Essays from the Far East: Dao de Jing

Dao de Jing – Except from Chapter 2: “As soon as everyone in the world knows that the beautiful are beautiful, / There is already ugliness. / As soon as everyone knows the able, / There is ineptness. // Determinacy and indeterminacy give rise to each other, / Difficult and easy complement each other, / Long and short set each other off, / High and low complete each other, / Refined notes and raw sounds harmonize with each other, / And before and after lend sequence to each other— / This is really how it all works.”

This passage from the Dao de Jing exemplifies the function of making distinctions, that is, things immediately and inescapably implicate their opposites. For example, by calling something “beautiful,” there comes to light the things that aren’t beautiful—or, as this passage labels, things that are “ugly.” This, perhaps, is clarified further by the distinction between “light” and “darkness.” Light has no significance without knowing there is dark, and vice versa. That is, we couldn’t identify that we were living in darkness until the first light revealed itself in contrast. As the commentary on this passage notes, “dividing up the world descriptively and prescriptively generates correlative categories that invariably entail themselves and their antinomies.” In other words, categories create further categories. This passage from the Dao de Jing makes this kind of logic explicit, which I find myself really agreeing with philosophically, and noticing in the landscape of contemporary China.

China is a place that seems to really resist classification in a way that I can’t say applies to any other place I’ve travelled to. This country has such a rich history, which largely colors the way people here and outside of China conceive of this country, and yet, China is at the forefront of modernity, city life, and innovation. Essentially, it both breaks and embraces its own categories. China both reveres TCM—an ancient practice—and Western medicine—a much more recent development. The split in development between the Chinese people is somewhere between the nineteenth century and the twenty-first century, and pretty much nowhere in between. I read this passage from the Dao de Jing to very vividly illustrate this weird blurring-of-the-lines in Chinese culture today. China manages to both fulfill many of its stereotypes and, simultaneously, resists them.

Though our travels have revealed how not every Chinese person is a Daoist, there is certainly a confluence of religious/philosophical ideas percolating the modern Chinese way of life, which, in large part, comes from Daoism and similar sources. We see Yin and Yang permeating the landscape, not only symbolically, but visually and socially. For example, there is a balance between nature and city—especially the blend between forest and temple in Daoist religious sites—and there is a balance between the kinds of interactions people have with each other and the world. That is, very few people that I have encountered in China really exclude religious thought from their lives, yet, those who consider themselves “religious” seem to be few and far in between—especially in light of our ethnographic survey. The Chinese people aren’t afraid to take Daoist ideas, Confucian principles, and Buddhist metaphysics, for example, and blend them together. In other words, there is a balance in the way people in China look at the world; there is very little evidence of the “exclusive” Western way of commonly thinking about religion and philosophy, as most evident in monotheisms or analytic philosophy. Much of Eastern thought that I have encountered takes a gamut of sources into account in a really encompassing way that I haven’t seen often in the West. Surely, the Dao de Jing isn’t explicitly pointing this balance out, but I can certainly map this passage onto the modern cultural landscape of China.

This passage also mentions how “High and low complement each other,” which I take very metaphorically. The philosopher, Alan Watts, in his The Book, explains how trying to conceive of life without death is kind trying to keep the mountains and get rid of the valleys. In the Dao de Jing, I read this excerpt to apply broadly to life, that you can’t enjoy the “highs” without the “lows.” I’ve noticed in our travels across China that we’ve seen some really depressing sort of places and people, and I’ve been to places that our tour guide, Jack Dragon, would call “four star.” Each of them respectively don’t really retain their full potential without experiencing the other. In other words, if this trip was nothing but brilliantly furnished hotels and avoided poverty at all possible opportunities, I wouldn’t have a perspective on what China really is. Conversely, I wouldn’t take those “four star” places into such appreciation without trudging through the more saddening and frustrating parts. It sounds overly idealistic to pontificate about the way someone should experience China, but I genuinely think that the Dao de Jing is pointing out something that needs to be remembered, recited, and repeated in everyday life: That you can’t have one without the other.

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