1995 Francois Jullien, The Propensity of Things

Jullien views propensity in Chinese philosophy, as a counterpart to causality in Western philosophy.  Some unpacking of his writing in digests may be helpful.

Jullien, François. 1995. The Propensity of Things: Toward a History of Efficacy in China. Translated by Janet Lloyd. Zone Books.


How can we conceive of the dynamic in terms of the static, in terms of “disposition”?  Or, to put it another way, how can any static situation be simultaneously conceived in terms of histori­cal movement?  [p. 11]

A Confusing Ambiguity: The Word Shi

A single Chinese word, shi1` will serve as our guide as we reflect on this matter, even though it is a relatively common term gen­ erally given no philosophical significance. The word is itself a source of confusion, but it was out of that confusion that this book emerged.  [pp. 11-12]

1 The term shi (勢) is the same as the word yi, which is believed to represent a hand holding something, a symbol of power to which the diacritic radical for force (li 力) was later added. Xu Shen thinks that what is held in the hand is a clod of earth, which could symbolize something put in position or a “positioning.” As such, the word shi, in terms of its spatial connotation, corresponds to the word shi (時) , with its temporal associations in the sense of “opportunity” or “chance”; in fact, the latter term is sometimes used in place of the former.

Extra sources from David Ing (thanks to scholarly translation by Don Tai):

Dictionaries at times render the term as “ position” or “circumstances,” and at other times as “ power” or “ potential.”  [p. 12]


This book thus begins by wagering that shi, a disconcerting word because it seems torn between points of view that are appa­rently too divergent, is nevertheless a possible word with a discoverable coherence or — better yet — with an illuminating logic. And it is not merely Chinese thought that might be illuminated — that is, the whole spectrum of Chinese thought which we know has focused since its origins on perceiving reality as a process of transformation.  [pp 12-13]


Convergences between Fields: Potentiality at Work in Configuration, Functional Bipolarity, and a Tendency toward Alternation

I have accordingly decided to make the most of the fact that we have in shi a word that can serve as a tool, even though it may not correspond to any global, defined concept with a ready-made framework and preestablished function.  …]

… to grasp its importance, we will be forced to track it from one field to another – from the field of war to that of politics, from the aesthetics of calligraphy and painting to the theory of literature, from reflection on history to “first philosophy.” One by one, we will have to consider all these diverse modes of conditioning reality, even though they lead us in apparently disparate directions: first, to the “potential born of disposition” (in strategy) and the crucial nature of hierarchi­cal “position” (in politics); next, to the force working through the form of a character in calligraphy, the tension emanating from the disposition of things in painting and the stylistic effects of the configuration within literary texts (dispositif); and finally, to the tendencies resulting from particular situations in history and the propensity that governs the overall process of nature.  [pp. 13-14]


Above all, by forcing us to move across domains, this word makes it possible for us to discover many overlapping areas. Com­mon themes emerge:

  • an inherent potentiality at work in configuration (whether in the deployment of armies on the battlefield, the configuration of an ideogram set down in calligraphy and a painted landscape, or established by literary signs);
  • functional bipolarity (whether between a sovereign and his subjects in a political situation, between high and low in aesthetic representations, or between the cosmic principles “ Heaven” and “ Earth” ); and
  • tendency generated sponte sua simply through interaction, which proceeds to develop through alternation (whether, again, it involves the course of a war or the unfolding of a work, a historical situation or the process of reaility as a whole).  [pp. 14-15, editorial paragraphing added]


There is thus a second bet to be made as we embark on this study. A term like shi, while somewhat disappointing from the perspective of a conceptual history of Chinese thought, is well worth studying to help illuminate such thought. […] Art, or wisdom, as conceived by the Chinese, consequently lies in strategically exploiting the propensity emanating from that particular configuration of reality, to the maximum effect possible. This is the notion of “ efficacy.”  [p. 15]


A Possible Alternative to Philosophical Preconceptions

To the Chinese, the idea of shi seems self-evident; but it may never occur to us in the West.  [….]

When compared with the elaboration of Western thought, the originality of the Chinese lies in their indifference to any notion of a telos, a final end for things, for they sought to interpret reality solely on the basis of itself, from the perspective of a single logic inherent in the actual processes in motion.  [p. 17]


Chapter 1, Potential Is Born of Disposition in Military Strategy

The reflection on the art of warfare that developed in China at the end of Antiquity (between the fifth and third century B .C  ., in the period of the warring states) went far beyond its actual sub­ject. Not only did the particular systemization characterizing it constitute a remarkable innovation from the point of view of the general history of civilizations, but the type of interpretation to which it gave rise projected its form of rationalization on reality as a whole.  [….] Chinese strategic thought stands as a perfect example of how one can manage reality, and provides us with a general theory of efficacy. [p. 25]

Victory Is Determined before Engaging in Battle

(Sunzi 4th century B.C.)
An intuition serves as our starting point: war is a process that evolves only in relation to the force it puts into play. The task of a good general is to calculate in advance and with accuracy every factor, so that the situation develops in a way as beneficial as pos­sible to him: victory is then simply a necessary consequence — and the predictable outcome — of the imbalance that operates in his favor and that he has been able to influence.  [pp. 25-26]



The crucial point in this strategic thinking is to minimize the armed engagement …  [p. 26]


The Laozi, the found­ing text in the Daoist tradition, states that “it is easy to control a situation before any symptoms have manifested themselves” (para. 64).  [p. 27]

The Notion of Potential Born of Disposition

As a result of this perspective, the concept of a potential born of disposition emerged for the first time. In the context of military strategy, this is usually conveyed by the term shi.5 The whole art of strategy can be more precisely recast through use of this term: to say that “ skill” in warfare “ depends on the potential bom of disposition” (shi)6 means that a general must aim to exploit, to his own advantage and to maximum effect, whatever conditions he encounters.  This dynamism, which stems from the configuration of things and must be harnessed, is represented well by the flow of water: if a wall retaining a large amount of water is breached, the water can only rush down,7 and in its impetuous surge forward, it carries everything in front of it, even boulders.8 Two features characterize such causality: it results only through some objective necessity and, given its intensity, it is irresistible. [pp. 27-28]

6 Sun Bin bingfa , ch. “ Cuanzau,” p. 26.

Sunzi, ch. 4, p. 64.

