Ian John­son

The New York Review of Books - - Contents - Ian John­son

Dream Trip­pers: Global Dao­ism and the Predica­ment of Modern Spir­i­tu­al­ity by David A. Palmer and Eli­jah Siegler

China’s Green Re­li­gion: Dao­ism and the Quest for a Sus­tain­able Fu­ture by James Miller Tak­ing Back Phi­los­o­phy: A Mul­ti­cul­tural Man­i­festo by Bryan W. Van Nor­den

Dream Trip­pers:

Global Dao­ism and the Predica­ment of Modern Spir­i­tu­al­ity by David A. Palmer and Eli­jah Siegler. Uni­ver­sity of Chicago Press.

326 pp., $27.50 (pa­per)

China’s Green Re­li­gion: Dao­ism and the Quest for a Sus­tain­able Fu­ture by James Miller.

Columbia Uni­ver­sity Press, 200 pp., $60.00

Tak­ing Back Phi­los­o­phy: A Mul­ti­cul­tural Man­i­festo by Bryan W. Van Nor­den. Columbia Uni­ver­sity Press, 216 pp., $26.00 (pa­per)

Last year I got a call from Abbess Yin, an old friend who runs a Daoist nun­nery near Nan­jing. I’ve al­ways known her as su­per­nat­u­rally placid and oblique, but this time she was ner­vous and di­rect: a group of Ger­mans were com­ing to spend a week learn­ing about Daoist life; could I travel down from Bei­jing to help? To trans­late, I asked? No, she said im­pa­tiently, to me­di­ate— to avoid a dis­as­ter. These for­eign­ers, she ex­plained, had spent years learn­ing qigong (a ne­ol­o­gism that refers to Chi­nese forms of med­i­ta­tion and ex­er­cise prac­tices broadly sim­i­lar to tai chi). But they knew noth­ing about Dao­ism. This per­plexed her—how could they know one with­out the other? She fore­saw in­nu­mer­able mis­un­der­stand­ings. I imag­ined days spent trans­lat­ing words like “en­er­get­ics” into Chi­nese and dredged up a host of rea­sons why I was busy. Abbess Yin let the line stay silent for a few strate­gic sec­onds, forc­ing me to do what I knew I must: wimp out and ac­cept. I steeled my­self for a lost week.

Abbess Yin was right: it was a week of mis­un­der­stand­ings, but it was also il­lu­mi­nat­ing. At heart, each side was wor­ried about be­ing used by the other. Once this mis­trust was over­come, some­thing mean­ing­ful and even beau­ti­ful took place.

Many of the con­cerns were small but symp­to­matic. The Ger­mans ob­jected to hav­ing their pic­tures taken at ev­ery turn, think­ing it was part of a mon­ey­mak­ing ploy to sell lessons in China, a not un­rea­son­able as­sump­tion. They also didn’t want to wear Daoist robes on a visit to a nearby town, feel­ing they were props in a cir­cus act. And they weren’t keen on lec­tures about the in­ter­minable num­ber of Daoist deities; what did this have to do with learn­ing new forms of Daoist ex­er­cises and med­i­ta­tion?

As for Abbess Yin and her nuns, they were per­plexed too: these for­eign­ers knew so lit­tle about the Daoist re­li­gion other than the Daode­jing, the clas­sic text of apho­risms as­cribed to Laozi.1 The nuns were a bit up­set that

1Dao is the same as Tao, as are Dao­ism and Tao­ism, the Daode­jing and the Tao Te Ching, as well as Laozi and Lao Tzu or Lao-tze. They are sim­ply dif­fer­ent ways of Ro­man­iz­ing the same Chi­nese char­ac­ters. I fol­low uni­ver­sal aca­demic prac­tice (in­clud­ing that of the au­thors of the books un­der re­view) of us­ing the their tech­niques of self-cul­ti­va­tion— meant to en­cour­age a vir­tu­ous life and achieve en­light­en­ment—had be­come mere skills for the for­eign­ers to use in their pro­fes­sions, which ranged from mas­sage and con­flict res­o­lu­tion to per­sonal coach­ing. It struck me as anal­o­gous to non­be­liev­ers us­ing a church as a set­ting for a wed­ding.

