Chinese philosophy–7. The way Chinese philosophers express themselves

Posted: 2014 年 05 月 05 日 in Chinese philosophy

The ideal of Chinese art is not without its philosophical background. In the 26th chapter of the Chuang Tzu, it is said: “A basket-trap is for catching fish, but when one has got the fish, one need think no more about the basket. A foot-trap is for catching hares, but when one has got the hare, one need think no more about the trap. Words are for holding ideas, but when one has got the idea, one need no longer think about the words. If only I could find someone who had stopped thinking about words and could have him with me to talk to!” To talk with someone who has stopped thinking about words is not to talk with words. In the Chuang Tzu, the statement is made that two sages met without speaking a single, because “when their eyes met, the Tao was there.” According to Taoism, the Tao (the Way) cannot be told, but only suggested. So when words are used, it is the suggestiveness of the words, and not their fixed denotations or connotations, that reveals the Tao. Words are something that should be forgotten when they have achieved their purpose. Why should we trouble ourselves with them any more than is necessary? This is true of the words and rhymes in poetry, and the lines and colors in painting.

During the third and the fourth centuries A.D., the most influential philosophy was the Neo-Taoist School, which was known in Chinese history as the Hsuan Hsueh (玄學, the dark or mystic learning). At that time there was a book entitled Shih Shuo Hsin Yu (世說新語), which is a record of the clever sayings and romantic activities of the famous men of the age. It is stated in that book (Ch. 4) that a very high official once asked a philosopher (the high official was himself a philosopher), what was the difference and similarity between Lao-Chuang (i.e., Lao Tzu and Chuang Tzu) and Confucius. The philosopher answered: “Are they not the same?” (將無同?) The high official was very much pleased with this answer, and instantly appointed the philosopher as his secretary. Since the answer consists of only three words in the Chinese language, this philosopher has been known as the three-word secretary. He could not say that Lao-Chuang and Confucius had nothing in common, nor could he say that they had everything in common. So he put his answer in the form of a question, which was really a good answer.

The brief sayings in the Confucian Analects and in the philosophy of the Lao Tzu are not simply conclusions from certain premises which have been lost. They are aphorisms full of suggestiveness. It is the suggestiveness that is attractive. One may gather together all the ideas one finds in the Lao Tzu and write them out in a new book consisting of fifty thousand or even five hundred thousand words. No matter how well this is done, however, it is just a new book. It may be read side by side with the original Lao Tzu, and may help people a great deal to understand the original, but it can never be substitute for the original.

Kuo Hsiang, to whom I have already referred, was one of the great commentators on Chuang Tzu. His commentary was itself a classic of Taoist literature. He turned the allusions and metaphors of Chuang Tzu into a form of reasoning and argument, and translated his poems into prose of his own. His writing is much more about articulate than that of Chuang Tzu. But between the suggestiveness of Chuang Tzu’s original and the articulateness of Kuo Hsiang’s commentary, people may still ask: Which is better? A monk of the Buddhist Chan or Zen school of a later period once said: “Everyone says that it was Kuo Hsiang who wrote a commentary on Chuang Tzu; I would say it was Chuang Tzu who wrote a commentary on Kuo Hsiang.”



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