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LAOISM AND TAOISM SOUTHERN CHINA
CONFUCIAN China could never have accepted Indian idealism had not Laoism and Taoism, ever since the end of the Shu dynasty, been preparing a psychological basis for the common display of these, the mutual polarities of Asiatic thought.
The Yang-tse-Kiang is no tributary of the Hoang-Ho, and the all-grasping socialism of agriculturalised Tartars, bred on the banks of the Yellow River, had never been enough to enthral the wild spirits of their brethren, the children of the Blue River. Amongst the impenetrable forests and misty swamps of that great valley dwelt a race fierce and free, owning no allegiance to the kings of Shu of the northern provinces. The chiefs of these mountaineers, in feudal days, were not admitted to the assembly of the Shu nobles, and their uncouth appearance and rough language, compared by the Northerners to the croaking of ravens, were matters of ridicule, even as late as the period of the Hang dynasty. But, gradually impregnated with Shu culture, these southern people found art-expression of their own loves and ideals, in forms widely divergent from those of their northern countrymen.
This poetry, as exemplified in Kutsugen, of tragic memory, abounds in the intense adoration of nature, the worship of great rivers, the delight in clouds and lake-mists, the love of freedom, and the assertion of self. The last point finds striking illustration in the Tao-tei-king, or Book of Virtue, of Laotse, the great rival of Confucius. In this work, five thousand ideographs long, we hear of the greatness of retiring into self and freeing ego from the trammels of convention. Laotse, who was born in the then southern province of So, and was custodian of the Shu archives, was revered as a master by Confucius, in spite of the difference of their doctrines, and describes him in turn as "the dragon," saying, "I know that fish can swim, I know that birds can fly, but the dragon's power I cannot gauge." Laotse's successor, Soshi, also a Southerner, followed in his footsteps, and enlarged on the relativity of things and mutability of forms.
The book of Soshi, rich in splendid imagery, is in great contrast to the Confucian works, with their dry and prosy maxims. He speaks of the bird of magic, whose wings are ninety thousand miles long, whose flight darkens the sky, and which takes half a year till it alights. Meanwhile, thrushes and sparrows twitter in their amusement, "Rise we not up from the grass to the tree-tops in a moment? What is the use of this great long flight? "Again;" The wind, Nature's flute, sweeping across trees and waters, sings many melodies. Even so, the Tao, the great Mood, expresses Itself through different minds and ages and yet remains ever Itself." Or again, "The art of living, whose secret lies not in antagonisms or criticisms, but in gliding into the interstices that exist everywhere." This last point he illustrates by the master-butcher, whose knife never needed sharpening, since he cut between the bones, instead of attacking them. Thus he ridicules the Confucian polity and conventions, which are but finite efforts, and can never cover the great range of the impersonal Mood.
It is said that he was asked to take office, but he pointed to a bull, decorated for sacrifice, saying, "Thinkest thou that the beast will feel happy when the axe is on him, though he be bejewelled?" This spirit of individualism shook Confucian socialism to its very foundations, so that the life of Mencius, the next great Confucian after the Master, was devoted to fighting the Laoist theories. It will be noticed that in this Eastern struggle between the two forces of communism and individual reaction, the ground of contest is not economic but intellectual -and imaginative. None would have been more desirous of protecting the great moral advantage won by Confucius for the common good than Laotse, who was a rival thinker.
In the sphere, also, of statecraft, the Southern mind produced great thinkers, quite opposed to the Confucian ideals. Here, for instance, Kampici, sixteen centuries before the Italian wrote "The Prince," elaborated the system of Machiavelli. The period was prolific of military theory; a Napoleonic genius was devoted to the elaboration of the science of tactics. For the feudal age at the close of the Shu dynasty was one of free discussion. Original thought and research were welcomed on politics, sociology, and law, while the liberty and complexity of the Southern Chinese nature enabled it to rise to the height of the opportunity.
All this time China was being gradually eaten by the encroachments of the Shin, and after the change of dynasties their imperialism and the Confucianism of Hang seemed likely to prove fatal to the Laoist school. But the stream of philosophic energy found an underground channel, from which it emerged, towards the end of the Hang period, in the freedom and vagaries of the Conversationalists.