8 Ibid., ch. 5, “ Shi pian,” p. 7 1.

9 Ibid., ch. 10, “ Di xing pian.”


Variability according to Circumstances and the Renewal of the Strategic Mechanism

Now let us examine more concretely how this efficacy works. In general, strategy aims, through a series of factors, to determine the fixed principles according to which one evaluates the prevail­ing power relations and plans operations in advance. However, warfare, consisting of action and, moreover, regulated by reciproc­ity, is known to be the domain par excellence of unpredictability and change, and thus it always remains more or less beyond the scope of theoretical predictions. All this has often been regarded simply as a matter of common sense, imposing practical limits on any strategy. However, for the same reason that they rely on the notion of shi to resolve the contradiction, the Chinese theorists of war do not seem bothered by this aporia.  [pp. 31-32]


But the main strength of Chinese strategic intuition lies not so much in this intermediary concept making it possible to combine what is constant and what is changing (theory and practice, principles and circumstances); rather, it is that it demonstrates pertinently how the evolution of circumstances, inseparable from the course of any war, in fact constitutes a general’s major tactical trump card, allowing him to renew the potential and hence the efficacy of the strategic deployment [pp. 32-33]


Thus, a disposition is effective by virtue of its renewability; it is a tool. To say that shi, as a strategic tool, must be as mobile as flowing water” and that “ victory is gained only through transfor­mation and adaptation to the enemy’’26 means more than merely saying that the ability to adapt is necessary or purely a matter of common sense. What is involved is the deeper intuition that a particular disposition loses its potentiality when it becomes inflexible (or static).  [p. 33]

26 Sunzi, ch. 6, pp. 101-102. In the Sun Bin (ch. “Jian wei wang,” p. 8 ), we find the formula fu bing zhe, fei shi heng shi ye, which can be understood in this sense (cf. the edi­tion by Fu Zhenlun [Chengdu: Bashu shushe, 1986], p. 7).


A Major Chinese Originality: Dispensing with Confrontation

The concept of potential born of disposition, which lay at the heart of ancient Chinese strategic thought, ultimately passed into wider usage27 and the entire later tradition never detached itself from this point of view.28

27 Treatises on the game of go resort to this concept to explain the evolving relation of the forces represented on the checkerboard. Go is well known as a game that illustrates the fundamental principles of Chinese strategy.

27 See the beginning of ch. 15, “Yi bing,” by Xunzi or in the summary chapter, “ Yao lue,” of the Huainanzi, pp. 371-72 . The bibliographic chapter of the Hanshu (“Yiwenzhi” ) refers to one of the four categories of works relating to strategy as that produced by shi specialists (bing xing shi); for an apprecia­tion of this rubric, based on such works as have survived, see Robin D.S. Yates, “New Light on Ancient Chinese Military Texts: Notes on Their Nature and Evo­lution, and the Development of Military Specialization in Warring States China,” T’oung Pao 74 (1988), pp. 211-48 .


Decisive and direct confrontation in battle is central to mod­ em European concepts of war, particularly in the writings of Carl von Clausewitz.  [p. 36]


Because Clausewitz conceives of warfare from the perspective of finality, he not only ascribes maximum importance to direct confrontation (as a goal), but he is also forced to recognize the intrinsic importance of unquantifiable moral factors, such as cour­age and determination. He is thus led to think of war in terms of probability — the means used are simply those with the greatest chance of leading to the desired result. As we have already seen, this in no way relates to the attitude of the Chinese theorists of warfare, for whom war is conceived from the perspective of pro­pensity and a shaping of effect.  [p. 37]


Finally, it is well known that Clausewitz’s theory of friction plays an important role in his thought. This theory was conceived as a means to account for a troublesome gap in Western strategic thought: the disparity between the plan drawn up in advance, which is of an ideal nature, and its practical implementation, which renders it subject to chance. The Chinese concept of shi, inserting itself into the distinction between what Westerners have opposed as “practice” and “theory,” and thus collapsing that dis­tinction, shifts “execution” toward something that, given the propensity at work, operates of its own accord and excludes any uncertainty or inadequacy: neither deterioration nor friction is involved. [pp. 37-38]

For the Chinese shi is most important; for Clausewitz “ means” and “ end” are.  [p. 38]


Chapter 2:  Position as the Determining Factor in Politics

Efficacy Does Not Depend on Personality

Strategy and politics both lead back to the same fundamental problem: What is the source of the efficacy that will allow us to manage the world as we wish?  [….]

… the course of things is determined by some force that has nothing to do with personality.  [p. 39]


Instead of seeking to manage the world imperiously by our own actions, we should let ourselves be carried along as the world pleases; instead of wish­ing to impose our own preferences on it, we should let ourselves go with the flow of things, adopting the line of least resistance. 

When we transfer this reductive view of reality as a play of potentials to the political level, we find it there too, within soci­ety, as a kind of hierarchical “ position.” Here too, as in the world itself, we find an arrangement or disposition which infallibly gives rise to a certain tendency.2 The term shi is used to designate the configuration of power relations in politics in the same way it denotes a strategic setup.  [p. 40]

2 On the problem of the relation between the “Daoist” Shen Dao, as presented in the Zhuangzi, and the Legalist Shen Dao, as in the Hanshu, see P.M. Thompson, The Shen Tzu Fragments (New York: Oxford University Press, 1979), p. 3; Leon Vandermeersch, La Formation du legisme (Paris: Ecole francaise d’ Extrene-Orient, 1965), p. 49; for a study on the principal references for the term shi in this political context, see Roger T. Ames, The Art of Rulership: A Study in Ancient Chinese Political Thought (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1983), p. 72.


Chapter 3, Conclusion I: A Logic of Manipulation

Analogies Between the Strategic and Political Mechanisms

The conduct of warfare and the management of power: we can push the affinity between the two, but there also seems to be a reluctance, in the West, to define more closely what they have in common.  [….[

However, some of the ancient Chinese thinkers felt no such reluctance or qualms.  [p. 59]


The Art of Manipulation

Manipulation, not persuasion, was the Chinese way.  [p. 69]



Chapter 4, The Force of Form, the Effect of Genre

Absence of Mimesis: Art Conceived as the Actualization of Universal Dynamism

The dislocation of the empire (at the end of the second century A .D.) and the fragmentation of China over several centuries …. enabled the development of artistic criticism as a distinct line of thought emerged at last.

