Why do you use the username, @autumnfloods? What’s the story behind it?

A student asked me:

Why do you use the username, @autumnfloods? What’s the story behind it?

“Autumn Floods” is the name of Chapter 17 of the Book of Zhuangzi (莊子), which happens to be a chapter that I find incredibly profound and moving, whether I read it in the original Classical Chinese or even in the various English translations.

The chapter is a constant reminder of how we should have the intellectual humility to remember always that we never know enough and should never be certain about anything even if we may have had many “relevant” experiences, or heard something repeated over and over again as if it were the Truth.

Here is an excerpt from the “Autumn Floods” chapter:

“You can’t discuss the ocean with a well frog – he’s limited by the space he lives in. You can’t discuss ice with a summer insect – he’s bound to a single season. You can’t discuss the Way with a cramped scholar – he’s shackled by his doctrines. Now you have come out beyond your banks and borders and have seen the great sea – so you realize your own pettiness. From now on it will be possible to talk to you about the Great Principle.

“Of all the waters of the world, none is as great as the sea. Ten thousand streams flow into it – I have never heard of a time when they stopped – and yet it is never full. The water leaks away at [the river] Wei-lu – I have never heard of a time when it didn’t – and yet the sea is never empty. Spring or autumn, it never changes. Flood or drought, it takes no notice. It is so much greater than the streams of the Yangtze or the Yellow River that it is impossible to measure the difference. But I have never for this reason prided myself on it. I take my place with heaven and earth and receive breath from the yin and yang. I sit here between heaven and earth as a little stone or a little tree sits on a huge mountain. Since I can see my own smallness, what reason would I have to pride myself?”

Zhuangzi, Chapter 17, trans. Burton Watson

And just a little later in the same chapter:

“There is no end to the weighing of things, no stop to time, no constancy to the division of lots, no fixed rule to beginning and end. Therefore great wisdom observes both far and near, and for that reason recognizes small without considering it paltry, recognizes large without considering it unwieldy, for it knows that there is no end to the weighing of things. It has a clear understanding of past and present, and for that reason it spends a long time without finding it tedious, a short time without fretting at its shortness, for it knows that time has no stop. It perceives the nature of fullness and emptiness, and for that reason it does not delight if it acquires something nor worry if it loses it, for it knows that there is no constancy to the division of lots. It comprehends the Level Road, and for that reason it does not rejoice in life nor look on death as a calamity, for it knows that no fixed rule can be assigned to beginning and end.

“Calculate what man knows and it cannot compare to what he does not know. Calculate the time he is alive and it cannot compare to the time before he was born. Yet man takes something so small and tries to exhaust the dimensions of something so large! Hence he is muddled and confused and can never get anywhere. Looking at it this way, how do we know that the tip of a hair can be singled out as the measure of the smallest thing possible? Or how do we know that heaven and earth can fully encompass the dimensions of the largest thing possible?”

Zhuangzi, Chapter 17, trans. Burton Watson

Beautiful, isn’t it? We can never know enough, nor should we ever pride ourselves for whatever knowledge or richness of experience we may have.

A wonderful lesson and a reminder. And this is of special importance for me as I journey deeper and deeper into the world of academia. I’ve seen too many people go into ridiculous extremes (in religion, politics, and even in decisions affecting everyday life like lifestyle or even parenting) simply because of this lack of intellectual humility to acknowledge that our knowledge and experiences are simply too finite and constantly prone to error.

What does Xunzi have to say about rituals and social justice?

This post will be a follow up to my previous post (see Investigating the Relationship between Ritual Propriety and Social Justice in the Early Confucian Tradition), where I will explore the relationship between li (ritual/ritual propriety) and social justice as found in the works of Xunzi, another pre-Qin Confucian philosopher.

I begin my exploration by focusing on Chapter 19 of The Xunzi (yes, the text is named after the author).

The chapter starts with an exposition on the origins of li:

How did ritual principles arise? I say that men are born with desires which, if not satisfied, cannot but lead men to seek to satisfy them. If in seeking to satisfy their desires men observe no measure and apportion things without limits, then it would be impossible for them not to contend over the means to satisfy their desires. Such contention leads to disorder. Disorder leads to poverty. The Ancient Kings abhorred such disorder; so they established the regulations contained within ritual and moral principles in order to apportion things, to nurture the desires of men, and to supply the means for their satisfaction. They so fashioned their regulations that desires should not want for the things which satisfy them and good would not be exhausted by the desires. In this way the two of them, desires and goods, sustained each other over the course of time. This is the origin of ritual principles. (Xunzi 19.1a, trans. John Knoblock)

One of the requirements for a just society is a well-ordered society. In the case of Xunzi and the other early Confucian thinkers, society is ordered and regulated by means of rituals (li).

The passage above describes three major purposes of rituals:

  1. Apportion things
  2. Nuture the desires of men
  3. Supply the means for their satisfaction

So, not only do rituals work in deciding who gets how much, rituals also ensure that people are able to receive the resources they need. But more importantly, rituals function to regulate (and educate) the desires of the people so that they do not desire more than they require. In not desiring more than they need, they will not place a strain on the limited resources meant for others. It seems, therefore, that this would guarantee that everyone receives a fair share of the necessary goods they require. Of course, an interesting question to ask is: would this actually guarantee that everyone will receive a fair share of goods, or sufficient resources to live decently?

To this question, Xunzi says:

Rites employ valuables and ordinary objects to make offerings, use distinctions between noble and base to create forms, vary the quantity according to differences of station, and elaborate or simplify to render each its due. (Xunzi 19.3, trans. Knoblock)

Those of higher rank, like rulers and ministers, should receive not just more resources, but also more elaborate and refined goods. It is interesting that the punchline of this statement is that it is the ritually appropriate way “to render each its due.” This is something that may make some people feel uncomfortable. Why should people of higher rank deserve more than those of lower rank? What is the basis for them to receive a greater share?

There are two reasons for this. (1) These are people who hold office and thus shoulder the burden of looking after the state. While they may be working as hard as everyone else, the responsibility is greater, and thus they deserve a greater share. (2) The second reason is more interesting. Xunzi recognises the pedagogical powers in the visual display of li in teaching the people to distinguish those with power and rank. People behave very differently towards a person wearing t-shirt and shorts, compared to a person wearing a suit and a tie. The outward appearances matter. If a person of authority were to dress in a very undignified manner, he would not receive the same respect or be able to exercise his authority effectively. If instead, such a person of authority were to dress in a way more refined than the masses, or be publicly conferred elaborate/refined goods, people will see and learn that this is an important person, whose respect is due by virtue of his position and the authority and burden he shoulders on behalf of the people. Hence, what is due to people of authority isn’t so much the material goods per se. No, the material goods are instrumental to aiding such people to effectively exercise their authority. What is due to them is the respect.

And if you are worried about abuses of power and authority, Xunzi has this to say:

Thus, the gentleman could make the elaborate forms of ritual more florid or make its simplified forms leaner, but he dwells in the mean of its mean course. Whether he walks or runs, dashes after or hurries about, moves with urgency or runs quickly hither and thither, he does not depart from ritual, for it is “the outer boundary of his proper dwelling.” (Xunzi 19.3, trans. Knoblock)

If necessary, rituals should vary in elaborateness or simplicity depending on the circumstances. While some elaborate and refined goods are required for those of high rank, it does not mean that they indulge in these things. Rather, the amount of what they have should be adjusted accordingly (to the economic situation), always following the principle of moderation, of staying within the middle way proper to their rank and position.

Is there a way to ensure this moderation in people? According to Xunzi, yes there is!

Rites trim what is too long, stretch out what is too short, eliminate excess, remedy deficiency, and extend cultivated forms that express love and respect so that they increase and complete the beauty of conduct according to one’s duty. … Elegant adornment, music, and happiness are what sustain tranquility and serve auspicious occasions. Gross ugliness, weeping, and sorrow are what sustain anxiety and serve inauspicious occasions. Hence, their utilization of elegant adornment does not go so far as to be sensuous or seductive, nor gross ugliness so far as to produce emaciation or self-neglect. Their use of music and happiness does not go so far as to be wayward and abandoned or indolent and rude, nor do weeping and sorrow go so far as to produce despondency or injury to life. Such is the middle course of ritual.

Thus, the changes of emotion and of manner should be sufficient to distinguish the auspicious from the inauspicious and to make clear that the rank is high or low and that the relation is near or distant, but with this they stop. Any practice that exceeds these goals is evil, and although such practices may be difficult to accomplish, the gentleman disdains them. (Xunzi 19.5b, trans. Knoblock)

The various rituals, in the form of ceremonies or etiquette, are meant to teach us how to appropriately express our emotions and intentions. They are meant to teach us what is the appropriate use of materials, and how much of it to use in various circumstances. In this way, we learn to render the respect and resources/goods due to others, never shortchanging them. Or if one is the recipient, to know how much to expect so as not to be shortchanged by others.

