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Eastern Wisdom Can Help Solve Today’s Global Problems -- A Study of the “Dynamically-Balanced Multi-Dimensional Whole” World View
By Sherwin Lu
2019-02-01 06:47:16

This article was first posted on this website on 2008-01-06 and is being re-posted as a "source article" for a chapter of the author’s new book DAOIST-LEGALIST SOCIALISMOne with real Chinese characteristics, 
§2-2(1-8) Daoist-Legalists’ all-round balance-oriented policy practices in ancient China.

Editor’s Note:
Mr. Sherwin Lu has had long years of experiences both in China and in the United States and has been trying to obtain a coherent and consistent understanding of the Western and Eastern traditions of thought. This article summarizes the ancient Chinese Legalists’ practice against the background of today’s global problems and reveals the philosophical root of the difference between Legalism and other schools of thought in that of their contrary world-views.

     The two major threats confronting humanity today are: an ecological crisis triggered by man’s irresponsible manipulation of Nature and a social crisis triggered by international monopolistic capital’s domination over human life on earth. The former is manifested in the global climate change and extinction of a growing number of species; and the latter in various forms of terrorist violence and the ever-increasing risk of a global nuclear war. To seek out the crux of and find a way to solve all these problems, we need a comprehensive world view which can be used to best analyze all natural and socio-historical phenomena. Fortunately, there is one, which can be summarized as the “Dynamically-Balanced Multi-Dimensional Whole” world view, or the Dynamic-Whole view for short. Aspects of this world view find expression in all cultures, Western and Eastern, but is most intensively manifested in and most typical of the Eastern thought tradition.

        There are three aspects to this Dynamic-Whole perspective:

       1.“Whole”, which means that everything -- from the total of all-encompassing existence as we human beings perceive to the tiniest particle perceivable so far, from the entire human community to all kinds of human groupings to the individual human beings, from the tangible concrete objects to imaginative abstract things -- everything is a unity of component parts or aspects. The “unity” is not a mechanic, static piecing-together of component parts, but of parts which are --

        2.“Dynamically-Balanced”, which means that, as the ancient Chinese saying goes, “From Tao emerges One. From One emerge Two. From Two emerge Three. From Three emerge all things. All carry the opposites Yin and Yang, approaching harmony through moderation.” (Tao Te Ching ,Chapter 42), everything is eternally changing from internal imbalance to balance and again from new imbalance to new balance through the interaction of the component opposites Yin and Yang. The status of the interaction at a specific moment determines the nature of the “unity” at this moment and, in the case of social things, the “unity” is a relatively independent social entity with its own will, which in turn serves as an interacting component part of some still larger “unity” or “unities”. This duality of “being a relatively independent entity and a component part of some still larger unity at the same time” is the nature of everything in existence. And this nature determines the multi-level form of the structure of everything, which provides the basis for the third aspect of this world view –

