Absence of metaphysics

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[The following is a guest post by Zihan Guo in response to this article by Bruno Maçães, a Portuguese politician and political philosopher, who asserts, among other things, that China lacks metaphysics because of the nature of its language (i.e., script):  "The Black Box:  A Theory of China", World Game on Substack (12/25/20) — excerpts below.]

I can hear Zhuangzi chuckling.

For me, the charm of a Chinese word is its ability to conjure up images beyond its denotational meaning. The word shānshuǐ 山水 ("landscape") does come from shān 山 ("mountain") and shuǐ 水 "water"), but it connotes much more than that. What immediately comes to my mind is Chinese landscape painting, where an infinitesimal figure (a being) plods along the trails leading up to an insurmountable cliff. To my amateurish eyes, those painters are not just depicting empirical reality. There is meaning behind the surface representation.

Asking Zhuangzi "what is red?", Zhuangzi might also ask "what is not red, what is redder, what is less red, why does it matter?" The Chinese answer with a collage of red objects can go through a similar philosophical rumination just as the scientific Western definition. If "red" can be represented by many different things, its concept becomes unstable and ambiguous. Cherries are red, but roses might be redder, so which is the "true" red? One sees that redness as phenomenal keeps changing and that one's own perception of reality can be deceptive. I believe Zhuangzi probes into similar questions as well as the eventual question of whether there is something unchanging beyond all phenomena.

I think the author is more interested in modern Chinese politics than the idea that Chinese script is purely physical. His ending note about Xi feels rather sarcastic.

Excerpts from the article by Bruno Maçães
[First paragraph]

Robert Logan once said: "China created what was probably the most sophisticated system of nonabstract science the world has known.” There is a deep connection to nature and a key to an almost physical way of thinking in the composition of Chinese characters, which then reveals itself in language so vivid and direct those who experience it for the same time will feel a jolt, before being taken to a wholly difference mode of experience. For example, the old Imperial Academy may be referred to by this abstract term, but the name in Chinese is "Forest of Pencils." A mouth and a dog means “bark” (吠). 口+犬. The word for "mountains" and the word for “rivers” make the word for "landscape" (山水). You never lose track of these original meanings, the way we have long ago lost track of the origins, for example, of the word “sincerity” or “sarcasm."

[A paragraph from the middle section]

The poet Ezra Pound draws a vivid contrast between Western and Chinese definitions. Westerners, Pound explains, define by receding: cherry, red, color, vibration, mode of being. The object to be defined is subsumed under a more abstract idea. It works like a mental pyramid: we take a concept at a lower level such as "cherry," see that it is contained under a higher one such as "redness" and that allows us to speak of the cherry as red. Chinese definitions, by contrast, never leave the level at which particular things are found. How does one define red without actually using red ink? The Chinese ideogram might put together several red objects: the abbreviated pictures of a rose, a cherry, iron rust and a flamingo. The definition is not a philosophical construction. It uses what everyone knows from actual experience.


The absence of metaphysics described above continues to be a defining mark of contemporary Chinese life and society. In classical Chinese thought there is no metaphysical dimension. Language is not a transcendental realm, and neither is theory. There is a separation between self and world, the overcoming of which is the focus of Chan practice – the original Zen – but that practice is quite different because there is no metaphysical dimension involved.

Two silk cocoons suspended into a vat of black dye, visible in the early version of the character. Lao Tzu invented dark enigma* to name the world without concepts and understanding. “One and the same they are called dark enigma, dark enigma deep within dark enigma, gateway of all mystery.” It is a way of saying emptiness emptied of conceptual content, before concepts including the concept of emptiness. “The famous black box,” the tech entrepreneur Dinglong Huang once told me: “Do you know why the Chinese are so naturally good at deep learning? Because the black box has been part of Chinese society and Chinese culture since the very beginning. Zen meditation, yes, but not only. Chinese medicine. There is an input, some herb or infusion. You have no idea how it works, but it does. All you can do to get a different result is enter a different input.”

