And on the other hand...

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Saturday, March 31, 2012

Chicken and Egging It On

Another post for Rambling Taoists but you can read it here first, with illustrations.

I've been asked to shed some perspective on Taoism's deep roots in the Chinese mindset or worldview, because of my conviction that to really grasp the concepts in the philosophy and religion (something the Chinese don't distinguish the way we do), a minimal grounding in Chinese history, culture, art, language, and even current events, is useful, if not essential. Visiting China, witnessing change, even over two or three decades in a culture with 5,000 years of continuity, has helped me too. But since that is really a luxury, one I have been fortunate to indulge, sharing my experiences is all I can do.  Perhaps my reminiscences and musings will stimulate an interest to dig deeper, as those of Blofeld or Peck or Rand, all the old Chinese hands, have done for me.

As I think of this, I do wonder if it is Taoism that has helped me understand the Chinese, or is it the other way around?  (Assuming I actually understand either.) But looking back over my more than 45 years of sinophilia, even before I grappled with the notions of tao long outside a college class on comparative religion, I think it is China that has helped.  But it is a western sort of prejudice to try to figure out which came first,  General Tso's chicken or the thousand-year egg.  (In that case, definitely the egg.)

So how to discuss China's 5,000 years of history (quite unified in the Chinese view) to shed light for readers of this and the other blog?  Slowly, slowly, as my Chinese painting instructor would say.

Two examples of tao in culture, mundane not exotic, one as recent as this week, one ancient, came to my mind as I engaged in my early morning contemplation, (not meditation), a period between sleep and wakefulness, where things I have been thinking about seem to have a spontaneous clarity. The illustrations are Hong Kong politics and shoulder poles.  These are ways the Chinese live tao, not just talk about it.

Hong Kong Politics. If you have been watching, you know that the the third Chief Executive of Hong Kong, since the 1997 Handover of the colony from the British to the Chinese, was recently "elected" by a committee of twelve hundred delegates representing the HK Special Administrative Region of more than seven million people.  The victory of C.Y.  Leung was a surprise really, because the heir- apparent, the horse-faced Henry Tang, due to scandals worthy of U.S. presidential primary campaigns, lost his front-running status because of sexual and economic indiscretions. Whatever. Since 1997, the leader (usually a well-connected businessman) has always been someone expected to kowtow to the Central Committee, under the guise of a Basic Law that was negotiated through the late '80s by Margaret Thatcher and Deng Xiao Ping.  (Deng Xiao Ping was the PRC's head of state and party who succeeded Mao Zedong, and who is held responsible for China's not-too-long march to unparalleled economic revival since. He is remembered for his famous statement, very un-Maoist, "To get rich is glorious.")  Another curious slogan was used to prepare the way to the Handover: "One Country, Two Systems."  This was to assure that Hong Kong might continue as the world's best example of a free market economy under the protection of a Central Communist regime.  There was a thought that ultimately, by now, universal suffrage would be granted to the democracy-craving people of Hong Kong, (they didn't have any of it under the Brits, either) but the Committee of 1,200 suggests that that is far from ever happening (...maybe 2017).

"One Country, Two Systems." How very Chinese. The unity of tao (The One Party), expressed through socialist yin and capitalist yang.  And encompassing the wuxing (five "elements" of several other "separate autonomous" regions like Inner Mongolia, Tibet, Xinjiang (China's largely Islamic northwest) and...dare we anticipate?...the "renegade province" of Taiwan.  Because there is a pretty obvious trend to develop Shanghai as the new Hong Kong, I found amusing a sign on a Chinese freeway, apparently for an insurance company, illustrating the two cities, which seem to share a harbor, despite the fact that Shanghai is on the East Coast of China, and Hong Kong is in the South China Sea.  If you didn't know the two skylines, you would assume it was one big metropolis.  Needless to say, Shanghai somewhat overshadows Hong Kong. Shanghai is HUGE.
Hong Kong-Shanghai Waterfront?
Shoulder poles.  My husband worked as a hod carrier one college summer, so I asked him this morning, "Did any of you guys ever use shoulder poles?"  They didn't, because moving stuff around in the west is usually in a wheelbarrow or cart, pushed or pulled, or carried in two hands, the way I carry grocery bags.  But I see shoulder poles, biandan, an ancient tool, still used all the time in China. The shoulder pole puts the carrier in a slightly different position: you are moving things, balanced front to back (not side to side like a milkmaid's yoke) using forward momentum and easily negotiating a path (unlike the milkmaid's yoke). It is not pushing or pulling, it is flowing.  I have seen people using the pole to move buckets of pig slop in the country, sacks of live frogs on Hong Kong streets, bricks and cement on construction sites, and more suitcases than you could handle two-handed, and more efficiently than wheelies. The little woodcarrier with his bundles of sticks on either end of a shoulder pole is a common element in Chinese landscape painting. The person, the body, becomes the center point in a taiji, yang to the front, yin to the back, propelled forward by the essentially circular movement of the feet (qi).
Been doing this for centuries.
He carried luggage up 250 stairs.
Both of these examples, to me, illustrate the principles of yin and yang, the notion that things can be both on and off, that dynamic moving states of on-ing-ness and off-ing-ness (really, the whole point of the I Ching) are what distinguishes the Chinese way from the western.  We talk a lot of tao; do we actually experience it in an unconscious, everyday way as illustrated by Hong Kong politics or shoulder poles?


