Can China Find Its Soul?
The Western Inscription as a Gift From China to the World
Abstract. Zhang Zai's Western Inscription can help China, and the rest of the world too. It offers a way beyond the contemporary debates between Neo-Maoists, Neo-Liberals, and Neo-Confucians, and it offers a way forward for the 21st century. As interpreted with help from the "constructive postmodern" or "process" perspective of Alfred North Whitehead, it provides a template for cross-cultural dialog in the arts, sciences, humanities, and education. It can be, in the words of Whitehead, a lure for feeling and reflection.
Nov. 14, 2012
Dr. Haipeng Guo (BNU-HKBU United International College, China)
Dr. Jay McDaniel (Hendrix College, USA)
Does China have ideas and values to offer the world?
Some people believe that the twenty-first century belongs to China. Not China alone, but China and India, South Africa, and Brazil and Russia. People speak of the five nations together as BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa).
The idea is that these five nations, along with western nations, will be key players in the evolving global marketplace.
China is already at the center of world affairs economically. If all the world is a stage and the men and women players, China is a leading character in the unfolding drama and will continue be such a character well into the 21st century....economically.
What about culturally? Does China have ideas and values to offer the world? Can China be a source of cultural power? We think so, but first we must acknowledge a problem.
The Problem of Consumerism
Some China observers, including Chinese sociologists, say that the dominant philosophy in China today is consumerism. With memories of poverty in the recent past, and with ideas afoot that the fulfillment of human life lies in being rich, the majority of Chinese people are driven by the idea of making money and thus advancing their standard of living.
If consumerism is the dominant philosophy of China, then the world is already well-acquainted with this philosophy, and its origins lie in the West. Indeed, much of the world is already fully aware of the social and environmental costs of this philosophy: a radical individualism which undercuts familial and communal bonds, moral corruption rooted in greed, an over-exploitation of natural resources under the aegis of progress. There is no need to go to China to find consumerism. We can go to the local shopping mall anywhere in the world.
Thus the question emerges: Are there other ideas, apart from consumerism, which China can offer the world? We propose that Zhang Zai's Western Inscription, interpreted with help from the "constructive postmodernism" of Alfred North Whitehead, offers a helpful template for guiding Chinese and Americans -- East and West -- toward the building of communities that are creative, compassionate, participatory, ecologically wise, and spiritually satisfying, with no one left behind.
For the sake of brevity, we call them sustainable communities, using the word sustainable in two senses: they can be sustained into the indefinite future, given the limits of the earth to absorb wastes and supply resources, and they offer sustenance for human life. We offer this article with the belief that the Western Inscription, interpreted with help from constructive postmodern thinking, can help guide the building of these kinds of communities.
China in Search of a Soul:
But first let's consider the context in China. To be sure, consumerism is now rampant in China, must as it is in the United States and other nations. But in China, this is not the whole story. In a recent story on CNN called "Struggle of Ideas Amid China's Leadership Change, Xiabo Lu proposes that today's leadership in China is struggling between three competing ideologies. (Lu is a professor of political science at Barnard College, Columbia University, and a faculty member of its Weatherhead East Asian Institute.) Lu begins his analysis with the following observation concerning the challenge China faces today:
"The challenge has become more pressing, as Chinese society gets wealthier and more restless after three decades of rapid economic and social change. China is in urgent need of a soul, a set of dominant ideas, as the efficacy of the Chinese Communist Party's official ideology -- emphasizing "harmonious society" and "scientific development" -- diminishes."
"The increasingly intense debate now appears to have three strands: the neoliberal reformers who seek to liberalize the economic and political arenas and reverse the recent expansion of the state; the neo-Maoists who argue for strengthening the state and breaking what they see as a "state capitalist" alliance between the rich and the powerful; and the neo-Confucian traditionalists who bemoan the loss of a moral compass in a modernizing society and want to rekindle China's soft power in the world."
Lu acknowledges that in the Chinese government today, the neo-liberals and neo-Maoists have the dominant voices. But he recognizes, as do we, that the neo-Confucian traditionalists can be found among a small but increasing number of Chinese citizens who, having tasted the waters of consumerism, seek something deeper and more satisfying for themselves and others, indeed for their nation.