Af­ter a bit of shut­tle diplo­macy, we reached an ac­cord. The nuns ex­plained that the pho­tos were meant to show lo­cal of­fi­cials how adept they were at spread­ing Chi­nese cul­ture—a big pri­or­ity un­der Xi Jin­ping. Do­ing this would give them a bit more lee­way in deal­ing with the om­nipresent Com­mu­nist Party. The Ger­mans un­der­stood and agreed to be­ing pho­tographed, as long as the pho­tos wouldn’t be made pub­lic with­out their con­sent. As for the robes, the Ger­mans also as­sented once they un­der­stood that the nuns are often seen as odd­balls in the com­mu­nity. Here was a chance to show that even for­eign­ers re­spected their learn­ing. As for the nuns, they re­duced the lessons on the his­tory of Dao­ism and in­creased prac­ti­cal lessons in Tai Chi, med­i­ta­tion, and other phys­i­cal prac­tices. Slowly, the two sides be­gan to un­der­stand each other bet­ter. Af­ter a few days, the for­eign­ers be­gan at­tend­ing the nuns’ morn­ing prayers, and the nuns were of­fer­ing ex­tra lessons. On the last day, the new friend­ship was crowned by some­thing ev­ery­one wanted: a group photo. For the nuns, it would adorn the wall of their of­fice as proof of the power of the Dao to at­tract even cranky for­eign­ers, while the Ger­mans could dis­play the bluer­obed nuns back home to prove that they had gone all the way to China to learn au­then­tic qigong, some­thing that not ev­ery masseuse in Mu­nich can claim. The en­counter left Abbess Yin elated and thought­ful. Be­fore I left for the high-speed rail sta­tion, she pulled me aside. “Maybe this kind of course can ap­peal to Chi­nese peo­ple too,” she said. “Many Chi­nese peo­ple also don’t know much about Dao­ism.”

On my way back to Bei­jing I thought about this and won­dered why Dao­ism

of­fi­cial pinyin sys­tem—thus Dao, Dao­ism, Daode­jing, and Laozi. was so hard for peo­ple to un­der­stand. When friends—for­eign­ers or Chi­nese—hear that I reg­u­larly visit Daoist tem­ples, they in­evitably bom­bard me with ques­tions: What is Dao­ism? Is it a phi­los­o­phy? A re­li­gion? Isn’t it about med­i­tat­ing on a moun­tain­top? If so, then why the brightly col­ored tem­ples or the stalls hawk­ing in­cense? Why is it all so dif­fer­ent from Laozi and Zhuangzi?

Then, a few weeks later—call it co­in­ci­dence, but I pre­fer to think of it as di­vine in­ter­ven­tion—I got the man­u­script of David A. Palmer and Eli­jah Siegler’s Dream Trip­pers. Soon, many things that had trou­bled me about Dao­ism and re­li­gious ex­changes be­gan to make sense.

Re­li­gions have spread around the world in many ways; few have ar­rived as a feat of lit­er­ary imag­i­na­tion. But that is ex­actly how Dao­ism came to the West, help­ing to make it one of the most mis­un­der­stood faiths. It wasn’t trans­mit­ted by Chi­nese mis­sion­ar­ies or prac­ti­tion­ers but by West­ern schol­ars whose in­ter­locu­tors weren’t even Daoists; on the con­trary, they were peo­ple hos­tile to the re­li­gion.

To un­der­stand how this hap­pened, we need to step back two thou­sand years to the be­gin­nings of Dao­ism. Back then, Chi­nese re­li­gious prac­tices were not part of an or­ga­nized re­li­gion. In­stead, Chi­nese fol­lowed a shared sys­tem of rit­u­als and be­liefs: shrines to an­ces­tors, de­i­fied ge­o­graphic fea­tures and his­tor­i­cal per­son­al­i­ties, be­lief in di­vine ret­ri­bu­tion for evil, and a pan­theon of gods who rep­re­sented dif­fer­ent as­pects of these be­liefs. This is still how much of re­li­gion is prac­ticed to­day in China, often un­der the name “folk be­lief” (min­jian xinyang).

Around the sec­ond cen­tury CE, some Chi­nese be­gan to struc­ture their be­liefs into a re­li­gion. Bas­ing it on the Han dy­nasty’s rit­u­als and bu­reau­cracy, the new faith was cen­tered around the text of the Daode­jing, and de­i­fied the text’s mythic au­thor, Laozi. Priest­hood was often passed in lin­eages from fa­ther to son.

