The Way of the Ruler - Daoism in Chinese Politics by Ryan McDermott
The Way of the Ruler - Daoism in Chinese Politics
Western Australia China Centre
In China those that have ruled and continue to rule use a broad variety of philosophies and ideolo-gies to cultivate power, Confucianism, Legalism, Moism, Buddhism and Daoism are just some easy examples but there are certainly even more. A ruler can be defined as someone that rules the masses, for the context of this speech this can be interpreted as an emperor or even a powerful contemporary politician. Although it can be argued that Daoism is analogous to Anarchism, there are infinite aspects to Daoism, anything that is in harmony with the Dao is the Dao, even a state. Throughout this speech there will be many examples of how Daoism can be used to direct political thought.
The speech will proceed as follows;
- Differences between anarchy and Daoism
- Dao De Jing - A background / authorship / authenticity.
- Dao De Jing - Used for multiple purposes
- Dao De Jing - For the ruler
- Daoism and politics examples in ancient and contemporary China
- Why is Daosim relevant for Australia
- Question and Answer Session
Overall Daoism is directed primarily at the individual and is not for the masses, just as with this speech. Confucianism and Communism are perfect for the masses because they both encourage keeping within the boundaries of society and thus maintain stability. However Daoism is more subtle and has infinite aspects making Daoism perfect for existing or aspiring rulers that wish to cultivate internal power and a state that is in harmony with the natural law of Dao.
There have been several critiques written comparing Daoism to anarchy based on the common notions of inaction, individualism, non-violence and anti-establishment principles. There are how-ever some significant differences between anarchy and Daoism which are important to highlight.
- 1. Daoism does not have any specified aims, it simply manifests in all things, (even in a state) this is in contrast to Anarchy which has a specified aim of forming smaller communes with each person possessing greater autonomy and freedom
- 2. Through Daoism individuals will cultivate greater internal energy and become aligned with the cycles of the universe. Anarchy does not directly offer any meditative or spiritual benefits.
- 3. Daoism is present in everything and can be used for everything including ruling a virtuous and stable state, anarchy has one specified function and cannot be used for ruling a state as this is contrary to its specified function.
This point was included in the early part of this speech because there will be some readers and listeners that will not reconcile Daoism with political thought because of its occasional association with anarchy. This speech does not attempt to argue that Daoism does not share certain features of anarchy, however there are still significant differences between the two.
Dao De Jing Background / Authorship / Authenticity
I could speak for a total of 30 minutes just on the Dao De Jing and still not get close to 0.01% of its intended meaning. For this reason I have chosen to keep the introduction of the Dao De Jing concise and relevant. For those that have not read the book it is 81 chapters and can be finished in an afternoon, however if understood at their root, the concepts will have a deep and profound impact on your life and psychology.
It is unknown who wrote the Dao De Jing, most scholars will attribute the words in the Dao De Jing to Lao Zi 老子 or (Lao Tzu) who was said to have been born in 571BC with his death like his life being a complete mystery. Dao De Jing’s authorship has been attributed to the later part of the Zhou period lasting from 1046BC to 256BC and was arguably written during the time of China’s most famous of great sages, Kong Zi 孔子 (Confucius) who lived from 551BC to 479BC. There are some that argue that Lao Zi is just a generic name with several authors over several periods contributing to the Dao De Jing each remaining anonymous. This amongst other things is based on the name Lao Zi, literally meaning old master, this is not a very specific name and it could be anyone and was probably designed this way.
Chu Ci - While not officially Daoism, Chu Ci, or the Songs of Chu is an anthology of poetry dating from the Warring States period that was at the end of the Zhou dynasty in 251BC until the start of the Qin dynasty 221BC. Poems such as "Encountering Sorrow" and the "Nine Songs” are stories of encountering divine / mythical beings. There are also poems about internal alchemic practices and rituals similar to accounts of early Daosists.
Guanzi – Written in 350BC – 250BC this text is older than both the Dao De Jing and Zhuang Zi. The book contains 76 chapters with 3 chapters dedicated to internal cultivation or internal alchemy. These are the dieting, sexual and intellectual practices of some early Daoists.
It should be added at this point that many of the works from persons during the Zhou period, including Confucius were burned during the subsequent Qin Dynasty from 221BC - 206BC and through many more purges of traditional and intellectual thought throughout China’s history. Ironically these purges are consistent with the principles of keeping people simple written in the Dao De Jing. Using Confucius as an example, almost all of his surviving works are those that can be easily absorbed and followed by the masses mostly because of the simplicity and consistency of these works.
Dao De Jing’s Multiple Uses
The Dao De Jing is a text that can be useful to literally everyone in whatever will that they choose to manifest. If properly understanding the Dao De Jing at its root, everything will be in accordance with the Dao making the will of the individual subject to this constantly changing unknowable, indivisible force that is called Dao.
Some practical uses have been listed here however one cannot limit themselves to this list,
Health & Medicine – Breathing and meditation exercises such as Qi Gong and Da Wu are based on the principles in the Dao De Jing such as action in inaction, soft overcoming the hard and our cyclical connection with the universal Dao. Furthermore if the principles of the Dao De Jing are un-derstood properly this will help to relax the mind and hence lengthen life and improve vitality.
Martial Arts – As in all forms of combat there is competition between opponents, Dao De Jing teaches one not to seek competition hence the weak overcomes the strong and being like flowing water. These principles are extremely useful and practical if applied to martial arts training, Chen style practical method Tai Ji is an example of this.
