What do the sages of ancient China have to teach us about living in the 21st century? The Harvard professor and author of The Path, Michael Puett, recommends the texts you need to read to find out. He picks the best books of Chinese philosophy.
Michael Puett is the Walter C. Klein Professor of Chinese History in the Department of East Asian Languages and Civilizations and the Chair of the Committee on the Study of Religion at Harvard University. He is the recipient of a Harvard College Professorship for excellence in undergraduate teaching.
You’ve been teaching a course on Chinese philosophy at Harvard. I wonder if you could say a little bit about that.
The goal of the course is to allow students to read the texts themselves. They are in translation, of course, but I only assign primary texts. I even tell students not to read secondary literature. I forewarn them that these are tough texts, but I also tell them they’re extremely powerful and, if they really spend the time reading them and rereading them over the course of the semester, they’ll discover that they are truly amazing works.
It’s been an incredibly popular course, I believe?
Students do find these texts incredibly exciting and, yes, I’m happy to say that the numbers have been very high.
Do you think Chinese philosophy is accessible to a Western audience—an audience that’s unfamiliar with the traditions of Chinese philosophy and how it’s implemented in daily living?
I think it is. It’s a little off-putting, at first, because the assumptions, the arguments and the terminology are very different. And yet, one of the things that’s intriguing about Chinese philosophy is the focus on the mundane ways we live our everyday lives and how that can have huge effects over time. The examples tend to be very straightforward—how human beings interact on a daily basis and what the implications are. So, once you get students into the material and into the terminology, it makes a lot of sense. They may not agree with all the arguments, but they have no trouble understanding what’s going on.
There is a caricature of the Chinese philosopher as sage, an all-knowing older male sitting there, wisely pronouncing on things. That’s quite different from the Socratic model of truth, emerging through argument and conversation. It’s as if ideas are being given with authority from one who knows, almost as a religious, dogmatic teacher might tell you how things are.
It certainly seems that way at first, but one of the things that’s very intriguing is that these texts tend to be calling on the reader to engage with them.
In some of the great sagely sayings, the so-called sages are presented as very human and fallible. One very significant example is Mencius, otherwise known as Mengzi [in Chinese pinyin—see notes on Chinese names at the end of this interview]. He was seen as one of the great sages, the second greatest after Confucius. When you read the work, he often comes off as arrogant. He’s self-serving, at times, and often failing to live up to his own views about what one should do to cultivate oneself.
“The text is written for the reader to see him at his best and at his worst”
I think the text is written for the reader to see him at his best and at his worst. Part of the power is that we see a truly great sage as a human being—often failing and hopefully learning from his mistakes.
Your own book, The Path, has quickly become a bestselling book. There’s obviously a wider audience for Chinese philosophy. Could you say something about your book and its reception?
I think you’re right, there really is an interest out there, now, in understanding Chinese philosophy and its complexities. The goal of the book was to take what seemed to work well in the classroom and bring it to a wider audience. I’ve been really excited by the response.
Let’s move on to your first book. You’ve chosen Confucius’s Analects—one of the most famous works of Chinese philosophy. When was this written? Who wrote it?
The text purports to be written by the disciples of Confucius, after Confucius passed away. The disciples are purportedly writing down the words that he spoke to them, the things he did on a daily basis, the actions he would take.
But we don’t know when the specific statements were written down. Were they really written down right after Confucius died? Or were they written down two centuries later? The truth is we have no idea.
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But that, of course, is part of the power of the work. You read it not necessarily saying, ‘these are the words that Confucius spoke in a certain year.’ You read it to gain a sense of the portrait the text is giving you—of a figure living his daily life, trying to be a good teacher and putting his philosophy into practice.
When did Confucius live and what kind of a society was he living in?
He lived in the last part of the sixth century and into the fifth century BCE. It was a period of dramatic change in China and throughout Eurasia. For about two millennia, Eurasia had been dominated by a Bronze Age aristocratic culture, at least in the agricultural areas. It was a highly stratified society, where all ranks were based purely upon birth. This was all breaking down as the old Bronze Age kingdoms throughout Eurasia fell apart.
