Wu-wei

Jonathan Barnes

  • The World of Thought in Ancient China by Benjamin Schwartz
    Harvard, 490 pp, £23.50, January 1986, ISBN 0 674 96190 0

In 1045 BC the Mandate of Heaven passed from the Shang to the Chou dynasty, and the sun rose on an age of gold. The tao prevailed in the land: the right path was taken, men were upright and amiable and rich, things went the way things ought to go. So at least thought Confucius five hundred years later. Finding his Utopia in the past, he claimed not to innovate but to transmit an ancient learning: in order to return to the tao, China need only recover the wisdom of the age of Chou.

Nor was the wisdom esoteric. There is a right way for the world, the tao. The way is marked by li: by rites and rituals, by rules of etiquette and propriety, of politeness and decorum, by good manners. These li must be sedulously observed. But rule-following is not enough, for li cannot cover every aspect of life, and there are areas in which a man must rely on ‘righteousness’, or i, and judge for himself what is ‘appropriate’. Moreover, the li must be observed in the right moral spirit, so that outward li expresses inward jen. Thus, after a bereavement, a sage ‘wears garments of mourning, walks with a rush cane, lives in a hovel, eats boiled rice, uses firewood for a chair and a stone for a pillow; for that is how a noble man expresses, with beauty and appropriateness, his grief and his sorrow’. Li without jen are empty gestures: jen without li is vulgar and formless. Yet despite the emphasis on inward virtue, it is the prominence given to li and to the requirements of formal courtesy which now seems most arresting. A later Confucian professed that ‘by li Heaven and Earth unite, by li the sun and the moon are bright ... by li all things prosper.’

The tao is not narrowly ethical in its content. Learning matters (’I have never tired of learning,’ said Confucius, ‘nor of teaching others what I have learned’), and music is an indispensable accompaniment along the way. Again, although Confucius can find joy in ‘poor food, water to drink, and my arm for a pillow’, yet ‘when the tao prevails in the country, you should count it a disgrace to be poor or obscure.’ The tao will, as Surtees put it, fill the chinks with cheese. Nor is the tao a private driveway: it is the public high-road for social and political life. For it is in the family that jen must be acquired and li learned (‘are not filial duty and brotherly love the bases of jen?’). And the Confucian sage hopes that in the end his wisdom will extend its influence throughout the whole of China: for ‘if the king himself is upright, all must go well.’ His political advice, unlike that of most philosophical counsellors, is neither idealistic nor totalitarian. The Confucian ruler will have a tough army and a vigorous police force, but he will interfere as little as possible with the lives of his subjects. ‘I hated Confucius from the time I was eight,’ confessed Mao Tse-tung.

Confucius had little success in his lifetime, and his immediate successors lacked his stature. Other schools of thought emerged. Mo-Tzu, in many ways the most intriguing of the early Chinese thinkers, urged a more active benevolence. Righteousness, i, consists in doing good, not in being good: let sages think less of their inner states and more of their outward actions; let them love all mankind and forget their families; let them cultivate logic and science and technology. Lao-tzu’s version of Taoism took a contrary course: ‘the sage is not benevolent – he treats the people like straw dogs.’ He counselled a life of wu-wei, of acceptance and passivity, and urged a return to primitivism and a rejection of the spurious benefits of civilisation. To this regressive morality he added a dash of mysticism, talking of the tao as a nameless and incomprehensible Something underlying the world of experience.

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