Live in the Now II: To Find the Perfect Way (or Wu Wei), Research Time, 09/04/2015

Continued from last post . . . In the era of the foundational Confucians – Kongzi, Mengzi, and Xunzi – the origin of Chinese civilization was already more myth than history. The Xia Dynasty was treated as a union of both, a mythical time when the empire’s rulers had fantastic powers, an intuitive grasp of the ritual that channelled Qi, the fundamental force of material becoming, to lead a society and house souls of perfect harmony.

I’ll import my own engagement with the foundational Western myths to engage with this idea. One major concept in Ecology, Ethics, and the Future of Humanity is a critique of what I (and a few others) call an Edenic way of thinking about nature. 

A scene from my personal favourite retelling of the
myth of Eden.
The Western myth of Eden conceives of the origin point of the world as a place of perfection, where humanity’s forebears lived in an intimate relationship with God. This is a time without history because genuine becoming is unnecessary. The Western myth conceives of the beginning of history as a fall (or rather a Fall, as it was a categorical transformation) from divine intimacy. 

Some interpretations of the myth of Eden conceive of the Fall as a product of rebellion against the order of God, and some specify this rebellion as the discovery or formulation of the knowledge required to rebel against God’s order (or God’s orders, depending on how authoritarian your conception of God might be). 

Aside from moronic Biblical literalists, no one really believes that Eden was a specific place in the world. It’s more often conceptualized precisely as a myth, a story to tell about humanity’s relationship with the divine. 

The Xia Dynasty is different. This was a real political epoch in the history of China, a real imperial line and government. Little direct record of it survives, but Xia is one of the foundational origin points for human civilization as it exists today. Xia ranks with Ur, Egypt, the Inca Empire, and the Abrahamic era of the tribes of Israel, to name just a few of the ancient genesis points of modern agricultural humanity.

Yet Barry’s book describes the foundational Confucian philosophers writing about the Xia Dynasty as if it had been a living Eden. Xia was an epoch when people were naturally in tune with the flow of the world’s generative energy, able to channel the productive forces of existence without resistance, producing a society in perfect harmony. Ritual emerged already perfected in the Xia era, humanity had since fallen from that perfection, and the task of Confucian philosophy was to restore the knowledge and practice of ritual to its perfect state.

So far, so Eden. But Barry raises an argument which, on the face of it, appears devastating for the conception of Xia as a harmonious society thanks to ritual’s perfect practice. It is a non-issue because Xunzi would conceive the problem of origins precisely as myth instead of history.

I can conceive of Eden as a perfect state of humanity because the Fall is a categorical transformation ontologically. The nature of humanity’s existence was different in the Edenic state of communion with God. But there was historical continuity between the period the Confucians idealized and their own time.

The Xia Dynasty was a historical forerunner to the era of Chinese civilization where Confucian philosophy developed. There is no ontological break between the people of the Xia era and that of the Warring States. Just a thousand years of history of which we, and the Confucians themselves, have sketchy knowledge.

The critique is, in essence, the question of who taught the people of Xia-era China the perfect rituals. The wisdom of a sage could not have developed spontaneously in a perfect form if the people of Xia were ontologically continuous with the people of Xunzi’s era or ours. Human nature, according to Xunzi, tends to pettiness and short-sighted selfishness. The last thing that could develop spontaneously among humanity is the wisdom of the sage. So the singularity of the Xia appears impossible.

Xunzi’s answer is literally as I described it at the beginning of this two-part post. The sketchy past of the Xia Dynasty provides a blank space in the popular sense of history into which you can throw in whatever you want. If you want to romanticize the Xia Dynasty as a period of perfect cultural and political harmony, you can. It’s not like there’s any evidence to contradict you.

The Western segregation of Eden from living humanity in its essence keeps us from conceiving of a genuine permanent solution to the Fall without the direct intervention of God on this plane of existence or another. 

You can imagine a historically and ontologically continuous culture with your own as having achieved the ideals that you want your own society to meet. Porting the ideals of perfect ritual and harmonious society to the Xia makes the goals of Confucian philosophy concrete. Because we can imagine this real society in our ancient past as having achieved such a difficult task, we understand the achievement as within our power.

So it doesn’t matter what the real circumstances of the Xia Dynasty were. The myth of the Xia is powerful because it’s a narrative of people who made themselves supermen. So the myth can guide our own work in our own era to build a better society.


  1. I must confess that I find your fascination with ancient Chinese philosophy puzzling, given how it has been applied in practice over the centuries -- even granting its strong ecological orientation. I doubt that any Chinese regime would have kept Spinoza (to refer to your own occidental ecological master) alive for very long...

    1. Well, Spinoza only barely escaped the Dutch monarchists himself.

      But yes, one of the intriguing things about Barry's book is that he hasn't touched on any of the political contexts in which these philosophies were developed. He opens up the book specifically saying that he's not speaking to the historical-political field of the philosophies, but trying to chart a new direction in comparative philosophy. I talked a little about that on Monday. Whether it's ultimately to the book's detriment or benefit that Barry's leaving the historical contexts out of play is something that I've yet to work out. I'll let you know when I've finished it.

      But I've also ordered his book on Chinese philosophy from the perspective of understanding their martial arts traditions. That could give a very different angle on the political and personal aspects of the philosophy and civilization. We'll see how that goes; it won't ship until sometime in May.

      I've written more about these ideas over the last week because I simply found it the most interesting material that I've been reading. But Vanishing Into Things is my pleasure reading right now. I may eventually explore a little more about the concept of wu wei, the perfection of knowledge in action. It reminds me a lot of Bergson's concept of intuition.

      And it may also inform some of how I might develop ideas in my science-fiction writing down the road. Possibly getting into the more detail of how the ant-like aliens in Under the Trees, Eaten experience the world, if a sequel to that project eventually develops. And may also be important to developing the thought and personalities of the android civilizations in my Alice stories, which are all still very embryonic.