        3. Everything in existence is a Multi-Dimensional Whole. In viewing a human society, “multi-dimension” means a multiple of ways of looking at the pattern of interaction within the society, which encompasses a variety of interactions between parallel component entities (individuals and social groupings) on each level and those between such entities belonging to different levels as well.
        In Chinese history, the dynamic-whole world view is best embodied in the Taoist-Legalist school of philosophical, political, economical thought (and in the traditional Chinese medicine, not to be discussed here). All the three aspects of this world view (dynamic balance, multi-dimension, unity) find expression in Lao Tzu (老子)’s philosophical description of the Tao(道)in Tao Te Ching (道德经, written over 2000 years ago), which is familiar to the West already. Of all the three aspects of this world view, the “dynamic balance” is the pivotal factor. The balance should be achieved through all-round interactions between all entities on all levels in a multiple of dimensions including those between wholes and parts. This essay will not discuss the philosophical basis of the world view, but will concentrate on how the ancient Chinese Legalists, by carrying out a series of wise policies on the state level, tried to achieve balances in a variety of relationships, as described in the chart below:
as Goal
& Institutions
to Today’s World Problems
Between human society
& Nature
(goal shared by Confucianist & other schools of thought as a typical Chinese tradition)
Arrange production according to the natural cycles, protecting resources from being used prematurely and exhaustingly, and practice temperance in consumption and in the use of capital to match the carrying capacity of Nature so as to ensure a sustainable economy and the soundness of Nature.
The logic of industrial production goes against the cycles of Nature and has wasted and destroyed numerous living resources. Expanding demand and credit as the driving force for economic development since Keynes has resulted in accelerating exhaustion of resources, destruction of the environment, wars of plunder -- all threatening human survival.
Economical equality among all peasants
Distribute land, the most important natural resource in the pre-industrial era, and levy taxes equally among peasants, i.e., according to the size and strength of labor force in each family.
In today’s world, natural resources are usurped by a handful of privileged people, who are living a luxurious life at the expense of the  poverty-stricken majority.
Balance between interests of peasants as producers, & those of merchants, & those of consumers
State control of grain prices through the institution of the Regulatory Granary * (常平仓) to protect both peasants and consumers from excessive price fluctuations – a policy continued for most of the times in Chinese history.
*“常平仓”, used for balancing    (常平) the market, was previously translated by others, too literally, as “Ever Normal Granary”.
This idea was adopted by the US parliament in its 1933 Agricultural Adjustment Act, sponsored by Henry A. Wallace (USDA secretary, 1933-1940), who had learned of it from a book on traditional Chinese economic policy.
   The UN sponsored a plan in 1942 to apply this idea internationally but has been shelved for ever due to objections from the US and other countries.
All-round commodity price
balance within state
parity between states
State-regulated market instead of either Confucianist laissez faire policy or planned/frozen price policy. State regulation achieved by storing up commodity reserves both as precaution “against rainy days” and as guarantee for currencies issued and leverage for price control. Objective of regulation being, besides price balance within state, also price parity with other states, to avoid being taken advantage of and exploited by speculators and other states. (State ownership of important business enterprises and large enough quantities of commodity reserves is a precondition for regulation of the market.
The plunder of natural and labor resources (at low or zero prices) by monopoly capital ever since the colonial era, because of the absence of regulation by a global authority to balance the interests of all peoples in the world human community, has been the root cause of all the accumulated, hard-to-solve problems confronting the world today.
Balance between money power & state power
While recognizing the importance of commerce to the society and protecting the justifiable interests of merchants, also guard against the monopoly of resources and state power by the moneyed class through state regulation of the market and the merit system for selecting government officials(see below).
The unbridled economical, political and ideological power combined of capital, especially big capital, is the perpetrator of all social evils in today’s world.
Unity of
the principle of
political equality
a functional hierarchy of power structure
Matching an official’s status with his performance through the Social Merit System: bestowing noble ranks and titles to people according to their actual contributions to the society irrespective of their birth so that 1) the separate criteria of political devotion/moral virtue and professional competence were naturally unified and practically testable and 2) commoners can have equal access to opportunities for serving the society while noblemen would lose their ranks and titles if they fail to perform well or obey the law. People with differentiated ranks are entitled to have differentiated access to resources belonging to the society, thus preventing these resources from being abused by special interest groups. This is virtual (actual) equality as in sharp contrast with – (→)
the nominal/formal equality existing in some parts of the world today. In Western politics, the merit system which was borrowed from old China is applied only partially to the recruitment of government office functionaries, while leading officials are selected on the basis of their political allegiance to the party in power.
