Classical Chinese Culture Pt. I: Philosophy

I am not Chinese. So I cannot cannot ownership or authority to anything Chinese. Classical Chinese Culture is copyright Persons-of-biological-chinese-heritage.

I'm not sure if it's fair for me to have to include that. In fact, the entire concept of "cultural appropriation" as it is expressed today bothers me. All people should be free to enjoy whatever they like, call themselves whatever they like, be whomever they see fit to be.

But that's a rant for another blog post. I just wanted to say I'm aware I'm an outsider looking in. My subjective experience follows:

I am a westerner, specifically from Baltimore. My family's culture is Virginian and Louisianian hailing even earlier from diverse regions of Western Europe and the British Isles. When we talk about our own family's culture and values, they are assumed to be the Truth. Or just the way it is. Or they lie as unnoticed as a fish feeling it's wet.

"The unexamined life is not worth living" says the famously tired quote from Socrates. Or is it Plato?

And I've always wondered what else is out there, beyond my family's world-view. It can't be cultural appropriation to explore other people's art and philosophy. By doing so you see your own in a new light. It gives you a relative reference to see what your own culture has of value, and allows you perspective to know what doesn't need to be just the way it is.

Also, I'm a big Star Trek nerd. Studying other cultures and appreciating what they have to offer gets as close to the Star Trek mission of seeking out new life and new civilizations.

Hopefully without breaking their computer-gods and forcing your own culture down their throats like Kirk likes to do.

No, it's more like My little Pony Trek. Seek out new life and new civilizations to say hi, and discover the magic of friendship.

Anyway, on to some good stuff to start with if you'd like to seek out new life and new civilizations in China. And what better place to start with than...


Culture begins with a mindset, and that mindset is verbally expressed as philosophy. If you really want to know a place, study its sages.


Although this is perhaps the easiest Chinese philosophy for a westerner to grok, it's also the least rewarding and my least favorite. Summing up, it's a lot like Machiavelli's The Prince. It treats all people as tools for your personal victory. Legalism discourages reading, imagination, and individual heroics. The first empire in China, the Qin, even confiscated and burned books if they were not technical treatises on how to plant crops. Many classics were lost to that empire. Legalism feels that scholarship is a waste of time, and would consider imaginative thinking a deviant activity that steals resources from society to vaunt one's own ego.

It feels the best society is run by fear of punishment, because people are essentially evil and will steal from you if you give them the chance. Punishments are extreme. The idea being if the punishment for a minor offence is severe enough to cause fear, the subject will not dare to even think about committing major crimes. Additionally the society is set up in a way that demands self-policing. Punishments are meted out to groups for an individual's infraction. Common punishments are the execution of the perpetrator's entire family, or their incarceration in a convict labor pool building large public works such as military installations or palaces for the emperor. Neighbors will also be punished for not informing the authorities of their neigbor's crimes, or rewarded for informing on them.

The society is set up and run like a military operation with discipline through fear of punishment the aim for its people, and safety, peace and leisure the aim for its leader. The Qin Empire of the famed First Emperor used this philosophy exclusively. It was one of the chief inspirations for the Galactic Empire in Star Wars. And like the Galactic Empire, The Qin Dynasty lasted about 30 years. One day a man who would become the emperor of the Han Dynasty failed to report to work on time. Since the punishment was death to his entire family, there was no reason not to rebel. He was not the only person to do so. Legalism had taken a potentially loyal man and made sure he turned against the empire and destroyed it.

If there is one book that's the most popular among western audiences from this philosophical tradition, it's The Art of War, which is not a core writing of legalism, but one that expresses it at its least bad. The Art of War, unlike many other Legalist treatises, is harsh, but with the ultimate goal of limiting the unnecessary death, destruction, and economic hardship war creates. The best war is the one that is won without ever being fought. The worst is a prolonged siege. when The Art of war is interpreted well, it's a fantastic book, but it also contains methods for oppression and domination. It is, however, not dishonest about what war is. It's nature is cruelty.

Though few today would want to call themselves legalist, this philosophy still persists unspoken in the shadows of Chinese culture. It's easy to understand. Some praise it. I criticise it. But it is not all China has to offer.


Confucianism lives two lives in chinese culture. In one, it is the way of the sages, of government by the wise for the benefit of enriching the people. It promotes familial love and respect for one's heritage. It is Meritocracy. In the other it is a dogmatic and oppressive philosophy where men are valued over women and where new ideas can naver hope to equal the past glory of the ancient sages. The latter is easy to find. It's the philosophical bread and butter of dysfunctional families. And is the dressing thrown over Legalism to allow it to maintain social control through shame and keep the masses from revolting against the rich. Confucianism has spent the last century being harshly criticised and feebly defended. So I'm going to focus on the former, more optomistic side of the philosophy.

Confucianism is the Jedi to Legalism's Sith. That being said, its still super-easy to misinterpret. Much like Christian values have for ages in the west been used to shame deviants and justify attrocity, Confucianism in its unexamined state can be misinterpreted for use as a philosophy of social control. You have to keep that in mind when world leaders or political pundits preach Confucianism, or detract from it. They are criticizing it's easy-to-understand lesser doctrines, or praising it for how it can keep themselves rich and keep the masses from "spitting in the streets" or otherwise socially rebelling.

When you do a thorough and engaged reading of the texts, you find that it is not a method of social control, but a method for all people, starting with yourself, to grow in wisdom and be surrounded by the love of family and the respect of society. And If you read The Great Learning and The Doctrine of the Mean (still part of the original texts, just highlighted by later scholars), you will see at its core, Confucianism is a formula for how to change the world and turn it into a utopia. It all starts with yourself. There is of course so much more, but that's recommended for a first toe-dipping.


