By Martin Boedicker
Tai Chi Chuan is not just an old technique for self-defense, but it is also seen as a part of Chinese culture. Even though it claims to be a cultural technique, one seeks naturalness through the practice of Tai Chi Chuan. This search for naturalness in a cultural technique seems to be a contradiction to the mind of the Westerner, but do the Chinese think the same?
The Relationship of Nature and Culture from the Western Point of View
The root for the western word for culture is found in the Latin word culture, or in the verb colere, what means to take care or to till. The classical source for them is found in the Tusculan Disputations of Cicero:
”As all the fields which are cultivated are not fruitful, it is not every mind which has been properly cultivated that produces fruit; and, to go on with the comparison, as a field, although it may be naturally fruitful, cannot produce a crop without dressing, so neither can the mind without education; such is the weakness of either without the other. Whereas philosophy is the culture of the mind."
(Tusc. Disp. II13)
Cicero's idea of cultivation has consequences, which shape the western mind up to the present day. Cicero believed that he found the same principle behind farming and the development of the human mind. Analog to farming the natural condition of the mind is a neglected one. It is absolutely necessary to cultivate this condition. Thus there is not only a contradiction between the natural and the cultivated condition, but also a hierarchy: Not the natural, but the cultivated has to be strived for. For example Hegel says:
"…, the natural is that, what should not be; in naturalness, man should not stay. Nature is from its origins evil…"
(Hegel, p. 491 f)
To generalize: The western world developed the idea of the restraint of the natural. One finds this both in the macro cosmos, thus in the submitting of the environment and in the micro cosmos, thus in the control of the humane nature.
The Relationship of Culture and Nature in Chinese Thinking
The idea of man moving from nature to culture is also found in China. The beginnings of the cultivation of man are done by sages. The Book of Changes (Yijing) explains:
"In ancient times, when Fuxi had come to the rule of all under heaven, looking up, he contemplated the brilliant forms exhibited in the sky, and looking down he surveyed the patterns shown on earth. … He invented the making of nets of various kinds by knitting strings, both for hunting and fishing. … On the death of Fuxi, his place was taken by Shennong. He fashioned wood to form the plough, and bent wood to make the plough-handle. The advantages of ploughing and weeding were taught to all under heaven. … He encouraged markets to be held at midday, thus bringing all the people together, and assembling in one place all their wares.
After the death of Shennong, there arose Huang Di, Yao and Shun. … They hollowed out trees to form canoes; they cut wood long and thin to make oars. Thus arose the benefit of canoes and oars to help those who had no means of intercourse with others. … They used oxen (and carts) and yoked horses (to chariots), thus providing transport for what was heavy, and for distant journeys - thereby benefiting all under the sky. … They bent wood by means of string so as to form bows, and sharpened wood so as to make arrows. This gave the benefit of bows and arrows, and served to produce everywhere a feeling of awe.
In the highest antiquity, government was carried on successfully by the use of knotted cords (to preserve the memory of things). In subsequent ages the sages substituted these with written characters and bonds. By means of these (the action of all) all officers could be regulated, and (the affairs of) all the people accurately recorded."
(Legge, p. 319 f)
The Relationship of Nature and Culture in Confucianism
In Confucianism one follows this view. Through the work of the sages man leaves nature and becomes a cultivated person. But this condition is not as in European thinking an opposition to nature, but still an image of it. Everything in the cosmos is as the cosmos: Nature and culture are an expression of the same cosmic order. This is shown by the term three powers (sancai), which are heaven, earth and man, where heaven and earth represent nature, with man in their middle. The Book of Changes (Yijing) explains:
"In ancient times,
when the sages created the Book of Changes,
they followed the principle
of the inner nature (xing) and destiny.
Therefore, they established the way (dao) of heaven
and called it yin and yang.
Therefore, they established the way of earth
and called it hard and soft.
Therefore, they established the way of man
and called it humanity (ren) and righteousness.
They doubled these three powers
and therefore in the Book of Changes
six lines became a hexagram.“
(Boedicker, p. 4)
Thus the harmony between heaven, earth and man should be expressed in the social world by humanity and righteousness. The ability for it is developed by an intensive moral education, which is perfected by constant self-cultivation (xiushen). Self-cultivation is the link between the inner virtue and the external world. The book The Great Learning (Daxue), one of the Four Books (Sishu) of Confucianism explains:
"The ancient who wanted to explain
their clear and pure inner power (de) to the world
would first bring order to their state.
To bring order to their state,
they would first regulate their family.
To regulate their family,
they would first cultivate themselves.
To cultivate themselves,
they would first rectify their heart-mind (xin).
To rectify their heart-mind ,
they would first made their intentions (yi) sincere (cheng).
To make their intentions sincere,
they would first extend their knowledge.
The extension of knowledge lies in the investigation of things."
