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Meijun Fan, John Cobb, and Zhihe Wang in Claremont, California, March 5, 2017

​Coronavirus is not an enemy rather a courier

Originally published: Open Horizons by Meijun Fan and Zhihe Wang (April 2020)

The worldwide COVID-19 is a tragedy, not only for the lives lost and for the ones suffering illness, but also for all of us in the world since we live in a same global village and are deeply interconnected. Additionally, it is a unique opportunity for us to help each other, to cooperate each other, and to surmount the ravages of disease and death.  With this in mind, it is important to remember that COVID-19 as an ecological crisis and a transformational moment, is an invitation for us to deeply rethink our relationship with nature and our relationship with others (other people, other countries, other cultures). Many philosophies and traditions have rich resources to make significant contributions to this reflection. This paper offer a reflection on COVID-19 from a Chinese point of view.

Chinese Daoist Thinking

When we say “Chinese”, we mainly refer to Dao thinking which is based on but not limit to Daoism/Taoism. According to Lu Xun, one of the most prominent modern Chinese writers, “All roots of Chinese culture lie in the Daoism.

To us, Chinese thinking can be regarded as a form of process-relational thinking due to the deep convergences between Whitehead’s process philosophy and Chinese culture. Whitehead, the contemporary founder of process philosophy (or philosophy of organism), and constructive postmodernism, observes that his “philosophy of organism seems to approximate more to some strains of Indian, or Chinese, thought, than to western Asiatic, or European thought. One side makes process ultimate; the other side makes fact ultimate.” We agree. When we read and study Whitehead’s philosophy, we hear something that feels deeply Chinese to us.

As a form of process-relational thinking, Chinese Dao thinking has been playing a vital part in Chinese mentality for centuries. “The value of Dao lies in its power to reconcile opposites on a higher level of consciousness.” To use this power to reach a balanced way of living and a higher integration rather than ‘going to the extreme’ is the essence of Dao.

It is Dao thinking, then, that pictures the universe as an organic whole and sees it as “a flowing process of which humans are an integral part and encourages them to dwell in harmony with the larger whole.” In Roger Ames’ words, “at the core of the classical Chinese worldview is the cultivation of harmony.” Likewise, Whiteheadian philosophy conceives human beings as an organic component of Wanwu (Ten Thousand things). For Whitehead as for Taoism, humans seek harmony with the greater whole and find their satisfaction, their wholeness, in this harmony.  For us, Whiteheadian philosophy is indeed Chinese in tone and substance.

We wish that more Chinese knew about Dao thinking. Unfortunately, the process-relational tradition has been oppressed in China due to the Chinese first enlightenment. This first enlightenment was embodied in the May Fourth Movement and New Culture movement in the early 20th century. It copied the European enlightenment and was characterized by “the total abandonment of tradition”. Nevertheless, the harsh reality of ecological crisis facing China challenged people to revalue this tradition with the help of Whiteheandian process thought and constructive postmodernism. The Chinese government’s promotion of ecological civilization also has immensely fueled the resurgence of this tradition. In this spirit we offer the following observations.

Wisdom from Daoism

COVID-19 is not a mere public health crisis but an ecological crisis. Thus far, a great deal of people have conceived COVID-19 of a mere public health issue. Accordingly much focus is put on improving detection means and inventing a vaccine as soon as possible. People are dying to find the remedy to coronavirus.

There is little doubt that all of these efforts should be appreciated. But the point is that no vaccine can be invented overnight. We are told by Anthony Fauci, head of the National Institutes of Allergy and Infectious Disease, that “a coronavirus vaccine will take at least 18 months—if it works at all.” Even if the vaccine is invented 18 months later and works well, it may or may not work on mutations of the original coronavirus. According to The Reykjavík Grapevine in Iceland, an individual who tested positive for COVID-19 in Iceland has been infected by two strains of the virus simultaneously. The second strain is a mutation of the original novel coronavirus. It is thought the mutated second strain could be more malicious or infectious, because people infected by the dual-strain patient were only found to have the second strain. If this is the case, the virus could be mutating to become more infectious over time. “This is just one of the startling new discoveries that have been uncovered from its analysis of the genetic sequences of 40 COVID-19 strains found in Iceland.”

More important, we will ignore the more fundamental causes of the COVID-19 if we treat it as a mere public health issue and not also as an ecological crisis. As Greta Thunberg said at the 24th meeting of the United Nations climate conference: “We can’t solve a crisis without treating it as a crisis.” Treating COVID-19 as a mere medical issue would make us exclusively rely on medical science and passively count on medical doctors. If we regard COVID-19 as an ecological crisis, it requires a brand new thinking, a comprehensive, organic thinking which treats COVID-19 as political, economic, philosophical, ethical, and psychological issue.

We recommend Dao thinking. According to Dao or process-relational thinking, everything is closely related to one another. The COVID-19 crisis is a result of many causes. This means that tackling COVID-19 should be carried out in a multi-faceted way. Therefore it will require everybody’s active participation, and everyone including scientists, economists, educators, philosophers, government officials, ordinary people should take some responsibilities. We should rethink our development model our way of thinking, our way of living, our way of consumption, our way of production, our dietary habit s, and our education system, etc. All of them are closely related to the cause and cure of COVID-19.