In the three kingdoms into which the Hang dynasty divided thus lessening the prestige of Confucian unity the spirit of Laoism was rampant. New commentaries on the Tao-tei-king were written by Kaan and Ohitsu and though such thinkers did not openly attack Confucianism, yet their lives were consciously directed as demonstrations against convention. This was the period when learned men retired to discuss philosophy in bamboo groves; when a prime minister chose to stop his coach before a roadside tavern in order to drink with his servants in the sight of the astonished public; when a simple student ventured to delay a high dignitary and ask him to play on the flute, for which he was noted, the amiable statesman being pleased to indulge him in his request for hours; when philosophers would betake themselves, for amusement's sake, to work at the forge, paying no attention to the illustrious guests who might have come to honour them by putting weighty questions for solution. The poetry of this era and of the early part of the Six Dynasties (265 to 618 A.D.) represents this freedom, and by the simplicity and grace with which it returns to the love of Nature, stands in strong contrast to the gorgeous imagery and elaborate metres of the Hang poets.
Every one will remember the poems of Toenmei most Confucian of Laoists and most Laoist of Confucians, the man who resigned a governorship because he disliked wearing a ceremonial robe to receive an imperial representative for his ode on "The Return" was the very expression of the times. It is through Toenmei and other poets of the South that the purity of the "dew-drooping chrysanthemum, the delicate grace of the swaying bamboo, the unconscious fragrance of plum-flowers floating on the twilight water, the green serenity of the pine, whispering its silent woes to the wind, and the divine narcissus, hiding its noble soul in deep ravines, or seeking for spring in a glimpse of heaven, become themes of poetic inspiration, which, when blended with Buddhist ideals in the great liberalising Tang period, bursts forth again in the Sung poets, who are, like Toenmei, a product of the Yang-tse mind, ever seeking the expression of the soul in Nature.
Freedom is recognised as the essential characteristic by Soshi. He relates a story of great noble who sought for a distinguished painter to execute a picture. One by one the candidates arrived, and, saluting him decorously, inquired as to the subject and manner of treatment required by him. With all this he was far from satisfied. At last an artist appeared, who burst rudely into the room, and throwing off his garments sat down in some rough posture before calling for his brushes and colours. "Here," exclaimed the patron, without further ado, "I find my man!"
Kogaishi was a poet-painter, of the latter part of the fourth century, who belonged to the Laoist school, and was held admirable for three virtues, being called "first in poetry, first in painting, and first in foolishness." His is the earliest voice to speak of the necessity of concentration on the dominant note, in an art-composition. "The secret of portraiture," he said, "lies in that, revealed in the eye of the subject." For it is another fruit of the Laoist mind that the first systematic criticism of painting and the first history of painters were begun in China at this period, so giving the basis for a future generalisation of esthetics in that land and in Japan.
Shakaku in the fifth century lays down six canons of pictorial art, in which the idea of the depicting of Nature falls into a third place, subservient to two other main principles. The first of these is "The Life-movement of the Spirit through the Rhythm of Things." For art is to him the great Mood of the Universe, moving hither and thither amidst those harmonic laws of matter which are Rhythm.
His second canon deals with composition and lines, and is called "The Law of Bones and Brush-work." The creative spirit, according to this, in descending into a pictorial conception must take upon itself organic structure. This great imaginative scheme forms the bony system of the work; lines take the place of nerves and arteries, and the whole is covered with the skin of colour. That he ignores the question of dark and light, is due to the fact that in his day all painting was still on the early Asiatic method covering the ground with white lime and laying upon this the rock-pigments, which were accentuated and marked off from each other with strong black lines. Thus Confucius says "all painting is in the sequence of white." We find the same method employed in the wall-paintings of Ajanta in India, and Horinji in Japan.
Face to face with these, the dream of the great lost style of the Greeks in painting, that style which was theirs before a stage chiaroscuro and imitation of Nature were brought in by the Appellesian school rises up before us, with an ineffaceable regret. We think of the "Cassandra" of Protogenes, that master of strong line, who could, as they say, give the whole fall of Troy in the eyes of the prophetess, and we cannot refrain from saying that European work, by following the later school, has lost greatly in power of structural composition and line expression, though it has added to the facility of realistic representation. The idea of line and line-composition has always been the great strength of Chinese and Japanese art, though the Sung and Ashikaga artists have added the beauty of dark and light without forgetting that the artistic, and not the scientific, was their goal and the Toyotomi epoch has contributed the notion of composing in colour.
The sacredness of caligraphy, which attains to great heights for the first time in this Laoist period, is the worship of the line, pure and simple. Each stroke of the brush contains in itself its principle of life and death, inter-related with the other lines to form the beauty of an ideograph. It must not be thought that the excellence of a great Chinese or Japanese painting lies only in its expression or accentuation of outlines and contours, nevertheless these do, as simple lines, possess an abstract beauty of their own.
