discovering Mozi

October 4th, 2007

First up, a quick note: Unless otherwise stated, all quotations and page and chapter references in this post are from Selected Philosophical Writings of Fung Yu-Lan (Foreign Languages Press, Beijing, 1991). All references to classical Chinese texts, unless otherwise stated, are as recorded in that same book.

So yesterday it was Kongzi, today it’s Mozi.

Actually, I’m supposed to be out picking corn, but something weird happened to me this morning, and I was told to stay home, rest, and 看门, so here I am. It kinda sucks, because this is the first time it was assumed I would join the others picking corn. This time last year I had to insist that I was going with them for one afternoon. But this morning my lungs feel heavy and clogged, and I got all light-headed at breakfast, so I was told to stay home. It seems the cold I caught the day before we came up here decided last night to migrate down into my lungs. Don’t know what the light-headedness is about, though.

Anyway, Mozi. Until I picked up Fung Yu-Lan’s Selected Philosophical Writings the other day, I’d heard the name Mozi and I’d read some vague stuff about some of the principles he taught, but I really had no idea what he was about. I have no idea about the quality or credibility of Fung Yu-Lan’s scholarship or his qualifications to be writing on ancient Chinese philosophers, but for better or worse, this book has been my introduction to Mozi and the Mohists.

Fung attributes the origin of the ancient schools of thought to different social classes. Confucius and his followers emerged from the ru å„’- the literati or scholars (p 224). Mozi and his followers emerged from a class Fung calls the hsieh or yu hsieh, or “knights-errant”- military specialists who had lost their official positions and been scattered with the collapse of the feudal system in the latter part of the Zhou Dynasty (p 246). Trouble is, Fung’s use of Wade-Giles and lack of characters are making it hard to check the dictionary. Could hsieh be xia ä¾ ? I can’t find anything that would match yu hsieh, though. Still, if I am right about xia ä¾ , then “knights-errant” doesn’t strike me as being an adequate translation. Anyway, we have this class of former professional soldiers now out in the big wide world on their own. And apparently they had quite a strong code of ethics. On page 246, Fung quotes the Shi Ji as saying of these “knights-errant”:

    Their words were always sincere and trustworthy, and their actions always quick and decisive. The were always true to waht they promised, and without regard to their own persons, they would rush into dangers threatening others. (Shi Ji, Ch. 124)

And on the same page, Fung says: “A large part of Mo Tzu’s teaching was an extension of these ethics”.

But we’re jumping the gun a little here, because Fung has more to say on the origins of these people he calls hsieh, particularly in comparison to the origins of the ru, and the importance of the difference in origin for the development of Mohist philosophy:

    In Chinese history both the ju or literati and the hsieh or knights-errant originated as specialists atttached to the houses of the aristocrats, and were themselves members of the upper classes. In later times the ju continued to come mainly form the upper or middle classes, but the hsieh, on the contrary, more frequently were recruited from the lower classes. In ancient times, such social amenities as rituals and music were all exclusively for the aristocrats; from the point of view of the common man, therefore, they were luxuries that had no practical utility. It was from this point of view that Mo Tzu and the Mohists criticized the traditional institutions and their rationalizers, Confucius and the Confucianists. This criticism, together with the elaboration and rationalization of the professional ethics of their own social class, that of the hsieh, constituted the central core of the Mohist philosophy. (p 246)

Alright, so far so good: We have this picture of a class of highly principled warriors coming primarily from the common folk who are more concerned with practical realities than luxuries. It’s a pity, though, that the Mohists have to be framed in opposition to the Confucianists, but that’s how Fung presents Mozi. Indeed, Chapter V of A Short History of Chinese Philosophy is entitled Mo Tzu, the First Opponent of Confucius. Oh dear.

Anyway, Fung spends several pages and considerable energy in placing Mozi’s and the Mohist’s origins firmly in this class of “knights-errant”, despite the lack of hard evidence. He does present a pretty solid case, though. But he also explains how Mozi and his followers differed from others of their class:

    In the first place, the latter [regular hsieh] were men ready to engage in any fighting watever, only provided that they were paid for their efforts or favoured by the feudal lords. Mo Tzu and his followers, on the contrary, were strongly opposed to aggressive war; hence they agreed to fight only in wars that were stricty for self-defence. Secondly, the ordinary hsieh confined themselves wholly to their code of professional ethics. Mo Tzu, however, elaborated this professional ethics and gave it a rationalistic justification. Thus though Mo Tzu’s background was that of a hsieh, he at the same time became the founder of a new philosophic school. (p 248)

Presumably, agreeing “to fight only in wars that were stricty for self-defence” means that the Mohists always took the side of the victim of aggression and always opposed the aggressor.

Fung then moves on to discuss Mozi’s teachings, and here’s where it gets interesting.

See, I had heard that the Shang Dynasty came very close to establishing a monotheistic theology with a personal God, but that the Zhou Dynasty replaced that with the rather more vague and impersonal “Heaven”, but I’ve never read or heard anything more on that subject. Now take a look at four criticisms of the Confucianists that Fung takes from Mozi chapter 48:

  1. The Confucianists do not believe in the existence of God or of spirits, “with the result that God and the spirits are displeased.”
  2. The Confucianists insist on elaborate funerals and the pratice of three years of mourning on the death of a parent, so that the wealth and energy of the people are thereby wasted.
  3. The Confucianists lay stress on the practice of music, leading to an identical result.
  4. The Confucianists believe in a predetermined fate, causing the people to be lazy and to resign themselves to this fate.

