Clerestory

Sinitic Syncretism

November 23, 2021

Part 13 of a series on Whether There Was a West.

Today’s post is about A. C. Graham (1919–1991), a Welsh sinologist who was a professor of classical Chinese at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) in London. I wrote a bit about Graham last year, in connection with originality and infinite knowledge.

Graham produced a brilliantly original translation of the ancient Chinese philosopher Zhuangzi (~300 BCE). The translation was first published in 1981, and it is probably my favourite work of philosophy, at least of what I’ve studied so far. Graham brings Zhuangzi’s writings to life in an incredibly expressive way.

Here’s an example from the section called “The sorting which evens things out.” Graham translates Zhuangzi:

Saying is not blowing breath, saying says something; the only trouble is that what it says is never fixed. Do we really say something? Or have we never said anything? If you think it different from the twitter of fledgelings, is there proof of the distinction? Or isn’t there any proof? By what is the Way hidden, that there should be a genuine or a false? By what is saying darkened, that sometimes ‘That’s it’ and sometimes ‘That’s not’? Wherever we walk how can the Way be absent? Whatever the standpoint how can saying be unallowable? The Way is hidden by formation of the lesser, saying is darkened by its foliage and flowers. And so we have the ‘That’s it, that’s not’ of Confucians and Mohists, by which what is it for one of them for the other is not, what is not for one of them for the other is. If you wish to affirm what they deny and deny what they affirm, the best means is Illumination.

Graham describes this section as containing “the most philosophically acute passages in the Inner chapters, obscure, fragmented, but pervaded by the sensation, rare in ancient literatures, of a man jotting the living thought at the moment of its inception.”

I’ve always loved this passage, as well as Graham’s description of the larger section. I mentioned Zhuangzi just the other day in my post on Spinoza.

Graham edition is called The Inner Chapters, and he writes “Chuang-tzŭ” (in the old Wade-Giles style), rather than “Zhuangzi” (Pinyin).

The book was once hard to hunt down, but now you can even get the revised 2001 edition on Amazon. I cannot recommend it highly enough.

On stable equilibrium of disputation

Today I’m going to talk about a different book, one Graham published in 1989, called Disputers of the Tao: Philosophical Argument in Ancient China. In it, he summarizes the major Chinese philosophical schools.

Though the thinkers that founded these schools lived during the Eastern Zhou (771–221 BCE), the classics texts were used from the Qin Dynasty, in 221 BCE, until the fall of the Qing dynasty — in 1912. In other words, a period of 2,133 years, surviving collapses but always returning to several strands.

Here’s the overview, from Graham’s introduction to Disputers of the Tao:

Let us try to write down in a condensed prescription the Chinese secret of the immortal empire embracing nearly a quarter of the human race, defeating the destiny by which all things come and go.

  1. (From Confucianism). An ethic rooted, below the level of critical reflection, in the most enduring social bonds, kinship and custom, which models the community on the family, relates ruler/subject to father/son and past/present to ancestor/descendant.
  2. (From Legalism). A rational statecraft with the techniques to organise an empire of unprecedented size and largely homogenise custom throughout it.
  3. (From Yin-Yang). A proto-science which places man in a cosmos modelled on community.
  4. (From Taoism, reinforced from the Later Han by Buddhism). Personal philosophies relating individual directly to cosmos, allowing room within the social order for the unassimilable who might disrupt community.
  5. (From Mo-tzu through the argumentation of the competing schools). A rationality confined to the useful, which leaves fundamental questions outside its range.

I want to contrast this with the situation I observed in the West, where homogenizing purges wipe out earlier schools of thought, sometimes for good. If we conceive of divergent thought more broadly, i.e., outside philosophy, then it could apply even to the crushing of Roman slave rebellions, martyrdom in the Early Church, the persecution of Celts, the Inquisition, the missions in the colonies, the Reformation, the Wars of Religion, the French Revolution, and so on.

The fact that we still have Plato’s side of his argument against the Sophists, and ~10% of Aristotle’s writing (no books, only notes, as I described here), is nothing like the preservation of these Chinese texts over such a long period. And as Biagetti pointed out here, Aristotle is only preserved by Islam.

“The West” has a tendency to insist on a single “Truth.” That applies as much to Greek polytheism or Old Testament monotheism as it does to modern science. As I’ve said elsewhere, this is a retrospective through-line. It has no historical coherence; it is just the modern “West” trawling through history to find examples of intensely centralizing periods of the past to construct its current identity.

Chinese philosophy, at least according to Graham, has no expectation that a single school of thought should explain everything. Nor is there a tendency (at least not early on) to enter into metaphysics, which, by making claims about the “true” nature of reality, will quickly and inevitably bring schools into conflict.

Instead, Confucianism puts ethics first (much like Buddhist Śīla). Though rationalism arises in China, it is restricted to pragmatist applications, and not allowed to enter metaphysics or (for the most part) ethics. That the Taoist texts are quite anti-Confucian doesn’t seem to bother anyone.

I don’t want to suggest that there weren’t purges; though the “burning of books and burying of scholars” of 213–212 BCE is almost certainly mythical, many schools from the so-called Hundred Schools of Thought period did not survive.

But equally, in Graham’s telling, the Chinese reduced down to five branches, which is a lot more than, for example, the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church, to which the Christian Church aspired from 381. Even if the Church never fully purged all heresies, that this was the goal is indicative. Schisms are not strictly “Western,” but I think that “the West” cares a lot about belief, whereas most other societies seemed to care more about behaviour. What I think is important in China is that a certain degree of divergence is tolerated, which allows dissent and contradiction, and possibly small innovation, without leading to purges.

This has downsides too; convergent consensus can lead to rapid (and deeply de-stabilizing) progress through revolutions. And you could argue that the Chinese did all converge on having a centralized seat of political power, after the Warring States Period (475–221 BCE). I just want to suggest that it’s important that this didn’t result in a fully centralized way of thinking.

What does Sinitic mean?

I couldn’t resist the title, so I thought I’d also give you a peek into the weird world of my Zettelkasten To this end I’ve left the title of this blog post the same as I have it in my notes.1

From the OED:

Sinitic, adj.: Chinese. In early use often with wider reference to East Asian peoples viewed as constituting a single racial or cultural group with China at its centre.

syncretism, n.:

1. Attempted union or reconciliation of diverse or opposite tenets or practices, esp. in philosophy or religion; spec. the system or principles of a school founded in the 17th century by George Calixtus, who aimed at harmonizing the sects of Protestants and ultimately all Christian bodies: see Calixtin n. (Almost always in derogatory sense.)

2. Philology. The merging of two or more inflectional categories.

3. Psychology. The process of fusing diverse ideas or sensations into a general (inexact) impression; an instance of this.


  1. Or near enough. In the actual note it is “Successful Sinetic Syncretism.” Sinetic is an even rarer variant of sinitic; in fact it is in the OED’s rarest band, along with familiar words like abaptiston, abaxile, grithbreach, gurofhite, zarnich, and zeagonite.

Bryan Kam

I'm Bryan Kam. I'm thinking about complexity and selfhood. Please sign up to my newsletter or see more here.