Spirit & Enlightenment

By Dr. Huang Ju
Shijiazhaung Pomological Research Institue
Hobei Province, People’s Republic of China

Dr. Huang Ju of the Shijiazhaung Pomological Research Institute in Hobei Province of the People’s Republic of China exposes different yet complementary values of cultural entomology from a Chinese perspective in a couple of papers entitled “Human Spiritual Life and Insects”, “Enlightenment from Insects.”

In China, a scientific perspective on human/insect relationships focuses on material properties of silk, honey, colorants, pest control, livestock sickness, crop destruction, and edible and medicinal insects. Although never studied as a subject, insects play an equally important role in our spiritual lives. In fact, insects represent the majority of life on the planet and the influences they exert on us touch almost every aspect of our culture. Their actions as individuals and societies illustrate our biological relatedness and remind us of the importance of being in harmony with nature. Chinese people have a general reverence and appreciation for nature that allows them to understand insects as an important part of nature. This understanding has lead to an extensive incorporation of insect within Chinese philosophy and aesthetic symbolism.

Cultural Entomology
Insects influence many realms of human cultural existence including literature, poetry, music, art, photography, amusement and aesthetics. Due to their relationship with traditional Chinese philosophy, insects have played an important role within Chinese spiritual life since ancient times. The leading ideology of Chinese philosophy differs from that of occidental philosophies. Occidental philosophy holds human nature and rights in the utmost esteem, putting individuals and personality above all things; whereas, Chinese philosophy considers humans and nature as one of the same and that individuals are component parts of existence. The philosophy promotes real freedom and happiness by exercising self-control and coming into nature. Observing and appreciating natures details results in a state of transcendence and placidity of the soul that has been a key influence in Chinese art and amusement. Chinese works of art differ from Occidental art; the latter portraying man as the principal subject with nature forming the incidental background. Chinese philosophy shows a full understanding of the greatness and charm of nature and harmonious rhythms. With this understanding, the Chinese include insects into almost every form of art, perhaps more so than any other country or people. To name a few: insect-grass paintings; Qi Bashi’s interesting cicada, locust, and butterfly paintings; exquisite Tang Poetry; and charming, descriptive Song Poetry.

Even Chinese farmers, with hand-me-down education from the elders, and a lack of affluence, have found substitutes for more sumptuous pleasures in an appreciation and eulogy for nature. Folk pleasures are closely entwined with insects. Cricket-fighting is an ancient and very popular form of entertainment carrying the same household recognition as bull-fighting has in Spain. During the winter, a box is carved and ornamented to enclose a green bean and a lively cricket. The cricket’s crooning and the bean’s fragrance brings great enjoyment through the association with the quiet of the fields, the fragrance of flowers, and the serenity of the forest. The upper-class popularization of this folk amusement evolved into gambling-based cricket fights although some touching literature has resulted from this cricket/man relationship such as a story named “Cu Zhi” within a book called “Strange Tales of Liao-Zhai” written by Pu Sonlin. There are numerous insect based stories in Chinese literature including “Small Hound” , “A Girl in Green” , and “Butterfly.” Perhaps the most famous one is a story about a pair of lovers turning into butterflies and flying out of the control of their families. (“Liang Shan-po and Zhu Ying-tai”)

Insects are found in a diverse spectrum of Chinese art and handicraft. Mirroring the people’s love of insects, imagery can be found in ivory-carvings, paper-cuttings, iron-pictures, embroidery, chinaware and folk straw weaving. The artistic forms are generally life-filled and natural unlike Occidental insect art that can be characterized as either caricaturish or scientifically illustrated. Insects have also influenced the cicada-like Chinese ink produced in Anhui and the Chinese sport of mantis-fist in Wushu. Stamps and music containing insects are common all over the world and differ only in their characteristic styles. Chinese art can be characterized by the subconscious abstraction of form into the true essence of spirit. The free hand of the Chinese painting with the abstract beauty of its pattern is more similar to the natural object in spirit than to its form. Many inclusions of insects in practical applications can be found including an ancient brass car unearthed in Xian that possessed a bridal in the form of a cicada. Herein lies a wealth of references deserving more careful study.

Chinese insect references in the arts and crafts are inspired by a spiritual search for natural beauty and nature’s transcendence. A careful study comparing Occidental insect art verses Chinese art will reveal the different spiritual components. The Chinese philosophy seeks the transcendence of not only form but also of spirit, whereas, Western philosophy tends to be limited to scientifically defined reality.

