Culture and counter-culture
An existing literary culture imposes barriers to the development of new literary cultures, but barriers fail to some extent, sooner or later. Reaction occurs: a revolutionary text is written, some readers become its fans, and a counterculture arises to challenge for cult followers. A counterculture is a barrier to the formation of further countercultures, but this barrier also fails in time, so further reactions occur, more revolutionary texts are produced and read and believed. Multicultural societies emerge naturally in this way, though the addition of texts may be slowed or stopped for long periods of time by censorship, intolerance, illiteracy or catastrophe.
In the European case, the traditional heroic culture (illustrated in Hesiod) was countered by an academic one (example Plato), a historical one (Alexandrian Homer), imperialist ones (Plutarch, Virgil), and a religious one (Paul). In the Chinese case, as in many others world-wide, the early cultural record is less clear due to obliteration of early historical documents. The basic texts of Xia and Shang times, whatever they may have been, were destroyed along with most Zhou records during Emperor Qin's purge, which included not only destruction of texts but the slaughter of "intellectuals" capable of restoring the old texts.
As a result, documents of the Confucian counterculture, as it existed in the Zhou era, do not survive today. Confucius is heard today only in echoes in later literature, such as the Anelects, collected or reconstructed during the Han dynasty. The literary record of Taoist counterculture in China is similarly problematic. The Tao Te Ching (aka Daodejing) is a late classical collection that appears to most recent western scholars to have been assembled of old fragments or imitations of old fragments, though eastern legends surrounding the text assert it to be the work of one Laozi ("old master"), an individual who was a contemporary of Confucius.
Laozi is first attested in about 100 BCE by the Han historian Sima Qian. There is little scholarly evidence for the existence of Laozi's book prior to about 150 BCE. The lack of early Taoist records may mean that the Tao did not arise at the same time as Confucianism, or it may mean that records of the Tao were destroyed in Qin's cultural revolution.
Because so little is known of the textual history of Confucianist and Taoist literature, it is difficult to draw many safe conclusions. What can be surmised of the Analects and the Tao is that the two are literary rivals, with the Tao persistently on the attack against Confucian ideas, suggesting that the Tao is the more recent text, composed at a time when Confucius must have been in vogue.
Taoism interposes over Confucianism a system of transcendence. In the views ascribed to Confucius in Analects, the supreme power of all belongs to Heaven (t'ien), and so to assure cosmic harmony it is the duty of the Confucian ruler and all human beings to know, accept and appease the will of Heaven. The Tao, however, contradicts this traditional notion by saying there is Something which is greater than Heaven, Something outside of Heaven and earth, Something that perhaps could have created Heaven and earth:
There is a thing somehow older
The relation of the Tao to Confucian Heaven is strikingly reminiscent of the Near Eastern revolution that perhaps was occurring at about the same time. Where ancient Babylonian literature deified the stars, Confucian literature deified Heaven itself. These cultures or their predecessors may have originated from cosmic disasters which were to be prevented from recurring if possible by attending to the sky. After the captivity in Babylon, when Ezra gathered the scriptures for the second temple in about 450 BCE, Jewish counterculture then introduced a transcendent Almighty whose name could not be spoken, one standing mysteriously outside and beyond the heavens. Believers claimed that in the beginning, this deity created heaven and earth – a revisionist idea that must have seemed troubling to Babylonian star worshipers. The Tao is strikingly similar to Ezra's case, in that it posits a supernatural entity, which can scarcely be named or spoken about, existing beyond Heaven, and controlling not only everything below the sky but also everything else.
Non-action: Wu wei
Traditional Confucians model their behavior on Heaven, and this is expressed not only in rites but also in performance of quasi-sacred duties. Taoists, however, model behavior on the Tao, which is largely inexpressible, and so inaction (wu wei) is the ideal. One should do nothing, be content (XXXIII, XLIV) and avoid desires.
The submissive and the weak are praised, often because they outlast the brave and the strong. Taoist communities thus support slackers like Shan T'ao (Damrosch A1086-1089), but the Tao prescribes wu wei even for rulers. A non-aggressive leader will survive: "because he dies not contend, no one in the empire is is in position to contend with him" (XXII).
Some chapters in the Tao describe the emperor as ceremonial child figurehead whose role is to maintain the fertility of the land. The leader's job is to fill the bellies and not the minds of the subjects. (We will view such a court in detail in the reading for Lesson 19, Tale of Genji. )
As in Buddhism, militarism is seen as counter-productive:
It's best to lie low: the leader's administration should not be famous in an way. Roll the cart in the rut of old cart paths to avoid leaving tracks.
The idea that the emperor should be a humble servant of the people (VII, LXVI) has led to the identification of the Tao as a source text on minimalist government and political freedoms.