Economical and political privileges are in actual fact inherited from generation to generation by birth, just as in feudal times. This double-track system cannot guarantee devoted and competent service to the interests of the whole society, and cannot prevent the society’s resources and state power from being usurped and abused for the interests of a few.
Rule of law under
equal supervision by
social member
All the above-mentioned  regulations intended to achieve an all-round dynamic balance in a multiple of dimensions of social relationships were implemented as law, enforced by government officials selected for their merits and subjected to an All-Society Mutual Supervision System, under which anybody who knowingly covered up a crime for others would also be punished, so that everybody, commoner or official, had the obligation as well as the right to see that everybody else around him/her, including those above him/her in social status, abide by the law and to report to the authority when anybody violate it.
    This kind of joint liability system was also applied positively to a financial loan system to promote economic development, under which grassroots officials could choose to share the responsibility with a loan beneficiary for repayment whom he knew to be reliable.
In present-day China, maybe some other countries, too, where the Confucianist “kinship principle” – people akin are mandated to protect each other even from being punished for social crimes ever committed – has taken root with lasting influence, corruption has been rampant. This situation can be mended only by repudiating the atomistic view of society as reflected in pitting the interests of the small group of a family against those of the larger group of a state and by replacing the rule of man (in the name of “rule of virtue”) with the rule of law under the supervision of the entire people and their democratically appointed representatives.
Balanced relationship between
a big power
minor ones,
between conquering and conquered states
Lao Tzu, the originator of the Taoist-Legalist school of thought considered the unity of all states “under Heaven” to be a natural process and opposed forced occupation through the use of hegemonic power. In his Tao Te Ching he expounded philosophically the classical Chinese principle of “unity of land and kinship relations” that big powers should win the submission of minor ones with modesty and respect, that the latter win acceptance for protection with the same, and that acceptance of submission only means the obligation to protect more people from hunger and suffering. So, according to that principle, the head of a state should be very discreet when making decisions about conquering another state, and the only justification for that should be to bring about justice; The winning state should treat the people of the conquered state as equals: no plundering, nor bullying, nor enslaving were allowed, nor occupying of land by armed forces, but instead relieving the poor, retaining former government officials and army officers and having them take care of local people’s living needs, ensuring equal opportunities for work, and allowing free marriages between people with different ethnic backgrounds, so that people will happily stay and work and mutually assimilate like in a real “melting pot”. That’s why the Chinese civilization has assimilated so many different ethnic groups of people including conquerors from the northern borders and their descendents and Jews who are known to be the hardest to assimilate.
Modern world history has seen a lot of plundering, enslaving, colonializing, armed occupation, economic exploitation, political manipulation, bullying etc. in international relations, many times under the banner of promoting freedom, democracy, economic development, and what not. Why not promote equality between big and small nations? Why not promote a democratic principle for handling relations between countries, big or small, and for handling world affairs which involve the wellbeing of the whole human community? Why not do even better than the ancients instead of worse?
        A typical example of Legalist practice is that of China’s Chin (秦) Dynasty (841-221 B.C., when Chin was one of the seven “Warring States”, and 221-206 B.C, when all the seven states were united under Chin emperors), although some of the Legalist theories and practices had originated about 5000 years back from now with the Yellow Emperor (黄帝), China’s earliest recorded ancestor. (See The Yellow Emperor’s Four Cannons, 黄帝四经。) The rise of the Chin State began with the Legalist reform which started in the year 359 B.C and reached its height under the First Emperor Chin, who unified China as a vast, strong and prosperous country. The Chin state under Legalist kings and the unified China under the First Emperor Chin witnessed the best social order in Chinese history, which was recognized and praised even by one of the leading Confucianists Hsun Tzu (荀子). At the same time, the Chin society was also one of prosperity with a highly-developed market economy: the commodity rate of that ancient time reached as high as 20% or even higher.
        The Chin dynasty ended with a conspiracy at the top on the death of the First Emperor, whose successor, one of his sons, betrayed his father’s Legalist policy by distorting the rule of law, thus triggering a large-scale rebellion by the people. But Chin’s Legalist policy was largely revived and continued during the succeeding dynasty of Han (汉 206 B.C. – 188 a.d.). In the later years of the Han dynasty, however, Confucianist ideology gradually got the upper hand and was finally authorized as the sole guiding system of thought for running the country. The Confucianist doctrine had ever since remained the orthodox ideology in China till the 1911 Revolution, though some Legalist practices had been carried on and other Legalist ideas were adopted sometimes by reformist statesmen and sometimes at the beginning of a new dynasty on replacing an old, corrupted one.