And of course, social relations aren’t just merely about showing respect, expressing emotions, and redistributing material goods. No. There’s more. Though the context for this passage is about funerals, what Xunzi says is relevant to li in all social interactions:

Use of these [ritual] forms ornaments social relations. (Xunzi 19.4a, trans. Knoblock)

There is a certain aesthetic quality in social relations!

Sure, you may drink coffee simply because you need to stay awake, but you can enjoy coffee for its aesthetic qualities, savouring its acidic and nutty qualities with every sip. You can do the same with tea and wine too. There is a certain aesthetic appreciation and enjoyment in one’s interaction, in one’s tasting of the beverage. In the same way, social relations aren’t just there to be engaged with on a purely functional level. In our daily life, we can enjoy friendship, or the company of colleagues or strangers.

Rituals add form which emphasize the aesthetic value of social relations, informing us to enjoy, or at the very least, to appreciate, the relationship we have with the other when engaged in social interaction. Hence, when dealing with those higher and lower than us, wealthy or less well-off than us, the rites give us structure and form by which we are able to “ornament” the relation, to arrive at that enjoyment of the relationship.

While this may not be directly related to social justice per se, I think this is valuable in the sense that at the very least, li compels us (or rather, requires us) to treat the other with greater respect and appreciation. We aren’t just dealing with “the poor” or “the disadvantaged” as if they are an abstract concept, devoid of real personhood or character. To be engaged in social justice with those who are less well-off in a ritually-appropriate manner means that we have to enter into an aesthetic social relation.

Doil Kim, in his PhD Dissertation, on Xunzi’s Ethical Thought and Moral Psychology (2011), wrote about the significance of discrimination (辨 bian). According to Xunzi, humans have the advanced capacity for discrimination that goes beyond basic sensory capabilities (p.89), able to differentiate between the different types of relationships we can have with others, to the extent that we can even distinguish the different relationships we may have with the same person (e.g. the same person could be both your colleague and best friend).

Discrimination is essential because it helps us to determine different modes of responding to people. How intimate should our response be? We treat people around with with different degrees of love, intimacy and respect. To be able to distinguish who’s who in relation to you is essential in picking out the right mode of interaction and engagement. More importantly for Xunzi, is whether “we can develop love and respect on the basis of the capacity in ways that enable them to interact with one another in accordance with the spirit of ren (benevolence) and yi (rightness)” (p.96). The relationship determines how we respond to a person. The rites give us structure not only for interacting with that person, but also the structure to develop love and respect in an appropriate manner. It is not about simply helping the disadvantaged. There are some who help the disadvantaged in ways that make the less well-off feel undignified or ashamed of who they are, thus stripping them of whatever remaining human dignity they may have. Good intentions, benevolence, and compassion must be expressed through a structure that respects, dignifies, and empowers them. Rituals provide that form, thus ornamenting the social relationship between rich and poor, advantaged and disadvantaged.

There are another two interesting concepts in the Xunzi that’s both relevant and interesting in bringing out the richness of rituals in the context of social justice. The two concepts are: rang (讓 deference) and ci (辭 declination), and they are both present in many rituals.

Rang refers to “the action of offering honor or something desirable to other people” (p.98). It is not any kind of offering, but an offering of something that the recipient also desires to attain (p.102). As there is a desire in us often to desire more (goods or honour), the principle of rang compels us to defer the desire for more to the other, so that the other may share or have more of we desire. The ruler should defer his own desires so as not to frustrate the people and deprive them of their dues; and similarly the people should defer their own desires so as to give to the ruler more of what is due to him. Ritual propriety demands that the principle of rang be practised by both parties so that both may exercise self-moderation. It is never a one-sided requirement, unless propriety has been violated.

Ci on the other hand, refers to “the act of declining an offer or a treatment that would be suitable only for a person of a higher social status,” or “inappropriate to one’s social status” (p.108). It can be properly understood as “the kind of deferential declination based on a proper self-recognition of one’s own social status” (p.108). In the context of rituals, ci demands that we recognise that we may not be so worthy of whatever it is that we receive. This is not to be confused with humility. Humility would be to say that one is too unworthy to receive this (for reasons of moral failing or otherwise). Rather, in this case, ci is about recognising that it may not be appropriate for us to receive, for doing so would be pretending to be someone we are not. The appropriate recipient may be someone of a higher status, but it may also be for someone of a lower status. This is important because it brings to mind the recognition that we are not entitled to it, nor do we deserved; instead calling us to ponder on who might be the more deserving recipient. Once again, ritual propriety demands that the principle of ci be practised by both sides, so that both parties will think less of themselves as being entitled to something, and instead think who might be the more worthy, deserving recipient.

These are the two principles at play in many rituals.

In Chapter 20 of the Xunzi, there is a description of a village wine ceremony:

With the exchange of three bows between host and guest, they reach the steps, and after the guest has thrice deferred, the host takes the guest up to his place. Bowing deeply, he presents the wine up in pledge. There follow many episodes of polite refusals and deferring between host and chief guest… (Xunzi 20.5, trans. Knoblock)

In this ritual, both the host and chief guest are expected “to offer to give way to the other (rang) three times, so that the other will go ahead and step up to the main hall first”, and they are also simultaneously expected “to show their reluctance or hesitation to immediately accept the other’s offer by making polite verbal refusals (ci) and giving way to the other (rang) three times” (p.114).

By means of rang (deference), both parties are required to focus on the social status of the other, acknowledging the other to be better than one’s self either in terms of rank, social standing, or moral achievement. This prevents one from being distracted by one’s superiority of the other, and so be willing to give way, and offer the best to that other.

By means of ci (declination), both parties are required to consider that they may be treated inappropriately, in the sense that they are receiving treatment that is far too good for one’s own position/status (to be treated like a king, when one is not, and thus to decline it) At the same time, it compels each party to consider if they are also treating the other inappropriately too. If one is not worthy of such grand treatment, perhaps the other is the one who truly deserves such grand treatment, thus one must not disrespect the other and instead treat the other grandly as well.

Kim concludes:

[This] code of conduct presents the vision of an ideal society in which every person tries to deal with the other person in a transaction by habitually focusing on a higher or better social status that may be ascribed to the person; and, ever person is always careful about a possible overestimation of his or her own social status. In these ways, everyone can be treated properly, and there is no need to make a demand to others for one’s own due. (p.115)

Since the principles of rang and ci are present in the concept of li, what we have here are the dynamics embedded within rituals for social justice. In which case, a ritually-ordered state, i.e. a state governed by li, would compel people, both rich and poor, young and old, superior or inferior, to look out for each other, to constantly ponder on the needs of others, and to distribute it to those who are in need.

Yet, it seems that this sort of utopia might work only for a family or a small community, like a village. In a small community, it is still relatively easy to look out for one another and their needs. On the surface, this doesn’t seem possible to implement in a big city. One can only act in this way towards one’s small network of friends and family in the city. This might even be impossible to implement on a state level.

If this is the case, then maybe we will need to adapt the principles of rang and ci within li, and reconstruct it to fit a contemporary theory of Confucian social justice.

Another interesting question is: if a modern reconstruction is possible, how do proceed to the next stage, to frame this as policy, stirring the people to action?

Well, it’s something I’ll need to contemplate further, but I think it is, nonetheless, a very interesting idea!

Investigating the Relationship between Ritual Propriety and Social Justice in the Early Confucian Tradition

Here is a draft proposal for a paper I wish to write.

In the book, Confucian Perfectionism: A Political Philosophy for Modern Times, Joseph Chan argues that there are three principles of a Confucian perspective on social justice. The three principles are: (1) sufficiency for all, where “each household should have an amount of resources sufficient to live a materially secured and ethical life”; (2) priority to the badly off, where “people who fall below the threshold of sufficiency – those who have special needs and are badly off – should have priority in being taken care of”; and (3) merit and contribution, where “offices and emolument should be distributed according to an individual’s merits and contributions; any subsequent inequality of income is not illegitimate.” (pp.175-176)

Yet it is interesting to note that the concept of li (禮 rites/ritual/ritual propriety) – a key concept central to Confucian thinking – is not mentioned in Chan’s reconstruction of a Confucian perspective of social justice. The Liji (禮記), also known as The Book of Rites, strongly suggests that li plays a key role in supporting the Confucian perspective on social justice. One such example can be found in the first chapter of the Liji, which praises li for its ability to guarantee a condition of security:

In the highest antiquity they prized (simply conferring) good; in the time next to this, giving and repaying was the thing attended to. And what the rules of propriety (li) value is that reciprocity. If I give a gift and nothing comes in return, that is contrary to propriety (li); if the thing comes to me, and I give nothing in return, that also is contrary to propriety (li). If a man observe the rules of propriety (li), he is in a condition of security; if he do not, he is in one of danger. Hence there is the saying, ‘The rules of propriety (li) should by no means be left unlearned.’ (Liji, Chapter 1 “Qu Li Part 1”, 10, trans. James Legge)

Do rituals really play such a key role in supporting social justice? I propose to further investigate the concept of li and its relation to social justice. As the early Chinese thinkers had no concepts of social justice, it is not possible to directly derive a theory of social justice from their thoughts. Instead, I will follow the methods employed by Joseph Chan: instead of asking if the early thinkers had a theory of social justice, I would look at how the early thinkers approached specific problems that are linked to our modern understanding of social justice. How did these early Confucian thinkers try to resolve problems of inequality, poverty, and the distribution of material goods? However, I will go a step further and examine how li was employed to resolve these social justice problems: Was it used to establish certain societal norms (and attitudes) to motivate the regular redistribution of goods? Or was it employed in a more regulatory way to guarantee certain layers of protection for disadvantaged classes in society? Did li establish a certain worldview that shaped the way people perceived themselves and their relations with others in ways that would lead to a more socially just society? Lastly, I will explore how we might be able to adapt li into contemporary discourses on social justice, and how we might strengthen modern Confucian reconstructions of political philosophy with this newfound understanding of li.


