Chinese philosophy highly relevant today

By YANG XUE / 05-30-2024 / Chinese Social Sciences Today

Visitors learn about life stories of renowned Ming-Dynasty philosopher Wang Yangming at his former residence, also a tourist attraction, in Yuyao, Zhejiang Province. Photo: CNSphoto

Traditional Chinese philosophy is a vital component of Chinese civilization. Reflecting the Chinese people’s understanding and exploration of life, nature, and society, its relevance endures even today. From a contemporary perspective, what unique and distinctive ideas does traditional Chinese philosophy offer? David Bartosch, a distinguished German research fellow from the Research Institute for Globalization and Cultural Development Strategies at Beijing Normal University, shared his insights in a recent interview with CSST.

Philosophy of sustainability

As Bartosch observed, ancient Chinese understood the whole of the Heaven, the Earth, and the ten thousand things (tiandi wanwu) as one intertwined, living, and constantly transforming process. Living beings, as well as atmospheric and aquatic phenomena, were seen as manifestations of qi, which was understood as a universal, boundless flux of potentiality—the force that gives and sustains life in all things. 

“These views emerged in schools like that of yin-yang naturalists, in ancient ritualistic contexts, in the age-old traditions of Chinese medicine, in Daoist thought, and other more syncretistic contexts,” Bartosch said. 

Qi was seen as a flowing, permanent spark or fundamental energetic dynamic inherent and most basic to all organic and environmental processes and evolving forms of life, Bartosch continued. This concept was later expanded by Song-Dynasty philosopher Zhang Zai, who developed an entire philosophical worldview upon it. Additionally, Wang Yangming, a leading Ming-Dynasty thinker, emphasized the nature of the “one ever-circulating qi” (yi qi liutong). For Wang Yangming, this idea represented one of several ways to understand the core process of the universe—namely in his sense of the ineffable Great Path (dadao) that united Confucian with Daoist and Buddhist traditions. 

“Qi was seen at the very foundation and transformations of the air that we breathe, the water that we drink, the food that is transformed into our life process, and also at the foundation of what we would call electromagnetic and electrochemical processes of our body today; it was seen at the very root of all metabolic processes, interspecies and interhuman relations, and of thoughts and subjective as well as intersubjective feelings itself,” Bartosch said. 

He elaborated that all interconnected processes and changes at both the micro and macro scale of living bodies and their surrounding environment exist within an oscillating causality, and dynamics of complementary and synchronous interaction, which the pre-modern Chinese have subsumed under various conceptualizations of yin-yang. 

“One of most valuable ideas in this context for today might be that of the ‘unity of heaven and man’ (tianren heyi). It is an important idea, because it relates to the inevitable necessity to put persistent effort into the process of an overall reintegration of the human species into the natural cycles and process of its planetary, or rather, cosmic environment. Only on the basis of such an integrated state of existence, will we be able to put into effect the idea of the long-term sustainability and the happiness of future generations of mankind,” Bartosch said.

“Today, this general understanding of the pre-modern Chinese worldview can be correlated with a new and growing scientific knowledge context. For example, modern Earth Systems Science and progressive quantum biological approaches arrive at a comparable general view of the life-centered universe. The overall process of all biological systems that we call the biosphere forms a larger system with the planetary function systems, such as the atmosphere, aquasphere, geosphere, magnetosphere, etc. Non-living substances are an inseparable part of all living processes and energy transformations at the same time,” he added. 

According to Bartosch, we stand before the task of establishing a new transcultural and multi-civilizational foundation in all traditions of thought that all civilizations of humanity must provide. “In this context, we can still learn and gain valuable inspirations from various pre-modern Chinese philosophical approaches in Confucian, Daoist, Mohist, Legalist, and other directions of thought.” 

“Upon closer inspection, one will find many touchpoints and ‘resonances’ that allow for the translation of ancient Chinese and other wisdom into modern philosophical, systems theoretical, and scientific interpretations of various aspects of our lives,” Bartosch said.  

Wang Yangming’s thought

Specializing in studies of Wang Yangming’s thought, Bartosch explained that from a philosophical point of view, the philosopher’s ideas of the “unity of knowing and actively going through” (zhixing heyi) and the “extension of good-knowing” (zhi liangzhi) represent a highly developed level of wisdom comparable to that of some of the greatest thinkers in the West Asian and European tradition—but without any intellectual-mystical or overtly theoretical detours. 

“Yangming’s thought reaches the highest level of philosophical wisdom and is extremely life-oriented and practical at the same time. Therefore, in order to appreciate its depth, it is necessary to discuss it in a broader transcultural context, in an inter-civilizational dialogue of traditions of thought,” he suggested. 

“I think Wang Yangming is very important because he saw that the Confucian ideology of his time, with its rigid hierarchies and treacherous ‘role-playing games,’ did not fulfill the true intention of Confucius and Mengzi—for it would only mimic and thus spoil the path of true moral self-development and creativity in learning,” Bartosch said. 

Wang Yangming emphasized that, in the transferred sense, the shared learning experience with friends and students constitutes an act of “divination” (bushi). In Bartosch’s view, this metaphor implies the incentive to creatively explore the deepest layers of our cosmic existence. This can only be realized in benevolent academic environments that are characterized at least by very flat hierarchies, and do not hinder the creativity and development of excellence of thought and exploration in the process. From a modern perspective in the sociology of science, this view can be applied to the need to focus on genuine scientific research and original achievements, Bartosch said.