Brandon said...

Interesting. Wouldn't the free market capitalism be yin and the centrally planned economy of communism be yang, though? And I don't even want to know about the sacks of live frogs...

Also, do you think it is vital to understand Chinese culture to understand the Tao? After all, it is a universal "force" or whatever-it-is, not a Chinese one. Eh?

Kittie Howard said...

Great points, great questions. But politics is abstract; shoulder poles are concrete. Hmmm, gotta do some thinking. Love how you make me think.

baroness radon said...

I think it is very helpful to have a feel for Chinese culture to appreciate what is a very indigenous system. Even saying it is "a universal force" sounds way too Star Wars-ish. There are issues of cultural appropriation to consider. I would prefer interpretation by a Chinese master over a Hollywood director.

Yin and yang applied to the economic systems is probably a little markets seem more open and creative to me; a controlled economy seems dark and hidden, but the point is really the difference in dynamics. I think Deng Xiao Ping's expansion would be understood as yang; the recent global financial crisis is certainly yin, but applying the wuxing cycles (creative, destructive, etc. ) would probably be a better way to analyze, with the I Ching at hand; but that was really beyond the scope of my comments here. But very good point to consider for further discussion.

The frogs were on the way to a restaurant.

baroness radon said...


Excellent observation; Taoism is concrete and abstract; physical and spiritual. In the western political world, it is considered strange to hold contradictory opinions (one country, two systems). I suppose you could say we do that in the US, but how surprised we are when someone changes parties! You can't be a Democrat and a Republican.

Cym said...

Apologies for being such a long comment, but it is sort of a response to your previous post as well.*

Part 1

When I was a kid I studied Kung Fu for two years formally in a school. There is a big difference between learning Kung fu directly from a teacher, and learning from a book. In fact, whenever I encountered such people who claimed to "know" kung fu based solely on imitating movements from a book or video tape, it was always a joke, quite laughable, because when asked to demonstrate, they clearly didn't know kung fu, their technique was all wrong, sloppy, imprecise. They had been attempting to teach themselves, but had been making several mistakes, misinterpreting the instructions, and doing the practices wrong, but they had nobody to tell them that.

The point is you really can't learn kung fu from a book. You may use books and videos to SUPPLEMENT your studies, to learn more about its background history and philosophy, but without the actual practice, and having a skilled teacher to guide you through the practice, as much as you learn about the philosophy of kung fu, you will never really know kung fu until you learn and apply the actual practices of kung fu correctly with good technique and form.

How does this relate to Taoism?

Isn't Taoism the same way? It's not just a philosophy, it's also a practice. Not just a way of living, or a way of looking at life, but also includes a very specific set of exercises and techniques. Things like Taoist meditation. Chi Gung. Tai Chi. Taoist Internal Alchemy. Body and breath movements. As well as an understanding of both the theory and practice of Traditional Chinese Medicine.

Can a person really call themselves a Taoist by only embracing its philosophy, without actually knowing and applying Taoist practices, or knowing that they are doing them correctly?

I would say not. Or I would call such a person a complete novice, an absolute beginner, like the difference between a while belt and a black belt in martial arts. The last I checked white belts are not qualified to be teachers. And you don't get a black belt merely by acing the kung fu history and philosophy exam, you get it by demonstrating mastery of its techniques, by showing what you know, rather than telling.

