Modern China and the Ancient Politics of Daoism
Original Chinese Language Text By: Fan Guangchun (樊光春)
(Translated by Adrian Chan-Wyles PhD)
Translator’s Note: For an old religion to be relevant in modern China, it must support the Socialist State and not stand in opposition to it. It is only when religion stands in opposition to progressive Socialism, that it becomes a class enemy. As far as Marxist-Engelism is concerned, theistic religion must not hold any form of State power due to its regressive theology. This is a point that Lenin recognised (‘religion is a private matter’), and which Stalin (and Mao) both accepted. Indeed, in its 1954 ‘Constitution’, Communist China guaranteed all its citizens the right to profess (or not profess) a religion, providing (mirroring Article 52 of the Soviet Constitution) that All religions remain independent of the State, and All schools independent of religion. According to this ‘Soviet’ definition, it is the Socialist State (and its functionaries) that are ‘atheistic’, and not necessarily the majority of the ordinary people living within that State. In this regard, religion is not to be directly attacked (where it supports the Socialist State), but allowed to continue within a secular and progressive State, whereby many of its feudalistic and pre-modern assumptions and superstitions will be shown to be superfluous within the framework of progressive Socialist reform and development. Marx and Engels, of course, critiqued the relevant religion in the West, namely that of the Judeo-Christian tradition, and it is debatable whether such a critique was ever intended to be literally applied to religious, spiritual and philosophical traditions that developed in China outside of historical Judeo-Christian influence. Confucianism, for instance, is a philosophy concerned more with social order and good behaviour than the worship pf gods, and Buddhism is a non-theistic, perceptual science (the dialectics of which Marx and Engels held in high regard), but what of Daoism? At its core, Daoism has a well-established foundation of medical knowledge that has been historically used to prevent illness and extend life-spans. As Daoism has its roots in China’s ancient past, it does possess certain theistic, or to be more exact ‘polytheistic’ tendencies, but it is its ‘naturalistic’ philosophy that remains its central and defining core. Religions (even theistic ones) can be accommodated within a Socialist or Communist State, despite a mistaken view amongst some leftists that all religion must be immediately wiped-out. It is the unfolding of Socialist science that will evolve religiously-minded individuals into modern Socialist beings, and not the forcible eradication of religious beliefs. On the other hand, should a religious movement take-up arms against a Socialist State, then that religion immediately transforms itself into a bourgeois class enemy of the people. Two examples of this divisive phenomena in modern China can be seen in the Pro-Tibetan Movement and the Falun Gong – both of which represent Western capitalist interests in China, and strive to bring-down the Socialist State. Daoism, however, is a unique ‘Chinese philosophy’ that has proven to be central to much, if not all, significant events throughout Chinese history. Today, all authentic Daoists in China are loyal to the Socialist State whilst propagating their particular philosophical path, and this translated article gives a ‘modern’ Chinese Daoist view of the world.
Do Daoists possess political beliefs? This question seems a little odd to contemporary Chinese ears, as we are taught from childhood that the fundamental premise for political belief is always linked to Communist theory and atheism, whilst religion is a product of idealism and feudal superstition. It has been further implied that these two systems are mutually exclusive and cannot be integrated in any meaningful way. However, this apparent dichotomy has come into question over the years, particularly when viewed in the light of recorded Daoist history, and the political dimension that Daoism undoubtedly possesses. When I asked an old Daoist master whether Daoism possesses political beliefs, he clearly answered ‘yes’. What is Daoist politics? He answered that the Daoist political concepts are those linked to Chapter 80 of the Dao De Jing (道德经), namely that of a ‘small country with a limited population’ (小国寡民 – Xiao Guo Gua Min), and the principle of ‘ruling through non-action’ (无为而治 – Wu Wei Er Zhi), also found throughout the Dao De Jing (Chapters 2, 3, 11, 29, 37, 43, 47, 48, 63, and 64 respectively). Therefore, Daoist politics can be summarised as follows:
1) The basic goals of national politics are to provide the people with ‘sufficient food, adequate clothing, secure homes, and a general sense of collective well-being’ (DDJ: Chapter 80). In modern language, this means ensuring the efficient economic development of the entire country so that everyone can benefit.
