Lao Tze for Contemporary society

Zenith of the Chinese political philosophy development was during the period of 春秋戰國時代, (Spring and Autumn – Warring States period) five to seven nations fiercely fought in order to be the inheritant of 周 and unite China under their name. In order to meet the dire needs of countless rulers, diverse philosophies developed. Some of them are so deep that I find their core principles applicable even to contemporary society.

Such application is possible perhaps because such theories had deep concerns about human nature and governing dynamics – the factors that won’t largely change over time. Political theorists at this age offered a whole new framework, rather than shallow and hand-on political techniques. Among 諸子百家 (Hundred Schools of Thoughts) in 春秋戰國時代, I would like to review 老子, in contemporary light.

Perhaps, 老子 (Lao Tze) is already really well-known in western world, along with his classical writing 道德經 and followingly created Taoism. However, most discussions about him seem to stay in level of metaphysical philosophy. Also, his image tends to be described as someone surreal and mysitcal in contrast to 公子 (Confucius) Yet, I suggest that his teachings are valuable to contemporary politicians.

Ideal ruler in theory 老子 is called 聖人. (Holy Man) The term is somewhat analogous to Superman of Nietzsche that he trenscended human limit. However, while Superman earned such status with relentless tries and battle, achievement of 聖人 is achieved mainly by letting things go. For very easy analogy, 老子 compares 聖人 to water:


上善若水. 水善利万物而不爭, 處衆人之所惡, 故幾於道. 居善地, 心善淵, 與善仁, 言善信, 正善治, 事善能, 動善時, 夫唯不爭故無尤. (Water harbours supreme goodness and is closest to 道, for it serves everything, not try to compete, and just flows to lower, unpreferable places. Wisdom of seeking low ground, mind of the depth, humane socialization, credible words, just ruling, dedicated serving, and timely movement. For it never competes, it never gets criticized.)


How natural is water? Its movement embodies rules of physics perfectly. In fact, 道, which becomes the prime measure of what is good and bad in theories of 老子 is a principle that runs cosmic cycle – the nature. Though we cannot conceptualize 道, we can always find the pattern and feel it intuitively. Thus, he specifically tells rulers to rule naturally, with least intervention:


太上不知有之, 其次親而譽之 … 功成事遂 百姓皆謂我自然 … 生之畜之 生而不有 爲而不恃 長而不宰 是謂玄德 (The best is to be not well known, the next best is to be revered … Let people say, “It was all naturally done, even after success … Give birth and raise, but don’t try to possess. Even you accomplish everything, don’t hang on it. Rule but don’t dominate. Such is the great virtue.)


While he wants us to be as natural as possible, he also wants us to avoid excessiveness, even if that is socially considered as good thing, because it could be unnatural:


虛而不屈, 動而愈出, 多言數窮, 不如守中 … 持而盈之, 不如其已, … 功遂身退, 天之道 … (Empty but limitless, more you move, more you show. Many words will only make you troubled. There is no better thing than keeping midway.)


絶聖棄智, 民利百倍. 絶仁棄義, 民復孝慈 … 絶學無憂 … 小卽得 多卽惑 (Stop pretentious knowledge, it benefits people by hundreds. Stop pretentious love, and people will recover compassion and filiality … Stop learning, and you have no worries … If you have little, you get. If you have a lot, you are coerced.


Complex and artificialized, our society seems to have lost what benefit simplicity gives. Maybe we must look back and try to discern whether what we believe as ‘good’ or ‘just’ today are actually shading bigger facts and greater goods.

Shanghai Impression: Part 3

 The overall problem in China I experienced and made it harder to adjust here was traffic problem. Cars did not read the sign at all in most cases. Shanghai drivers could not be exempt from this criticism. Still, while I was in Shanghai only, I thought urban legends about Chinese traffic accidents were a little overstated. However, when I visited other cities, I realized that it was not overstated at all. Especially, when I went to Xian, known as the city with the highest car accident related death cases, I was more surprised. Traffic example only sheds narrow light to understanding morality of contemporary Chinese, but in many cases, not only limited to this, Shanghainese often shows more refined sense of morality then people from other cities.