“One of the things that’s intriguing about Chinese philosophy is the focus on the mundane ways we live our everyday lives and how that can have huge effects over time.”
So, midway through the first millennium BCE, Eurasia underwent a massive transformation. As the social hierarchies and forms of statecraft of the Bronze Age fell apart, one sees the emergence, for the first significant time in about two millennia, of social mobility (relatively speaking) and of new forms of political experimentation. And, with the breakdown of the religious systems of the Bronze Age, one also seesthe emergence of new religious and philosophical movements across Eurasia as well. This is when you get the Orphics, the Pythagoreans, Socrates, Plato and Aristotle in Greece; Jainism and the Buddha in India. And, in China, one of our first philosophers was Confucius. He was witnessing the same phenomenon and tried to make arguments about what one should do as a consequence.
I know it’s difficult to boil down a thinker’s central ideas into a short answer but, roughly, what was Confucius’s stance on the world he found?
One of his basic views was that humans need to cultivate themselves. The reason he began there was that he believed one of our dangers, as human beings, is that we fall into patterns or ruts in our behaviour that can largely be defined by the world around us. For that reason, we tend to be very passive in the world, even though we think we’re not.
“We tend to be very passive in the world, even though we think we’re not”
So, one of the questions for him is how, in our daily activities—the way we build our lives and have relationships—we can train ourselves to become better beings. Then the question arises of what we would do with that ability. Intriguingly, he says very little about that question. The focus is on beginning the work of cultivation.
That, in a sense, parallels the ‘know thyself’ of ancient Greek philosophy.
Very much so. We often think that Chinese philosophy is focused on how one lives one’s daily life and we have a stereotype that Greek philosophy is all about the radical separation of the world of ideas from mundane reality. The truth is that that’s a rereading of Greek philosophy. There are a few places where those claims are made—in a few famous places in Plato’s work, for example. But most of Greek philosophy—including Plato’s—was about how one cultivates oneself through one’s daily activities and what practices one should engage in to become a better human being. So, in fact, the parallels between Greece and China in this period are very striking, even though the two traditions went in very different directions later on.
Confucianism, again in caricature, is all about respect for elders and tradition. Is that a fair summary of Confucius’s angle?
It’s certainly about working with the traditions into which you’re born. We’re born into a set of traditions and that is always the beginning of what you’re working with. That includes, therefore, taking seriously what those who came before you did, and how we can learn from those and build from that.
That being said, Confucius was very critical of much of his tradition and this is part of the point. Yes, you begin with the rituals and traditions into which you’re born, but you use these rituals to become a better human being. At which point, you not only can, but really must alter the rituals and work against the traditions, and shift them. He wanted an active engagement with one’s tradition.
If you were advising somebody coming to the Analects for the first time, would you suggest they read the book from start to finish?
What I say to my students is, ‘Begin on line one and read.’ I also give lots of forewarnings, such as the following: ‘This is a text that seems very unphilosophical at first glance. You literally will get a statement by Confucius and then another statement that seems to contradict the previous statement, then another statement that seems to contradict the other two, then a statement about how Confucius sits on a mat in a certain way, and then yet another statement that seems unrelated to anything you’ve seen so far. At first glance, this will seem not only mundane but self-contradictory and really doesn’t seem to add up to anything.’
I always tell students to keep reading, because what will happen, as you keep reading, is that you see there is a reason for all this.
“That holds for someone in the 21st century much as for someone in 5th century BCE China”
Let’s take the example of the contradictory statements. Yes, he will say different things to different disciples. This is because part of the argument of the text is that you’re learning to sense situations, what certain people need to hear, what they don’t need to hear. Confucius is presented as a figure who is trying to do this in practice.
So, to one disciple he will say, ‘You really need to do a lot more rituals’, and to another disciple he will say, ‘You do way too many rituals, you’re beyond those, you need to begin shifting and altering things.’ This is because they are different situations, and it’s a different disciple. What you’re trying to do, as you read the text, is add these up to get a picture of what the motivating philosophy is that would lead him to do these seemingly very different things.
