Episode 4 of “This Is the Way”: Daoist Persuasion

In the fourth episode of This Is the Way, we return to the familiar format of doing a close reading of a classical passage and connecting it to a theme. Our theme is “persuasion” and the passage is the dialogue between Confucius and Yan Hui in the Zhuangzi (ch. 4). It’s a great passage — somehow, not so widely discussed as others! But it should be of interest to anyone interested in rhetoric, the power of reasons (or lack thereof), arguments (in at least two senses of “arguments”), and the delicate games we play with our egos and the egos of others when we attempt to persuade.

Somehow, we just immensely enjoyed talking about this passage.

Below you will find a more detailed accounting of topics, some specific passages and books or articles mentioned in the episode, and an opportunity to “weigh in” and share your views about the topic (or about the hosts’ wild claims about oneness or Chinese philosophy).

Your feedback is very welcome! Please leave a comment below, mail the hosts at ChinesePhilosophyPodcast@gmail.com, or follow them on X @ChinesePhilPod.

Chapter markers

0:00 Part I — Introduction
5:27 Preface to today’s topic and passage
14:28 Part II — Daoist “persuasion”
16:35 Richard sets the stage the dialogue
19:09 The four psychological profiles
22:13 Profile #1: missionary zeal
33:01 Profile #2: non-confrontational integrity
38:14 Profile #3: quiet inner integrity
49:54 Profile #4: no agendas
1:05:18 Does the Daoist persuader even “intend” to convert?
1:15:02 What, then, is the point of giving someone reasons for your view?

Key passages

Yan Hui asked Kongzi for permission to make a trip.

“Where are you going?” he said.

“To Wei.”

“What will you do there?”

“I have heard that the lord of Wei is young and willful. He trifles with his state and does not acknowledge his mistakes. He is so careless with people’s lives that the dead fill the state like falling leaves in a swamp.38 The people have nowhere to turn. I have heard my teacher say, ‘Leave the well- governed state and go to the chaotic one. There are plenty of sick people at the doctor’s door.’ I want to use what I have learned to think of a way the state may be saved.”

Kongzi said, “Sheesh! You’re just going to get yourself hurt. The Way does not like complexity. Complexity quickly becomes too much. Too much leads to agitation, agitation leads to worry, and worry never solved anything. The perfect people of olden times first found it in themselves be- fore looking for it in others. If what you’ve found in yourself isn’t settled yet, what leisure can you spare for this bully’s behavior?

“Do you know how Virtue is squandered and where knowledge comes from? Virtue is squandered in fame, and knowledge arises from struggle. People use fame to trample each other and knowledge as a weapon. Both of them are tools of ill-fortune, not the means of finishing your mission.

“Though your Virtue is deep and your faith strong, you have not comprehended the man’s qi 氣. You’ve got a reputation for not being contentious, but you have not comprehended the man’s mind. If you insist on parading standards of benevolence and righteousness before this bully, you will just make him look bad in comparison to you. That’s antagonism, and one who antagonizes others is sure to be antagonized in return. You don’t want to antagonize him!

“Or suppose he likes worthy people and dislikes the depraved, then what use is there in changing him? Better not to speak! Kings and dukes love to dominate people and force their submission. He’ll want to dazzle you, intimidate you, tongue-tie you, cue you, and persuade you. Trying to reform this kind of person is like piling fire on fire or water on water. It’s called ‘adding to the excessive.’ Your initial compliance will know no end until he no longer trusts your good word. You will surely die at this bully’s hands. . . .

“Even so, you must have a plan. Come, tell me about it!”

Yan Hui said, “Suppose I am upright but dispassionate, energetic but not divisive. Would that work?”

“No! How could that work?” said Kongzi. “You’d use all your energy to sustain the performance, and your face would be unsettled. Other people can’t stand that, so they have to resist what you suggest in order to ease their own minds. If gradual Virtue wouldn’t work, how much less such a great show of force! He’ll dig in his heels and resist change. Though he may seem well disposed on the outside, on the inside he’ll never consider it. How could that work?”