But from the start this mode of thought never conceived of artistic activity as the West initially did, that is, as mimesis (the reproduction or imitation of a particular kind of “nature” at some level more “ideal” or more “real,” either more general or more specific, than nature is normally understood to be).1 Rather, artistic activity was seen as a process of actualization, which produced a particular configuration of the dynamism inherent in reality. It operated and was revealed through the calligraphy of an ideogram, through a landscape painting, or a literary composition. The particular disposition that receives form can potentially express the universal dynamism.  [p. 75]

1 Zhuangzi, ch. 33, “Tian xia,” a paragraph devoted to Shen Dao. This is a difficult as well as fascinating passage, the translation of which is more of an interpretation; cf. Arthur Waley’s comments in his Three Ways of Thought in Ancient China (London: Allen & Unwin, 1939), p. 237.


… in Chinese thought, as in calligraphy, for example, the “form” through which the literary shi is realized is that of a particular configuration which itself operates spontane­ously to create an effect. Thus, what we customarily translate as “ form” in Chinese texts of literary criticism is not the opposite of “ content” but the end product of the process of “actualization,” shi being the potentiality characterizing that actualization.  [pp. 88-89]

Once again, the Chinese perspective is of an ongoing process taking place between the zone of the visible and the invisible. This process leads from the author’s initial (affective, spiritual) situation to a formulation specific to it, as well as from the tension implied by the words of the text to the limitless reactions of its readers. In these circumstances, the writer’s main task is to “determine” the propensity of that process, endowing it with greater effectiveness so that it produces a maximum impact. Such a determination remains general and unifying despite its variability from case to case, and it depends upon a logic that he must know how to exploit. In literature as in painting, shi is the decisive factor: it circulates, bestowing a particular orientation on the com position and breathing vitality into it. And in literature as in painting, it is explicitly compared to wind and associated with it.44 [p. 89]

44 See ch. “Fuhui,” p. 652; ch. “Xuzhi,” p. 727.


Shi involves energy and effect: it animates the configuration of the written signs and makes that configuration effective, just as it operates in a painted landscape. Let us now move further backward, toward the source of that efficacy. Let us see how this source operates in nature.  [p. 89]

Chapter 5, Lifelines across a Landscape

Lifelines in Geomancy

Let us first take another look at “nature.” We will not consider it as an object of science, formulated through demonstration and reasoning by distinguishing “ principle,” “cause,” and “elements.” This has been our usual procedure since the early work of the Greeks — the procedure of “historical” humankind, in Heidegger’s terms, a humankind that always heeds the unchanging call to respond to Being, and whose destiny this may be.1 Rather, we should here perceive nature intuitively, through the sensibility of our bodies and their activity, as the single common principle within and outside us that operates throughout reality and ex­plains how the world is animated and functions. [p. 91]

1 Heidegger, “Comment se determine la phusis,” Questions II (Paris: Gallimard, 1968), pp. 181-82 .


(Guo Pu, 4th century A.D.)

Let us instead experience “ physics” as the single “breath at the origin of things, forever circulating,” which flows through the whole of space, endlessly engendering all existing things, “deploying itself continuously in the great process of the coming-to-be and transfor­mation of the world” and ‘Tilling every individual species through and through.” 3 [p. 91]

3 The most commonplace and unexceptional concept in the Chinese tra­dition. The citiations are taken from the beginning of the Book of Funerals (Zangshu) attributed to Guo Pu.


But just as it permeates the human body, this vital breath trav­erses the earth along particular tracks: in the language of geomancers as it developed from the first century on, the term shi refers to certain “lifelines” detectable in the configuration of the terrain.5 “The vital breath circulates along the lifelines (shi) of the terrain and is concentrated at the points where they come to an end.” 6 Since the breath of life is itself invisible, it is only by attentively studying the ramifications of these lines which run over the terrain that one can ascertain where the breath of life passes and where its vitality is concentrated, its energy condensed. This is at the point where the “lifelines” end, and the art of a geomancer thus resembles that of a physiognomist7: as it crosses fields, rocks, valleys, and hilltops, a lifeline is both a “vein” along which the breath, like blood, circulates, and the “ skeletal structure” giving the relief of the terrain its solidity. Or again, it is the “spinal column” that snakes in an uninterrupted line from one end of the horizon to the other, rising and falling, curving and winding, constantly changing. It follows no rigid route or preestablished model (recall that in strategy shi was compared with the moving flow of water).  [pp. 92-93]

5 The term shi already had this particular topographical sense at the end of Antiquity, e.g., in the Guanzi; cf. ch. 76, p. 371; ch. 78, p. 384. This sense is specified in the bibliographical chapter of the Hanshu (“Yiwenzhi” ), in the rubric devoted to “ configurationists” (xing fa liu jia).

6 Guo Pu, Zangshu; idem for the citations that follow.

7 This point has been forcefully made in the important study by Yonezawa Yoshio, Chugoku kaigashi kenkvu (Tokyo: Heibonsha), p. 76.


Thus, space, and hence any landscape, was also conceived by the Chinese as a perpetual setup which puts to work the original vitality of nature. Everything in the landscape, down to the slight­est hollow in the ground, is through its own particular disposition endowed with a particular, ever-renewed propensity one should rely on and exploit. We have already encountered other configurations (on battlefields, in political power relations, in cal­ligraphic ideograms, or in literary signs). Topographic configu­ration is similar but prior to them all.  It constitutes a magnetic field which the geomancer explores with his compass, charged with a regular and functional potentiality that organizes it into the various networks through which efficiency winds its way. Lifelines are also energy lines.8 [p. 93]

8 I have chosen the expression “lifeline” to convey this aspect of shi because it relates directly to the notion of the vital breath on which it is based and because it is reminiscent of our own chiromancy, closely related to geomancy. I have, furthermore, noticed that in the West certain contemporary schools of drawing and painting (such as that of Martenot) are now distancing themselves from traditional training methods and utilizing this expression in their own teaching.

Chapter 6, Categories of Efficacious Dispositions

Technical Lists

There are lists of many different kinds of shi: the shi of the hand or the body, the shi of topography, the shi of the development of a poem. In the most general and yet concrete terms, what is art if not to capture and put to work all the efficacy possible through gesture and arrangement? And how better to assess precisely this possibility than by enumerating each example, one by one? The purpose of these lists is to record in each domain a typology of the various ways to group things, the ways recognized to be the most appropriate and experience has handed down from master to disciple, through the generations, as a secret of expertise. These lists, the fruit of long experience and practical in purpose, are mostly found hidden away in technological texts, handbooks, and collections of precepts. Many were drawn up under the great Tang Dynasty (seventh to tenth centuries), when the Chinese first began to think more precisely about the processes of creation1 instead of concentrating exclusively on the moral and cosmic impact of its “ spirit.” These lists constitute an altogether new type of literature for us. [p. 107]

1 A more general application could probably be given to the remark made by Dong Qichang, according to which the Tang calligraphers were particularly interested in technique (fa), while those of the Six Dynasties period stressed the “internal resonance” (yun) and the Song calligraphers stressed the expres­ sion of “individual feeling” {yi); see Jean-Marie Simonet, La Suite au “Traite de calligraphic” de Jiang Kui, unpublished thesis (Paris: Ecole nationale des langues orientates, 1969), pp. 94-95.


