The renowned writer Lu Xun once said, “A bee, once it has used its sting, will claim its own life; a Cynic who has used his sting, will prolong his own life. That’s how they differ from each other.” (And that’s that!)

All of us are no stranger to bees, but what about Cynics? What do we know about their stings?

Original intention to pursue ethics

The Cynics originally referred to the philosophers whose thoughts were rooted in Cynicism. They believed that people should not be constrained by worldly matters, including religion, etiquette and daily habits related to food, clothing, housing and transportation. Instead, man should relentlessly pursue ethics and live an extremely simple, non-materialistic life. As followers of this school practiced abstinence and led an utterly primitive life, they were mockingly called “poor dogs” (or “kynikos” in Greek). And that’s why they were named the Cynics.

Cynicism is a school of thought that arose from the ancient Greek cynical sect of philosophy. Cynicism’s core tenet is “freeing virtue and kind-heartedness from desire”. However, as society evolved, by the time Cynicism entered the modern world in the 18th and 19th centuries, its definition deviated a great deal from the original version. In the past, the Cynics were wise men who did not pursue desire. Today, they have become a group of people who are discontented with changes in the community. Mostly resentful of the world, they often suspect others’ motives and deride them.

Discontent becomes not saying “no”

Professor Xu Ben at Saint Mary’s College of California explains the meaning of Cynicism to our current society in an article entitled Cynicism in Contemporary Chinese Society:

Contemporary Cynicism is a social-cultural morphology that involves securing rationality through distrust. Cynics’ total distrust is manifested in their disbelief of others’ passion, righteousness as well as the so-called crying out of the righteous. They even disbelieve that there is any way to change the world which they distrust. They have transformed their discontent with the existing order into “apathy without saying ‘no’”, “consciousness without raising objections” and “acceptance without showing recognition”. Their sole concern is their own wellbeing. “Since the world is so absurd and such a big joke, I can only cope with it in an absurd and joking manner.”

In a nutshell, “contemporary Cynicism has been defined as a skeptical attitude towards social customs and ethics”, and “that’s that”, which is commonly heard in daily life, is most reflective of how the Cynics deal with situations. On the one hand, they are discontented with social reality, but on the other hand, they make no changes. Very often they seize opportunities to vent their grievances against reality, satirizing those in authority as well as deriding those who challenge authority.

Lu Xun stated clearly in his letter dated 8 March 1928 to Mr Zhang Tingqian, “The ‘sting’ of him (a Cynic) is ‘satire’.” Handling situations with “apathy without saying ‘no’”, “consciousness without raising objections” and “acceptance without showing recognition”, the Cynics are able to protect themselves from injury, hence ensuring their own wellbeing. This explains why Lu Xun said a Cynic could “prolong his own life” in such a way.