In China, there was never historically or philosophically a line drawn between physics and metaphysics, between temporal and religious power. The king was defined in religious terms. He was called wang: that is, he was the being linking the supernatural and the realm of human beings in nature. This was the division that Chinese saw, and the divine power of the ruler was to link the parallel lines between all these realms.
Philosophically, early China also developed a system of logic that we could consider similar to the one developed by the Greeks. It appears, for instance, in Mo Jing, but the early development of logic was shattered by the philosophical push of Zhuangzi, who managed through logic to defeat logic. Zhuangzi’s victory may have also been helped by the rulers of the time, who were trying to concentrate power more efficiently and build more competitive states to ultimately annihilate their enemies and emerge as the sole power in the central plains of what it is now China.
The crucial passage is here, from The Floods of Autumn:
“Zhuangzi and Huizi were walking on the bank overlooking the river Hao, when the former said, ‘These fishes come out, and play about at their ease – that is the enjoyment of fishes.’ The other said, ‘You are not a fish; how do you know what is the enjoyment of fishes?’ Zhuangzi rejoined, ‘You are not I. How do you know that I do not know what constitutes the enjoyment of fishes?’
“Huizi said, ‘I am not you; and though indeed I do not fully know you, you certainly are not a fish, and it is proven that you don’t know what constitutes the happiness of fishes.’ Zhuangzi replied, ‘Let us keep to your original question. You said to me, “How do you know what constitutes the enjoyment of fishes?” You knew that I knew it, and you asked me – well, I know it, right here, above the Hao.'”
Zhuangzi’s philosophy defeated the development of logic and created a slanted, not-level playing field in which those who were able to intuit and sense reality were better off than those who were not. This was unlike logic, mathematics and what we call science, in which the process is clear and everybody can see it provided they know some basics.
Intuition is more mysterious, and the senses are thinly defined. Some have it, and some don’t. Some sense the happiness of animals, like Zhuangzi; some really don’t, like Huizi.
Similarly, the emperor could see and interpret the link between heaven, on the one hand, and men and nature on the other. Common people could not. For this better ability to know, he, the emperor, would have the right to total rule and the subjects would have to obey.
Conversely, following Feng Youlan’s approach, one could say that Greek city states, trading with one another, which were incapable of annihilating one another and trying to find common ground, preferred open, clear rules that defined transactions.
This approach was maintained also in the Roman empire, which was made up of a vast network of socies, allies, not really a people totally integrated under one iron fist. Rome could set the rules but it still had to bargain with its allies, it would not simply impose. The legion was made half of Romans and half of allies.
Even the first emperor emerged slowly, internally from the society that was comparatively liberal, after Rome had already conquered the world.
The Chinese emperor was the absolute king of a state that expanded progressively by annihilating other states and thus imposing the rule of one as means to conquer the world.
Similarly, Chinese logic sprang from the Mohists, who were trying to defend the interests of small states against large, emerging states that were expanding and gobbling up foreign territories. The small states had an interest in establishing a level playing field against the aggressive wars of large states on smaller states, fei gong 非攻.
All of this, of course had very important consequences. In the 18th and 19th centuries, when Europe was fed up with religion and the absolute power that derived from religion, it had started to import from China a system of selection of meritorious administrators.
At the same time, having increased industrial production and systematic spread of technological knowledge, it relied more heavily on science, and rules created through science, which was considered above the rulers. These were rules that everybody could see, judge, and openly improve – and they were in contrast to the murky rules linking religion and power.
Failing to understand the deeper undercurrents of the world perhaps was behind a strategic mistake China committed in 2009. Possibly China didn’t simply understand that US President Barack Obama was offering a great deal to Beijing when he proposed massive cooperation on the environment and asked Beijing to appreciate the renminbi.
The lesson of the 2008 financial crisis for China was supposed to be that Beijing had to ride the crisis and open up when the counterpart was offering an unprecedented deal.
China thought otherwise at the time: We are strong now, we don’t have to change. This, after all, was the same situation as in the 1630s with the Ming and in the 1830s with the Qing.
Now, China needs to spend hundreds of billions every year to pay to import oil and foodstuffs. The present inflation of pork prices because of swine fever makes it even worse. The slowdown of the growth rate means depreciation of housing, where most of the savings of the Chinese are locked up, and the endangerment of the banks, which hold people’s cash savings.
In the past few days three essays in America poured cold water on the boiling American spirits angry at China for various reasons. Bob Zoellick’s is here and Fareed Zakaria’s here. Perhaps the most notable is an article by Joseph DeTrani warning about the urgent need to put US-China ties on a different track. The implication is: If this doesn’t happen soon they are doomed to be on a collision course.
In China, one element needed in order to realize that danger and the way to avoid it is a deep understanding of the drama that has followed the country for almost half a millennium. Beyond the economy, beyond strategic or technological crises, what’s needed is the ability to intuit that the old way of seeing and knowing things doesn’t work and cannot work.