Primitivism in the Daodejing

A.C. Graham has distinguished between Individualists, Primitivists, and Syncretists among the early Daoists, with the first group dedicated to self-cultivation and meditation, the second advocating a kind of peasant anarchism, and the third adapting Daoist principles for the ruler’s use. In his book Original Dao Harold Roth has argued that the “Nei Ye” chapter in the Guanzi and parts of the Daodejing represent the Individualist contemplative strain of Daoism, whereas other parts of the Daodejing are Primitivist or Syncretist. I generally agree with Roth, and have defined an Individualist “early layer” within the text of the Daodejing which has many points in common with Roth’s “Nei Ye”.

While I see a sharp distinction between the early “individualist” layer of the Daodejing and the  later “syncretic layer” (the core of which is Chapters 67-81),  the distinction between syncretism and primitivism in Lao Tzu does not seem to be a terribly important one in this text, since many of the Daodejing’s primitivist chapters clearly view primitivism as a device of the ruler.

The “primitivist” in classical Chinese philosophy advocated a utopia of simple peasants following their ancient ways, unfamiliar with luxury and high culture and untroubled by war, taxes, government interference, and Confucian meddling – an archaic, peaceful, happy society which the primitivist portrayed as superior to the society of his day. The primitivist equally opposed the Confucian busybodies trying to improve the commonfolk with high-minded quotations from the Shi Jing, and the gluttonous rulers extorting taxes to support the splendor of their courts and to pay for useless wars.

Daodejing chapters which can unquestionably be called primitivist are 3, 12, 17, 18, 19, 53, and 57, 75 and 80.* Terms characteristic of Daodejing primitivism include “thieves and robbers, dao zei, in chapters 3, 19, 53, and 57; “scarce goods”, nan de zhi huo, in chapters 3, 12, and 64; “belly”, fu, as opposed to the mind or eye, in chapters 3 and 12; and a full or reduced version of “states and houses [ or, “the people”] confused and disorderly”, guojia [min] hunluan, in chapters 3, 18, and 57. Themes include the uncultured simplicity and goodness of the people, opposition to high taxes, opposition to the sages and worthies of high culture, xian and sheng, in chapters 3 and 19, and the rejection of cleverness (hui or qiao) in chapters 18, 19, and 57.

There has always been a question about whether the primitivists really were idealistic utopians (or even peasant anarchists), or whether they were actually sly manipulators planning to dominate the populace by keeping them ignorant. Presumably both types existed, and I think that the sinister possibility should never be discounted. Of the chapters I just listed, chapters 3 (“empties their minds”), 17-19 (denouncing culture, cleverness and skill, hui and qiao), and 57 (also denouncing qiao) all explicitly propose to keep the commonfolk ignorant as a method of government. (Chapters 12, 53, and 75 do not; chapter 80 doesn’t, but does propose ignorance and incuriosity as desiderata). If the idea of keeping the people ignorant is accepted as a mark of primitivism, however, we could add chapters 49 (“muddles the mind of the Empire”), 58 (“when the government is muddled, the people are simple”) and 65 (“make the people stupid”) to the primitivist group. By and large I think that all of these chapters propose Huang-Lao devices and should be included in the late layer, though perhaps the last three aren’t strictly primitivist.

One way or another these are all political chapters, dissimilar in style to the chapters in the Early layer, and they all have a kind of unity of theme and expository fluency which is seldom seen in the early layer.


*To clarify things for anyone who might be following this work in progress, I started off by dividing the text of the Daodejing into three blocks, which between them comprise the entire text. Block I is the traditional Part One or Dao Jing, Block IIa is chapters 38-66 at the beginning of the tradition Part II (De Jing), and Block IIb is chapter 67-81 of Part II. Of these blocks, only IIb is a coherent group; the others are mixed in nature.

Next, I defined a late layer and an early layer, each of which comprises about a third of the text. They are exclusive to one another but don’t exhaust the text of the Daodejing, since the remaining third of the text is unassigned and unclassified (possibly, but probably not, a middle layer). The core of the late layer was Block IIb in its entirety – chapters 67-81 of the text.

The early layer was put together based on my own judgements; I restricted myself to selecting whole chapters. This early layer was satisfyingly similar to Roth’s “Nei Ye” and also contrasted quite satisfyingly with the late layer and with the book as a whole; it proved possible to define an almost complete separation between the early themes and the late themes by performing simple operations on the text.

Next I rather arbitrarily chose to add all chapters including the phrase “Therefore the Sage….” to the late layer. This worked fairly well, but not perfectly, and this decision might have to be reexamined later.

The Primitivist group here is neither a block nor a layer, but just a thematic group which I think belongs in the late layer, as 5 of its 9 chapters already do. So the effect of this page is just to define a Primitivist group for readers of the book, while adding chapters 17, 18, 19, and 53 to my late layer.

Published in: on November 21, 2009 at 11:55 pm  Leave a Comment  

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