522. Tao, virtue, and politics
The scientific revolution occurred in the West, not China, which lagged behind in those centuries, while it was more advanced than the West before that time, until the fourteenth century. There is a literature to try and explain this. Some ascribe the falling back relative to the West to the Confucian centralised bureaucracy and the associated inflexible teaching and examination system for civil servants. Woo (1993) ascribed it to epistemological factors. For one thing, Chinese thought was holistic, lacking the power of analytical thought. That is true, but thinking of systemic coherence, with the system having emergent properties that the parts don’t have, has its value. Second, Woo claimed, the Chinese.lacked the respect for facts, the experimental method and the flourishing and application of mathematics. But artisanship flourished in China, and that cannot be without a pragmatic regard for facts, for what works and what does not. Both Confucianism and Taoism are pragmatic. An economic explanation was that China got stuck in a relatively low equilibrium of excess population, lack of capital and lack of labour-saving innovation that in the West generated a demand for machinery. A legal explanation was that China had not developed laws of property, including intellectual property, commercial laws, insurance and limited liability companies. Businessmen had to fall back on kinship relations and personal relations with officials and local interest groups (Woo, 1993: 136). There was no primogeniture, so that accumulated profits were dissipated rather than re-invested.
Perhaps these forces together smothered any positive Taoist impulse of liberalism, individualism, anti-authoritarianism, and dynamism. Tao was not strong enough to block communism. But perhaps Taoism was oriented too much at the individual good life rather than action in the world and entrepreneurialism. The call to surrender to the flow of the natural self, as if that is always for the best, and only discard the obstacles of cultural and intellectual preconceptions, is not exactly a call to action. And it is not clear how feasible that is.
Ho, D.Y.F. 1995, ‘Selfhood and identity in Confucianism, Taoism, Buddhism and Hiduism: Contrast with the West’, Journal of the Theory of Social Behavior , 25/2, 0021-8308.
Wang, Z. 2005, ‘Before the emergence of critical citizens: Economic development and political trust in China’, International Review of Sociology, 15/1, 147-63.
Woo, H.K.H. 1993, The making of a new Chinese mind: intellectuality and the future of China, Hong Kong: China Foundation.