Primary Society and Chinese Taoist Philosophy

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          You-Sheng Li



          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 the recent archaeological discoveries indicate the existence of the Xia dynasty. Cho-yun Hsu (2003) says, “The Xia heyday would have been from about the end of the third millennium BC to the middle of the second millennium BC. Archaeological research has uncovered bronze tools and artefacts in the Erlitou culture sites in Henan province. Although tools and implements made of bone and shell were more commonly found than bronze pieces, the bronze culture sites have also yielded remains of large buildings on plat-formed foundations, and a number of such sites were partly walled in. This indicates that there was some form of urban centre with public buildings, which is consistent with the existence of a state.” Weather Xia was only legendary or not is not important. The important thing was that the ancient Chinese people believed it and followed its model. Thus the Xia dynasty was critical to understand Chinese civilization, since it marked the beginning.

In fighting the floods and stopping war among tribes and villages, the first state of China, the Xia dynasty, appeared in 2100 BC. It covered a large area that was more than Ancient Mesopotamia and Egypt combined. Under its rule were ten thousand so-called “countries” which were really villages and tribes.  The number of “countries was reduced to more than 3000 around 1600 BC, and 1800 around 1100 BC (Zou, 2000). The estimated population of the Xia was 24-27 million (Song, 2004), and with a few large confederations of tribes, the remaining “countries” each would have two hundred or less. The number of people one can know well by face-to-face contact is around 150, and the average number of people in the grassroots community in modern Chinese rural areas is estimated to be between two and three hundred (Li, 2005).  Richard Leaky (1994) estimated that the size of the hunting and gathering society is about 25 persons in each band, and they formed a tribe of about 500 persons by connections with other neighbouring bands. Thus the basic social structures of the Xia dynasty were the face-to-face primary societies.

The neighbours of the Xia dynasty were called wasteland zones ( huangfu ) where no government existed. During the western Chou dynasty (?1100-771 BC), the chieftains in the wasteland zones were only required to pay respects to the Chinese king once in life time. It was apparently a super state in their known world.

This super state structure faced its people in their primary societies inside the state, and outside, it faced the nature, heaven and earth. Thus they still saw themselves as part of nature, heaven and earth. Although the government of the super state was a secondary society, it was modelled after the primary society as it was only society they knew. The founder of the Xia dynasty was a labourer himself. Because of years of hard working, his fingernails and the hair of his legs were all worn off, and his hands and feet were covered with calluses. His face, beaten by the hot sun, was dark and sallow. He became slightly lame, either due to a minor injury or overwork. A special dance, Yu Steps, was named after him because of the way he walked. Once a wine expert offered him his wine, and he liked it very much but refused to taste wine again after he realized the negative effects of drinking. If they had developed a philosophy to summarize their world view it would also have been Taoism. Chinese people called their national leader the son of heaven but the Chinese word heaven has the meaning of nature. The leader had the duty to take care of his people like God and make sure that they lived a good life as nature wished. In a sense such a leader combined the roles of Caesar and Jesus. 

This super state structure of China endured for the next four thousand years except for some short periods of division. Around this super state structure a ruling class was formed, and leisurely intellectual people emerged. Those leisurely people were part of the ruling class but did not hold any office. They adapted Taoism as their life philosophy but concentrated on healthy living and the pursuit of longevity. If we believe that intellectuals were the souls of the ancient states, their ideology led the course of the Chinese civilization.

The leisurely style of the people and the government staff in ancient China is reflected in the fact that their palaces remained as large thatched mud huts for more than a thousand years, at least, until late Shang dynasty (1766-1123 BC) while magnificent buildings were being erected in the West. Technically they had the capacity to build similar buildings in China but they did not, since they lacked the ambition to pursue such social achievements.

Confucius says, “In ancient time intellectuals lived for themselves but now intellectuals concern themselves with public interests.” (Analects, 14.24) Taoist philosophy developed during the eastern Chou dynasty (771-221 BC) but it was based on this ancient traditions.

