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Brecht's Use of Moism, Confucianism and Taoism in his Me-Ti Fragment*
Gaby Divay
University of Manitoba, Archives & Special Collections

© e-Edition, August 2007

How to cite this e-Article

Moism     Confucianism    Taoism

       Even before he became acquainted with the Marxist classics in the mid–twenties, Brecht was familiar with some ancient philosophical Chinese texts. Already in 1920, he recorded his discovery of Taoism through Lao Tzu's Tao-te Ching which was given to him by Frank Warschauer (TB, p. 66). Confucianism and Moism he seems to have studied in the later twenties without such external prompting. The preoccupation with major trends of Chinese philosophy was fashionable at the time, as works by Hesse, Döblin and Klabund clearly attest. Brecht, however, is believed to have acquired a much more thorough and systematic knowledge in this area than most of his fellow authors.

    The impact of his early encounter with the Chinese tradition is reflected in several didactic plays (Lehrstücke), in some poems and in the earliest Keuner–stories. But the most extensive application of Eastern thought in Brecht's work can be found in two major prose fragments composed in the years of his Danish and Swedish exile (1933-1940), namely the so-called Tui–Roman and Me–ti: Buch der Wendungen.  Both texts present contemporary concerns in a vaguely Chinese disguise

    The former is a powerful satirical polemic against the intellectuals of Brecht's times. "Tui" is a typical mock-Chinese term for "intellectuals". The fragment deals almost exclusively with their situation in the Weimar Republic and their basically unchanged attitude in exile after the establishment of the Third Reich. Authors like the brothers Heinrich and Thomas Mann, Lion Feuchtwanger and members of the Frankfurt school of sociology like Adorno, Marcuse and Horckheimer are obvious examples of Brecht's targets.

     The Me–ti deals to a large extent with European political and ideological struggles in the thirties. Lenin or Mi-en-leh (32 times), Karl Marx or Ka-meh (19 times), Brecht himself or Kin-jeh (19 times), Hitler or Hi-jeh or Hu-ih (15 times), and Stalin or Ni-en figure most prominently in the text, as do references to Su (the Soviet Union) and Ga (Germany).

     Not published until 1965, and then considered an untidy heap of Chinese anecdotes. [i] It is presently regarded as a work of central importance, and has received considerable critical attention over the last twenty years. In the Suhrkamp edition of Brecht's works the Me–ti  consists of 300 unnumbered didactic sentences, conversations, aphorisms and parables which range from a single sentence to roughly three pages and cover together 166 pages (12, p. 419-585).

      Werner Mittenzwei in his 1975 edition of the Me–ti adopted a much debated thematic arrangement of the archival material. He believed that Brecht intended to regroup the complex into five books: one on the "great method", or dialectics; another on experience; a third on the "great disorder" dealing with Western capitalist or fascist systems; a fourth on changes, or more precisely, on revolutions; and a fifth on the "great order" or communism as exemplified by the Soviet Union.  While such a regrouping goes against the open form of the short and self-contained units in the Me–ti, it helps reveal the internal structure of major themes recurring in the text. The fragmentary state of the collection in a way underscores the author's intention to provide a deliberately unsystematic model for action in difficult times, or, as he says, "in finsteren Zeiten". For this purpose, the illustration of materialistic, or more specifically Marxist dialectic methods of thinking, speaking and acting appears to be the major unifying element. Dialectics are based on the principle of opposite forces, and in the Western tradition they go back to Heraclitus. Schickel (p.265) sees in Nicholas of Cusanus' coincidentia oppositorum an early represention of "idealistic" dialectics, and in Engels an advocate of "materialistic" dialectics. In Eastern thought dialectics are represented by the Yin and Yang principle prominent in the I–Ching and also in Taoist sources.

