September 24, 2007 at 5:02 pm #24550
RECIPROCITY AND REVERSAL
IN LAO TZU
A peach was given me,
and I returned a lovely gem;
not in payment,
but to make our friendship lasting.
Tzu-kung asked, “Is there one word which may serve as a rule of practice for all one’s life?” The Master said, “Is not Reciprocity such a word?”
Analects XV: 23 (Legge tr.)
Reversal is the movement of Tao.
Lao Tzu XL
Good fortune perches on disaster,
disaster lurks beneath good fortune —
who knows the end of it?
Is there no norm?…..
The normal again becomes strange,
and the good again monstrous….
Lao Tzu LVIII
Reversal is, along with non-distinction, the most important theme in Lao Tzu. (The two themes are intimately related, and join together to form the “identity of opposites.”) The practical themes in Lao Tzu (caution, frugality, foresight, indirection, silence, yielding, anonymity, etc.) are all in some sense applications of reversal, though in another sense the practical principles are the origin of the theoretical principle.
Reversal is the peculiarly Taoist interpretation of reciprocity, a principle central to Confucianism which remains important in Chinese life even today. The Confucian doctrine is comforting, normal, and moralistic; the Taoist development, eerie and subversive.
Reciprocity is not uniquely Chinese. On the contrary, it is pervasive in pre-modern cultures: Polynesia, Africa, India, ancient Greece, medieval Europe. It cannot be dismissed as an outdated folkish notion, however, since it was a precursor of such scientific concepts as cause, feedback, and Newton’s third law of motion, and remains at the root of our ideas of justice, fairness, and friendship. Besides reciprocity and reversal, its names include retribution, compensation, return, requital, karma, and nemesis. Many different expressions of principles of reciprocity are familiar in English: “What goes around, comes around”; “As you sow, so shall you reap”; “An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth”; “He who lives by the sword, dies by the sword”; “Whatever goes up must come down”; “Cast your bread upon the waters, and you shall receive a hundredfold”; “For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction.” Two traditional expressions of the principle appear at the beginning of Plato’s Republic as folk definitions of Justice: “Repay friends with benefits, and enemies with harm…..Return to each what is due to him.” What these expressions all have in common is the idea that any exceptional state will be compensated for and brought back to normality by its opposite or counterpart: if I give, I will receive; if I take, I will lose.
Lien-sheng Yang has described the place of reciprocity in Chinese ethics, social organization, and culture, but the centrality and diverse application of reciprocity in the traditional Chinese world view is not always recognized, and the affinity of the Chinese principle with similiar concepts in other cultures is acknowledged still less. In this paper I will begin by discussing the principle of reciprocity in general terms, and then show in greater detail how reciprocity functions in Lao Tzu. My general discussion will treat reciprocity first as a social principle and later as a cosmological principle. (This distinction is mostly a matter of convenience, since the two forms were not clearly distinguished in ancient China: both forms were simultaneously normative, descriptive, and causal, and historical retribution could be either cosmological or social.) Next I will discuss three disputes about the interpretation of reciprocity which I believe have left traces in Lao Tzu: between cyclic repetition and becoming-other (reversal), between mechanical reciprocity and a higher reciprocity (taking the place of the other), and between the cycle of life-and-death and deathlessness.
RECIPROCITY AS A SOCIAL PRINCIPLE
As a social principle, reciprocity consists of permanent relations of interdependence between persons, families, and clans.1. These relationships are binding and (if formed between families or clans) potentially eternal. It is important to distinguish reciprocity from exchange. The difference is that exchange-relationships are free, impersonal, strictly-defined, and easily liquidated, whereas reciprocity-relationships are personal, richly defined, often obligatory, and more or less impossible to liquidate. Traditional man lived in an essentially permanent state of indebtedness. The return gift does not cancel the debt, but merely reverses its polarity — the former debtor becoming a creditor and vice versa. Exchange-relationships define modern capitalist society, whereas reciprocity-relationships were predominant in most pre-capitalist societies (though both forms of relationship are found in all societies.)
Reciprocity is often described in terms of gift-giving, and reciprocal relationships are ideally friendships comprised of exchanges of gifts and favors. Our own friendship relationships do provide a helpful model, since we do not keep close accounts with our friends, yet feel hurt when it seems that we are being slighted. Reciprocity relationships require the balancing of a large number of often-dissimiliar transactions within an authoritative but ambiguous framework, and they easily degenerate into resentment or open hostility. (The feud is simply “bad reciprocity” — ongoing enmity instead of ongoing friendship. In these societies crimes are interpreted as “bad gifts” which must be revenged.) It is hard for us to imagine societies within which military alliances, governmental operations, and major transfers of property are organized on the same formal principles of personal relationship that we use to organize dinner parties and Christmas giving, but that was the traditional ideal — and to a degree, the reality. (It should be remembered that feuds were as common as friendships. The English word “feud” gives evidence that a similiar relationship was traditionally found in the West: it can mean either the bond of hatred resulting from an offense, or the bond of gratitude resulting from a gift of land.)