Efficacious Dispositions of the Hand and Body

The foremost art in China is that of the brush; in this domain “efficacious dispositions” relate to its handling. Their primary concern was originally calligraphy, which in turn influenced the art of painting.  [p. 108]


Positions that Best Embody the Efficacy of Movement

As a cultural phenomenon, the compiling of a list could be con­ sidered one of the most neutral acts. The task of assembling different compatible cases is merely one of tabulation, a concise and discreet operation hardly even deserving to be so named. Nonetheless, these lists are somewhat disconcerting. [pp. 111-112]


It is as if the Chinese using the lists would have no need to derive a more abstract concept from the material instances, as if they had no need for any theory over and above what they could themselves instinctively and actively feel to be the pertinence of shi through the cases listed. For them, shi was a “practical” — indeed the most practical — term and one to be considered as such. Shi is self- evident, permeating whatever field one considers, and as soon as one is exerting oneself effectively and educating oneself in an apprenticeship, the very idea of explaining shi becomes pointless, even harmful to anyone using it. To consider doing so would only occur to someone uncommitted, unconcerned (from the perspective of his own particular logic), someone merely reading the text.  [pp. 112-113]


… these dispositions are not only dynamic but also strategic. For these sets of shi represent not just any random slice of movement but those that most fully exploit the powers of this dynamism and that are the most potentially effective. Arrangement possesses its own potentiality, which it is precisely the task of art to capture. Each list of shi thus constitutes, as it were, a set of various ways to induce the efficacy to operate. For this reason, despite their amaz­ing heterogeneity, these lists are generally presented as exhaustive and systematic wholes, marked by a particular number (“ nine,” “ thirteen,” etc.).  [p. 114]


Strategic Dispositions in Poetry

But would it be equally possible to apply these terms of effica­cious positioning to artistic procedures such as poetic creation, which involve no gesture or physical movement but stem solely from mental activity? The answer is that an exactly similar method is employed for these practices as well. The poetic shi are also represented to us by means of a most colorful imaginary bestiary.  [p. 117]


… these lists already demonstrate that we should recognize the existence of two different kinds of logic (one is reminded of the unusual “Chinese” lists “a la Borges” at the beginning of Foucault’s The Order of Things). Chinese reasoning (for “reasoning” is certainly involved here, not incoherence and disorder) does not seem to proceed in the same way as “Western” reasoning (“Western” in the symbolic sense).

The latter first seeks to adopt a command­ing position that provides a theoretical perspective ordering all the material to be organized. This makes abstract thought about it possible, resulting in a vantage point from which one can usually derive some classificatory principle of homogeneity.

Chinese reasoning, in contrast, seems to weave along horizontally, from one case to the next, via bridges and bifurcations, each case eventually leading to the next and merging into it. In contrast to Western logic, which is panoramic, Chinese logic is like that of a possible journey in stages that are linked together. The field of thought is not defined and contained a priori; it just unfolds progressively, from one stage to the next, becoming more fertile along the way. Furthermore, the path along which it unfolds does not exclude other possibilities — which may run alongside temporarily or intersect with it.15 By the end of the journey, an experience has been lived through, a landscape has been sketched in. Not everything is visible and unequivocal, as in a Western pic­ture; rather, the view unfolds like a Chinese scroll in which a path running up a mountainside (and thereby giving it consistency) appears at one point, then disappears around the hill, to reappear even further on.  [pp. 123-124, editorial paragraphing added] 

15 A comparison between this chapter of the “Seventeen shi” and the following lists of the Bunkyo hifuron‘s “Earth” section is instructive in this respect; see the study by Francois Martin, “ L’enumeration dans la theorie litteraire de la Chine des Tang,” in L’Art de la liste, Extreme-Orient —Extreme-Occident 8 (1990), p. 37f.


Chapter 7, Dynamism is Continuous

Common Evidence

A number of questions arise when we reflect on the arts in China. In terms of their basic underlying principle, to what extent can we really make distinctions between those “ three jewels” of Chi­nese culture; calligraphy, painting, and poetry?  [p. 131]


A single idea thus lies at the heart of each of these practices, the idea of an energy both fundamental and universal and based on a binary principle (the famous yin and yang) with seamless inter­ action between the terms (as in the great cosmic Process). This idea, logically enough, gives rise to the ultimate meaning of shi used as an aesthetic term: the power to promote the continuity of dynamism,1 rendering it perceptible through that energy* and the semiotics of art.  [pp. 132] 

1See, e.g., the analysis of Shen Zongqian, Leibjan, p. 907.


The Propensity for Linking: Calligraphy

The Chinese art of calligraphy provides a key example of dyna­mism in operation, as a coming-to-be, since its theoretical codifi­cation developed relatively early and since, above all, its linear nature made it an ideally direct and immediate means of register­ing the temporality of movement. (A calligrapher can never go back and touch up the lines already made by his brush.)  [p. 133]


The Propensity for Linking: Painting

Chinese painting lends itself to a similar analysis. [p. 136]


The Propensity for Linking: Poetry

Liu Xie offers us a fine image for the dynamism at work in a literary text: when one sets down the brush at the end of a para­graph, it is like feathering an oar while rowing. [p. 139]


The Propensity for Linking: The Novel

Chinese literary criticism is largely allusive, and frequently de­scribed as “impressionistic,” but occasionally it undertakes an extremely detailed analysis of how a text functions.  [p. 144]


Chapter 8, Conclusion II: The Dragon Motif

The body of the dragon concentrates energy in its sinuous curves, and coils and uncoils to move along more quickly. It is a symbol of all the potential with which form can be charged, a potential that never ceases to be actualized. The dragon now lurks in watery depths, now streaks aloft to the highest heavens, and its very gait is a continuous undulation. It presents an image of energy con­stantly recharged through oscillation from one pole to the other. The dragon is a constantly evolving creature with no fixed form; it can never be immobilized or penned in, never grasped. It sym­bolizes a dynamism never visible in concrete form and thus un­fathomable. Finally, merging with the clouds and the mists, the dragon’s impetus makes the surrounding world vibrate: it is the very image of an energy that diffuses itself through space, inten­sifying its environment and enriching itself by that aura.