Yan Hui said, “Then how about being inwardly straight and outwardly bending, having integrity but conforming to my superiors? By being in- wardly straight, I could follow Heaven. As a follower of Heaven, I would know that even the Son of Heaven and I are both children of Heaven. If I speak only for myself, why worry about the approval or disapproval of other people? I could be what people call childlike, which is what I mean by being a follower of Heaven.

“By being outwardly bending, I could follow other people. Lifting the ceremonial tablets, kneeling, bending, bowing—this is the etiquette of a minister. Others do it, why shouldn’t I? As long as I do what other people do, who can complain? This is what I mean by following people.

“Having integrity and conforming to superiors, one follows olden times. My words, whether they are in fact instructions or even criticisms, belong to antiquity; they are not my own. This way one can be straightforward without causing injury. This is what I mean by following olden times. Would that work?”

Kongzi said, “No! How could that work? You have too many policies. You are planning without reconnaissance. Even if you succeeded in avoid- ing blame, it would stop there. How could you hope to change him? You’re still making the mind your teacher.”

Yan Hui said, “I have nothing else to offer. May I ask what to do?”

Kongzi said, “You must fast! Let me explain. Is it easy to do anything with your mind? If you think it is, bright Heaven will not approve.”

Yan Hui said, “My family is poor. Indeed, I have not drunk wine or eaten any meat for months. Can this be considered fasting?”

Kongzi said, “That is the fasting one does before a sacrifice, not the fast- ing of the mind.”

“May I ask about fasting of the mind?”

“Unify your zhi 志, ‘plans.’ Do not listen with your ears but listen with your mind. Do not listen with your mind but listen with your qi. Listen- ing stops with the ear. The mind stops with signs. Qi is empty and waits on external things. Only the Way gathers in emptiness. Emptiness is the fasting of the mind.”

Yan Hui said, “Prior to receiving this instruction, I was full of thoughts of Hui. But having applied it, it’s as though Hui never existed. Is this what you mean by emptiness?”

The Master said, “Perfect. Let me tell you. You can go wander in his cage without being moved by his fame. If you’re getting through, sing. If not, stop. No schools. No prescriptions. Dwell in unity and lodge in what can- not be helped, and you’re almost there.

“To stop leaving tracks is easy. Not to walk upon the ground is hard.40 It’s easy to fake what people do. Faking what Heaven does is hard. You’ve heard of using wings to fly, but not of using no wings to fly. You’ve heard of using knowledge to know, but not of using no knowledge to know. Look up at the hole in the wall that fills the empty room with light. The blessed stop stopping. Not stopping means galloping while you sit. If you let the ears and the eyes communicate with the inside and banish knowledge out- side the mind, then even ghosts and spirits will come to dwell. Why not men? This is the transformation of ten thousand things, the secret of the ancient sages, not to mention ordinary people!” (Zhuangzi, ch. 2, Paul Kjellberg’s translation; Chinese text available here)

Some references mentioned in the episode

Esther Klein, “Were there ‘Inner Chapters’ in the Warring States?
Analects 14.34
Michael Stocker, “The Schizophrenia of Modern Ethical Theories
Robert Nozick, Philosophical Explanations (“Perhaps philosophers need arguments so powerful they set up reverberations in the brain: if the person refuses to accept the conclusion, he dies. How’s that for a powerful argument”)
Daryl Davis, musician who converted over 200 Ku Klux Klan members to give up their robes (see also this piece on Davis)
Martin Luther King Jr. on agape or unconditional love (brief discussion of Greek, Christian, and Gandhian influences)
David Wong, Moral Relativity (see chapter 13, “Moral Relativity and the Problem of Equal Worth”)
Jonathan Haidt, The Righteous Mind

We used the translation of the Zhuangzi by Paul Kjellberg in Readings in Classical Chinese Philosophy, 3rd edition