Societies within which reciprocity was the major organizing principle were usually also dominated by kinship and ritual, and within them individual choice was limited in scope. All transactions were remembered, and lives were organized in the context of a net of debts and obligations which he could never escape. In such societies the principle of reciprocity was strictly enforced and was as much a causal as a moral principle; it could be used to predict and control behavior, and gifts and favors were often strategically given with the aim of controlling or humiliating the recipient. (Again there may be an analogue in a western language: the German cognate of the English word “gift” means “poison” — the hostile gift.)
Reciprocity is a practical concept, and as Pierre Bourdieu and others have shown, the ambiguity of practical concepts is unavoidable and necessary. In context, reciprocity is contested negotiable, with several possible valid but conflicting interpretations. (Reversal itself can be thought of as the polemical, dynamic mobilization of reciprocity, oppositional to the static conservative development of the principle.) Reciprocity thus could not provide, in China or anywhere else, a definite answer to any important question. It merely provided the language within which these questions could be discussed.2
Within societies ruled by reciprocity, the value of property is the reverse of what we would normally expect. If I have something, it means that I am indebted to someone (and therefore poor and unfree), whereas if I no longer have something, it means that someone is indebted to me and in my power. Much the same was true of power and social position: to the extent that these societies made class distinctions, those in high position were always in danger; they were frequently destroyed by the combination of their own arrogance and ostentation and the grievances and envy emanating from below.
From our point of view, reciprocity is a social organizing principle especially characteristic of certain societies. For members of these societies, on the other hand, it was an unquestioned source of obligation and an indisputable natural law. Reciprocity came to be the ruling principle of an entire world view. The Gods and the afterlife were thought to restore the inequities of this-worldly give and take, while the natural world (especially the heavens) and human history were conceived of as a vast web of self-correcting reciprocal cycles mirroring (or mirrored by) the human world.
RECIPROCITY AS A COSMOLOGICAL PRINCIPLE
The cosmological and the social versions of reciprocity were mutually reinforcing, grounded partly on the give-and-take of social life and partly on the astronomical cycles of the day, month, and year (as well as the planetary complications.)3 Different as they are, both patterns (the binary flip-flop of gift-giving and the circular patterns of astronomy) lead to cyclic repetition, and both reduce extreme states to normality by the operation of reversal (at the solstices, for example), never letting any process continue indefinitely in the same direction. (The reciprocal nature of yin-yang polarity is fairly obvious, and the “five elements” were also cyclically organized.) Cosmological and ethical principles were traditionally identified with one another (Lao Tzu’s Ch. 5 may be the first Chinese attempt to separate the two realms), and most traditional Chinese accepted a cyclical, partly-deterministic astrological universe ruled by these cosmological-ethical laws — though the exact relationship between human choice and the cosmic order, or between everyday life, historical events, and the cosmos as a whole, was never clearly stated (as it hardly could have been.) Sarah Allen described the ancient Chinese sense of time as follows: “They dealt with the problem of history neither by positing a mythical past and continuous indivisible present nor by viewing time as simply progressive but by subjecting all of past time to cyclical laws.” 4
In traditional China the turning-points in the calendric cycle were commemorated with rites and festivals of archaic origin. These were tied to astronomical calculations which were a government monopoly and one of the main ideological supports of state power. Public and private life were co-ordinated with the seasons and the phases of the moon, and such major events as equinoxes, solstices, the full moon, etc., (to say nothing of eclipses), called for especially splendid festivals with virtually universal participation. (Reference to one or more of these festivals is made in Chapter 20 of Lao Tzu.) These crucial moments were thought of as returns to the beginning or reenactments of the original establishment of order and were felt to be moments of real danger. The ever-returning cosmological order was a source of comfort and regularity, but it was not regarded as guaranteed but was thought to require ritual reinforcement.
A peculiar feature of many of these ceremonies survives today in such vestiges as Halloween and Mardi Gras. As part of the reestablishment of order during ceremonies of transition, often there was a period of licensed disorder: orgy, drunkenness, boisterousness, and role-reversal. This evoked the primal chaos before the institution of order, and recognized the enduring presence (or latency) of the chaos which came before order and was therefore the source of order. These rites of reversal were the model for all celebrations of transformation (weddings, funerals, initiations, enthronements, etc.), all of which were thought of as repetitions of the mythic originating event. In this view human life went through its seasons, ruled by laws which returned all excess to the norm, which prevented stasis and permanence (though themselves unchanging), and which ensured the repetition of the cycle.