      The strange combination of the title which is taken directly from Forke's German edition of Mo Tzu (Mê Ti, 1922) with the subtitle "Buch der Wendungen" which is reminiscent of R. Wilhelm's translation of the I–Ching (I–Ging : Buch der Wandlungen, 1924) has often raised the question how Brecht could have linked two conflicting traditions of Chinese philosophy. Brecht certainly was aware that Mo Tzu was a harsh critic of Confucius and his disciples, although he probably had been at one time a follower of this school himself.  And Brecht also knew that the I–Ching was one of the five canonic texts of Confucianism, attributed by some to Confucius himself.  The antithetical combination of title and subtitle is likely to be deliberate, and seems to unite in truly dialectical fashion the conflicting elements of Mo Tzu's thought, which was considered by some to be socialistic in the modern sense, with the ultra-conservative tendency advocated in Confucianism.

     The contradictory elements in the title of Brecht's Me–ti: Buch der Wendungen point to two central themes of the content, namely socialism and dialectics as a practical method for change.  They also indicate Brecht's eclectic method in appropriating any kind of tradition for the concerns he means to address in his writings.  The change from Wilhelm's Buch der Wandlungen to Brecht's Buch der Wendungen reflects a subtle but interesting shift in emphasis.  While "Wandlungen" means "changes" in a fairly neutral sense, "Wendungen" suggests twists and turns and implies an active attitude. It also refers to formalized figures of speech ("Redewendungen").  Because of the multi-layered connotations, Müller (p. 231) rightly considers it a key concept related to the dialectical processes frequently addressed in Brecht's Me–ti. Knopf (1984, p.458) confirms the revolutionary implication of "Wendungen" for Brecht who might have chosen it from an article by Lenin. Under the name of Mi-en-leh, Lenin appears thirty-two times in the Me-ti and must be considered the single most important figure of the text.

      Brecht's technique of combining historical examples with concrete contemporary settings and his cutting irony similar to Voltaire's and Swift's place him according to Hans Mayer (p. 105) in the context of a satirical world-tradition. The consistent Chinese preoccupation with the translation of knowledge into action as well as the assumption that such a translation can be taught and learnt - the element "Tse" in Kung Fu Tse (Confucius), Mo Tse and Lao Tse (supposed author of the Tao Te Ching) means "teacher" – had a particular appeal for Brecht. He believed that in the Western tradition there was too much idealistic concern with pure thought divorced from practical realities.  Brecht sees his conviction of a proper attitude in the face of social injustice and related political disorder confirmed by the pragmatic Chinese outlook. Although Mittenzwei (p. 118) believes that even the sharpest of social criticism in Chinese philosophy cannot be compared to Brecht's Marxist outlook, Brecht chose a Chinese disguise for his Me–ti and his Tui–Roman because he saw similar basic beliefs in his Eastern sources.

      Tatlow (p.353) points out that Brecht's interest in Chinese philosophers is focused on the fact that they are all "practical humanists concerned with social order". In that perspective they are used very much in the same way as philosophers of the classical or the enlightenment traditions whom Brecht also eclectically exploits as "witnesses of a revolutionary pre-history" (Brüggemann, p.231; transl. G.D.).

      Although Brecht's knowledge of Chinese philosophy is considered excellent, only few direct correspondences with the original texts have been identified. There are however certain affinities not only with the Moist school of thought, but also with some Taoist and Confucian principles. Most important are doubtlessly certain formal characteristics such as the frequent stereotyped introduction to most of the short texts "Me–ti sagte..." and the parabolic treatment of many didactic examples.

      The following will describe some thematic traces of Moism, Confucianism and Taoism in Brecht's Me–ti.  It then attempts to reveal the typical Brechtian blending of these elements with three major concerns, namely the need for active thought and action ("eingreifendes Denken"), the "great method" appropriate for this attitude, or dialectics, and finally the examples for "great disorder" and "great order."

      Mo Tzu (479-381 B.C.) was ignored even in China and Japan as an opponent of the more influential Confucianism until the end of the eighteenth century. He was rediscovered in the West during the nineteenth century as a social critic bearing resemblance to certain trends of modern Western thought. Brecht's fictitious preface to the Me–ti accurately reflects this history of reception (12, 419). Forke's translation into German in 1922 represents the first, and to this day the only complete edition of Mo Tzu in the West (Tatlow, p. 413).

