As the Spring Festival takes over the spirit of the month, ushering in the Year of the Pig, we couldn’t help but wonder what constitute the Chinese culture and their values – after all, the Chinese civilisation is regarded as one of the cradles of civilisation, with a history dating all the way back to approximately 7000 BC.
While many of us today can only associate Chinese culture with folklore and mythology, ancestor and deity worship, martial arts, zodiac animals, elaborate customs, superstitions, red packets and an obsession about wealth, there is, in fact, a more intellectual side to early Chinese thought than meets the eye.
History reveals that between the Spring and Autumn period and the Warring States period (600 – 221 BC), while troubled by chaos and bloodshed, the Chinese civilisation experienced an era of prolific cultural and intellectual developments, where a wide range of schools and thoughts flourished, leading to the phenomenon known as the Contention of a Hundred Schools of Thought, and the rise of the Chinese philosophy.
Among the most prominent schools of thought founded during this time were Confucianism, Taoism and Legalism, largely centred around ontology, humanism, moral principles, civic duty, politics, social harmony and critical thinking. Together, they allowed Ancient China to make great advances as a civil society and an imperial nation.
Moving on, let us take you through some of the prominent schools of classical Chinese philosophy.
THE ART OF WAR
From the Battle of Dien Bien Phu during the Vietnam War in the 1950s; to the many strategies of deception from the Soviet Union’s Committee for State Security (KGB) before its disbandment in 1991; even to this day, with the helter-skelter Brexit referendum that is plaguing the United Kingdom as we speak… the minds behind these events have, at one point or another, turned to The Art of War (孫子兵法) by Chinese military strategist Sun Tzu for inspiration, making the fifth-century old military treatise the most influential reading material in both Eastern and Western military thinking.
Besides that, The Art of War is listed on the Marine Corps Professional Reading Program, as well as recommended for all United States Military Intelligence personnel. Sun Tzu’s strategy text is also known to be applied in the world of sports, notably by Brazilian association football coach Luiz Felipe Scolari, who attributed Brazil’s 2-0 win over Germany during the 2002 FIFA World Cup, to the Chinese strategist’s evergreen work.
While we are largely not involved in any great war in this modern time and day, compared to the olden times when the world was still taking the permanent shape it has become today, the battleground of our generation, you could say, is right behind the doors when we tag in to work every day.
For the longest time, The Art of War has been the go-to reading material for many successful business companies and leaders out there, from overcoming office politics to cooking up corporate business strategy. Many companies have cited that its utilitarian values are fool proof when it comes to managing the underlings. Now, more than ever, Sun Tzu’s pearls of wisdom are crucial when it comes to success in competitive business situations.
Each chapter from the 13-chapter book is devoted to an aspect of warfare and how it applies to military strategy and tactics. For example, the five fundamental factors – the Way a.k.a “The Moral Law”, seasons, terrain, leadership and management – stated in ‘Detail Assessment and Planning’ (始計) is akin to the infallible SWOT analysis (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats) that came into being centuries later, in which the chances of victory and calculations of failure may be determined when the mentioned factors are put into grave considerations.
Besides that, the chapter ‘Forces’ (兵勢) focuses on the team’s available talents and skills to better the momentum as one; the flexibility to steer the company in one entity through shifting circumstances (‘Variations and Adaptability’ (九變); and with that, move through “unchartered territories” with like-mindedness in response and intention (‘Movement and Development of Troops’ (行軍); while simultaneously, evaluate the advantages and disadvantages in said territory by looking at the three general areas of resistance – distance, dangers and barriers, stated in the chapter ‘Terrain’ (地形).
The Vietcong officers, most notably General Võ Nguyên Giáp brought the United States to its knees during the Vietnam War with the successful implementation of Sun Tzu’s tactics. Also, Vote Leave, under the initial campaign directorship Dominic Cummings, the brains behind the Brexit plan, managed to secure Vote Leave a 52% victory from the nation to leave the European Union in June 2016.
“Wisdom, compassion and courage are the three universally recognised moral qualities of men.”