Some Initial Thoughts

Well, I’ve read quite a few papers and books so far, and I thought it’d be worthwhile to share some of my initial thoughts on the above topic.

Having read the Liji, there seems to be several interesting components in li that may help to contribute towards a theory on social justice.

Firstly, the function of li is to create discrimination of people of different roles. I’m hesitant to call it class distinctions because it’s not just about class. People can belong to the same class yet hold different roles, some of which hold greater importance over others. Apart from making clear the roles, the other function of li is to form certain attitudes and sympathies of one role towards other roles. Some rites require both rich and poor to be present, so that the rich will receive first-hand exposure of the poor, and through the ceremonies, educate them on the need for greater sympathy and benevolence towards people who are not as well off as they are. In this way, the rich will imbued with sympathy and motivation to share their goods with those who are less fortunate. There are other rites that function to bring a community together for the main purpose of distributing goods. Some ceremonies employ the sacrifice of animals. At the end of the sacrifice, the meat is shared, as a way to provide the necessary nutrition to those who cannot afford meat.

It is also interesting to note that the Liji talks about li as having “definite regulations … to serve as dykes for the people.” (Liji, Chapter 30 “Fang Ji”, 2) There are certain elements codified within some (or all?) rituals to protect certain classes of people who are in a potentially disadvantageous position, depending on the type of interaction they engage in with others. The rituals are formulated such that the potentially disadvantaged are protected from exploitation. Here is an example:

The Master said, ‘According to the rules of marriage, the son-in-law should go in person to meet the bride. When he is introduced to her father and mother, they bring her forward, and give her to him’ – being afraid things should go contrary to what is right. In this way a dyke is raised in the interest of the people; and yet there are cases in which the wife will not go (to her husband’s).’ (Liji, Chapter 30 “Fang Ji”, 39)

These are some of the many ways in which the rites offer protection to the disadvantaged. Of course, in ancient times, laws then weren’t like the laws of today. They were coercive laws of punishment, rather than regulation. It was left up to li to govern and regulate the masses. What is worth exploring in this paper is whether (and how) the context of ritual opens up a new dimension of effectiveness not found in modern-day regulatory laws and policies.

Going beyond this, I get the sense that the Liji seems to describe an expansion of the family-relation template onto the broader society as a whole. In a family, the parents look after and provide for their children (and reciprocity requires that the children do their part in the family too, of course); elder siblings look out for and care for their younger siblings. These two familial relations seem to form the basis of the way in which materials are distributed from the rich to the poor. The community is the family. Neighbours are like siblings who look out for and help each other, and so the rich assist the poor in ways just like how elder sibling helps the younger sibling. Where the elder sibling is unable to help, the parents come in. The analogous equivalent would be the state, providing the necessary assistance in the form of public/state rituals involving the community. Rituals are the way by which the state exercises its parental role to all its “children”.

Ritual ensures that relational connections are established in a community, it facilitates a means, an event, a place, an action, to draw people together and interact in a certain way. Ritual is the tool by which people come to understand how their familial relationships are expanded to a broader society.

Let me now introduce a certain religious dimension into this picture. The power of rituals is that it imposes an as-if ideal world onto a less-than-perfection as-is world. Rituals – whether it’s something as grand as a state sacrifice, or something as simple as bowing between two persons – by its very performance, juxtaposes a certain ideal onto the world.

Take for example, the liturgy of the Eucharist celebrated by Christians. While the as-is reality is that of people sitting/standing/kneeling in pews as they are led in prayer by a priest/pastor, there is an as-if world that comes into play: the ideal Christian society as that mimicking the communion of saints in heaven. This worldview encompasses ideals of how one is to interact with each other in so many different ways.

Here’s another example, but on a more secular level. Let’s think about the ritual of high-fiving: when you and I perform a high-five, what are we communicating? Friendship? Camaraderie? Brotherhood? The celebration of success? Or perhaps there is something more? Whatever it is, it communicates a certain ideal relationship between us. (If you are wondering how that is possible, imagine a situation (or better yet, experience it yourself) where you try to high-five someone, but that person refuses to reciprocate back – you immediately begin to experience certain inadequacies about the relationship just from the failure to execute the reciprocal relation.) There is a certain vision of that relationship encapsulated in that high-five action. While our relationship is far from perfect in real life, that as-if world comes into existence, juxtaposing with the reality of our as-is world, whenever we perform the high-five.

Similarly, the performance of rituals brings into play an ideal world, that reminds constantly the participants about the ideal forms of interaction, and the ideal type of community. We see an illustration of this ideal society, described once again in the Liji:

When the Grand course was pursued, a public and common spirit ruled all under the sky; they chose men of talents, virtue, and ability; their words were sincere, and what they cultivated was harmony. Thus men did not love their parents only, nor treat as children only their own sons. A competent provision was secured for the aged till their death, employment for the able-bodied, and the means of growing up to the young. They showed kindness and compassion to widows, orphans, childless men, and those who were disabled by disease, so that they were all sufficiently maintained. Males had their proper work, and females had their homes. (They accumulated) articles (of value), disliking that they should be thrown away upon the ground, but not wishing to keep them for their own gratification. (They laboured) with their strength, disliking that it should not be exerted, but not exerting it (only) with a view to their own advantage. In this way (selfish) schemings were repressed and found no development. Robbers, thieves, and rebellious traitors did not show themselves, and hence the outer doors remained open, and were not shut. This was (the period of) what we call the Grand Union. (Liji, Chapter 9 “Li Yun”, 1, trans. James Legge)

While having a utopian vision of society doesn’t instantly lead to social justice, it nonetheless provides a goal towards what might be conceived of as a just society, an ideal society for its people to strive for.

Well, these are some of my initial comments. I’ll have more to say when I begin researching deeper on this.



Chan, Joseph, Confucian Perfectionism: A Political Philosophy for Modern Times (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2014).

Chan, Joseph, “Is There a Confucian Perspective on Social Justice?” in eds. Takashi Shogimen & Cary J. Nederman, Western Political Thought in Dialogue with Asia (Lanhan MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2008), pp. 261-277.

Chan, Joseph, “Confucianism and Social Justice: Historical Setting,” in eds. Michael D. Palmer & Stanley M. Burgess, Companion to Religion and Social Justice  (Oxford: Blackwell, 2012), pp. 77-92.

Puett, Michael, “Ritual and the Subjunctive” in eds. Seligman A, Weller R, Simon B, Ritual and its Consequences: An Essay on the Limits of Sincerity (Oxford: Oxford University Press; 2008). pp. 17-42.

Puett, Michael, “Innovation as Ritualization: The Fractured Cosmology of Early China,” Cardozo Law Review, 2006: 28 (1).

Puett, Michael, To Become a God: Cosmology, Sacrifice, and Self-Divinization in Early China (Cambridge: Harvard University Asia Centre, 2002).

Tan, Sor-Hoon, Confucian Democracy – A Deweyan Reconstruction of Confucianism (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2004).

Tan, Sor-Hoon, “The Dao of Politics: Rites and Laws as Pragmatic Tools of Government,” Philosophy East and West, 2011: 61 (3).

Tan, Sor-Hoon, “The Concept of Yi (义) in the Mencius and Problems of Distributive Justice,” Australasian Journal of Philosophy 2014: 92 (3).

Tan, Sor-Hoon, “Ritual and Deference: Extending Chinese Philosophy in a Comparative Context,” Philosophy East and West 2012: 62(1).