2) The authorities must ‘govern the country through loving the people’ (爱民治国 – Ai Min Zhi Guo) [DDJ: Chapter 10], just as the ‘sages have no thoughts or feelings of their own, but make the thoughts and feelings of the people their own’ (人无常心，以百姓心为心 – Sheng Ren Wu Chang Xin – Yi Bai Xing Xin Wei Xin) [DDJ: Chapter 49]. In this way, the people are freed of excessive desire and anxiety. (With an all-embracing mind, and an expansive ‘intention’ [意 – Yi], the sages serve the people.)
3) Government officials who are self-controlled and frugal, are respected because they ‘avoid all extremes, all excesses, and all extravagances’ (去甚、去奢、去泰 – Qu Shen Qu She Qu Tai) [DDJ: Chapter 29]. Furthermore, such people ‘do not value rare or expensive goods’ (不贵难得之货 – Bu Gui Nan De Zhi Huo) [DDJ: Chapter 3], and instead reject extravagance and excess, preferring a simple existence involving little or no wastage – what today might be considered a ‘low carbon’ emission lifestyle.
4) Adhere to the practices of ‘compassion, frugality, and not daring to strive (to be first in the world)’ (慈、俭、不争 – Ci Jian Bu Zheng) [DDJ: Chapter 67], as the foundation for social interaction.
5) Continuously strive for peace, and never strive for war. Therefore, it is said ‘weapons of war are not auspicious instruments, and those of superior character should avoid gathering and using such implements, unless there is no other recourse’ (兵者不祥之器，非君子之器，不得已而用之。 - Bing Zhe Bu Xiang Zhi Qi Fei Jun Zi Zhi Qi Bu De Yi Er Yong Zhi) [DDJ: Chapter 31].
6) As the ‘Dao is nothing other than the lawful unfolding of nature’ (道法自然 – Dao Fa Zi Ran) [DDJ: Chapter 25], this perhaps correlates with the modern concept of the ‘enlightened use of ecology’ (生态文明 – Sheng Tai Wen Ming)
Laozi explained the Dao of politics to his students in the Daoist text entitled ‘Grand Peace Classic’ (太平经 – Tai Ping Jing) which elaborates on the political principles found in Laozi’s ‘Way Virtue Classic’ (道德经 – Dao De Jing), as a means to suggest various reforms designed to achieve the ‘Grand Peace’ here and now, relevant to the society of the time within which it was wrote. This process began during the 1st century CE, through the activities of the Daoist Gan Zhongke (甘忠可), who presented the ‘Grand Peace Classic’ to the Han Court. The emperor’s attention, however, was diverted from listening to Gan Zhongke because of court intrigue, and he was persuaded by scheming officials that Gan Zhongke was planning to ‘commit treason’, and so had him imprisoned (and eventually murdered) for his efforts. Later, a group of Daoist priests (the disciples of Gan Zhongke) continued to carefully propagate ‘Taiping’ political approaches at Court, in the hope that a Daoist influence could be established in the future. This accumulated effort eventually gained fruition, as the 13th Western Han Emperor Aidi (哀帝) finally converted to Daoism. This was achieved by court officials sympathetic to Daoism, allowing these Daoist priests to attend to the emperor whilst treating his illnesses (during which times they discussed and explained ‘Taiping’ concepts to him). However, despite the emperor’s whole-hearted support for Daoism and the politics of the ‘Grand Peace’, the more conservative elements of the Han nobility remain sceptical about this approach, and ensured – through court intrigues – that none of the policies could be enacted in reality. Therefore, despite the success of convincing the emperor, the time was not yet right for the application of ‘Taiping’ philosophy, with regard to the governing of the State.