      Hanns Eisler remembers that Brecht lent him a copy of this text around 1930. [ii]   Although some critics believe that Brecht was familiar with this edition as early as 1927 [iii] at the time of the composition of the Three-Penny-Opera, most agree that Brecht did not start exploiting it prior his exile in1933. Tatlow (p.352) and Yim (p. 67) assume that the copy extant in the Brecht-Archives was acquired in 1934, and that an earlier copy has been lost.  It is however quite likely that the one he had bound in leather in 1935 [iv] is the copy he took with him when he left
.  He lists it among only four bibliographic treasures he chose to accompany him everywhere he went (AJ, p.73). [v] Some fifty passages are marked by him or known collaborators, in particular Ruth Berlau and Karl Korsch who seems to have contributed some material for the Me-ti (Müller, p. 189).

      Forke's edition divides the fifteen books of the text into four parts: systematics (ch.1-39), dialectics (ch.  40-45), conversations (ch. 46-50), and warfare (ch.51-71). Only the last part shows no signs of Brecht's annotations (Tatlow, p. 416). Mo Tzu (480-397) was exactly contemporary to Socrates (469-399), and there is some similarity in the Moist and Socratic method of argumentation. In his commentary to Mo tzu's dialectics, Forke emphasizes the rhetorical scope of this method and its practical application in debating. (Forke, p. 81 and 84; in Yim, p. 236). Yim (p. 236) remarks that many of the aphorisms in this texts are really elaborate word-definitions and sophisms, but that some interesting epistemological observations concerning the relation of language and reality which attracted Brecht's attention. This theme is reflected in the Me–ti in numerous passages discussing contemporary language criticism with strong ideological overtones (idealistic or materialistic). Mo Tzu's sayings that words which cannot be applied usefully ought to be abandoned are compared by Knopf (1984, p. 453) to Wittgenstein's famous dictum that what cannot be expressed should be kept in silence (Tractatus, no. 7). Brecht's Me-ti text Bad habits (Schlechte Gewohnheiten, 12, p.514) seems to echo this advice: one should give up on going to places one cannot reach, on talking about matters which cannot be decided by talking, and on thinking about problems one cannot change by thought. However, Brecht's position is the exact opposite of Wittgenstein's and that of the related analytical philosophy which attempts to correct reality by rendering language terms less ambiguous. For Brecht, the advice to keep silent or to waste time on thinking means the beginning of more fruitful action. If Mo Tzu is really closer to Wittgenstein than to Brecht, as Knopf alleges, is debatable. His aphorism "My words can be applied" (Forke, p. 561) seems to point to a fairly close agreement with Brecht's intentions.

      Mo tzu's principle of universal love and the basic equality of all men has been compared to Christian ethics by Legge (1895, p. 122) and others. The will of Heaven it is related to, however, is not to be found in transcendental speculation, but in the norms for a just government and society which he sees in decay during his life time. The forceful social criticism of Mo Tzu concerns the employment of incompetent state-officials, the destructive effects of wars, and the fatalistic justification for unjust government practices. He attacks the waste involved in funeral pomp and other rituals, and opts for moderation in the fulfillment of all basic human needs. Ethics are the practical considerations necessary for good government and social order, and it can be taught. Virtue is what is useful for the community and requires the subordination of egoistical urges under the goal of overall well-being.

      Several of the passages marked were used by Brecht for his own purposes. For instance, Mo Tzu sees the ideal of just government and society realized during the reign of the four good kings in a distant Chinese past, while Brecht sees it in future socialistic revolutions.

      In a factious controversy between Mo Tzu and Confucius about the role of the family in society (12, p. 453) Brecht illustrates the social conditions in the age of industrialism. Mo Tzu's statement that one can love the parents of one's neighbour as much as one's own (Forke, p. 262 f.) which Forke (p.526) considers typically Moist, is used by Brecht to show how modern family life is dissolved by the need to work outside the house, so that only the common consumption of bought goods keeps it together. He furthermore proposes that a useful social unit ("kleinste Einheit") should be established through solidarity at the working place.

