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9. To ask about proper conduct from Laozi November 26, 2007

Posted by kentneo in Art.

“Wen” is to ask, “Li” means propriety, manners or proper conduct. “Wen Li” is then to ask about proper conduct, Lao Dan is Laozi’s real name. So the title is “To ask about proper conduct from Laozi”


If I remember correctly, I have painted “Wen Li Lau Dan” more than once. The person that is doing the asking is Kongzi (Confucious), this was before Confucious (551 – 479 BCE) became a high ranking official in the government of Lu Guo. Lu Guo of that time, although had very high standards of culture, the society was at very low morals and values, the society was quite chaotic.


In the West, the mafia had their “godfathers”, in the East, they were known as “Da Hen” or leaders of the underground societies. From a positive perspective, if some of these underground societies had succeeded in their missions, they could be considered revolutionists (history will always be written by the winners!). Dr. Sun Yat Sen had utilized the society name “Hong Men” (originally used by the revolutionists that tried to overthrow the Qing dynasty, 1644-1911) and was their “big brother” (or leader). From a negative point of view, its is argued that these societies cause disruption and confusion to the public.


Lu Guo of that time, had a powerful but evil underground society leader named “Shao Zhenmao”. As soon as Confucious became a high ranking government official, he had Shao Zhenmao killed off. This act Confucious had also consulted with Laozi (4th century BCE) as part of “Wen Li”.


“Li” in today’s terms refer more to rites and customs, it is not only “Li Mao” or courtesy to people around you. If a country does not have laws, what type of country will this become? It is like if one is well fed everyday but had nothing to do, they are likely to get up to no good. The Japanese people of today are able to go from a war torn country to a rich country because after the nuclear bombs and a lot of suffering, the people awoke to their situation, pulled together towards a common goal and diligently worked at it, it was not luck that brought them economic advancement but their common culture of “Li”.


In broad terms, “Li” is like “shang xia yi xing” (up down same heart), meaning, if bosses and workers are in the same boat, where workers are treated like family, lifetime employment and share in the benefits of the company). In more detailed form, “Li” is like the way the Japanese respect and bow (45 degree angle) and their politeness with “arigato”. From their everyday life you can see reflections of their culture, which should not be taken lightly, (???).


Confucious original name is Kong Qiu, he had another name called “Zhongni”. Nickname is “Kong Laoer” (or number two Kong). His parents had prayed for another child at Ni Mountains and his mother became pregnant. Though there are rumors that he was actually a bastard child (but bastards were considered to be always born smart). He had an abnormality, his head had a strange shape like a “qiu” (small hill), which was his “special distinguishing feature”. His brain was rather well developed, he was not only creative, he was curious and would learn from anyone that could teach him and was definitely smarter than the average person. “Confucius had more than one teacher” is a commonly known fact. He knew how to write, he knew about music and apparently also knew the language of birds. The common saying of “bo zhong su siu” (eg. if you were male and first born, you would have the word bo in your name), according to this old naming method, Confucius was the second male born and thus had the word Zhong in his name (mentioned earlier one of his names is Zhongni or second son, named after the “Ni” mountain where the gods blessed his mother with conceiving him). To match his somewhat odd shaped head, he was thus also called “Qiu” (small hill), Chinese humor from even those old days will pick out one’s “special feature” for one’s name.


As for Laozi, his surname was “Li” and named “Er” (for ear), another name was Lao Dan (Dan meaning big flappy ears). His ears stuck out and had no curl at the outer rim. Since he was named after his rather “special feature”, his ears, in the old days it was considered easier to put a name to a face! Which is similar today as well. The location of Lu Guo is today’s Guangdong considered this naming custom as ordinary, which could be why in high school or college everyone gets a nickname, which is kind of natural and humorous and can be considered, common culture and not “strange”.


According to historical facts, there was more than one Laozi (it is a way of honoring wise, old men). In Confucius time, there were several, one was named “Bo Yang”, its hard to distinguish Lao Dan and Bo Yang, there was even another named “Lao Laizi” (from the stories of the 24 filial sons). I didn’t research this point further than this. But we know that Confucius respected Laozi a lot, as Laozi was well educated and experienced, he even compared Laozi to the powerful symbol of a dragon (which is considered to be an honor and is a compliment). Laozi apparently could also use a simple instrument to catch birds and fish, which is as mysterious as the mythical dragon that floats around the mist. We can see that Laozi was definitely more accomplished than Confucius.


Laozi was also accomplished in politics [he was custodian of the imperial archives], although most people consider his philosophy to be based on “Wu Wei” (does not mean “inactivity” but rather “taking no action that is contrary to Nature”), Wu Wei is not an overly physical philosophy but a more abstract philosophy. For example, a wall does not have meaning until it defines the of space in a room. In Chinese paintings, the empty spaces are also part of the painting, it enhances the expression of color and ink, which adds value to the atmosphere and mystery of the painting, this emotion / abstraction cannot really be described. Chinese art with its abstraction can be considered a higher form of art than western realism art as realism art cannot yet deal with these empty space (i.e. spaces that are not filled into in a painting). From Laozi’s point, “open spaces can be a tool, it may seem empty but it isn’t and there will be an appropriate situation for its use. A space without walls can be a room, though without walls. What is then the difference between what exists and what does not exist? Both can be used.”


Laozi also said, “to manage a country is like cooking seafood” (to govern a country is like cooking small fish, too much handling and you will spoil it), from this sentence we know that he was also a cook. To cook a small fish, one has to prepare the sauce and onions ahead of time as it will be messy to change the sequence of cooking as small fish has delicate meat that will dissolve away if moved around too much. In complex societies, if one wants to govern them well, one has to learn the proper cooking methods (as a parallel to governing methods as there are certain “principles” and “laws”).


Confucius learnt how to govern Lu Guo entirely from Laozi, too bad the emperors of the past were after filling their coffers and wouldn’t consider hiring Confucius, let alone Laozi (as these two were after a higher moral ground than gold). It is said that Laozi then mounted a young buffalo and headed out the city gates and turned away a life of an official, that’s why I drew Laozi on a buffalo. In the background I put in the “three friends of winter”, the pine, bamboo and plum tree (what do these signify? He left in winter? Or other secret message?). Laozi is also holding a type of feather duster. He is known as the grandfather of “Dao” (or Tao) and not the founder of a religion. According to Li Zizhuan, the origin of the myth that Laozi was a god originated from, “folklore, where there was a woman who was pregnant for 81 years and when she gave birth to Laozi, he was born already a wise old man and was known as the revered old man of old men”. I don’t think I will elaborate further than this and end here.



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