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 a layer comprising about half of the Daodejing which has many points in common with Roth’s Nei Ye.Individualists.

While I see a sharp distinction between the early “Individualist” layer of the Daodejing (which I call “Early Dao”) and the  later “syncretic layer” (which I call “Sage Dao”, and which includes all chapters mentioning thrt Sage) the distinction between syncretism and primitivism in the Daodejing does not seem to me to be a important one, 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, Mohists recruiting them into a disciplined organization pursuing the common good, and the actual rulers extorting taxes to support the splendor of their courts and to pay for their wars. But the society they proposed was more like benevolent paternalism than peasant anarchy.

The part of the Daodejing which I would call primitivist is limited to chapters 3, 12, 53, 75 and 80, and possibly 17, 18, 19, Terms characteristic of Daodejing primitivism include 盜 賊 dao zei, “thieves and robbers”, . in chapters 3, 19, 53, and 57; 難得之貨 nan de zhi huo, “scarce goods”, in chapters 3, 12, and 64; 腹 fu, “belly”, as opposed to the mind or eye, in chapters 3 and 12; and a full or r educed version of 國 家 昏 亂 guojia [min] hun luan. “states and houses [ or min“the people”] confused and disorderly” 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, 賢 xian and聖sheng, in chapters** 3 and 19, and the rejection of erudition cleverness (智 zhi, 慧 hui, or 巧 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 keeping 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 were to be accepted as a mark of primitivism, however, we could add chapters 36 (“”), 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.

In my own work I have included chapters 03, 12, 53, 75, and 80 as a primitivist subgroup within the Sage Dao “Syncretist” group while putting chapters 57, 58, 64, and 65 in a separate “Strategic” subgroup while leaving chapters 17, 18, and 19 (along with chapter 38) in Early Dao in an Anti-Confucian subgroup, since none of them mentuon the Sage.