Bud­dhism’s ar­rival in China in the first cen­tury CE had rev­o­lu­tion­ized Chi­nese re­li­gious life. Here was a faith with an or­ga­nized clergy of mis­sion­ary monks who had a clearly de­fined cor­pus of holy scrip­tures and novel prac­tices. Over the cen­turies, Dao­ism adapted to this. Some ex­plic­itly im­i­tated Bud­dhist prac­tices, such as vege­tar­i­an­ism, celibacy, and con­struct­ing monas­ter­ies. This be­came known as the school of Com­plete Per­fec­tion (Quanzhen), while the older ver­sion of Dao­ism, which al­lowed priests to marry and live in com­mu­ni­ties, is to­day known as Or­tho­dox Unity (Zhengyi). Through­out it all, Dao­ism sold it­self as an indige­nous coun­ter­point to Bud­dhism. Dur­ing some dy­nas­ties this worked in Dao­ism’s fa­vor, and it was spon­sored by the state. The first ruler of the Ming dy­nasty (1368–1644), for ex­am­ple, was in­spired to fight against China’s Mon­go­lian con­querors by call­ing upon a Daoist de­ity known as Zhenwu, the Per­fected War­rior.

But opin­ion turned against Dao­ism in 1644, when the Ming fell to an­other no­madic peo­ple, the Manchus. Not only was Dao­ism seen as too Chi­nese, but the Manchus prac­ticed Ti­betan Bud­dhism—hence the huge num­ber of Ti­betan-style tem­ples in and around Bei­jing from that era. Dao­ism wasn’t banned but with­ered among ur­ban in­tel­lec­tual cir­cles. In­stead, it flour­ished mainly in the coun­try­side, where its ideas in­flu­enced folk be­liefs to the point that the two be­came al­most in­dis­tin­guish­able.

It was this state of af­fairs that West­ern schol­ars en­coun­tered when they ar­rived in China. Not only was Dao­ism weak, but the for­eign­ers’ in­ter­locu­tors were the Con­fu­cian elite who ran China. These ed­u­cated of­fi­cials dis­dained most re­li­gions, but were es­pe­cially hos­tile to out-of-fa­vor Dao­ism. They con­ceded that the Daode­jing and the Zhuangzi were beau­ti­ful texts, but said the re­li­gion was de­based su­per­sti­tion.

Thus be­gan what surely must count as one of the most in­ac­cu­rate and mislead­ing no­tions in the his­tory of in­ter­cul­tural re­li­gious un­der­stand­ing: that there is a “Daoist re­li­gion” (dao­jiao, in Chi­nese) and a “Daoist phi­los­o­phy” (dao­jia) that have lit­tle to do with each other. The phi­los­o­phy, it was held, was deep and pro­found. But the re­li­gion was su­per­sti­tious non­sense, prac­ticed by for­tune-telling char­la­tans who might have some skills in mar­tial arts or ge­o­mancy but who pos­sessed no philo­soph­i­cal knowl­edge. Hence the West came to be­lieve that China’s only indige­nous re­li­gion was a cor­rupted ver­sion of a once-grand sys­tem of be­lief. Not coin­ci­den­tally, this was how the West also saw China: as a fallen em­pire.

This way of un­der­stand­ing Dao­ism is wrong. Of course, one can ap­pre­ci­ate the Daode­jing with­out be­ing a Daoist, just as one can ad­mire the Ser­mon on the Mount with­out be­ing a Chris­tian. But to say that Chris­tian­ity has noth­ing to do with Je­sus’s ideas is ab­surd, just as it is ridicu­lous to say that Dao­ism is a bur­lesque ver­sion of a pro­found phi­los­o­phy. This is ob­vi­ous if one goes to a Daoist tem­ple and lis­tens to, say, the morn­ing prayers, or zaoke. They

might sound like rapid and mean­ing­less chant­ing to some­one un­fa­mil­iar with the lan­guage, but in fact they are very clear re­state­ments of the ideas of Laozi that any Chi­nese per­son with a high school ed­u­ca­tion can un­der­stand. More than that, Dao­ism is the repos­i­tory and some­times the in­spi­ra­tion for many cul­tural prac­tices in China, in­clud­ing no­tions that un­der­pin land­scape paint­ing and con­cepts such as yin-yang and the five el­e­ments, which un­der­lie Chi­nese medicine. Bud­dhist mis­sion­ar­ies were so ef­fec­tive that even to­day the word for the Bud­dha, fo, is syn­ony­mous with the word for a god or spirit. But it is Dao­ism that gives a cos­mol­ogy to all the folk re­li­gious prac­tices that make up the ma­jor­ity of eth­nic Chi­nese peo­ple’s re­li­gious ac­tiv­ity, from de­ify­ing sa­cred moun­tains and his­tor­i­cal fig­ures to the ge­o­man­tic prin­ci­ples that de­ter­mine how com­mu­ni­ties and graves are laid out. And it is Daoist ideas of med­i­ta­tive in­ter­nal cul­ti­va­tion that in­spired one of China’s most fa­mous cul­tural ex­ports, the Bud­dhist school called Chan, bet­ter known abroad through its Ja­panese name, Zen.