The many aspects of reciprocity (as habit, expectation, obligation, ritual practice, natural law, theology of divine retribution, theory of history, cosmology, and metaphysic) were all interwoven into a comprehensive world view which formed the implicit background of many ancient cultures, including the Chinese. This world-view was neither unified nor logically consistent and took many different forms — egalitarian and heierarchal, primitive and sophisticated, timeless and historical. It was used to justify empires and to bring them down, to explain the meaning of history and to reduce history to insignificance. To prove that Lao Tzu is an expression of this world-view would be no great accomplishment; what I hope to do is to show precisely what the book does with this broad principle.
In what follows I will often stress the affinity between the forms of reciprocity and scientific ways of thinking. While it is true that many of the ancient expressions of principles of reciprocity (both in China and in the West) involved taboo, superstition, and spirits, the earliest expressions of such ideas as law and cause also appeared within the framework of (depersonalized) reciprocity. The archaic idea of the (unexplainable and often whimsical) will of the gods was replaced first with the idea of a morally consistent divine will and finally by the idea of impersonal law (still expressed in terms of reciprocity): “X (the penalty or reward) is the result of Y (the offense or favor.)”; “If this, then that”. Even more surprisingly, the cybernetic principle of negative feedback (supplementation of deficiency and reduction of excess), is purely and simply reciprocity. 5
Reciprocity was science (or protoscience) as much as it was religion. (These have been separated, in fact, only during the modern age.) This should come as no surprise: ancient Chinese philosophy was built around a host of scientific and technical models, some of them quite sophisticated: plumb-lines, draftsman’s compasses, T-squares, levels, magnetic compasses, pivots, potter’s wheels, levers, balances, tuners, astronomical devices, earthquake detectors, metallurgical and hydraulic techniques, calendric cycles, biological clocks, harmonic resonances, and so on. Even the oddest and most dubious beliefs of traditional China can be shown to have been extrapolations from valid observations (e.g., the metamorphosis of insects, the astronomical regularities and irregularities, end chemical transformations.) The idea that the ancient Chinese thinkers were purely humanistic and indifferent to physical reality is quite mistaken.
RECIPROCITY, RETURN, AND REVERSAL IN LAO TZU
The appearances of reciprocity in its various forms in the text of Lao Tzu are quite unmistakable. Some form of this principle can be found in every layer of the text, though I believe that “reversal” (and the derivative principles of the equality of opposites and “strangeness”) are characteristic of the late layer, while “return” is characteristic of the early layer, and “retribution” especially of a very late added layer. (This point will not be developed in detail here: my stratification will be presented more fully later chapter).
Five words in the Chinese text of Lao Tzu express the principle of reciprocity (requital / retribution / compensation / return / reversal). These follow, together with another word not seen in Lao Tzu which is very important in Confucius:
1.報 Pao (M. 4955; K. 1058a.) To answer, to report back; to repay; to revenge; to reciprocate hospitality or favor. Found in Chapter 63 of Lao Tzu with the meaning “respond to” or “repay” in a phrase also found in Analects XIV: 36:1-3. Still in common use for the principle of reciprocity: see Yang.
2.還 Huan (M.2261; K. 256k.) Return; restore ; respond, retort ; snap back, rebound. Used in Chapter 30 to indicate unexpected unfavorable consequences of an act; probably present as a pun in Ch. 25. (See note 13; see group D below.)
3.復 Fu (M. 1992; K. 1034d). Repeat; again; reply; make good, restore; go back. Often used adverbially: “again”. Name of Hexagram 24 of the I Ching “Return; Turning Point: Going out and coming in without error”. Chapters 16, 19, 52, 80: return, go back to (something old; the origin.) Chapters 58 and 64: reverse.
4.歸 Kui (M. 3617; K. 570a). To reach one’s destination, to settle, to take refuge in, to end up — used for going home, burial, the bride’s arrival at the groom’s home, etc. Restore, repay. Compounded with fu, means “return home, go back.” Kui: Chapters 16, 20, 34,: return, take refuge. Ch. 60: assign credit? Ch. 22: Take refuge? hand back? return? Fu kui: Chapters 14, 16, 28: return to origins; chapter 52: return to discernment.
5.反 Fan (M. 1781; K. 262a). Turn around, reverse, invert, counter; return, repay, retort. Can mean either “return to” (for someone who had left), or “resist”, “oppose” or “rebel” (for someone who had previously been a supporter); change of direction is the fundamental idea, the others being derivable from context. Found in Lao Tzu in Chapters 25, 40, 78, and 65.)
6.恕 Shu (M.5875; K. 94t.) This word is not found in Lao Tzu, but is important in Confucius’ Analects (IV 15:2; XV 23.) Legge translates it “reciprocity”; Waley translates it “consideration”; Karlgren defines it “generous, indulgent; loyal”. It represents the tempering of strict reciprocity into a higher reciprocity of fellow-feeling (rather as in the Christian Golden Rule) as discussed above.