Is this a philosophy that you think can be transposed to twenty-first century Western society? For readers in the West, is there anything to catch onto there?
Certainly the traditions and the specific ritual content are quite different.
But, in terms of a philosophy—and I’m very happy to use that term for what Confucius is doing—if part of the argument is that we are figures who tend to fall into particular habits and patterns and ruts in our behaviour, I would agree with Confucius very fully on this and that it holds equally for us today. And if the goal is to break ourselves from these habits and sense ourselves better, to not only respond better to other human beings but, in the long run, help to create better worlds—where both we and those around us can flourish. If all that is the case, how would we very concretely, on a daily basis, train ourselves to be able to do this? That is what Confucius is getting at.
And I think that holds for someone in the 21st century every bit as much as it holds for someone in 5th century BCE China.
Let’s go on to your second choice. This is the Daodejing of Laozi. Is this where Daoism comes from?
Yes. Daoism is a body of thinking that comes from the text of the Laozi. The ‘Dao’ in Daoism refers to the Daodejing which we usually translate as ‘the way.’
Presumably this also gave you the title for your book?
Exactly. The idea of calling it The Path is a play on the Chinese notion of the Dao, which is the path you are building by the way you live your daily life—either in a dangerous or a powerful way. You’re either failing to live your life well or succeeding. It’s the notion of a path, not in the sense of a pre-given path, but rather of a path you make.
How would you characterise this book? We’ve talked about the Analects of Confucius as being a summary of stories about a great teacher. What is this book like?
This book is radically different. If the Analects consist of lots of stories about what Confucius does, how he talks to disciples, and so on, the Laozi, in contrast, contains no stories. There are no examples, there are no anecdotes, there are no references to historical figures at all. It is simply a series of extremely paradoxical-sounding statements, very gnomic, very difficult to decipher, and yet extraordinarily powerful once you work through and get a sense of what the underlying philosophy is.
Could you give an example of the sort of gnomic statement that can be unpacked?
The opening line of the Laozi is often translated—and it’s not a bad translation but it misses some of the wordplay—as, “The Way [Dao] that can be spoken of is not the enduring way.” Now, what you miss in the English translation is that the word we’re translating, ‘spoken of’, is the same word: ‘dao.’ A literal translation would be, “The way that can be wayed…”—in other words, made into a self-conscious path— “…is not the enduring way.” What it means is that, if you try self-consciously to decide, ‘I will plan out everything perfectly in advance and that will be my way’ you’ve missed the point. That’s not the enduring way. You’ve created a pre-set way, but it’s not the way that you should be trying to make sense of.
Is that the defining principle of Daoism—that you have to make it up on the hoof, as it were?
It is. And part of the argument is that you’re learning to gain a sense of how things emerge in the world— how situations develop, how trajectories develop. The goal is to train yourself to be able to sense that and alter those trajectories for the better. The key here is that you don’t know exactly where everything is going to go in advance.
The Way—this sensitivity to circumstances and changing dynamics—sounds like a wise approach to life. We probably all know people who have over-planned and fallen flat on their faces as a result of not seeing what was actually happening around them. But is it more than that? Is it quasi-religious or possibly actually religious?
It’s all of those. A good way to think about the Way is that it could be absolutely everything in its completely undifferentiated sense. If you could imagine the world as completely interrelated, that’s the Way. Then imagine that things emerge from the Way. Cosmologically, you could say everything emerged from the Big Bang.
“What you’re training yourself to do is to sense how you can alter and work with these larger patterns without the dangerous sense that I, personally, can control everything.”
But think of everyday life in the same way. Situations emerge from the Way and the way they emerge is part of the Way. The reason it’s put in this seemingly paradoxical way is that we, as humans, tend to focus on momentary differences in the world. We think there is me, there is that person, and we’re in this situation. If you’re thinking about the Way, what you’re thinking is that what that person is doing is related to things that I have done—because I’m implicitly affecting things. We’re being affected by the world around us and certain trajectories are being set in motion all the time.
