Daoism, Dandyism, and Political Correctness
Political Correctness (PC) is a measure that attempts to prevent all expressions or actions that could offend or marginalize certain people or groups of people. It aims to spread justice and fairness by making the public sensitive towards vulnerable parts of the population. Starting in the 1970s as an ironic self-criticism of leftists, PC would soon be appropriated by various political groups. It would also generate much criticism. Many of PC’s policies are used to define and correct language, especially linguistic markers of race, gender, and sexual orientation. The belief that altering language usage will change the public’s perception of reality and, finally, reality itself, has led to an important reform of personal pronouns and gender pronouns. Certain pronouns were amended, and new ones were defined. Since the late 1980s, the idea of “inclusive language” is an important part of Western culture. In 2016, the State of New York issued a list with thirty-one “protected genders.”
How would Zhuangzi (also Zhuang Zhou or Chuang Tzu), a Chinese philosopher who lived in the 4th century BC, have reacted to these linguistic reforms? Zhuangzi is a pivotal figure of Daoism, which is, alongside Confucianism, one of the great philosophical systems of China. Zhuangzi was a language skeptic, which means that he did not believe that language could convey the true meanings of the world. This view opposed Daoism to Confucianism, which is famous for its vast “language correction project.” Confucianism required clear standards for the use of names because Confucians thought that “if names be not correct, language is not in accordance with the truth of things.”[i] Daoists insisted that “names are arbitrary.” The Zhuangzi[ii] provocatively holds that the name is not the real thing and that “a dog could be a sheep.”[iii]
Does the Zhuangzi’s position join some of the criticism with which the PC discourse is confronted in our times? Critics of PC, such as John Lea, believe that PC’s purpose is “to induce correct opinion rather than to search for wisdom and liberate the mind” (Lea: 29). More radically, Doris Lessing writes that PC, just like Communism “debase[s] language and, with language, thought” (Lessing 1994). Does this reflect the Zhuangzi’s position about language? Would Zhuangzi have argued that PC creates a (linguistic) dream world made of rules, policies, and words that is no more real than “Zhuangzi dreaming that he is a butterfly”? The Butterfly Parable, which is the most famous text in the Zhuangzi, says:
Once upon a time, I dreamt I was a butterfly, fluttering hither and thither, to all intents and purposes a butterfly. I was conscious only of my happiness as a butterfly, unaware that I was myself. Soon I awaked, and there I was, veritably myself again. (trans. Giles: 47)
The Butterfly Parable is the last text to appear in the Zhuangzi’s chapter called “Adjustment of controversies” (also translated as “The Equalization of Things”), which deals with the topic of “transformation.” In the parable, Zhuangzi does not know whether he is a butterfly dreaming that he is Zhuangzi or whether Zhuangzi is dreaming that he is a butterfly. Daoism undermines identity, reality, and language, and thus also gender identity and gender reality, as they are expressed through language.
The provocative sentence that “a dog could be a sheep” fascinated the Irish writer Oscar Wilde, who was one of the first readers of the Zhuangzi when it appeared translated by Herbert Giles in 1890. Young Wilde wrote one of the first reviews of the book and arguably designed his theory of “dandyism” in accordance with some of its principles. Dandyism was a provocative fashion movement that was very influential in the nineteenth-century upper strata of English and French societies. One of dandyism’s most prominent characteristics is that it questions the rules and codes of correctness in language and behavior.
The link between dandyism and Daoism has been established by other scholars. Oscar Wilde did not just write the review of the Zhuangzi, but influences or coincidental parallels between the philosophy of Daoism and Wilde’s dandyism are multiple. Jerusha McCormack sees both Zhuangzi and Wilde as “contrarians,” that is, as people who “think against prevailing conventions in a way that appears to be systematically perverse, hence ‘contrary’ to the dominant discourse” (McCormack: 77). Historically, Wilde’s anti-Victorianism mirrors Daoist anti-Confucianism because “the kind of society advocated by Confucius and that of high Victorian England had many similarities” (78). Daoism was against Confucianism, and Wilde fought the puritan Victorian moral earnestness of his society, ultimately being imprisoned for homosexuality. Both Zhuangzi and Wilde combated similar “sanitizing” social tendencies and undermined a certain form of “correctness” by using peculiar counter-methods reaching from the aesthetic to the anarchic.