The dragon is one of China’s richest symbols, and many of its most essential meanings have served to illustrate the importance attributed to shi in the creative process.  [p. 151]


The Potential Invested in Form

Even before it comes to serve as a model for works of art, the drag­on’s weaving body surrounds us everywhere.  [p. 152]


Variation through Alternation

The dragon is at once yin within yang and yang within yin. Its body is constantly transformed but never exhausted: a finer em­ bodiment of alternation as the driving force of continuity could not be imagined.  [p. 153]


Endless Transformation Results in Unseizability

Since it is constantly changing, a dragon has no fixed form and can never materialize in a permanent, definitive shape.  [p. 155]


Dragon and Clouds: The Power of Animation

The Beyond of poetry and the magic of the novel permeate these works with their atmosphere. Similarly, in Chinese iconography, the dragon’s body is frequently represented as emerging from the clouds, enveloped in mist.  [p. 159]


The “ Void” and the “Beyond” Are Implied by the Tension in the Setup

As the reference to the dragon helps to show, the Chinese con­cept of effectiveness in the aesthetic domain is a far cry from that of a rigid, mechanical, and stereotyped operation. As in the field of strategy, it is dominated by ideas of efficacy and variability (i.e., efficacy through variation), and as in the domain of politics, it stresses the spontaneous nature of the effect produced as well as its inexhaustibility.  [p. 160]



Chapter 9, Situation and Tendency in History

What Is a Historical Situation?

What is a historical situation and how can it be analyzed? This is the same fundamental problem we have been treating all along, but now transferred into the social domain. Our goal remains to conceive reality better, to move beyond the antinomy between stasis and movement, between an established state and a process of becoming. In other words, to reconcile somehow the immo­bilizing perspective promoted by any synchronic vision with a dynamic perspective that can accommodate the ongoing evolu­tion and flow of events. While circumstances of a situation con­stitute a unique whole, they are all simultaneously undergoing change. We need to think of the system as an evolving one; then the process of history can also be seen, at every instant, as a setup with potential. In this context shi signifies both a particular situ­ation and the tendency expressed through it and orienting it.1 [pp. 177] 

1Etienne Balazs has suggested rendering this use of shi in a historical context as “power of prevailing conditions, tendency, trend” or even “necessity.” See Political Theory and Administrative Reality in Traditional China (London: School of Oriental and African Studies, 1965). In his study Nation und Elite im Denken von Wang Fu-chih (Hamburg: Mitteilungen der Gesellschaft fur Natur un Volkerkunde Ostasiens, 1968), vol. 49, p. 87, Ernst Joachim Vierheller ren­ders it as “die besonderen Um stinde, die Augenblickstendenz, die zu diesen Zeiten herrscht” ; and Jean-Francois Billeter (“ Deux etudes sur Wang Fuzhi,” T’oung Pao [Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1970], vol. 56, p. 155 ) writes as follows: “ More simply, one might suggest, provisionally, ‘situation or the course of things.’ The course of things is clearly inseparable from their structure.” In effect, it means both “ course” and “ situation” at once, and it is to this ambivalence (as we see it) that the term owes its philosophical richness.

Every situation constitutes in itself a direction. The Chinese thinkers of Antiquity, and in particular the theorists of authoritarianism, stressed the dual nature of this inherent tendency from the point of view of its shi. On the one hand, a historical situation — seen as a set of factors operating in a particular way — can be used to determine events objectively, since it allows one to constrain the initiative of individuals; on the other hand, every such situation is new and unprecedented in character, one particular moment in an evolving process. As such, it cannot be reduced to previous models; it leads the course of things con­stantly to take new turns and, arguably, favors modernity.  [pp. 177-178]

Anything that appears as a result of circumstance in the course of history acts as a force and is endowed with efficacy. And yet all forces in history depend on a particular disposition and can­ not be abstracted from this.  [p. 178]


However, among the ancient Chinese schools, a number of dif­ferent theories on the evolution of society were in competition, and these produced a heightened sense of the human process of becoming.  [p. 179]


The Historical Necessity of Transformation (from Feudalism to Bureaucracy)

The first emperor not only unified China politically, he also proudly transformed it by replacing the earlier system of fief-doms with a system of administrative areas — commanderies and prefectures — that would remain predominant. This important change provided Chinese civilization with most of its unique character, for it replaced the common and widespread ancient hereditary privileges with a bureaucratic structure composed of appointed officials who were both registered and dismissible.  [p. 180]


There is a before and an after, and the two are incompatible. Wang Fuzhi explains, by way of an example, that there was no distinction in Antiquity between the military and the civil sectors, but once the empire was established, it proved necessary to separate them: “The state of things evolves in accordance with the tendency, and institutions must be adapted accordingly.” 22 The tendency at work must be considered in light of the differences between one period and another, with a long-term view. Nothing comes about in a single day, yet from day to day everything is changing. History is made up of precisely such “in-depth shifts” and “ silent transformations.” 23 [p. 186]

22Wang Fuzhi, Dutongjianlun, ch. 12, “ Huaidi,” p. 382. The attention payed by Chinese thinkers to slow, progressive change dissolves individual events into historical conti­nuity. However sudden and spectacular an event may seem, invariably it is simply the logical end result of a tendency that, when it suited , was probably barely perceptible (on this subject, cf. the wenyan commentary on the first line of the Kun hexagram in the Book of Changes).

23Ibid., ch. 20, “Taizong,” pp. 692-94.

The Tendency toward Alternation

The transition from feudalism to bureaucracy constituted rela­ tive progress, thus contradicting the myth of a Golden Age.  [p. 186]


The power of evolution, a challenge to all dogmas on human nature, should be recognized to operate in both directions. Once man acquires civilization, his way of life changes, his practices evolve, and his “organic nature itself is altered” ; yet at this point he is ready to return to brutish animality, and civilization is ready to plunge back into chaos. Then everything associated with his rise, down to the smallest trace, would be wiped out.

Thus, it is not progress that rules the world but rather alternation; alternation in both space and time.26 [p. 187]

26Siwenlu, pp. 72 -73 .