The Concept of Harmony in the Medical Context of the Zhou Dynasty

[This is a draft of a paper that I am in the midst of writing]

Medicine in the Zhou Dynasty is particularly interesting in the history of Chinese medicine as it was the period where the first attempts were made to describe the phenomena of illness and disease in naturalistic terms, primarily, in terms of the flow of qi (氣 vapour). At its infancy, Zhou medical theory was still simple and was not complicated by the incorporation of Yin-Yang and Five Phases Theory – concepts that we strongly associate with Chinese medicine today. During the Shang Dynasty (just before the Zhou Dynasty), the phenomenon of illnesses and diseases was understood in terms of punishments met out by ancestral spirits (or evil spirits) who were offended or upset by the inflicted person. Diagnosis, therefore, consisted of determining which ancestor (or evil spirit) had been offended, and the reason for the offence. Similarly, treatment was done and understood in terms of appeasing the offended ancestral spirit or exorcising an evil spirit.

Nonetheless, the medical worldview in the Zhou dynasty was still in its primitive form and had not developed into the familiar complex medical theories that we find in the Huangdi Neijing Suwen. [The Huangdi Neijing Suwen is a medical text compiled during the early part of the Han dynasty. Some scholars have claimed that parts of the text were written during the late Zhou period. This may be true, but it does not change the fact that much of the Zhou dynasty’s worldview of medicine was still in its primitive form.] Moreover, the medical worldview during the Zhou was still very much influenced by the medical worldview of the Shang. Much of the Zhou’s medical ideas and practice, therefore, involved magico-religious elements, including the use of spells, incantations, and magical/tantric arts for treatment: a far cry from the traditional Chinese medical treatments found from the Han period till our contemporary times.

In this post, I will reconstruct the philosophical concept of harmony underlying the Zhou Dynasty medical worldview. To do this, I will first outline the historical understanding of how medical harmony is achieved, based primarily on the Neiye (The Inner Traning), but supported by content from excavated medical texts from the Mawangdui tomb and minor medical prescriptions by Mozi. I have intentionally refrained from making references to the Huangdi Neijing Suwen as I wish to avoid imposing later Han (and post-Han) Dynasty categories and ideas on what is essentially a Zhou medical worldview.

Before I begin, I would like to draw a distinction between the state of harmony, and the process of harmonising. Often, harmony is understood more as a state that one arrives at. However, due to the unique nature of classical Chinese where the same word can be used both as a noun or as a verb, harmony as it appears in the form of 和 he in classical texts, is used both as a state (noun) as well as a process (verb).

The Neiye defines medical harmony as the harmony between qi (氣 vital essence) and xing (形 body/bodily form) (Neiye21). When a state of harmony is achieved, such a person will have vitality (生 sheng, or life). But how is this harmony achieved? The Neiye tells us that if we try to “examine the Way of harmonising” qi and xing, the “essentials are not visible, its signs are not numerous.” (Neiye 21)

Why are there no clear indicators for harmony? I argue that harmony, as a state, is a moving target that varies from individual to individual. It is not an independent, objective state that can be clearly defined. To further complicate matters, it is not easy to pick out clear signs as the process itself involves an interaction between qi and xing, both of which mutually interact and mutually affect each other.

The medical texts excavated from the Mawangdui tomb tells us that bodily health is dependent upon the flow and direction of qi. Qi “should flow in a downward direction,” and it is most beneficial to the lower part of the body. Since qi“follows warmth and departs from coolness,” the sage, as a “model of good hygiene,” thus keeps his head cold and his feet warm to ensure that qi flows in the right direction. However, this also means that the rate qi flow and its direction/movement is sensitive to changes in the weather and the seasons. If one is not cautious, one may fall ill as a result of the irregular flow of qi within the body, either in the form of a surplus flow or a deficient flow of qi, or qi flowing in the wrong direction.

To help regulate the influence of the external environment on the body, just as how the sage makes the effort to keep his head cold and his feet warm, philosophers such as Mozi, have prescribed having adequate shelter and wearing seasonal-appropriate clothes to alter the effects of the external environment to be in harmony with the body. [Mozi Chapter 1] But should such preventive methods fail, medical treatment acts so as to regulate the flow and direction of qi within to body, by redistributing qi using “therapies designed to remove surplus and correct insufficiency.” (Harper, 1998)

The body too has the ability to control the flow of qi within it. What we do with our bodies – in eating, acting, and even with our mental states – will have an effect on qi and its flow within the body. “Over-filling yourself with food will impair your vital energy and cause your body to deteriorate,” while “over-restricting your consumption causes the bones to wither and the blood to congeal.” (Neiye 23)

Fortunately, one can do something with one’s body (both the physical body and the heart-mind) to correct this imbalance:

“When full, move quickly; when hungry, neglect your thoughts; when old, forget worry. If when full you don’t move quickly, vital energy will not circulate to your limbs. If when hungry you don’t neglect your thoughts of food, when you finally eat you will not stop. If when old you don’t forget your worries, the fount of your vital energy will rapidly drain out.” (Neiye 23)

The Neiye places a great emphasis on the role of the xin (heart-mind) in regulating qi in the body. The xin (心 heart-mind),when disturbed or disrupted by strong emotions or desires, such as “sorrow, happiness, joy, anger, desire, and profit-seeking” (Neiye 3), can ruin the delicate harmony between the body and qi. It is for this reason that the Neiye strongly prescribes the use of breathing exercises (or meditation) to help maintain calmness and keep one’s desires and emotions in check. It is in such a state of calm and serenity that “harmony will naturally develop.” (Neiye 3) [Personally, I prefer to translate the phrase “和乃自成” as: harmony will come to its completion by its own accord.]

As I have shown above, both qi and the body mutally affect and mutually influence each other. The point where both qiand the body are said to be in the state of harmony, is therefore constantly moving depending on the external conditions affecting the body, and what one does with the body. In the context of life, health and vitality, it is simply not enough to just acquire the state of harmony once, as this state can easily be lost through changes in the weather, or changes in one’s mood or activity. A true state of medical harmony, in this case, would involve a constant process of harmonising these two variables. The sage would be one who has cultivated himself/herself in such a way whereby this process is almost self-maintained. But this process of harmonising is a delicate one. Doing something to (and/or with) the body will affect the flow of qi within the body, and doing something externally to manipulate the internal flow of qi will also affect the body. Monitoring the changes and trying to balance these two constantly changing variables is not easy.

Thankfully, there are some signs that help to indicate that a harmony between qi flow and the body has been attained: “their skin will be ample and smooth, their eyes and ears will be acute and clear, their muscles will be supple and their bones will be strong”, they will “perceive things with great clarity,” (Neiye 16) and their minds and senses will be calmed and well-ordered (Neiye 14), and thus will well-ordered words issue forth from their mouths (Neiye 10).

I will now attempt to reconstruct the philosophical concept of harmony in the Zhou Dynasty medical context.

This concept of harmony can be likened to a game of tug-of-war, where the two variables, qi flow and the body, are like two players standing at each end of the rope. As both players pull, they will inevitably move each other. But there will be a point where both are pulling each other with the same amount of force that there is no resultant movement between the two. This state would be the state of harmony as it was understood in the Zhou medical context: where the total (resultant) sum of the two vector forces (i.e. the variables, qi flow and the body) is zero. It is important to highlight here that the two variables are still active, just like how the two players playing tug-of-war are still pulling each other. The person performing the act of harmonising is still at work, monitoring and regulating both the external conditions that affect qi flow and the body. Conceivably, this model of harmony could accommodate more than two variables/forces, as long as the point of harmony is that point where the total (resultant) force is zero.

However, this model of harmony is very delicate and fragile. A slight change in (or to) just one variable is enough to destroy the entire state of harmony. The total (resultant) sum of the forces will cease to be zero, and one must attempt to re-harmonise the variables at play. In which case, a long-term state of harmony is, in fact, a continual process of harmonising: it is a continual process of monitoring and regulating the variables involves to ensure that the opposing forces are made to result in a zero-sum sitaution.

As a final note, I should point out that, I have deliberately refrained from describing concept of harmony as an “equilibrium,” even though it is very tempting to refer to it as such. The problem with the term, “equilibrium,” is that it is ambiguous and vague as the term, “harmony.” We think we know what it means, and in some ways we do have a general sense of it, however, just like the term, “harmony,” the term “equilibrium” can be construed and understood in many ways. For example, equilibrium can be construed to refer to a zero-sum state where the two variables/forces cease to exert a force/influence/reaction on each other (e.g. chemical equilibrium in titration). The concept of medical harmony, which I have explained above, does not fit this type of equilibrium. Another example of equilibrium is one that refers to a zero-sum state where the two variables/forces are still continually exerting a force/influence on each other (e.g. equilibrium of forces in physics). This type of equilibrium, on the surface, seems to be a good match with the concept of medical harmony, as the variables (qi and the body), are still continually acting and influencing each other.