Form and language
What is outside the observed physical universe is also beyond the bounds of ordinary language, so the Tao is "nameless" (XXXII, XLI) or beyond the power of words to name clearly.
In the beginning, there was a nameless creation (wu ming) then a named creation of heaven and earth, and finally the generation of "the myriad creatures." The relationships among these creations are not clearly articulated. The state of creation prior to heaven and earth is a mystery that can be experienced by the sage who is free from desires.
The form and language of the Tao appear designed to provoke a sense of mystery. If not anti-literary, the text admixes poetry and prose with a result that is hard to classify in conventional literary terms. The division into two books and 81 numbered "chapters" does not impose a clear logical order. In diction, the text favors pronouns over nouns and sometimes the pronoun references are uncertain (as in the use of "its" in Tao 1 quoted above). Verbs tend to be non-descript or passive in form. There is no disclosure of personal or social context in which the language occurs or is to be imagined.
The Tao is fond of paradox and inversion of commonly held thoughts. Instead of the strongest surviving, only the weak survive (43/LXXVIII). Instead of male dominance, "the female always gets the better of the male" (24/LXI). Instead of fostering wisdom or education, "Exterminate the sage; discard the wise" (63/XIX). This is the language of a counter-culture, revolutionary at the level of the verse or sentence, reversing a tired idea or cliché to see what happens when its contrary is expressed. In many cases the opposite of a received truth appears to be true, either because the received truth was wrong or because that truth and its opposite both are right. "Reversal is the movement of the way" (4/XL).
Cults are based in brain programming formed through repetition of words, so counter-cults attack the programming with disruptive contradictions. "What one calls right, the other calls wrong; what one calls wrong the other calls right" (Zhuangzi, in Damrosch A1073). The revolutionary contradiction attempts to supersede, making the old thought old, uncomfortable, deficient, no longer complete. "The morning mushroom knows nothing of twilight and dawn; the summer cicada knows nothing of spring and fall" (Zhuangzi, in Damrosch A1070). Skepticism, imagination, creativity may be promoted as the new virtues, in place of piety, loyalty, and conformism.
The counterculture has a shot to succeed if, as Zhuangzi asserts, everything has both "that" and "this"--the truth being larger than any particular statement about it. Small mindedness is vulnerable to enlightenment; if new circumstances arise, old ways of thought may be useless. A gourd too big to be used as a gourd may be useful as a boat; a tree too crooked to be cut into sawlogs may make an ideal shade tree (Zhuangzi, in Damrosch A1071).
The revolution will not seize power, however, if its contradictions are false or less practical than the words they attack. If the war of words results in relativism--where nothing seems to be true or false, where all books lose their authority--it may undermine all culture and leave confusion, and perhaps this is what happened in Taoism historically. Its texts often disparage not only Confucius but all sages, and all received notions of right and wrong. "If we regard a thing as right because there is a certain rightness to it, then among the ten thousand things there are none that are not right" (Zhuangzi in Damrosch A1082). In Master Zhuang even books cannot teach what is most needful to learn:
The Way is in control, so one must humbly submit to it, but if its message is hard to understand, its followers will withdraw and seclude themselves in a monastery or school which does not threaten the world at large. Where Confucianism directs performance of socially prescribed duties and rituals, the Tao prescribes Wu wei, which is variously interpreted as inaction, natural action (as opposed to artificial), spontaneous action, simplicity or going with the flow. "The utmost doing is Doing Nothing" (The Book of Leizi in Damrosch A1084). The disengagement of the Tao has made it over the centuries the source of great attraction to those have dropped out or must leave the active life.
Cult rivalries arise at the time of publication, but they can continue in the telling of histories long afterward. We may wonder whether the idea of the nameless transcendent Creator first arose in China or in the Near East? Was this idea first popularized by Laozi or by Ezra? If Laozi actually lived in the sixth century BCE, as Chinese traditions claim, and if he wrote the Tao Te Ching, then perhaps the modern world's monotheisms began in China. And if Laozi was driven out of China through the western gate, as Chinese legend also says, then maybe this revolutionary Chinese idea traveled the silk road to Babylon 700 years before Marco Polo brought it back to a receptive Kublai Kahn. Or maybe Laozi traveled to India and taught the Tao there, as another legend says.
However, if Genesis was written by Moses, as Jewish traditions claim, then maybe the beginning was in the Near East. Maybe Moses adapted it from King Tut's dad Akenaten, as Freud contended in Moses and Monotheism. From the fragmentary literary record remaining from ancient times, good answers to these questions are simply not available.
We must be careful not to read ancient history in the same way that we read modern history or even medieval history. Between us and the ancient world lies an abyss (a catastrophe of the 6th century CE) similar to the gap that existed in ancient times when people looked back and tried to see the great events and lives of the Bronze Age. Because ancient records are so fragment and ambiguous, all that is said about the ancient world tends to be an imaginative effort.