      Other applications of underlined texts seem close enough to Mo Tzu's thought, but are so general that they could be related to many sources and traditions. The Me–ti text entitled "The fate of man" (12, p.432) consists of the following sentence: "Me-ti said: the fate of man is man." It is believed to have been inspired by Brecht's reading of Mo Tzu (Tatlow, p.437; Müller, p. 201), but it is sufficiently close to the general materialistic tenet that man's happiness depends on the conditions of his social surroundings. Already in classical philosophy the Peripatetics and Epicureans defended the importance of material goods against the Stoics who declared them indifferent. In 1939, Brecht notes in his Arbeitsjournal (p.39) the discussions he had with the exiled German actor Hermann Greid about a projected work on Marxist ethics. He observes a "petty–bourgeois streak à la Engels" in Greid because he accepts the primary effect of material conditions on ethics but ignores the dialectic reverse relation. Brecht ends his entry with the remark: "Good material for The book of changes." Already in the Three–Penny–Opera (1928) Brecht stated emphatically: "Erst kommt das Fressen, dann kommt die Moral" (First we eat, then we think about ethics; 2, p. 457). In the only scene (called the Ingwertopf) of a projected play on Confucius, a similar lesson is taught to those who are too mindful of their good manners; they go empty-handed while the less scrupulous can take advantage of the full ginger pot (7, p. 2991).

      The activist Mo Tzu sentence "knowledge is linking" (Forke, p. 414) is reminiscent of Bacon's famous dictum that knowledge is power which Brecht exploits on several occasions in cynical reference to Bacon's corrupt practices. Mo Tzu's criticism of Confucius' opportunism in the section on warfare could well be one of Brecht's biting remarks on Bacon. In the Me–ti, there is no direct application of this sentence, but it blends doubtlessly with numerous passages dealing with the general principle of the dialectical relation between theory and praxis and Brecht's central conviction that knowledge is meant to bring about changes ("eingreifendes Denken"). The same blending applies to Mo Tzu's sayings revealing an inductive kind of reasoning: that the explanation of an unclear idea may be found in its application (Forke, p. 432; also underlined by Brecht), or that the sources of our knowledge must be questioned (Forke, p. 299). Mo tzu's attacks on fatalism which allows rulers to explain lost wars with fate (Forke, p. 389; in Yim, p. 56), or enables "the learned and noblemen" to avoid the questioning the efficiency or injustice of existing practices (Forke, p. 375; in Yim, p. 226) are very similar to Brecht's polemics against fate as a reason for non-acting.

      A certain correspondence can be found in Mo Tzu's plea for the choice of the most capable rather than the choice of incompetent relatives for state office (Forke, p. 127; in Yim, p. 227) and Brecht's "Törichte Verwendung kluger Köpfe" (12, p. 436; "Stupid uses of smart heads"). Mo Tzu argues that rulers seek the help of experienced butchers and tailors to provide them with meat and clothes, but let their favorites make important state decisions without testing their competence. Brecht lets Me–ti explain to Fe–hu–Wang, who stands for Lion Feuchtwanger, why the head–workers are critical of the socialist cause: the smartest heads are rented by those in power to justify the most absurd assumptions and institutions; they are not concerned with truth, but with their own advantage. In the adjoining text called "Gegnerschaft der Kopfarbeiter" ("Opposition of the head–workers"), he repeats that intellectuals choose to consider obvious injustice as part of a natural system, and that they judge the possibility of change or revolution not with their excellent heads, but with the interests of their bellies.

      Tatlow (p. 438-439) considers Brecht's Me-ti text "Schutz und Brandschatzung" (12, p. 423-434) "the only passage in the Buch der Wendungen which obviously completes an exclusively Moist argument." He refers to a Moist text against offensive wars (Forke, p. 544). There is little to compare if not that Brecht's text mentions the landlords of Wei which happens to be the province where Mo Tzu was an ambassador. Mo Tzu points out that the farmers of a country under attack cannot work their fields, and that those who attack tend to be farmers in the same position. Brecht lets his farmers undergo a raising of awareness: the fighting on either side is exclusively in the interest of the feuding landlords and harmful for those who actually battle. This leads them to unite against all landlords in obvious analogy to the Comintern movement.

      Mo Tzu is considered an excellent stylist, especially when outraged by social injustice. Forke remarks (p. 36) on his wit and his preference for antithetical examples chosen from everyday life. Here lies perhaps one of the closest affinities with Brecht.

