Sometime soon, the annual Philosophy Day in the Netherlands is devoted to the theme "change". I responded to the call for papers with the following proposal. They turned it down, probably out of a persistent Eurocentric bias among our academic philosophers.
“Except for the fact that everything changes, everything changes.” It would be odd to discuss the phenomenon of Change among philosophers without mentioning the extant philosophy of Change, developed some 25 centuries ago in China. Given that country’s current breakthrough, time has come at last to take China’s central philosophy seriously. It has summed itself up in this nutshell: “One yin, one yang, that is called the Way.”
The world is subject to a polarity of yang (“bright”) and yin (“cloudy”), light and dark, heaven and earth, sun and moon, masculine and feminine, hard and soft, and change is the alternating predominance of either. The character yi, “change”, shows the sun piercing through the clouds. To soften the picture and make it more realistic in a not so black-and-white world of diversity, six intermediate power equations between them are also acknowledged. But still, any change can be analysed as an interplay between these two basic poles, as in the alternation of day and night, summer and winter.
It started with the Book of Changes (ca. 1100 BC), not yet a philosophy but a manual of divination, originated in a milieu of feudal patriarchal sun-worshippers who candidly considered the yang as superior, the yin as inferior. The horoscope as a representation of real-life situations needed its heroes and villains, its white knights and black monsters. This view is systematized in more moderate version by the Confucians in their great commentary, The Ten Wings (ca. 500-200 BC), and by the neo-Confucians (ca. 1100 CE). They re-employed the building blocks of the ancient divination system in a true philosophy of Change.
Meanwhile, Zou Yan (ca. 260 BC) and the Daoists (from 500 BC) revaluated the yin to appreciate its subtle qualities: how the soft can be stronger than the hard, how water quenches fire and erodes the rock. It is this version that has drawn attention in the modern world, esp. by its application in the martial arts. Popular mystifications attribute these sophisticated techniques that turn hard into soft, to “ancient sages”; but of course their very sophistication implies that they could only be developed gradually from a pre-existing simpler tradition of hard and straight fighting. Likewise, the proto-feminist philosophical twist upgrading the yin to a kind of equality with the yang was necessarily and demonstrably a later amendment to a pre-existing tradition that viewed the yang as positive, the yin as negative, unequal par excellence.
“Go with the flow”, “ride with the tide”, such is the practical application of the philosophy of Change. Don’t stand like a rock but adapt to circumstances. Chairman Mao’s dictum: “Withdraw when the enemy is strong, attack when he is weak”, is only a variation on the ancient (ca. 450 BC) strategist Sunzi’s application of the philosophy of Change.
Buddhism, upon entering China with a radical anti-worldly message, oddly found itself in agreement with the pragmatic this-worldly philosophy of Change at least in one key respect: the law of impermanence. “All things must pass”, there is no point in attaching oneself to an existing state of affairs. While abiding by this principle is the way to worldly success, it is also the way to spiritual freedom.