Magazine article UNESCO Courier

At Peace with the Past

Magazine article UNESCO Courier

At Peace with the Past

Article excerpt


In Chinese culture, the supreme goal is the accomplishment of an ideal person. This humanism is so deeply embedded in Chinese thought that strictly speaking it leaves no room for philosophical debate about the nature of time.

The Chinese have always been strongly aware of the relationship between space and time and the living world, as the very terms used in their language to describe the world and the universe attest, but they have never sought to study these concepts in the abstract. Instead they set about developing instruments and techniques for measuring time. China had a functioning calendar by the second millennium BC, and it was in China that the sundial and the clepsydra or water clock were first developed.

What philosophical problems has the idea of time raised in China? And how has the subject been treated in Chinese literature, especially in poetry? These are the questions I intend to address, starting from the definition of time given in the Huainanzi, an important philosophical work written in the second century BC: "time is that which goes away and becomes the past; that which arrives and becomes the present."

The Sun at its zenith

is already going down' For the ancient Chinese, the world was not the work of a Creator. Only later do texts describe the creation of the world by Bangu, a cosmic man" whose body gave birth to the different parts of the world. And not until the fourth century AD, with the pantheon of Taoist gods, do we find a symbolic conceptualization of the various aspects of the universe at its creation. Then the original, undifferentiated state of non-being becomes the August Lord of the Way of Emptiness Xu huang daojun), who engenders existence.

If we can divide the past into two great channels, the history of the universe and of the human race respectively, it becomes apparent that the followers of Kongzi (the man better known in the West as Confucius) were primarily interested in the latter, which is to say in history properly so-called, putting the emphasis on social life and on cultural tradition. When Confucius refers to history, he is really only speaking of the reigns of the emperors Yao and Shun. In his view, cultural life and moral conscience-the great Confucian principles-only made their appearance in Chinese life under these two exemplary emperors.

The Taoist vision, though, extends beyond human life to examine the origins of the Earth and the heavens. According to Laozi (or Lao-tzu, as he used to be known in the West), the author of the basic Taoist text the Daodejing ("The Book of the Way and its Power"), "There was an indeterminate being before the formation of Heaven and Earth." In another passage he pushes back the horizons of time: "The Dao begot One. One begot Two. Two begot Three. And Three begot all other beings."

This succession" obviously takes place in time, but it also goes beyond the very notion of temporality. For non-being" does not disappear with the creation of being; on the contrary, it is the very basis of being. Its primordial importance can be compared with that of the space in a house, the emptiness without which the house itself could not exist.

Laozi has nothing to say about what preceded non-being at the very origin of the universe. Two centuries later another Taoist philosopher, Zhuangzi (Chuang-tzu), turned his mind to the problem, only to conclude that reason cannot provide any satisfactory response because of the limitations of language. For him as for Laozi before him, true knowledge transcends language: "Who knows does not speak, who speaks does not know."

The Legalists of the eighth to the third century BC were particularly interested in the theory and practice of politics. The only history that concerned them was social history. Their greatest figure, Hanfeizi, who died in 234 BC, had a dialectical" conception of social development that has parallels with the theories of some modern historians. …

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