My point is, while I agree with you that an understanding of Chinese history, culture, language, and art is helpful in gaining a deeper grasp of Taoism, (and actually I'm surprised anyone would have to be told that, you'd think a person would just naturally want to learn everthing there is to learn about it, unless their not a serious student, and only want to cherry pick what they like or agree with, and not master the entire subject) but isn't learning traditional Taoist practices even more essential to getting a deeper grasp of Taoism, than ONLY expanding your knowledge of its background history and philosophy? I know you baroness are not saying that, but I speak to those who are.

Cym said...

Part 2

Also, as someone who grew up in an atheist household, with absolutely no religious upbringing at all, I consider the division between religious and philosophical Taoism to be a false one as well (that Taoism is both philosophy AND religion). Actually, I think the primary difference between the two points of view, or the difference between "philosophical Taoists" and "Traditional Taoists", is that so-called "philosophical Taoists", don't merely reject what they consider to be the religious or mystical aspects of Taoism, but they also minimize the importance of practice, or don't even bother to learn it, and yet think they are qualified to teach.

In other words, so-called philosophical Taoism, is exactly that, all philosophy and no practice (or whatever practice there is it's like the learning kung fu from a book variety). Whereas religious Taoists, or simply Taoists, know that the philosophy and practice go hand in hand, that becoming a Taoist, requires learning both, and that book learning or even observation of nature on its own is not enough. Just like learning Kung fu from a book does not a Kung fu master maketh; more like a kung fu master poseur.

Learning the philosophy is a great place to start, but for those who think that's all there is or all that matters, their really missing the whole point. When you remove all the mystical elements and physical exercises, it is no longer Taoism; it is a sanitized version of Taoism, comparable to a "philosophical Christianity" with all references to God and the supernatural removed.

That is my opinion on the matter.

baroness radon said...

Thank you Cym, for your extensive and thoughtful response. Someday maybe we will be able to sit together in the moonlight (on Waikiki Beach?) and sip tea or a beer. (Although a mai tai is really nice under the banyan tree at the old Moana Hotel or even better at the New Otani...I have a serious craving to fulfill soon.) Your comment makes me feel like we already have.

In fact , Brandon, Kittie, Cym...everyone meet me there. The rum's on me.

Brandon said...

I guess my point was, to understand Taoism, you do need to understand Chinese culture, but to understand Tao itself?

baroness radon said...

@ Brandon -- That is a perfectly fair question, and my own feeling is that, insofar as Tao is a Chinese concept, to really understand it, you need to look at history and culture to see it through Chinese eyes. If not, you are bringing Western baggage to what you think it means, having it interpreted for you by other westerners (of widely varying credibility). I suppose what I'm saying is that the way to Tao is through Taoism or through a teacher with serious credentials. Please feel free to fire back.

Joy said...

I just left a comment over at "The Rambling Taoists" latest post on the philosophical/religious discussion. Basically, while doing a web search, I can find all sorts of divisions of Taoism. Isn't this just our tendency to analyze and subdivide everything in an attempt to understand it? (Another western trait?) The big question: why do we (in the West) try to divide the Tao, if the Chinese do not?

baroness radon said...

Aloha Joy, and thank you for visiting TAO 61.

Yes, it is a western trait to analyze and subdivide, to effectively "separate" concepts. One of my points in the "One Country, Two Systems" story was to illustrate how the Chinese can hold apparently contradictory notions at the same time. Even though this was very political, and I expected it to be more provocative and interesting to Trey than it apparently was, it is a perfect example. (And Westerners in Hong Kong seem more troubled by it than the Chinese.)

The Chinese are less "either/or", more "this and that and we'll see how it goes."** In the west, it is is a result of Platonic and Aristotelian philosophy and Judeo-Christian spiritual vision. (And later scientific inquiry.) These are separating worldviews; the West does not integrate, but divides to conquer.

I will no longer be providing posts at RT, although I will be reading the blog. I hope you will continue to engage with the authors,and I hope you might stop by here as well, although I write Tao more obliquely. (And as the other Tao 61 will evidence, I really love Chinese and Asian drama.)

**Ultimately the Chinese motherland seems to absorb everything into one anyway; even invading "foreign" dynasties like the Yuan and the Qing, were pretty much Hanified in the end. The real problem in dynastic downfall has usually been corruption and indolence.