Toward the Post-coronial: Thinking Life and Uncertainty Through Chinese Philosophy

View from my apartment, Morning before sunrise

di Xiao Ouyang

 

My parents and I were among the millions of people in Wuhan caught by the sudden lockdown on Jan 23, 2020. I’ve written about my experience of this unexpected change in life for the RTE in February (“A Letter from Wuhan”). So much happened in the next few months that I’m unable to recall all of it. But how lucky I was! Both myself and my parents who came to visit for the Chinese New Year came out of this outbreak, sound and healthy. For me there is nothing “post-coronial”, for like it or not, a “coronial” mark has been left on me – whenever I see the climbing number of the global COVID-19 fatality and whenever people address the virus with “Wuhan” in its name, it feels like an old wound opening up again. Leaving alone my personal feelings, as a Chinese scholar working in comparative philosophy, I wish to share my reflections in light of my background and experience. Though my ideas below might be polemical, I hope my sincere intention to contribute to a meaningful discourse in a constructive way will not be mistaken.

It took me a while to finish this short article, partly due to my initial confusion about the nowadays increasingly popular term “post-corona” (similarly, “post-coronavirus”, “post-coronial”, “post-COVID-19”, etc.) If, as many epidemiologists have opined that this novel coronavirus is unlikely to “go away” or “sort of just disappear” any time soon, but will co-exist with human beings in the form of another flu-like chronic illness – as some of its “siblings” from the coronavirus family and rhinovirus “cousins” have done – then envisaging something “post-coronial” seems to be ill-timed, if not futile. Shall we take “post-coronial” as post-pandemic or post-outbreak? According to a definition of the WHO, “in the post-pandemic period, cases and outbreaks due to the [virus]… are expected to continue to occur.” Thus, “post-coronial” qua post-pandemic does not mean the disappearing of the novel coronavirus and Covid-19.

I doubt it would be easy to demarcate the pre- and post-outbreak periods accurately. Here I propose a potential cultural difference regarding the attitudes towards catastrophe, between what I call the biblical Genesis Flood mentality and the Ganzhi (sexagenary cycle) view. Lately, an obsolete Chinese folkloric text Dimujing (The Canon of the Mother Earth) has regained the spotlight, as it predicts in a Gengzi year (the 37th year in the sexagenary cycle), “many people shall die suddenly.” This prophecy from the Dimujing seems to be confirmed by a substantial record in the Chinese history – the Great Natural Disasters (1960), the Invasion of the Eight-Nation Army (1900), the First Opium War (1840), and the list goes on. Like this COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, many catastrophes that shaped Chinese collective memories and the following history happened in a Gengzi year. However, many argue that those are merely coincidences – naming any year in Chinese history, there must be something unusual that happened somewhere.

ganzhiI certainly have no interest in justifying superstition, nor do I believe the prophecies myself. My reference to this Chinese folklore is to indicate that, firstly, “post-pandemic” discussion makes better sense in a linear teleological history. When the Genesis Flood is over, there is a “post-flood” new world (until the day of the final judgment), but when disasters are understood as not only reoccurring but also an immanent part of cosmic changes (therefore, also of human experience), then there is no post- or pre- in a strict sense. Secondly, the critical discourse in our “post-corona” world that spares no effort to enhance our faith in the human power of self-reflection and self-determination might not be as self-evident and persuasive as it appears to us philosophers. Also, when confronted by a catastrophe, not everyone reasons. Though I disagree with the Dimujing superstition, I shall argue for why its “irrational” viewpoint is something worth taking seriously.

The scientific revolution in the West boosted confidence in human intelligence and experience, seeing an enthusiasm in mathematizing the world and in the quest for certainty. The great Italian scientist Galileo Galilei once remarked, “this grand book, the universe…. is written in the language of mathematics, and its characters are triangles, circles, and other geometric figures.” (The Assayer). As a legacy of the Enlightenment that blasted religious fanaticism, metaphysical dogmatism and pseudo-science, Western philosophers over the years came to celebrate a collective love affair with the notions such as freedom, autonomy, reason, logic, argument, criticism, reflection, verification, etc.. On the other side of the earth, Chinese philosophy evolved through a different course. Here what is relevant is its cultivation of appropriate intuitions and attitudes towards change and uncertainty in human life, even if without the input of a dominating religious tradition. In this strain of Chinese thought, the notion of ming comes into prominence.

ming

 

The character 命 is derived from ling 令. The earliest oracle bone script of ling depicts a human figure in a position of taking oral instruction. Like other characters, ming has multiple meaning in the ancient texts, for instance, to give a name, to nominate/nomination, to order/order, to command/command, destiny, fate, life, life-span, etc.. As our names were given (ming) when we were born – totally deprived of our free will and our own choices – for humans, ming firstly denotes the implication of pure passivity. Thus, there are phrases such as “conforming to ming (顺命)” and “accepting ming (受命).” Secondly, ming is explained in terms of wuchang 无常 (no constancy, no regularity, changeable, unpredictable) or “bu yu chang 不于常 (not [resting] in constancy)”, which implies uncertainty (Book of Documents). These two implications, human passivity and existential uncertainty, together brew a feeling of awe to tian 天 (literally, sky), the ultimate source of ming (Analects, 16.8). Tian can be understood as referring to the cosmos itself, instead of some personified deity or supernatural beings like God or Allah. Thirdly, in otherwise incompatible thoughts of Confucianism and Daoism, we find commensurable understandings of ming. Mencius says, “what is done without doing is tian, and what occurs without being incurred is ming” (Mencius, 9.6). The Daoist Liezi (Chapter “Li ming”) echoes Zhuangzi and states, “not knowing [why] it is so while [it ought to be] so, this is ming.” These understandings denote another dimension of ming, that is, it is something fundamentally beyond the horizon of human intelligence and knowledge. Now, my readers might contend, ming is nothing new but just what is called lot or allotment in English. I do not intend a detailed comparative conceptual clarification here, nor do I assert any radical novelty of the Chinese notion of ming. I believe that by introducing ming to the “post-coronial” discourse, an often neglected dimension of human reality comes to the fore.

