In The Propensity of Things: Toward a History of Efficacy in China, Francois Jullien traces the various deployments of the concept of shi in Chinese culture. Although an ultimate definition is never offered (nor desired) by Jullien, he characterizes it at one point as “the kind of potential that originates not in human initiative but instead results from the very disposition of things. Instead of always imposing our own longing for meaning on reality, let us open ourselves to this immanent force and learn to seize it” (13). Although one might initially brush this off as a typical material determinism/agency binary (which it no doubt is), Jullien quickly complicates the role of the agent in this scenario. The agent is not so much in control of the material elements of the situation, but rather the agent is in control of her position in relation to the material elements of the situation.
Since we are focused on Contrast, I want to think through the differences in Western and Eastern relationships to the material elements of a situation. Specifically, I want to explore the role of predestination within shi and how it can also be seen at work in the Western rhetoric of self-help.
In his chapter on shi in the military, Jullien writes about great Chinese generals who approached a battle with full knowledge of the events that would lead to their ultimate victory. Individual courage and bravery were less important than the dynamism that guided the entire situation. And later, in his chapter on landscape painting Jullien writes about the importance of “contour” (overall plan) over “wrinkles” (details) in the drawing of a mountain. Of the latter, Julien writes, quoting Fang Xun, “Once the shi of a mountain or a rock has been determined, ‘the aesthetic success of that mountain or rock is simultaneously guaranteed’” (99).
In reading these approaches to various situations, I cannot help but be reminded of the trite self-help mantras that encourage us to “visualize our goals” or “imagine the reality of the success we want to attain.” To me, this doesn’t seem to be what Julien is referring to in these sections. These kind of attitudinal disposition (self help mantras) seems to posit agency back into the subject who can presumably will the situation she desires into existence. This is the moralism of Confucianism, the courage of the individual soldier.
It seems that the primary distinction between the predestination of shi and that of self help is the emphasis given to observation in the former. The general who wants to win the battle and the painter who wants to capture the landscape must not acquiesce their inner desire and force it upon the world, rather they must observe the tendency of the world itself and locate the points at which the world’s tendencies converge with their own. Shi is cartographic; self help is colonial.