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December 30, 2007
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December 30, 2007

Page: 40/45

Home > 2007 Issues > December 30, 2007

Think it over

Man in Chinese life and thought

By M.S.N. Menon

Man was at the centre of Chinese life and thought. Not God. The Chinese had little interest in anything speculative and metaphysical. They were utterly practical. Change was at the heart of Chinese thought. (I Ching?Book of change was central to Chinese thinking.)

Religion sat lightly on the Chinese. Ancestor worship was universal. While the emperor had his special God, the masses worshipped the spirits. The spirits accepted the people?s offerings, listened to their prayers and sent down rewards and punishments. In short, they controlled the destiny of the Chinese.

Confucius, the greatest Chinese sage, advocated practical life. He expected the citizen to be active, hard-working, engaged in devotion to their ancestors and the state. There was no place for a contemplative life in Confucianism. Filial piety was the principal virtue. The still mind of the sage is a mirror of heaven and earth?so went a saying. But the Chinese sage did not renounce life. He took an active part in the life of society. Salvation was the least on his mind. Which explains why even the emperor worshipped Confucius. The Chinese opposed all forms of asceticism.

The highest in man is reason, but not in China. The Chinese mind is not given to abstract thinking. Nor was it very creative. In art or poetry, there is very little evidence of creativity. Naturally, the Chinese intellectual life was inferior to that of Greece and India. There is, however, profuse ornamentation and imitation of nature but no imagination.

The Chinese were not curious about life after death or about immortality. ?Not yet understanding life, how can you understand death?? asks Confucius. It was Buddhism which introduced ideas about life after death in China. The Chinese characterised the shaving of head and burning of the dead as uncivilised.

Confucius spent his life in the service of the state. He established a conservative society and created conditions for its long life. He insisted on a moral order. But China?s morality was not derived from God.

China had another face: That of militarism. For every Confucius with his moral order, China produced a Shang Yang, the philosopher of militarism (4th c BC) Shang Yang was popular with Mao Tse-tung and the Chinese ruling class. He believed wars were inevitable and wanted the state to be prepared for war.

On the nature of man, the Chinese had different thoughts. Some thought man was good, others thought he was evil. Mencius, disciple of Confucius, thought that evil was for want of cultivation of the mind. So, man is the cause of his downfall.

According to Taoists, happiness is achieved when one is in harmony with nature. Happiness comes out spontaneously. Benevolence is the key word of Chinese ethics. The honesty of a Chinese merchant was proverbial. The Chinese rejected the Christian doctrine of ?original sin.?

Haun Tzu (298-238 BC) says that man is born with hatred and envy. Human nature is thus evil, he says. He produced the ?Legalists?, who in turn produced draconian laws to contain the evil in man. Others said that man is a mixture of good and evil, like Yin and Yang.

To Confucius, it was the individual who was important. To Taoists, society was more important. A good society depended on the moral consciousness of the individual. Wealth was never the criterion for social ranking. Soldiers were seldom honoured. The emperor did not carry a sword. The Chinese held virtue and wisdom supreme.

Toism, Buddhism and Confucianism dominated China?s religious life. In its spiritual and ethical life, China was greatly influenced by India, the ?Western heaven?. Mencius had said that all men become Yao and Shun (ideal Chinese sages). Reminds one of the Buddhist view that all men can become Bodhisatvas.

Neo-Confucians philosopher Chang Tsai says that in the original state of being, which he called the ?Great Vacuity? (Shunyata)?a Buddhist concept?there was no form and no evil. But when it assumed forms, differentiation followed. He says reality is one, but it differentiates itself into many (a Vedic concept).

Harmony with nature is the essence of the Taoist teaching. Many doctrines came out of this belief. ?Be a companion with nature?, Taoists say. It is a kind of union with God.

For everything in man, there is a corresponding aspect in nature. In other words, man is a microcosm of the macro-cosm. They influence each other.

With their monopolistic right to interpret nature, the Confucians controlled their superstitious rulers. There was no divine right of kings in China. The raison d?etre of a good government was the good of the people.

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