Daoism did not disappear at this time during the late Western Han Dynasty, but instead continued to grow and develop the ideas of the ‘Taiping’ in the form of the ‘Five Pecks of Rice’ (五斗米 – Wu Duo Mi) movement, and the three major sects (三大教派 – San Da Jiao Pai), all of which were developed in remote areas, away from large populated areas (and official scrutiny). The Taiping Movement held aloft the banner of the ‘Taiping Classic’, and rallied the (Daoist practising) farmers of North China, in an armed uprising that attempted to cease control of the central government. As fate decreed, this revolutionary action, despite some early successes, ultimately ended in defeat. However, Zhang Lu (张鲁) and his Five Pecks of Rice Movement did manage to establish an independent ‘Taiping’ Daoist State in the area of Southern Shaanxi and Northern Sichuan. He implemented the people’s direct self-government, in a system that had no fixed or careerist ‘officials’. Instead, the people were trained to be self-sufficient and take care of their own official and personal needs (without recourse to consulting a hierarchy). This included becoming proficient in demographics and the application of a fair system of taxation used to benefit the entirety of society – and not just the nobility. This new Daoist system advocated economic self-sufficiency, with everything being produced within this State because there was a communal need for it. This involved sharing responsibility for the production of goods, and the fair distribution of those goods being the norm. The draconian rule of law was replaced by the practice of enlightened Daoist Virtue (道德 – Dao De) which involved the abolition of the death penalty. The fundamental characteristics of these ‘Taiping’ State where rule by ‘virtue’ (德 – De), ‘sincere integrity’ (诚信 - Cheng Xin), ‘natural compliance’ (守规 – Shou Gui), ‘equality of the people’ (人人平等 – Ren Ren Ping Deng), and ‘egalitarianism’ (平均主义 – Ping Jun Zhu Yi). This experimental Daoist State lasted for thirty years, before being destroyed by the forces of Cao Cao (曹操). The great leader – Chairman Mao – twice spoke highly of the ‘Five Pecks of Rice’ movement and its experimentation with a natural form of communisation, at the Central Workers Conference. In fact, this was the basis behind China’s experimentation with the people’s commune system, (although, of course, this turned-out not to be effective in the long run).
This Daoist approach appears to have transcended political elites and vested interest groups (a facet of modern Chinese society), but in reality remained a type of advanced and progressive consumption politics. After-all, Daoism was then very much a religious movement with religious structures, that were probably not designed to successfully run a country in the long-term. In any case, Daoism has subsequently undergone a profound transformation since those early days, where the emphasis switched to the philosophy of Laozi’s ‘Three Lives’ (三生 – San Sheng) thinking – namely ‘life force’ (生命 – Sheng Ming), ‘Life Attitude’ (生态 – Sheng Tai) [often translated as sustainable ‘ecology’, or acting in accordance (or balance) with nature], and ‘Supporting Life’ (养生 – Yang Sheng) [that is following physical and psychological practises that continuously ‘rejuvenate’ the life force and other essential substances] as a means to cultivate and achieve Spiritual Immortality (神仙 – Shen Xian).
Laozi’s political ideals, as expressed through his Daoist teachings, appear to possess an emotional appeal that manifests in society generation after generation. Generally speaking, there are two ways in which Daoist political ideals are expressed as:
a) Ten directions self-cultivation forest tradition (十方丛林 – Shi Fang Cong Lin) sees Daoist temples scattered throughout China, not far from important political and cultural centres. This allowed Daoist priests to exercise (or not) influence over the non-Daoist political system, should circumstances permit.
b) A highly developed Daoist practitioner has developed an influence in the world like that of a ‘Prime Minister’ but one resides deep in the remote hills, far away from society (山中宰相 – Shan Zhong Zai Xiang), and who possesses the appropriate power of virtue to ‘issue a single word that stops all killing’ (一言止杀 – Yi Yan Zhi Sha).