These Chinese words do not match up neatly to the English words I have just used, nor do they unambiguously distinguish the various aspects of reciprocity; furthermore, the principle figures in chapters of Lao Tzu within which none of these words appear.) In general, however, huan and pao express traditional principles of retribution, nemesis, and compensation (as in gift- exchange, feud, natural process, and punishment by the spirits); kui represents “return” (to the Mother, etc.) — a more spiritual principle; fan represents reversal and becoming-other; shu represents subtle moralized version of interpersonal reciprocity; and fu, sometimes “return” and sometimes reversal.
The appearances of reciprocity in Lao Tzu can generally be divided into three categories — the mechanical principle of retribution; the more religious principle of “return”; and the subversive principle of reversal — and I will discuss them in about that order.
RETRIBUTION AND RETURN IN LAO TZU
Simple folkish statements of the principle of retribution are found in many places in Lao Tzu. “That which is contrary to the way will come to an early end” in Chs. 30 and 55, “The violent do not come to a natural end” in Ch. 42, “This is something which is liable to rebound” in Ch. 30, and “As there are things that detest these, the man of ambition does not abide therein” in Chs. 24 and 30, all express the principle that excess and wrongdoing automatically bring their own punishment — a belief widely held by traditional Chinese and not unique to Taoism. (Most of these lines are probably traditional sayings which the author of Lao Tzu is using to reinforce his position; I believe that all of them may be an editor’s late and intrusive glosses).
The idea that there are forces in the universe which automatically work toward the reduction of excess, an principle rather more philosophical than either the crude religious belief in retribution or the mythology of ritual reversal, is expressed in several chapters. In Ch. 23 the commonplace perception that violent storms do not last long is used to make a political point about excessive governmental intervention. The other three instances are more generalized and express more abstract ideas: “Not knowing when to stop in being noble and high, lords and princes would fall”, etc. (Ch. 39); “Thus a thing is sometimes added to by being diminished and diminished by being added to” (Ch. 42); The way of heaven is like one who stretches a bow: The high he presses down, the low he lifts up…. It is the way of heaven to take from what has excess in order to restore what is deficient.” (Ch. 77.) In all these chapters the dynamic of reversal is used to show the mutual dependence of high and low and to argue against the pride of the mighty. (As mentioned above, Chs. 39 and 42 mention royal rites of reversal, while Ch. 77 is directly adjacent to a reference to a similiar ritual in Ch. 78.) 6
“Do good to him who has done you an injury” (Ch. 63) is a softening and refinement of the social principle of reciprocity (as discussed above); so is “the sage takes the left-hand tally, but does not use it to exact payment from others” (Ch. 79.) Confucius explicitly rejected the former principle7, but he too had a principle of forbearance: shu (#6 above). The differing English translations of the Confucian term (“reciprocity”, “consideration”, and “indulgence”) show the subtlety of this principle. The defining characteristic in this form of higher reciprocity, as well as the Christian Golden Rule, lies in putting yourself in the place of the other.
REVERSAL IN LAO TZU
When reciprocity works against excess it has a normalizing function much like that of a thermostat. This aspect of reciprocity (expressed by the word “return” and occasionally by “repetition”) is reassuring and leads to order: transient deviations are continuously being returned to the norm which is the only reality. Debt is defused or reversed (though not erased) by payments, crime by revenge, injustice by divine intervention, excess by natural process, and so on. While this aspect of reciprocity is unquestionably present in Lao Tzu, the aspect of reversal (becoming-other) is more characteristic, and translators of the “Perennial Philosophy” bent often overuse the English word “return”. The “return to the origin” in Lao Tzu is usually expressed with the words fu or kui (nos. 3 and 4 above) or their combination. But even fu is twice used to express the principle of reversal (in Chs. 58 and 64), and in Lao Tzu the “return to the origins” is always a bit nihilistic, involving the unmaking of what is and the return to what was before. In some cases (Chs. 19 and 80) political primitivism is intended; the returns to the child, simplicity, and the boundless (Ch. 28), to “thinglessness” (Ch. 14), to the root and destiny (Ch. 16), to the Mother (Ch. 52), to Tao (Ch. 34), and to discernment/brightness (Ch. 52) are more devotional or contemplative but still primitivist. “Return” in Lao Tzu is a mystical return to the origins by way of strangeness, unmaking and reversal, not the comforting repetitive cycle of moralism and normality.8
My argument that Lao Tzu should be interpreted in terms of the archaic ritual cosmology is strengthened by the five or six chapters within which ritual reversal is of central importance. Ch. 31 is based on the reversal of the ritual precedence of right and left during war and during funerals; Ch. 5, a somewhat doubtful case, derives from the transience of the ritual honors given straw dogs during certain ceremonies; and Chs. 39, 42, and 78 all ground themselves on royal rituals of self-abasement. The point in Ch. 31 is merely that war is an unlucky occasion, but in the other four cases the conclusion is that happiness, high position and glory are transient and that the nobles are dependent on the lowly and humble — a conclusion which can be seen to be the explication of ritually expressed traditional beliefs.9
Chapter 20 deserves separate treatment. Two festivals, one of them a spring festival, are mentioned in this chapter, and if variant readings are accepted other ceremonies celebrating the dark of the moon and the full moon are also referred to. The lines “Waxing, it has not yet reached its limit” and “Limitless, as if there is nowhere to stop” clearly work within the context of the cycle of reversal, within which the high point is always the beginning of the end. But the chapter stresses the Taoist’s detachment from the ceremonies, and the cyclical regularities do not seem to be a source of comfort: as in Chs. 57 and 58, it is the strangeness of the changes that is emphasized.10
The general principle of reversal was unmistakeably present in the celebrations of the traditional ritual calendar, with its “world turned upside down” : in the words of the I Ching, “The sun at noon is setting.” The range of traditional reversal, however, was restricted to such relatively unthreatening phenomena as the calendric and seasonal cycles, the stages of life, the passing of the generations, and (most dangerously) dynastic succession. Winter becomes summer, the young become old, the elders pass on, dynasties succeed one another. In all these cases things inevitably become their opposite in accordance with a logic of strangeness; what Lao Tzu does is to push this logic beyond its traditional limits.