In the West, culture developed based on the ancient civilizations of the Middle East and Mediterranean areas. Travelling on water was almost the only way to reach foreign lands in ancient times. Those civilizations were linked by sea water. Both ancient Mesopotamia and Egypt were fertile areas along the river flanked by desert. They were like large oases. Mountain ridges formed the natural barriers among ancient Greek city states. Chinese civilization developed along the border zone between dry land and wetland, between arable farmland and nomadic pastureland. It was an open land without desert or mountains as the barriers

When states first appeared in Mesopotamia, each state was soon surrounded by other similar states. The top concern of each state was dealing with other states. It thus created a human world separated from nature. Furthermore kinship networks were dissolved in Mesopotamian cities and all people lived in a secondary society.  When philosophy first appeared in ancient Greece, philosophers were not part of the ruling structure but free citizens. They did not need, like their Chinese contemporaries, to consider how to restore or stabilize the super state structure and how to fix the chaotic situation. They did not need to conceive an overview to combine the natural world and human world for the whole people as Lao Tzu and Confucius did.

The ancient Greek philosophers were first interested in the natural world but, since Socrates, shifted to the human world. The execution of Socrates proved beyond doubt that Greek philosophers were neither part of their ruling structure nor part of the people but free individual citizens while their Chinese contemporary philosophers were different.

There was a slavery class in ancient Greece but only a few domestic slaves in ancient China. Ancient Chinese intellectuals had to consider all Chinese people while their Greek contemporaries usually only took free citizens into consideration. Those free citizens might not need to work in the field surrounded by nature but they had to fight other humans to defend their city states.

The first super state in the known world appeared in the West when Alexander the Great reigned and when the Roman Empire was established. At that time, urban life was well developed in numerous cities and human philosophy was well established. Both Alexander the Great and the Roman Empire had to adapt themselves to the previous existing philosophies.

The Axial Age is a widely accepted concept that covers about a thousand years before Jesus Christ. In the Axial age, Greece and China had different social environments to hatch different philosophical ideas. In Greece, namely Athens, the secondary society was complete with individual free citizens. There was hardly any trace left from the primary society. Because of the two level system, namely a super state structure over numerous primary or nearly primary societies, Chinese society was not much different from the primary society in the early Chinese Axial Age. China had a so-called nine square system with one large square of land divided into nine small ones. The eight outer squares were allocated to eight families who had to cultivate the central one for the super state structure, the administrators and their families. It was not surprising that the three major Chinese schools of thought that appeared in the Axial Age, Confucianism, Mohism, and Taoism, all took the primitive egalitarian or nearly egalitarian (the Yao Shun Yu period, ?2200-2100 BC) societies as their ideal models.

According to the records, Yu, and his people hard-worked 13 years to succeed in controlling the flood, and in the process of organizing the many tribes for this huge project, he laid down the foundation for the first Chinese dynasty. Some scholars believe that there were many city states like the ancient Greece before Yu’s time, since dozens of small walled cities or large villages were found. It is reasonable to suppose that complex social organization with central power was present during the Xia dynasty, though the culture was simple, frugal, and emphasizing loyalty but keeping a distance from gods and ghosts.

In conclusion, the unique features include the following:

1) Lack of construction of secondary society; spare time was not organized for further productive activity.

2) God worship was not well developed, and cursing gods were common

3) Optimist culture, no tragedy

4) Ancient records—female god—female centred society.

5) Continuous without breaks


Lao Tzu says, 

          The valley god never dies because it is the fathomless female. The channel of the fathomless female is the basis of the world, and the basis of the universe.  Residing there in the mistiness and emptiness, it will never be used up. (chapter 6)

There was apparently worship of female gods in many parts of the world before and during the new stone age including the Minoan civilization in Greece  More than a hundred figurines known as Venus statue depicting women with enlarged breasts and buttocks have been recovered from sites all the way from France to Siberia. Two such examples were recently found in Northeast China beside a goddess temple which was built 5,000 years ago. As late as the Shang dynasty (1766-1123 BC) people still worshiped the mothers of the east and west in China.

          The existence of matrilineal societies is accepted but the concept of matriarchy, namely the political and economic dominance of women over men remained pure speculation until recently when such a society was found to have existed in ancient China.