To their critics, it can seem as if the neo-Confucian traditionalists are looking backward. However, we propose that, with help from constructive post-modernism, they can look forward toward a way of living that integrates the better wisdom of the three competing perspectives: democracy and freedom from neo-liberals, equality and compassion to the poor from neo-Maoists, and humanity, morality and harmony from the Confucianism tradition.
The Western Inscription:
A Possibility for the Future
We offer three proposals for your consideration:
1. Constructive Postmodern thinking, as developed by writers such as Zhihe Wang and Fan Meijun in China and articulated in this website, can help China find its soul. It offers a way that Chinese can claim the better part of neo-Maoism with its socialist ideals, the better part of neoliberalism with its respect for individual rights and democracy, and neo-Confucianism with its moral compass rooted in Heaven, however understood.
2. The Western Inscription, interpreted in a constructively postmodern way, thematizes and highlights the four relations that are essential to sustainable communities: healthy human-human relations, healthy human-earth relations, healthy relations between heart and mind within the individual self, and healthy relations with Heaven.
3. China can help the world grow culturally -- thus exercising its soft power -- by highlighting the wisdom of the Western Inscription and offering at as a springboard for cross-cultural collaboration philosophically, artistically, educationally, and practically.
In doing so, more and more Chinese simultaneously moves toward a post-materialistic ethos which approximates a creative synthesis and forward-looking thinking, or, to use the language of Wang Zhihe and Fan Meijun, a Second Enlightenment.
Post-materialism is a way of living which emerges after people have gone through a consumer-driven phase of life. If the consumer-driven phase of life prioritizes the individual self – and more specifically the personal preferences of the individual self – as the guiding principle of a well-lived life, post-materialism moves past this prioritization toward a more inclusive and relational understanding of the self. Whereas consumerism says “I am the center of the universe and the purpose of life is to have my needs met”; post-materialism says “I would like to be fulfilled as a person but I cannot separate this fulfillment from that of others: other people and also the natural world.” The post-materialist avoids the atomism of a western vision of the self as found in John Locke, which makes a god of personal preferences for life, liberty, and property; but also the collectivism of an approach to life, sometimes characterized as rigidly Confucian, which makes a god of family or society at the expense of the person. It is neither collectivist nor atomistic; neither Asian nor American given the stereotypes; but rather, as it were, Asian American.
Heaven and Earth
The Western Inscription offers an invitation to post-materialist living. This way of living can be deepened by a life of faith: that is, a life of trust in something more than oneself. Trust in God, trust in the Tao, trust in Heaven.
Constructive postmodernism offers a way of living from this trust, all the while being true to the earth. With an inner spirit animated by this trust, the ups and downs of life can be faced with equanimity. The natural balance of life -- the Yin and Yang -- can be known and felt. People can live on earth and in heaven, at the same time, empty of ego and free for compassion. Free from greed and free for responsibility. Free to take delight in the joys of youth and also to grow old gracefully. Free to give to children and receive love from children. This is the soul that China finds when it turns to the Western Inscription. And this is the soul it can offer the world, too.
For increasing numbers of people in China and in the world, the finding of this soul can be deepened with help from religious traditions: Buddhism and Christianity, Judaism and Islam, Taoism and Hinduism. Process or constructive postmodern thinking shows how these traditions are complementary to, not contradictory of, the tradition of free inquiry and delight in the patterns of creation. Science is one way of discerning the patterns; religion is one way of living from them. Living we are compliant with their rhythms, and dying, we are at peace. This is China's soul.
For Further Reading:
Second Enlightenment, by Wang Zhihe (PhD) and Fan Meijun (PhD), in Chinese only.
Process and Pluralism, by Wang Zhihe (PhD), in English
Note from Authors: Process and Pluralism is an especially helpful book for readers in China and other parts of the world who want to embrace particular religious points of view without demeaning people who embrace other points of view. It shows how Confucian ways of thinking, combined with process or Whiteheadian thinking, invites a sense of complementary pluralism, by which people in given religious traditions can listen and learn from people in other traditions while being rooted in their own.