Prob­a­bly the per­son most re­spon­si­ble for our mis­un­der­stand­ing of Dao­ism is James Legge, the Scot­tish mis­sion­ary and trans­la­tor who was a lead­ing scholar of Chi­nese re­li­gion for about twenty years, start­ing in 1870. Legge was an ad­mirable fig­ure, pi­o­neer­ing the trans­la­tion of many Chi­nese clas­sics out of gen­uine re­spect and ad­mi­ra­tion for Chi­nese cul­ture. But he ven­er­ated Con­fu­cius (whom he held to be al­most on par with Je­sus); to­ward Dao­ism he fol­lowed the Con­fu­cian prej­u­dice of es­teem­ing the an­cient texts but den­i­grat­ing the re­li­gion, set­ting up the mis­un­der­stand­ing that is still wide­spread to­day.

By the time the World’s Par­lia­ment of Re­li­gions was held in Chicago in 1893, Dao­ism was prob­a­bly the least un­der­stood of the faiths present. Rep­re­sen­ta­tives of many world re­li­gions spoke on an equal foot­ing with their hosts, but Dao­ism was rep­re­sented by an anony­mous es­say that called on out­siders to “re­store our re­li­gion.” This didn’t stop West­ern­ers from fetishiz­ing the Daode­jing. As Palmer and Siegler note, this is due to the text’s brevity, its hav­ing few Chi­nese names to con­fuse read­ers, and its open­ness to mul­ti­ple in­ter­pre­ta­tions. By 1950, ten trans­la­tions of the Daode­jing were in print, with one declar­ing that “Taoist re­li­gion is an abuse of Taoist phi­los­o­phy.”

Thus to­day we are pre­sented with a strange phe­nom­e­non: book­stores around the world are stocked with end­less trans­la­tions of the Daode­jing—widely con­sid­ered to be the most-trans­lated book af­ter the Bible— but as Palmer and Siegler put it, “the con­tours of Daoist prac­tice, both cur­rent and his­tor­i­cal, are usu­ally ig­nored, de­rided, and/or mis­un­der­stood.”

This down­play­ing of the Daoist re­li­gion is re­flected in a new trans­la­tion of the Daode­jing by John Min­ford, one of the most fa­mous trans­la­tors of Chi­nese into English. In his Tao Te Ching: The Es­sen­tial Trans­la­tion of the An­cient Chi­nese Book of the Way, Min­ford of­fers a lu­cid trans­la­tion of the old text, as well as of some Chi­nese commentaries.2 Min­ford writes that his ver­sion is

2 To be pub­lished by Vik­ing in De­cem­ber. not aimed at schol­ars, but is meant to be a “guide to ev­ery­day liv­ing,” which is fair enough, but he leaves out much of what the com­men­ta­tors have to say about us­ing the text as a tool for tra­di­tional med­i­ta­tive prac­tices. In a sec­tion on Dao­ism to­day, he men­tions the Bea­tles, Ur­sula K. Le Guin, and The Tao of Pooh, but com­pletely omits that Dao­ism is also a vi­brant, liv­ing re­li­gion with tem­ples, priests, and nuns, who wor­ship Laozi as a god. In­stead, the text is pre­sented as “the orig­i­nal mind­ful­ness book.”

The story of Dao­ism’s tra­vails is ably re­counted by Palmer and Siegler, but their goal is more am­bi­tious. Through a series of en­ter­tain­ing en­coun­ters cen­tered on a holy Daoist moun­tain, they also raise fun­da­men­tal ques­tions about how post-re­li­gious peo­ple strive, often un­hap­pily, for spir­i­tual ful­fill­ment. Their story has two he­roes, or an­ti­heroes. One is Michael Winn, an en­tre­pre­neur who leads tours to China that he calls “Dream Trips.” These in­clude reg­u­lar tourist stops, such as the Great Wall and the ter­ra­cotta soldiers, but the high point is a visit to Mt. Hua, a Daoist moun­tain near the city of Xi’an. This is one of Dao­ism’s five holi­est sites, with near-ver­ti­cal as­cents that in the past were only ac­ces­si­ble by stairs cut into the rock face and chains slung down as handrails. Winn, though, picked it more or less serendip­i­tously be­cause he felt the “en­ergy” of the moun­tain. He made friends with lo­cal Daoists and brought his Trip­pers there to med­i­tate in its caves and feel its power.

