Friday, 2 April 2010

In Praise of Mo Tze (墨子)

If the US is looking to cultivate a ‘special relationship’ with any single nation in the world, few will now deny, it is China. It is sometimes forgotten that for over two millennia, with the exceptions of the 19th and 20th centuries, China was the most prosperous and powerful country bar none. In the 21st century, its economic, military, and cultural strengths are propelling it back to the top of the global league. And just as it has in the past co-existed with other Empires like the Roman in Europe, the Mogul in India, or the Ottoman in the Middle East, which at different times came and went, it is perfectly capable of getting along with, indeed collaborating productively with, other powerful regimes. Far from being rivals, the US and China can be partners.

However, one of the key ingredients for successful partnership is mutual understanding, and while China can access a multitude of resources reviewing in depth the American cultural and political psyche, the support for better comprehension of Chinese civilization is still all too limited.

Take the blinkered focus on China as a Confucian country. Of course Confucius (551-479 BC) has a pivotal place in Chinese history. His teaching on securing harmony through people fulfilling their traditionally assigned roles in society has been one of the most influential doctrines through the centuries. But he was not the only moral teacher to have a lasting impact on China, and his ideas did not go unchallenged. For a start, we should take a closer look at Mo Tze (c. 479-399 BC), who studied under Confucian scholars but came to the conclusion that their philosophy was fundamentally flawed. People – and for him, that term denoted the general population, not the privileged few – did not have a better life when they meekly carried out the roles laid down by the powerful: the ruler over the ruled, husbands over wives, fathers over children, masters over servants. On the contrary, lives improved only in so far as people genuinely cared for others as they would wish others to care for them. He explained that, for example, if we wanted other people to help look out for our parents or children when our abilities to do so were limited by circumstances beyond our control, we needed to be ready to offer our support to other people’s parents and children.

Mo Tze’s doctrine of Universal Love was not an idealistic entreaty to give the same care and attention to everyone when no one could afford to stretch one’s time and resources in such a manner, but a pragmatic proposal to promote social solidarity so that together people could be confident of attaining a decent quality of life which would be denied to many if they were left to struggle on their own.

Unlike Confucius who looked exclusively to ancient aristocratic texts he favoured to justify his ideas, Mo Tze maintained that any policy proposition should be subject to three tests. First came the test of past experience. He found that many of the proposals on elaborate rituals championed by the Confucians were not in fact always valued. For example, the people of the earlier age of Hsia recorded favourable accounts of much simpler rites which allowed people to show respect without having to use up scarce resources, especially amongst the poor, on showy ceremony. The second test consisted of current testimony. What people said, regardless of their social background, should be considered in deciding if any proposal was beneficial or not overall. To allow someone to declare any policy or custom as indisputable solely on account of their status would distort the truth. Finally, the third test built in checks from future experience. Even if past records and current testimony suggested that a particular policy or practice would deliver improvements for people, it still would not rule it out from being changed if its impact in the future should prove to be negative. For Mo Tze, policies must be adaptable in the light of their actual consequences.

Within a single generation, Mo Tze’s school had become the main rival to the Confucians. Mohist adherents travelled extensively in China to spread their reform message. The Confucians detested them for suggesting the needs of all should be responded to with equal respect, instead of bowing down to the hierarchical establishment. Leaders of competing states found much to irritate them in the Mohist practice of providing armed protection where necessary to defend the weak from attempted invasions by the strong.

In time, Mo Tze was acknowledged even by his Confucian critics as someone who was honourably dedicated to pursuing the goal of a better life for all. They admired his courage in standing up to princes and their armies, and recognised the potency of his arguments – even if they ultimately disagreed with them. Mo Tze’s teachings have remained alongside Confucianism in Chinese intellectual and political history. Dissuading people from wasting resources so that none would be deprived. Reining in the powerful so the weak would not be at their mercy. Exposing the selfish so that real cooperation could be promoted for the common good. These are Mohist motifs which have been weaved into China’s heritage. To understand China, you need to appreciate Mo Tze’s place in it.