In Confucianism and most other Chinese philosophies, ethical, political, and cultural principles were sure, unvarying, and absolute, but in Taoism they are all problematic. The high (noble) depends on the lowly, goodness depends on evil, honesty relies on deviousness, fullness requires emptiness, clarity and distinction originate from dimness and confusion, and so on. All principles are linked with their opposites in the same way that summer is linked with winter or wealth with debt. This paradoxical doctrine is stated in a number of passages, most of which are built up of sequences of parallel phrases: “Something and nothing produce each other; the difficult and the easy complement each other; the long and the short offset each other; the high and the low incline toward each other; note and sound harmonize with each other; before and after follow each other” (Ch. 2.); “Bowed then whole, warped then true” (Ch. 22); “The man of superior virtue is not virtuous” (Ch. 38); “Not knowing when to stop in being full, the valley will run dry” (Ch. 39); “The way that is bright seems dull” (Ch. 41); and “Great perfection seems chipped” (Ch. 45). These passages, as well as several isolated lines in other chapters, all are to be understood in terms of this extension of reversal.11
The crucial passages for the attempt to define Lao Tzu’s concept of reversal are those in which we see the word fan (#5 above, seen in Chs. 25, 40, 65, and 78: I claim that this term should be translated “reversal” or “contrary” rather than “return” whenever it appears in Lao Tzu). Ch. 40 is central, justifying my choice of reversal as Lao Tzu’s central theme: “Reversal is the movement of Tao.” The passage in Ch. 25 is translated by Lau “being far away, it is described as turning back”, which also fits my thesis.12 The instance in Ch. 65 is usually translated something like “turn back with things” (e.g. Lau), but I think that “contrary to things” is better, since it gives the passage a sharper antithesis: “Dark virtue is deep, far-reaching, and contrary to things: thus it attains the Grand Compliance” (my translation.) The final instance in Ch. 78, “Straightforward (cheng) words seem paradoxical (fan)” (Lau tr.) explicitly contrasts fan and cheng (normal, regular, correct), supporting my interpretation of fan in Lao Tzu to mean “reversal,” “contrary”, or even “perverse” — the unmaking of everyday reality and the return to the primal, rather than the comforting return to normality.
The cheng/fan antithesis in Ch. 78 is matched by the cheng /ch’i (“normal/strange”) contrast in Chs. 57 and 58 and the cheng / wang (“true/warped”) contrast in Ch. 22.13 The force of all four passages is to treat the strange and the warped on an equal basis with the normal and the regular, thereby calling normality into question. This is a trademark of Lao Tzu’s thought, but it derives from the traditional ritual recognition of polarity (as discussed above.) If summer and winter regularly succeed one another, there must be some identity between these opposites, and there must also be some midpoint of strangeness which is both-and and neither-nor. (Arguments of this type can be found today in discussions of formal logic and of the logic of mathematics.) These paradoxes were embodied (but not made explicit) in the most ancient rituals and were hidden deep within official Confucianism: in Lao Tzu they are central.