Like the Ger­mans I es­corted to the abbess’s tem­ple, few of Winn’s Dream Trip­pers know much about Dao­ism. Many have been through the wringer of spir­i­tual prac­tices, hav­ing tried, ac­cord­ing to Palmer and Siegler, “Tran­scen­den­tal Med­i­ta­tion, the Gnos­tic church, Kun­dalini yoga, mac­ro­bi­otics, LSD use, the In­ter­na­tional So­ci­ety for Kr­ishna Con­scious­ness (also known as ISKCON or Hare Kr­ishna), Healthy, Happy, Holy Or­ga­ni­za­tion (also known as 3HO and now some­times called Sikh Dharma), and Amer­i­can shamans,” not to men­tion Tai Chi, shamanic pey­ote cults, an­gel chan­nel­ing, and Ti­betan Bud­dhism. Like most spir­i­tual seek­ers, they’ve read the Daode­jing but have no real in­ter­est in “re­li­gious Dao­ism”—in other words in Dao­ism’s his­tory, gods, or be­liefs. In true Ori­en­tal­ist fash­ion, they see lo­cal prac­tices as back­drops for their per­sonal jour­neys.

The Dream Trip­pers want an imag­i­nary Dao­ism, see­ing it as fem­i­nine, eco­log­i­cal, and sub­ver­sive. It has tech­niques they can use, but lit­tle else. It’s what they ex­pe­ri­ence that mat­ters, or as Palmer and Siegler put it, “sub­jec­tive ex­pe­ri­ence in one’s own body is the only source of authen­tic­ity.” For that, bits of China are use­ful, es­pe­cially holy sites, which they be­lieve con­tain cen­ters of en­ergy that they can tap into—spir­i­tual gas sta­tions that could be lo­cated any­where.

Dao­ism, the au­thors spec­u­late, is per­fectly suited for this cul­tural smor­gas­bord be­cause it of­fers a com­plete sys­tem of med­i­ta­tion, phi­los­o­phy, and phys­i­cal prac­tices for health, heal­ing, mar­tial arts, en­hanc­ing the mean­ing and plea­sure of sex, and plac­ing the body in a cos­mos. Cru­cially, these ideas and skills can be learned in dis­crete pack­ages; a per­son can take one

part and leave the rest. Many other re­li­gions, by con­trast, have un­ap­peal­ing core ideas or prac­tices; non-Tantric Bud­dhism es­chews sex, for ex­am­ple, while Tantric Bud­dhism and Hin­duism place an em­pha­sis on guru de­vo­tion and rit­ual that is an­ti­thet­i­cal to many of these in­di­vid­u­al­ists.

It’s easy to see the Dream Trip­pers as sim­ply want­ing to reen­chant their lives—to bring back the spir­i­tual or di­vine that moder­nity and sec­u­lar­iza­tion have driven out of daily life. But Palmer and Siegler say they rep­re­sent some­thing else: “ul­tra­moder­nity.” Moder­nity put re­li­gion in a com­part­ment and built a so­ci­ety around the as­sump­tion that ob­jec­tive and uni­ver­sal rea­son ex­isted. Ul­tra­moder­nity ques­tions that premise, see­ing ev­ery­thing as sub­jec­tive. Spir­i­tu­al­ism is taken out of the box of or­ga­nized re­li­gion and given to the in­di­vid­ual, who can as­sert it as jus­ti­fi­ca­tion for be­hav­ior in any sphere of life, not just the re­li­gious sphere.

The Dream Trip­pers’ foil is Louis Kom­jathy, a scholar who dili­gently seeks au­then­tic Dao­ism. Kom­jathy is a well­known scholar of Dao­ism at the Uni­ver­sity of San Diego. He re­cently pub­lished, for ex­am­ple, an out­stand­ing an­no­tated trans­la­tion of a clas­sic Daoist book of con­tem­pla­tion, Taming the Wild Horse.3 Like Winn, he is a seeker but wants to find mean­ing in the re­li­gion’s lin­eages and monas­tic-based prac­tices. But as Palmer and Siegler’s book un­folds we get a more nu­anced pic­ture of Winn and Kom­jathy. We see this through the eyes of the Daoist monks them­selves, a bril­liant de­ci­sion by the au­thors be­cause it makes the Daoists into ac­tors rather than ex­tras. Many of them dis­dain the Dream Trip­pers’ ig­no­rance. Like Abbess Yin, they think the for­eign­ers are miss­ing the point—how can one learn the tech­niques with­out the moral­ity? But they also wel­come them as proof of China’s broader cul­tural, eco­nomic, and po­lit­i­cal rise. Some even en­joy the Trip­pers, see­ing in them a naive, fun way of look­ing at their own re­li­gion. They can’t com­mu­ni­cate but do med­i­tate and some­times even dance to­gether.

