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A History of China by Wolfram Eberhard

Lao Tz u pursues another path


Lao

Tz[)u]'s teaching is essentially an effort to bring man's life on earth into harmony with the life and law of the universe (Tao). This was also Confucius's purpose. But while Confucius set out to attain that purpose in a sort of primitive scientific way, by laying down a number of rules of human conduct, Lao Tz[)u] tries to attain his ideal by an intuitive, emotional method. Lao Tz[)u] is always described as a mystic, but perhaps this is not entirely appropriate; it must be borne in mind that in his time the Chinese language, spoken and written, still had great difficulties in the expression of ideas. In reading Lao Tz[)u]'s book we feel that he is trying to express something for which the language of his day was inadequate; and what he wanted to express belonged to the emotional, not the intellectual, side of the human character, so that any perfectly clear expression of it in words was entirely impossible. It must be borne in mind that the Chinese language lacks definite word categories like substantive, adjective, adverb, or verb; any word can be used now in one category and now in another, with a few exceptions; thus the understanding of a combination like "white horse" formed a difficult logical problem for the thinker of the fourth century B.C.: did it mean "white" plus "horse"? Or was "white horse" no longer a horse at all but something quite different?

Confucius's way of bringing human life into harmony with the life of the universe was

to be a process of assimilating Man as a social being, Man in his social environment, to Nature, and of so maintaining his activity within the bounds of the community. Lao Tz[)u] pursues another path, the path for those who feel disappointed with life in the community. A Taoist, as a follower of Lao Tz[)u] is called, withdraws from all social life, and carries out none of the rites and ceremonies which a man of the upper class should observe throughout the day. He lives in self-imposed seclusion, in an elaborate primitivity which is often described in moving terms that are almost convincing of actual "primitivity". Far from the city, surrounded by Nature, the Taoist lives his own life, together with a few friends and his servants, entirely according to his nature. His own nature, like everything else, represents for him a part of the Tao, and the task of the individual consists in the most complete adherence to the Tao that is conceivable, as far as possible performing no act that runs counter to the Tao. This is the main element of Lao Tz[)u]'s doctrine, the doctrine of _wu-wei_, "passive achievement".

Lao Tz[)u] seems to have thought that this doctrine could be applied to the life of the state. He assumed that an ideal life in society was possible if everyone followed his own nature entirely and no artificial restrictions were imposed. Thus he writes: "The more the people are forbidden to do this and that, the poorer will they be. The more sharp weapons the people possess, the more will darkness and bewilderment spread through the land. The more craft and cunning men have, the more useless and pernicious contraptions will they invent. The more laws and edicts are imposed, the more thieves and bandits there will be. 'If I work through Non-action,' says the Sage, 'the people will transform themselves.'"[1] Thus according to Lao Tz[)u], who takes the existence of a monarchy for granted, the ruler must treat his subjects as follows: "By emptying their hearts of desire and their minds of envy, and by filling their stomachs with what they need; by reducing their ambitions and by strengthening their bones and sinews; by striving to keep them without the knowledge of what is evil and without cravings. Thus are the crafty ones given no scope for tempting interference. For it is by Non-action that the Sage governs, and nothing is really left uncontrolled."[2]


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