Anyone who wants to understand the world today, especially with his eyes on the future, must try to understand China. But how do we understand the five thousand year old culture of a billion people without access to their language? We must turn to translations and mediators, to the sinology, which takes on the difficult task of making Chinese culture and way of thinking accessible. But can we trust the translations, the communications?
The Western version of China risks becoming overly recognizable – or being made into a pure ornament, an exotic cliché. The goal must be to win back the gaze of China's genuine alienation.
With the Boevers François Jullien's Unexeptional Thought the reader gets Chinese thinking double filtered through critical nuances and reservations. The result of this careful study is a fruitful ambiguity. The fact that the thought material remains open to interpretation sharpens the interest. China's mental profile is made multidimensional, it is presented as a landscape of thought rather than as a simple relief.
The genuinely weird
After completing his philosophy studies, Jullien left France in 1975 and lived in China, Japan and Hong Kong. He has written over 30 books, in which he in a kind of intellectual diplomacy patiently tries to mirror these two cultures in each other – to spot the unthinkable and unspoken on both sides. Instead of seeking the exotic, Jullien wants to move towards the ex-optical: With a point of view in the foreign, we must see ourselves from the outside and feel our way to what lies in our own blind zone, or as the unknown reflects the unknown.
The negations – such as the invisible and the unheard – are perhaps in themselves a gift from Chinese thinking and its Taoist roots, which emphasize absence rather than presence.
Orientalism Edward Said and others have pointed out, where one makes the cultures of the "East" the "Other" – reduced to the "Non-West" – can only be counteracted if we make it more difficult for ourselves, according to de Jullien and de Boever. The goal is to win back the genuinely strange thing about Chinese thinking.
The "unexceptional" (another negation) that de Boever has made in his book appears in several ways. He points out, among other things, that the West thinks history in the form of events: the great men of history, battles and decisive actions. Both when they create and interpret history, the Chinese approach is the silent transformations, similar to Taoism's famous image of the rain hollowing out a stone – or the plant that grows. In war as in peace, it is important to do as little as possible, and rather see what is in the pipeline and help it out, something Jullien describes in his dissertation on efficiency.
The metaphorical of helping a plant to grow, not by pushing it, but by quietly creating the conditions, is an expression of an apparent freedom and respect: one should "let the thousand flowers bloom" as a goal in itself.
To take care of one's own body, to nurture life, is also to be an entrepreneur, to invest wisely and get a great return.
Unpredictable anarchic elements in the population can paradoxically only be allowed as part of a plan. De Boever points out that the tacit manipulation of circumstances can become a means of power that turns everything and everyone into means and objects for total control. That the doctrine of manipulative efficiency can be "murderous" is also something Jullien himself points out.
De Boever calls for a more developed theory of the "counter-efficiency" that Jullien has indicated a need for. He calls for bolder political criticism from Jullien – knowing that criticism and understanding can easily get in each other's way.
"Feed your life"
The understanding of nature from Taoism nevertheless makes a profound difference, which can be traced in Chinese painting. Here the landscape is predominant, while naked bodies, which are so central in the West, are largely absent.
Western, Greek thinking revolves around the ideal, and the body and becomes an embodiment of perfection – in itself a model for the perfect imitation. In contrast to such nude paintings, misty Chinese landscapes with almost formless figures in fluttering robes tell of something else: a world in transformation, where everything is about to become something else, a tumult of elements and forces where nothing is permanent or finite.
While Western thinking has turned the naked body into an image of truth as something striking and definitive, Chinese art speaks to an acceptance of natural processes, the relativity of all things and changing relationships. If this seems less spectacular, then the better, because it shows how obsessed we in the West are with the exceptional, understood as immutable and ideal forms.
The strangeness of Chinese thinking emerges in de Boever's interpretation when we, for example, realize that the pale and tame (dan) in China has a positive value – something Jullien fully emphasizes in the book In Praise of Blandness. De Boever finds a pattern in Jullien's thinking where the pale and tame – what we could call the inconspicuous or insignificant – connects to the well-known Taoist principle wu wei: It is about following the current, acting discreetly on layers with invisible forces – such you can win without wasting energy or attracting unnecessary attention.
The same "organic" thinking they find Boever in Julliens Vital Nourishment (2007), which is based on the Chinese way of speaking and thinking about "nourishing one's life". To take care of one's own body, to nurture life is also to be an entrepreneur, to invest wisely and get a great return – not by a desperate effort or luck, but by understanding the forces at play. There is an element of domestication and precisely "taming" in this favoring of the gentle, ordinary and tame.
The Chinese dragon
The question that remains unanswered in the book is how the Taoist wisdom, wu wei and following the current relate to wild and unregulated market forces. China's sane, discreet, and long-term mindset is increasingly implicated in dramatic global situations and environmental problems. The old Taoist analogies between prudent nature management, political strategy and economics today threaten to crack.
De Boever opens up these issues and challenges us – together with Jullien herself – to try to understand inner tensions in Chinese thinking. What can the unresolved contradictions of thought tradition lead to in a world that is increasingly marked by China's unfathomable strategies? The book tells us that the Chinese dragon is an unpredictable force – effective by virtue of its meandering and manifold movements.
Must the West learn from this and abandon its rigid ideals in the face of China? Or, on the contrary, hold on to the ideals we have inherited from ancient philosophy as our own difference and deepest identity?