Not An Enemy but a Courier

One place to begin is to recognize that the new corona virus is not an enemy but a messenger. As a courier, it reminds us that nature is crucial to humans’life and livelihood. In the words of the preeminent process philosopher John Cobb, Jr., who first pioneered the intersection of ecology, ethics, and philosophy, “A healthy biosphere is important to human well being. Its loss impoverishes our lives.”

For those of us who adopt Dao thinking, nature is not a mere “environment” external to human life. On the contrary, nature actually is part of our body; it constitutes ourselves to a great extent, it is ourselves. We are nature; nature is us; we are one. In the famous words of Zhuangzi/Chuang-tzu, a defining figure in Chinese Taoism, “Heaven, Earth, and I were produced together, and all things and I are one.”(“天地与我并生,而万物与我为一”) Each human being is regarded by Daoism as a small universe which is closely related to the big universe.

​The Neijing tu (Chart of the Inner Warp), a Daoist chart of the human body, clearly illustrates that the inner connection between the two universes and shows that the little universe–our body is part of the big universe, the nature. “There is thus no human being/natural environment dualism in Taoism.” Every breath we take clearly shows the intrinsic connection between ourselves and nature, between our little universe and the big universe. In Rod Giblett’s words,

Human bodies are co-extensive with and identical to natural environs, principally the bioregion in which one lives and works, which sustains one being.

From such a holistic perspective of oneness of nature and humans, Daoism pays much attention to the dependence of human beings on nature. It stresses that maintaining the harmony and peace of the whole natural world is the crucial prerequisites for humans’ survival and development. According to Taipingjing, “The fate of humans lies in the hands of heave and earth. If human beings want to live safely, they must ensure the safety of heave and earth first, then they can gain their own prosperity.” Likewise, if nature lose balance, “If heaven and earth are not in harmony, human beings can not enjoy the natural span of their life.” That means that human beings can not survive without nature. You can survive without BMW and diamond ring, but you cannot survive without air and water. The new corona virus draws us back to this common sense. It makes us realize how invaluable nature is and realize that protecting nature actually is protecting ourselves.

In short, it is time to forsake the imperialist attitude to nature and put humans in the right place in the universe. It is time to realize that all creatures have irreplaceable worth and  no one is expendable. It is time to pay respect to nature as our lifeblood. In Cobb’s words, “Human beings have a kind of responsibility for the whole that no other creature has.” It is time to abandon the extractive economy based on exploiting nature, it is time to care for our body as part of nature. Practically speaking, this means the avoidance of junk food and nurturing the body with healthy, organic food, by virtue of the homology of medicine and food. To Daoism,

the outside crises and dangers can only be overcome by transforming them within us, by purifying and reshaping them through the harmony of our body.

The need for a second enlightenment

The tiny Corona virus explodes the myth of The First Enlightenment as theoretical foundation of modernity and modernization when almost all modern systems such as political system, economic system, education, medical system are out of order facing COVID-19’s lash. Their  inefficiencies, incompetency, and disregard for life which caused a great deal of unnecessary loss and death, make people reflect on the fact that the First Enlightenment originated from western Europe. This reminds us of Whitehead’s prediction: “The moment of dominance, prayed for, worked for, sacrificed for, by generations of the noblest spirits, marks a turning point where the blessing passes into the curse.” Although it brought with many gifts — science, democracy, and an emphasis on the rights of individuals — it also brought many liabilities from which the world now suffers: a neglect of the value of the earth, a rejection of traditional wisdom (including the wisdom of rural peoples), an overemphasis on reason at the expense of intuition and beauty, extreme individualism, and radical nationalism as an enlarged edition of individualism. In order to create an ecological civilization, our time need a more holistic enlightenment–a Second Enlightenment. This Second Enlightenment can combine wisdom from both sources and encourage people from different parts of the world to discover a global spirit that unites us all. This global spirit will not swallow the many cultures of the world in a spirit of sameness; it will instead encourage people to understand “their unique place in the broader human narrative.”  There is more wisdom in all the tradition than in any taken alone. We call this “complementary consciousness.”

If the First Enlightenment favored individualism, then the Second Enlightenment would appreciate a postmodern communitarianism which would create bigger space for an individual’s freedom; If the First Enlightenment was a solo, then the Second Enlightenment would be a symphony to which each culture has an important role to play. If the core values of the first Enlightenment were promoting individual freedom, then the second Enlightenment’s would be “respecting others”. Here, “others” refer to not only nature and all sentient beings including virus, but also include other nations and other cultures and other traditions. As a defining pioneer of the second enlightenment, Whitehead used to warn people of the dangerous  “Gospel of uniformity”, for him, “Other nations of different habits are not enemies: they are godsends. Men require of their neighbours something sufficiently akin to be understood, something sufficiently different to provoke attention, and something great enough to command admiration.”

