the other day i was complaining about the translation of the text of the wunengzi in john rapp's recent book daoism and anarchism. wunengzi (the "master of no abilities") was apparently a wandering daoist sage of the 9th century whose sayings were found on scraps of paper by a disiciple. i do not read chinese, so what i do below is this: i paraphrase the translation (attributed to catrina siu, edited by john rapp) into something that has something to do with the language that the text is being translated into.
i think the wunengzi is a fundamentally important text on multiple grounds. it shows that a persistent, explicit anarchist strain existed in taoism over centuries. (i certainly think it's there in the tao te ching and the chuang tzu.) but it is also an extremely interesting set of developments in taoist metaphysics, ethics, and so on.
Wunengzi, Part 1, Chapter 1
Some people say that there is an important distinction between human beings and other sorts of things. The truth is that the distinction between ourselves and birds, mammals, reptiles, or fish is something we invented. "But wait, people have consciousness and language!" Well, birds and beasts, even insects and worms, all want life and avoid death, construct nests, gather food, give birth to their young and protect them, and so do we; we are more similar to these things than we are different. And anyway, how do you know they're not conscious? Each species calls and chirps and screeches, each in its own way. What makes you think that isn't language? You're making our ignorance your argument. They're probably listening to us chatter and thinking that we're the ones without language or intelligence. We are very similar to all these creatures, though our bodies are a little different. The other birds and beasts are as different from one another as we are from them: neither the similarities nor the differences are particularly unusual. For that matter, we've got as many similarities with and differences from one another as we do with regard to them.
It's really too bad that we made such distinctions. The universe as a whole is sky and earth, yin and yang. We and the other creatures are part of it, immersed in its material flow (qi); we are of the same body. We're like fish in a river, like grasslands or woods in the mountains.
Originally, all creatures lived together indiscriminately, with no distinction or hierarchy between men and women, husbands and wives, fathers and sons, older and younger brothers. They slept in nests or caves, not in mansions or palaces. They hunted and ate what they found raw. There was no stealing or murder. The living moved around; the dead keeled over; there were no funeral rites. They followed the world: there was no ruling or shepherding one another. In their original simplicity, they lived long lives.
At some point, a group of naked animals began to call themselves 'people'. They tried to establish rules so they could dominate the animals with feathers, fur, and scales. They taught themselves sowing and planting and began to use the plow. They made axes and cut trees and made bricks to build palaces. They instituted marriage and the hierarchical distinctions between men and women, fathers and sons, older and younger brothers. They made nets to catch the other creatures, and developed a taste for prepared food. Their simplicity gave way to selfishness, and they thought all these distinctions were natural. Those that held themselves to be 'intelligent' appointed a leader, and everyone else was his servant. He could control the multitude, but they couldn't control him. From this came the distinction between ruler and ruled, the exalted and the lowly.
Eventually, a whole human hierarchy was established by the "wise" and "intelligent". Material wealth distinguished high and the low, and only the rich could satisfy their desires. Sometimes they called the wise and intelligent ones 'sages'.
Soon, the disgraced became envious of the honored, the poor became envious of the wealthy; these distinctions drew everyone into conflict. The people who called themselves sages were worried, and they said, "We separated ourselves from the other creatures by calling ourselves 'people'; then we separated ourselves from one another into rulers and ruled. Then we created a hierarchy of wealth and rank, which inflames everyone's greed. We honored people for being wealthy and they taxed the poor and disgraced them. Now we live in a world of chaos: of crazy desires, competitiveness, and mutual destruction."
One among the "sages" arose and said "I have a plan!" He [Confucius] taught benevolence, loyalty, truthfulness, and that the people could be regulated by ritual and music. When a ruler oppressed his subjects, he was to be called cruel, and his government illegitimate. In turn, the ruler would call them traitors. A father should be criticized for not loving his son, he taught, a son for not obeying his father, a younger brother for being unfilial to his elder, married people for not being faithful. People, the sage taught, should sorted out by how they behaved: the right should be honored and the wrong disgraced, so that people would find pleasure in doing right and pain in doing wrong. This succeeded in suppressing conflict to some extent for some time.
But as time went on, things again broke down; people turned their backs on benevolence, truthfulness, and loyalty, and they transgressed the standards for ritual and music that the sage had set. Then the people who thought themselves wise decided to crack down. They established laws and punishments and organized armies and police forces to constrain people. When there were small offenses, they punished people. For big offenses, they sent armies to kill people. Prisons and whips spread over the country. Spears and pikes and bows and arrows spread out into the world. Families were destroyed, whole kingdoms full of people were annihilated. Too many people died to count. People sank into poverty and starved; it spread everywhere.
The original problem was distinguishing ourselves from the animals as something higher, and then thinking of some people - in their mansions and palaces, with their fine meals - as higher than others. Honoring some and disgracing others made people want to hurt each other; imposing benevolence, ritual, music distorted people's spontaneity. Imposing laws and punishments and armies immiserated people and made them lose what was essential; together in great numbers they died. They could not revive the past. It was the fault of those who thought themselves wise.