Whether we are aware of it or not, especially for those who grew up in Chinese-cultured families, Confucianism has already embedded itself into our mentality and lifestyle, whether we like it or not – and what’s not to like, really, when it is all about being the best version of ourselves?
Much like how The Art of War by Sun Tzu is like the modern day business strategy books executives shelf in their offices, Confucianism is the modern day “Chicken Soup for the Soul” self-help books we turn to when we are feeling a tad lost in life. Its philosophy rests upon the belief that human beings are by nature good, and through self-cultivation and self-creation, every person walking on two legs can be taught, improved and perfected through personal and communal endeavours.
Derived from the mind of the Chinese philosopher Confucius in fifth century BC, Confucianism, also known as Ruism, is less of a religion, but more of a system of social and ethical philosophy that focuses on the cultivation of virtue among the community of a morally organised world; in a nutshell, what the Chinese would call “a way of life”.
Built to establish social values and ideals for the traditional Chinese society in the olden times, (during ancient China’s Warring States period when the country was still caught up in tumultuous warfare), sociologists have pinpointed that Confucianism is a “civil religion”: one that isn’t institutionalised through brick-and-mortar places of worship taught by ceremonial “servants of God”, but in which everyday life itself is the religion, and the teachers and followers are but the people we look up to in societal communities like schools and families.
During its development in the Shang dynasty from 1600 to 1046 BCE, the Zhou dynasty from 1046 to 256 BCE, and the Han dynasty from 206 BCE to 220 CE, Confucianism teachings are common moral and humanistic understanding characterised by the Five Constants (五常): benevolence (仁), justice (義), respect (禮), knowledge (智) and integrity (信); and practiced through the four classical virtues (四字) of loyalty (忠), filial piety (孝), contingency (節) and righteousness (義).
While Confucianism may be shunned by its own people during the New Culture Movement in the mid-1910s and 1920s, when the Chinese Republic failed its nation, and the community sought new doctrines such as Maoism, traditional Chinese teachings eventually reverted back to Confucianism in the late 20th century, when its teachings breathed new life into the economy.
Today, much of the cultures and countries in East Asia are still chugging on the machinery of Confucianism, especially in countries such as China, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Macau, South Korea, Japan and Vietnam, as well as among the Chinese communities peppered in Malaysia and Singapore.
Popularly associated with the polytheistic worship of deities and immortals accompanied by formalised prayers and rituals including the burning of incense and joss paper, Taoism is often indiscriminately lumped together with Chinese folk religions, with so much emphasis on the spiritual realm that much of its age-old philosophical wisdom is lost in obscurity.
In actual fact, Taoism is a highly sophisticated school of thought focused on living in harmony with the Tao, or the Way, through the adoption of the Three Jewels (the fundamental virtues of compassion, moderation and humility), with the physical and spiritual cultivation of concepts such as wu wei (effortless action; going with the flow), naturalness, yin and yang, and life force, otherwise known as qi.
Believed to be founded between the 6th – 5th century BC by Laozi, a contemporary of Confucius and alleged author of the Tao Te Ching (Scripture of the Way and Morality), Taoism draws its foundation from the School of Naturalists (School of Yin-Yang), which explains that the universe was created out of a primary chaos of energy, also referred to as qi, organised and manifested into cycles of opposing forces (heaven and earth, day and night, fire and water, hot and cold) that interact with each other to form a dynamic system where all life and objects come into existence as a complete whole.
It’s emphasised in Taoism that while one is the opposite of the other, yin and yang essentially complement each other and are bound together as a mutual, indivisible whole (for every win, someone must fail); neither yin nor yang is more superior or more valid than the other, as one cannot be defined without the other, like the silver lining behind every cloud. The smooth, natural and seamless interaction between the two gives rise to harmony and balance, allowing for the easy and effortless flow of qi.
“If you are depressed, you are living in the past. If you are anxious, you are living in the future. If you are at peace, you are living in the present.”
