In my essay "On the Problem of Truth, Goodness and Beauty in Chinese Philosophy," I suggested that the conceptions of truth, goodness and beauty rest on three propositions: the unity of Heaven and man, the unity of knowledge and action, and the unity of sentiment and scenery. Among these, the unity of Heaven and man is the most fundamental, and it is from this that the other two unities are derived. The unity of knowledge and action requires that people realize both the "heavenly Way" and the "human Way," and practice them in daily life, while the unity of sentiment and scenery requires that people express Heaven's work in their thoughts and feelings.
Why did the ancient Chinese philosophers pursue these three unities? In my opinion, Chinese philosophy does not engage in investigating the external world, but is concerned rather with pursuing internal human values. In other words, traditional Chinese philosophy teaches people how to be human by making demands upon themselves, i.e., to cherish an ideal form of human life. Sagehood is defined by the attainment of the three unities. Beginning with Confucius, Chinese philosophers have always aspired to the creation of harmonious societies, and have attempted to bring them into being. Even when unsure of the outcome of their efforts, they still consider the endeavor to be obligatory. Thus it was said of Confucius that he "knew the impossibility [of the task] and yet continued to do it." The ideal societies they sought are characterized by harmony; for example, the Confucian description of a society of "great harmony" in the Li Yun chapter of the Book of Rites, and the "small country with a small population" in Chapter 80 of the Daoist classic Dao De Jing (Tao Te Ching). Such communities exhibit a concordance between man and Heaven, a unity of knowledge and action, and an intermingling of sentiment and scenery.
But these ideals may not be realized in the actual world. Whether we should pursue the ideal of harmony is a matter of attitude. Ancient Chinese philosophers believed that some of their ideals might only be realized in their minds. Why was Zhang Zai's "West inscriptions" so highly esteemed by later thinkers? I think it is because the essay reveals the spirit of an ideal harmonious society. The essay begins: "People are my compatriots; things, my fellow-beings," and ends "Living is following my nature; death, my tranquility." When alive, one must fulfill the responsibility of realizing the ideal of "great harmony." Thus one can enjoy serenity without feeling shame to the end of one's life.
This search for an ideal harmonious society differs from Western humanism, though it can be looked at as humanism of a Chinese type. According to the ancient Chinese thinkers, only human beings are the most important link between Heaven and Earth. Sages are capable of
"establishing the mind of Heaven and Earth, determining the destiny of human lives, restoring discontinued traditions of learning from the past, and commencing a period of supreme peace for one's descendants. "Hence the Confucian notion that men can expand the Way, rather than the other way around. Although the Way of Heaven is an objective Being, it needs human embodiment. According to ancient Chinese thought, a man can embody the Way when he understands the unity of Heaven and man, practices the unity of knowledge and action, and creatively reveals the unity of sentiment and scenery. Conceiving of the loftiest possible realm of humanity, one may concentrate on the above-described ideal in one's mind in order to actualize it. Such a realm harmonizes individual words and deeds with all human societies and even extends this harmony to the whole universe. In traditional Chinese philosophy, the major role of human beings is to "be human" in pursuing the ideal of a harmonious society. As the central element in nature and the community, man assumes a great responsibility.
Chinese philosophy profoundly influenced the Chinese national mentality. I believe that this mentality reveals both the strengths and weaknesses of Chinese thought-culture.
In brief, the Chinese mentality may be characterized by the pursuit of harmony and unity. Most distinguished Chinese philosophers viewed reality positively and endeavored to transform the conflict-rid-den societies in which they lived into harmonious communities. Although their ideals and doctrines did not bring about actual political changes, Chinese rulers used philosophical ideas as window dressing. For instance, the ideals of great harmony and supreme peace degenerated into emperors' reign-titles, and rulers called themselves the emperor or empress of Supreme Peace. Peasant revolts throughout history used "supreme peace" as a catchword for their righteous cause. At the end of the Eastern Han dynasty (25-220), the Yellow Turban Rebellion used the slogan "The Way of Supreme Peace" to organize farmers; Song dynasty (960-1279) peasant-revolts were aimed at "destroying all inequality in order to achieve supreme peace"; in modern times, the peasant-rebellion led by Hong Xiuquan (Hung Hsiu-ch'uan) was known as the "Supreme Peace Army" (Taiping Jun) belonging to the "Heavenly Kingdom of Supreme Peace" (Tai-ping Tianguo).
Despite its preeminence in the Chinese mind, the ideal of attaining supreme peace has never been actualized. At most, the illusion of "supreme peace and a prosperous world" was realized during short periods of history. Chinese traditional idealism is basically fantasy. Past sages might have promulgated the ideal of "governing the country and bringing peace to the world" with true sincerity, but since its actualization is impossible, their intentions have to be looked at as little more than idealized feudalism.
We can observe that Chinese thought has always been characterized by a search for unity. From its earliest beginnings, Chinese philosophy stressed the unity of two concepts, or the mutual relationship between several concepts. In the Book of Changes, Qian and Kun (later yin and yang represent concepts of duality in unity, the "Great Principle" chapter in the Book of Rites was based on the system of "five elements" related through dualistic unities. Once Heaven and man were looked upon as dualistic philosophical concepts, Chinese philosophy began to place more emphasis on the unity of Heaven and man. This way of thinking is rational in its stress on harmony and unity, and in its objection to excess and insufficiency.
Under certain conditions, this ideal is beneficial to social stability and social development, as well as to the investigation of the actual relationships between objects. Social development requires a period of relative stability, while thought-cultures benefit significantly by mutual assimilation and confluence. History has alternating periods of maintaining the status quo and reformation. Since the Qin and Han dynasties (221 B.C.-A.D. 220), China has been in a state of great unity. Situations of fragmentation or division were always temporary. The Han people and the minority nationalities formed a unified country while at the same time assimilating foreign cultures. Based also on the concept of unity, Chinese medicine stresses an organic connection between man and his environment, between the human body and human spirit, between the organs of the body, as well as between various remedies. Qi (vitality) was used to explain the unity of things and the reason behind their mutual influence. There is a similarity here to the findings of modern physics.
Despite the contributions of Chinese philosophy, we cannot overlook the shortcomings in this national way of thinking. An overemphasis upon harmony and unity resulted in the prolonged stagnation of feudal society, the slow growth of capitalism, exaggerated national pride and a lack of progressive thinking. Chinese traditional philosophy lacks a systematic epistemology and a tradition of logic. Theoretical thinking in Chinese philosophy has not undergone analysis, and is rich in terms of the cognition of essences, similar to some of the conclusions of modern science. But without the necessary analysis and argument, it cannot develop into modern science. Because of the excessive attention paid to mutual relationships and unity and the total disregard of advanced anatomy, the traditional Chinese failed to mature along the path taken by modern science in the West. We must reform our traditional ways of thinking, applying logical discourse and scientific epistemology to the concepts of relationship, unity and cosmic harmony. We should stress specific analysis, avoid the long-recognized shortcomings in our philosophy, and make good use of the tenets of Western philosophy, in order to establish a school of scientific philosophy with Chinese traits. (Translated by Yuk Wong).
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