CHARACTERISTICS OF TRADITIONAL CHINESE PHILOSOPHY: AN OUTLINE
At present Chinese philosophy in its development is combined with two important issues: (1) how to meet the challenge of Western philosophy and (2) how to approach Marxist philosophy. To understand both the characteristics and values of traditional Chinese philosophy will be beneficial in resolving the above two issues.*
The viewpoint concerning the true, the good and the beautiful in traditional Chinese philosophy is fully embodied in three propositions which have long been discussed by ancient Chinese philosophers, namely: (1) "the integration of heaven and man"; (2) "the integration of knowledge and practice"; and (3) "the integration of feelings and scenery." The integration of heaven and man refers to the relationship between man and the universe, a concept in which man is considered the center of the whole universe. The conduct of the sages should not only conform to the "way of heaven." Living between heaven and earth man should not adopt a pessimistic attitude but should make unremitting efforts to improve himself, thereby giving expression to the prevalence of changes in the universe. By so doing, man should set a standard for himself, have a principle of conduct, and possess a lofty spiritual state.
The most important of these qualities is to do everything in the light of integrating knowledge and practice, to cultivate morally the integration of knowledge and practice. In addition, man should take pleasure in realizing the ideal state of "integrating heaven and man" and the principle of "integrating knowledge and practice." Man has to conduct himself properly and, at the same time, enjoy the pleasure of conducting himself properly.
Man has to comprehend the wonder of the creation of heaven and earth. To do this man must display his powers of creation in reproducing the wonders of creation by producing essays as "perfect essays," paintings as "godly works" and music as "heavenly music." Therefore, the demand for art should be in the spirit of "integrating feelings and scenery." When man has entered into such a state of creation, he has attained a state in which the true, the good, and the beautiful are unified. The meaning of man's life and the most lofty ideal of mankind consist precisely in this. In the eyes of China's ancient sages, to conduct oneself properly is difficult, and to bring nature, society, and the inner and outer aspects of one's body and soul--as well as those of others--into full harmony is even more difficult.
Traditional Chinese philosophy has had a profound influence on the psychology of the entire Chinese nation and has been expressed in the unique psychological characteristics of the Chinese people. These characteristics have long influenced the nation in all respects and express both the strengths and weaknesses of the Chinese tradition of thought and culture. Traditional Chinese philosophy has exercised great influence on the whole nation by means of the following concepts:
Utopian Idealism. Most of the principal philosophers in traditional Chinese philosophy had an intense of responsibility and mission towards their country and people. They adopted an active and warm-hearted attitude toward social reality which they tried to transform with their doctrines and ideas. However, these doctrines and ideas failed to transform political reality in China and turned out to be tools used for its embellishment. Therefore, many influential thinkers in Chinese history turned out to be tragic figures. The actual role which utopian idealism played in China was quite contrary to their wonderful but subjective hopes.
Practical Moral Concepts. In traditional humanistic Chinese philosophy there has been a tendency which differs from Western humanism. Chinese humanism emphasizes the place of man in the universe and society. In any given social relationship it dwells on how man should behave himself, on how he should take responsibility, and how he should fulfill his duty to society and to others. But traditional Chinese philosophy is seldom concerned with human rights, thus hindering the development of personal character and restricting creativity.
Unitary Way of Thinking. Most major figures in traditional Chinese philosophy considered it their duty to establish a harmonious and unified society. Therefore, traditional Chinese philosophy has been rich in dialectical thinking, which emphasizes unity and harmony and opposes both the "overdone" and the "underdone." In these respects, this unitary way of thinking has positive meaning. Unfortunately, being a worldview often lacking in analysis, it is not easy for Chinese unitary thinking itself to develop into a modern science, since it is unable to set up a systematic theory of logic and knowledge.
Intuitive Rationalism. Most traditional Chinese philosophers have paid great attention to the functions of the "mind." Confucian scholars pursued the full play of mental intuition from a positive viewpoint. According to Mencius, "the function of the eyes and ears is not thinking, for they are only blocked by objects." "The function of the mind is thinking. Think and then you gain, otherwise you gain nothing." The school of idealist philosophy of the Song and Ming dynasties even centered on the study of the "nature of the mind." As for Daoist scholars, they tended to treat man's subjective intuition from a pessimistic position. Laozi (Lao Tzu) advocated "sweeping away the dust from the mirror" and told people to get rid of the dark spots and make the "mind" as clear as a mirror able to reflect the outside world correctly.
Wang Bi, metaphysician of the Wei and Jin dynasties, held that sages were different from the common people because their "godly wisdom" (wisdom of the mind) is higher than that of others: "The better part in sages is their godly wisdom." Overemphasizing the intuitions of the "mind," this kind of nationalism could not be based on the analysis of things since it focused on "experience" while ignoring "verification." Intuitive rationalism tended to be tinged with mystery.
Traditional Chinese philosophy has already made its contribution once to human civilization. To let it make an even greater contribution, we must undertake its thorough study and analysis to understand clearly both its strengths and weaknesses, so that it can develop further and play an even greater role in the present world.
*Translated by Mingjun Hou
- Written by: doc