06/01/2020 No. 156
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Only non-action could determine right and wrong - Zhuangzi's perspective on world peace
By Chengyi Peng
June 1, 2012


I. Introduction

Even though the world has entered the new millennium over a decade ago, it does not seem to be more peaceful than before. No matter whether we consider the Iraq and Afghanistan wars that started at the beginning of the century, or the uprisings and changes of the Middle East and
North Africa in the past year, or now the potential conflicts between the West and Syria and Iran, there are reasons for a pessimistic view towards the prospect of peace in the 21st century. Nevertheless, people seem not to have found the real root of the various conflicts and wars. Perhaps, as some great thinkers such as Arnold J Toynbee (1889 - 1975), George B. Shaw (1856 - 1950) and Rabindranath Tagore (1861 - 1941) have pointed out that mankind must seek answers from the ancient Chinese thought if it wants to avoid committing suicide. This short article marks such an attempt in this direction by first introducing Zhuangzi's (Zhuangzi 369 BCE - 286 BCE) view on right and wrong and then seeking inspiration from it for understanding and maintaining world peace today.

Zhuangzi's view on right and wrong [1]

Regarding right and wrong, Zhuangzi may seem to be a relativist, since his writings are full of passages that have challenged and subverted various conventional norms; nevertheless, if we study his words carefully, we may find that he is actually an absolutist, which is
well shown in his statement that "non-action could serve as the ultimate judge of right and wrong" (Zhuangzi - Ultimate Joy). What is Zhuangzi's actual view on right and wrong? What does he mean by "non-action"? These are the questions that this section will seek to explore.

In order to understand Zhuangzi's view on right and wrong, it is crucial to first clarify his distinction between the way of divine Heaven and the way of human. For Zhuangzi, right and wrong is only a matter of the way of human, rather than the way of divine Heaven. The two realms are very distinct;
exhibiting its nature as “non-action” thus being reverent can be called the way of Heaven; exhibiting its nature as “doing” thus incurring troubles can be called the way of human. In Zhuangzi's view, all the norms we have taken for granted, such as right and wrong, benevolence and justice, are concepts of the realm of human rather than the realm of Heaven. The realm of Heaven has transcended these values ​​and could only be borne by the sage-kings. The concepts closely related to the realm of Heaven include "Chaos," the "Way," "non-action," "open and peaceful mind," etc.

Zhuangzi's view on right and wrong is well elaborated in his
Uniformity Theory (《齐物论》, the “Qiwu Chapter”). In a nutshell, Zhuangzi thinks that all things have their realities and merits, and there is nothing that does not have some merits. For him, all things have their opposites, and one could not have a clear view if one only focused on its opposite and forgot itself. True knowledge thus requires self-knowledge. From a non-static view, the two sides are also mutually transforming towards the opposite side, just as the birth of a new thing also marks the beginning of its journey towards death. Zhuangzi calls that which does not have an opposite the Pivot of the Way and thinks that only it could respond to all the situations. For all other things, either side has its right and wrong, which could be endless, so the best way of judgment is to have a dialectic view of it.
Zhuangzi's elaboration here is actually quite profound in meaning. First of all, he resonates Laozi's (Laozi
, lived in the 6th century BCE) dialectic thought as well shown in the Daodejing (《道德经》), especially in its Chapter 2. Second, Zhuangzi also reveals the secret principle of the opposite sides' mutual transformations, just as that of the Yin and Yang. Finally, due to the incompatibility of each side's right and wrong, Zhuangzi suggests that one could only transcend this by adopting a heavenly perspective, which is equivalent to the Western notion of the "God's Eye" perspective. This perspective will thus take a non-action approach and just let all things evolve according to their nature.

Another characteristic of Zhuangzi's view on right and wrong is that they could not be discovered through argumentation. Just as Zhuangzi vividly asks, if two persons engage in a debate, and one wins in the arguments, does that mean the winner is right and the loser wrong? Does it mean that one must be right and the other wrong, or are both right and both wrong? How could we find someone to be a fair judge, since he might take only one of the four positions, namely agreeing with one side, agreeing with the other side, agreeing with both sides, or disagreeing with both sides, which are equally unable to let him or her be an objective judge? Therefore, there will be no fruits for debates, and the opposition in arguments will not be able to stand just like the opposition in things themselves could not stand [2]. If a value is truly right, and a thing is genuinely authentic, their rightness and authenticity then require no argumentation. As a result, the best thing we can do is to follow their nature and let them all evolve accordingly. That is why Zhuangzi thinks the best strategy towards argumentation is to remain silent and the best way to determine right and wrong is to take no action. These are then Zhuangzi's thoughts on right and wrong and below we will have a look at world peace from this perspective.

