Lao Zi and the Xia Culture

Contemporary Chinese Thought 21 (4):34-69 (1990)
Abstract
The emergence of any idea must have a deep-seated social background, and at the same time there must be an intellectual source that cannot be neglected. That is to say, every idea must have as its foundation some piece of intellectual material that has been handed down by people of the past. Lao Zi once said: "All Things Under Heaven [tianxia wanwu] are born of Existence [you]; Existence [you] is born of Nonexistence [wu]." This does not mean that existence is born out of nothingness or nonexistence [xuwu]. In reality, what Lao Zi meant by "Nonexistence" [wu] is actually itself a kind of existence; but because its state of existence [cunzai zhuangtai] is different from that of Existence [you], it is called "Nonexistence" [wu] instead. This difference of the states of existence lies in [the following]: Existence has form, and therefore can be sensed; Non-existence has no form, and therefore cannot be sensed. In the chapter "Fei ming" of the book Mo Zi there is the passage that says: "Something can be heard, something can be seen; we call it Existence; something cannot be heard, cannot be seen; we call it Destruction [wang] [wu]." Even though the meanings of "Existence" and "Nonexistence" here are different from those in Lao Zi's idea, we may still trust that the general interpretation of "Existence" and "Nonexistence" here would still meet with Lao Zi's approval. In Lao Zi's view, even though Nonexistence cannot be comprehended through sensation, it can be grasped by metaphysical and mystical "vision." Lao Zi's expression that "Existence is born of Nonexistence" was not only an expression of his viewpoint on the question of the origin of "all things under heaven," but also a general rule for us to follow in examining the evolution of human thought. On the one hand, it demonstrates that every single idea must have its source, its intellectual origin; on the other hand, it points out that the idea that serves another as intellectual source may be hidden, not overt, at times. On the surface, some ideas may appear to have no "genealogical origin"—water without a fountainhead or well spring, and yet, perhaps, if we were to conduct further investigation and research, we would discover that they all have some ancient source, some long-forgotten well spring. That is precisely what this essay hopes to accomplish—to attempt to explore in a preliminary way the ancient source of Lao Zi's thought
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DOI 10.2753/CSP1097-1467210434
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