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Primary Society and Chinese Taoist Philosophy

The Western and the Eastern cultures have evolved along different paths to reach their present forms. Kwang-chih Chang (2000) and C.C. Lamberg-Karlovsky (2000) pointed out that the Mesopotamian civilization from which the Western culture has derived represented a breakout from an earlier primitive pattern, and such breakout was absent in the emergence of Chinese and Maya civilizations. Thus many civilizations did not evolve according to the conventionally presumed technology-driven, man-conquers-nature Near Eastern model. This article introduces the concept of primary society and secondary society to delineate the different courses along which the Western and the Chinese civilizations have evolved, and it sheds new light on some major issues regarding the differences between the West and the East. The primary society, or the so-called face-to-face society since it is based on face-to-face contact, was the only society before civilization, and it was the direct outgrowth of human genetic nature while the secondary society is not. The counterpart of primary society in modern nations is primary group described by Charles Horton Cooley (1902). The Chinese civilization was modeled on primary society while the Western was based on secondary society. This Chinese ideology, in contrast to the Western, is characterized by Taoism, which was formally founded by Lao Tzu (?604-?484 BC) but it was based a prehistoric tradition (Li, 2005). Taoism and Confucianism are the two complementary cornerstones Chinese traditional culture has been built on. In Chinese history, intellectuals were Confucians in the government office but Taoists at home.

Taoism strongly opposes the interference of the civilized secondary society with primary society, and admires the simple primitive life of the ancient people. According to Kwang-chih Chang (2000), the first civilized society of China carried on many essential features of its savage and barbarous antecedents. In fact the ancient Chinese spoke highly of and modeled their society on the primitive antecedents. The following paragraph is from chapter 80, Tao Te Ching, the Taoist classic by Lao Tzu himself.

Let the state remains small with a few people. Tools and other artefacts are numbered in tens and hundreds yet people won’t use them. Life is valued high, and nobody ventures far to risk it. There are boats and chariots yet people have no desire to ride on them; there are arms and weapons yet people have no reason to marshal them. Let us revert to the knot-string method for recording. Enjoy the tastiness of your food, admire the beauty of your clothing, delight yourself with your home and its environment, and be happy with your culture. The neighbour states are so near that people can see each other and hear each other’s chickens and dogs yet people reach old age and death without interaction.

The small states described in the above quotation were really primary societies. A common misunderstanding of the West is that Lao Tzu opposed any form of civilization. In fact, Lao Tzu did not oppose human interaction beyond the small state level if it did not damage the primary society. Taoism does not oppose cultural complexity either. Taoism opposes the destructive effect of cultural complexity and high level human interaction upon small states and the simple happiness of people within them. Therefore Taoists advocate non-action, which essentially means that the second society should follow the principle of non-action regarding the primary society.

Lao-Tzu did not object to any government structure over the small states if the government was unknown to its people.

The best rulers are not known by their people…When the best rulers achieve their goals, their people would say it is their own doing. (Tao Te Ching, Chapter 17)

In fact, Lao Tzu admired a super large country, the ancient super sate:

If you have mastered the Taoist principles, all the states and their people in the world come to you. You do not harm them and they do not harm each other. The result is peace, equality in a great country. (Tao Te Ching, Chapter 35)

In Lao-Tzu’s view, the whole world on earth could become one super country where all people lived in such small states. Humans did live like this before civilization. The first Chinese dynasty, the Xia dynasty (?2100-1600 BC), was much like such an ancient super state in their known world. It was only natural for ancient people to see the known world as one world, and when there was a need, they wanted to set up a human organization to cover the whole world like we have now the United Nations.

The Western version of Chinese history was usually started with the next dynasty, the Shang dynasty (?1600-1100 BC) but many records from different lines and t

Re: Primary Society and Chinese Taoist Philosophy

A full version of this essay is available at the following website, and the reader can read it by clicking the following title:

Primary Society and Chinese Taoist Philosophy

written by You-Sheng Li

Re: Primary Society and Chinese Taoist Philosophy

Very impressive article, and a more modern view to look Taoism. It makes more sense, and easier for modern Western readers to understand.

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