The more I can gain a sense of those larger trajectories, the more I’m gaining a sense of the Way, in other words, how everything is in fact interconnected—and therefore how these little things I’m doing can shift the Way or not.
There are two things that occur to me there. First of all, is this like the Buddhist idea that human individuality is a kind of illusion? Secondly, what about time? Is the Way, as you’ve described it, outside of time, so that everything that has ever happened and will happen is all part of it? Or are you, as the thinker, somehow located in time and have to take your future as uncertain?
It’s more of the latter. One intriguing difference between the Laozi and, say, Buddhism is that in the Laozi the world around us isn’t illusory. We are creating the world around us which, in that sense, really does exist. The danger is that we’re usually creating it passively and very poorly and following it with very dangerous trajectories. What you’re training yourself to do is to sense how you can alter and work with these larger patterns without the dangerous sense that I, personally, can control everything.
But, unlike Buddhism, the ultimate goal is not to withdraw and see the world as illusory. On the contrary, we are creating the world that really does exist and, usually, we’re creating it in a very dangerous, poor way.
So what are the guidelines that make us better world creators?
It’s all about training and self-cultivation. Part of what we’re training ourselves to do is to cease seeing the world in terms of simple dichotomies, simple rules, simple laws, simple ways that allow us to quickly—we think—understand what’s going on. All of these, in fact, are usually based upon very limited understandings of what’s happening around us. You’re training yourself—to use this terminology—to sense the Way, to sense how everything is interconnected, how things we’re doing are leading to certain consequences, often very dangerously and so how you can shift and work with the world around you.
It’s interesting, as a philosophical position, because rules of thumb are incredibly useful in surviving and in not having to think too hard about what to do next. In general, people who you meet in the street don’t lie to you so you don’t have to be super-suspicious of everybody you meet. That seems a reasonable rule of thumb in life. But, actually, the world is complex and there are people who are deceptive, so it doesn’t always work. If I’m following the Way, am I to be supersensitive to every particular individual situation, or can I fall back on rules of thumb sometimes?
You are training yourself to spontaneously sense situations. Early on, this means training yourself to sense the complexity of situations. You’re pushing against our tendency to follow rules of thumb and easy patterns of thinking. But overall, over time, you’re training yourself to become so intuitively good at this that you’re able to sense situations, sense the patterns playing out in situations, and sense the little things you can do to alter these.
“One of the arguments is to try to be like water: water is very powerful, of course, but it flows. It exercises power by working with the flow, not fighting against it.”
One of the intriguing ways it’ll speak about is influencing the world not in terms of things like power, control and domination. Instead, think of it in terms of softness, weakness, suppleness. You’re training yourself to sense the complexities of situations and the ways that, through little things you can do, you can alter those trajectories. You’re not dominating situations, you’re not even rationally controlling situations in a mental sense, you’re sensing them and working with them.
That reminds me of the saying that’s usually attributed to Bruce Lee: ‘be like water.’ Is that a Daoist principle?
That comes directly from the Daodejing, from this text. One of the arguments is to try to be like water: water is very powerful, of course, but it flows. It exercises power by working with the flow, not fighting against it.
The third book you’ve chosen is the Essential Writings of Zhuangzi. Zhuangzi is not a philosopher I’m familiar with. Who was he?
Zhuangzi, we are told, lived in the fourth century BCE. We actually don’t know much about him. In truth, all that we have from him—apart from later stories that are told about him—is this one text, which is extraordinary.
What makes it so extraordinary?
It is a text that will later be categorised as a Daoist text, so as part of the same way of thinking as the Laozi. I tell my students to think of it as a very different take on a somewhat similar set of ideas. But it really is a different take. As far as we know, Zhuangzi didn’t know the Laozi. The term ‘Daoism’ did not exist at the time. It’s a later term that is aimed at bringing together these texts.