        Why was Legalism defeated by Confucianism in Chinese history? The answer is in the inconsistency in Legalist practice due to the limitation by historical conditions. The major inconsistencies are: The social merit system failed to cover the selection of the top ruler (king/emperor) – the throne was still inherited by a royal son, and the all-society mutual supervision system failed to reach the one or two most powerful men under the king/emperor on the topmost level of the hierarchical ladder. Therefore, when a Legalist emperor died, the state power could easily be shifted, either through conspiracy or through the work of time, into the hands of morally weak or depraved succeeding emperors and/or power-hungry top-ranking officials, who placed their own interests above those of the people and would not bother to take the pains, as required by Legalist principles, to do the regulating of social life against the strong oppositions from some special interest groups, especially when there were no more threats of rivalry from outside. This inconsistency can only be corrected by a democratic system based on the modern principle of people’s sovereignty, corrected in a way in which the institutional power of the state exercised from the top down and the people’s sovereign power exercised from the bottom up remain in a constant dynamic balance.
        However, except for the above-said loophole, the Legalist theories and practices in ancient China were quite successful. The most important lesson from these theories and practices is that, especially at a time of “warring states”, the only way for a people to survive and prosper is to have a strong state under the constant watch of the people and with the institutional power to implement a comprehensive series of social, economic, political and other polices which aim at regulating all different kinds of social relationships towards a dynamic balance between all different interest groups and different aspects of social life, including a constant dynamic balance between the state power and the people’s sovereignty. And to do this, the atomistic world view, both in its ancient Chinese version, i.e., the Confucianist orthodoxy (except for some of its teachings on the cultivation of personal and socio-political virtue), and in its modern version, i.e., the Liberalist laissez faire ideology, must be repudiated.
        The atomistic pattern of thought looks at society as a mechanical aggregation of millions or hundreds of millions of individual human beings each pursuing his/her own interests only. According to this view, the will and interests of a state equal the sum total of all its individual members’ wills and interests. It disregards the fact that the state, as a special kind of social group of human beings, can also have its own relatively independent will and interests, which can in turn affect the will and interests of each individual member and all other social groups, large or small, within and outside of it. The historical argument between the Legalists and the Confucianists regarding the management of state affairs is a typical case.
        The Legalists emphasize the importance of the rule of law, insisting that, so long as the social law originates in and in line with Tao, i.e., the law of Nature, it will cultivate and fortify virtue in all people and thus ensure a good order for the society, while the Confucianists preach that personal cultivation of family virtue based on kinship principles will guarantee social justice, because, according to them, if all people behave virtuously towards others in the family, they will do so, too, towards others in the “extended family” of the big society. The Confucianists failed to see the fact that family virtue cannot be naturally extended beyond the scope of the family and readily applied to all social relationships, because the cultivation of family virtues is based partially on natural kinship feelings and partially on a kind of intuitive perception of people being mutually interdependent, a direct perception by all the five senses which is possible only within such a limited circle of “face-to-face” relationships as a family. Beyond this limit, people need extra impetus and motivation for the nurturing of social virtues, i.e., the rule of law, or the reward and punishment system on the social scale, supported by social education in the moral principles behind the law.
        The Confucianists pushed their argument even so far as to place kinship ethic principles above social law, as Confucius himself said that a son should cover up his father’s crimes and vice versa. This explains why corruption is usually rampant wherever Confucianism has taken root, while the Legalist Chin state and Chin dynasty witnessed the best social order in China’s history,.
        Confucianists also opposed the state’s owning some economic enterprises which were crucial to national economy and people’s livelihood and setting by a large enough quantity of commodity wealth as a necessary financial leverage for regulating the market and other aspects of social life and to defend people’s peaceful life from external and internal dangers. That explains why the Confucianist-dominated late Han (汉), Late Tang (唐), Soong (宋), late Ming (明) and late Qing (清) dynasties suffered from long years of invasions from outside or civil strife internally, or even lapsed into long periods of rivalry and war between separatist regimes/nationalities and/or warlords.
        The atomistic view of society denies the two-way interaction or the dynamic balance between the collective and the individuals. Those who hold this view tend to overlook the importance to people’s well-being of the will and the act of the state as a collective entity and overemphasize the significance of the one-way act of individuals, thus inevitably advocating a kind of laissez faire policy towards the latter as exemplified by the Confucianist economic and political principles. No wonder Confucius himself was adored as a source of inspiration from the East by early Western liberalists and, so, the 18th century French economist Fran?ois Quesnay, who greatly influenced Adam Smith, was known as the “Confucius of the West”.
        As social atomists deny the necessity of a dynamic balance between the collective entity and the individuals, they tend to advocate a policy which indulges the advantaged individuals, permitting them to get the upper hand over the disadvantaged ones. And this policy inevitably results in the split of a society into “two nations”: the privileged few versus the underprivileged many, and this is the root cause of all social upheavals, mass violence and war. It is the case with the old China under the ideological domination of Confucianism, as well as with today’s world divided into the super rich handful and the poor majority all over the globe. In Chinese history, whenever advocates of Confucianist ideas of “virtue” were loudest, it must be a time when social conflicts were approaching a crisis, as was pointed out by Lao Tzu in his Tao Te Ching. Can’t we draw a lesson from history and apply it to a truthful understanding of the world situation today? In this “globalization” era, an era of global domination by big financial interests, when there is no global authority who can represent the will and interests of the entire human community and impose a kind of “law and order” which can serve to dynamically balance the interests of the rich and strong versus those of the poor and weak on the global scale, balance the interests of individual nations versus the future of the whole human community, and the interests of the human race versus a harmony with other species and the whole Nature, -- in a word, under such circumstances, well-coordinated actions on all social levels and on a global scale under the guidance of a global authority, which is to be developed on democratic principles, of course, will be the only possible ultimate hope for rescuing the human race from the brink of fatal disasters.