  • The Nei-Yeh (Inner Training), trans. Harold Roth (New York: Columbia University Press, 1999)
  • Motse: The Neglected Rival of Confucius, trans. Yi-pao Mei (London: Probsthain, 1934)
  • Paul Unschuld, Medicine in China: A History of Ideas (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2010)
  • Donald Harper, Early Chinese Medical Literature: The Mawangdui Medical Manuscripts (London: Kegan Paul International, 1998)

Complexity Science and Chinese Philosophy

I’m currently involved in a project that is attempting to bridge Complexity Science with Chinese Philosophy. I’m really excited about it!

When I first heard about “Complexity Science”, I was quite puzzled. What on earth is that? Well, complexity science is a relatively new field in the sciences that attempts to study complex systems and phenomena from a non-reductionist manner. It acknowledges that many things are not as simple as a linear, one-cause to one-effect, kind of picture, and attempts to study phenomena in its complexity, as something that is embedded and therefore, related to many other complex processes.

The standard reductionist approach in the sciences are incapable of allowing us to really understand what is going on because such an approach abstracts – takes the subject out of its context – and studies the subject in isolation. This is a huge problem. Certain phenomena arise only because a variety of conditions happen to be in a particular way at that point in time. If you were to tweak just one of these conditions, another type of phenomenon would arise (or maybe even nothing at all). And to complicate matters further, some of these conditions are inter-dependent on each other and on other complex conditions as well.

It is therefore not so easy as to simply change one or two conditions in order to get the desired effect.

Thus far, much of science has been studying such complexities from a reductionist approach. But the linear casual findings are strictly limited to the subject (and experimenters) operating under a fixed set of conditions. Such theories are incapable of saying (or for that matter, predicting) anything more about the subject in a different set of conditions. And hence the need for the study of complexity to try to resolve these issues.

Though this field is still relatively new, attempts have already been made at trying to study complex systems and their phenomena in the fields of physics, engineering, life science, economics, sociology and psychology.

So… How does Chinese Philosophy come into play here?

The problem that science encounters with the study of complexity is this: as a discipline that is deeply rooted in a Western philosophical framework, which is too firmly grounded in the concepts of linear causality and truth as an abstract universal, research in complexity cannot help but tend towards the very problems of reductionism that it is trying very hard to stay away from.

The Chinese philosophical framework, on the other hand, has been comfortable with complexity. In fact, the kind of proto-science that the Chinese has had for thousands of years, has been operating on the very model of complexity itself, with minimal reduction required (or even none at all). The concept of how everything is contextual, inter-dependent and inter-related to everything else has been present even before Confucius, and it has been the very framework by which ancient Chinese thinkers, both the philosophers and naturalists, have been operating on for a long time. It is certainly not essential or primary for such philosophers and naturalists to study phenomena in an abstracted manner. No, rather, their approach has been to study phenomena as they are: embedded within larger complex systems.

But perhaps what allows the Chinese to engage in complexity well is that since the earliest of times, they have acknowledged their proto-scientific abilities as a craft – an art that must be cultivated over a long period of time. For example, in Chinese medicine, the medical theories are many, complex, and inter-related. But what allows the physician to properly diagnose and treat his patients is the fact that the physician has mastered the art of dealing with complexity, of understanding how each factor is related to every other factor, how changing one factor affects many others, and how to counter-balance the unintended effects that arise when doing just one thing, while at the same time seeing the patient and his/her illness in the context of his/her environment. And for that matter, how to deal with one or many factors in order to get results in one or many other areas.

The physician regards the patient as a patient in the context of his environment, family, work, life, etc. Illness is a phenomenon that arises due to a combination of several factors, and thus treatment is not simply in terms of administering A to cure B. Rather, because every action results in several other effects (that also have an effect on other aspects of the body), the physician prescribes several remedies – each ingredient or method with its own effects, some of which are meant to counter-act the unintended effects due to other ingredients/methods, some of which are meant to counter-act with the external environment in which the patient is embedded in, and the rest of which are meant to deal directly with the problem.

The ability to understand and manage such a level of complexity is itself, an art/craft/skill.

Of course, science as an art/craft/skill has always been present in the Western tradition of science. But, perhaps because of the primacy of truth and reason above other things in the Western tradition, science as a craft is rarely talked about in modern science. The focus has been on scientific principles, theories, laws, and methods: as if the ability to diagnose problems, hypothesize or perform successful experiments would fall nicely into place once the scientist understands these things well. But if we were to take all things being equal, what makes one scientist better than another would really fall upon the scientist’s art/craft to hypothesize, craft the experiment, and even to do it. It takes years of laboratory experience to slowly and silently acquire such skills, but little is said about it, as if these skills were unimportant. But at the heart of these skills is the ability to balance complex situations in such a way as to acquire a fixed and constant environment for which the subject operates. This is the focus that is often forgotten.

There are two primary objectives to this project to bridge complexity science with Chinese Philosophy:

(1) To develop a lexicon (based, hopefully on the language of existing complexity theory) that can bridge modern (complexity) science with other cultures (perhaps Chinese thought as the initial starting point). When I say, “home,” for example, people from different cultures may have different conceptions of what counts as a home, and yet there is still a basic understanding common to all these various conceptions that allow these people to still effectively communicate with one another. This is the kind of lexicon that we are looking to develop – a common language that can bridge East and West, as well as to bridge modern science and other philosophical/cultural frameworks so as to shed new light on potentially new approaches to the study of complexity.

More importantly, this lexicon is meant to be action-guiding. It is meant to prescribe how research in complexity should be undertaken: its methods, assumptions, goals, ideals, etc., but in a way broad enough to give researchers the room to freely explore and proceed as they deem fit. Yet, just specific enough to guide and instruct researchers on new means and practices (inspired/borrowed from other philosophical/cultural frameworks, starting with Chinese philosophy) to study and manage complexity and complex phenomena in a non-reductionist manner.

(2) To document practices/exercises/methods useful for developing the very art/craft/skill necessary for dealing with complexity from a modern scientific approach, drawing ideas and inspiration from a Chinese perspective (philosophical/medicinal/proto-scientific). The art/craft/skill of dealing with complexity is one that will probably be taught and cultivated in ways similar to martial arts or even the training of physicians of Chinese medicine. It is a kind of training that will teach the researcher, first of all, how to think and perceive phenomena in a non-reductionist manner, and how to weigh several inter-related, inter-dependent factors at the same time when attempting to analyse or theorise on complex systems.

On the surface, this objective may sound like an attempt at developing a martial arts school for complexity researchers. But really, what this objective aims to do is to draw light on the importance of cultivating a high degree of ability in scientific research/experimentation as an art/craft/skill, as this aspect is often neglected. In addition to drawing inspiration from a Chinese perspective, we should also aim at collecting the best practices from complexity researchers, who from their own experience have already developed some kind of art/craft/skill at handling such complexities. These practices (from both East and West) should then be promoted among other complexity researchers as means for forming in them the ability to perceive and analyse complex systems from a non-reductionist manner.

In this way, the second objective links us back to the first objective. For in the end, the practices/exercises/methods that are documented should use the common lexicon that will be able to best guide researchers from across cultures.

This is a really exciting project. I wonder how far we can go with this.

The Consummation and End of My Undergraduate Life (and What is to Come)

I’ve finally graduated!

After four exhausting years of toil, of literally blood (having gone to the hospital thrice and getting needles injected all over my body), sweat, and coffee, I’ve survived university and graduated!

Well, as some of you know, I’ve been pretty busy  finishing my Honours Thesis in my last and final semester.

My thesis was entitled, “Notions of Harmony in Classical Chinese Thought.” In it, I set out to investigate and reconstruct all the various notions of harmony that could be found in the Analects, Mozi, Daodejing, Mencius, Zhuangzi, and the Xunzi. The problem with much of the scholarship on harmony is that scholars have often assumed harmony to be more or less the same idea across thinkers throughout Chinese history. My project was to demonstrate that this is not so. (If you are interested in reading it, please leave me a comment, and I’ll e-mail it to you!)

The final week before the Thesis submission deadline was extremely stressful as I was up almost every night until 3-4am trying my best to edit and polish up the paper.

Friday, 26 April 2013 was the thesis submission deadline and thankfully, I managed to finish my thesis by then.

That day was, for me, a very momentous occasion – it was the big day where after one entire year of researching and writing, the time has finally come for the paper to be printed and submitted! Wow… You know, I never thought it would ever have been possible to write such a lengthy paper. My thesis was approximately 12000 words, and it consisted of 42 pages! That’s right! 42! The number, the answer to life, the universe, and everything!

Somehow, the entire day felt like a momentous victory! I met a friend at the library who was more than happy to help me photograph the momentous occasion while I printed my thesis:

Waiting anxiously for my thesis to be printed - all 41 pages of it!
Waiting anxiously for my thesis to be printed – all 41 pages of it!