In a nutshell, what the Zhuangzi is trying to do is to break us out of our patterns of thinking. But the way it will do that is not simply through very short, gnomic paradoxical statements. The way the Zhuangzi will do it is through this extraordinary, imaginative prose that will try, in the very way it’s written, to break us from our limited perspectives.
So, as you’re reading it, you will take the point of view of a butcher, you will take the point of view of a bird, of a piece of bark, a fish. Zhuangzi is trying to break us out of our limited understandings so that we begin to get a sense of the world as endless flux, endless transformation, in which, if we can train ourselves to do so, we can begin to understand its tremendous multiplicity.
Is this a recommendation to engage in a kind of meditative practice of decentring, or is it a literary device?
It’s in between the two, and there’s also an element of a third part as well. Unlike a meditating, decentring process, it’s about training yourself to sense this multiplicity. A lot of the stories, for example, will revolve around skill-based activities. A butcher is one of the examples: a butcher, by the very ways that he undertakes his butchering activities, is learning to break away from his tendencies to think in very limited ways, and to sense the complexity of situations.
This sounds like the idea of Jean-Paul Sartre’s café waiter in Being and Nothingness. The waiter is performing a ‘dance’ that’s been choreographed by his role. And, somehow, in the way that he does this he reveals to Sartre that he’s not genuinely, authentically free in his actions. He’s in bad faith, he’s deceiving himself. So Zhuangzi’s butcher doesn’t just perform the role of butcher, presumably. What does he or she do, then, that is different?
It’s a very telling story. It’s meant analogically, of course. The butcher will begin simply slicing up pieces of meat according to a very rational calculation. Every slab is cut in exactly the same way. And, because that means you’re digging through all these bones and muscles and sinews, he has to constantly stop to sharpen his knife.
“Imagine, in our everyday lives, training ourselves with the same kind of work that we would do to train ourselves in a sport or when we learn a musical instrument”
Then the argument is that he slowly begins to realise, as the years go by, that the meat in fact has its own patterns. There are places where, say, the muscles will wrap around the tendons, which wrap around the bone, and every piece of meat is slightly different.
There is no single way of understanding that. What you must do is learn to sense where these patterns flow. And he becomes so good at it, at a certain point, that he’s able, not with his mind but with his spirit, simply to sense these patterns and take his knife and slide it through the patterns of meat so flawlessly that he’s able to cut them perfectly without ever having to sharpen his knife again.
This is a bit like a very skilled sportsperson being able to react to where the ball is flying and just do the right thing, rather than having to rely on a rational process of thinking through a set of actions.
That’s a perfect analogy. One is training oneself in a sport to become so good that you’re no longer thinking about what you’re physically doing—you’re just sensing situations perfectly. Learning a musical instrument would be another good analogy: you’re training yourself, over the years, to play the musical instrument, to affect the room, by being sensitive to the situation.
“What you must do is learn to sense where these patterns flow”
The argument of the Zhuangzi is that we should do this in our everyday lives. Imagine, in our everyday lives, training ourselves with the same kind of work that we would do to train ourselves in a sport or when we learn a musical instrument. We would be training ourselves in our lives, not to be battling through the world, not to bash against the world, but to sense situations, work with situations, alter situations as we work with them.
In other words, in your daily life, you would be performing the same sort of work that we otherwise think of doing in these restricted, skill-based activities.
This is much closer, as an approach to ethics, to Aristotle, than to Kant. As an Aristotelean, you cultivate the virtues and the ideal is to become the kind of person who reacts appropriately when a situation confronts you. Whereas for Kant, there’s an application of a principle that ultimately boils down to a moral law—the ‘categorical imperative.’ Any particular moral act is just an instantiation of that. This approach requires a degree of cogitation to decide whether this particular action matches to the general principle.
Very much so. Now, there were some thinkers in early China who did begin developing arguments a little bit like Kant’s, but much more consequentialist: they tried to develop a utilitarian calculus that we should be following to determine what to do and what not to do, how to become a good person, how not to become a good person.