Some people think of Taoism as a magic practice that strives for physical immortality and sexual virility. That it's a bunch of superstitious talk of learning how to fly on clouds, stop bullets with your personal magnetism, make yourself rich by choosing the right spot for your house or predict the future with sticks and coins. But that's not what Tao is.

"The Tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao."
- First line of the DaoDeJing.

As if to prove that point, Dao = Tao (道). English first transliterated Chinese into Roman Characters in the 19th century, the Wade-Giles Romanization. I personally find Wade-Giles distasteful and imperialistic. A more true form of romanization came with PinYin, developed in China with sensitivity to the International Phonetic Alphabet. Instead of being labelled by the British, this system was developed by the Chinese to represent themselves to western culture. Dao can mean "way". But again, Taoism focuses on the undefined. For example, a cup is defined by the ceramic that its made of, but what gives it usefulness is the emptiness at its center. A house is defined by walls, floor and roof, but it's where those walls are not (windows and doors) that give the house function.

Taoism strives for WuWei, meaning "without express intent" or "without rolling one's sleeves up and forcing." When one achieves WuWei, which can also mean "Not doing", one finds that WuBuWei - "Nothing is left undone." When you target something and do it, one thing gets defined, but everything else suffers. When WuBuWei occurs, everything is done at once because nothing is singled out. This philosophy is even harder than Confucianism to grok, but yields even higher rewards. It has limitless applications, though it is expressly useless. Perfect for software engineering!

Beyond the DaoDeJing is ZhuangZi, a master of Tao. Master Zhuang was thought of as being completely insane by his peers. His writing has been unequalled in Chinese tradition, and he is frequently quoted in literature. He's probably one of the funniest, most profound writers of history. Famous for saying mankind's view of the universe is like a frog's view of the sky from the bottom of a well. And for once dreaming he was a butterfly only to awaken and be unsure if he was ZhuangZi who dreamed he was a butterfly, or a butterfly dreaming she is ZhuangZi.

The YiJing is also one of the Five Confucian Classics, but it's a bedrock Taoist text as well. The best way to understand the YiJing is as a manual of how one thing changes into another thing. It represents the transformations the universe goes through. It can be used like a deck of tarot cards, but that's a terrible use of it. If you understand how things change, you'll never need to throw coins to see what comes next. The best way to understand that is to have a teacher who knows tell you. But barring that, focus on Qian and Kun guas. Or more easily, focus on Kun gua. Once you have achieved that gua, and reached an extreme, you'll also understand Qian. The rest is details. But also study the essential twelve gua in this order:

  1. Fu(24)
  2. Lin(19)
  3. Tai(11)
  4. DaZuang(34)
  5. Guai(43)
  6. Qian(1)
  7. Gou(44)
  8. Dun(33)
  9. Pi(12)
  10. Guan(20)
  11. Bo(23)
  12. Kun(2)

That's the cyclic flow of all things. Other gua are simply confusions or permutations of those essential twelve.

Taoist books tend to be short and cryptic. There are myriad interpretations, and all of them are correct. Some, however are better than others. Through your life, you will find that a reading of those texts tends to grow and develop. The text is not the thing that's growing. You are. You're learning to comprehend the wordless with greater clarity at each pass. Like many great things. Taoist classics can take an afternoon to read, but a lifetime to master.

Recommended: The Power of Now by Eggart Tolle

There are many Buddhist traditions that have been born in China, but none integrates the native traditions of China and the imported elements from India better than Chan, known to the west as Zen. Of particular note are the stories of the Boddidarma and HuiNeng. Most people focus on the GongAn, the Koans as they are known to the west, but the Heart of Chan is not ZuoChan (Zazen meditiation) or even these highly-structured GongAn. Among the keys are incident of the Boddhidharma and Emperor Wu:

Emperor Wu: "How much karmic merit have I earned for ordaining Buddhist monks, building monasteries, having sutras copied, and commissioning Buddha images?"  
Bodhidharma: "None. Good deeds done with worldly intent bring good karma, but no merit."  
Emperor Wu: "So what is the highest meaning of noble truth?"  
Bodhidharma: "There is no noble truth, there is only emptiness."  
Emperor Wu: "Then, who is standing before me?"  
Bodhidharma: "I know not, Your Majesty."  

Another is attributed to him, which attempts to define Chan. Regardless of its origins, it has merit:

A special transmission outside the scriptures  
Not founded upon words and letters;  
Pointing directly to the heart  
letting one see Nature and attain Buddhahood.  

As for HuiNeng, his story can be found here.

If all this seems a little mysterious, there's a hack. Read Eggart Tolle's The Power of Now, and actually practice it. It's written from a modern western perspective, but points directly to what Chan is all about. Once you have had a taste of it there, you'll understand how to interpret the above.

Another interesting bit is by understanding Confucianism, Taoism and Chan you'll find they each draw out the best qualities of the others. Like pairing fruits and nuts with cheese. Unlike western religions that set up walls to exclude each other, eastern philosophies compete by including their competitors' views, but claiming theirs to be a more complete picture.

Isn't that just the same as copyright v. open source? In one, work done by an alien source is a competitor and must be expunged. Likewise anything of yours a competitor uses is heresy. With open source, each competitor builds on the other's success but competes to see which platform includes the most options and has the most function.

Definitely do not try to choose one view to the exclusion of the others. It will only limit your understanding. You'll then realize its a fantastic sauce to spread on any practice in your life.

Later I'll continue this series with posts on History and Art.