As no works of the Laoist period are now extant, we are left to infer and reconstruct their style from those of the succeeding epoch which still retain their characteristics. We know that a new range of subjects has been attempted.
The love of Nature and Freedom of this great school have led them to landscape, and we read of their pictures of the wildfowl calling to each other amongst the reeds. Above all, they bring forth the mighty conception of the Dragon, that awful emblem, born of cloud and mist, of the power of Change, and in their tiger-and-dragon pictures they portray the ceaseless conflict of material forces with the Infinite the tiger roaring his incessant challenge to the unknown terror of the spirit.
As was natural, the masses of the people could not be carried by the Laoist movement. Neither Laotse Soshi, nor their legitimate descendants, the Conversationalists delighting in their learned discussions about the Abstract and Pure, waving the jade-handled yak-tails as they talked can be held responsible for that cult known as Taoism, which holds so much of the Chinese race in its hands to-day, and claims "The old Philosopher" as its founder.
In spite of the steady efforts of Confucian sages, the Tartar superstitions which came with the Chinese from their early home, could never be eradicated, and the uncultivated foresters of the Yang-tse-Kiang were the guardians of this primitive inheritance, delighting in demoniac stories of witchcraft and magic. Indeed, a necessary outcome of Confucianism itself, ignoring as it did the problem of an after life, and stating that the higher elements in man would return to heaven, and his lower be united once more in the earth, was the quest of immortality in the flesh.
Even so far back as the late Shu literature, we find frequent mention of the Sennin, or Wizard of the Mountains, who by strange practices, and the discovery of a magic elixir, has attained the power of living for ever, and now spends his time riding through the mid-day sky on the backs of storks to join the secret meetings of his mysterious brotherhood.
The emperors of Shin sent out expeditions to search for the potion of immortality in the Eastern seas, and the members, afraid to return empty-handed, are believed to have settled in Japan, where whole families claim descent from them to the present day.
The Hang emperors, too, were not unaddicted to similar pursuits, and time after time erected palaces of worship for their gods, which were invariably overthrown by Confucian protest. Their experiments in alchemy, however, were productive of many compounds, and we may ascribe the origin of the wonderful porcelain-glaze of China to their accidental discoveries.
But the final organisation of Taoism as a sect was due to the labours of Rikujusei and Sokensi in the early part of the Six Dynasties. They adopted the philosophy of Laotse and the ritual of the Buddhists, with the idea of increasing the significance and sanction of the popular notions. And it was they who initiated the awful series of persecutions which were so disastrous to the Buddhists of Northern China, before the liberalism of the Tang dynasty enabled Confucians, Buddhists, and Taoists to live side by side in mutual toleration.
On its philosophic side Buddhism was received with open arms by the Laoists, who found in it an advance on their own philosophy. The early teachers of the Indian doctrine in China were mostly students of Laotse and Soshi. And Yιon even taught these books as a necessary preparation for the understanding of the abstract idealism of Ashvaghosha and Nagarjuna.
From its more concrete aspect, again, the early Taoists welcomed the images of Buddha as those of one of their own gods. The golden Sennin (Wizard of the Mountains) which Hanchow, one of the Hβng generals, brought back as a trophy from an inroad on the borders of Thibet in the first century, was considered, as the name implies, nothing different from the Taoist images already extant in China, so that it was put amongst the Taoist deities and worshipped with similar rites in the Kansen palace, or Hall of Sweet Springs.
The King of So, in the second century of the Christian era, being a pronounced Taoist, was also at the same time a devout Buddhist. In the third century, when the Emperor Korei cast an image of Buddha in gold he cast at the same time an image of Laotse. All this proves that in this early period the two religions were not defiant, as later Taoist works assert.
Kutsugen. A prince of So, a province on the Yang-tse. His counsels were rejected by the King of So, and he was exiled. By way of self-assertion he wrote great poems of solitude of the man who stands apart from men seeking in Nature his only friend, in idealisation his only home, and then committed suicide by drowning. To this day his death is mourned annually by great concourses of people.
Mencius. Moshi or Mencius lived about a century after Confucius. With Bunno and Confucius benevolence had been preached as the secret of human association. Mencius adds the note of duty, depicting mutual obligation as the law. The ideograph for duty is very suggestive here; it consists of sheep and ego. My sheep, that is, duty. The ideograph for benevolence is man and two in two, one forgets oneself.
The Dragon. Since the rise of Taoism, throughout Chinese and Japanese art, whenever infinity is to be expressed, we find this symbol. It signifies the power of Change the supreme sovereignty. The imperial person may always be described as the Dragon-bodied or the Dragon-faced.