All this is perfectly and beautifully captured in the Taijitu symbol – a balance between two opposites, each containing a portion of the other (there are always two sides to every story), constantly interacting in a seemingly fluid motion to form a complete circle.
As all things in the universe are interconnected, Taoism highlights the need for us to be constantly in tune with the events happening around us and everything in our surroundings – people, nature, animals, objects, organisations, the elements – and find a way to live in harmony with one another. Taoism encourages us to live like the water in a river, ever flowing and finding its natural course, and prompts us to be aware of our every single intention, thought and action, and the impact they may have on our surroundings. One can live a proactive life and accomplish a great many things, but to do so without causing any friction and suffering, he must align his plans and activities with the natural order of things.
TRADITIONAL CHINESE MEDICINE
When it comes to Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) – it doesn’t matter if it’s acupuncture, moxibustion, tui na massage, or consuming Chinese herbal medicine, it all boils down to the vital energy (qi) that circulates through the meridian channels connected to the bodily organs and functions within the body, often plagued by the Six Excesses (六淫) – “Wind” (风), “Cold” (寒), “Heat” (火), “Dampness” (湿), “Dryness” (燥) and “Summer Heat” (暑) – out to cause disharmony within one’s anatomy, and ultimately, extinguish that “vital spark” in you.
TCM is all about putting the chi within oneself back in place, by tweaking the Yin-Yang balance through various treatments that have been around dating back to the Shang dynasty from the 14th to the 11th century BCE – aligned with the teachings of creating harmony by Taoism, in which TCM stems from: in order to achieve harmony with the environment around oneself, one has first to achieve harmony within oneself.
“There must be something to acupuncture – you never see any sick porcupines.”
– Bob Goddard
Nowadays, with the thriving medical science from the Western world, TCM has become more of a failsafe medical treatment, even though the broad range of Chinese medicine practices were developed in China based on traditions that are more than 2,000 years old. However, it is still widely practised in mainland China, and even in pockets of the West that continue to grow through time: patients that show many different symptoms without a clear cause, in need of medicinal assistance which Western science has failed to solve, or just anyone who’d like to keep the body from all kinds of illness from the get-go.
It has been argued that Western drugs treat the body akin to a mechanic fixing a beat-up car that may break down every once in a while in the near future, whereas TCM goes deeper into the heart – or the soul – of the problem to settle the problem once and for all; think of Western medicine as more patriarchal, a placebo for the “now” sickness that calls for temporal recess before getting back up shortly after with the bodily engines going, whereas TCM is more matriarchal, a kind of motherly tenderness that is always nurturing in the background, often subconsciously, that keeps the spirits and body in ship shape throughout.
To counter the Six Excesses, also often known as the “Six Evils” (六邪), TCM offers treatments through the consumption of Chinese herbs and nutrition, recommended by the practitioners after an in-depth consultation to pinpoint which of the Six Excesses – or the combination of the excesses – that is causing the imbalance of harmony. From the various leaves, roots, stems, seeds and flowers stored behind the iconic apothecary shelves, TCM practitioners will then dispense the concoctions in forms of tea, powder, capsule, liquid and extract.
On the other hand, Chinese nutrition works much like the Westernised dietary, while based on the understandings of the effects of food on the human organism: spicy food encourages the “warming” in the body, whereas sour, bitter and salty food attracts the “cooling”, and the sweet boosts the “strengthening” – and a balanced diet is one that includes all the five tastes mentioned.
Besides that, TCM patients may also opt for acupuncture – the use of needles are inserted into particular pressure points of the skin, subcutaneous tissues and muscles connected by 12 main meridians, to tweak the chi and the balance between Yin and Yang back in place; tui na massage – a form of Asian bodywork therapy that is a combination of massage and acupressure to treat chronic pain and musculoskeletal conditions; and moxibustion – a therapy that involves burning moxa (mugwort root) made from dried Artimesia vulgaris (spongy herb) to invigorate the blood, stimulate the flow of chi, and strengthen the kidney Yang, among others.
Photography + Digital Imaging by Andrew Loh
Art Direction by Joyce Lim