A contemporary need of 道 (Dao)
We have lost a harmonious Dao in our current times. Whether the East or the West, it is peoples' duty to redirect life and go back to a more natural Dao, align with the essential things of life, rather than the ephemeral concerns of our modernity.
The 道 (Dao) of the past
Have you ever thought about a typical Chinese answer: 我知道 (wo zhidao)? This is the usual answer when someone asks you if you do know about something. However, the last character is far more profound than our daily use of it. The 道(dao) is a highly complex concept that can be traced back to the Pre-Qin era that saw the flourishing of the Hundred Schools of Thought—schools of philosophies from 6 BC to 221 BC, usually designated as the Spring and Autumn and the Warring States Period. Confucianism and Daoism are the most famous schools among them.
All of them were trying to philosophically advocate what could be the only and true 道. Commonly translated in English as the Way, the 道 meant to direct human affairs for achieving a harmonious society.
Nonetheless, this 道 also has a second layer. Life itself, or 天 (tian) Heaven, has a Dao in it: in other words, an everlasting rhythm that nature and the generation of life had and would have forever and ever. The closer humans could adapt themselves to this natural rhythm, the better society could be built.
The second scale of the 道is where the most exciting debates started in Chinese philosophy. Among the Daoists, Zhuangzi (in his book Zhuangzi)1 in particular has got my full attention and respect due to his philosophy and unique and spicy writing style. In his writings, we can find many metaphors, stories, satires, fiction, and so forth. The latter profiles him as the perfect philosopher to write about in a literature column. However, I know our audience is interested in contemporary China, so let me elaborate on that.
The 道 (Dao) of the present
To be significant for contemporary times, I assume that concepts and ideas must bring something from the past, be inspired on the present, and have a perspective on the future. I firmly believe that the 道is one of those, coming from ancient reflections, inspired by our current context, and providing an invitation for the future.
Consequently, I argue that the 道appears in contemporary writers, who, even though not familiar with the concept, surprisingly, have definitions that resemble it and revitalize it with an updated flesh. My primary example is Roberto Bolaño (罗贝托·波拉尼奥),2 particularly in his masterpiece 2666, wherein a section of the book introduces a Director of Orchestra talking to a couple of friends:
"The fourth dimension, he said, contains the three dimensions and assigns them, in passing, their real value, that is to say, it annuls the dictatorship of the three dimensions, and therefore annuls the three-dimensional world that we know and in which we live. The fourth dimension, he said, is the absolute richness of the senses and of the Spirit (with a capital letter); it is the eye (with a capital letter), that is to say, the Eye, which opens and annuls the eyes, which compared to the Eye are just poor muddy orifices, fixed in contemplation or in the equation birth-learning-work-death, while the Eye goes up the river of philosophy, the river of existence, the (fast) river of destiny. The fourth dimension, he said, was only expressible through Music. Bach, Mozart, Beethoven."3
That orchestra director, without exaggerations, could have been in one chapter of Zhuangzi.4 In fact, in Chapter 2, Zhuangzi portrays a scene with a Master entering a trance. The Master said that he started ascending from the Music of Man to the Music of Earth, and lastly, he could achieve the Music of Heaven.5
Once he finally reached the last step, the Master told one of his disciples that he had lost himself. That loss of the self by the Master could be perfectly analogous with losing our material eyes to finally open the Eye of Bolaño.
With that opening and access to that stage, the menial equation of birth-learning-work-death becomes unimportant. Now, the genuinely essential things are the river of existence, in other words, the Music of Heaven.
Bolaño has been significantly influential in the Chinese literature panorama, as we can see in the words of Zhou Jianing,6 a well-known Chinese contemporary writer.
"After Bolaño's first novel was translated into Chinese, it greatly influenced Chinese literary and artistic youths. Ten years ago, there was a bookstore and bar called 2666 in Shanghai. At the Shanghai International Literature Festival every summer, writers from various countries would come here. And young writers have imitated his writing methods for a while; of course, he is difficult to imitate. But in any case, his worldview and literary outlook were widely discussed by Chinese readers and became a symbol in a sense."
The 道 (Dao) of tomorrow
The reappearance of the 道 in contemporary writers from cultures totally alien to the Chinese one and its appreciation by Chinese readers is most likely due to a shared gloomy characteristic: the frenetic rhythms of modern life and the competitiveness of our days in both the West and the East.
We are fomented since we are very young to focus our energies on the primary equation life-learning-work-death that Bolaño pointed out. Basically, an ancient reminder is warning us once again; we are focusing just on Man's Music with its rules and fantasies. We are obsessively concentrated just on ourselves as individuals.
I believe that is why Bolaño started to be significant in the literature panorama of China. It resembles an old idea from the past, inspired by the unfortunate characteristic of daily life, but with a proposal for the future.
Rethink the current 道, which values people by the weight of their wallet, the number of their diplomas, and the title of their job. Redirect this 道 into the pursuit of time to listen to more Music, philosophize regularly, and lose the obsession of only our own selves. In short, let's bring Bolaño and Zhuangzi together to give one piece of advice to the whole world without distinction: leave the dictatorship of the pre-fabricated three dimensions, and start thinking in the fourth one—a canvas to be written by us—because 我们知道!
References / To go further
Zhuangzi (Chuang-tzu 莊子 “Master Zhuang,” late 4th century BC) is the pivotal figure in Classical Philosophical Daoism.
“Roberto Bolaño,” Britannica, last modified July 11, 2021, https://www.britannica.com/biography/Roberto-Bolano. Roberto Bolaño, in full Roberto Bolaño Ávalos, (born April 28, 1953, Santiago, Chile—died July 15, 2003, Barcelona, Spain), Chilean author who was one of the leading South American literary figures at the turn of the 21st century.
Translation provided by the author.
“Zhuangzi,” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, December 17, 2014, https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/zhuangzi/. The Zhuangzi is a compilation of his and others’ writings at the pinnacle of the philosophically subtle Classical period in China (5th–3rd century BC). The period was marked by humanist and naturalist reflections on normativity shaped by the metaphor of a dào—a social or a natural path. Traditional orthodoxy understood Zhuangzi as an anti-rational, credulous follower of a mystical Laozi. That traditional view dominated mainstream readings of the text.
“Zi-Qi [The Master] said, 'I had just now lost myself; but how should you understand it? You may have heard the notes of Man, but have not heard those of Earth; you may have heard the notes of Earth, but have not heard those of Heaven.”
ZHOU Jianing 周嘉宁 (fiction writer, translator; China), January 13, 2020, http://www.literaryshanghai.com/zhou-jianing-there-there-translated-by-ed-allen/. Born in Shanghai in 1982, she is the author of the full-length novels Barren City and In the Dense Groves, and the short story collections How I Ruined My Life, One Step At A Time and Essential Beauty. Zhou has translated works by Alice Munro, Flannery O’Connor, Joyce Carol Oates, and F. Scott Fitzgerald.