To understand ancient literature, we must also avoid our habitual way of reading texts as though they are productions of solo authors or coordinated authorship teams. There were no printing presses or copyright laws in ancient times. Ancient literature is based for the most part on manuscript technology; because manuscripts decay and must be copied by hand, copy errors, edits and revisions are inherent in the literary transmission process. I do not believe that any ancient manuscript-based text can be proved to be the identical text that was composed by the original author. When we read "Homer," there may well be words and phrases in the text that date from the time of the Trojan War, but obviously there are also revisions almost a thousand years later, from the Ptolemaic period.
Similar issues may exist in all other texts of extreme antiquity. The Tao Te Ching did not become an officially sanctioned "classic" of the Chinese civil service system until the Tang dynasty, when indeed the emperors began tracing their ancestry to Laozi.
Lesson Summary: Literature not only enables cults but overthrows them with revolutionary counter-texts. Taoist literature attacks Confucianism and much more broadly the ways of all those who seek material gain or social rank.
1. Fragmentation of culture: Is the fragmentation of culture a legitimate cause for social concern? Is the unlike-mindedness produced by unfettered production of literature unhealthy for the society as a whole? Or are concerns of this sort, and attempts to censor texts and speech, nothing more than reactionary efforts of the old guard to hang on to as much library shelf space as possible?
In Taoism vs. Confucianism one belief system attacks another: Is Taoism subversive; could a case be made that Taoism should be exiled from China? Heaven continues to exist in Taoism, but it is the slave of the Tao. In the Taoist scheme of belief, when Confucians or others try to influence Heaven through rites and ethical actions, heaven pays no attention to them. Heaven obeys only to the Tao. It is the Tao, not heaven that must be placated.
2. Paradox and contradiction: What contradictions can you make?
3. Clash of Sages. In Chinese legends, my sage meets your sage and outwits him. (Your sect has a different version of the story in which your sage wins.) According to Ch'ien, the first Chinese historian, Confucius visited Lo-yang in order to ask Laozi's opinion about the rites. Laozi is reported to have thrashed Confucius' ideas and demeanor:
The men about whom you talk are dead, and their bones are moldered to dust; only their words are left. Moreover, when the superior man gets his opportunity, he mounts aloft; but when the time is against him, he is carried along by the force of circumstances. I have heard that a good merchant, though he have rich treasures safely stored, appears as if he were poor; and that the superior man, though his virtue be complete, is yet to outward seeming stupid. Put away your proud air and many desires, your insinuating habit and wild will. They are of no advantage to you; this is all I have to tell you.
According to the history Confucius later spoke to his disciples about Laozi with slightly more refined words: I know how birds can fly, fishes swim, and animals run. But the runner may be snared, the swimmer hooked, and the flyer shot by the arrow. But there is the dragon: I cannot tell how he mounts on the wind through the clouds, and rises to heaven. Today I have seen Lao-tzu, and can only compare him to the dragon. This appears to mock Laozi's self-righteousness.
4. Internet sources:
Daoism texts in translation
The Chinese dark ages:
5. Engagement and withdrawal: how does Taoist withdrawal, as illustrated in the perspectives of today's readings, compare and contrast to the disengagements of Buddhism? And how do these compare and contrast with the withdrawals from court to the country in Ramayana or Sakuntala?
6. Taoism and Christianity. How are these countercultures similar and different?
7. Chinese geography: how does the geography and climate of China influence its early literature and culture?
As in Mesopotamia, Egypt, the Indus and the Ganges regions, Chinese civilization is anciently premised on a fertile river area where agriculture flourished. This was the loess land of the Yellow River and Wei River valleys. These productive areas had to be organized, regulated, and defended against nomadic peoples or surrounding arid areas. The Great Wall of China, originally constructed by the First Emperor, roughly follows an Isohyet Line where rainfall to to the east is above 15 inches per year and rainfall to the west is below that amount.
Floods and drought were and are continuous problems in this region, with one or the other disaster occurring almost every year throughout China's dynastic history. See Ray Huang, China: A Macro History (Armonk: East Gate, 1990), 22.
Laozi, legenday author the the Tao (Ming dynasty illustration, rstored0.
People of the world who value the Way all turn to books" (Zhuangzi, The Way to Heaven)
"My taste for independence was aggravated by my reading of Chuangzi and Laozi (Xi Kang, Letter to Shn T'ao)
Left: Akhenaten and wife Nerfertiti and their children, thought to have presided over the world's first pandemic of influenza. This pig-related disease may have led to the prohibition against pork among the Hebrews and later derived sects.
Left: the Great Wall in the time of Qin.