The practical and strategic teachings in Lao Tzu (modesty, caution, frugality, foresight, generosity, forebearance, secrecy, indirection, manipulation) can all be regarded as shrewd applications of reversal. (This is as true of the cautious teachings Lao Tzu shared with the Confucians as it is of the devious teachings which the Confucians condemned.) Examples include Ch. 24: “He does not display himself, and so is conspicuous” ; Ch. 36: “If you would have a thing shrink, you must first stretch it” ; Ch. 42: “Thus a thing is sometimes added to by being diminished and diminished by being added to”; Ch. 57: “The more prominent the laws, the more thieves and bandits multiply”; Ch. 67: “Being frugal, I am able to be generous”; Ch. 68 “One who is good at employing others humbles himself before them”; and Ch. 73: “He who is fearless in being timid will live”. It can equally be said, of course, that the philosophical principles in Lao Tzu are generalizations from practical experience — the outcome of a mystic’s awareness of the subtleties and paradoxes of public life.
NOTE: This piece has suffered some losses; I have patched it up as well as I could. It may have lost a little text electronically in the process of transmission from one computer to another (and one wordprocessing program to another) via floppy disks of two different sizes. More seriously, this is a bowdlerized verion produced for an unsuccessful attempt at academic publication. An earlier version develops Prigogine’s ideas about conservation theories as attempts to escape from irreversible time, and mentions Late Roman ideas of “The Great Year”, which (as in China) allowed an escape from reciprocity and sameness by nesting the annual cycle within still another cycle, so that each year is different than the one before. I also touched on individual freedom as precisely an escape from reciprocity; Stephen Dedalus in Joyce’s Ulysses as a man torn between the old world of reciprocity (the old Irish milk peddler, Stephen’s debts) and the world of the contract (Mr. Deasy); and the non-reciprocal, individualist world of Emerson and Thoreau. Appendix I is a very sketchy version of this part of the original paper.
THE ESCAPE FROM RECIPROCITY
As a practical, contested principle, reciprocity is necessarily subject to conflicting interpretations. Often the conflict is between reciprocity as an inescapable iron law, on the one hand, and the escape from reciprocity (perhaps into a “higher reciprocity”), on the other. Three forms of the escape from reciprocity are relevant to Lao Tzu. First, the escape from the cycle of life and death into deathlessness. Second, the escape from the iron law of cyclic repetition (the Eternal Return) by means of the inclusion historical cycle within a greater cycle (the “great year”). Thus all known history — with its regularities, repetitions, and iron laws — becomes nothing more that one stage within a larger cycle. In this case the future will be ‘reversed’, becomeing entirely different from anything we have known before. (The western word “revolution”, in fact, derives from precisely this metaphor). Third, hard reciprocity (an “eye for an eye”, etc.) can be softened by some form of the Golden Rule. In this form of reciprocity, the debt forgiven becomes eternal, and the indulgent creditor attains a higher status.
Additional glosses (in lieu of Chinese Characters). Includes number from Mathews’ Dictionary, Wade Giles transliteration (with pin-yin in parentheses where different) and a brief definition.
正 Cheng (zheng) M. 351: Correct, normal.
奇 Ch’i (qi) M. 511: Strange, different, unexpected, weird.
静 Ching (jing) M. 1154: Still, quiet.
清 Ch’ing (qing) M. 1171: Clear, pure, limpid.
海 Hai M. 2014: Sea.
環 Huan M. 2258: Circle, ring.
還 Huan M. 2261 Return, requite, etc.
恍 Huang M. 2276: Hurried, flurried, vast, vague, void (various graphs with various meanings are seen here).
晦 Hui M. 2337: Dark of the moon.
逝 Shih (shi) M. 5804, K. 287 *diad: Passing, moving on, dying.
大 Ta (da) M. 5943, K. 317 *d’ad: Big, great.
逹 Ta (da) M.5956, K 271 *d’at: Penetrating, far-reaching, thorough, comprehensive.
望 朢 Wang M. 7043: Full moon.
枉 Wang M. 7040: Warped.
遠 Yuan M. 7734: Distant.
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Lafargue, Michael, “Interpreting the Aphorisms in the Tao Te Ching”, Journal of Chinese Religion, # 18, Fall, 1990, pp. 25.43.
Lafargue, Michael, The Tao of the Tao Te Ching, SUNY, 1992.
Lau, D.C., The Tao Te Ching, 1982, Chinese U. Press, Hong Kong.
Leach, Edmund, Political Systems of Highland Burma, Athlone, 1954/1979.
Le Gallie, W. B., Essentially-Contested Concepts, in Max Black, 1962, pp. 121-46.
Ma Hsu-lun, Lao Tzu Chiao Ku, Beijing, 1974.
Mauss, Marcel, tr. Cunnison, The Gift, Norton, 1967.
Mencius, Legge, James (tr.), Dover, 1970.
Mo Tzu, The Works of Mo Tzu, tr. Mei, Confucius Pub. Co., Taipei, 1976.
Needham, Rodney, Symbolic Classification, Goodyear, 1971.
Needham, Rodney, ed., Right and Left, Chicago, 1973.
Sahlins, Marshall, Stone Age Economics, Aldine, l972.
