Classical Chinese culture, on the other hand, was little influenced by myths which contrasted an irrational Chaos with an ordered Cosmos.
In the Western tradition thinking began with questions ‘What kinds of things are there?’ and ‘What is the nature (physis) of things?; it is the investigation of the most essential features of things – the being of beings. We always suppose that there are general characteristics – the being of beings, or universal principles – which tell us how things are ordered. But it’s irrelevant to China! Why? The classical Chinese language does not employ a copulative verb. The Chinese terms usually used to translate ‘being’ and ‘not-being’ are you and wu (see You–wu). The Chinese you means that ‘something is present’. Likewise, wu as ‘to not be’ means ‘not to be around’. The sense of ‘being’ thus overlaps ‘having’. The Chinese language disposes those who employ the notions of you and wu to concern themselves with the presence or absence of concrete particular things and the effect of having or not having them at hand. Even in recent centuries the choice was shi, meaning ‘this’, thus indicating proximity and availability rather than ‘existence’.
Chinese thinkers sought the understanding of order through the artful disposition of things, a participatory process which does not presume that there are essential features, or antecedent-determining principles. The art of contextualizing seeks to understand and appreciate the manner in which particular things present-to-hand are, or may be, most harmoniously correlated. The world for them is ziran, autogenerative or ‘so-of-itself’, and found the harmonious interrelations among the particular things around them to be the natural condition of things.
In the West there is the presumption of an objective standard which one perforce must instantiate; in the other, there is no source of order other than the agency of the elements comprising the order. In China any notion of order which abstracts from the concrete details of this-worldly existence has been seen as moving in a direction of decreasing relevance. Rational order depends upon the belief in a single-ordered world, a cosmos; aesthetic order speaks of the world in much less unitary terms. In China, the ‘cosmos’ is simply ‘the ten thousand things’.
These differing senses of order are reflected in the fact that the nineteenth-century Japanese had to coin the term tetsugaku (philosophy) to translate the Western philosophic tradition and to recover its Japanese counterpart, and that this same expression was soon thereafter imported into China as zhexue for the same purpose. The need to invent a term to refer to ‘philosophy’ suggests at least that these cultures had to reorganize patterns of indigenous intellectual experience in ways previously unfamiliar to them.
Chinese thinking depends upon a species of analogy which may be called ‘correlative thinking’. Correlative thinking, as it is found both in classical Chinese ‘cosmologies’ (the Yijing (Book of Changes) - the association of image or concept-clusters related by meaningful disposition rather than physical causation. Correlative thinking is a species of spontaneous thinking grounded in informal and ad hoc analogical procedures presupposing both association and differentiation. Ambiguity, vagueness and incoherence associable with images and metaphors are carried over into the more formal elements of thought. Correlative thinking involves the association of significances into clustered images which are treated as meaning complexes ultimately unanalyzable into any more basic components. For then, correlativity is not only an anthropocentric mode of signification..
During the Han period (206 bc–ad 220), vast tables of correspondences were employed to identify and organize the sorts of things in the natural and social world which were thought to provide a meaningful context for one’s life. One such set of tables, called ‘tables of five’, compared ‘the five phases’ (wood, fire, earth, metal, water), ‘the five directions’ (north, east, south, west and centre), ‘the five colours’ (green, red, yellow, white, black), ‘the five notes’, and so forth. Other types of correlation employed the twelve months, the twelve pitches, the twenty-eight constellations, the heavenly roots and the earthly branches. Such classifications include body parts, psycho-physical and affective states, styles of government, weather, domestic animals, technological instruments, heavenly bodies and much more.
One of the important devices for making such correlations is the contrast of yin and yang, literally, ‘the shady side’ and ‘the sunny side’ of the mountain (see Yin–yang). These notions were employed to identify alternative patterns of hierarchical relationship. The old teacher, Laozi, is wiser than his young student and hence ‘overshadows’ him in this respect. Laozi is yang and the student is yin. The student, however, is stronger physically than the old master, and hence in physical prowess the student is yang to Laozi’s yin. When these various strengths and weaknesses defining the relationship can be balanced to maximum effect, the relationship is most productive and harmonious. It is clear from this illustration that yang and yin are by no means to be understood as ‘cosmic principles’; they are heuristics helpful in reading the world.
In China, correlations were not employed as a means of dispassionately investigating the nature of things, they’re prescriptions. Science was always understood as ultimately subject to prevailing human values.
Chinese ‘categories’ (lei) are defined not by the presumption of a shared essence defining natural ‘kinds’, but by an identified functional similarity or association that obtains among unique particulars; definitions tend to be metaphorical and allusive,
It is the earliest reference in the canons of classical literature that holds the weight of authority, not scientific logic. They are concerned with a ‘human being’ who is no abstraction but is the specific imperial Chinese person, the emperor, who commissioned the work for the benefit of those examination candidates destined to assist him in governing his empire. In each category, individual entries begin from the most noble and conclude with the most base: animals begin from ‘lion’ and ‘elephant’ and finish with ‘rat’ and ‘fox’; trees begin with ‘pine tree’ and ‘cypress’ and end with ‘thistles’ and ‘brambles’. In ‘naming’ (ming) his world, the ruler is ‘commanding’ (ming) it to be a certain way.
Ancient China overcame the threat of the tensions and conflicts attendant upon ethnic and cultural pluralism by employing the contextualizing force of the Chinese language itself as means of transmitting culture. A class of literati developed; a canon of classical works was compiled and instituted along with a continuing commentarial tradition which served to translate and perpetuate the doctrines of these classical works; an examination system based upon these texts was introduced in the early Han period and persisted with relatively little change for two thousand years, being abolished only as recently as 1905.
Methods of adjudicating doctrinal conflicts were refined in a manner which took as its highest value the maintenance of social stability. Beginning in the early Han period, [U1] commentaries upon Confucian texts were produced which vied with each other for proximity to the canonical center. The authors of these commentaries were almost never interested in overthrowing the authority of the canon in favour of their own ideas, but sought to enrich the authority of the classic by claiming to better understand its original meaning. Further, since tradition was the sole ready resource for norms and doctrines, critics of a particular doctrine depended as much as proponents upon a shared cultural repository.
Any criticism assumes a context of common concern and becomes thereby a cooperative exercise among responsible participants that proceeds to search for alternatives on which all can agree. Critics are always implicated in the existing context; hence, any criticism is ultimately self-referential. As for self-assertion, it threatens to disrupt rather than reinforce or improve the harmony of the existing context. From the Analects on, an appropriateness (yi) which respects social context has been advocated as the positive alternative to self-interested benefit (li).