But, indeed, the texts we’ve been discussing so far are very Aristotelian. They’re pushing against such attempts and saying, ‘No, no, no it’s all about personal practice, about gaining the ability to sense situations well, of becoming virtuous over time by the way one senses situations.’ They are, therefore, very suspicious of attempts to say we can work out by some kind of a calculus—whether that’s deontological or utilitarian or what have you—what to do.
That seems a profound way of thinking about how to live. Has that filtered through Chinese society? Have these philosophers significantly influenced present day Chinese thought?
Extraordinarily so. These are ideas that have been incredibly important throughout Chinese and, indeed, all of east Asian history. In the 20th century, many of these texts were burned. There was a strong push against them, as a result of the self-conscious attempt to build a communist society that stood very strongly against these old traditions. Now, intriguingly, they’re coming back. The texts are being read again, they’re being debated again. Of course, this is not just happening in China: it’s really a global phenomenon. These texts are coming back to life.
A rediscovery of Chinese philosophy in the 21st century?
Very much so. We are also physically uncovering many old texts. There are many old texts that are being found and studied for the first time. China is rediscovering its old traditions. It’s a really extraordinary moment.
The fourth book that you’ve chosen is Mengzi: With Selections from Traditional Commentaries. As somebody with an idea about how we should live, he seems to be someone who western philosophy students should certainly be studying.
Mencius lived in the fourth century BCE, so he’s a rough contemporary of texts like the Zhuangzi. I say ‘rough’ because we don’t know the exact dates. Unlike Zhuangzi, Mencius saw himself as very much developing Confucius’s teachings. Indeed, in the fourth century BCE, he is seen as the great Confucian master of his day.
“It’s part of the power of the text that it shows someone trying, on a daily basis, to live up to his own philosophy and, at times, failing to do so, and then learning from that.”
This is a fascinating and profound text. Like the Analects, it consists mainly of dialogues, in this case dialogues that Mencius has with disciples, with rulers and with fellow philosophers that he’s disagreeing with. They tend to be much longer than in the Analects. You get the whole debate unfolding, so you really get to see the complexities of the arguments.
It’s also an intriguing text because Mencius is portrayed in very ambivalent ways. He is clearly seen as brilliant, someone whose philosophy is extraordinarily powerful, and yet the text will—despite having been written by his own disciples—present him as sometimes failing. It’s part of the power of the text that it shows someone trying, on a daily basis, to live up to his own philosophy and, at times, failing to do so, and then learning from that. It’s a very complex portrait of a human being.
Is there an example you could give of that?
Yes, there is one very poignant example. Towards the very end of his life, Mencius decides that the time is right for these ideas finally to be put in place at a wider political level. Thinking himself to be the great Confucian of his age, and certainly seen by others as such, he goes from court to court trying to gain an audience with rulers, to explain these ideas. He succeeds in gaining a significant ministerial position within one kingdom—the kingdom of Qi—and the king seems to be listening to him.
Mencius clearly thinks that he’s about to become the great sage minister, leading to the emergence of a great new dynasty based upon the teaching of Confucius as interpreted by himself. He begins to be a little arrogant and a little too convinced of his own greatness. Then it becomes apparent to him that the ruler is simply using him—twisting his ideas to rationalise his own policies of self-aggrandisement. Mencius is forced to leave the state in total disgrace.
“The layout of the book is a way of trying to give you a sense of a human being, in all of this complexity, trying to be great, failing, and then learning from that experience.”
There’s a very poignant moment where he’s leaving the state and one of his disciples says, ‘But Mencius, didn’t you once quote from your great master Confucius who said that you should never resent what heaven does—in other words you should never resent the things that happen to you in life, you should simply try to respond well to them—and Mencius don’t you seem a little bit resentful?’ The response is extraordinary. He says, ‘Well look, the time is obviously right for great things to happen. We need a great sage. Obviously I am the great sage, and yet, for some reason, heaven has prevented me from beginning a great new sage.’ Clearly, he is reeking of resentment. It’s a powerful moment where he visibly fails to live up to his own philosophy, overtaken by his arrogance. That is, in fact, how the book opens. The first two chapters of the book consist of these dialogues without commentary.