Although the origin of this novel coronavirus is not confirmed, Wuhan and its people will always be associated with COVID-19. From a historical perspective, the attacks on the accused “Chinese dirty eating habit”[1] will gradually lose its relevance, for there was and always will be some place where certain viruses successfully transmit to humans, in a “dirty” or a “clean” way, in China or in the USA or somewhere else. This line of blaming-Wuhan arguments embodies a lofty while elusive ideal of humanity. It also overlooks the lot in human life and expects human beings to be the sole author of their existential situation. Being humans, we are sometimes thrown to a situation that is far beyond our control.

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My parents and I were stuck in the strictly locked-down epicentre for almost 80 days. What should we do? The Book of Changes offers a clue: one ought to “celebrate tian and recognize ming“(乐天知命). Recognizing ming requires courage. To accept that we can be essentially vulnerable and helpless is not easy for some people. Recognizing ming does not make us weak or irrational, but is a necessary step for gaining a true understanding of life. We have to acknowledge this ineliminable existential feature of the human condition: uncertainty and lot. In Confucianism, without the recognition of ming, one cannot become a proper person. (Analects, 20.3)

Adjusting our attitude towards life after recognizing ming does not entail a fatalistic or any kind of pre-deterministic attitude. For Confucianism, if the heavenly way is self-so, then the human way is a negotiation between li 力 (effort, strength, force, power) and ming. In this li-and-ming tango, a situation in which one’s li is not adequately exerted is not called radical or pure ming, but on the contrary, fei ming 非命 (not ming) or fei zheng ming 非正命 (not ming proper). Bad consequences (e.g., death, peril) due to fei ming are not manifestations of fatalism. Instead, fei ming is “self-caused (zi qu自取)” punishment. (Shuoyuan, 17.15) Mencius argues, “one who recognizes ming will not stand under a wall in danger of collapsing.” (Mencius, 13.2)

The beauty of our garden cannot be attributed merely to human planning, but also to the natural and cosmic forces! Such is the course of life. Human enterprise, in an absolute sense, is coordination between human agency and tian. Mencius’s archery metaphor is inspiring: “in the case of shooting at a mark a hundred paces distant. Reaching the target is owing to your li, while hitting the bullseye is not owing to your li, [but tian].” (Mencius, 10.1) The outcome of our effort is always influenced, to a greater or lesser extent, by something beyond our control. “Celebrating tian and recognizing ming” is not simply reconciling with the vicissitudes of life, but also finding value and meaning in uncertainty. The fact that Chinese art (especially painting) cherishes “shen 神 (magical, mysterious, unpredictable)” as one of the highest aesthetic ideals has a lot to do with this mindset. The fifth-century poet Bao Zhao writes,

 

When water falls on level ground,

to all directions it flows,

East, West, North, South.

There is ming in human life,

 why should I walk in sorrow and sit in sadness?

 

The COVID-19 pandemic has affected every nation and all walks of life, and it will undoubtedly leave a mark in human history. Either appealing to superstitions or the sciences, humans are exerting li in an attempt to both make sense of the catastrophe and bring it under control. But we have to keep in mind the presence of ming. The fei ming path – giving up our agency like “standing under a collapsing wall” – is not sensible to many of us. Still, we also have to guard against overconfidence, over-optimism and arrogance, which probably have caused more tragedies during this pandemic than pessimism and cowardice.

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During the early period of the lockdown when everything was unclear (thus more horrific than it should be), there was a time when my parents and I thought we would not make it. My dad said to my mum and I, “whatever happens, the family is together.” Sometimes, as in this situation, we are defeated, and we have to come to terms with ming. But it does not mean that we have to give up everything we cherish in life. “Celebrating tian and recognizing ming” is not capitulationism. “Whatever happens, the family is together.” My dad’s plain words did not promise the hope of triumph or overcoming the pandemic, but it did dispel fear and nihility. After the affirmation of the uncertainty in life (ming), the passage in the Book of Documents writes, “with a shan 善way, gain it; being of no shan, lose it. The Book of Chu says, ‘The State of Chu has nothing precious, but only treasures shan.’” Shan is translated into good/goodness, kind/kindness, skillful, lucky, so on and so forth. Whatever it is, it is something ming cannot erode. When we experience the vulnerability of ourselves, we would be more sympathetic and caring towards others. As the world is fraught with uncertainty, we realize that we survive better when we stick together and aid each other, like a family. In my view, humanity is not manifested merely through overcoming one particular catastrophe, but in the co-existence with and its self-accomplishment in reoccurring catastrophes. Also, post-coronial reflection should not become another form of propaganda that renews unbridled confidence in human rationality and intelligence, or in our ability to dominate nature and determine our futures. The fact that we have learned a heavy lesson does not guarantee that we shall never fall again. With or without this pandemic, the attitude of “celebrating tian and recognizing ming” and “treasuring shan” sheds light on our peculiar existence.


[1] Personally, I have never heard or seen bat-eating custom in Wuhan. Also, I strongly support the protection of wild animals.

Chutian Tower by the East Lake at Wuhan

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