Myths and Legends of China

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yang and the yin by their permutations produced, or gave shape to, all things, was it that produced the yang and the yin. When we see traces of this inquisitive tendency we find ourselves on the borderland of dualism where the transition is taking place into the realm of monism. But though there may have been a tendency toward monism in early times, it was only in the Sung dynasty that the philosophers definitely placed behind the yang and the yin a First Cause—the Grand Origin, Grand Extreme, Grand Terminus, or Ultimate Ground of Existence.7 They gave to it the name t’ai chi, and represented it by a concrete sign, the symbol of a circle. The complete scheme shows the evolution of the Sixty-four Diagrams (kua) from the t’ai chi through the yang and the yin, the Four, Eight, Sixteen, and Thirty-two Diagrams successively. This conception was the work of the Sung philosopher Chou Tun-i (A.D. 1017–73), commonly known as Chou Tzŭ, and his disciple Chu Hsi (A.D. 1130–1200), known as Chu Tzŭ or Chu Fu Tzŭ, the famous historian and Confucian commentator—two of the greatest names in Chinese philosophy. It was at this time that the tide of constructive imagination in China, tinged though it always was with classical Confucianism, rose to its greatest height. There is the philosopher’s seeking for causes. Yet in this matter of the First Cause we detect, in the full flood of Confucianism, the potent influence of Taoist and Buddhist speculations. It has even been said that the Sung philosophy, which grew, not from the I ching itself, but from the appendixes to it, is more Taoistic than Confucian. As it was with the P’an Ku Page 86legend, so was it with this more philosophical cosmogony. The more fertile Taoist and Buddhist imaginations led to the preservation of what the Confucianists, distrusting the marvellous, would have allowed to die a natural death. It was, after all, the mystical foreign elements which gave point to—we may rightly say rounded off—the early dualism by converting it into monism, carrying philosophical speculation from the Knowable to the Unknowable, and furnishing the Chinese with their first scientific theory of the origin, not of the changes going on in the universe (on which they had already formed their opinions), but of the universe itself.

Chou Tzŭ’s “T’ai Chi T’u”

Chou Tun-i, appropriately apotheosized as ‘Prince in the Empire of Reason,’ completed and systematized the philosophical world-conception which had hitherto obtained in the Chinese mind. He did not ask his fellow-countrymen to discard any part of what they had long held in high esteem: he raised the old theories from the sphere of science to that of philosophy by unifying them and bringing them to a focus. And he made this unification intelligible to the Chinese mind by his famous T’ai chi t’u, or Diagram of the Great Origin (or Grand Terminus), showing that the Grand Original Cause, itself uncaused, produces the yang and the yin, these the Five Elements, and so on, through the male and female norms (tao), to the production of all things.

Chu Hsi’s Monistic Philosophy

The writings of Chu Hsi, especially his treatise on The Immaterial Principle [li] and Primary Matter [ch’i], leave no doubt as to the monism of his philosophy. In this work Page 87occurs the passage: “In the universe there exists no primary matter devoid of the immaterial principle; and no immaterial principle apart from primary matter”; and although the two are never separated “the immaterial principle [as Chou Tzŭ explains] is what is previous to form, while primary matter is what is subsequent to form,” the idea being that the two are different manifestations of the same mysterious force from which all things proceed.

It is unnecessary to follow this philosophy along all the different branches which grew out of it, for we are here concerned only with the seed. We have observed how Chinese dualism became a monism, and how while the monism was established the dualism was retained. It is this mono-dualistic theory, combining the older and newer philosophy, which in China, then as now, constitutes the accepted explanation of the origin of things, of the universe itself and all that it contains.

Lao Tzŭ’s “Tao”

There are other cosmogonies in Chinese philosophy, but they need not detain us long. Lao Tzŭ (sixth century B.C.), in his Tao-tê ching, The Canon of Reason and Virtue (at first entitled simply Lao Tzŭ), gave to the then existing scattered sporadic conceptions of the universe a literary form. His tao, or ‘Way,’ is the originator of Heaven and earth, it is “the mother of all things.” His Way, which was “before God,” is but a metaphorical expression for the manner in which things came at first into being out of the primal nothingness, and how the phenomena of nature continue to go on, “in stillness and quietness, without striving or crying.” Lao Tzŭ is thus so far monistic, but he is also mystical, transcendental, even Page 88pantheistic. The way that can be walked is not the Eternal Way; the name that can be named is not the Eternal Name. The Unnameable is the originator of Heaven and earth; manifesting itself as the Nameable, it is “the mother of all things.” “In Eternal Non-Being I see the Spirituality of Things; in Eternal Being their limitation. Though different under these two aspects, they are the same in origin; it is when development takes place that different names have to be used. It is while they are in the condition of sameness that the mystery concerning them exists. This mystery is indeed the mystery of mysteries. It is the door of all spirituality.”

This tao, indefinable and in its essence unknowable, is “the fountain-head of all beings, and the norm of all actions. But it is not only the formative principle of the universe; it also seems to be primordial matter: chaotic in its composition, born prior to Heaven and earth, noiseless, formless, standing alone in its solitude, and not changing, universal in its activity, and unrelaxing, without being exhausted, it is capable of becoming the mother of the universe.” And there we may leave it. There is no scheme of creation, properly so called. The Unwalkable Way leads us to nothing further in the way of a cosmogony.

Confucius’s Agnosticism

Confucius (551–479 B.C.) did not throw any light on the problem of origin. He did not speculate on the creation of things nor the end of them. He was not troubled to account for the origin of man, nor did he seek to know about his hereafter. He meddled neither with physics nor metaphysics. There might, he thought, be Page 89something on the other side of life, for he admitted the existence of spiritual beings. They had an influence on the living, because they caused them to clothe themselves in ceremonious dress and attend to the sacrificial ceremonies. But we should not trouble ourselves about them, any more than about supernatural things, or physical prowess, or monstrosities. How can we serve spiritual beings while we do not know how to serve men? We feel the existence of something invisible and mysterious, but its nature and meaning are too deep for the human understanding to grasp. The safest, indeed the only reasonable, course is that of the agnostic—to leave alone the unknowable, while acknowledging its existence and its mystery, and to try to understand knowable phenomena and guide our actions accordingly.