Sunday, April 01, 2007

Early Daoism

Early Daoism consisted of four kinds of practice: philosophical speculation on the nature of the cosmos, breathing and visualization exercises related to health, rituals that displayed (and seemed to allow communication with) various beings in the cosmos, and alchemy. Daoists believed that each of these practices could prolong life.

The Cosmos
These ideas obviously rest on certain assumptions about the workings of the world, and the most important of these assumptions is that each part of the universe is related to all the other parts. What you can see, what you can't see, everything you will ever know – all these elements form a coherent whole, and it is this fundamental sense of ordering that leads historians to talk about a "cosmos."

Cosmological thinking emerged in China in the three hundred years leading up to the birth of Jesus. And since Jesus has come up, we might as well dispense with some preliminaries. Because the number of Christians in China is small, it's a little rude to refer to the period as "before Christ." Instead we'll just use an arbitrary label – "Common Era" instead of "A.D." (meaning "the year of our lord"). Things happening before the Common Era I'll call BCE. Of course, the Daoists did not date things this way, and they certainly did not think there was anything special about the year 300 BCE.

So we are beginning our study of Daoism around 300 BCE. It's all kind of arbitrary. Indeed, the name "Daoism" is just as arbitrary. "Dao" simply means "path" or "road," and it has the same metaphorical connotations as in English – "a way of doing something", "a correct path." In 300, numerous states in China were at war with each other, and the rulers of these states were seeking advisors. The advisors were trying to educate the rulers about the correct path – so everybody was in that sense a "Daoist." Everybody claimed there was a way, and everybody claimed to know the right way. When Confucius talks about what to do, he says that we must follow the Dao. His plan was very different from what comes to be known as Daoism.

Later on, I'll try to be more specific about some of the competitors who were setting out various "Daos." For now the important thing to notice is that there is a shared notion of a coherent cosmos, that there are warring states, that there are advisors to the leaders of these states, and that each advisor claims to understand the cosmos. These phenomena are related.

State and Cosmos In the First Three Centuries B.C.E.

The Chinese-speaking world had been unified under the Zhou Dynasty from about 770 to 476 BCE As it became apparent that the old empire was splitting apart and could not be reconstituted, rulers began to seek new ways to reconstitute political authority. Hand in had with this development came new ideas about statecraft, about legitimacy, about the body, and about the universe.

By 221 BCE a single state came to dominance. It was called Qin (note that Q's are pronounced like "Ch". "Qin" rhymes with "gin," and is the root of the English word "China"). The Qin leader declared himself emperor of all China.

There are many ways to be powerful. One of the most effective is to show that your position is inevitable, natural, and good. If I want to become emperor, I probably have to kill a lot of people. If I want to remain emperor, it would be good if I can convince my subjects that my rule results not from brute violence, but from the same forces that create the changing of the seasons. It is in my interest to show that my state is a microcosm of a larger whole.

Here we have a force pushing toward coherence. And given that political rulers tended to have money, and philosophers tended to be hired guns, one finds a lot of philosophy about the relationship of elements of the universe – hence, the creation of the "cosmos." Probably there were other forces at work as well, but this one is the most obvious. At the very least, you can see how there might be people who would want to say that the elements of the world are all interrelated.


I don’t' have a handy political argument for the ways the notion of the body developed. It is clear, however, that Chinese thinkers began to think about what we now call "the body" in the same time period (300 BCE to the start of the Common Era). Here again, we have a semantic trap. "Body" is a little like "BC" – it's not quite the right word. Chinese thinkers were not especially interested in anatomy or surgery. One's "body" was not separable from one's "personhood" and "personality," nor was it ever set into opposition with "mind." The body was instead a permeable membrane – what happened in the cosmos as a whole also took place in the body. It was a microcosm, a part of a larger whole reflecting all the characteristics of the whole.

The ideas I have described here were not unique to Daoism. But they were essential to the claims that Daoist put forth, namely that the cosmos (including the body) underwent a series of transformations, and that understanding these transformations can therefore help extend one's life. Daoist philosophy, medical practice, ritual, and alchemy all follow from this claim.


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