Example ‘a’ was used extensively by the ‘Taiping’ movement and the Five Pecks of Rice school. The idea was that by close association with those in society, the Taiping ideas could be slowly but surely transmitted, and therefore effect the political direction of society. However, Daoist organisation on the ground were limited to the administration of the Daoist temples as religious institutions, a form of organisation that could not easily be transplanted into the non-Daoist (Confucian) political structures, or indeed exercise very much influence over the life of the laity. Instead, the Taiping political agenda remained limited to such aspirations as ‘isolated self-cultivation to perfect (mind) and body’ (独善其身 – Du Shan Qi Shen), whilst ignoring such established ideals as ‘harmoniously uniting all beings in the world’ (世界大同 – Shi Jie Da Tong). Needless to say, experimentation in Taiping governance remained limited to Daoist ideals, as the Daoist system of government correlated the strength of personal inner virtue (of the leader), with political stability in the outer world. If the inner virtue was ‘weak’, then the structures of outer government would also be ‘weak’ and calamity would surely follow. This is why such accomplished Daoists as Tao Hongjing (陶弘景) and Qiu Chuji (丘处机) advocated the practice of quiet self-cultivation, but were willing to take a certain type of ‘non-direct (or ‘non-conflicting’) action in times of social upheaval (or natural calamity), as a means to save the country’ (曲线救国 – Qiu Xian Jiu Guo). This is in effect the use of indirect, subtle, constant, but otherwise often difficult to discern strategies and tactics in the physical world, designed to solve a myriad of problems. In military affairs, such an approach may be likened to the practice of guerrilla warfare, where small numbers of soldiers avoid direct contact with the enemy, but use quietness and subterfuge to successfully circle around points of strength, and inflict relatively small defeats here and there, until the enemy is permanently weakened through attrition. In recent times, this approach was successfully employed during the Second Sino-Japanese War (1937-45), with films being made about its ingenuity and resourcefulness against a materially superior enemy. (As found within the internal martial art of Taijiquan, this is the use of a ‘rounded’ technique that never directly conflicts with ‘linear’ strength, but undermines its power by constantly outmanoeuvring, or out-flanking it - Translator). In fact, this type of approach has been used by the Chinese people for centuries and its influence can be seen during the end of the Qing Dynasty and the revolutionary action pursued by Daoist Master Gong Haoren (龚皓然) in the Baoji area of Shaanxi province, as well as during the Anti-Japanese War (where Daoists treated ill and wounded Chinese soldiers using acupuncture and magical spells, calling upon the spirit of the ‘Big Dipper’ [天罡 – Tian Gang] star constellation), and the Civil War. Later, after the founding of New China, this same Daoist approach was adjusted and modified for use during the period of peaceful reconstruction of the country. This history demonstrates without a doubt that those who followed Daoism whole-heartedly supported the patriotic cause of China throughout its many wars, trials and tribulations. It further demonstrates that the Daoist approach to life (and politics) is both honest and respectable. This short list of Daoist activities offers concrete examples of how the Daoist religion does indeed possess a clear political aspect, does it not? The Daoist authorities in China today emphasise ‘love of country and love of religion’ (爱国爱教 – Ai Guo Ai Jiao). This approach of conviction unites the preservation of the Socialist State with the preservation of the Daoist religion and philosophy. Daoists loving their religion is strictly a faith-based religious attribute, but Daoists loving China is strictly an important political belief and exercise of genuine patriotism. Therefore, it may be stated that the ‘conviction’ that values the Daoist tradition, is exactly the same ‘conviction’ that manifests in the love of country – in essence the two attributes are not different, despite religion and politics being two very different subjects. In other words, a common ground that unites old religion and progressive politics can be found in the attitudes of ‘belief’ and ‘support’.
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©opyright: Adrian Chan-Wyles (ShiDaDao) 2016.
Original Chinese Source Language Text: http://mt.sohu.com/20151015/n423324631.shtml