Our view is that people in China and in Western nations can internalize the spirit of complementary pluralism, whether they are Christian or Buddhist, Jewish or Taoist, Muslim or Hindu, Confucian or Marxist. The spirit of complementary pluralism is spacious and constructively post-modern.
The Western Inscription: Hope for the Future
The Western Inscription was written by Zhang Zai (1020-1077) , a Chinese philosopher in Song dynasty. It is a short article with only 253 Chinese characters. However, it is considered as one of the most fundamental documents of the Neo-Confucian tradition. It reads as follows:
Text of the Western Inscription
1. Heaven (Yang) is my father, and Earth (Yin) is my mother. Even I, such a tiny thing, find a place in their midst. Therefore, what fills between Heaven and Earth, I consider as my body; what directs Heaven and Earth, I considered as my nature. All people are my brothers and sisters, all creatures are my companions.
2. The Great Ruler is the eldest son of my parents, and his great ministers are the household retainers of the eldest son. To respect who are great in years, is the way to respect my aged; To be kind to the orphaned and the weak, is the way to be kind to my young. The sage is the one who embodies the virtue of Heaven and Earth; and the wise man receives the finest from them (Heaven and Earth). All persons under Heaven who are tired, crippled, exhausted, sick, brotherless, childless, widows, or widowers are my siblings who are helpless and have no one else to appeal to.
3. To maintain our awe of Heaven is to show the respect of a son; to feel our joy in what Heaven allots without anxiety is the purest filial piety. Deviation from the will of Heaven is called a "perverse disposition"; doing injury to humanity (Ren) is called "villainous." One who promotes evil is lacking in moral capacity; he who fulfills his bodily design by doing good resembles Heaven and Earth.
4. Understanding the transformations of the universe is being skillful in carrying forward their (Heaven and Earth) activities; plumbing the spiritual exhaustively is being good at perpetuating their intentions. ……
5. Wealth, honor, good fortune, and abundance have as their aim the enrichment of our lives. Poverty, meanness, grief, and sorrow serve to discipline us so as to make us complete.
6. Living, I serve Them compliantly; dead, I shall be at peace.
Relevance to the Contemporary World
The Western Inscription was written in 1076. Still, if we read the essay in a constructively postmodern way, it arrives from the future. It offers a possibility, a lure for feeling and reflection, which can guide China and other nations toward a humane, sustainable future. As interpreted with help from Whiteheadian or Process Philosophy, this possibility is compatible with science and religion.
Suppose a long-lived alien could visit Earth in year of 1076 when the above text was written and revisit today in 2012. How would the alien feel? Probably the alien could immediately notice the major difference: today’s world is full of all kinds of powerful machines that were not seen a thousand years ago: cars, airplanes, computers, cell phones, the Internet and so on. Many thanks to the advances in science and technology. Life is easier today because of these great inventions.
But at the same time, the alien would also notice that today’s world is full of problems that were not seen a thousand years ago. These problems can be roughly classified into four categories by four pairs of relationships: human-nature, human-human, human-self and human-God.
First, the relationship between humans and the natural world is is troubled. The earth is being overly exploited. Rivers and ocean are being polluted. Animals endangered. Forests erased. Ecology destroyed. There are at least two reasons
for this. In much but not all of the western tradition, beginning with the rise of modernity, the natural world has been reduced to a mere resource for human consumption, thus neglecting its value in and for itself. Concomitantly, human beings have been conceived as distinct from the rest of nature, as if humanity and nature were separate realms.
The Western Inscription, interpreted with help from constructive postmodern thinking, invites us to see human beings within, not apart from the larger realm of inter-being, and to recognize that humans can live in creative harmony with the rest of nature. In our time this requires the building of cities that are green and prosperous, combined with a revitalization of countrysides that are green and prosperous as well. Still more deeply it requires the cultivation of an appreciation of nature, a sense that nature is filled with what constructive modernists call intrinsic value: that is, value worthy of respect and care, on its own terms and for its own wake.
