Brecht and Chinese Philosophy
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Renata Berg-Pan BRECHT AND CHINESE PHILOSOPHY Until approximately 1925 Bertolt Brecht's use of Chinese and Oriental material was poetic but somewhat inaccurate. It was based upon general popular notions of the Orient and indicated considerable ignorance on his part. This state of affairs changed when he began to study Chinese literature and philosophy more seriously. As an avid reader who frequently complained that the lending libraries he was using had all been "exhausted" by him, he was bound to encounter the classic works of Chinese literature and especially philosophy which were appearing in ever newer and better German translations. In the twenties, Brecht, like most Germans of his generation, was introduced to Chinese philosophy by the translations of Richard Wilhelm.1 Brecht's own notes and commentaries as well as his literary productions indicate that Lao Tzu, Confucius, Mencius, Chuang Tzu and Mo Tzu were the Chinese philosophers he came to know in the twenties and early thirties and whose works influenced his thought and work most profoundly . Lao Tzu lived approximately from 604-531 b.c., although his precise dates are not known. He had become very popular in Europe in the early twentieth century and hence it is not surprising that Brecht also read his works. As will be seen, however, he interpreted Lao Tzu in his characteristic fashion and refused to be seduced by the apparent quietism associated with Taoism, the philosophy that is based upon Lao Tzu's work, the Tao Te Ching. Brecht came to know the Tao Te Ching some time during the twenties. His diary notes indicate that he had concerned himself with the principle of no-action (Wu-Wei), the most essential principle of Taoism, as early as 1920, although the results were not yet visible in his literary work at that time. On first sight, Brecht's interest in Lao Tzu would appear uncharacteristic. As a Socialist and later a Marxist, he would tend—one might assume—to espouse activism, rather than a philosophy that celebrates the principle of no-action. "Change the world, it needs it," we read in one of his plays written around 1930.2 Lao Tzu, on the other hand, refused to 307 308Philosophy and Literature take an active hand in reforming society, because he believed that any attempt at interfering with the natural order of things, for whatever motives, was bound to end in failure and would only worsen the situation. Several passages from the Tao Te Chingexpress this view, but it emerges most clearly from poem No. 29 which reads as follows: Not Forcing Things (Wu-Wei) One who desires to take and remake the empire will fail. The empire is a divine thing that cannot be remade. He who attempts it will only mar it. He who seeks to grasp it, will lose it. People differ, some lead, others follow; some are ardent, others formal; some are strong, others weak; some succeed, others fail. Therefore, the wise man practices moderation; he abandons pleasure, extravagance and indulgence.3 The Tao Te Ching generally, and this particular poem as well, is aimed at the ruler of a kingdom. A state, no matter whether it is an ancient Chinese empire or a modern German state, cannot be conceived of as existing without a ruler or a ruling body. Hence, while Lao Tzu's remarks might sound like lyrical poetry, they actually are intended as words of advice to politicians, and like much of Chinese philosophy generally, deal with social relationships, specifically those between the rulers and the ruled. This undoubtedly helped endear the Tao Te Ching to Brecht. But Lao Tzu's work possesses other virtues. There is, for example, ample evidence in the Tao Te Ching, especially in the last chapters, of Lao-Tzu's concern for the fate of ordinary people and the fact of their exploitation. Lao Tzu's teachings were the direct consequence of the turmoil in his society. His purpose was ethical as much as metaphysical. He believed, as Brecht did, that the future lay not with the generals, the hard men of his day, but with their victims. Lao Tzu frequently deflates the heroic pose and attacks the acquisition...