How so? Are they somewhat born to be better person? Not quite. It’s more relevant to what happened in recent century. Cultural Revolution and uprising of Red Guard brought about significant change in common Chinese people’s psyche. Before then, Chinese ethic was mostly grounded on Confucianism, through a mechanism called hierarchical discipline. Cultural Revolution whole-heartedly undermined the very ground and mechanism. Tradition and Confucian symbols were attacked as being anti-communist and the most important rule in Confucian world – 長幼有序 – was annihilated by Red-Guards. Meanwhile, Shanghai was tightly protected from such disorders by 周恩來’s special orders. This shows how contemporary Shanghainese came to have different mindset, compared to the totally renewed other contemporary Chinese people.

Now we move on to poor hygiene. I remember visiting 張家界, a small town in 湖南 省 known for its tourism, especially among Koreans. Overall look of the city was extremely different from that of Shanghai. It lacked infrastructure, had massive slum and not a small number of motels didn’t even have hot water. This city, apart from East Coast of China for about 1000km, showed me how economically diverse – and bipolarized – whole China is. At the rich end, there would be Shanghai, Hong Kong, Guangzhou and other East Coast cities, while inland and western regions will be at the other end.

Concept of hygiene will be different in each cities depending on their economic level. Therefore, when Shanghainese feel repented about outlanders’ poor hygiene, it not only shows the difference in hygiene but also in whole economy. Shanghai is a port city, which has always been full of trades. Easily accessed by western investors, its economy stayed in starkly different level from other regions. In world education ranking, Shanghai competes Number 1 with Korea and Hong Kong, while its mother country stays in two digit ranks. Economically speaking, it is almost a different country from elsewhere.

Then loudness? This is more relevant to different values people hold in Shanghai and other places. We can compare Beijing and Shanghai. When I spoke in Korean in Shanghai, I’ve not seen that much people reacting. We must know that there are way more Korean students in Beijing than in Shanghai, and therefore, people here are more likely to be surprised by my presence than people in Beijing. Now, when I went to Beijing, some of them even asked me for my number. Also, the time I spent in becoming friends with each other was way shorter with Beijingers than with Shanghainese. These two comparisons show that Shanghainese are often more introverted, and care less about surroundings or others’ business. Beijing people were extroverted and extremely curious. This doesn’t seem to be only limited to Beijingers but to other Chinese as well.

Clearly, Shanghai is a peculiar city. Its people show a lot of difference from people from other places of China. It is not strange that Shanghainese feel difference and become exclusive towards other Chinese due to the stark contrasts in economy, psychology and values. It is also understandable that Shanghainese sometimes feel more familiar with other Asians – such as Japanese, Taiwanese and Koreans. Such a peculiarity is charming, yet for its coexistence and cooperation with other regions in China, exclusionism needs to be loosened. After all, it’s a part of China anyway and Shanghainese come from all parts of China; just as my language partner being Northeast person, my best friend coming from Xinjiang, and my significant other born in Henan.

Shanghai Impression: Part 2

Why did people then think of European and Non-European culture as superior and inferior? Clearly, it’s because of successful colonization. In fact, not only Japan’s but also most of the Non-European countries’ elites would have thought same. Advanced weaponry and science of Europe was shock and awe to most of Asia and so to China.Shanghai was one of the few cities that first forcedly opened by British Empire. Beijing was not in the list, and before this opening, Shanghai was merely a small fishing town.

This leads to the conclusion that Shanghai as a City, actually cannot identify itself as Chinese city. Urban center of current Shanghai all used to be the part of foreigner district, divided by French, British, American and so on concessions. Maybe Shanghai was on the land of Qing Empire, but city Shanghai was constructed by those Europeans.

In the meantime, Shanghainese were somehow way more passionate about learning foreign culture and language than people of other cities. It had biggest number of foreign language learning center – even more than the bigger city back then, Beijing. This passion has not died even in nowadays. So many girls I got to know here were extremely for making English-speaking boyfriend, including mine now. When my friends are out for night club, they would often say when they come back that it seems they went out not for dance but cross-culture and language lessons.

However, history doesn’t completely explain animosity against other Chinese. It only explains how Shanghai is psychologically different from other regions, and maybe the residents feel a slight superiority over others who are less modern. Then what would make then so exclusive? The answer lies in what they find repenting in outside people. Usually, what I can read from comments of Shanghainese regarding outsiders is their dislike of outlanders’ 1) lack of morality, 2) poor hygiene, and 3) loudness.