(pp 248 – 249)

Interesting. Two criticisms stress the waste of energy and wealth caused by Confucian teachings, and two stress wrong Confucian beliefs. And the first criticism is an attack on Confucian atheism. Fung tells us that “Already, before Confucius, persons who were better educated and more sophisticated had been abandoning the belief in the existence of a personal God and of divine spirits. People of the lower classes, however, had, as always in such matters, lagged behind in this rise of scepticism, and Mo Tzu held the point of view of the lower classes.” (p 249) I had no idea that such beliefs had held on so long after the fall of the Shang Dynasty.

Fung then goes on to discuss Mozi’s understanding of ren ä»? and yi 义, again in opposition to the Confucianists, and how this leads to what Fung terms “All-embracing Love”. Mozi opposed “discrimination”- loving different people to different degrees based on their relationship to you- and supported “all-embracingness”- loving all people equally.

But first Fung takes us on a slight diversion, quoting from Chapter 35 of Mozi and explaining the three tests Mozi used to determine whether a principle was right or wrong:

    According to him [Mozi], every principle must be examined by three tests, namely: “Its basis, its verifiability, and its applicability.” A sound and right principle “should be based on the Will of Heaven and of the spirits and and on the deeds of the ancient sage-kings.” Then “it is to be verified by the sense of hearing and sight of the common people.” And finally, “it is to be applied by adopting it in government and observing whether it is beneficial to the country and the people.” (p 250)

Maybe I’m reading this wrong, but that looks like four tests to me. Anyway, Fung tells us that the key test is “observing whether it is beneficial to the country and the people”, and it is this test which he uses “to prove the desirability of all-embracing love.” (p 251)

But what is this all-embracing love? If I’m interpreting this rightly, it is 兼爱 jian’ai, which is discussed in chapter 42 of Zhang Dainian’s Key Concepts in Chinese Philosophy (Foreign Languages Press, Beijing, 2002; translated by Edmund Ryden), a chapter which is entitled Nondiscrimination. Ryden, the translator, provides this interesting little note at the start of the chapter:

    Nineteenth-century translators seized on the Mohist jian ai as a Chinese equivalent of Christian love for all men. This resulted in a certain bias. The Mohists had a highly developed military-style organisation in which complete obedience was demanded. They sought to defend small states and preached against war while also building machines to defend besieged cities. Hence the term jian ai is more properly translated as ‘loving without discrimination’- the emphasis being on the lack of discrimination rather than on the love. (Zhang, p 326)

Zhang provides us with this neat little definition:

 The expression “loving without discrimination” is associated with Mozi. In detail, the expression is as follows:

        To show no discrimination and mutually love; to have dealings with others and mutually benefit. (Mozi 15, Loving without Discrimination B, lines 10 -11)

Expressed in brief, it is “no discrimination.”
The rule of showing no discrimination in one’s love for others and of dealing with others so that each party benefits is set out as follows:

        To look on the State of others as one’s own State; to look on the family of others as one’s own family; to look on the person of others as one’s own person.             (Ibid., lines 11 – 12)

(Zhang, pp 326 – 327)

Sounds really good, right? Everybody loving everybody equally. But Zhang provides this little warning:

    Even in this ideal the divisions between rich and poor, noble and base persist. Hence the love between human beings that the Mohists proclaim is still not truly equal love for all. (Zhang p 328)

So even Mozi opposed ‘making distinctions’ (Zhang p 327), because the Mohists preserved class distinctions and therefore the inequality inherent in a class-based society, the “all-embracing love” or “nondiscrimination” they preached did not lead to actual equality among people and between classes. Yes, I’m confused, too.

Fung shows us that Mozi had several arguments to support his teaching of “all-embracing love”: It is the only way to benefit the whole world, for starters, and if everybody practices “all-embracing love”, everybody benefits, but because “most people are too short-sighted to see the value of a long-term investment of this sort”, other arguments and inducements were needed (pp 252 – 253):

    Thus in the Mo-tzu there are chapters on “The Will of Heaven,” and also ones titled “Proof of the Existence of Spirits.” In these we read that God exists; the he loves mankind; and that His Will is that all men should love one another. He punishes with calamities persons who disobey His Will, and rewards with good fortune those who obey. Besides God there are also numerous lesser spirits who likewise reward men who practise all-embracing love, and punish those who practise “discrimination.” (p 253)

Of course, it is impossible to not notice the simple fact that bad things happen to even the very best people, and Fung takes a story from chapter 48 of the Mozi to show that “Mo Tzu would say that punishment by the spirits is a sufficient cause for the disease of a man, but not its necessary cause.” (p 253)

But there is, of course, a dark side to Mozi, and that is his insistence on a totalitarian state headed by a dictator with absolute authority, and that the authority of the ruler comes not only from the will of the people, but also from the Will of God. Not only that, but he insists that people accept such a state “not because they prefer it, but because they have no alternative.” Indeed, the only alternative is anarchy. Of course, he insists that the purpose of this totalitarian state and its ruler is to enforce one standard of right and wrong for the good of the people. But a key part of this state and its standardisation of right and wrong is an insistence on absolute discipline, with those of inferior ranks unquestioningly obeying the exact words of their superiors. (pp 255 – 257) It would seem that the Mohists held true to this aspect of their philosophy. Fung informs us on pages 246 and 247 that “the Mohists constituted a strictly disciplined organization capable of military action”, something which the translator’s note introducing the chapter on nondiscrimination on page 326 of Zhang’s Key Concepts confirms.

So I found this brief introduction ot Mozi and his philosophy fascinating. There is so much in Mozi’s teaching that seems so incredibly good, and yet there’s that really strong dark side of authoritarianism lurking behind it all. Sure, it’s nice to believe that in an ideal Mohist state the ruler really would practice “all-embracing love” or “nondiscrimination”, but practical experience tells us that such a state will most likely never exist and that the ruler of a Mohist state would very quickly become corrupted by his power.

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