Let me step back a moment from my political blogging on Dongzhou and turn to an odd little question, which may be philosophical, about winter solstice: are we, at some deep unconscious level, afraid of it?
For readers in Hong Kong, Malaysia and Singapore - nice warm places this time of year - this may seem a remote topic. But for those of us sitting in the darkening north, the impending longest night of the year cannot but demand our attention. And we have historically made a lot of it culturally. To escape the dark, northern Christians throw themselves into Christmas. We (I am including northern agnostics and atheists here as well) get together at holiday parties (perhaps in unspoken hope that being with other people will keep the dark at bay), we drape our homes with lights inside (on trees) and outside (on eaves). When I think about it, however, it strikes me that the "season of joy" is actually driven by a certain fear: of all of the cultural referents that attach to darkness, especially death.
OK, that seems rather morbid. But I think it's true. To distract ourselves from our fear of the dark, and of death, we seek out close companionship and light.
I mention this because I have begun to think about what a Taoist would make of Christmas, and I am having some trouble. The first thing I noticed, however, was how a Taoist would likely remark upon our apparent fear of the dark. Why do we chose to do Christmas at roughly the Winter Solstice? A Taoist would probably answer with the observation that we desire to distract ourselves from the dark.
This would amuse a Taoist. He/she would find it familiar: after all, in ancient Chinese culture, "light" (the yang side of the Yin-Yang complement) has a more positive rhetorical valence than "dark." This, at least, is something we could take from many I Ching passages (I am sure my I Ching friends might differ with me here). The "dark" cannot be, and should not be, denied or overcome, but the "light" is stronger, more dynamic, more creative and powerful than the "dark."
Taoism struggles against the cultural preference for the "light." The Tao Te Ching, especially, champions the low, the dark. Darkness is an attribute of Tao (Way). In passage 21 (Legge translation), Tao is referred to thusly: " Profound it is, dark and obscure; Things' essences all there endure." Dusky, obscure, dark are all words used to describe Tao. So, why be afraid, if dark is Tao?
A Taoist would not be afraid of Winter Solstice. Nor would he/she celebrate it as the imminent return of the light. Rather, a Taoist would embrace the dark in and of itself, knowing that it is not permanent (nothing is in Tao) but that it is essential and, in its own way, beautiful.
Whatever my Taoist sympathies, I do not follow its path this time of year. I am not afraid of the Solstice or the dark - I rather like the Winter, in fact. But I give myself over to the dominant cultural practices: I like the lights on our Christmas tree, and the lights framing our big picture window outside. And I like the cooking and people and all. The real test would be: what if all of that was taken away? Could we be happy in the dark?