Thinking about Shenkui

I’ve recently joined a Facebook group for folks who are interested in discussing Ruist 儒學 philosophy and it’s been very stimulating. I’m glad to be among that group because there are so many very knowledgable and thoughtful folks there that I am sure I will become a better scholar and person from their influence and counsel.

Today I added some thoughts to a group discussion of Bryan Van Norden’s article “Confucius on Gay Marriage.” My contribution does not directly address the matters that Bryan puts forward, but rather addresses a comment made by a member of the group. The essence of their argument is that homosexual behavior goes againse too many fundamental Ruist principles to be consonant with the Ru Dao. The person presents several reasons why they think this is the case (to which many of the group members have provided useful counterpoints) but the point that I will address is their contention that homosexual sex practices are incongruent with the cosmic patterning (li 理) of sexual activity, and contradicts the operations of the world (tiandi 天地) and the ultimate principle governing the transactions of the cosmos (taiji 太極). The person to whom I am responding below argues that both the oral and anal modes of sexual intercourse are irrational (I assume they mean from the Confucian perspective) because these modes do not “fulfill the dao (道, the path or way, among other translations) of the body.”

Most of what I wrote in response is taken from my dissertation, which I am in the process of revising for publication.

I am not so sure that the anal and oral modes of sexual activity are understood to be irrational to the dao of the body as you characterize it.

We see a variety of body techniques developed throughout Chinese history with the goal of yangsheng 養生, prolonging one’s life. Perhaps the Daoist tradition is more typically understood as pioneering these techniques (because an emphasis on translating works that demonstrated to a Western audience that the Chinese were also scientifically-inclined, but that is a whole other thread), but I believe there is evidence within the Ruist tradition of this concern as well.

The dao of the body is what?

The Neijing Tu 內經圖, an “inner-landscape” diagram

From approximately the third century BCE, the Huangdi Neijing 黃帝內經 (The Yellow Emperor’s Inner Canon of Medicine) advanced a model of the human body as a dynamic system sustained by qi 氣. The interactions of the blood, saliva, pulses, breath, and seminal fluids that circulate within the body, churn and transduce qi 氣, thereby nourishing the body. All expressions of the human organism, physical form, mental life and emotional states, are manifestations of the workings of qi 氣. Having been born with a finite amount of qi 氣 which animates our organs and the cosmos at large, each person must take steps to ensure that the qi 氣 accumulated within us is able to circulate properly.

We see this concern in Bryan’s translation of the Mengzi:

Mengzi replied [to Gongsun Chou], “I understand doctrines. I am good at cultivating my flood-like qi 氣.
Gongsun Chou continued, “May I ask what is meant by ‘flood-like qi 氣’?”
Mengzi replied, “It is difficult to explain. It is a qi 氣 that is supremely great and supremely unyielding. If one cultivates it with uprightness and does not harm it, it will fill up the space between Heaven and Earth. It is a qi 氣 that harmonizes with righteousness and the Way. Without these, it starves. It is produced by accumulated righteousness. It cannot be obtained by a seizure of righteousness. If some of one’s actions leave one’s heart unsatisfied, it will starve.”

From Zhongyong 中庸 27 (Ames and Hall translation) we gather a sense of the cosmic implications of pursuing the Ruist path:

“Great indeed is the sage’s proper path (shengren zhi dao 聖人之道). So vast and expansive, it propagates and nurtures all things; so towering, it reaches up to the skies. So great indeed!”

Let’s consider Zhongyong 1:

When joy and anger, sorrow and happiness have not yet arisen is called “nascent equilibrium;” when they have arisen and are brought into the proper focus, call it harmony. Activating this focus and equilibrium is the great root of the world; harmony is the advancing of the proper way in the world.

With it’s focus on psychosomatic training and regulation we can understand the Zhongyong as a technical manual for the prolongation of life by avoiding xulao 虛勞 which results from experiencing too strongly our emotions or otherwise being overly stimulated.

Unlike the Occidental tradition’s council toward moderation as a prophylaxis against immoral accumulation, the Chinese tradition councils moderation as a means of avoiding depletion (xulao 虛勞). Whereas the brain came to be the privileged human organ in the Occident—seat of the soul, housing the faculties that distinguished the human animal from all other animals—in the Chinese medical tradition the brain was a relatively minor organ whose primary function was to act as a sort of catalytic converter for qi 氣. As a minor organ, the brain has since ancient times held an important role in Chinese pharmacological, religious practices, and sexological texts. Each of these bodies of knowledge seek to harmonize the functioning of the human body with the cosmos so as to prolong life (yangsheng 養生). Key to this project is the cultivation of habits that ensure the optimal circulation of qi 氣. Qi 氣 is concentrated in one’s seminal fluids (jing 精), and is stored within one’s shen 腎 (kidneys), by far the most important of the central organs in the human body.

In the Chinese medical tradition if one needs increased vitality, this is possible by circulating one’s seminal fluid through the shen 腎 circuit, filtering through the marrow and brain (the process is called huanjing bunao 還精補腦). By engaging in sexual commerce but refraining from ejaculation, the skillful practitioner accumulates an energized seminal fluid that transforms into qi 氣. This process acquired the more poetic name “making the Yellow River flow backwards” (huanghe niliu 黃河逆流), wherein this energized qi 氣 ascends up to the brain and expands one’s spirit (shen 神), reducing the deleterious effects of long life, understood as the depletion of one’s qi 氣 over time.

From at least the Han, if not the Zhou period, sexual union between man and woman has been understood as an arena for potential mutual benefit, promoting longevity among the participants and the practices of the bedchamber were said to be the climax of the human emotional life, “touching on the hem of dao 道 itself.”

During coitus a man should not only prevent ejaculation because it contains their essential yangqi 陽氣 fluid, and in addition to the pleasure of the sexual act, but the man should be attempting to induce an orgasm in his female partner so that he can absorb her yinqi 陰氣. Producing this he can thereby fortify the circulation of his own shen 腎 circuit. In this way we can understand why the seventeenth century medical and sexological authority, Zhang Jingyue’s opus Jingyue Quanshu 景岳全書 has a section on the techniques for enhancing sexual activity with the title Gufang Bazhen 古方八陣 (Strengthening the Battle Array) obviously opening us to the question of how the practitioners understood who or what the combatants were, their partners or themselves. There is a robust tradition extolling the mutual benefit of what Needham calls coitus thesauratus: where men “hosted” women seeking to replenish their qi 氣.

When excessive qi 氣 is lost, the person becomes lethargic, weak, infertile, their hairs won’t grow properly, and so on. They are wasting away (xulao 虛勞). The presence of these symptoms suggests that the person’s kidneys (shen 腎) are not functioning properly, and it is understood that the kidneys are not functioning properly because they are not full of jing 精. The resulting condition is called shenkui 腎虧 (literally, kidney depletion), and is attested to from the sixteenth century. Today the phrase is commonly understood to mean impotence.