        On the other hand, the dynamic-whole world view is also distinguished from the monolithic one of some social theorists, who do not regard the individual human beings as the “basic particle” but take a collective entity, such as a class, or a nation-state, as the basic composing unit, or “the undividable atom”, of a larger society, reducing any social entities, individual or group, below this structural level as but “nuts and bolts” on the collective “machine”, or a sort of sub-entities who should yield their own will and interests to those of the collective. Such “isms” as class collectivism, or extreme nationalism, or statism, or totalitarianism built on this monolithic world view belittles or totally denies the necessity of dynamic interactions among those lower-level entities and interactions between them on the one side and the upper-level collective entity on the other to achieve a sort of all-round balance as the basis of the collective will. In this case, the collective is not a “dynamic whole”, but a static, rigid, and corruptive one. Those countries that practiced traditional socialism before the collapse of the Soviet Union suffered from this defective view.

        From the above, we can see that the cold war was philosophically a war between two apparently contrary world views. With the West winning the ideological war, the monolithic view is losing its ground and the mainstream view of the West, the atomistic one, is all the rage today. But actually, the two seemingly contrary views share the same kind of blindness: They are both blind to the co-existence of social entities on different structural levels and to the dynamic interactions among them in a multiple of dimensions. As a matter of fact, world famous (or notorious) politicians would make alternate use of these two views to serve the same special interests of their own. For instance, when they want to push a policy which actually serves the special interests of some special groups, they would pose as defending the “monolithic” interests of the whole country. Or when they want to push their ideology overseas as a cover for their hegemonic operations, they would single out the “monolithic” nature of the world community and say that the values they are promoting are universal. And then, when they want to evade their international obligations, such as to reduce pollution, they would cite the “atomic” aspect of their situation as their excuse. But never mind. They will sooner or later feel the impact of dynamic interactions from all other social entities anyway.

        In spite of what is said above, all is not negative, however, in the history of human thought, either in the West or in the East. For instances, political and economic democracy in the form of republicanism, federalism and the check-and-balance mechanism of government, and in the form of corporatism and/or co-determination, etc., which all originated in Europe, are good examples illustrating people’s conscious efforts for achieving dynamic balance in certain areas, though still limited, of social relationships. And new discoveries in theoretical physics during the last century, such as the wave particle duality of light quanta, the theory of relativity, the uncertainty principle, etc,. have set a new stage for the West to meet with the East on a higher level (see the book The Tao of Physics by Fritjof Capra). And the rediscovery of classical Chinese economics and political thought thanks to the many new archeological findings made since 1970s has ushered in a revival and regeneration of ancient Chinese wisdom. A spiritual globalization, or the integration of all time-tested human wisdom from all parts of the world, will lead the mankind out of the dilemma in front of us and open up a new horizon for the human race on earth.
(Author’s note: Most of the historical facts mentioned in this article about Legalist practice in ancient China are from the multiple articles in Chinese by Mr. Zhai Yuzhong (翟玉忠), general editor of The New Legalist website, Chinese and English sections.)
Comment List
Online User(2010-03-08 15:34:38)
    This actually makes a lot of sense! :D
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