Truth, Happiness, and Understanding: Applying Traditional Chinese Thought to the Modern World

It is often difficult at first glance to see how the ancient thought of China is relevant to the vast, global metropolises that constitute China of the 21st century, and yet it is only through understanding a culture’s past that one can hope to understand its future. In addressing the question of historical progress, of what constitutes an enlightened and robust civil society, we must consider China’s heterodox heritage that has included Buddhist and Daoist emphases on creative powers of the imagination and personal liberation through a natural internal power, as well as the earthbound filial duty of Confucianism stressing ancestor worship and a system of hierarchical yet mutual respect.

We must be alert to the native currents of individual agency and spiritual independence that have existed in China’s past and attuned to how they have been oppressed or harnessed by the political agendas of the present. Despite the CCP’s best attempts to suggest otherwise, freedom of expression, personal agency, and an individual right to happiness are not decadent western imports but may be found, albeit in very different versions, within the Chinese tradition. Modernity never floats free of the influence of the past and as long as people are still interested in questions such as what makes a good life, what is ethical conduct, or what type of government is most just, traditional Chinese thought will continue to influence the development of modern China.

In everything from attitudes to sport, architectural design, dining etiquette or sex and marriage practices, traditional Chinese thought is present. To take one example, the lack of historical buildings in China may be attributed to the destruction wrought by the Cultural Revolution, but a broader historical understanding adds a layer of nuance in that the indifference towards erecting monumental buildings to last forever exists in several East Asian traditions. Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines are often torn down and replaced, as it is the site rather than the building itself that is considered most important. If western cultures historically favored erecting grand palaces and cathedrals as a way of defying mortality, the Chinese reification of the written word, exemplified in the art of calligraphy, illuminates a different perspective on how to deal with the passing of time. The materiality of the Chinese script is of a higher importance to material things.

When we speak of Confucianism in China, this is, of course, a very different phenomenon from the writings of Confucius himself. Confucius did not write for the benefit of a state bureaucracy and his writings contain a moral critique of the status quo. We must return to the sources if we are to understand Confucian thought for what it is rather than what it is made to be by a government more interested in crushing dissent and maintaining a “harmonious” (hexie 和諧) society than in allowing people to question and probe for themselves.When Confucius was asked by one of his disciples what he would do if he were given his own territory to govern, he replied that he would “rectify the names,” that is, make words correspond to reality. He explained that:

If the names are not correct, if they do not match realities, language has no object. If language is without an object, action becomes impossible—and therefore, all human affairs disintegrate and their management becomes pointless. (Simon Leys translation)

Although Confucius lived over 2500 years ago, it is not hard to see the relevance of this insight to our own world. In our globalized, instantaneous world of internet spin, targeted marketing, the 24-hour news cycle, identity politics, and rising nationalism, the difficulty of ascertaining truths and of having language match the reality for which it stands has never been more acute. What does it mean to say we are witnessing the American Dream, the China Dream (zhongguo meng 中國夢), or a “new era” (xin shidai 新時代)? What does it mean to make a country “great” again? To what reality do these slogans correspond? How do we go back and rectify the names, to restore meaning and value and realizations to the promises we make?

In a world of competing religions and global superpowers in which everyone is convinced of their own truth, prospects for mutual human toleration and intersubjective understanding would be greatly enhanced by returning to some of the values of Confucian thought: “If language is without an object, action becomes impossible”.

And so it is impossible to understand a modern nation like China without some comprehension of the philosophical systems which structure the way human beings see themselves within the family, society and the cosmos as a whole. Traces of traditional thought exist in every person though they may not be consciously aware of them. From the particularities of the Chinese script to views on marriage or the afterlife, the intricate texture of a person’s symbolic universe bears the mark of thousands of years of civilization.

It is incredibly hard to truly inhabit another’s standpoint, but by making efforts to learn the language, history, artistic, religious and philosophical modes of thought that underpin a modern nation, we open up the possibility of shared prosperity. If more world leaders took the time to dig deep into the traditional systems of thought that underpin other societies, then peace, dialogue and mutual profitability would more often replace war, economic deprivation and wasted opportunities.

A country is always so much more than its economic system or political organization, its military power or its GDP. It is a collective of complex individuals shaped by cultural fragments that linger on and refuse to be destroyed. It is these fragments we must gather and really think with if we are to guard against our mutual ruin. The most cherished writer of China’s 20th century, Lu Xun, believed in the power of literature to transform the mind, spirit and character of the Chinese people. In one of this most powerful metaphors, Lu Xun imagines China as an iron prison house on fire where most inmates prefer deep sleep and an unconscious death. This startling image is one that needs to be born in mind by all of us global citizens who prefer to question, probe and think rather than blithely accept the “truths” handed to us by our governments, institutions, and media outlets. As Bauer writes:

“Utopia and the ideal are not the same as happiness; they are too easily contaminated by lies. For those who claim to have brought utopia into existence are as far from the truth as those who maintain that it can never become reality. A life without hope for happiness is no life. But the life which is a succession of too many vain hopes is equally unbearable.”

It remains to be seen whether the “China Dream” will bear the fruits of happiness for the Chinese people, whether the iron house can be torn down amidst a great awakening.

Elizabeth Harper is a student at Yale University. Contact her at beth.harper@yale.edu.

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