          Archaeological findings identified a unique culture, the Revere-Beauty (Yangshao) culture along the Yellow River valley roughly from 5000 to 2400 BC. Excavations in the area showed that the leader of the village in the new Stone Age was female, and suggest that the tribal system was run on matriarchal lines. Males and females were buried separately. Females’ tombs were richer in content, containing jade decorative objects, and in one case 8577 small bone balls. These were used for body decoration, and a ring of bones supported a topknot hairstyle. Sons were often buried in their mother’s grave site.

          The Chinese character God, or the sky God, that was superior to all other gods was nothing but the symbol of the female sex organ set on a table and worshiped by people. It is the best summary for the quote above from Lao Tzu. The use of an inverted triangle to represent the female organ or the woman is universally seen in many cultures.  The Chinese emperors used the same word to name themselves several thousand years later.

          When patriarchal society first appeared around and before Great Yu’s time, those powerful males not only cared exclusively about external affairs and left internal affairs to the matriarchy but also bragged about their newly obtained power using the symbolism of the female. It became fashionable for males to symbolically perform the female biological functions in order to solidify their bond with their children and announce their position in the family.

          If you hold a child, you hold him to your chest. But this was not an ordinary holding but a formal ritual. So Gun held his son Yu to his abdomen. Such a custom lasted several thousand years in some areas of China and assumed a popular name, birth man or puerperal man.

          When the patriarchal power system first appeared it was parallel with the pre-existing matriarchal system. The concept of ancestor might be associated with the emergence of the patriarchal system since part of the Chinese word, ancestor, is a symbol of the male sex organ. The Chinese character for mother is the symbol of a pregnant woman, while “father” is the symbol of power at a ritual occasion. This indicates that the matriarchal system was associated with the primary society while the patriarchal system was associated with the emergence of the secondary society.

          In addition to the puerperal man, another similar ritual was for the man to name the child and claim his fatherhood after the child was born. Yu once told his incumbent king, “I did not son.” The conventional interpretation for this short sentence was I did not have the chance to perform the ritual and name my son. According to the records Yu left home four days after the wedding and passed his house three times during his thirteen year odyssey but never dared to enter. Once he even heard the cry of his son who had been born in his absence.

          Recent studies provide a quite different interpretation. Sexual morality was quite liberal at that time, and Yu had several sex partners. The four days really meant that he went to see a girl friend for four days out of every ten days. In the local matrilineal system, the man went to the woman’s home during the night but came back to work during the day. When Yu left home for the odyssey he was in his twenties and not married. So wherever his job led him to, he went to some woman’s house for the night according to the matrilineal custom.

          Yu eventually married the woman who bore him a son and the son became the next king. The woman was from a place two hundred kilometres south of the Yangtze River, which can serve as evidence how extensively Yu had travelled. There was no explanation for Yu not to enter when he passed his home unless the woman was now with another man. A more probable interpretation of the words I did not son was, I did not father the son. But was this a simple political lie to cover up the fact that he had left the throne to his son?

          During the subsequent Hia dynasty, kings called themselves hou, a word which later became the Chinese equivalent for queen. It certainly reflects the matrilineal influence.

The Duke of Yeh told Confucius, “There are some righteous men in my land: If the father steals a sheep, the son will testify against him.” Confucius said, “The righteous men in my land are different: The father conceals the wrongs of his son, and the son conceals the wrongs of his father. This is the righteousness.” (Analects: 13.18)

Similar comments can be found in other Confucian classics. Meng Tzu even suggested that a king should run away with his father to hide if his father committed a murder. In other words, the law of a secondary society should not penetrate into the family. In subsequent Chinese history the law penetrated the barrier of families to punish individuals but far less than in the West. Even today in the vast Chinese countryside, local authorities tend to leave minor offences to the clan and the family to handle. The negative side of this is collective punishment: A whole family might be executed because of the crime of an individual. Human sacrifice was much more prevalent in ancient China where family members and servicemen would kill themselves to accompany the king or a lord into the next world.



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