Without Rulers

by Brian Bergen-Aurand

Of late, I’ve encountered a number of objections to my critical speculations based on the idea that anarchism and similar non-hierarchical, non-coercive collective political theories have no place in an “Asian” setting. The argument against them is that they are simply another set of imported European philosophies, another paradigm of cultural Imperialism, that have no roots, no place, and can gain no hold in a foreign climate. Anarchism is, simply put, a bad foreign influence.

And yet, even a cursory study of the history of anarchism and similar political strategies shows the tradition of proto-anarchical, crypto-anarchical, and even fully-articulated anarchical thought may have arisen in Asia at the same time as or, perhaps, prior to when they arose in Europe. Certain understandings of Daoism—first transmitted through writers such as Zhuang Zi, Ruan Ji, Bao Jingyan, Tao Qian—may be some of the foundational Asian texts for a contemporary critique of authority, hierarchy, and state monopoly and autonomy that connect Asian and anarchical thought.

Below is the remaining fragment from one of the earliest fully-articulated arguments regarding Anarchism. It comes from the work of the Daoist thinker Bao Jingyan and was written around 300 CE.


THE CONFUCIAN LITERATI SAY: “Heaven gave birth to the people and then set rulers over them.”

But how can High Heaven have said this in so many words? Is it not rather that interested parties make this their pretext? The fact is that the strong oppressed the weak and the weak submitted to them; the cunning tricked the innocent and the innocent served them. It was because there was submission that the relation of lord and subject arose, and because there was servitude that the people, being powerless, could be kept under control. Thus servitude and mastery result from the struggle between the strong and the weak and the contrast between the cunning and the innocent, and Blue Heaven has nothing whatsoever to do with it.

When the world was in its original undifferentiated state, the Nameless (wu-ming, that is, the Tao) was what was valued, and all creatures found happiness in self-fulfillment. Now when the cinnamon-tree has its bark stripped or the varnish-tree is cut, it is not done at the wish of the tree; when the pheasant’s feathers are plucked or the king fisher’s torn out, it is not done by desire of the bird. To be bitted and bridled is not in accordance with the nature of the horse; to be put under the yoke and bear burdens does not give pleasure to the ox. Cunning has its origin in the use of force that goes against the true nature of things, and the real reason for harming creatures is to provide useless adornments. Thus catching the birds of the air in order to supply frivolous adornments, making holes in noses where no holes should be, tying beasts by the leg when nature meant them to be free, is not in accord with the destiny of the myriad creatures, all born to live out their lives unharmed. And so the people are compelled to labor so that those in office may be nourished; and while their superiors enjoy fat salaries, they are reduced to the direst poverty.

It is all very well to enjoy the infinite bliss of life after death, but it is preferable not to have died in the first place; and rather than acquire an empty reputation for integrity by resigning office and foregoing one’s salary, it is better that there should be no office to resign. Loyalty and righteousness only appear when rebellion breaks out in the empire, filial obedience and parental love are only displayed when there is discord among kindred.

In the earliest times, there was neither lord nor subjects. Wells were dug for drinking-water, the fields were plowed for food, work began at sunrise and ceased at sunset; everyone was free and at ease; neither competing with each other nor scheming against each other, and no one was either glorified or humiliated. The wastelands had no paths or roads and the water ways no boats or bridges, and because there were no mean s of communication by land or water, people did not appropriate each other’s property; no armies could be formed, and so people did not attack one another. Indeed since no one climbed up to seek out nests nor dived down to sift the water s of the deep, the phoenix nested under the eaves of the house and dragons disported in the garden pool. The ravening tiger could be trodden on, the poisonous snake handled. Men could wade through swamps without raising the waterfowl, and enter the woodlands without startling the fox or the hare. Since no one even began to think of gaining power or seeking profit, no dire events or rebellions occurred; and as spear s and shields were not in use, moats and ramparts did not have to be built. All creatures lived together in mystic unity, all of them merged in the Way (Tao). Since they were not visited by plague or pestilence, they could live out their lives and die a natural death. Their hearts being pure, they were devoid of cunning. Enjoying plentiful supplies of food, they strolled about with full bellies. Their speech was not flowery, their behavior not ostentatious. How, then, could there have been accumulation of property such as to rob the people of their wealth, or severe punishments to trap and ensnare them?

When this age entered on decadence, knowledge and cunning came into use. The Way and its Virtue (Tao te) having fallen into decay, a hierarchy was established. Customary regulations for promotion and degradation and for profit and loss proliferated, ceremonial garments such as the [gentry’s] sash and sacrificial cap and the imperial blue and yellow [robes for worshiping Heaven and Earth] were elaborated. Buildings of earth and wood were raised high into the sky, with the beams and rafters painted red and green. The heights were overturned in quest of gems, the depths dived into in search of pearls; but however vast a collection of precious stones people might have assembled, it still would not have sufficed to satisfy their whims, and a whole mountain of gold would not have been enough to meet their expenditure, so sunk were they in depravity and vice, having transgressed against the fundamental principles of the Great Beginning. Daily they became further removed from the ways of their ancestors, and turned their back more and more upon man’s original simplicity. Because they promoted the “worthy” to office, ordinary people strove for reputation, and because they prized material wealth, thieves and robbers appeared. The sight of desirable objects tempted true and honest hearts, and the display of arbitrary power and love of gain opened the road to robbery. So they made weapons with points and with sharp edges, and after that there was no end to usurpations and acts of aggression, and they were only afraid lest crossbows should not be strong enough, shields stout enough, lances sharp enough, and defenses solid enough. Yet all this could have been dispensed with if there had been no oppression and violence from the start.

Therefore it has been said: “Who could make scepters without spoiling the unblemished jade? And how could altruism and righteousness (jen and i) be extolled unless the Way and its Virtue had perished?” Although tyrants such as Chieh and Chou were able to burn men to death, massacre their advisers, make mince-meat of the feudal lords, cut the barons into strips, tear out men’s hearts and break their bones, and go to the furthest extremes of tyrannical crime down to the use of torture by roasting and grilling, however cruel they may by nature have been, how could they have done such things if they had had to remain among the ranks of the common people? If they gave way to their cruelty and lust and butchered the whole empire, it was because, as rulers, they could do as they pleased. As soon as the relationship between lord and subject is established, hearts become daily more filled with evil designs, until the manacled criminals sullenly doing forced labor in the mud and the dust are full of mutinous thoughts, the Sovereign trembles with anxious fear in his ancestral temple, and the people simmer with revolt in the midst of their poverty and distress; and to try to stop them revolting by means of rules and regulations, or control them by means of penalties and punishments, is like trying to dam a river in full flood with a handful of earth, or keeping the torrents of water back with one finger.

[Translation expropriated from Etienne Balazs, Chinese Civilization and Bureaucracy: Variations on a Theme, pages 243-46. (Yale University Press, 1964).]


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s