In this book, I want to widen the spectrum and look not only at Oscar Wilde, but also at dandyism more generally. I put a special focus on the founder of dandyism, George “Beau” Brummell, who is, I believe, a truly Daoist figure. Brummell fought hypocrite aristocratic culture not, like Wilde, during the Victorian era, but roughly seventy years earlier, during the English Regency era. Charles Baudelaire, another dandy who lived in France a little later,[iv] explains that dandyism appears “in periods of transition, when democracy is not yet all-powerful, and aristocracy is only just beginning to totter and fall.” For Baudelaire, Dandyism is the “last spark of heroism amid decadence” (Baudelaire 1986: 28). The Regency era, the time during which dandyism most consistently developed in England, was an unstable period submitted to great social, political, and economic change, which creates a parallel with China. Daoism thrived during the Warring States Period (475–221 BC), which was a time of political division in which feudal systems were verging on decay. The situation resembled that of the Holy Roman Empire in its decadence. However, it was also an era of great cultural and intellectual expansion, and the thoughts and ideas of this period remain important to this day in many Asian countries.
The Zhuangzi presents a variety of “counterheroes,” such as the drunkard who masters the “art” of falling from a cart without getting hurt, or the swimmer who dives into the most dangerous waterfall without drowning. These protagonists excel at “useless arts,” and the dandy could very well be another example of such unlikely characters. Brummell spent five hours in front of the mirror binding his tie, and, equally meticulously, waxed his shoes down to the soles. He excelled at these activities like nobody else, but his art remains useless. What is this philosophy that attempts to make statements by engaging in useless activities? The concept of dandyism can be better understood by viewing it in the light of Daoism. Both the Daoist and the dandy do nothing, but they do “nothing” in a particular way. “Of petty uselessness great usefulness is achieved,” says the Zhuangzi.[v] Both dandyism and Daoism adhere to an idle but fluid moving around, for which, in the nineteenth century, the word flâner was coined. The dandy is a flâneur, and in Daoism, yóu (遊) stands for a similarly aimless roaming, rambling, or sauntering. Yóu has been translated as “going rambling without a destination” or “free and easy wandering.” While Confucians focus on moral and personal duty, the Zhuangzi promotes carefree wandering.
Wilde conceives of “uselessness” as a protest against the new business-like lifestyle that keeps people, not roaming, but running. Running after money, but also running after the right ethics, through preaching, philanthropy, and mutual surveillance. In his review of the Zhuangzi, Wilde criticizes much of what we would today call “neoliberal culture.” A rigorous and puritanical economy-based culture, not very ethical with regards to its economic principles (the Victorian age was the great age of British colonies), but issuing “politically correct” ethical appeals wherever it can:
The doctrine of the uselessness of all useful things would not merely endanger our commercial supremacy as a nation but might bring discredit upon many prosperous and serious-minded members of the shop-keeping classes. What would become of our popular preachers, our Exeter Hall orators, our drawing-room evangelists? (Wilde 1919: 186)
What would Brummell have said about Political Correctness? The Trésor de la langue française defines the dandy as somebody who has a total “disregard for social conventions and the ethics of the bourgeoisie.” The dandy is famous for his transgressive play not only with social rules but also with names. In one anecdote Brummell goes to a certain Mrs Thompson’s ball without being invited but hopes to be able to get in together with his friend the Prince Regent George. Unfortunately, George is late. Brummell makes “his best bow” and, “leisurely feeling in all his pockets to prolong the chances of the Prince’s arrival,” presents Mrs Thompson with the invitation card to a certain Mrs. Johnson, who is Mrs Thompson’s rival in the East. “‘That card, sir, is a Mrs Johnson’s; my name is Thompson.” Brummell remains “perfectly cool” and replies: “Dear me, how very unfortunate! Really, Mrs Johns – Thompson, I mean, I am very sorry for this mistake; but you know, Johnson and Thompson – and Thompson and Johnson, are really so much the same kind of thing” (from Jesse: I, 101). This is Brummell’s version of “The Equalization of Things.”