The rest of the book consists of Mencius simply trying to be a good teacher, arguing through these ideas with his disciples, training the next generation to be good. I think the layout of the book is saying that Mencius, at this key moment, failed and then learned from it. He realised that the way to change the world, in this case, would be, having failed politically, to be an extraordinary teacher and try to help the next generation be extraordinary beings. The layout of the book is a way of trying to give you a sense of a human being, in all of this complexity, trying to be great, failing, and then learning from that experience.
So there’s a sense of the imperfection, the crooked timber of humanity and so on here, which is fascinating because the caricature of the wise person is that they’ve already achieved this enlightenment or profundity. Mencius is still on his journey.
It’s extraordinarily powerful for this reason. It would be much less powerful if it were simply Mencius spouting these brilliant ideas. It is more powerful to have Mencius saying brilliant things, but then, in practice, for the reader to see the complexities of him as a human being.
This fits with your theme of dealing with the world as we find it, not in some kind of simpler form that makes everything straightforward.
Part of what I find so powerful about these texts is that underlying them all—for all their many differences—is a sense that the world is messy, that it’s complicated. We, as human beings, are very very messy and complicated, and the world around us is extremely difficult to understand—in fact, impossible to understand in the simplistic terms we attempt to do so. One must deal with this messiness. One must deal with this complexity, and, by definition, as one tries to do so, one usually fails. And then one hopefully tries to learn from it and create slightly better worlds the next time around.
Let’s talk about the final text. This is Xunzi. Again, it’s a complete text, but it’s named after the author.
Xunzi is a self-proclaimed Confucian. He’s coming out of the teachings of Confucius, but the text purports to be written by Xunzi himself. Instead of giving us the anecdotes of Xunzi talking to different people, this one consists of philosophical essays on specific topics.
What sort of topics does he discuss?
He’s very interested in self-cultivation and writes essays on that. He’s very interested in how we cultivate ourselves through ritual, and he’ll write essays on rituals. He’s interested in the political sphere, so he’ll write essays on the political sphere. He tries to take all of the topics that Confucius’s teaching touched upon and then attempts to work out, philosophically, how we should understand them.
Is this image of self-cultivation an agricultural metaphor?
With Mencius, it absolutely is. He says we should think of our potential to be good as the equivalent of sprouts: if we properly cultivate them—in other words, if we put them in proper soil in a sunny place, and water the soil, and nurture them—they will grow into something extraordinary. We humans are the same. If we cultivate ourselves, nourish ourselves, develop great worlds around ourselves in which we and those around us can grow, we can develop and become extraordinary sages. If we fail in this, we can end up destroying the sprouts. We can become, in a strong sense for Mencius, inhuman. We’ll still be alive, but we’ll become inhuman. So it’s very much the world of domesticated agriculture, where we humans are trying to create conditions within which things can actually grow.
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Xunzi, intriguingly, argues the opposite. He says ‘Let’s get rid of these agricultural metaphors and let’s use construction metaphors in their place. Let’s think of human nature as like a crooked piece of wood that has to be shaped and twisted to be good. Part of his argument here is that he thinks the Mencian metaphor makes living sound too organic. Xunzi is saying, ‘Let’s really emphasise the kind of work that it takes to do this.’
In truth, Mencius is talking a lot about the work: the very fact that he’s seen as failing shows you how difficult this is for him. But I think Xunzi’s critique is that that metaphor could allow one, perhaps, to think that this is an organic process that will naturally occur on its own with a minimum of work. Although that’s not Mencius’s real view, I think that’s the danger of the analogy from Xunzi’s point of view. Xunzi, wants to use these strong metaphors of construction. We are constructing the world around us, we are constructing ourselves, making good human beings of ourselves. If we fail to achieve that, we are constructing the world anyway, and constructing humans anyway, but we’re just doing it very badly.