(Boedicker, p. 58 f)
The investigation of the things in the world is a precondition for moral behavior. This shows very clearly, that the external world is in close contact with the internal world of man. Thus, the step from nature to culture is a natural development.
The Relationship of Nature and Culture in Daoism
The parting from nature was easy for the Confucianist, but it was never succeeded by the Daoist. Bauer comments:
"Even though the Daoist participated lively in culture and society and influenced parts of it, like medicine and military strategy (to take two very separate one's) or even dominated then, one can find in their writings a nostalgic longing for a carefree and simple life in untouched nature, when man had not thought of himself as important and thus was not separated from the other beings."
(Paul, p. 207)
Zhuangzi saw the development of culture by the sages very critically:
"In ignorance and simplicity, the men of old were all quiet and tranquil. During those days, yin and yang were in harmony and equilibrium, the ghosts and spirits made no disturbance, the four seasons succeeded each other in due order, nothing was ever hurt, everything lived the full circle of life, and men had nowhere to employ their intelligence - this was an age of oneness between man and nature. During those days, men did nothing but follow the natural course of events.
As time went by, virtue gradually deteriorated and declined. When Suiren and King Fuxi began to rule over the world, they followed the people's bent but failed to retain the perfect state of oneness. When Shennong and the Yellow Emperor began to rule over the world, they attained stability but failed to follow the people's bent. Virtue continued to deteriorate and decline. When King Yao and King Shun began to rule over the world, they introduced systems of government and instruction with the result that purity was defiled and simplicity was spoiled. They violated the way (dao) so as to promote good deeds and neglected virtue so as to promote proper behaviors. Then, they disregarded their inborn nature and followed their own minds. When people began to probe into each other's minds, the world could no longer be kept in order.
Afterwards, formalities were introduced and worldly learning promoted. The former concealed the inborn nature and the latter drowned the mind. As a result, the people began to get confused and to cause disorder. There had been no way to recover their inborn nature and to restore their original purity and simplicity."
(Zhuangzi, p. 16 f)
Thus Daoist do not only reject culture, for them culture is the beginning of decline. Their ideal is to live in nature and to separate from all social, political and worldly actions. Only by retreating into nature one can develop naturalness. This idea is expressed by the term uncarved (pu), which is seen as the opposite of being cultivated (wen). It should be mentioned here that also the term martial (wu), which can also be found in Daoist texts, became an opposite of being cultivated.
Because the Daoist rejected culture, they developed their own form of self-cultivation: to nourish live (yangsheng). This term, was originally used by the Confucianists, but later became a nearly exclusively Daoistic term. In yangsheng the Daoist tries to live in accordance with the way (dao). One of the goals is to maintain good health. In the Zhuangzi, one finds three strategies of yangsheng:
- The fasting of the heart/mind (xinzhai) - the effort to become one with the qi
- The losing-self (sangwo)
- The meditation called sitting and forgetting (zuowang)
The Relationship of Nature and Culture in Tai Chi Chuan
If one compares the relationship of nature and culture in Confucianism and Daoism one finds as a common aspect, that man as part of the cosmos is a mirror of the cosmic principles. Regardless whether one looks for naturalness in culture or one sees nature as something holy, whether one looks for Confucianist humanity in the process of self-cultivation or one tries to be near nature by the Daoist nourishing of life, one tries always to be in harmony with the principles of the cosmos.
This idea is emphasized by Chinese philosophy of later centuries and the ideal for man is a mixture of Daoist naturalness and the Confucian way of being cultivated. These two qualities are the guarantor for a harmonic personality.
This is also strived for in Tai Chi Chuan. The student should not detach himself from naturalness by the exercise of the cultural techniques Tai Chi Chuan. Quite the opposite, as nature and culture are not in contradiction to each other. Through cultivation of the self one achieves naturalness and naturalness leads to a high level of cultivation.
An example for this is the call for the natural movement. In the opinion of the old Tai Chi-masters one can reach this only after hard training for a long time, called gongfu (Kungfu). At the end of this development naturalness is seen as a measurement for the level of the cultivation of the self and a testimony of the inner nature of the practitioner.
In Tai Chi Chuan one says also, that the breathing should be natural. But as often it is not like that. To return to a natural breathing it needs inner stillness and outside exercising. Thus, Tai Chi Chuan can enable one to return to an original condition, which was only lost.
Boedicker, Martin und Freya, The Philosophy of Tai Chi Chuan, Berkeley 2009
Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich, Werke in zwanzig Bänden. Band 19, Frankfurt am Main 1979
Legge, Book of Changes, Hunan Publishing House, 1993
Paul Sigrid, Kultur – Begriff und Wort in China und Japan, Dietrich Reimer Verlag, Berlin 1984
Zhuangzi, Library of Chinese Classics, Hunan People's Publishing House, 1999