As time passes, the “cosmic influxes” shift, but the balance (between civilization and barbarity) remains constant. [p. 188]

In this form, this concept of a tendency toward alternation (shi), an upward surge followed by a decline, is shared by all the Chinese theorists of history27 and constitutes their dominant per­spective. It is even something they assume to be self-evident. But for Wang Fuzhi, it is also important to establish clearly what is meant by the two terms tendency and alternation. In contrast to the moralist view initially inherited from Antiquity,288 he believes it crucial to understand that the phases of upward surging are not simply brought about by great sovereigns but are inherent ten­dencies in the regularity of historical processes. In this view, his­tory loses in creative heroism but gains in internal necessity. In contrast to all those who later subscribed to the imperial ideology, Wang Fuzhi deems it important to show the extent to which the very principle of alternation implies rupture and difference between one age and another, and thus should never be regarded as simply a “prop” for superimposed continuity. In such a case, the reverse of the earlier one, the negative tendency would no longer have any substance to it and would seem to be reabsorbed into itself: regularity would be so codified as to become artificial.  [pp. 188-189]

27See, e.g., Huang Mingtong and LG Xichen, Wang Chuanshan lishiguan yu lishiyanjiu (Changsha: Hunan renmin chubanshe, 1986), p. 10.

28This idea is already explicit in the Mencius, ch. 3, “Tengwengong” pt. 2, para. 9 (Legge, p. 279): in Mencius, it is Yao and Shun, the king Wu, the duke of Zhou, Confucius, in his capacity as the author of the Chunqiu, and Mencius him self who, in one period or another, intervene to cure disorder.

The second of those mistakes in particular deserves denunci­ation, since it nurtures an illusion that is not innocent. The estab­lishment of the empire led to the construction of an integrated general conception of history, beginning with the ancient royal dynasties. New imperial dynasties could profit from that integra­tion by being able to present themselves as the legitimate out­ come of the historical process.

To that end, ingenious attempts were made to present historical alternation systematically as fol­lowing the model of the cycle of nature, which was traditionally construed on the basis of the interaction of the “five phases.” Sometimes the schema was sometimes conceived with an antagonistic bias: wood is overcome by metal, metal by fire, fire by water, water by earth, earth by wood, and so on; sometimes it simply implied a mutual production: wood (which is also the spring, the East, birth) engenders fire, fire (which is also the sum­mer, the South, growth) engenders earth, earth (at the center of the process, controlling all the seasons and representing both the center and full maturity) engenders metal (which is also the autumn, the West, the harvest), and metal engenders water (which is also the winter, the North, the storing of the harvest).29 [p. 189, editorial paragraphing added]

29This idea was inherited from Zou Yan (in the third century B. C.) and was later theorized by Dong Zhongshu (175 -105 B.C. ) in the Chunqiu fanlu; see Anne Chang, Etude sur le confucianisme Han (Paris: Institut des hautes etudes chinoises, 1985), vol. 26, p. 25.

This schema is sometimes further complicated by correlations with “ colors” and “ virtues.” But it always entails a closed and repetitive cycle in which alternation operates simply as a factor aiding transmission, and makes the cycle start all over again. Projecting such schemata onto the course of history (with each successive dynasty corresponding to some cyclical phase, virtue, and color) makes the course of history seem homogeneous and regular, as though it were simply an uninterrupted chain of “reigns”: all of these are imagined as harmonious, united totalities, with one dynasty spontaneously giving way to the next and the succes­sor taking over in all equity.

Wang Fuzhi considers this representation to be all the more reprehensible because it has been deliberately used throughout Chinese history to mask the worst usurpations. The integrating function of official historiography has been so formalized that it has wound up integrating anything and everything: a sinister bandit needed only pompously attribute to himself a particular phase, color, and virtue (as did the bar­barians who laid claim to the empire in the third to fourth cen­turies) or even dignify himself with the name of the preceding dynasty (as Li Miau did in the tenth century), and he could offi­cially claim to be inaugurating a new era and guaranteeing the continuity of legitimacy.30  [pp. 189-190, editorial paragraphing added]

30Wang Fuzhi, Dutongjianlun, ch. 16, “ Wudi,” pp. 539-40.


The Logic of Reversal

In Wang Fuzhi’s opinion, the course of history is always decided by a twofold logic. On the one hand, every tendency, once bom , is naturally inclined to grow; on the other hand, any tendency carried to its ultimate limit becomes exhausted and cries out for reversal.39 [p. 194]

30Wang Fuzhi, Dutongjianlun, ch. 16, “Wudi,” pp. 539-40.

This principle is absolutely general and constitutes the justification for alternation. Nevertheless, one can distinguish between two forms of negative tendencies and, on that basis, two modes of reversal. A negative tendency may lead to progressive deviation; it becomes increasingly difficult to backtrack, so that, unless the tendency exhausts itself, only an overall transformation can resolve the situation; alternatively, it will lead instead to an imbalance. In this case, the imbalance itself will generate a reaction, and the greater the imbalance, the stronger the reaction will be.40 [p. 194]

30Ibid., “ Xulun,” 1.1106 .

In the first of these two situations all one can do is passively recognize that one is increasingly becoming stuck in this groove. In contrast, in the second, which involves opposite poles, a dynamic force creating equilibrium is present. Different strategies should accordingly be adopted in the two situations: in the former, it is essential toforesee the difficulty as soon as possible; in the second, one can also count on the effects of a reversal and rely on time to do its work.  [p. 194]


This logic of reversal is modeled explicitly on the shape of the hexagrams of the ancient Book of Changes. Based on two types of lines, antithetical yet complementary (the continuous and the discontinuous, — and – – ), these provided the basis for the Chinese concept of becoming.  [p. 195]


The interior of each hexagram illuminates still more about this process of transition and inversion. For while the opposite prin­ciples (yin and yang, rise and decline) are categorically exclusive and mutually repulsive, at the same time they condition one another, each implying the existence of the other. An open con­flict and a tacit entente: whichever principle is actualized, it always latently contains its opposite. At every moment the prog­ress of one implies the regression of the other, but simultaneously the progress of either principle necessarily leads to its own future regression. The future is already at work in the present, and the expanding present will soon pass away. Becoming is gradual; only transition actually exists.  [p. 196]


Moral Strategy: The Historical Situation as a Setup to Be Manipulated

“Tension-detente,” “deployment-withdrawal” — or “order-disorder,” “ rise-decline”: all history inexorably passes through “highs and lows,” 49 not as a result of any metaphysical principle projected onto the passage of time but through the inherent necessity of every process; the factors at work, both positive and negative, necessarily become exhausted and are replaced by compensatory factors. A regulatory dynamic is thus inherent (even if in no more than a discreet or even inchoate fashion) within every stage of becoming, turning every historical situation into a setup that can be manipulated. [p. 198]

49See, e.g., for these expressions, and in order, Dutongjianlun, ch. 13 , “Wudi,” p. 405; Songlun, ch. 15 , p. 259 ; Dutongjianlun, ch. 20, “Taizong,” p. 691; Ibid., ch. 13, “ Chengdi,” p. 411.