Proudly displaying the printed thesis! Notice the disheveled hair from the many overnight editing/writing marathons.
Proudly displaying the printed thesis! Notice the disheveled hair from the many overnight editing/writing marathons.


The finished product: complete with binding!

The finished product: complete with binding!


It was somewhat unfortunate that I didn’t have the time to bind my paper into a hardcover book (which was the tradition for submitting theses). Oh well, I didn’t have the luxury of time to do it. But that’s ok. Hardcover isn’t a submission requirement.

With the Honours Thesis out of the way, I felt a huge burden lifted from my shoulders.

But I could not heave a sigh of relief yet as I still had exams to study and sit for. And so, after a day of rest, it was back to the books.

Unfortunately, the exams didn’t end on a very happy note. My last exam was an engineering module (for the life of me, I still don’t understand why on earth did I decide to do an engineering module). It wasn’t an introductory module either (I really have no idea why I put myself through such pains). Anyway, it was the last exam of my undergraduate life, but the paper was so difficult, I was faced with a very real possibility of failing the paper. I counted the marks of the questions where I think I would have gotten right, and I only had just enough to pass. If bell-curve moderation was not in my favour, there was the very very real possibility that I would have failed this paper, and worse of all, I would have to repeat a semester. Gosh… It was a very horrible feeling to have while walking out of the exam hall.

But no matter. A few days after that traumatic experience of the final exam, I was out of the country for a holiday to Penang (I’ll write more about it later). Then it was off to Kuala Lumpur to run some errands and enjoy a bit of holiday by the side. The Girlfriend’s grandmother came down to Singapore some time back and discovered the wonders of the Internet, specifically YouTube, and she wanted to have this amazing Internet in her home. So I volunteered to go down to KL and help buy and set up a computer and an Internet connection. And after Kuala Lumpur, I was off to Bangkok. These three places were amazing in their own way, and I think I’ve grown and learnt a lot while I was there. (But I’ll keep all those thoughts for another blog entry here).

Let me just fast forward by about 2 months to the last seven days leading up to my graduation ceremony.

Gosh… It was quite an exciting week! I was given the opportunity to present a section of my Honours Thesis at an international philosophy conference. It was the 2013 Joint Meeting of the Society of Asian Comparative Philosophy (SACP) and the Australasia Society of Asian Comparative Philosophy (ASACP).

Name tag for the conference. It's such an honour and privilege for an undergraduate/fresh graduate like me to be present wearing this name tag amidst a crowd of about a hundred professors and PhD students all over the world, and to present a paper just like them!
Name tag for the conference. It’s such an honour and privilege for an undergraduate/fresh graduate like me to be present wearing this name tag amidst a crowd of about a hundred professors and PhD students all over the world, and to present a paper just like them!


Not only was I busy helping out with some of the logistic matters, I was also rushing to edit and present my paper for the event. It had been two months since I last wrote papers. It felt good to be writing a paper once again. I had a cup of coffee by my side, soft piano music playing in the background, and I was all ready to write my paper all the way into the midst of the night. So for three consecutive nights, there I was sitting before my computer, typing away until 3am. It was tiring, but it felt so good to be engaging in this paper writing ritual. There’s something so comforting and wonderful about the experience.

Monday, 8 July 2013. At last, it was the day of the Conference. I had to present my paper on the first day, in the afternoon before many academics, some of whom were really really BIG names in the area of Chinese Philosophy. It was intimidating, but nonetheless, a huge honour!

The paper I presented was entitled, “Reconciling Culinary and Musical Models in Classical Chinese Thought.” There’s been some sort of academic debate where there is disagreement as to whether the culinary and musical models of harmony have merged into a single unified notion or remain as two separate models in classical Chinese thought. In my paper, I attempted to present a new way of looking at the relation of the two models and how they can be reconciled together into a single theory despite remaining as two separate yet distinct models.

Did you notice the Dao (道) on my laptop? It's a MacBook Air. I took a piece of card and cut out the Chinese character and pasted it over the Apple logo. It's perfect for a Chinese philosophy conference!
Did you notice the Dao (道) on my laptop? It’s a MacBook Air. I took a piece of card and cut out the Chinese character and pasted it over the Apple logo. It’s perfect for a Chinese philosophy conference!


The cup of coffee on the left was meant to keep me going throughout my paper presentation. I was running on only three hours of sleep.
The cup of coffee on the left was meant to keep me going throughout my paper presentation. I was running on only three hours of sleep.


It turns out that my paper presentation was a huge success! Everybody present enjoyed it and they found the contents very interesting!

The biggest WOW experienced I had was during another panel’s Q&A session. One professor (Prof. Alan K. L. Chan), who is quite a big name in Chinese philosophy replied my question saying that he actually had read my Honours Thesis during his flight to Singapore, and he found it (to quote him), “an enjoyable read” and that it “was very interesting.” Immediately after that, the people sitting on my left and right turned to me asking if I could send my thesis to them.

WOW! If writing an Honours Thesis is meant to make one feel honoured, I think it’s working! I felt so honoured at that moment. Wow…

Anyway, the conference was really amazing. I had the chance to meet so many amazing people. It was also pretty amazing to finally see the faces of people whose books and papers I’ve read and cited in my papers. To be standing amongst the greats in Chinese philosophy from around the world… Woah… All I can say is that it was very inspiring and really awesome to see a bunch of people who are just so passionate about what they’re doing. It was lovely.

The conference went on for three whole days! On the fourth day, Thursday, 11 July 2013, it was finally the day of my graduation ceremony!

Four years of hard work has finally led up to this epic moment:

Notice the Chinese calligraphy necktie?
Notice the Chinese calligraphy necktie?


Let me now present you with the fruit of my labour – the fruit that took four years of coffee, blood and sweat (no tears thankfully):

OMG!!! First Class Honours!!! I never thought that this day would have been possible!
OMG!!! First Class Honours!!! I never thought that this day would have been possible!


You know, it’s crazy… Ever since my first year in university, I never thought that it would be possible for me – a person who came from the science stream and who initially majored in Computer Engineering – to be able to get this.

But with lots of hard work and the encouragement and support from The Girlfriend, the wonderful professors in the NUS Philosophy Department, and all my other friends both online and offline, I was able to endure and persevere all the way till the end.

So what’s next? Well, if you asked me this question two months ago, I would have only been able to shrug my shoulders and sheepishly reply, “I don’t know.”

But since last month, I’ve slowly come to realise that my true calling is in academia, and especially in (Chinese) Philosophy. In the past months, I’ve been looking through job ads after job ads, and I was never really interested in what was on offer. The greatest tragedy perhaps, was the constant thought of never having to pursue philosophy once again. Every time I contemplated that thought, a part of me dies. It was painful.

It was only at a recent farewell party for a professor that I realised that I should do whatever I can to pursue philosophy. There and then, we were having a fantastic time discussing philosophical issues. My heart was on fire once again after quite a period of dreaded boredom. The pursuit of wisdom has left me thirsting yet for more.

The pursuit of philosophy is an arduous process. It is mentally and even physically exhausting staying up late just to research, think, and write. But it is a process that I value so greatly. These four years of my philosophical pursuits have transformed me in many wonderful ways. And I wish to continue to be transformed, and shaped by the pursuit of wisdom, just as how it has transformed and shaped the professors in the Philosophy Department here in NUS. I’ve interacted with many of them, and all I can say is that I feel like I’ve been interacting with wise exemplary sages.

I want to be as wise and awe-inspiring as they are, and continue to pass on this most splendid and awesome tradition.

But in the mean time, I’ll take a year’s break from study to work. I intend to focus on publishing at least one paper in an academic journal. That would help me get a better chance of securing full funding for a PhD scholarship. And by next year, I shall be off to some other country to pursue my studies in Chinese Philosophy.

It looks like I have a really exciting life waiting for me in the years to come. I look forward to that as I take life one step at a time.

Fear is the Mind-Killer

Recently, The Girlfriend and I went to Batam for a short holiday. We didn’t plan this in advance, but it turns out that part of the itinerary included a visit to a place that does flying fox jumps for only S$6!

It isn’t very much, but it’s about 4-floors high.


The only reason why we were there was because it was part of another couple’s tour package (the tour group put us together in the same bus since our itineraries were almost the same). Since we were there, we thought – why not?

Now, here’s the thing… I’ve always had a paralysing fear of heights since young. Well, to be more exact, it’s not so much the fear of heights, but the fear of falling FROM heights. It’s so bad that when such a fear strikes, I can’t move. I’ll tremble in fear and grab on to the most stable thing I can find up there.

I remember that when I was young (before entering nursery school), I was at a particular playground with a suspension bridge (the Indiana Jones kind), and when I reached the middle of the bridge, I realised how high (for my age) I was. I was so paralysed by fear that I clung to the bridge’s suspension chains with all my life, crying for helping at the top of my voice. My parents had to run to me and carry me out of the bridge. The bridge wasn’t really that high. My parents could just lift me out from the bridge by standing next to it. That’s how low it was – but it felt like I was up in the sky at that age.