III. Zhuangzi on world peace today

There is perhaps little question that today's world is not very peaceful, but people disagree on the causes of the various conflicts and wars. It is true that any historical event is caused by myriad causes just as Leo Tolstoy
(1828 - 1910) points out at the end of his Peace and War, but we perhaps could agree that the assertion of each side's right and wrong is a major factor. Just as Zhuangzi says, "the sage does not have conflicts because he does not stick to/assert the universal truth, even though it is most justified, while the common people are often in conflicts because they hold non-universal knowledge yet assert them to be universal (in the 《列御寇》Lieyukou Chapter of Zhuangzi). If we review the major wars that occurred in the past ten years, we can see that the assertion of right and wrong has played a significant role. But where do those right and wrong views come from? To a large extent, they come from their respective cultures and civilizations. This actually echoes Huntington's forecast that the main conflicts of the 21st century will largely be conflicts between civilizations. Nevertheless, Samuel P. Huntington (1927 – 2008) failed to realize that the actual cause of the conflicts along cultural lines is actually the spreading of the Western civilization. Below we will elaborate such a reading based on Zhuangzi's thoughts.
we look around the major civilizations of the world, we could say that the Western civilization is the most assertive and perhaps even the most zealous about its right and wrong to some extent. Here the Western civilization is a loose and overarching concept covering the civilization that is pillared on Judaism, Christianity and Islam. The assertive and zealous nature of Western civilization is partly due to the impact of its religions' monotheism. For the European-American civilization developed from the base of Christianity, which we conventionally call the "Western civilization, "its philosophical tradition of epistemology also further reinforces the assertiveness and extremism. On this, Friedrich W. Nietzsche (1844 - 1900) has provided a sophisticated analysis in his Genealogy of Morality. For example, in it he shows how the ancient Greek philosophers have secretly transformed the previously dialectic yet uniting relationship of "good and bad" into the mutually exclusive relationship of "good and evil" [1]. In his diagnosis of the English civil war, Thomas Hobbes (1588 - 1679) also traces the root back to the philosophical tradition inherited from ancient Greece. One of the major reasons, according to Hobbes, is the over-reliance of the philosophical tradition on logic and speech, and one of the pitfalls of this epistemology is the assertiveness of their painstakingly discovered results. For Hobbes and others who hold a similar view, the poetic tradition of epistemology of the East is certainly more open and flexible. Nevertheless, very few in the world today seem to have realized this vital difference.

A further problem is that each perspective could develop a self-sufficient knowledge system, which is hard to break from outside. For example, on the matter of right and wrong, the West has a great amount of very sophisticated elaborations as well as proofs of the universal nature of their norms. As a result, the mainstream in the West does not agree with Zhuangzi that there is no universal standard regarding values, and in their eyes the main problem has to do with those dictators or authoritarian governments which try to prevent their people from embracing the Western universal norms. Regarding "non-action," the West also thinks that its "small government/big society" mode is closer to this principle, and points to the various freedoms the Western people enjoy as well as the popularity of the West as the destination of foreign immigrants as evidence. Nevertheless, the "non-action" of the West actually has some fundamental problems. First of all, in their sub-conscience, sometime in their actions, they usually despise those who do not share their universal norms, and even have the instinct to annihilate them if they not only do not accept, but also oppose their values ​​as well as rulings. Even in the "original position" of John Rawls' (1921 - 2002) thought experiment, those who do not subscribe to a minimal standard of liberal democratic norms are considered "unreasonable" despite the fact that they could still be rational, and consequently they need to be dictated or exiled. Second, if they do use Zhuangzi's non-action principle to justify the liberal democratic norms, they then fundamentally miss Zhuangzi's original intentions. In fact, Zhuangzi's non-action principle has a vital prerequisite which is that there are no negative forces influencing the health of the people's body and mind. That is why Zhuangzi warns the rulers not to disturb the people's mind-heart, and censor carefully those materials that could have an impact on them. If we recall the action of Socrates (
469 BCE - 399 BCE), the founder of the Western civilization, who often went out to the street to challenge and subvert the youth's conventional opinions, as well as the former Soviet Union Nobel Laureate Aleksandr I. Solzhenitsyn's  (1918 - 2008) condemnation of the Western media's dumping of all kinds of trivial gossips and vulgar stuff into the people's innocent mind [3], we would not be surprised by the distance between those two versions of "non-action" principle. In an era when the market forces are particularly stimulating the lower instincts and desires of people, the non-action of the government actually means a lack of responsibility with serious long-lasting harm.