Shanghai Impression: Part 1

“I don’t think of myself as Chinese.”

“You clearly are, my friend. Your name tells me.”

“OK. I STILL HATE THEM. Dirty, stupid, lazy blah blah blah…”

Due to this dialogue, the first so-called, “True Shanghainese” I met ever since I arrived at Shanghai didn’t give me that good impression. To me, one hating one’s own ethnicity sounded somewhat irrational and overly proud. That is not so different from spitting on one’s own face – a self-disdain. And for what on earth are they so GREAT? Still, it was interesting. I’ve previously seen similar cases among Korean students in U.S. colleges. They would intentionally avoid socializing with Koreans or enjoying Korean culture. Their exclusionism against me was somewhat alike Shanghainese’ exclusionism against 外地人.

However, one big difference is that aforementioned Korean students are from everywhere and are living in different country, while Shanghainese are from one place, Shanghai, and live their everyday life together with the Chinese they disdain / fear. Not all cars on the Shanghai road have 湖 sign on its back. Some cars are from nearby cities and often times from really far places, for instance, Chengdu. I’ve also seen tremendous amount of people who speak in Beijing accent or Cantonese that I frankly cannot understand.

This city is that bustling with diversity. It’s not like only Shanghai native and foreigners. Yet, Shanghainese somehow manage to keep them alarmed against Chinese from other regions (and remain as probably only Chinese city that majority of population likes Japan.) This weird phenomenon drew my interest, and I thought it was relatable to Shanghai’speculiar and dynamic contemporary history.

Why do some people want to deny their root, even though that will hurt their own dignity in the course? In most cases, and especially among Asians, it is deeply relevant to Cultural Absolutism. Earliest form of such thoughts could be found in late 19th and early / mid 20th century Japan, by studying the phrase 脫亞入歐. The phrase literally means, “escaping from Asia and entering to Europe.” This phrase was widely spread among rich and educated class, especially among political scientists. It could be easily inferred that Japanese people back then defined Asia as a pronoun of inferiority or what they have to come out of, and Europe as their ideal destination.


民間道敎 as Religion of the People: Journey to the West, Part 3.

Within this novel which is full of criticism against religions, the character that manifests all that is good – an ideal man in thoughts of Wu Cheng En – is 孫悟空. He has talents outstanding numerous generals and 神仙 of the heaven in battle or spell. Given the sensible decisions he made throughout the journey, he seems to be quite clever as well. With all these diverse capabilities, he also detests unfair authorities. He is also an only reasonable thinker along with 太上老君 within this novel which is full of characters with the mentality we cannot easily understand.

It seems that Wu Cheng En tried to express his desire to drive unjust court and authorities of 明代 into the character of 孫悟空, the incarnation of talented and good-hearted Taoist 神仙. The character shares some aspects with “Superman” of Nietzsche, one who is infinitely reasonable by overcoming humane limits. Not only he is talented, but considering that he endured all the hardships 玄奘 caused and still served him to the end, he shows somewhat astonishing endurance too. 孫悟空 also has a good deal of leadership in situation of crises. All in all, perhaps these might be the features that Wu Cheng En desired in his ideal leader: wise and talented, yet very just one with, more than any other things, practical mind.

As I said at the beginning, you can only think about higher concepts or afterlife, when you are done with concerns about this life. Survival – necessary wealth thereof – is the primary concern, the better life the next, and something irrelevant to this life and this world will be the last concern. For so many people, neither most religions nor most leaders provided real-life comforts. Most elites were chasing their own aim, which was not in the physical realm. Their abstract thoughts and formalisms did not enhance people’s life. Religions were not different. They had too complex theories for average people to understand, and would not show what people can benefit from them in real life.

While such was the case of established religions and imperial court, folk religions concentrated in dealing with people’s ongoing hardships. They often listened to the cries and answered by promising fortune in return for the prayer and a little bit of donation. Then people began to wait for messiah – not the one who will make everybody disappointed with idealism, but make their lives actually better with brightness and practicality. Such a desire always used to exist in history: the desire for real human 孫悟空.