Is Tao­ism in Amer­i­can garb

China Daily (Canada) - - LIFE -

Ge­orge Lu­cas’s multi-bil­lion dol­lars StarWars fran­chise, now owned by the Dis­ney Com­pany, is go­ing to be very pop­u­lar in China, too. That’s be­cause StarWars is ba­si­cally ametaphor for Tao­ism.

StarWars is a space saga with aliens and su­per­hu­mans. The su­per­hu­mans are called “Jedi knights” who mas­tered “the Force” and em­barked on the “Jedi’sWay”. Tao­ism is a 2,500-year-old cos­mic Chi­nese phi­los­o­phy about the force ( qi), the way ( tao) and su­per­hu­mans— the junzi (or dao­jun)— em­bark­ing on the “Way of Tao”.

Those who have stud­ied Tao­ism know about its fun­da­men­tals. In the be­gin­ning there was the Tao, then the Tao beget the two op­pos­ing forces: yin and yang. In Star Wars we have the “Force”, which begets the two op­pos­ing forces: the “Light Side” and the “Dark Side” of the “Force”. The prac­ti­tion­ers of the­Way (or Tao) are he­roes and an­ti­heroes (called JediMasters and Sith Lords in StarWars).

Both in StarWars and in Tao­ism, the prac­ti­tion­ers can use telekine­sis and ex­tend their life­span con­sid­er­ably through self-cul­ti­va­tion and me­di­a­tion ( shen-xiu). The Jedi in StarWars as well as the dao­jun in Tao­ism prac­tice wu-wei— ef­fort­less ac­tion (some­times trans­lated as non­ac­tion). The hi­er­ar­chy of prac­ti­tion­ers in Tao­ism is this: First we have the su­pe­rior gen­tle­man ( junzi), then the Taoist gen­tle­men ( dao­jun) and at the top Taoist sages ( shen­gren).

The high­est level in Tao­ism, how­ever, is the xian­ren— Taoist im­mor­tals. In the StarWars fran­chise, Darth Vader, Mas­ter Yoda and the Em­peror are in ef­fect (Taoist) xian­ren. This is be­cause even af­ter their mor­tal deaths, they ap­pear as guid­ing spir­its ( shen) to their fol­low­ers. Obi­Wan Kenobi is de­picted through­out the StarWars fran­chise as ris­ing through the ranks of a tal­ented junzi to a no­ble dao­jun (when he picks his first dis­ci­ple, Anakin Sky­walker) and then a shen­gren( sage). His first dis­ci­ple, Anakin, is lost to the Dark Side.

As a sage, Kenobi gets a sec­ond chance and picks his sec­ond dis­ci­ple, Luke Sky­walker (who will later de­feat his fa­ther, Anakin). When Kenobi chooses to be mor­tally killed, he does so know­ing that the Force would grant him im­mor­tal­ity ( xian­ren).

More­over, all the peo­ple men­tioned prac­tice an­cient forms of mar­tial arts ( wu) and wear Taoist robes ( daofu). Lay­men ob­servers want to see in them “Bud­dhist monks”, but Bud­dhist shave their heads, while Taoists do not. The Jedi monks in StarWars, with the ex­cep­tion of nat­u­ral bold­ness, do not shave their heads for the Force.

This is not a “new” dis­cov­ery, how­ever. On the con­trary,

The au­thor is the re­search di­rec­tor of in­ter­na­tional busi­ness at the In­dia, China and Amer­ica In­sti­tute (USA) and a vis­it­ing fel­low at the Shang­hai In­sti­tutes for In­ter­na­tional Stud­ies (China) and at EU Cen­tre (Sin­ga­pore). any­one who knows about Tao­ism and has seen StarWars knows about the sim­i­lar­i­ties. Ge­orge Lu­cas, who cre­ated the story in 1977, is not deny­ing it. Taoist teach­ers all over the world use StarWars to ex­plain Tao­ism. The In­ter­net is full of memes such as “The Tao of StarWars” or “Tao Te Jedi”. And cul­tural China is not the only one be­ing ripped off by more re­source­ful Amer­i­cans in Hol­ly­wood.

But with Tao­ism it is dif­fer­ent: StarWars is not mar­keted as East­ern phi­los­o­phy, let alone Chi­nese phi­los­o­phy. The idea that a bil­lion-dol­lar in­dus­try and fran­chise is Chi­nese phi­los­o­phy in dis­guise is un­think­able for most Amer­i­cans, es­pe­cially those pa­tri­otic.

The orig­i­nal StarWars staff in 1977 was all white. Aliens stood in as sub­sti­tutes for the ex­otic Asians. Ac­cord­ing to the great­est pro­mo­tion of any movie in world history, and co-opt­edWestern me­dia, StarWars is ex­pected to be a huge suc­cess in China. Con­sum­ing your own cul­ture via Amer­i­can brands and pro­cess­ing is a bit like cul­tural can­ni­bal­ism. But then, it is si­mul­ta­ne­ously in­ten­sively grat­i­fy­ing to hear that tens of mil­lions of Amer­i­cans and Euro­peans un­know­ingly have been turned into zeal­ous Taoists.

The au­thor is a cul­tural critic.

CAI MENG / CHINA DAILY

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