Should life be about simply accepting what is and striving to live harmoniously in relation to set conditions largely beyond our control (like fate, hierarchy in human relationships and society, and animistic/pantheistic forces)? Or, should people concern themselves not just with what is, but how it should be? Or can be? Or was intended to be?
I have no idea how accurate these thoughts are regarding Chinese people – I’m just wondering out loud – but it seems that Westerners and Easterners in general answer these questions very differently. My default impulse is to reject the way things are and attempt to make them the way I think they should be. Apparently, Chinese people don’t typically feel this way.
In The World’s Religions (1991), Huston Smith contrasts the ancient Hebrew’s understanding of anthropology and the created world – an influential part of the West’s worldview heritage – with that of their contemporaries. This got me thinking about aspects typical of a Chinese approach to life. Smith says regarding non-Hebraic ancient near east worldviews:
If one’s eye is on nature preeminently, one does not look beyond it for fulfillment elsewhere. Neither – and this is the point – does one dream of improving nature or the social order that is its extension, for those are assumed to be ingrained in the nature of things and not subject to human alteration. The Egyptian no more asked whether the sun god Ra was shining as he should shine than the modern astronomer asks whether the sun is expending itself at a proper rate; for in nature the accent is one what is, not what should be – the is rather than the ought (284-5).
Not so for the ancient Jews:
What divides the Hebraic from the Chinese view of nature does not come out until we note a third verse in this crucial first chapter of Genesis. In verse 26 God says of the people he intends to create: “Let them have dominion… over all the earth.” …[The] opposite sentiment is in the Tao Te Ching:
Those who would take over the earth
And shape it to their will
Never, I notice, succeed.
If we propositionalize the three key assertions about nature in the opening pages of Genesis –
God created the earth;
let [human beings] have dominion over the earth;
behold, it was very good…
– we find an appreciation of nature, blended with confidence in human powers to work with it for good, that in its time was exceptional” (278-9).
In Beyond the Chinese Face: Insights from Psychology, Michael Harris Bond describes the “Chinese belief in the naturalness, necessity, and inevitability of hierarchy” as one of several defining themes for the Chinese as a whole:
It is self-evident to the Chinese that all men are born unequal. An efficient society requires a broadly accepted ordering of people. The alternative to hierarchy is chaos (luan) and anarchy, which are together worse than harsh authority (118).
From what I can see (not much at this point!), it seems that Chinese typically favour hierarchy not because they necessarily prefer it. Questions involving hierarchy vs. egalitarianism, from this perspective, are questions about the unalterable nature of existence, not personal preference. Reality is hierarchical, and since reality doesn’t care that much about your personal preference, living is not a matter of trying to change the world to suit your personal preference. Hierarchy is accepted. If your personal preference is for peace and harmony and stability, then you lay down the pursuit of other personal preferences in an effort to live in accordance with “nature and the social order that it its extension” (Smith, 285). It is self-evident to the Chinese that all men are born unequal. An efficient society requires a broadly accepted ordering of people. The alternative to hierarchy is chaos (luan) and anarchy, which are together worse than harsh authority (118).