Chinese Wisdom (I)

Chinese Wisdom (I)

Written by Alfonso Elizondo


According to the brilliant French philosopher and sinologist François Jullien, China followed a way of thinking that was very different from that of Greece and Europe. China promotes wisdom and Greece promotes a philosophy which tries to arrive at truth and justice through ignorance. When China refers to the matter of the ‘good life’, it is not thought of in terms of happiness, which it is a concept that is not even known. What the Chinese think about is ‘nurturing life’. They try to get to what is the most basic and essential, to the roots where there is no difference between body and spirit. Nor do they talk about standards of living, because everything is part of the same whole that could be called ‘organic vitality’.


The Chinese try to nurture the vital principle (qi) and avoid the obstructions that are the origin of disease. We must free ourselves from worrying about life which ought not to be forced or controlled, since it is a universal and spontaneous process. They believe that we do not have a body, but a process of structured energy. Speaking of this body,  ‘xing’ would be its actual form, ‘ti’ the embodied self, ‘qi’ the open self and ‘shen’ the spirit mind.


All the nuances of the same corporeal reality form a unitary concept that is organic and functional. For the Chinese ‘long life’ is linked to the ‘good life’. Living is like a process of maturation in which one has to direct energy appropriately, without dispersing or wasting it and the Greco-European notion of ‘happiness’ is not found in Chinese wisdom, where thinkers seek to develop their own abilities without any particular goal. The unintended result is the one that counts, and so Jullien points out the importance of these Chinese concepts in today’s globalized world, concepts such as hygiene, health, diet, natural products and the facilitation of processes without forcing them.


It is about moving towards a self-regulated dynamic balance which is harmony. Zhuangzi says that ‘we must live relaxed and without losing our center of balance.’ According to the Chinese, it requires not intellectual, but practical work to shed light on obstructions and tensions of all kinds. There is an analogy with psychoanalysis where all affects and emotional blocks are eliminated. According to the Chinese sages there is no contrast between nature and culture as posed by the Greeks and Europeans.


Chinese thinking is basically strategic. In China a strategy is effective in two cases: as a concomitant of morality or as exercise of power. The first option is the one defended by the tradition of the ‘realists’ to which Mencius belongs; he was the one who provided Jullien with the foundations of his ideas. And the second option is that of the mistakenly-called ‘legists’, since they do not defend respect for the law, but submission to the authority of power.


For the Chinese there is always the concept of efficacy or strategy with a series of elements arising from the idea of ​​achieving transformation with indirect actions (wu wei). There is a continuous process regulated by a logic whose coherence has to be discovered. One should not force or control, but follow the natural tendency of things and exploit their potential.


In Chinese culture there is no decision, no working out, no choosing, only adaptation to the natural course of things of which the human being is a part. The basic ideas of Chinese strategy are the notions of ‘potential’ and ‘configuration’. This involves looking for the potential energy in each situation to obtain much effect with little effort, taking only the best and facilitating what is favorable to one’s own benefit. There is no established plan because what is required is to be alert to what is happening.


The Chinese allow themselves to be carried along by processes while they are in an active phase. So they exploit the implicit potential of a given situation. The art of governing involves invisibly making everything come together naturally. If you have to act it should be as soon as possible, before the process takes shape. The Chinese always look for the most favorable and profitable conditions, while the Greeks and Europeans think about analysis of success or failure and victory or defeat.


In Chinese logic everything is conditional and complex and the human being is part of a process that never ends, whereas in Greco-European logic efficacy is based on action. Jullien creates a parallel between the legitimation of a classical Chinese (Mencius of the 4th century BC) and the philosophers of the Enlightenment (Rousseau and Kant of the 18th century AD) where one notes that despite the great distance between both eras one can find a common feeling of mercy or humanity.


This feeling is what differentiates the human being from animals. It is not a matter of following given norms or principles, but of a maturing of moral consciousness that leads to things being transformed naturally through an invisible influence. For the Chinese, good is not a norm imposed from the outside, but the manifestation of an internal perfecting.


The Chinese approach is not individualistic, but it does not attack individualism. Mercy is the manifestation of its ‘transindividual’ and ‘transemotional’ character. In every human being there is a predisposition towards morality, so Mencius says that there is a natural goodness in the human being.


This is an old debate in the Confucian tradition that views human beings as ambivalent because good and bad impulses coexist in them, while Xunzi, another Chinese thinker, believed that every human being is evil by nature, always seeking personal gain and tending towards hatred and envy. But the idea of will espoused by Kant and Rousseau does not exist in the Chinese tradition.


Addendum: I will continue with this theme of Chinese culture in a second instalment.