Schneider, Laurence, Review of Sarah Allen, The Heir and the Sage in Early China, Vol. #7, l981-2, p. 66.
Shih Ching [Book of Odes / Songs / Poetry]: tr. B. Karlgren, Stockholm, l974.
Sun Tzu, tr. Lionel Giles, Ch’eng Wen reprint, l978
T’ang Chün-yi, Chung-kuo Che-hsueh Yuan-lun, vol. 1, Student Bookshop, Taipei, 1975.
Turner, Victor, The Ritual Process, Routledge Kegan Paul, 1969.
Waley, Arthur, The Way and its Power, Grove, 1958.
Wang Yuk, Lao Chuang Ssu-hsiang Lun-chi, Taipei, 1979.
Yang, Lien-sheng Yang, “The Concept of Pao as a Basis for Social Relations in China,” in Chinese Thought and Institutions, ed. John K. Fairbank (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1957), pp. 291-309.
Yen Ling-feng, Tao-chia Ssu Tzu Hsin Pien, Taipei, 1968
1 Rodney Needham has made some helpful criticisms of an earlier version of this manuscript. I use the Wade-Giles transcription of modern Chinese (for example, ta), except where the archaic pronunciation is part of my argument, in which case I use a typeable adaptation of Karlgren’s Grammata Serica Recensa, marked with an asterisk (e.g., *d’at).
Of relatively recent Chinese scholars, Wang Yuk discusses reversal on pp. 456-8; Yen Ling-feng (1969), pp. 28-64 (esp. pp. 42 and 44); Tang Chun-yi on p. 334; Ch’ien Chung-shu on pp. 18-24.
T’ang says that the leading principle of Tao is the “mutual implication of cheng and fan” or “the mutual alternation of the cheng aspect and the fan aspect” (p. 334.) In this formulation cheng and fan can equally be interpreted “normal and abnormal”, “manifest and latent”, “figure and ground”, “right and wrong”, and even “right-side and wrong-side” (as in weaving or sewing.) For a contemporary Japanese exposition of rather similiar concepts, omote and ura, see Doi 1986.
Yang’s paper, as mentioned, discusses reciprocity as a principle of social ethics throughout Chinese history. Gouldner’s article briefly discusses the contemporary significance of the principle of reciprocity in a generally Western context. Mauss was responsible for the classic description of the functioning of this principle. Sahlins has updated and expanded Mauss; Gregory’s book contrasts modern economic principles with traditional reciprocity in the context of contemporary New Guinea. Cooper argues that competitive giving (potlatch) played an essential part in the ratification of status in ancient China. In Black- Michaud (pp. 237-241) the feud/gift comparison is made explicit. Kane’s paper discusses two types of gifts in the Western Chou feudal system without providing a clear interpretation in terms of reciprocity.
2 . Boudrieu, p. 262: “Practical reason has nothing in common with logical calculation as an end in itself. It functions in urgency, in response to life-or-death questions. It therefore never ceases to sacrifice concern for coherence to the pursuit of efficiency, making maximum possible use of the double entendres and dual purposes that the indeterminacy of practices and symbols allows.” (Much of what Bourdieu says about the functioning of polar concepts in Kabyle thought is also relevant to ancient Chinese culture).
See also Edmund Leach’s discussion of the conflicting gumsa- gumlao interpretations of Kachin myth. “Essentially contested concepts”: W. B. Gallie in Black, ed., 1962. Lafargue’s The Tao of the Tao Te Ching makes clear Lao Tzu’s practical (“polemical”, “celebratory”, “instructional”) intent.
3 The books by Needham, Turner, and Eliade and the article by Beidleman describe the ritual, cultural, and cosmological aspects of reciprocity. An interesting passage from the Western tradition linking cosmological and ethical reciprocity is found in Heraclitus (Kahn XLIV): “The sun will not transgress his measures. If he does the furies, ministers of Justice, will find him out.”
4 Allen, p. 22 (quoted in Laurence Schneider’s review of her book in Early China, Vol. #7, l981-2, p. 66.)
5 . “[If] in the old natural philosophy, aitia means cause, one must not forget that this word originally meant “guilt”….Each effect has an infinite number of causes, each cause an infinite number of effects…..each effect is not only the end of a chain of causation but also the beginning of a new chain, and, at the same time, a point of intersection of an infinite number of chains. No event is dependent on one cause alone…. the idea that causality is a connection between only two facts originated in the sphere of retribution. Here and here alone, is this idea incontestably appropriate — one offense, one punishment.” (Kelsen pp. 314 – 317.)
6 The bow metaphor in Ch. 77 of Lao Tzu is also seen in Heraclitus: “They do not comprehend how a thing agrees in variance with itself; it is an instrument turning back on itself, like that of the bow and the lyre.” (Kahn LXXVIII.)
7 Analects XIV:36. A rather similiar principle is described as “the strength of the South” in The Doctrine of the Mean X:3. (Taoism is often identified with the state of Ch’u in the south.)
