC), had eight symbols revealed to him, each symbol representing specific concepts. The eight trigrams (each symbol consists of three lines) were then developed into 64 hexagrams (each symbol composed of six lines) that represent a variety of complex situations and patterns. In essence, the Book of Changes reminds people to be aware of their own position in a certain pattern so as to take appropriate action. In other words, it teaches us to observe the laws of nature and interpersonal interaction so that we can be able to adapt our words and actions accordingly.
Initially the Book of Changes was used for making choices in imperial policy. Later on, scholars turned it into a philosophy in which principles can be applied to daily life and reflected in moral principles. These moral principles, which define heaven, earth and man as the three major elements, can be summed as: be prepared for danger in times of peace, be happy with the mandate of heaven and be content with what you are.
First it means that we should be vigilant. People often become lax in their efforts or indulge in pleasure thinking that everything is fine. However, since things “change,” a crisis can appear at any time. Therefore one must keep a sense of crisis and be vigilant even in a safe and peaceful environment.
Following the same logic, people in difficulty shouldn’t be discouraged. Since change is always in motion, a struggle can be followed by a positive outcome.
Second, it means we need an optimistic attitude to life. We have to be understanding and accepting of our fate and optimistic regarding individual experiences. When encountering setbacks, people should think about cause and effect, to find an effective way of improving their quality of life. In brief, to learn from the Book of Changes is to comprehend how one can excel in virtue, ability and wisdom.
Moreover, in the Book of Changes, the whole universe is considered as a single organism. Any tiny alteration can affect the whole body. Thus, every individual is closely related to all things and is interlinked with everyone else. Hence, people should cherish all existing things and treat their own life better.
Confucianism, based on the teachings of Confucius (551-479 BC) has had the most far-reaching impact on Chinese people.
During the Han dynasty (206 BC-220 AD), Confucianism became the Chinese emperors’ ruling doctrine and was an important tool of the imperial rule. The philosophy follows three important rules: respect for tradition (this is no exception for today’s ruling class), emphasis on education (by using the classics to educate people and stabilize the social order), and an altruistic society (an individual is to achieve self-value within the group).
Confucius and his followers are convinced that everyone should cultivate their own words and actions, to respect others like they want to be respected themselves: “Do not do to others what you would not like them to do to you.”
Filial piety is one of the greatest virtues of Confucianism and is established according to “five cardinal relationships:” between ruler and subjects, between father and son, between husband and wife, between elder and younger brother, and between friends.
In Confucianism the fact that “human nature is good” is embodied in the way we are with others. Personal behavior must be sincere and in good faith to engender a positive force. Humaneness is one of the basic virtues at the core of Confucianism, according to which everyone should act toward others with “human goodness.” But since goodness involves having relationships with others, people need to learn social norms. This is why Confucianism attaches great importance to education.
Once human goodness is affirmed, what is the best road to take in life? Choosing the right path requires knowledge and intelligence. Knowledge enables people to understand what is expected of them while wisdom enables them to change their mind, to make the right choices. This means having flexibility, having the courage to insist on principles such as benevolence and righteousness – to the point of sacrificing their lives if necessary.
Because of its humanism and emphasis on learning and self-cultivation, many Asian scholars believe that Confucianism can provide an ethical model for modern times.
Because of the expectations and pressure that Confucianism brings to an individual or society, when people are frustrated or society is unstable, many turn to Taoism for a solution. Do we use Taoism as an easy way out? Does inaction mean adopting a passive attitude? The answer is not as simple.
Tao means the “way,” the “path,” the “principle.” In the teachings of Lao Tse (6th century BC), all things are from the path and will eventually return to the path. The path represents the origin as well as the end of all things. It is not necessary to debate what the path is – we only need to understand that Tao is the source of all things, including humans. This concept solves the problem of nihilism.
How is this embodied in real life? The only way is through enlightenment. Tao is the sum of all parts: as a whole, all changes are relative and mutually restrained. Thus, people do not have to try to be smart and or try to accomplish anything on purpose.
Lao Tse’s inaction refers to unintentional actions, that is, everyone should do his share of the work without deliberate purpose. Zhuangzi (369-286 BC) went even further: “Flow with whatever may happen, and let your mind be free.” The key lies in the judgment as to when it is the moment to do something. This clearly requires wisdom, which can only be obtained through mental tranquility and emptiness.
When one understands this concept, one can easily resolve all kinds of emotions – in poverty, good or bad times, in fortune or misfortune, or even in life and death. Whatever the changes, they are in the Tao. The Tao is like the mother who embraces all things and we humans are her babies.
For the soft power of Chinese culture to play a role and provide a set of timeless values for the world, great efforts still need to be made. Scholars need to study the modern sense of these Chinese philosophy classics to adapt their meaning in today’s context. People have to play their part too, using the positive aspects of traditional culture to settle their body and mind. If this soft power can be fully unfolded, it will be China’s greatest contribution to the world.
*The author is a professor in the Department of Philosophy at the National University of Taiwan