The Chinese also note the similarities of existence found ubiquitous throughout the living world including those between insects and humans. This attention further illustrates the Chinese understanding of mankind’s relatedness to nature. Such similarities include the instinct to reproduce, and to survive as a species. Philosophical beliefs are inspired by observing the rhythms of nature and what successful species have to do in order to survive. A scientifically inspired domination attitude towards nature will only result in our destruction as a species. To summarize, humans must carefully protect its genetic diversity. They must stay active, varied, and ready to change and improve themselves as individuals and as a society. Most importantly, they must coordinate themselves harmoniously around a dynamic natural environment.

In the past, mankind tended to take heed only from the mistakes of its direct forbears; ignoring the precious legacy of wisdom generated through thousands of years of ancestry. A renewal of interest in valuable ancestral philosophy has mirrored a general revolution in people’s attitudes towards the environment and their true significance as biological entities related to the planet. This paper exposes cultural entomological significance in historical Chinese philosophy that remind us of lessons learned long ago.

The subject of cultural entomology in China is vast due to the numerous qualities of the Chinese culture, discussed in the previous paper, that lead the people to pay more positive attention to the insects around them than typically found in Western civilizations.

The following three references from historical Chinese philosophy talk about philosophical issues that are sadly still as poignant today as at the time they were written. Zhuang Zhou (400 BC) warns against the lures of immediate and thoughtless gratification. Liu Zhongyuang (713 AD) suggests the importance of understanding and gaining pleasure from nature rather than surrounding ourselves with synthetic material happiness and the facades of social importance. Bai Juyi (772-842 AD) uses insects to point out the futility of human wars.

First, Zhuang Zhou from about 400 BC is one of China’s most famous philosophers. He wrote the well known motto; “The mantis stalks the cicada unaware of the oriole behind.” This motto, having deeper meaning than ecological food chains, warns us of the often unseen latent danger that follows profit motivated actions. Zhuang Zhou was suggesting we take a closer look at our at our true importance in relation to nature. History has shown an endless assault on the environment and natural resources due to our habits of immediate gratification. These actions go hand in hand with our unwillingness to take responsibility for how our current actions will effect other people in the present and more importantly in the future. Zhuang Zhou saw this and used insects to illustrate this philosophical concept.

Second, Liu Zhongyuang was an important poet from the Tang Dynasty (713-819 AD). He wrote a famous fable named “Fuban Fu.” Fuban was an insect with the unfortunate habit of carrying everything it finds until being crushed under the weight. Fuban would also creep higher and higher until driving itself to exhaustion and death. Liu Zhongyuang warns humans of similar characteristics and consequences under the guise of the relentless pursuit of material possession and an obsession with attaining social stature. Zhongyuang suggests that both Fuban and humans need simplicity and not to plunder natural resources. He explains harmony as being derived from taking only what you need from nature. The ceaseless pursuit for material prosperity leads people to a frenzied plundering of the nation for no real need. Especially in context of current environmental pollution, species annihilation, energy shortages, and ever expanding populations, it is interesting to note that the abundance of material prosperity of many developed countries has brought them less happiness than a little spiritual satisfaction. Unfortunately, many peoples realization and desire to live harmoniously with nature is still at odds with our current definitions of progress, development, and civilization.

Finally, Bai Juyi, another poet of the Tang Dynasty (772-846 AD) wrote the following poem: “Little insects fight on their nest, uncivilized tribes fight on their boundaries, all the universe looks the same, all heroes come from the mote.” The poem suggests that from a heavenly perspective, the same nonsensical stupidly is found in battles between insects as between men. As the ants cease to exist after battle, so will mankind. The varied motivations behind war have no lasting value or salvation for mankind. Again the philosophy turns to urging an understanding of natural balance in nature as our salvation. Nature holds the answers to why superiority and domination lead only to detrimental events.

These examples of cultural entomology all used insects as warning tools for human follies. The goals of this insect illustrated philosophy are to restrict material desire, understand nature and simplicity, and slow down development. About 600 years ago, an old poetic anthology used the cicada as a role model for summarizing these attributes towards harmonious living. “Cicadas have five kind of virtues: elegance, aloofness, simplicity, thriftiness, and credibility.” Another anthology described elegance through the ribbon on the cicada’s head, aloofness because it was sustained through dewdrops in the air, simplicity through not eating millet, thriftiness through lack of required abode, and credibility through its punctuality. These characteristics were promoting noble thoughts and feelings rather than a preoccupation with food and housing. The message warns humans from demanding more from nature through material gain and promotes real happiness in the form of spiritual cultivation. If only we would grasp the message of our ancestral philosophers we might alter our socio-economic motives that have little regard for the harmony of nature.