Other translations mentioned:
• Brook Ziporyn, Zhuangzi: The Complete Writings
• Burton Watson, The Complete Works of Zhuangzi
• Richard John Lynn, ZhuangziA New Translation of the Sayings of Master Zhuang as Interpreted by Guo Xiang


5 replies on “Episode 4 of “This Is the Way”: Daoist Persuasion”

  1. There was a request for feedback at the end of the podcast.
    I enjoyed the first four installments and like the diversity in both topics and approaches. It’s not scripted; discussions feel ‘live’ and the personal ‘digressions’ add some flavor (but are fortunately kept in check). The references on the webpage are a nice addition and facilitate further study,

    Listeners wishing for a more regular (linear-historical approach) can rest assured that Peter Adamson’s famous ‘History of philosophy without any gaps podcast series (440 Western philosophy, 62 Indian philosophy and 142 Africana philosophy podcasts) just started a new subseries on Chinese philosophy (in collaboration with Karyn Lai): Classical Chinese Philosophy | History of Philosophy without any gaps . Check it out.

    For ‘This is the way’ I hope for relatively ‘understudied’ topics, which includes almost anything beyond the Warring States period. I’m thinking of philosophers on the margins (like Ji Kang 嵇康, Li Zhi 李贄, Guo Xiang 郭象). Besides that the great Neo-Confucianist thinkers. I would also welcome topics like the ‘philosophy of/in the Honglou Meng 紅樓夢, Buddhism in the poems of Wang Wei 王維 (or Han Shan 寒山), self-cultivation techniques (including things like martial arts), divination (not just the old Yijing but also the practice in the Song dynasty and even modern practice; see the nice dissertation by Matthews: Cosmic Coherence; that might make a nice interview). And of course modern Chinese philosophers, Li Zehou 李泽厚 or Mou Zongsan 牟宗三 or the new Tianxia 天下 political philosophy of Zhao Tingyang, 赵汀阳.

    But feel free to surprise me in other ‘ways’!

    • Many thanks for this feedback, Carlo! We found it very valuable.

      We certainly do plan to have episodes on understudied topics. I myself am quite interested in many of the lesser-known thinkers, including Li Zhi and Guo Xiang. We thought that we would begin with the fundamentals but we aim to publish a new episode roughly every three weeks and expect to run the podcast series for years, so there will be plenty of time to explore unexpected and lesser-known topics.

      Glad that you don’t mind the digressions. We insert time-stamped links or “chapter headings” so that people can skip past the friendly chit-chat at the beginning if they’re so inclined. We also insert the chapter headings so that the episodes can be more easily adopted for classroom use (e.g., if the instructor asks students to react to a specific interpretive claim or metaphor and it is marked by us, then it will be easy for students to go back and listen to our discussion of that topic again).

      Yes, I am very excited to see that Peter Adamson and Karyn Lai will be covering the classical period! The podcast series is terrific and I know that they’ll do a great job.

    • Carlo Hover has had a technical problem replying to Justin, and asked me to post this for him:

      I enjoyed this podcast a lot because I agree that this Zhuangzi passage (while being the most concrete on the theme of the political handicraft) has received so little attention. Cook Ding, the joyful fish and the dreaming butterfly have generated countless articles in comparison.

      I was reminded of Seneca (4 BCE – 65 CE) who as a stoic philosopher bears some semblance to Yan Hui, although he was not an ‘persuader’ from the outside, but an insider. As his tutor and advisor he failed to influence Nero (who might be compared to the Lord of Wei) for the better and ultimately was forced to commit suicide.

      I also see a connection with the way the EU tried to handle Putin, believing in what the Germans termed ‘Wandel durch Handel’ (changing Russia into a more democratic society by doing trade with them). But the paradoxical effect of this strategy was not that Putin did change, but the various European states changed themselves in becoming more and more dependent on cheap Russian gas to keep their economies competitive, resulting in a situation that made it difficult for them to criticize Russia. Finally the Russian invasion in Ukraine has made clear that the strategy of ‘Wandel durch Handel’ had utterly failed, resulting in a ‘Zeitenwende’ (German prime minister Scholz) for Europe.