In this respect, the tactic to employ could not be more simple, yet it is so constantly applicable that it serves as a Moral Way for mankind: Learn how to make the most of the tendency at work in the course of things; allow the setup represented by the situation simply to develop according to its tendency. Every historical situation, even the most unfavorable, is always rich in the possibility of change, since a positive de­velopment over the more-or-less long term is always a possibil­ity: if not now, then later. One only has to count on the one factor that is the most influential: the factor of time. [pp. 198-199]


Chapter 10, Propensity at Work in Reality

Chinese Tradition’s Scan Interest in Causal Explanation

[….] Kant tells us that causality is a general law of understanding that must be established a priori. Chinese thought, in contrast, seems almost never to rely on such a prin­ciple, even in its interpretation of nature. Of course, it cannot totally ignore the causal relationship, but it resorts to it only within the framework of experiences taking place in front of us, where its impact is immediate. It never extrapolates it in imag­ined series of causes and effects extending all the way back to the hidden reason for things or even to the principle underlying real­ ity as a whole.  [p. 220]


The Chinese interpretation of reality in any realm, and even where most generally speculative, thus appears to proceed through the understanding of the disposition of things. One starts by identifying a particular configuration (disposition, arrangement), which is then seen as a system according to which things function: instead of the explanation of causes, we have the implication of tendencies. In the former, one must always find an external element as an antecedent, and reasoning can be described as regressive and hypothetical. In the latter, the sequence of changes taking place stems entirely from the power relations inherent in the initial situation, thereby constituting a closed system: in this case we are dealing not with the hypothetical but with the ineluctable. In the context of natural phenomena and in first philosophy, this ineluctability of tendency can be expressed by the term shi, translated as either “tendency” or “ propensity” depending on the word chosen by the first Western interpreters of Chinese thought as they tried to convey its originality.  [p. 221]


The Meaning of Natural Propensity

To the Chinese, the principal “disposition” (or arrangement of things) concerns the relation between Heaven and Earth. Heaven is above and Earth beneath; one is round, the other square. Because of the Earth’s situation — it is beneath Heaven yet also matches it — its “propensity,” shi, always leads it to “conform with and obey” the initiative emanating from Heaven.44 [p. 222]

44Even for Aristotle in his guise as a “naturalist,” the good is not imma­nent in the world; it emanates from God, who is its source, as is attested by a comparison with the general and his army; see Metaphysics, 50, 1075a: “ The efficiency of an army consists partly in the order and partly in the general; but chiefly in the latter because he does not depend upon the order, but the order depends upon him.”

Earth and Heaven, through their “ disposition,” embody the antithetical and complementary principles presiding over everything that happens. They constitute on the one hand the “initiator,” on the other the “receiver,” the Father and the Mother. It is from the configura­tion of this primary pair that the entire process of reality stems. Propensity thus provides the key to the actualization of things.  [p. 222]


Attempting to act upon the physical or social world without going along with the tendency objectively implied in it and gov­ erning its development would be vain and therefore absurd, as would seeking to aid the unfolding of reality rather than acting in conformity with the logic of the propensity that always stems from the given situation. This perspective is particularly high­ lighted by those trying to retain “ Daoism” as the state doctrine at the beginning of the Empire. [p. 223]


The Demystification of Religion and Interpretation Based on Tendencies

One of the most striking peculiarities of Chinese civilization is that it moved at an early date away from religious feeling toward a sense of universal regulation.  [p. 225]


The Setup of Reality and Its Manipulation

The sway of tendency is not only universal, but also logical. With the development of Neo-Confucianism from the ninth century on, Chinese thinkers become exceedingly inclined to emphasize the principle of internal coherence that accounts for the processes of reality. Although they react against the influence of Buddhism (in their view, it has perverted their modes of thought), they are nevertheless obliged to consider the metaphysical necessity brought to their attention by this new tradition, and so they re­turn to the sources of Chinese thinking. The idea of a principle and reason for things (li) thus comes to the fore and serves as the basis of their view of the world. This idea gives reality a new struc­ture, which is described at three levels:25

  • at the level of “prin­ciple” is “ duality-correlativity” ;
  • at the level of “tendency” (shi) is “ mutual attraction between the two poles” (“they seek each other out” );
  • finally, at the level of “relationship” and its numer­ical determination is a constant “ flux” that is in perpetual meta­morphosis.

25Jingxiu xiansheng wenji, “ Tuizhaiji.”

At the starting point thus remain two factors standing in opposition and interrelation; from this “ disposition” stems a reciprocal interaction which constitutes their propensity; from that dynamic relationship proceeds the actualization of phenom­enal manifestations in a perpetual state of variation. In this chain, tendency is the intermediate term linking the principle to the coming-to-be of what is concrete, and it constitutes the creative and regulatory tension coextensive with reality in its entirety. [pp. 228-229, editorial paragraphing added]


The Concept of “Logical Tendency” and the Interpretation of the Phenomena of Nature

The idea that propensity contains a rationality eventually led to the new concept of “ logical tendency,” which was used over the later centuries of Chinese thought to clarify the view that Chinese civilization evolved of nature and the world. “Logical tendency” incorporates two ideas that Chinese thought cannot dissociate: first, the notion that in reality everything always comes about immanently as a result of an internal development, with no need to invoke any external causality; second, the idea that this spon­taneous process is itself a supremely regulatory force and that the norm it expresses constitutes the basis for transcending reality. In the last analysis, this is the Chinese “Heaven”: its “ natural” course also constitutes an absolute “morality.”  [p. 231]


The Chinese Concept Is neither Mechanistic nor Finalistic

… the Chinese concept of the dis­position of things stresses the idea of an ineluctable unfolding given shape by propensity, and accounts for their generation purely on the basis of physical qualities (“hard,” “soft,” etc.); these qualities are regarded as phenomena produced by energy.41 [p. 246]

41See, e.g., the presentation of the mechanistic theory in Aristotle, Physics, 199a.

