An evening in August

An evening in August

London is quiet.  The sky is grey, with light rain forecast.  Apple music is playing tunes it thinks I will like.  Generally, I do.  I am in my armchair with a book, half-reading, half-listening.  As near as possible I am relaxed, calm, at peace.

How bizarre!  

I dip into the words of one of China’s great, yet least-known, philosophers – Zhuangzi.  The distance between us is more than 7,000 miles and 2,500 years.  They are insignificant, minuscule, measures in cosmic terms.  Our culture and way of life are further apart than time and space.

Yet, we are all human.  We eat, live and love on the same small planet.  We feel pain and joy.  We need sleep and food.  We travel, discuss, and clothe ourselves.  

Across the miles and the centuries, are Zhuangzi’s thoughts so different from ours?  

I want to tell you something I have learned in all human relations. If the two parties are living close to each other they may form a bond through personal trust; but if they are far apart, they must use words to communicate their loyalty, and words must be transmitted by someone. To transmit words that are either pleasing to both parties or infuriating to both parties is one of the most difficult things in the world.

by Rémi Walle
by Rémi Walle

When men get together to pit their strength in games of skill they start off in a light and friendly mood but usually end up in a dark and angry one. If they go on too long, they start resorting to various underhanded tricks.

Anger arises from no other cause than clever words and one-sided speeches.

Professor Tao Jiang, of the Department of Religion at Rutgers University in New Jersey endorses Zhuangzhi:

The Confucians and the Mohists were the dominant players in the early Chinese moral-political debate about how to build an orderly and fulfilling world amid increasing chaos and violence in the Warring States period (c475-221 BCE). That mainstream debate was a contest between two concepts of moral obligation, humaneness, and justice. Humaneness is a concept embraced by the Confucians, and justice is a concept advocated by the Mohists and others. All the mainstream philosophers were active participants in the debate about how the state should be made to embody the principle of humaneness or justice – except Zhuangzi.

Zhuangzi did not accept the terms of this debate, dismissing both humaneness and justice as confining and even harmful.  Instead, he was a strong advocate for personal freedom.  This was a challenge to the rituals of Confucian philosophy.

by 五玄土 ORIENTO
by 五玄土 ORIENTO

Ritual was a system of rules, codes and conventions that regulated most aspects of human life in early China, from sacred funeral rituals to mundane daily routines and ordinary personal interactions. It would become a marker that distinguished ‘civilised’ people, who abided by those rituals, from ‘barbarians’ who did not.

Alan Jay Levinovitz, an associate professor of philosophy and religion at James Madison University in Virginia, disagrees. He interprets ‘ritual’ in a different way.

What might seem like a recipe for neuroticism is in fact a statement about the all-encompassing range of ritual. Consider proper timing, important for standard rituals. Confucius points out that timing is an essential element of all activities. ‘To speak when it is not yet time to speak – this is called being rash. To not speak when it is time to speak – this is called being secretive.’ Sometimes we rush to say something instead of waiting for our friend to finish. We have not treated the rhythm of the conversation as sacred. We violated Confucian ritual. And what happens? Our friends get annoyed because you interrupted them.

Ritual, as effortless action, might make it seem like habit.  Good habits (and bad ones) are effortless, reflexive actions cultivated through repetition.  But there is a serious problem with this analogy. Habits are difficult to change. They are inflexible. If you are in the habit of, say, greeting people by shaking their hand, then not shaking hands during the COVID pandemic might initially take effort. You must change the habit.

But ritual is more like improvised music or athletic performance.  Jazz soloists do not play according to rigid habits. They adjust to their bandmates, the mood of the evening. The same is true of good athletes, who adjust to different opponents and conditions. Playing the same way according to habit would be the equivalent of greeting every person you meet, from strangers to your spouse, in the same way,

 by Akson
by Akson

Confucian ritual is similarly flexible. It depends on awareness of the relevant factors in any given situation. Someone who submits to ritual does not shake hands out of habit. They shake hands because, in that context, shaking hands is the proper thing to do. When a pandemic hits, shaking hands may no longer be the right way to greet someone.  If your actions are a habit, changing them will take effort. But if your actions are a function of ritual, you shift away from handshaking and adjust your greeting style to the relevant factors of the new context. And if you are a master of ritual, adjustment comes effortlessly, like an athlete or musician who’s ‘in the groove’.


Tao Jiang concludes his essay with the words:

The Zhuangists regarded freedom as a private endeavour, not as a political institution or collective effort. Consequently, it was left to each person to cultivate a personal space to enjoy personal freedom in the world, or to stay out of it. It is a tragedy of historic proportion that the Zhuangist approaches to freedom were not factored into the way the (Chinse) state was conceived and designed.

Levinovitz sees it differently:

Modern suspicion of ritual is bound up with broader concerns about freedom and resistance to change. Submission to ritual can feel like giving up on the possibility of changing bad rituals.

But that’s not what Confucius wanted. Throughout the Analects, there are examples of his departing from tradition. Asking questions, for example, is part of ritual. As he says himself: ‘When it comes to being Good, defer to no one, not even your teacher.’ Ultimately, Confucian ritual is not a set of practices, but rather a call to harmonise one’s actions with the patterns of the world. The ideal remains constant, even if the actions themselves change depending on the context.


So, my quiet evening has turned into a philosophical debate.  

Humans love to debate.  Zhuangzi, Confucius, Mohzi loved to debate – as do all philosophers.  Reading their words today is like reading any classic.  The language can be opaque.  Almost every word may be interpreted in different ways.    

How the philosophers would be amused by our interpretations today!  Yet, how also, would they be astonished by how little has changed.  Some aspects of human life today are different from ancient China.  But these works are the equivalent of todays ‘self-help’ books.

Eat your heart out, Mr Covey et al., Confucius and Zhuangzhi said it all 2,500 years ago!

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