[*xuán 玄 ("black; mysterious; deep, profound, abstruse")]

An investment may turn out to be the bargain of the century, or it might be suddenly classified as a state crime. Voice an idea, express an opinion, and you might shift the debate. Or you might find out you have entered forbidden territory. As journalists in the private media in Beijing used to tell me during my time there, “one has to probe, there is no other way.” The photographer Lu Guang took a chance when he went to Henan to document the plight of those infected with HIV after being forced to sell their blood. He won the 2004 World Press Photo. In 2018 he was detained by state security officers while visiting Xinjiang. Many of the ultra rich, having relied on bribery and other underhand methods to become millionaires, stand on the edge of the abyss. They know that their next move might turn them into one of the two or three billionaires China produces every week or land them in jail for life. When they look down, they see the black box — dark and gleaming.

But the black box has obvious advantages as well. If you insist on understanding everything — what I mean by metaphysics — your potential to effect change will be limited. But if you can accept not knowing how things work, a host of new possibilities become available. Officials in Beijing will readily explain that the reason China was not affected by the Global Financial Crisis was that the country was not hampered by economic theory. It did what worked at the time and gave little thought to what was prescribed — or proscribed — by economics textbooks. When Xi Jinping recently wrote on what defines “socialism with Chinese characteristics,” he never tried to defend a series of propositions or doctrinal tenets. Socialism with Chinese characteristics is simply the rule of the Chinese Communist Party


Suggested reading

[h.t. Bryan Van Norden]


  1. Twill said,

    July 22, 2021 @ 9:36 am

    Well, I suppose we learned that Bruno Maçães understands neither any part of the Chinese language, nor metaphysics, and is certainly not qualified for any sort of punditry on Chinese politics. Every sentence of his could be picked at, but one that gets me is speaking of what an ideogram for red in Chinese *might* be, as though nobody had ever thought to express such a strange concept in the Middle Kingdom, or else that there is no practical way for him to gain this knowledge, leaving us with the turgid nonsense of Pound until some intrepid soul finally deciphers the enigma that is the Chinese writing system in the West. Had he in fact chanced upon what any Chinese person would write for "red", 紅, and out of curiosity inquired as to how this character concretely represents the notion of redness, he would have been instantly dispelled of the nonsense that hanzi are simple pictograms whose meaning is transparent from their constituents.

  2. Jerry Packard said,

    July 22, 2021 @ 10:53 am

    I agree with Twill. I would not purport to know whether classical Chinese thought was devoid of metaphysics, and I would certainly disagree that contemporary Chinese life and society is devoid of metaphysics. The author also confuses orthography with language in believing that the structure of characters keeps users from losing track of a word's meaning over the passage of time.

  3. Alexander Browne said,

    July 22, 2021 @ 11:02 am

    Since it says Bruno Maçães is politician, I was curious about which party. He was in office under the Social Democratic Party, which is the main Portuguese center-right party. (The PM who preceded that government was headed by the center-left Socialist Party's José Sócrates, so I guess they had had philosophy covered.)

  4. Jim Unger said,

    July 22, 2021 @ 2:17 pm

    A man who quotes Robert Logan or Ezra Pound on China without sarcasm thereby immediately proves the poverty of his knowledge of China, its language, and its history, not to mention his laziness. Why quote Logan and Pound when a host of postmodernists have provided equally obtuse statements more recently?

  5. Aaron said,

    July 22, 2021 @ 9:34 pm

    How can people still get away with publishing such nonsense about Chinese, especially in our modern time when there is so much information about it readily available? Even a cursory reading of the Wikipedia article on the subject would quickly reveal that hanzi do not work in the way that Maçães claims.

    I suppose the mindset of China being mysterious and mystical is still alive and well, and some continue to prefer these incoherent fantasies over linguistic reality.

  6. Bathrobe said,

    July 23, 2021 @ 11:22 pm

    Perhaps he should try writing his article in Chinese. Not only would he find that it is, in fact, possible; it would also expose the fallacies and shallowness of his thought.

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