Yin-Yang, the sign of the two elements. Photo: iStock
Yin-Yang, the sign of the two elements. Image: iStock

Theories about the reason China rather than India will replace the West as the global center of gravity are sparse. An economist may resort to economic-historical developments, and a political scientist may resort to ideological theories.

What we do know for certain is that the great divide between China and India can be summed up with one word: Tao. China “imported” Buddhism but India didn’t import the notion of Tao.

Western discussion about Asian culture often suffers from tendentious terminology, a lack of context and a disregard for historical sequence. This often obscures the distinction between Indian and Chinese thought.

Indian thought is varied and complex, and so is Chinese thought. But when discussing Tao, the sequence and context are unambiguous: First there was Tao, then the I Ching, then Tao-inspired Confucianism, then Buddhism, and then the Taoist religion, instituted by Chinese thinkers concerned that the Chinese people would lose sight of Tao.

Heaven and Earth

Lao Tzu, presumed author of the Tao Te Ching, explained the nature of Tao more than 2,000 years ago: “There was something unmoving, unchanging, all-pervading, coming into existence before Heaven and Earth. I do not know its name, and I give it the designation of Tao.” Note that Lao Tzu admits this “something” is unknowable and he doesn’t project vistas of eternal bliss and Nirvana found in Indian religions. But he does point at Tao’s “constituent parts” – Heaven and Earth.

“Heaven and Earth” is code for the binary opposites the Chinese identified as being at the heart of the universe, and by extension human nature. They codified this binary universe with the eight trigrams denoting gradation of generic classes of Heaven (“plus”) and Earth (“minus”). The eight trigrams formed the basis of the I Ching.

Ancient Chinese sages made it an art, if not a science, to identify every conceivable opposite in nature, both concrete and abstract. They reasoned that nature being a binary phenomenon they would do well to apply this very same principle to their everyday lives in order to “insert” themselves in the binary universe with the least amount of friction.

Qi and ki

Lao Tzu explained how to identify binary opposites: “While clay is used to make a vase, in what there isn’t lies it use…. Difficult and easy accomplish each other. Long and short define each other.”

Chuang Tzu, after Lao Tzu, explained how to apply the binary principle to come to terms with human conflict, in his case the discord between Confucianists and Mohists but still applicable today: “If you wish to affirm what they deny and deny what they affirm, the best means Illumination.”

In Tao, binary opposites are defined by a mutual tension. This makes them complementary. The Chinese call this tension qi or chi (ki in Japanese and khi in Korea). The Japanese use the Chinese character for ki in such words as aikido and denki, the latter having the modern meaning of electricity. Tao can be seen as a pre-scientific recognition of (electro)magnetism.

One of its most refined human expression can be found in the Japanese tea ceremony, in essence a “ki ceremony”. It is the art of “being there without being there” – without disturbing the equilibrium created by the settings.

Tao and global consciousness

A large part of humanity has already developed a “global consciousness” through cultural cross-fertilization. Europe affected global consciousness through science, East Asia through esthetics, India through spiritual practices, and Africa through the soul of its music. Having been “exported”, these cultural developments are often reimported after having been modified abroad.

Western economies embraced Japanese “application technology” in the 1980s, which had a great impact on the global economy. African musicians now play “world music”, and many Indians have embraced modern Western approaches to meditation techniques and yoga.

Take nearly any issue confronting humanity today to realize they are at heart binary opposites: rich and poor, human and environment, male and female, progressive and conservative, rights and responsibilities, etc. Reconciling opposites is second nature to people born and raised in Tao-imbued cultures, even if mostly subconsciously.

The I Ching is a psychological tool to reconcile opposites in the mind. (In popular thought, these opposites have been generically classified as yin and yang, terms that actually do not appear in the I Ching or the Tao Te Ching.)

Reconciling opposites can lead to an esthetic outlook on life. After all, there is no science, religion or pure philosophy involved. It is “merely” following Nature’s Way. Chinese art expert George Rowley in 1949 articulated the classic Chinese outlook on life with the following words: “The Chinese way of looking at life was not primarily through religion, or philosophy, or science, but through art.”

Ethics and esthetic

For people imbued with a Tao-inspired worldview, ethics and esthetics are abstractly related. This thought was articulated most profoundly by the late Kenji Ekuan, a prominent industrial designer in postwar Japan. (Ekuan designed the small bottle for Kikkoman soy sauce, shaped as if drawn by calligraphic brush, and with a plastic cap that pours from both sides.)

As a child, Ekuan was groomed to take over the priestly duties of his father at a Buddhist temple in Hiroshima. He was evacuated months before the atomic bomb destroyed the city.

Weeks after the disaster struck, Ekuan arrived back in Hiroshima. Seeing the flattened buildings, blackened trees and “the burned streetcars upside-down like helpless turtles”, he told his father that he preferred not to take over the priestly duty in the temple. He asked if he could go instead to Kyoto “to study beauty and learn how to make beautiful things”. He father consented: “Kenji, you had better go there.”

Ekuan put our current age in a different perspective. He said: “The world has seen great dramas in the past – the French Revolution, the American Revolution, the Russian Revolution. But now the world is awaiting a new drama. I call it the drama of the material world.”

Jan Krikke is a former Japan correspondent for various media, former managing editor of Asia 2000 in Hong Kong, and author of Creating a Planetary Culture: European Science, Chinese Art, and Indian Transcendence (2023).

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