If you take that architectural analogy, though, doesn’t that imply a certain amount of planning, blueprints, and the kinds of thing we’ve been talking about as in opposition to Chinese philosophy? It’s a very rational approach.
It is, but Xunzi will use the architectural or constructionist metaphors for the first stage. What he will say, for example, is, ‘Think about ritual training. We are constructing these selves but, then, once you begin that process, what you will become in the long run, you can’t predict.’
The idea is that through breaking these patterns and forcing ourselves to become better people, we become, potentially, greater human beings than we could even, right now, imagine. The key is that you must construct an artificial world to allow this to become possible. As he will say, very famously and very powerfully, artificial pigments of, say, indigo are much more powerful than the natural indigo that you find in nature. The constructed world is going to be greater than anything that we naturally have chanced upon.
“The constructed world is going to be greater than anything that we naturally have chanced upon”
He will argue against thinking of humans in terms of our natural gifts or natural endowments. The argument is that we will construct ourselves to be better than we think we are naturally capable of being or that we can even imagine ourselves to be. When you construct yourself and it opens up possibilities you could not imagine.
With all these five thinkers, there’s an emphasis on self-development and reflection. Is this in isolation from wider society? Is it a matter of locking yourself away to become a better person, sitting in a cave on the side of a hill somewhere?
It might even be impossible for them to do that. For a lot of these philosophers, if you plonked them alone on a desert island, they would certainly do all sorts of training exercises to become a better human being. But I think the sense would be that it would be limited. The only way you can really train yourself to be a better human being is by actively being in the world, and working with human beings around you.
If you’re not doing that, it would be tough to say you are becoming a better person because, in many ways, that’s where you’re being judged: in your interactions with others. Are you actively building a better world, are you building better relationships, are you sensing humans around you in better ways? Without humans around you, you couldn’t really do the training exercise, nor could you be judged as to whether you’re being effective in the training exercise because that is what’s seen as mattering most.
That’s intriguing because there’s a dominant practice in eastern philosophies, transferred to the west, of retreat from society, removal from anything complex about technology, in order to get back to a much simpler, quieter, encapsulated sort of world—not immersing yourself in the complexity of the world as it is today.
Precisely. One of the things that is so intriguing about these texts is that throughout all of them the great sages that are discussed are all people who are actively living in society, working with the world around them, trying to create better worlds and often failing to do so, but then learning from their mistakes. You rarely find people who are physically removed from the world in these texts. It’s all about how you build better worlds in this messy life that we find ourselves living. To give you one very nice example—and a very telling one—the Laozi is often surprising in this way because, when you begin reading it—and it’s written in very mystical terminology—you assume it’s going to be about withdrawing from society and doing meditations which give you some higher mystical awareness. And then no! You get to its actual examples and the examples are things like people being effective rulers: generals being effective military strategists, for example. It’s all about human beings in the world, working very effectively in the world. The sense is there’s no distinction between being a great mystical sage and being someone actively engaged in the world. In fact, they are truly one and the same. If you achieve this sense of the Way, by definition, you’re working well in this messy world.
NOTE ON CHINESE NAMES
Chinese names can cause confusion because of the different ways Chinese characters have been romanized over the centuries. Today, when you study Chinese, you learn the ‘pinyin’ system. In pinyin, Confucius is ‘Kongzi’ and Mencius is ‘Mengzi.’ ‘Taoism’ is ‘Daoism’ and ‘Tao Te Ching’ is ‘Daodejing’. Xunzi, Zhuangzi and Laozi are all pinyin spellings.
The character ‘zi’ is an honorific suffix. So we are talking about Master Kong, Master Meng, Master Xun, Master Zhuang and Master Lao.
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Michael Puett is the Walter C. Klein Professor of Chinese History in the Department of East Asian Languages and Civilizations and the Chair of the Committee on the Study of Religion at Harvard University. He is the recipient of a Harvard College Professorship for excellence in undergraduate teaching.
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