If we trace back into a deeper level, we could find that the problem of the West lies with its confinement to the realm of human in a dualistic "Heaven-human" framework. They could not transcend the thought mode and norms of the realm of human, hence cannot be silent and non-active as the way of Heaven demands. Again, the difference between the realm of human and the realm of Heaven is like that between the realm of petty men and the realm of sages. This distinction's manifestation today would be the assertiveness of the superiority of "human rights" over sovereignty, as well as the instinct of "new interventionism." In fact, the founders of America actually had set the goal of the US as the "lighthouse" of the world following a non-action principle. This is why the then US president told the Greeks during their war of independence against the Ottoman Empire that the US's heart will be with them, but it does not go out to seek and destroy the monsters [4]. Nevertheless, the US foreign policy has since then deviated more and more from its "non-action" principle: first came the carving out and intervention of the Western Hemisphere through the "Monroe Doctrine" and the "Roosevelt corollary," then emerged the proposal of the Wilson administration to get fully involved in world affairs that was not realized until the end of the second world war, and finally America's full determination to search for monsters and have them destroyed worldwide. The evolving trajectory of the US foreign policy cannot be more obvious. If we subscribe to Zhuangzi's view that only "non-action" could serve as the ultimate judge of right and wrong, the deep root of the world's peace problem is then clear. Seen from this perspective, the Chinese government's consistent "non-interventionism" as well as emphasis of winning the world through moral example then would serve as a good contrast and reference. This is certainly worth more consideration by the world.

IV. Conclusion

To sum up, we have first reviewed Zhuangzi's view on right and wrong, its basis in the human-Heaven distinction, as well as its irrelevance to argumentation, and then discussed the assertive tendency of the Western civilization, its self-sufficient system, as well as its confinement to the realm of human as the major cause of the challenges the world peace currently faces. From this perspective, we could have three inspirations. First of all, we should make great efforts to advocate Zhuangzi's "non-action principle" as the norm of the world community. This principle echoes certain principles of the UN charter, but it is unclear how much of it could still be followed by the Western countries. Certainly this challenge is partly due to the impracticability of the principle in today's globalized world. Second, we should promote communications between cultures and civilizations. Just as the "Pi Diagram" (
) and the "Tai Diagram" ( ) in the Yi Jing (《易经》) reveal that communication would bring harmony while closeness could only result in conflicts. Nevertheless, even though we could hope for the best, we need to be realistic and this leads to the third inspiration we could draw, namely to have a realistic forecast of the world situations. Given that the Western leadership is not justified from the Zhuangzi perspective, we could then expect that disobedience as well as objection would become more common as the globalization process further spreads the Western norms throughout the world. For this, we should have a clear mind as well as good preparations.



1 Zhuangzi is an influential Chinese philosopher who lived around the 4th century BC during the Warring States Period.

2 For Zhuangzi, things do not oppose to each other, since the abstract level at a very, they are all the same; this is the main idea of his "Qiwu” (Qi matter) thesis.

3 Solzhenitsyn, Aleksandr I. The East And West. Perennial Library: New York, 1980, p. 52.

4 Kissinger, H. Does America Need A Foreign Policy? Toward A Diplomacy for the 21st Century. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2002, p. 238.

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Chengyi Peng received his Ph.D. degree from City University of Hong Kong in 2011. He is currently working as an assistant research fellow in the Institute of World Economics and Politics of the Chinese Academy of Social Science in Beijing. Previously he attended the first "Stars of Hope" class of the mainland of China, and then attained his BA and MA degrees in political science from St. Thomas University and University of British Columbia in Canada, respectively. His research interests include classical thoughts, political philosophy, contemporary thought, world politics theories, and China's international strategy, etc. He could be contacted at andrewpcy@hotmail.com.
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