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The American Journal of Semiotics

Volume 24, Issue 1/3, 2008

Biosemiotics

Han-liang Chang
Pages 159-170

Between Nature and Culture
A Glimpse of the Biosemiotic World in Fourth-Century BCE Chinese Philosophy

When ancient Chinese philosophy culminated in the sixth to third centuries BCE, “hundreds of flowers [intellectual schools] were blooming”, yet not many theoreticians were particularly interested in questions regarding the relationship between animal and human life — despite their profuse discussion of, and heated debates about, both “nature” and “human nature” in their writings. This indifferent attitude towards creatures lower than humans is best illustrated by Confucius (551–479 BCE), who observed: “It is impossible to associate with birds and beasts, as if they were the same as us.” Later, however, this condescending attitude of the Sage would be challenged by the Daoist philosopher Zhuangzi (370 to 301 BCE), who untiringly advocates the equity of all creatures in the universe — a place where both living and fabulous organisms cohabit and co-evolve with one another, as well as with their environments. Morever, even Confucius’s descendent Mencius (c.372–289 BCE) did not endorse his mentor’s position, for the latter’s own writings are likewise inhabited by all kinds of creatures which not only serve the passive role of poetic figuration, but actually also construct their respective Umwelten, paralleled by the umwelt-construction of human beings. Recent advances in biosemiotics and ecosemiotics have enabled us to reread some of these philosophical texts, and to shed new light on this obscure aspect of Chinese thinking. This paper will draw upon the sign reflections of C. S. Peirce (1839–1914) and Jakob von Uexküll (1864–1944), and make use of a composite analytical method of text semiotics and dialogue studies, to examine a number of political and ethical allegories by Zhuangzi and Mencius. Acknowledging the necessary circularity of interpretation and the homogeneity of observer and observed, the essay explores the ways in which ancient philosophical texts can be made compatible with contemporary biological and semiotic thinking.

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