Chinese and Western modes of thinking

David Hall and Roger Ames [tooltip content= “Chinese philosophy. In E. Craig (Ed.), Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy. (Routledge, 1998) Source:”] [source][/tooltip] [green_message] Any attempt to survey an intellectual tradition which encompasses more than four thousand years would be a daunting task even if it could be presumed that the reader shares, at least tacitly, many of the assumptions underlying that tradition. However, no such commonalities can be assumed in attempting to introduce Asian thinking to Western readers. Until the first Jesuit incursions in the late sixteenth century, China had developed in virtual independence of the Indo-European cultural experience and China and the Western world remained in almost complete ignorance of one another.

The dramatic contrast between Chinese and Western modes of philosophic thinking may be illustrated by the fact that the tendency of European philosophers to seek out the being of things, the essential reality lying behind appearances, would meet with little sympathy among Chinese thinkers, whose principal interests lie in the establishment and cultivation of harmonious relationships within their social ambiance. Contrasted with Anglo-European philosophic traditions, the thinking of the Chinese is far more concrete, this-worldly and, above all, practical.

One reason for this difference is suggested by the fact that cosmogonic and cosmological myths played such a minor role in the development of Chinese intellectual culture and that, as a consequence, Chinese eyes were focused not upon issues of cosmic order but upon more mundane questions of how to achieve communal harmony within a relatively small social nexus. The rather profound linguistic and ethnic localism of what Pliny the Elder described as a ‘stay-at-home’ China, reinforced by a relative freedom from intercultural contact, generated traditional radial communities in which moral, aesthetic and spiritual values could remain relatively implicit and unarticulated. By contrast, in the West these norms had to be abstracted and raised to the level of consciousness to adjudicate conflicts occasioned by the complex ethnic and linguistic interactions associated with the development of a civilization rooted almost from the beginning in the confluence of Greek, Hebrew, and Latin civilizations.

The Shih Ching , usually translated as either The Book of Songs or the Classic of Poetry, is the first great collection of Chinese poetry. Tradition says that it was edited into its present form by the Sage of Sages, Confucius himself. In fact the book was assembled before, during, and after the life of Confucius. Its more than three hundred poems include fragments of works as old as the Shang Dynasty (traditional; dates 1766-1154 BCE) as well as “contemporary” poems from the Chou feudal states written or spoken by both aristocratic court figures and just plain “folks”. A great deal has been said about the origin of many, if not the majority of the poems as oral “folk” art, but it is clear from the artistry of the written language in which they have been handed down that, like the scribes who improved upon the originally oral poetry attributed to “Homer” in the West to create the Iliad and the Odyssey, the people who converted Chou folk songs and court verses into poetry in written Chinese characters clearly thought of themselves as (and were) artists. So the characters used to render simple and direct lyrical utterances of the illiterate peasant folk often honor them with carefully chosen written vocabulary: the heart and soul of folk art remains clearly present, but literary subtleties are introduced. The scribes who created the Shih Ching were poets, not tape recorders. They chose the best of what existed, and they honored it with their own art.

In its present form, the Shih Ching consists of three major sections, the Kuo Feng, or Odes of the States, comprising 160 of the 300 are generally but not always folk songs. The Ya (Elegant Verses) subdivided with no obvious criteria into greater and lesser, include poems 161-265, and the Sung or Temple Odes high ritual songs and bits of dynastic myth, include poems 266-305. The present selection is comes, all but a single longer poem on drinking and its positive and negative consequences from the “Lesser Elegants”, all come from the Kuo Feng Sections.

Knowledge of the Shih Ching poems was a necessity of diplomatic practice around the time of Confucius, when it was a common practice to deliver or at least support the delivery of diplomatic messages among the feudal domains (the “States or Guo of the Guo Feng) by oral presentation of relevant lines from the Classic. From the Han on many of the poems where imbued with very specific allegorical interpretations, but it is clear that later poets, who memorized the book word for word, used it as allusive material in their own poems at least as often for its plain “folk” messages as for its orthodoxly approved allegorical ones.