Second, we humans are also confronted by numerous contradictions in our relationship with each other. People have invented powerful nuclear weapons whose only function is to kill others. People from different religions and cultural
backgrounds find difficulty trusting each other. Terrorist attacks happen from time to time. In the 20th century, we had seen two world wars and one cold war during which thousands of millions of human beings were killed by other human beings. And in the beginning of the 21st century, we saw the fall of twin-towers and people started to talk about the clash rather than the peaceful coexistence of civilizations.
The Western Inscription, interpreted with help from constructive postmodern thinking, invites us to reconsider our relations with one another, recognizing that we are persons-in-community, not persons-in-isolation, and that the well-being of others and the well-being of oneself are two sides of the same coin. The Western Inscription encourages us to see that we find our fulfillment, not in leaving others behind, but in sharing in sense of corporate responsibility for one another, while not neglecting the personal or individual side of life.
Third, for individual persons, there is a danger of unbalanced development of human potentialities. The development of one’s cognitive capability dominating other dimensions such as spiritual, moral, aesthetic, emotional, social potentialities. This has made human potentialities narrowly defined and abnormally developed. This could only produce unhappy people who can become very powerful and rich in terms of materialistic achievement, but rather poor in terms of moral development and spiritual fulfillment.
The Western Inscription invites us to realize that, as individual persons, we need to be whole people: people who use our minds but also know our hearts, people who can think in analytic terms but who can also think in creative terms, people who are in touch with an inner voice, not reducible to the voice of society, that beckons each and all toward wholeness. At a practical level this involves and requires a balance of work and play, of community and solitude, of achieving worthy goals but also spending time with friends and family. The need is to remember, as Whitehead teaches, that the human heart needs adventure, to be sure, but also inner peace.
Last but not least, the relationship between modern man and the Divine (or Heaven, or Cosmos, or Dao, or T'ian（天）, or the Big Whole, or God) has been breaking down. This is partly due to the advance of science and technologies that have made man too confident on his reasoning power to accept God, partly due to postmodern fragmentation that has eroded almost all belief systems.
Friedrich Nietzsche declared in the Gay Science in 1880s that God is dead through the mouth of his madman:
“God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him. How shall we comfort ourselves, the murderers of all murderers? What was holiest and mightiest of all that the world has yet owned has bled to death under our knives: who will wipe this blood off us? What water is there for us to clean ourselves? What festivals of atonement, what sacred games shall we have to invent? Is not the greatness of this deed too great for us? Must we ourselves not become gods simply to appear worthy of it?”
God has been the moral compass and source of meaning for the west for over two thousands years. God is dead. Therefore man’s body is free. Not only is the Christian God dead, but also God of the other cultural traditions. In China, Heaven (Way) has been the moral compass and source of meaning for over three or four thousands years. The universe was organic and holistic for Chinese people.
But now following the western's modern worldview, it is considered as a cold, mechanistic clock-like system directed by a set of mathematical equations. Technology and materialism have prevailed. The consequence is serious. Without God or the Heaven Way, every individual must face the absurdity of existence alone.
One value of constructive postmodernism is that it offers a way of understanding and appreciating the role of God or Heaven in human life. The Whiteheadian or process perspective offers more than a philosophy; it offers a theology which is plausible and relevant to people of many different religions and no religion. The philosophy is articulated beautifully and deeply by Rabbi Bradley Artson in the United States, and in a way that makes sense of, and is deeply consonant with, the organic holism of traditional China. See his The Constellation of Process Theology -- An Invitation.
Equally important, process theology encourages an identification of faith in Heaven with concern for the earth and for the poor and powerless, the neglected and forsaken. In this process theology is enriched by, and also enriches, the Western Inscription.
Organic Holism: as practiced in Faith:
Care for the Earth, Care for One Another
The most important viewpoint in the Western Inscription is that “all people are my siblings and all creatures and things are my companions”. All things are given to birth by our common parents Heaven and Earth. All originate from the same root.
Therefore, all persons, all creatures, even all things are
related to each other. Humanity and nature are not separate. If this is the case, we cannot abuse the earth that is our mother and let your companions become extinct just for your self-interest. Instead we follow the wisdom of nature-oriented people all over the world: the wisdom of Taoists and of Christians such as Saint Francis of Assisi (1182—1226).
