Reviews of Dao De Jing (ca. 400 BCE) and related work
- Document: Taoism: The Parting of the Way (1957/1965)
Dao De Jing (ca. 400 BCE)
Read in 2020.
I listened to Ursula K. Le Guin read her 1998 version, set to music. This version is not a translation but an amateur’s gloss into simple contemporary English, based on several actual translations and supervised by James P. Seaton, a professor of Chinese.
To live ’till you die is to live long enough.
Jade is praised as precious, but its strength is being stone.
True words aren’t charming. Charming words aren’t true.
The original classical Chinese is notoriously ambiguous, terse and preserved without grammatical particles, written by diverse hands over a long period and only loosely attributed to “the old master” (laozi), who may have lived at any time from the 6th to the 4th centuries BCE if he lived at all. Given this origin, the manner of my acquaintance with the work is extremely casual.
I get the impression that Le Guin’s reading of these old proverbs was coloured by what she wanted them to mean. Like a fuzzy picture of Bigfoot, the work is suggestive and lends itself well to wishful thinking, full of deepities and apparent contradictions that would not exist in a sharp photo of a dude in an ape suit. As history, I put little stock in it, though I assume it was intended as non-fiction. As wisdom literature, it’s very good, but only for its time. As religion, it’s more sympathetic than similarly influential contemporary Western writing like Leviticus (ca. 500–400 BCE). As a fantasy of what a proto-anarchist subculture in an ancient society might have believed, Le Guin’s version is engaging enough.
‣ Taoism: The Parting of the Way (1957/1965)
Holmes Welch (writer).
Read in 2021.
I read the lightly revised 1965 edition.
The tenets and history of philosophical and religious Daoism, which in modern Chinese culture is now called Daojia (道家) and Daojiao (道教) respectively. For Daojia, Welch interprets the Dao De Jing to be primarily the work of a single author with profound ambiguity and some later interpolations. In this interpretation, the anonymous Laozi based his philosophy on an optimistic view of human nature in its uncivilized state, without glossing over the dysteleological indifference of nature.
To follow nature means being ready to accept her support and cruelty as one. Gentle rains or spring floods, the havoc of a landslide or the beauty of a mountain mist—all are parts of the whole to which the Sage himself belongs. This whole, this Mother, is something he both reveres and loves.
I did not expect this book to grab me the way Strindberg grabs me. It is absorbingly literary, apart from being crammed full of interesting facts and myths, kept aflow by a deep authorial voice and appropriate examples of spontaneously Daoist-style thinking in Western societies.
Without a strong grounding in ancient or medieval Chinese history, I felt a bit lost at times, but every time I tried to skip past a paragraph of dense and forbidding material, I then went on to realize that the paragraph I skipped built up to something greater, so I went back, looking things up to get everything in context, and always found it worth the effort.
Much of the local opacity of the work is a function of Western conventions in the 1950s. The many names and Chinese words from the Dao De Jing are 100% Wade–Giles: No Hanzi or Hanyu Pinyin, which means no direct application for my mediocre Japanese. Welch is admirably unafraid to tabulate, but the typesetting means at his publisher’s disposal are of course primitive. Some of his English translations are a little unwieldy, such as “The Interior Gods Hygiene School” for what now survives as Neidan. I don’t normally feel an inclination to scribble notes in the margins of printed books, but I would have in this one if it hadn’t been borrowed.
The charm of the writing easily saves it. For example, there are page-long, shockingly relevant and well-informed footnotes on parallels in both Paul Dirac and Breatharianism. There are many instances where Welch hilariously deadpans the reporting of myths (page 146):
Perpetual wakefulness was called “smelting away the dark demon”. Some members of the sect did not lie down for a decade. Finally, he [the adept of Perfect Realization] was to practice all-out meditation. Wang Che once buried himself ten feet deep for two years.
There also instances where Welch clearly rejects such myths, along with parallel Western mythologies (page 97):
The origins of the P’eng-lai cult are as obscure as the origins of alchemy. But it may have begun like the legends of other maritime peoples. Traders and fishermen are blown out to sea, land on terra incognita, and, when they get home, spin a good yarn about it. Eventually it develops into the Isles of the Hesperides or Prospero’s Bermuda. We have no right to scoff at a cvilized people like the ancient Chinese for taking such things seriously. There is a parallel here and now in the cult of flying saucers. Other planets take the place of magic islands. Their inhabitants take the place of the Immortals.
He is careful to note that some Daoist authors themselves—with the examples of the presyncretic Zhuang Zhou (“Chuang Tzu”) and the postsyncretic Liezi (the fake “Lieh Tzu“, apparently misunderstood by Welch as presyncretic)—sometimes made it clear that they were using allegories, not trying to spread belief in testable supernatural ideas like immortality or the island of P’eng-lai as a physical location (page 94).
Then again, there are instances where Welch sounds credulous. In between noting that the early Han-court alchemist Li Shaojun proposed poisonous cinnabar as an elixir of life, and similarly noting that Emperor Xianzong (“Hsien Tsung”, page 153) of Tang died in 820 CE from a “longevity pill” prepared by his alchemist, Welch still insists that we “probably have a lot to learn” from the alchemist pharmacopoeia (page 134). By the way, though Welch doesn’t say it and perhaps didn’t know it, cinnabar was used for magic on oracle bones long before Li Shaojun. In discussing mystical claims of levitation etc., Welch asserts there is a “vast accumulation of evidence” for such phenomena, then immediately retreats to admit that all this evidence might be “bad”, and politely declines to examine the topic of truth any further (page 74).
It is not surprising that Welch leaps past such obstacles. It is more surprising that contemporary Chinese civilization itself did not develop scientific methods to deal with the long parade of charlatans parasitizing its imperial courts as religious Daoism, Buddhism and Confucianism gradually converged into the vinegar jar of Neo-Confucianism. It is a shame that early Daoism itself was anti-intellectual, as it otherwise had the makings of a fine dystelelogical, substance-monist, science-compatible philosophy that could have prevailed against the others. Welch calls it “The Power of Negative Thinking” in a travesty of Norman Vincent Peale, and uses it to critique the excesses of his own USA.
In another long footnote, the author claims that the main difference between Dao and Zen Buddhism is the suddenness of satori in Zen. He relates a couple of cases where charlatans were identified and punished in China, but he is also very effective in conveying the scale of the topic: China lumbering on through the centuries with just as many bad ideas as the West stubbornly sticking to its wheels.
Debunking millennia of lies would take a much bigger book. Welch’s speed and range are well chosen, and his voice carries his own healthy skepticism. I spent the first day of my 2021 summer vacation getting a COVID-19 vaccine and then reading the last 140 pages on my balcony, taking many notes and having a lovely time.