      I like the way the four ‘profiles’ are characterized in the podcast. As for the last profile, I think that for Zhuangzi Yan Hui should not even care whether the Lord of Wei betters his ways. He should not care because he can’t control it and any control that he would apply would have adverse effects. In this type of ‘not caring’ resonates Laozi 5 (straw dogs). But I also think that Zhuangzi would want Yan Hui to be careful not to hinder any internal (within the person of the Lord of Wei) or external (within the state of Wei) ‘self-so-ing’ developments that might propagate the demise of the Lord of Wei, knowing that extreme positions cannot be held for long (cf. Laozi 23). Zhuangzi would probably accept any ‘collateral damage’ that meanwhile would occur to the people of Wei, realizing that any intervention would be risky for the ‘persuader’ if it failed, but possibly also if it succeeded. We all know that the successful ‘regime change’ brought about in Iraq resulted within a few years in the rise of ISIS. It was and is the war on terrorism that creates ever more terrorism, just as the war on drugs creates more drug related violence. I’m living in The Netherlands and even our own Ministry of Foreign Affairs has acknowledged that an ethical urge to intervene in a foreign country (Afghanistan for instance) almost never leads to a success, because the commitment (in time and money) is mostly limited, and the intervention latches on to only a few of the great number of relevant variables that play a role. There is quite some evidence that these interventions in another state are often detrimental to the capacity of the people in that state to ‘do it themselves’ (Laozi 17, last line). A related example is how sending secondhand shoes and clothing as foreign ‘aid’ effectively destroys the local industry there. So, a Zhuangzian non-interventionist approach may often be wise, but is politically vulnerable because it seems weak. Politicians and administrators always prefer youwei over wuwei.

      Perhaps the last profile could better be called ‘no self’ or ‘no mind’ because only in such a state can one move into dangerous territory. Zhuangzi explains this in the wonderful metaphor of the empty boat in book 21. This might be linked to Laozi 51 where the sage has nothing to fear from tigers and other wild animals (because he poses no threat to them). ‘Fasting of the heart’ would then literally be not feeding the heart any preconceptions, opinions, intentions so as to truly become that empty boat.
      Kongzi is right that Yan Hui’s plans will fail because he has intentions that will always ‘leak’ through as we can learn from the seagull story in Liezi 7. The only ‘way’ not to leak any intention, is to have no intention at all. Easier said than done.

      Thanks for bringing up the topic and inspiring me to thinks about. Such a deep dive into a single passage is a very effective pedagogical strategy that you hopefully will use more in the podcast series.

  2. Hi Carlo,

    Thank you for these numerous insightful comments! There’s so much here that there’s now way to respond properly to all of them. Suffice it to say that over the years I’ve become much more anti-hawkish myself through the influence of people like John Mearsheimer and Robert Wright.

    I’m not sure though how Yan Hui could not care about whether the Lord of Wei becomes better or not. He certainly cares about the people, and the Lord of Wei becoming virtuous would be good for the people. Of course, you are right that it’s outside of our control, but I think we care about all sorts of things outside of our control (like my parents’ health, or the people of Israel and Gaza). So perhaps it’s not so much as not caring, but recognizing our limits and that sometimes (or often!) trying does not actually help bring about any positive outcome.

    Thank you again for listening the episodes and for your thoughtful points! We’ve been getting an increasing number of emails and are having a hard time responding to all of them, but rest assured that we are reading all the comments and thinking about them.

    • Hi Richard,

      Thanks for your reply!
      Sure, Yan Hui cares about the people, but he should not care about his own succes in converting the Lord of Wei (because that would make him act too intentional). And he should be aware that his care for the people might induce him to overzealous actions with regard to the Lord of Wei that could backlash against the very people he cares for.
      Care runs the risk of being partial, though not for the Mohists nor for Laozi (49: 善者吾善之不善者吾亦善之). So Yan Hui should care about the Lord of Wei as well. And now we should care about both the Palestinians and the Israelis, but what we see is an ever more polarizing world.

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