BOOK REVIEW: Ways of Heaven: An Introduction to Chinese Thought

In Ways of Heaven, Roel Sterckx, a professor of Chinese History, Science and Civilization at Cambridge University, has set out to produce an introduction to the world of ideas of early China, drawing heavily on the writings and teaching of China’s early great scholars Confucius, his disciple Laozi, Mencius, Mozi and others to produce a picture of the ideas that dominated the country from its earlier periods, starting with the Shang Dynasty (1600-1045 BCE) and working forward in detail through the centuries.

Along the way, he illuminates key concepts including the dao, the mysterious, difficult-to-explain guiding principle behind all that exists, a path along which everything and everybody travels, which governs the course of all things and which does not yield readily to western thought. He also deals with qi, an equally mystical force best described as essential energy. The pictorial origins of the Chinese character, he writes, “have been explained as dew turning into steam, or a cloudy vapor or damp rising from heated sacrificial offerings. “Qi in some ways represents the breath of life, but that’s not quite right." In the end, he says, “Qi is best left untranslated.” That is true of much of Chinese philosophy. Yin and yang are more explainable and familiar to much of western thought and literature. Sterckx shows how these ideas shape contemporary China.

The author does put to bed the common perception, peddled assiduously by the Chinese leadership over the past several decades, that China is one unbroken historical continuity. As he points out, myriad dynasties – some 45 of them – ruled over parts or all of its territory, often at war with each other and most of them collapsing when the ruler loses the Mandate of Heaven, that equally-famous aphorism, a political concept that is “part of the vocabulary of all thinkers and statesmen in traditional China.” It is a concept as real to Xi Jinping as it was to the Mandarin emperors.

The art of warfare, studied extensively by today’s US military commanders, comes in for considerable discussion, as well it should. As Sterckx notes, “instead of confronting an opponent head on, it is better to start by attacking his plans first, and drive a wedge through any alliances he might have forged with others. Attempting to scale a walled city should be the very last option.”

The American commanders who blundered their way into Iraq and Afghanistan over the past 20 years must have skipped that part of Sun Tzu’s advice outright.

“Ancient China’s masters of philosophy – the protagonists of this book – rarely engage in intellectual debate for its own sake,” Sterckx writes. “Most ideas are offered as guidance to be lived, experienced and practiced…They reflect on how to live, function better and find harmony in the world. Yet in putting lived experience above theoretical knowledge, their teachings touch the entire person, the brain as well as the emotions. That is why they are as relevant today as they are interesting for their past.”

As he points out, harmony, known as he, “has trumped several buzzwords in Chinese political philosophy throughout the ages. It is hard to doubt its central stature in Chinese thought: Confucians want humans to live in harmony with each other; Legalists want people to echo the will of the monarchs; Daoists want to live in harmony with nature.”

It is questionable how much of all this has survived into today’s China, given its rampant materialism and expansionist policy. During the reign of China’s previous leader Hu Jintao, who often put his audiences to sleep as he droned through his speeches, and china appeared to have gone to sleep during his presidency, he stumped for what he called “the harmonious society,” an attempt to reach overall societal balance and harmony. Xi Jinping is having none of that Xi’s China Dream is warlike, assertive, out to promote prosperity, collective effort, socialism, and national glory. Given the roundup of the Uyghurs of Xinjiang, the crackdown on Hong Kong, continued subjugation of Tibet, the repression of journalists and lawyers, it seems there is little attempt at a harmonious society.

In all, however, Sterckx has produced a useful and interesting study of what China was, although in daily life a good deal seems to have survived. There is a fascinating chapter on spirits and ancestors that is worth a read by itself. One wishes, however, that he had included a chapter on diet, on how the beliefs came to be that rhinoceros horn, which is nothing but hardened hair, could cure fever, rheumatism, gout, and other disorders or act as an aphrodisiac, along with tiger penis, deer horns, fish bladders from the gulf of California, sharks’ fins, bear gall bladder and other utterly worthless items that are denuding the wilderness and ruining the environment.

Nonetheless, this is a readable and appealing book, by a knowledgeable and proficient scholar. For the specialist, it might be necessary to venture further. But for a general look at the beliefs of Chinese society, it’s quite valuable. If there were a university class, say “Chinese Thought and Philosophy 151” for upper-division majors in Chinese studies, this book would be an ideal text.