But in the Greek theory, this ineluctable necessity is simply the other side of chance, and the adaptation of nature cannot be a principle immanent in that nature. (According to Empedocles, whom Aristotle criticized on this point, nature simply proceeds as the result of a series of happy coincidences and through the elimination of everything unviable.) In contrast, the idea of regulation is at the root of Chinese thinking on the whole process; instead of some blind mechanism, the propensity that conducts the process is, as we have seen, conceived to be eminently logical.  [p. 246]


The Absence of Any Theory of Causality: No Subject and No Mover

This point of agreement between Greek physics and the Chinese concept of a process, before any divergence, can certainly be found in both traditions’ conceptualization of change in terms of contraries.  [p. 246]


“There is no being whose substance is seen to be constituted by contraries,” Aristotle also tells us. In China, all the energy fuel­ing actualization is constituted by both yin and yang. Those two are thus not only the limiting terms of change; they together form all that exists. There is thus no need to posit a “third term” to support their relation. Even the regulating principle does not exist over and above the two contraries: it simply expresses their har­monious relation. The two contraries form on their own a self-sufficient configuration; as we have certainly seen by now, the propensity that stems on its own from their interdependence ori­ents the process of reality. Even as energy is ceaselessly divided between yin and yang, it is constantly led to actualize itself, func­tioning in a balanced and regular fashion: there is constantly materialization but, strictly speaking, no matter. In Aristotle, in contrast, the dynamic insufficiency of contraries goes hand in hand with his doctrine of substance: reality is not conceived as a particular arrangement providing its own dynamic from disposition; rather, it is conceived as a relation between matter and form, based on the concept of essence (which is why contraries can only be “ inherent” to a subject as “ accidents” ). It also follows that change can no longer be interpreted in terms of spontaneous ten­dency, as in a bipolar structure, but instead implies the elaboration of a complex system of causality.  [p. 251-252]

Chapter 11, Conclusion III: Conformism and Efficacy

Neither Tragic Heroism nor Disinterested Contemplation

Two models of human fulfillment have come down to us from ancient Greece and have helped to fashion our aspiration toward the ideal. The first is that of a heroic commitment to action, conceived in the tragic mode: an individual decides to take part in the course of things, resolutely assuming responsibility for his initiative despite all the contrary forces that he encounters in the world and even at the risk of being destroyed and swept away. The second is the model of a vocation to contemplation, conceived in a philosophical and religious mode: having seen through the illusion of all that is “perceptible” and having understood that everything here on earth is ephemeral and doomed, the soul aspires to eternal truths and conceives of no “ overeign good,” and hence no “happiness,” other than the world of the intelligible, which it may reach by drawing closer to the divine absolute. [p. 259]

In contrast, ancient Chinese thought is above all concerned with avoiding confrontation, which is exhausting and sterile. It conceives of a model of efficacy based on correlation and detectable at the heart of the objective processes. This is the only kind of efficacy valid on the human level. Chinese thought is, further more, unassailed by the doubt about the perceptible realm that is the source of the opposition between appearance and truth in Western thought and that has oriented our philosophical activity toward abstraction aimed at description and disinterest. In Chinese thought, the level of knowledge is not separate from that of action: a wise man, yielding to an intuition of the dynamism implied in the course of things (revered as the Dao), takes care not to go against it, and instead lets it it operate fully in all situations. [pp. 259-260]

The Closed System of Disposition Evolving Solely as a Result of the Interaction of Poles

What we have learned about the word shi demonstrates this last point. Because it implies no dissociation between practice and theory, it never becomes detached from its initial strategic meaning and always helps us to think about the processes to which it is applied from the perspective of how to use them. Since the principles of dynamism are fundamentally the same across reality, the word shi can serve equally well in the analysis of nature and in the analysis of history; in the field of political management and in that of artistic creation. Reality always presents itself as a particular situation that results from a particular disposition of circumstances that is, in turn, inclined to produce a particular effect: it is up to the general, and equally to the politician, the painter, and the writer, to avail himself of the shi (the same expression is repeated in all fields) so as to exploit it to its maximum potentiality.  [p. 260]

Chinese thought, then, may not be inclined toward specula­tion, but it is from early on inclined toward systematization. It tends to exclude as far as possible any form of external interven­tion (such as supreme modes of causality that cannot initially be grasped: not only “God,” in the sense of the prime mover of nature, but also “destiny” in warfare and “inspiration” in poetry). To this extent, it repeatedly conceives of reality as a closed system that evolves from a single principle of interaction and necessarily refers back to two poles. Those two essential features of any con­figuration of factors, which stand in opposition to each other and at the same time function correlatively, are to be found at every level of reality, from the relation between yin and yang (or Earth and Heaven) in the order of nature to the relation between sov­ereign and subject (or man and woman) in the social order, and similarly from the relation between above and below (or dark and light, slow and rapid, etc.) in the art of writing to the relation between emotion and landscape (or empty and full, flat tones and oblique tones) in poetic composition. From the established bipo­lar system stems variation through alternation, the tendency toward engendering that is implied by the very deployment of things, and it is that variation that makes it possible for “reality,” whatever that might be, to continue to come about. This variation can be found both shaping the relief of the land and punctuating time: we can contemplate it in the sequence of mountains and valleys in the landscape and equally in the unfolding of times of achieve­ ment and decline in the course of history. Everything oscillates between two poles, changes, and is renewed. This is the model that the general must emulate, as he switches constantly from one tactic to its opposite in as sinuous a fashion as a “ snake-dragon” to keep his power to attack always fresh. It is also the model for the poet, who makes a poetic text “undulate” like “the folds in a draped canopy” to maintain vitality in his expression of emotion.  [pp. 260-261]


Wisdom or Strategy: Conforming with Propensity

Conceiving, as they do, of all reality as a deployment, the Chi­nese are not led to backtrack along a necessarily infinite series of possible causes. Convinced as they are of the ineluctable nature of propensity, they are not inclined to speculate on ends, which can never be anything more than probable. Neither cosmogonical stories nor teleological suppositions interest them. They are concerned neither to recount the beginning nor to imagine the end. All that exists, has always existed, and will always exist are inter­ actions that are constantly at work, and reality is never anything other than their ceaseless process. Thus, the problem that con­cerns the Chinese is not that of “being,” in the Greek sense (i.e., being as opposed to becoming and the perceptible world); rather it is the problem of the capacity to function: the source of the efficacy that is at work everywhere in reality and the best way to profit from it.  [p. 262]

#jullien, #propensity, #yinyang