The dandy is very much aware of the importance given to names and titles, but he intentionally disrespects them. The dandy is incorrect, but this does not mean that he simply neglects all conventions and acts carelessly. On the contrary, the dandy masters the conventions and ethics of the upper class better than anybody else. He challenges the rules of correctness, but he does so in such a polished way that it shames the most fervent defenders of correctness. His behavior could therefore be termed “polite incorrectness.” Political correctness is about being a perfect gentleman, always using perfect language. The dandy does not combat this concept by simply being “incorrect” but creates his own, parallel idea of the “incorrect gentleman” that he practices to perfection.
Nor does dandyism engage in a Confucian “correction” of names. Dandyism is instead tempted by what Daoism calls the playful “chaotification” of names. Western thought is obsessed with the power of language. Wrong essences (essentializations) need to be corrected by correcting language. From a Daoist point of view, PC invents new terms not in order to overcome essentialist thinking but to create new essences. The Daoist strategy is entirely different. For the Zhuangzi, human reason sets formal limitations to everything, and the mind puts essences in order so that something solid will be established around us. The mind constructs a reality, but this is not “real” reality. Seen from a Daoist point of view, Political Correctness is part of this project of reason. As Dao transcends distinctions, it necessarily also transcends gender distinctions.
The Dao is not the “correct way.” Daoist “heroes” like Robber Zhi are blunt and irreverent, constantly speaking up against hypocrisy and Confucian stiffness; they are the contrary of the politically correct. Knowing the Way does not require etiquette, it does not consist of learning the formal rules of good manners or correct behavior. “Knowing the Way” is rather a matter of “useless but efficient play,” and both Daoism and dandyism develop this philosophical concept. The flâneur never stops but sees men and women pass by while he is walking. Similar to the Daoist engaging in yóu, his view “is constituted in multiple respects by our relation to the landscape” (Moeller and D’Ambrosio: 11). As the flâneur moves around in life “with unspectacular excellence and spontaneity” (164), he has no time to confer pronouns upon the men and women that pass by. The dandy is not a language reformer, but he looks at society, men, women, transgender people, and many others in a detached way. As the Daoist-dandy strolls through society, he sees social reality, not in terms of rules, speech codes and other essences, but rather as a unified totality of cultural existences that remains full of ambiguities. And both dandies and Daoists play with these ambiguities.
[i] Analects Book XIII, Chapter 3, verses 4–7, 263-264.
[ii] Zhuangzi (or Zhuang Zhou or Chuang Tzu) is a historical figure who lived in the 4th century BC in China whereas the Zhuangzi is a compilation of his and others’ writings to which I will refer most of the time. “Zhuangzi” refers thus to the author whereas “the Zhuangzi” refers to the book.
[iii] “犬可以為羊.”Legge translates: “A dog might have been (called) a sheep.” In Miscellaneous Chapters 天下 - Tian Xia. Translations of the Zhuangzi by Legge come, unless otherwise indicated, from The Chinese Text Project (see Zhuangzi in bibliography).
[iv] Baudelaire can be called the “middle generation” of dandyism as he was nineteen when Brummell died. Wilde was thirteen when Baudelaire died. Brummell: 1778 – 1840; Baudelaire: 1821 – 1867; Wilde: 1854 – 1900.
[v] Same headnote to Chapter 4 in Giles’ translation.
Baudelaire, Charles. 1986 . The Painter of Modern Life and other Essays (trans. J. Mayne). New York: Da Capo Press. French: Le Peintre de la vie moderne (Œuvres complètes III). Pari: Calmann Lévy, 1885.
Jesse, William. 1844. The Life of George Brummell. London: Saunders and Otley.
Lea, John. 2008. Political Correctness and Higher Education: British and American Perspectives. New York: Routledge.
Lessing, Doris. 1992. “Political Correctness.” New York Times June 22.
McCormack, Jerusha. 2017. ”Oscar Wilde: As Daoist Sage” in M Bennett (ed.), Philosophy and Oscar Wilde. New York: Palgrave, 73-103.
Moeller, Hans-Georg and Paul J. D’Ambrosio. 2017. Genuine Pretending: On the Philosophy of the Zhuangzi. New York: Columbia University Press.
Wilde, Oscar. 1919. “A Chinese Sage” in A Critic in Pall Mall: Being Extracts from Reviews and Miscellanies. London: Methuen, 177-187.
Zhuangzi. “The Adjustment of Controversies 齊物論” (trans. James Legge) in The Chinese Text Project