Anyway, over the years, it got better. I could climb ladders without worrying about dying or be paralysed by fear. So I thought, maybe I’ve outgrown that fear. After all, I’ve changed quite a lot over the years as I age. There used to be so many things that I used to hate eating. Today, I love eating them. There used to be so many things that I was afraid of. Today, they don’t bother me so much. The fear of falling from heights? I’ve not experienced that fear in a while, so I guess it’s gone. Right?

Well, so we paid our S$6, and walked up the steep flight of stairs up to the fourth floor. I asked The Girlfriend to go first so that I could take photos of her going down the flying fox.



Go! Wheeee!


It definitely looked like a lot of fun! I really wanted to jump off and experience the thrill.

Then came my turn.

The operator signalled to me to stand at the edge of the post as he fixed the safety cables on me. As I stood there, I saw the vast horizon before me. Worse still, I made a fatal mistake – I looked down.

Immediately, the once familiar fear of (falling from) heights returned in full force.

My legs felt like jelly and I pretty much freaked out very badly. The operator kept asking me to position myself in a seating position so that he could push me off the post (you need to get into a seating position so that the safety vest around your hips and groin wouldn’t suddenly tighten because of the fall and injure your crown jewels). At that point, I kinda lost it. I freaked out and started yelling: “TAK BOLEH!!! TAK BOLEH!!! SAYA TAK BOLEH!!!!!” (Translation: Cannot! Cannot! I cannot do this!!!)

Anyway, the Operator wasn’t very helpful. He kept trying to push me off the post. He said something (in Indonesian) along the lines of, “Don’t worry, it’s safe!”

Hmm… Pushing someone off while telling him that everything’s gonna be alright, while the poor guy’s holding on to stuff to save his life DOES NOT assure him that things are alright. It just freaked me out even more.

The operator gave up and allowed me to climb down the post. Unfortunately, that was quite a horrible ordeal. Now that I’ve been paralysed by fear, going down the super steep staircase was really a challenge. I think it took me about 15-20 minutes to crawl my way down.

It was pretty embarrassing.

Anyway, gosh… It looks like I’ve still not overcome this fear. To think I told The Girlfriend that we should do para-gliding sometime in the future. Looks like that option’s out.

It’s amazing how powerful fear can be. Someone recently mentioned that people are driven by two things: (1) the things they desire, and (2) the things they fear.

We all have our fears and insecurities. But it’s easy to forget how our fears can shape our perception of the world by taking something that’s value-neutral and transforming it into something dark, wretched, and/or scary. It’s easy to forget that fear has the power to paralyse us, and even to make us act so irrationally even if we have been assured or seen enough empirical proof that everything will be ok.

This fear of (falling from) heights is quite ridiculous. But equally ridiculous are the fear of being ostracised, the fear of failure, and perhaps worse of all, the fear of loneliness.

Though ridiculous, I don’t think it’s anything to be ashamed of. We all have such fears. I admit that I too am driven by such fears occasionally.

The Chinese philosopher, Kuo Hsiang (郭象) said that people are basically what they are not – they’re constantly driven by what they lack. The one who feels most unloved will be driven by the fear of loneliness to be as popular and loved as possible. The one who feels unsuccessful will be driven by the fear of failure and constantly work towards success.

Ironically, it’s the ones who are so popular, friendly, and successful who tend to be the ones most plagued by such fears. The ones whom we think are the most ok in life are the ones who, ironically, are the most broken people in the world. But that being said, everyone is driven by at least one fear in their life (usually more, though).

I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that. It does motivate us to do something about our lives.

BUT, sometimes, we can be soooooo paralysed by our fears (just as how I was paralysed by my fear of heights), that we can become so terribly blind to see that we already have what we’ve been searching for. Or, we can be so blinded by our fears to see that things are actually ok (of course, it’s hard to be convinced in such a situation).

And of course, when the fear becomes too much to handle, sometimes bailing out seems like the best option (just as how I felt it was for me when I couldn’t do the jump).

I’m not going to say, “Fight your fears!” I think that’s rather cliche. We all know that we should face our fears.

But I’m writing this so that we learn how to be more human – so that we learn how to be more understanding of others, including ourselves.

There’s this odd misconception that being strong means not having to struggle with fear. I think that’s a problematic mindset because it makes us afraid of admitting to our fears, or daring to show any. Sure, courage is a virtue that’s highly commendable. But part of being human is about struggling with fear. We all have our fears. It may not be a healthy fear, but it’s still a fear nonetheless, and it’s part of the human condition, a part of our human experience, a part of what it means to be alive.

I know most people would laugh at my ridiculous fear of heights and my whole freaking-out incident. It’s amusing, I’ll grant you that. I think so too (on retrospect).

What touched me the most was the fact that The Girlfriend came to hug me after the incident because she remembered that I have this bad fear. And I think what made her most understanding about it is the fact that she too has her own paralysing fear of some creature-that-cannot-be-named.

I used to think that her fear was rather silly. But this episode was very eye-opening for me because after my freaking-out over the heights thing, I understood that we’re both the same and very human in many ways – we both have paralysing fears over stuff, and that it really isn’t easy to pluck up the courage to be strong in the face of our fears (it’s not impossible, but it takes a loooooooooot of moral strength to be able to do it – it’s not like anyone can summon it anytime they like; it doesn’t work that way).

Just as how we are struggling with our own fears in life, I think it’s useful that we recognise that everyone around us are struggling with their own fears too – whether they show it or not. They’re just as human as we are – we have our strengths and weaknesses, our hopes and fears, our joys and sorrows. We crave and yearn for a super hero to save us, but deep down, what we really seek is someone as human, as frail, as ridiculous, as we are. Because it’s only with such people are we able to best understand each other thanks to our shared similar experiences in life.

And I think when we begin to understand that we’re all struggling with our own fears, that we become more understanding of other people and the seemingly-irrational things that they do.

That’s what makes us human.

Death as the Ultimate Climax of Life

One of the best lessons I’ve learnt from one of the professors here in NUS is about the Chinese view on death.

In Chinese culture, there are two words used to describe death: (1) 死 (si) which simply means termination of life; and (2) 終 (zhong) consummation/finale. Of course, zhong also holds the same meaning as si, which is why it is taboo in Chinese culture to give someone a clock as a gift (to give a clock is to 送鐘 songzhong which sounds exactly like 送終 songzhong, which means to send someone off to the grave).

But what’s so unique about the word 終 zhong is the emphasis on death as the consummation, the very climax of life; it is where you wrap up your story with the most awesome ending possible.

Interestingly, I found the perfect illustration of this idea from a movie, entitled “It’s a Great Great World (大世界 Dashijie).” It’s a Singapore production, with several short stories about life in Singapore during the 1940s, revolving around an amusement park known as the Great World. The last story was the most touching and emotionally powerful story I’ve ever come across. It’s beautiful.

The story goes like this: There was a wedding banquet in a Chinese restaurant. Unfortunately, that night, the Japanese were invading Singapore. Their planes were dropping bombs all over the island. The wedding guests weren’t aware of it and they thought that it was merely fireworks outside (it was an amusement park after all). The chef and his assistants decided that most of them would probably not live to see another day, or if they did, life as they knew it wouldn’t be the same forever. So, that night, they decided to cook all the food in the kitchen and give them the best wedding dinner ever. What was beautiful was how the chef and his assistants poured out their entire heart and soul in preparing every good meal to ensure that everyone had the best time ever. The acting was beautiful as it looked as if they were performing their last dance.

The father of the bride was the one who was going to pay for the bill. He was quite upset when he saw all the expensive dishes being served. He stormed into the kitchen wanting to complain, but learnt about the Japanese invasion from the chef. Immediately, as a good father, he went out and made sure everyone dined happily and had the best night of their lives so that they would remember that night.

This is by far, the most beautiful illustration of wrapping up one’s life. It climaxes in the biggest, boldest, and most courageous effort to showcase the best that one could do even in the face of death – to die with dignity, to spread happiness to others, and to give all that one could ever give in one’s final moments. Everything that one has experienced in one’s life leads up to that one final moment – death.

It is like the final dance in a performance (or an action movie). Everything right from the beginning leads up to that final moment where it climaxes with the greatest showcase the dancers could perform before the curtains come to a close.

Admittedly, it is difficult since many of us do dread the thought of death. Perhaps we dread it because we think of death merely as the termination of life. But I think when we begin to see death as the ultimate climax, the ultimate wrapping up of one’s life, where the multitude of one’s personal experiences lead up to that one final performance, I think the idea of death becomes very ennobling and empowering.