      In one of Brecht's notebooks (18,75-76), Confucius is presented along with Goethe in a very unflattering way, suggesting that both gathered their personal culture in a brutal and asocial way at the expense of others. Brecht knew Confucius mainly through the Analects, Crow's biography and the critical references in Mo Tzu. He notes in his Journal (AJ, 14.1.1941) that his collaborator Margarete Steffin considers Confucius "reactionary", and he himself is quite critical of the philosopher's conservative, elitist and formalistic tendencies. Tatlow (p. 391-392) quotes an interesting passage in the Brecht Archives. It refers to the fragmentary Life of Confucius and plans to satirize against his reasoning that the decay of ethics is related to the confusion of terms, and against the proposed solution which consists of the refinement of manners. Brecht then says that this comedy could demonstrate how the "all refinements, humanizations (Humanisierungen) and embellishments of social life fail when the material basis of barbarism remains unchanged" (transl. G.D.). He later considered combining this satirical biography with one of Rosa Luxemburg (AJ, 10.9.1944).

      Wilhelm in the preface to his edition of the Analects (Gespräche, p. xx f.) mentions in relation Confucian ethics that "the noble man endures with dignity to be in misfortune" (transl. G.D.). Yim (p. 95) believes that this represents exactly "the ideal  of the passive individual Brecht finds in the depiction of the human condition by the classics" (transl. G.D.). The basic attitude of endurance in the presence of external hardships resembles a central Stoic idea, and the "classics" Brecht refers to are famous dramatists mentioned in his Shakespeare-Studien (15, p.332-334). Yim does not make it clear how bitingly Brecht criticizes this attitude. Brecht states that acceptance is linked to a fatalistic premise, and that because of it "man makes himself fitting to the blanket rather than making the blanket fit him" (transl. G.D.). Many similar attacks on fatalism in both idealistic and materialistic manifestations can be found in the Me-ti.

     The I-Ching is of importance to the Me-ti mainly because of its affinities with materialistic dialectics. Wilhelm describes it as a "Handbuch of wisdom for official and private use" (P. 9; transl. G.D.) initially used for divination.. It consists of sixty-four hexagrams which are all the possible combinations of two basic lines, one a continuum, the other broken. Each hexagram is accompanied by an examination and an illustrative commentary. The continuous line stands for Yang or the active male principle, while the divided line stands for Yin or the passive female principle. In constant dialectical interaction, they represent the changes everything in nature is subjected to.

     Some passages in the Me-ti  dealing with the flux of things are in Yim's opinion (p. 267) similar to the I-Ching. They are however always related to the "Grosse Methode", and refer to "Meister Hegel "(12, p. 526), or "Meister  Hü-jeh" (12,p. 469, 493) who also stands for Hegel. Knopf (1984, p. 458) demonstrates convincingly, that Brecht's source is mainly Hegel's Wissenschaft der Logik  and Lenin's Studies on Hegel (1932). Hegel's emphasis on process rather than being, and his acceptance of contradictory forces are seen as necessary conditions for the development of Marxism.

      Brecht's Me-ti  passages on dialectics are always connected with the relation of theory and praxis, and reflect Brecht's understanding of dialectics. Opposed to the Marxist-Leninist theory of the Soviet Union which reduces thought to a passive reflection of reality and contains therefore a strong deterministic element, Brecht attributes with Karl Korsch a more important, corrective role to thought. His "eingreifendes Denken" is defined in one of the texts on the "Grosse Methode" as "something which follows difficulties and precedes action" (12, p.443; transl. G. D.). Lenin's applications of dialectics during the Russian revolution are considered exemplary, as are unfortunately also Stalin's political machinations.

      Knopf (1984, p.454; 291) mentions Brecht's plan to design a system of ideograms for a section of his Me-ti (AJ,1.2.1942). Some of this plan has been realized as "Ziffel- und Kalleschrift" in the Flüchtlingsgespräche (14, p. 1510-1515). The sketches of simple signs with complex designations are according to Knopf modeled on the I-Ching  (they look quite different than the strictly linear hexagrams, however).