Ascetic Knowledge - The Dao De Jing is very useful knowledge for understanding the form of the universe and can be used to cultivate and channel energy. All independently thinking people can benefit from the lessons and principles of the Dao De Jing. Cultivation of the self and the mind in any context can also be interpreted as the Dao.
Politics – This brings me to the crux of my speech, the Dao De Jing contains many chapters that advise current / future kings and politicians on how to cultivate internal energy to be channeled in to managing a state in accordance with the natural laws of the universe. As will be later elaborated, Chinese history and contemporary politics is full of actions consistent with the principles contained in the Dao De Jing.
Dao De Jing for the Ruler
Anti Competition – Chapter 8 The perfect goodness is like water Water approaches all things Instead of confronting them with them It prefers to dwell where no-one would like to stay Hence it comes close to the Dao A man of perfect goodness prefers to choose a place as low to dwell as water He has a heart as deep as water He offers friendship as tender as water He speaks as sincerely as water He rules a state as orderly as water He does a thing as properly as water He takes action as timely as water Like water he never contends with others so he never makes a mistake
- 1. Bo Xi Lai and Xi Jin Ping – there was no public and most likely private dispute between these two competing leaders however there is a polarity of extremes in their fortunes.
- 2. China’s Approach to foreign relations – Xi Jin Ping and Li Ke Qiang, (China’s Premier) has a profile in China and across the world of being soft and humble. While on a trip to NZ Xi Jin Ping waved to Fa Lun Gong supporters, (Fa Lun Gong are a movement that use physical and breathing exercises to fulfill their aim of reforming the Government) To give another example when on a visit to Australia, Xi Jin Ping was pictured amicably with furry Australian wildlife.
Disregarding the talented and the learned – Chapter 3 & 65
Those ancient men of the profound Dao
Did not use the Dao to enlighten them
But use the Dao to make them simple
The people are unruly
Because they are too clever
Thus to govern a state by cleverness
Is bound to ruin the state
Not to govern the state by cleverness
Is a blessing to the state
These are the two models of government
Keeping the knowledge of these two models
Is known as the mysterious virtue
This principle has been repeated across innumerable dynasties and its meaning can be interpreted in innumerable different ways. Ultimately to govern a state the people need to be complacent, it can be argued that in China, Confucianism is largely used for the purposes of taming the masses and has done this since the Qin dynasty during which time Confucianism as we know it today was given the official support of the imperial court. This should not be confused with suppressing the people; instead it should be interpreted as making their lives simple and content with their circumstances.
Moderation from Desires – Chapter 19
Discard cleverness and wisdom
And the people will benefit themselves a hundredfold
Discard benevolence and rectitude
And the people will again become filial and loyal
Discard ingenuity and profit
And theft will no longer exist
It is not enough to have these points as governing principles
So the people must be made subject to the following
Keep being simple in nature and mind
Discard selfishness and weaken desires
Discard cultural knowledge and worries will disappear
There are two primary examples of this principle being played out in Chinese politics the first comes from contemporary politics in China. The Xi Jin Ping administration is currently clamping down on corruption in the party and state, discarding those seeking ingenuity and profit so that theft will no longer exist. His drive also to weaken the desires of senior party members by punishing so called moral excesses, (mistresses, extravagant behavior, gambling and drunkenness) is also consistent with seeking to moderate desires.
The other examples comes from an unlikely source, during the Cultural Revolution the country was subject to reduction in cultural knowledge and a purge of all those who were clever or possessed meaningful wisdom. In this way Mao Ze Dong was following the principles of the Dao De Jing when creating his simplified state.
Keeping the Population Small and Sparse – Chapter 80
The state should be small
The population should be sparse
Tools though of many kinds,
Should not be used
Teach the people to fear death
And not to migrate to remote places
Although they have ships and carts
They will have no need to use them
Although they are well armed with weapons
They will have no place to make them effective
Encourage the people to return to the condition
Under which the knotted rope was used to record things
The world’s best ruled is a place where
The people will have delicious food, beautiful clothes
Comfortable living quarters cheerful customs
Though within easy reach of neighboring states
The dogs barking and the cocks crowing in one state are heard in another
The people of one state will never have dealings with those of another
Even if they get old and die.
This principle is consistent with simplifying the state so as not to create unnecessary confusion and worry and modern and historical China has always had the issue of controlling its enormous popu-lation. One contemporary example of how this has been used in contemporary Chinese politics is the one-child policy. This was put in to effect in 1980 in an attempt to keep the population under control. Although there have been some that have criticized this policy for being inhumanely carried out and in some ways it is against the wishes of nature, the subtle force has channeled the principles of the Dao De Jing in to effect. Furthermore China’s foreign policy in the past 60 years has moved away from taking new territory through war, its population is well armed but there is little recourse to use these weapons. The approach by China has been softer and more subtle internally maintaining China’s security has ensured China’s external victory.
Why is all of this relevant for Australia?
Australia is positioned in Asia and there is already a significant amount of Chinese capital and people flowing through Australia every year. Furthermore China has arguably already become the most globally influential player and certainly the most influential in the Asian economies.
For this reason, understanding the Chinese political mindset is vital for all current and future leaders of Australia. Furthermore through understanding the principles of the Dao De Jing rulers can better avoid internal distress, excess and unnecessary wars with other states.
Australia’s population is small and sparse, it is weaker than the stronger nations and often shy’s away from world political and military conflicts, it is recognized by many foreigners however has a mystery of the unknown, its land is vast and full of history however its people are simple and live well. This makes Australia a truly Daoist state, however there is still so much further that the country can go, by reading the Dao De Jing and understanding the principles of Daoism in Australian politics Australian rulers can create a truly magnificent state that will be preserved for many centuries.