I really like how the Chinese (especially Confucian thought) emphasises the importance of dying with dignity. Every one and every thing dies. But as humans, we have the option of choosing to die with the greatest dignity as a human being.

I remember watching “Confucius: The Movie” and the one scene that really struck me was this: One of Confucius’ disciples was in a state invaded by a foreign state. Unfortunately, he was fatally wounded by arrows.

In that situation, the best way for him to wrap up his life was to ensure that he passed on orderly and not in a chaotic manner. All the lessons and values in life that he learnt and experienced led up to that one moment. It would have been a shame to cast away all those years simply because of pain. And so, he made it a point to endure the pain and conducted himself in the greatest possible performance that would consummate all that he learnt in life: he picked up his hat, slowly put it back onto his head, adjusted it so that it was in proper order; he re-adjusted his clothes and his belt to ensure that they were tidy, and slowly yet reverently fell to his knees, closed his eyes with gratitude for all that he has experienced and learnt in life. And there he passed on.

In that short yet simple final performance of his life, he showed great mastery over himself and that he was not a slave to his passions. He showed that as a human person, there are things more important than pain and death, and that it is possible to continue being civil and human despite feeling great pain.

That is what death should be about – dying properly, honourably, and as a consummation of all of the lessons, values, and experiences in life in that final performance of life.

These deaths are beautiful because they show us the beauty and strength of humanity, which we don’t see too often these days. It happens here and there – most of them quietly without much publicity. But I think, whenever we encounter such beautiful deaths, we gain the inspiration not just to live, but to live well, so that we too may go just as beautifully.

Research, research, research…

The second week of school has just ended, but it has already been quite an intensive week for me.

I’ll be officially starting on my honours thesis next semester. However, my supervising professor will be away for a while during that time, and it would be quite inconvenient to attempt a thesis under such conditions. So, I figured it’s better that I begin my research now while the hell of assignments hasn’t yet been unleashed onto me. I hope to finish as much research now, so that I have the luxury of time to write and do more stuff when I begin my thesis officially.

This was how my table at the library looked over the past few days:


Yes, your eyes do not deceive you. One of these books has Chinese words! I’m researching on an ancient Chinese text known as the Chung-yung (中庸, famously known as the “Doctrine of the Mean” or more accurately as “The State of Equilibrium and Harmony”). It’s written in classical Chinese.

What I’ve been doing the past week, was simply reading through the entire book in its original text, and comparing the various translations that I could get my hands on. Classical Chinese is a unique language in that it has a lot of ambiguities (it’s a unique feature of the language that allows the author to do a lot of amazing things, e.g. embed several different meanings onto the one same phrase). The problem with translations is that authors will have their own subjective biases, which affect the interpretation and thus, the translation of the text. In each translation, you’ll have different things missing while the translator focuses on one interpretive key. Hence, the importance of comparing translations along with the original text.

I’m glad I’ve made quite an effort over the holidays to work on my Chinese. I used to fail Chinese (or just barely pass it) back in secondary school and junior college. Now – I’m quite surprised at myself – I am able to read the entire text in Classical Chinese. That’s quite a marked improvement.

Well, with the week over, I’m more or less done with one little portion of research. Reading the original text and its translations is just the first step. More books and journals to read in the coming days. I expect my usual table at the library to be stacked with even more books.


The pursuit of happiness is the pursuit of misery

In the days leading up to the end of 2011, I’ve been thinking back about the most important lessons that I have learnt throughout the course of the year.

Interestingly, one of the most important and useful lesson that I’ve come to realise is that the pursuit of happiness is as good as pursuing misery.

At first glance, it seems rather odd, but there is a lot of truth behind this principle.

One of the worse things we can do to ourselves is to ask the following questions: “Am I happy?” or “What else do I need to be happy?”

The reason why I say that the pursuit of happiness leads one to misery is due to the problem of language.

Perhaps it would be useful to provide an illustration of the problem: If I tell you that the sky is cloudy, what comes to your mind? Most people will say that the sky is grey. But is the sky really grey? Well, not always. You can have a blue sky despite it being cloudy. And for that matter, if it was night, the sky would be black. Unfortunately, when we use the term, “cloudy sky,” we carve out a particular conception of the sky which does not fully exhaust other possibilities, and for that matter, that conception may sometimes include other things which are simply not relevant to our own situation.

This has been a huge problem to Taoist philosophers, as highlighted in the Tao Te Ching:


Ways can be guided; they are not fixed ways.
Names can be named; they are not fixed names.
“Absence” names the cosmic horizon,
“Presence names the mother of ten thousand natural kinds.
Fixing on “absence” is to want to view enigmas.
Fixing on “presence” is to want to view phenomena.
These two, emerging together, we name differently.
Conceiving of them as being one: call that “fathomless.”
Calling it “fathomless” is still not to fathom it.
… the door of a cluster of puzzles.

Tao Te Ching (道德經), n.1, trans. Chad Hansen (2009)

Therefore, when we ask ourselves the question, “Am I happy?” or “What must I do to be happy?”, we carve out a particular conception of what that happiness entails (and what it means to be unhappy), and use that as the benchmark for measuring our own happiness. But little do we know that that idea of what it means to be happy has its own flaws. We might already be happy, but as we compare our present situation with that ideal, we begin to see just how far away we are from that ideal of happiness (and see just how many of our present experiences are classed under “unhappiness”). And the more we do this comparison and see just how far we are from that “happy” ideal, the more miserable we feel. The conclusion, at the end of the day is – “Oh! I’m not happy.”

Whenever I’m busy concentrating on something, some people have a tendency to misinterpret my facial expression as that of feeling depressed. There used to be this moron who used to come up to me everyday asking me if I was really happy with my life every morning. What a way to spoil one’s day. I was actually feeling quite fine – serene and calm – with absolutely no tinge of negative emotions or thoughts. But when I was asked, “Are you happy? You look like you’re not.” I began comparing my present state with the ideal of what it means to be happy. And after a while, I became very very depressed.

It was only many years later when I started studying Chinese philosophy that I looked back and realised just how stupid I was in carrying out such a comparison. Of course I’d be miserable. And for that matter, anyone who does such a comparison will just end up feeling depressed, as one becomes convinced that one is far from happiness.

(While typing this, I realised that when we ask such questions about happiness, we unknowingly accept a fatal assumption. “What must I do to be happy?”, implies that one is currently unhappy and wants to get out of this situation. “Am I happy?” doubts the possibility that I am actually happy right here, and right now.)

And of course, the misery doesn’t end there. When we begin asking ourselves what we need to do to be happy, we try to force ourselves into a particular mold, doing our very best to fit into a vision of happiness.

But surely – one may ask – one could arrive at the destination and finally attain happiness, right?

Well, no.

The problem is that happiness is an ideal, an abstract concept with no detailed specifications of the final end. No matter how much one tries to fit into that ideal mold, when we try to compare our present state with that ideal vision, the present state will always appear to be far away from the ultimate goal.

Yes, we can be excellent in achieving something. But as long as that achievement exists in the real, concrete world, there will always be some imperfections. It is precisely because the ideal conception of happiness is so abstract, the fine details are stripped off (left out, as it were from the conception of happiness which we have carved in our minds). And because it lacks the fine details, it will always appear perfect, pure, unadulterated, and of course, infinitely better each and every single time we compare our present state with it.

And so, no matter how much one tries to chase after happiness, the comparison of the present state with the ideal is inevitable. And the more one dwells upon it, the more one thinks one is unhappy.

Happiness begins when we stop asking such questions, and start realising just how happy we already are – right here, right now. It is possible to be happy right here, right now! In fact, we may not realise it, but we are already be happy (even though it doesn’t necessarily correspond to the abstract ideal of happiness in our minds).

I might currently possess some negative feelings, such as sadness or loneliness, but that doesn’t mean that it mutually excludes happiness. It doesn’t have to be mutually exclusive.

And when we begin to realise just how happy we are in our present state, we begin to discover that the question, “Am I happy?” or “What must I do to be happy?”, are simply irrelevant questions – traps that we set for ourselves to make us depressed.

Happiness is now.

And since that realisation, I’ve been significantly happier than before.

Being Human

The Chinese character for man (male and female) is 人 (ren)

In Chinese culture, ren (人) does not refer to the biological understanding of man. Rather, it refers to what a man ought to be – what makes a man a fully human person. One big difference between Western and Chinese philosophy is that in Western philosophy, the major question is “What is man?”, whereas in Chinese philosophy, the major question is “How to become one?” (为人)

And so, it is essential for a every single person to learn how to be a man (为人), so that he/she can become one (成人).

This is realised/fulfilled through his relations with others. Hence, the importance of ren (仁, also translated as humanity or benevolence). The etymology is quite simple. It just means two (二 er) persons (人 ren).

When two people can live in harmony with each other, only then can both fully realise what it means to be a man (二人为人 eren wei ren).