       Apart from the basic principle of natural dialectics already mentioned in relation to the I-Ching which is considered a main source of inspiration for major Taoist texts, there are some eclectic applications of Brecht's knowledge of this philosophical trend in the Me-ti. Lao Tzu's Tao te Ching and Chuang Tzu in Wilhelm's translation are no longer extant in the Brecht Archives, but Yang Chu, also translated by Wilhelm (in Liä Dsi), can still be found there (Tatlow, p. 352). Common to Taoist philosophers is the tenet to follow the course of nature which means to accept the good and the bad, the high and the low equally well. Keeping a balance between these elements means to go along with the flow of all things natural, and often calls for the almost Christian ethical requirements of humility, gentleness, and dissociation from social ambitions. The contemplative attitude often implied is however not mystical in a transcendent sense, but is directed toward the observation of nature, both general and human (Wilhelm, 1925, p. 47 f.).

       In Lao Tzu, certain elements of social criticism can be related to Brecht. Yim (p. 216) mentions the 75th chapter of the Tao te Ching  as an example how the polar oppositions found in nature are applied to social conditions: the people go hungry because of heavy taxations which  benefit the upper class. Brecht did not have to draw on Lao Tzu to find similar situations to criticize. His Marxist background and first-hand observation of the living conditions among German workers provided him with enough material. Certainly, he noted parallels of this sort as a historical confirmation of his own position. Tatlow (p.359) compares Lao Tzu's dislike of cultural achievements to Rousseau's "back to nature" trend. Brecht, of course, was more interested in changing existing power structures to improve social matters.

       Chuang Tzu's quietism and in particular his image of the soul being a mirror of existence is attacked along the same lines as Confucian and other forms of fatalism. In the second text of the Me-ti. Brecht says: to be in balance, to be adaptable can be a purpose of philosophy. To be like still water reflecting faithfully clouds and trees and birds can be a goal of certain philosophies. That ships and towns do not enter into outlooks of this kind only shows how easily these trends of thought are divorced from reality (12, p.421-422).

      Chuang Tzu is considered a "master of style" (Wilhelm,  1911, p. 7) who just like Brecht acknowledges readily that ninety-five percent  of his material is taken from other sources. Brecht who has been accused of plagiarizing Villon in the Three-Penny-Opera, ironically identifies with him in a section entitled "Originality" in the Keuner stories (12, p. 379-380). He compares the work of those who are anxious not to use anything previously known to huts built by only one person, when larger and more important buildings could be brought about in collaboration.

       Yang Chu's hedonistic and egoistic principles are addressed in the Me–ti  on several occasions (12, p.469-470, 441, 456, 518, 520) to the effect that  where individual interests are pursued to the detriment of the common good, the conditions of the state are to be questioned rather than the morality of the individual. Or that a state in which extraordinary virtues are required must be deficient in some way (this corresponds to chapter 49 of the Tao te Ching).

       The principle of passive resistance in times of political adversity is believed to find some correspondence in the Taoist image of soft water eroding the hardest rocks in the long run (Lao Tzu, ch. 43). A practical application of this may be seen in the example of the farmers of Wei who survive an invasion in hiding (12, 544); some Keuner stories and an early version of the Galileo demonstrate similar attitudes.

       While by no means comprehensive and more often than not bearing only little resemblance to Moist, Confucian and Taoist sources, the above correspondences have shown to what extent and how freely Brecht uses philosophical and literary traditions to foster action through his writings. In this, his intentions are in total agreement with Marx who states in his eleventh thesis on Feuerbach that philosophers have tried to explain the world whereas it is important to change it (MEW, Bd. 3, p. 7).

Gaby Divay, Archives & Special Collections, University of Manitoba


[i]   J. Kaiser in an article of the Süddeutsche Zeitung (5.2.1966) referred to it as a "chinesischer Steinbruch"; in Knopf, 1978, p.49.

[ii]   Bunge, p. 134

[iii]   Song, p. 11

[iv]   Knopf, 1984, p. 447

[v]   Caesar, Lucretius and "a complete Neue Zeit" are the other three.


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Originally presented at the 1988 East-West Conference, University of Hawaii, Honolulu

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