8 See Girardot for an excellent discussion of the “eternal return to the origins” and other mythic themes in Lao Tzu. The royal rites of self-abasement mentioned in Lao Tzu seem rather more extravagant than the best-attested Chinese rites, and may have been anachronisms or vestiges, or even non-Chinese in origin. Needham cites an African rite of enthronement in words which could have been taken from Ch. 78 of Lao Tzu : the Swazi king “performs certain mystically dangerous acts by which he ‘assumes the filth of the nation.'” (Needham Symbolic Classification, p. 42, from Beidleman.)
9 Mo Tzu, an aggressive modernizer, rejected the ritual reversal in the traditional wedding ceremony: “High and low are turned upside down. Father and mother are disobeyed. Parents are brought down to the level of the wife and the wife is exalted to interfere with service to the parents. Can such conduct be called filial?” (“Anti-Confucianism II”, Ch. XXXIX, tr. Mei, p. 402.) Confucians were more indulgent than Mohists, though they tended to condemn the more extravagent practices.
10 . My reading of Ch. 20 relies on variant readings of two graphs: hui “dark of the moon” for hai (a very common variant, according to Ching Hsi-chang) and wang “full moon ceremony”(variant) for huang “flurried, confused” (seen in MWT). These are only two of the many references to calendric festivals and turning points and festivals in the chapter. (On this see Eide. Bill Porter / Red Pine’s recent translation Lao Tzu’s Tao Te Ching [1996, Mercury House] translates “full moon ceremony” but not “dark of the moon”.
11 Again, compare Heraclitus: “Cold warms up, warm cools off, moist parches, dry dampens” (XLIX); “It is disease that makes health sweet and good, hunger sateity, weariness rest” (LXVII). Needham’s Right and Left includes nineteen articles discussing the treatment of opposites (polarities) in many different societies (including classical China and classical Greece.)
The similiar parallel (but not cumulative) form of most of these passages (and also of the equality-of-opposites passages in Chs. 2, 22, 39, 41, and 45) makes me suspect that they represent an editorial layer of the text, as I will argue below.
12 This passage makes little sense as it stands, either in English or in Chinese. Waley (p. 257) has noted a hidden pun: “‘Great’ means ‘going / passing on'” (*d’at / *diad) is mediated by ” penetrating, pervading, going, arriving, succeeding” (also *d’at), which is not seen in the text. I believe that there is another hidden pun “distant” (*giwan) and “return” (*g’wan: not seen). The equation then becomes (with the hidden puns in brackets) “Great” = [ “penetrating, pervasive, going, arriving, successful”] “going, passing on” = “going far” [ “returning”] = “returning” : phonetically, *d’at = [*d’at] / *diad = *giwan / [*g’wan] = *fan. While these equations are obviously not literal identities, as a literary elaboration of reciprocity the passage now makes sense. (*Giwan and *fan are also rhymed in Ch. 65.)
13 . The ch’i/cheng contrast had a technical meaning in writings on military strategy. Sun Tzu, (Giles, p. 37) : “The direct and the indirect [normal and the exceptional] lead on to each other in turn. It is like moving in a [ring] circle — you never come to an end.” It has been conjectured that one of the authors of Lao Tzu was a military strategist; I do not think that it can be taken for granted that Sun Tzu is derivative from Lao Tzu rather than the other way around.
The ring-metaphor explains “Before and after follow each other” in Lao Tzu Ch. 2, as Waley has noted, and is also seen twice in Chuang Tzu (Ch’i Wu Lun and Yu” Yen: Watson pp. 40 and 304-5, Graham pp. 53 and 107 — though both translators obscure the metaphor.) The word “ring” in these passages is an exact cognate of “return” (both *g’wan).
Cheng “normal, regular, orderly” is found in a very restricted distribution in Lao Tzu : outside these passages contrasting cheng with fan “reverse”, ch’i “strange” or wang “twisted”, cheng (with one exception in Ch. 8) is always found in conjunction with “quietness” ching and “limpidity” ch’ing (Chs. 37, 39, 45, and 57.) Ch’i “strange, exceptional, deviant, odd” is also seen in Chs. 57 and 74, where it is used in an unexceptional moralistic sense.September 26, 2007 at 12:43 pm #24551
Thanks for digging up another interesting piece. Again, do you know the author or where you got it?
this topic of reversal is of course key to inner alchemy, it is the fundamental operative principle in the kan and li practices. Butlike most scholars, they haven’t a clue to those practices, even though there are probably hundreds of alchemical commentaries written on the tao te ching in chinese.
michaelSeptember 26, 2007 at 2:37 pm #24553
no authorship listed it is posted exactly just as I received it…just posted it to share with forum. I agree most great translators are pretty clueless…but can write nice text. SL
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