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Ancient China For Modern Conservatives

What the Benedict Option can learn from pre-Christian Eastern sages

Tanner Greer writes from China:

I am the fellow who wrote the “everything is worse in China” post you linked to the other day. Thank you for sharing it with your readers.

I obviously think there is a great deal in the Chinese literary and philosophical tradition that fits the present moment. But I think there are some special barriers that make it difficult for Americans to delve into them. Imagine if you had to introduce Dante to a Chinese audience. This audience knows nothing about the background of the book. They can’t find Rome on a map, and haven’t read a Christian flavored book in their life. At best they have some highly stereotyped ideas about what Western civilization is all about. So can this audience just read Inferno straight through? Or do they need to read the Gospels first? The Gospels and Virgil? The Gospels, Virgil, and Augustine? Dante’s Divine Comedy is not just a “great book”—it is a commentary on all the great books that came before. Great works are always like this. It is part of what makes them great.

This is just as true in China as elsewhere. The Chinese canon, like the Western canon, is a conversation. Coming to a conversation mid-stream is at best disorienting. At worst you can leave with a errant sense of what the conversation was actually about. My dilemma is finding the best place for newcomers to first jump in.

One of the places I usually suggest conservative thinkers start, especially conservative thinkers whose past exposure to ancient China thought came in a new-age guise, is with Xunzi. Xunzi was a self proclaimed Confucian who lived a few centuries before Christ. In the West we kind of have this fortune-cookie vision of Confucians: we see them as a bunch of old, secluded sages spitting out epigrams and coining pithy little proverbs. That might be justified for Confucius; we don’t have anything more sustained from him on record. But by the time Xunzi rolls onto the scene a few centuries later the game has changed. Xunzi’s preferred form was the treatise. In English these are usually 8-15 pages long, each an incisive attempt to ponder through the sorrows of mankind. Sorrows there were: Xunzi lived at the tale end of a terrible, vicious age, where China was divided between dueling leviathans engaged in constant, devastating war. These wars sucked up villages, towns, and peoples, with a bureaucratic efficiency the West wouldn’t see until the 1700’s. It was a terrifying, dispiriting time to be alive. My guess is that few of his contemporaries would have thought twice about one of Xunzi’s most famous pronouncements: “Human nature is evil.”

That is where Xunzi starts. Thankfully it isn’t where he ends—he sets himself the task of figuring out how humanity can pull itself out of the mess he sees all around him. The answer he comes up with is extraordinary: ritual. Personal and communal rituals are what, he claims, make us more humane. Ritual is the path away from blindly following our animal instinct; ritual is what raises humans above the beasts.  Within a few essays he develops an entire theory or ritual and its relationship to character building, slowly crafting the case that ritual is the training ground of righteousness and joy.

Xunzi had never heard of a Christian liturgy, of course, but each time I read his work I come away with the conviction that Xunzi explains its purpose better than most Christians ever do.

The really inspiring thing about Xunzi, however, is that you can tell how deeply personal this entire project is to him. Whether he is talking about ritual or kingship or music or education or any of the hundred things he turns his mind to, the feeling is the same. Xunzi is a man who has stared into the abyss of human cruelty, and is fighting with all of his might to not let that overwhelm his humanity. He sees the world for what it is. He doesn’t believe in the utopian fairy tales of the Daoists, nor the warm-fuzzy feeling based theories of Confucianism’s more optimistic strains. But he insists to the end that humanity is salvageable. The next generation of philosophers—according to some traditions, Xunzi’s own students—would turn totalitarian. That is not an exaggeration. This is what scholars in the field have called them: “the world’s first totalitarians.” Those theorists worshiped state power for its own sake, happily relegating human life to the maw of the leviathan. Xunzi sees the possibilities of that path, he knows its seductive logic. But he refuses. He stubbornly insists on seeing the world through the lens of human virtue, that politics and ethics must be focused on individual acts of goodness and virtue, despite–no, because of–the bloodshed and terror of his day.

So Xunzi is a great starting point for an intellectual journey into the Chinese tradition. He is a traveling companion worthy of just about any discussion or topic. Eric Hutton’s translation is accessible to just about anyone. Some other thinkers might be more ideally suited for the Benedict Option, though. Many Chinese poets come to mind here. But poetry is hard. Poetry never seems to translate well unless it is narrative poetry, which Chinese poetry almost never is. (David Young cleverly gets around this by setting a selection of Du Fu poems chronologically, allowing the poet to tell the story of his own life). On top of this, Chinese poets are very self-referential. They quote and allude to each other constantly—they are quite aware that great works are part of a conversation, and so design half of their poems to be direct responses to various poems that came before.

But they are so relevant to the BenOp project.