Another touching statement in the Western Inscription is “All persons under Heaven who are tired, crippled, exhausted, sick, brotherless, childless, widows, or widowers are my siblings who are helpless and have no one else to appeal to.”
Isn't this also the same teaching given by Jesus and his followers? If we accept this, how can we tolerate the spending of money on manufacturing piles of piles of weapons that are to be used to kill our siblings although they are of different nationality or different religions?
The text also teaches us how we should deal with ups and downs in our life. “Wealth, honor, good fortune, and abundance have as their aim the enrichment of our lives. Poverty, meanness, grief, and sorrow serve to discipline us so as to make us complete”. Good life or bad life, we can always benefit. More money does not guarantee more happiness.
To be happy is to “feel our joy in what Heaven allots without anxiety”. To be a human is to “fulfills his bodily design by doing good resembles Heaven and Earth”. This implies one should resemble Heaven (Yang or mind) and Earth (Yin or body) and pursuit a holistic development of what is given. The Bible also teaches people to mimic God to be "a complete man", or a whole person.
It also talks about the importance of filial piety to the Heaven, or God. “To maintain our awe of Heaven is to show the respect of a son; to feel our joy in what Heaven allots without anxiety is the purest filial piety.” Heaven is the cosmos, the biggest whole, or God. Heaven is our father who gives us life and directs us. If so, how can we, people in the West and East, not respect him but have killed him?
Following the teachings in the Western Inscription, one should live his or her life this way: respect Heaven, love nature, be benevolent to others, and live your true self.
Such a person has united with Heaven as one (天人合一). A life of this might look secular and ordinary. However, each moment of the life has been sacred because you are living with the God, or the Heaven Way, or the Dao. The salvage has been done and the transcendence accomplished, here and now. Death, as part of the Dao, becomes a natural event. Only if can one behave this way, one can face death peacefully and say that
“Living, I serve Them compliantly; dead, I shall be
about Zhang Zai can be found here: http://www.iep.utm.edu/zhangzai/
 Some translations are directly taken
from “To Become a Sage” translated by Michael C. Kalton,
Columbia University Press, 1988.
说明 (background)：《西铭》原名《订顽》，为《正蒙·乾称篇》中的一部分，张载曾将其录于学堂双牖的右侧，题为《订顽》，后程颐将《订顽》改称为《西铭》。《西铭》受到二程、朱熹等宋代理学家们的高度评价。 程颢对《西铭》大加赞赏：“《订顽》一篇，意极完备，乃仁之体也。” 此后，“程门专以《西铭》开示学者。” 程颐赞曰：“孟子之后，只有《原道》一篇，其间言语固多病，然大要尽近理。若《西铭》则是《原道》之宗祖也。《原道》却只说道元，未到《西铭》意思。据张子厚之文，醇然无出此文也。自孟子后，盖未见此书”。 南宋朱熹专门作《西铭解》，对《西铭》“理一而分殊” 的思想予以阐发。 在清康熙《御制性理精义》中，《西铭》得到官方的权威肯定：“张子《西铭》乃有宋理学之宗祖，诚为《论》《孟》以后仅见之书。”
（Original Text of the Western Inscription）
Note from Authors: As you see from the books we recommend, our thinking is influenced by the work of two Chinese authors, Zhihe Wang and Meijun Fan. Together they direct the Institute for the Constructive Postmodern Development of China: IPDC. This institute has sponsored hundreds of conferences in China in which Chinese and Western scholars explore opportunities for post-materialist or "constructively postmodern" ways of approaching education, economic, spirituality, urban design, and other topics. It also provides opportunities for scholars in China to study in the United States and for US scholars to study in China.
At the heart of IPDC's vision is the idea of an ecological civilization: that is, a civilization that lives in creative, differentiatied harmony with the earth, and that promotes sustainable communities of the kind proposed in our article: communities that are creative, compassionate, participatory, equitable, diverse, and spiritually satisfying, with no one left behind.
In short IPDC affirms and develops the four dimensions of the Western Inscription: human-human, human-earth, self-awareness, and human-divine.
Our proposal is that these four themes are the very themes which need exploring in China and the United States, and also in many parts of the world, not only for the world's sake, but for Heaven's sake, too.