Mortality and Eternity

Reexaminations of Temporality in Chinese Texts
9:00 am – 10:45 am
Room 4

  • Organised by Ernest Billings Brewster
  • Joachim Gentz, Chair
  • Yiran Zhao, “Sick Body, Temporal Experience, and the Literary Self in Honglou meng
  • Ernest Billings Brewster, “What is Lost in Death? Xuanzang on the Temporality of the Physical Senses and the Mind”
  • Heejung Seo, “The Relationship between Space and Time in Zhuangzi 庄子—Focusing on the Concept of Death”
  • Yinlin Guan, “The Eternity and its Ethics in the Laozi

What is death? Is there life after death? How do we live, and live fully, with the awareness of our own mortality? The papers in this panel aim to illuminate how Chinese thinkers—within the domains of philosophy, religion, and literature—have grappled over time with the universal questions that are raised by the examination of the temporality of life. They engage with it on both a psychological level in terms of dealing with the anxiety and fear in facing the inevitability of morality, and a physical level in terms of grappling with the physical suffering involved in aging, sickness, and dying. The first paper probes how the teaching of Laozi on “staying with weakness” (Chi.: shou ruo 守弱) can be used to enhance the quality and longevity of life. The second paper investigates how Zhuangzi links his conceptualisation of space and time in the cosmos to human mortality. The third paper investigates how the theories about the constitution of the physical senses and the mind developed by Xuanzang address the existential anxiety that is related to mortality. The fourth paper examines how the theme of the sick body of Daiyu, the protagonist of Honglou meng, functions as a symbolic site of temporal experience and self-imagination. Taken together, this collection of papers reexamines how great Chinese thinkers, across two millennia, address the profound question of the temporality of life.

Yiran Zhao, “Sick Body, Temporal Experience, and the Literary Self In Honglou meng

Often described as having a naturally weak constitution, Lin Daiyu, the female protagonist in Honglou meng, may well be one of the most famous literary portraits of a patient of Chinese literature.  While Daiyu’s sick body tends to be associated with her ethereal beauty rather than a disturbing substance, the narrative devotes much more effort to depict how she is consistently perplexed and afflicted by it. Throughout the novel, the crucial anxiety over her sick body lies not in its physical pain, nor its performance in the household, but in its engagement with temporal experience and self-imagination: how through which its subject perceives changes and imagines herself over time, and how this could affect the way she thinks and acts. This paper hypothesises that the sick body of Daiyu functions as a crucial symbolic site where the existential qualities of selfhood and temporality are intricately connected. I start from the emplotment of Daiyu’s bodily deficiency in the mythical scheme, to manifest how her sick body could be read as a model of temporal engagement in the world of mortals. Then I look at two important modes when Daiyu’s sick body encounters temporality and selfhood, namely, simulating a death scenario and perceiving changes over temporal succession. My method is to analyse the narrative strategies and devices for making these significations explicit and visible. A careful examination of these literary connotations inscribed on Daiyu’s sick body is crucial to a better understanding of the novel’s temporal complexity in terms of constructing the literary self.

Ernest Billings Brewster, “What is Lost in Death? Xuanzang on the Temporality of the Physical Senses and the Mind”

This paper examines the Chinese scholar-monk Xuanzang’s (602–607) investigation into the nature of mortality. Xuanzang looks to Buddhism to grapple with dying and his fear of it. In his efforts to master his fear of dying, Xuanzang returns to the ancient Indic scriptures that describe the impermanence of life and the idea of no-self (Sanskrit.: anātman; Chinese: wu-wo無我). Tranquility comes to Xuanzang in his recognition that death marks a transition in the cycle of death and rebirth rather than the end of a person. Essentially, the doctrine of no-self means that the individual contains no singular or unchanging core that becomes reincarnated after death. For Xuanzang, the definition of death as the loss of an immortal soul is antithetical to the Buddhist ideal of liberation, the relinquishment of clinging to a permanent self. The doctrine of no-self presents a thorny question, however: when the individual dies, who or what dies? I will argue that Xuanzang’s development of the Buddhist doctrine of the faculties (Sanskrit: indriya; Chinese: gen根), the inherent mental and physical powers of sentient life, provides a rigorous account of the nature of death’s deprivation that is congruent with the Buddhist doctrine of no-self.

Heejung SEO, “The Relationship between Space and Time in Zhuangzi庄子 –Focusing on the Concept of Death

This article aims to examine the relationship between Space and Time in Zhuangzi’s thought of death through the fundamental interaction between Self (wo 我) and Things (wu 物) in the Zhuangzi Text. In Qiwulun chapter, Zhuangzi abandoned the attempt to recognize the truth. Nevertheless, for ordinary people in real life realizing truth is more important than merely knowing about the truth. In other words, if one succeeds in denying epistemological knowledge that is formed between oneself and things, and fundamentally reconstructs it as an empirical relationship, then all those problems that people are facing aren’t questions of cognitive knowledge, but about life itself. However, in order to return to life, one must disengage oneself from the concepts of space, time, and mortality thus can step into the life of “absolute freedom (独有)”, while at the same time, also can acquire the most practical gain, anming 安命. Once one has achieved the state “to rest content in one’s fate (安于命)” or obey one’s fate, one can cope with any suffering in his/her life that is caused by haphazardness or inevitability of death and achieve real freedom.

Yinlin Guan, “The Eternity and its Ethics in the Laozi

Death, being faced by all mankind in the human world, needs to be dealt with by any philosophy or religion, since it has a close relation to the issues of the existence of mankind as well as the meaning of the lives. As the end of life, death calls upon human beings to scrutinize, reflect and introspect on their existence and morality. The Laozi, in chapter 50, claims that human beings come forth and live, they enter the world and hurtle towards death. Contrasted with the eternity of the dao, human beings easily perish are destroyed. “How to live their lives for mankind?” becomes a radical question to answer. In this paper, I intend to argue that the Laozi emphasizes that human beings should act and live in accordance with the dao for the sake of prolonging their life-span, since the existence of the human being for the Laozi is the prerequisite of morality, social values and so on. Furthermore, I will argue that the doctrine of the dao, such as staying with the weakness 守弱, are so as to preserve the feature of the eternity and persistence of the dao. Having emulated the dao and cultivated themselves accordingly, human beings should live a long and simple life.

Event Timeslots (1)

Room 4
Reexaminations of Temporality in Chinese Texts