I mentioned three poets in the original post: Tao Qian, Li Bat and Du Fu. Tao Qian is the spiritual grandfather of all the famous nature poets in China. But how he gets there is interesting. Tao Qian was born into a prominent family involved in national affairs. His grandfather had been a major political figure; service in the bureaucracy was just what was expected for folks like him. So he joins it. He spend thirteen years career climbing. But then he breaks. Society is too vain, the monarch unworthy, bureaucratic politics too soul crushing. So he unpacks his entire family out to the boonies and restarts life there as a poor farmer. He struggles to make ends meet, and he writes about that. He is a drunkard, and he writes about that. He is enchanted with small town life, and he writes about that. He wanders the hills and forest, and he writes about that. And occasionally he even writes about the pressure he feels to compare himself to the success of his ancestors, or friends once known. It is all very poignant stuff, and it has been enormously popular in China ever since, no matter how far away the contemporary ethos may be from its spirit.

This whole tradition of scholars fleeing from official society as a protest against its evils has tremendous relevance for BenOp Christians. I suspect that  few who reviewed your book  have really come to terms with the kind of sacrifices your choices will cost you. There will come a point where you must choose success in the world or banishment outside it. Tao Qian chose banishment and a clear conscience—but along with that choice came isolation and poverty.  I don’t think many of the people who wrote nice reviews of your book are really prepared for that choice. Folks like Tao Qian can make those choices a little bit easier.

Du Fu’s poetry has the opposite effect. There is a lot of escapism in Chinese literature. Escape into wine, into rural retreats, into monasteries, into history reading. Du Fu refused to do it. He lived through another era of chaos—the An Lushan rebellion, described in some historical gazetteers as the most violently destructive war in human history before the 30 Years War. Du Fu was a bit like Shakespeare, in that his poetry covers the entire scope of human society: everything from the beggars, soldiers, and farmers grinding away in poverty to the emperor and his consorts are taken as subjects of his art. Du Fu spends the first half of his life in Chang’an, imperial capital of the Tang Dynasty, then center of the known world. The whole time he seeks patronage from the emperor and accolades from the literati’s leading lights. Then the war comes crashing down and rips society apart. Du Fu is actually kept in the city under siege and occupation for more than a year, separated from his wife and children. When he finally escapes he writes a beautiful poem about the pain of seeing your children grown tall in your absence that any veteran would appreciate. Then he must begin his wanderings—years spent wandering from one part of China to the next, first as a refugee of war, later as a loyal minor official trying to make it back to the emperor’s court-in-exile. On one of these tiresome journeys through the mountains of China he writes the following poem:


“Imperiled, I flee to a new province

All my forced effort ends with bitter exhaustion

Spirit wounded, wandering in mountain deeps.

Yet my sorrow dissolves before an ancient cliff-side temple. 

Charming: its pure, verdant moss .

Vulnerable: its wintry, bamboo clusters.

Streams twist and turn through the mountains

Raindrops drip and hang on the pines.


Melting mists obscure the morning light

The rising day hides, then lets forth its rays

In that half-light scarlet tiles flash

Doors and windows gleam, and are seen distinct.

I lean on my staff, the next stage forgotten 

When I emerge from my dreams, it is already noon.

Then faintly, a distant cuckoo’s cry–

Up this small path, I do not dare to go. 

[Forgive me if the translation is poorly rendered, I don’t have much time to devote to the task today].

To understand the poem you need to know that the phrase “cuckoo” is a homophone for “come home!” The cuckoo is also associated with Sichuan in Chinese thought, and that was Du Fu’s eventual destination. So here we have the story of a  soft court mandarin being forced from home in his old age, transversing forgotten mountain paths, with his young family (Du Fu married late) to reach safety. And then he sees the monastery! A beautiful place of peace and serenity, something so clearly lacking in Du Fu’s own life. If this were the normal Buddhist poem this would be the moment where Du Fu declares he will stay the night there, perhaps the life there, intoning on his escape from the “net of dust” that has trapped the rest of mankind. Du Fu is tempted-oh, he is sorely tempted. But then he hear’s the cuckoo call “Come Home!” and he sees the temple for what it is: a temptation. He has a duty (‘dharma’) to his family, and a duty to help rebuild his county. He does not dare to travel up the path to the monastery for fear that if he does he won’t ever be able to come back and continue his journey.

Who among us cannot sympathize with him? Is this not a beautiful expression of a dilemma so many of us must feel—the desire to retreat from the world, and a duty to make the world a better place? Du Fu realized that continuing the journey was the right thing for him to do. His role is to live in the world. The question he must then wrestle with is whether he can live in the world without being trod down by it.

Well that is enough for today. I hope this e-mail has given you glimpse of what Chinese philosophy and literature offers conservatives in America today.  There is so much more that could be said (and I have written about some of these themes  as they are expressed by other great works in the Chinese tradition before-see here and here), but it is not possible to fit an entire’s civilization’s corpus into one e-mail, so I will not try!

This is remarkable. I see a book here: a general survey of ancient Chinese philosophy and literature, drawing life lessons from it for contemporary Western cultural conservatives — a book that acts as a kind of literary self-help gateway into ancient Chinese thought, in the way that my Dante book attempts to be for Dante, or Alain de Botton’s Proust book does for Proust.