When we trace back the process of COVID-19’s spread, we can see clearly that gospel of uniformity with arrogance played a destructive role in causing so much unnecessary loss and death. That is partly explain why the West countries did not take defensive measures when China worked very hard and perseveringly to tackle the COVID-19. Of course, China had made some mistakes due to its various bureaucracy and formalisms when facing the sudden unexpected COVID-19. But as a nation believing Dao thinking whose way of life “is based on compassion, respect, and love for all things,”China opened to the change, and quickly corrected its mistakes and basically controlled the disease in 2 months by taking its advantage of institutional strengths. The west countries were so arrogant, so ignoring the China’s lesson that they lost the priceless 2 months China bought for the whole world at the cost of huge economic loss. Just because the message came from China, a socialist country, just because Chinese culture is a non-western culture.

Due to the arrogant Western centrism based on the first enlightenment, only competition not harmony was worshiped, only western medicine not alternative medicine was trusted. We have noted that a great deal of people like to use the such language as “fighting the disease” or “fighting the virus” when they talk about the new corona virus. This is a logical consequence of treating the new corona virus as an enemy.

If we regard it as a messenger or as a sign which tells us there is something wrong with our body, and system, there is an unbalance in our system in general, in our body in particular, then we should appreciate it and learn to peacefully exist with them rather than trying every effort to kill it.

Not treating new corona virus as an enemy makes us avoid totally relying on the Western medicine, which is good at killing germs, accordingly open to alternative medicine. Beyond any doubt, the western medicine that relies in part on the germ theory of disease has its advantages. But the overuse of antibiotics has also caused a great deal of side effects. It is said that some critical infected patients in Wuhan died in the overuse of antibiotics. On the contrary, Chinese medicine more focuses on enhancing the immunity of the whole system rather than killing germs.

It is a miracle for China to control the spread of corona virus in almost two months. Many reasons can explain China’s success. In our opinion, the combination of Chinese traditional and Western medicine based on the second enlightenment played an instrumental role in treating the new corona virus epidemic. A study shows that the highest cure rate and lowest mortality rate did not happen in rich cities such as Beijing and Shanghai who have developed economy and advanced Western medicine system, but happened in some “poor” provinces who are  economically backward but have strong Chinese medicine system.

Take Haozhou City of Hanhui Province as an example, it has no longer any infected patients by March 5, the 108 infected patients had totally recovered. Its cure rate is 100%, mortality rate is zero. What is the secret of their success? Their secret lies in comprehensive thinking, a Daoist thinking which integrated western medicine and Chinese medicine to treat the infected patients. Haozhou with 6.56 million population is famous for Chinese medicine and was regarded as “capital of Chinese medicine.” Based on Dao thinking, the Chinese doctors in Haozhou regard each patient as a different organic whole. They not only treated the infected patients with Chinese medicine by offering different prescriptions to different patients in accordance with their condition, but also provided some additional treatments with Haozhou characteristics such as practicing “Huatuo Wuqinxi” (Five Animal play), “ear acupoint therapy”, and Chinese medicinal diet in order to improve patients’ immunity and quickly recover their pulmonary function. If the judgment Dr. Dingyu Zhang, director of Jinyintang Hospital in Wuhan who treated 1500 patients, is right that “COVID-19 actually is a self limited disease and almost all of infected patients can be cured”, then enhancing our immunity rather than exclusively looking to the invention of the vaccine becomes extremely important. As an application of Dao thinking, The Yellow Emperor’s Inner Classic (Huangdi Neijing, 黃帝內經) put prevention in the priority, according to which, “The best doctor treats un-occurred disease, the better treat occurring disease, the inferior treats occurred disease.” Regarding the preventing from COVID-19 and other diseases, no one is better than ourselves to undertake this task. In other words, we are our own doctor as well as the doctor of the universe. As Kristofer Schipper put it, “To regulate the world, we have to cultivate ourselves, to tend our inner landscape.” As a lesson from the COVID-19, this cultivation of self rather than self-indulgence should be an important component of the second enlightenment.


About the authors

Meijun Fan, Ph.D is the co-director of the China Project at the Center for Process Studies, Claremont; the program director of the Institute for Postmodern Development of China; the editor-in-chief of Cultural Communication, a Chinese newspaper. She completed her doctoral studies at Beijing Normal University and master program at Peking University. Her areas of specialty include Chinese traditional aesthetics, process and aesthetical education. She has authored several books including: Contemporary Interpretation of Chinese Traditional Aesthetic (1997), The Popular Aesthetics in Qing Dynasty (2001), and The Second Enlightenment  with Zhihe Wang (2011). Contact: claremontmei@gmail.com

Zhihe Wang, Ph.D. is director of the Institute for Postmodern Development of China. He was born in Beijing and got his Ph.D in Philosophy from Claremont Graduate University. His areas of specialty include process philosophy, constructive postmodernism, ecological civilization, and second enlightenment. His recent publications include: Second Enlightenment (with Meijun Fan, 2011); Process and Pluralism: Chinese Thought on the Harmony of Diversity ( Ontos Verlag, 2012). Contact: Zhihe Wang: claremontwang2011@qq.com

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