Chinese Philosophy in the Western World

Ancient Chinese thought was a blend of two philosophical movements. In 500 BC, Kung Fu Tzu (Confucius) was teaching from the Six Classics, ancient Chinese books about art, philosophy and history. He combined these books with his own ideas to make what would be called Confucianism – a philosophical system studied all over the world. Within China this system would become a part of society, affecting the education system, influencing social behaviour and developing customs and traditions in family life.

In balance with this was the school of thought called Taoism, established at about the same time by Lao Tzu. The Taoists drew their inspiration from nature and focused on observing and understanding its Tao, or ‘Way’. The Way is interpreted as the ultimate force that pervades all matter and events. It is the process of the universe and is known as Brahman in Hinduism, Dharmakaya or ‘Suchness’ in Buddhism, and is what Christianity might call God.

These two different philosophies both appreciate the underlying principle of balance in the universe. The idea that any two opposites are bound together. In the West we are familiar with the ‘Yin and Yang’ symbol. It illustrates the endless cycle of change, which is the main focus of the I Ching – a Confucian Classic that has a following in the western world. I Ching translates as ‘Book of Changes’ and focuses on understanding the flow of change in the world. The system described in the book can also be applied in day-to-day life, and for this reason it seems more accessible to Westerners.

In attempting to study Chinese thought, the main problem is with the vast difference in language. Mandarin is an emotional language – the characters are pictorial. They haven’t totally lost their visual meaning the way the western alphabets have. Words in Mandarin seem to be sung in tones, their words have different meanings and can be nouns, verbs, adjectives. The language conveys emotions and feelings on a level that is hard for Westerners to pick up on unless they are fluent.

Because Mandarin is fundamentally different from Western languages, it is very difficult for people in the West to access the wealth of philosophical and mystical knowledge available in China. This is the same reason the ‘Yin and Yang’, known in China as T’ai-chi T’u (‘Diagram of the Supreme Ultimate’), is recognised in the West as an icon  depicting the constant flow of change and the balance of opposites. It was designed, like many logos and motifs, to transcend language.

Another way to bypass the language barrier is using physical movement and meditation. In Taoism, as in Hinduism and Buddhism, meditation is used to clear the mind and find balance, and ultimately to observe and understand the universe. But as well as having spiritual value, meditation can be helpful in everyday life. T’ai Chi Ch’uan is a meditative martial art that has close links to Taoism. Its philosophical aim is to combine the two opposites, yin and yang, into a Supreme Ultimate, but T’ai Chi Chuan has become popular all over the globe for its health benefits and as a self-defence technique, as well as its value as way to clear the mind and relax.

Both Taoism and Confucianism have become recognised and studied in the world outside China. Books such as the I Ching are available online anywhere. Confucius is a big name in philosophy studied and appreciated internationally, and T’ai Chi Chuan is practised in many places in the world. But because of their complex, malleable language and very different customs, much of the knowledge and wisdom of the old Chinese masters seems unobtainable in the West.

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2 thoughts on “Chinese Philosophy in the Western World

  1. A quote that I came across while doing a recent post, relevant to the above: ‘Without the subject-predicate pattern of sentence structure,’ says Zhou Youguang, ‘the Chinese didnot develop the idea of the law of identity in logic or the concept of substance in philosophy. And without these concepts, there could be no idea of causality or science. Instead, the Chinese develop[ed]correlational logic, analogical thought, and relational thinking, which, though inappropriate to science, are highly useful in socio-political theory. That is why the bulk of Chinese philosophy is philosophy of life.’
    I don’t think the first impulse should be to bypass the language structure, but I do think that at least understanding the language structure (without learning Mandarin from scratch, necessarily…there are only so many hours in the day, so choose carefully!) is important. Would you agree?

    • I would agree, but the fact is many people can’t speak Mandarin at all and haven’t got the time and enthusiasm to learn (myself included). All we have to go on are translations, and the translator has the power to interpret a text however he or she wants.

      The real issue though is trying to get the general public interested in what the old masters have to say. Phrases like “the Chinese develop[ed]correlational logic, analogical thought, and relational thinking” don’t really help on that front. But again, those are really some Western translator’s words.

      I also think the old texts are clouded in metaphor and paradox and it seems to take a lot of concentration to begin to understand and interpret them. We’re used to things being simple.

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