When I was looking around some popular accounts of Chinese history (yes, Wikipedia) to learn some basic facts about the period when Kongzi, Mengzi, and Mozi were writing, I discovered something fascinating and perplexing. And I don’t often consider myself perplexed.
Both the Confucian writers and all their rivals looked back with awe on the Xia Dynasty. This was a centuries-long period of unsurpassed peace and harmony at all levels of Chinese society, running from about 2200 BC to 1766 BC. Achieving the ideal social existence of the Xia era is the long-term goal of Confucian philosophy.
But this political epoch also creates a kind of null space in Chinese history, or at least the Chinese cultural self-conception. There’s apparently very little archaeological evidence of what life in the Xia era was like, and some skeptical movements have appeared in China’s archaeological circles about its existence. Kongzi himself lived more than a thousand years after the end of the Xia Dynasty. The origin of Chinese civilization is shrouded in unsolvable mystery.
My old supervisor Barry Allen’s book about Chinese philosophy, Vanishing Into Things, has a wonderful passage about how to treat this mystery. It occurs in an account of the works and ideas of Xunzi, the foundational Confucian philosopher who treated the question of China’s origins with the most nuanced eye, as brushing off anyone who questioned it and asserting that there was nothing to see here, folks.
This gets pretty complicated, and I may actually spread this over two posts.* The explanation of how to handle the problem of China’s origins in the Xia Dynasty civilization comes up in the context of justifying ceremonial ritual. Ritual is the centrepiece of Confucian political and personal practice, the art of statecraft and character. It’s a training process to reach the ideal perfection of character that the spiritual and political leaders of the Xia era achieved.
* I already numbered the title and gave it a sub-head. You can tell by now that I’m handling this over two posts.
Why ritual has this power to perfect character and society lies in the metaphysics of Qi. Qi isn’t actually a mystical concept, despite how all the racialized images of Chinese culture in Western media depict Qi as the sacred force that magical Shaolin wizards channel with their kung fu powers so David Carradine can cook frittatas with his mind.
The philosopher Mengzi actually did a lot of the basic work building the metaphysics of Qi, and Barry describes it without any of the unfortunate mysterian bullshit that most of us have come to associate with the term. And it doesn’t have anything to do with furniture design either. Man, this racism is making me angry.
But about Mengzi. As Barry describes Mengzi’s concept, Qi is simply the qualitative energy of existence. It’s the same conception as becoming, except understood not in such an abstract term, but as a determined flow. All dynamic qualities express Qi, and so are themselves Qi, but no finite expressions completely exhaust the potential of Qi. Qi is movement itself understood as material.
Qi flows through movements that can take any form, but in all its contexts of expression, there is an optimal pattern of force and flow for Qi. Ritual is learning to move yourself, including both your body and your mind, to express Qi most optimally. Confucian ritual is about learning how to move in any situation to express Qi most smoothly, to let it flow through you and your world without any resistance.
And ritual is hard. Really hard. Most people don’t even come close to the ideal of perfecting ceremonial ritual to the point of channelling Qi without resistance. Yet there’s a curious paradox here, which is where my thinking returns to Barry’s account of Xunzi.
Say Kongzi was the first great Confucian for conceiving of ritual, order, and harmony as the guiding ideal for society. Say Mengzi became the second great Confucian for understanding the metaphysics of ritual. Say Xunzi became the third great Confucian for showing how to teach and how not to teach ritual and the philosophy of ritual.
The core of Xunzi’s lesson about the nature and purpose of ritual for daily life, at least as Barry presents it, revolves around this question of the origins of our knowledge of ritual. Particularly the historical singularity of the Xia Dynasty, how we understand its heritage, its reality, and even whether it was real at all. Or even if it needs to be. . . To be continued.