Dancing With Emptiness

Laozi and Afghanistan

By Tony Li

From Chapter 11 of the Daodejing 

Thirty spokes are joined in the hub of a wheel. 

But only by relying on what is not there, do we have the use of the carriage. 

By adding and removing clay we form a vessel. 

But only by relying on what is not there, do we have use of the vessel. By carving out doors and windows we make a room.  

But only by relying on what is not there, do we have use of the room. And so, what is there is the basis for profit; 

What is not there is the basis for use.  

Afghanistan has, for the better part of two centuries, been apprehensively referred to as the “graveyard of empires.” Though this oversimplification has largely been abandoned in the 21th century, the idea that a piece of land could continuously serve as an axis of history fascinated me.  

My first recollection of Afghanistan came about soon after I could read. On the evening news I remember seeing armed bearded men wearing pakols and standing on a mountain, against a backdrop of more mountains. It was months after the September 11 attacks, and the Taliban government in Afghanistan had just been toppled. It was around the same time that I had to recite the Daodejing, a cornerstone of ancient Chinese philosophy and the subject of my daily dread. Two decades later, those same armed men sit grinning in Kabul’s presidential palace, and the same book returns to the forefront of my attention–this time as a shining albeit sphinxlike beam of intellectual guidance.  

Ever since humanity began to contemplate the dichotomy of existence and non-existence, inquisitive minds through the ages have been puzzled by the idea of emptiness. Laozi had much to say about it, arguing it to be an integral element of the universe and even attributing much of existence to it. In attempting to decipher history’s mercurial upheavals, I find myself returning time and again to Laozi’s seminal work, the Daodejing. Through the lens of “emptiness,” the history of Afghanistan is one of the vicissitudes of human struggle and how it creates cycles of vacuum and chaos. 

Let us revisit Chapter 11. Like much of the Daodejing, it fits well into a political approach. As people derive uses from houses and clay jars because of their emptiness, so states have profited from vacuums on grander scales. Picture this: Persian traders, driving Sogdian camels laden with Chinese silks, traverse through Afghan mountains and shake hands with Arabic counterparts who pay for said silk in Nubian slaves and gold coins depicting Roman emperors. The Silk Road was a veritable snapshot of human connectivity–and more importantly, how peoples and cultures were shaped by their roles in trade. Years after the armies of Alexander swept across Central Asia, modern day Afghanistan was Hellenized and ruled by the Greco-Bactrians. Locals followed Greek laws, worshipped Greek gods, and served in a Greek bureaucratic system. Without the monolithic rule of Alexander, the Bactrian Kingdom, now reduced to a mountainous backwater, had to make something of this power vacuum. Trade was its solution. As the inevitability of human movement carved the Silk Road across Asia, the Bactrian Kingdom was famed for its shrewd traders and sturdy camels. These vital resources allowed the Bactrians to first supplant then subsist from the emptiness left by Alexander’s departure. Applying Laozi’s axioms of Chapter 11, the existence of the Silk Road could be seen as Bactria’s “basis of profit.” Trade shaped the political “emptiness” in Central Asia by giving birth to a nation of middlemen. Thus began centuries of turbulent political evolutions that embedded instability to the region. 

Through antiquity, the conquering armies of Scythians, Parthians, and Kushans introduced a plethora of sects and ethnicities that made the region a patchwork of mutually hostile cultures. In the Middle Ages, Afghanistan continued to be a flashpoint of conflict between Persian, Indian, and Turkic empires, all of whom sought to profit from possessing this key choke point in the Silk Road. As empires came and left, the region was left unable to form a unified cultural and political entity that was the foundation of stable states. In the Daodejing’s framework of “existence” and “emptiness,” Afghanistan’s lack of cultural cohesion could be attributed to a kind of “emptiness.” This made Afghanistan “useful” to the grander geopolitical designs of neighboring states much like how the emptiness in vessels is useful to its owner. The region’s constant sectarian discord was often exploited by outsiders to foment civil war, further impoverishing and tearing Afghanistan’s communities apart. Consequently, for most of the classical period, Afghanistan was unmoved in its status as satrap for a host of Muslim, Hindu, and Buddhist overlords.  

Much has transpired in Afghanistan since the last redcoat was expelled from the Khyber pass. A two-decade-long war with the Soviet Union had brought that behemoth to its knees. American fathers and sons had fought and died in the same struggle against terrorism. As I write these words, India, Turkey, and Russia among others have sprung into action in the wake of the American retreat. The vacuum left by the latter has ushered in a new scramble for influence in the region. Though the ramifications of these conflicts have yet to fully emerge to be judged by history, one thing is certain: the fates of nations are often decided by a handful of events, sometimes centuries before they happen. Amidst these precipitous shifts in power and interests, Laozi’s idea of emptiness is invariably present, replacing old rulers with new ones like residents in an empty house. 

A turning point for Afghanistan’s fate emerged when the Mongol invasion spelled a halt in trade between East and West. As plague, famine, and warfare plunged the continent into a dark age, the spring of trade that watered Afghanistan’s vibrant identity dried up. The region once again found itself trapped in “emptiness.” On the one hand, the absence of trade meant local rulers had to urgently seek new means of survival. On the other hand, the Mongols’ tenuous hold on the region presented an exploitable power vacuum. In the Daodejing’s terms, this dual “emptiness” yearned to be “used,” which given the above circumstances led to militarism supplanting trade as the region’s primary means of power projection. Here, we see the elusive mechanisms of human behavior kicking into gear, restoring–albeit unknowingly–Laozi’s balance between “profit” and “usage.” Military strategists took the places of philosophers in Afghanistan’s courts. The pursuit of science quickly gave way to the refinement of arms. This continued well into the eighteenth century, when Afghanistan became a hotbed of conflict as the British and Russian empires raced to establish supremacy in Central Asia. Polyglot British officers, shrewd tribal warlords, freewheeling Russian Cossacks, and elusive Persian envoys became pieces in what was later enigmatically known as “The Great Game.” In this epic clash of conventional and unconventional forces, Afghanistan’s perennial state of division and failure to embrace industrialization meant it was once more consigned to the role of battleground. Sadly, this role has hardly changed up until the present day, a testament to the irrefutable power of emptiness in countless geopolitical shifts throughout history.  

Tony Li is a Sophomore Studying History and International Relations at Tufts University

An American Humvee Sits on the Afghan Plains

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