And while many of the monks re­spect Kom­jathy, they also see him as too rigid. In­deed, we be­gin to see that Kom­jathy is al­most as Ori­en­tal­ist as the Trip­pers. He seeks a pure, strict form of Dao­ism that rarely ex­ists in China, cer­tainly not in the back­bit­ing, com­mer­cial­ized world of touris­ti­fied monas­ter­ies such as Mt. Hua. In fact, his own master is so dis­gusted by the degra­da­tion of the holy site that he has quit the moun­tain and his monas­tic or­der to live in the city and teach peo­ple pri­vately. On the ba­sis of his master’s ini­ti­a­tion, Kom­jathy calls him­self a Quanzhen Daoist, but Quanzhen is a celi­bate, monas­tic or­der, while he is mar­ried and lives a sec­u­lar life as a uni­ver­sity pro­fes­sor.

3Tam­ing the Wild Horse: An An­no­tated Trans­la­tion and Study of the Daoist Horse Taming Pic­tures (Columbia Uni­ver­sity Press, 2017). Thus we come to the predica­ment of the book’s sub­ti­tle. Both Michael Winn’s Dream Trip­pers and Kom­jathy have de­cided for them­selves what spir­i­tual prac­tice they want, mak­ing it an in­di­vid­ual choice out­side an or­ga­nized re­li­gious struc­ture. But this makes them won­der if their choices are valid, and crave authen­tic­ity as a way to jus­tify them. So while the Trip­pers might es­chew tra­di­tional Daoist prac­tices, they still need the trip to Mt. Hua to give sub­stance to their prac­tice.

Kom­jathy, too, yearns for authen­tic­ity. He searches for mas­ters who can ini­ti­ate him into a lin­eage, even though, as Palmer and Siegler point out, Daoist lin­eages have been largely de­stroyed by the up­heavals of the twen­ti­eth cen­tury. There is no di­rect trans­mis­sion of the an­cient wis­dom; in­stead it is a re­cre­ation of a lost past.

This is a wise, funny, and at times mov­ing book. It helps us un­der­stand not only one of the most mis­un­der­stood of the world’s re­li­gions, but also our own fates as post-re­li­gious peo­ple. Many of us have cast our­selves adrift in the world, seek­ing our own spir­i­tual sal­va­tion through cob­bled-to­gether ideas drawn from hu­man­ism and eclec­ti­cism. But we often won­der if we aren’t worse off than mem­bers of a tra­di­tional faith: un­sure of what to do, we can’t fo­cus on higher goals.

If pop­u­lar un­der­stand­ing about Dao­ism in the West is often shaky, we are lucky to live in a time when aca­demic un­der­stand­ing of Chi­nese thought has never been stronger.4

One of the most imag­i­na­tive new books to come out of the West’s en­gage­ment with Dao­ism is James Miller’s China’s Green Re­li­gion. Miller ar­gues per­sua­sively that Dao­ism can be seen as a kind of coun­ter­cul­ture to the dom­i­nant Con­fu­cian­ism of the past cen­turies. This, along with its tra­di­tion of en­gage­ment with na­ture—rather than dom­i­nance over it—can al­low Dao­ism to serve as a sup­port for a new kind of en­vi­ron­men­tal­ism. In­stead of be­ing based on the ar­gu­ments of sci­en­tists, lawyers, and econ­o­mists, re­spect for the en­vi­ron­ment can be based on Dao­ism’s teach­ings of liv­ing in har­mony with the en­vi­ron­ment—a way to move

4For a sum­mary of re­cent sig­nif­i­cant books, see my “China Gets Re­li­gion!” in these pages, De­cem­ber 22, 2011. “from a tech­ni­cal pol­icy dis­course to pop­u­lar prac­tice.”

The idea that Chi­nese tra­di­tional phi­los­o­phy might have some­thing valu­able to add to world dis­course shouldn’t be shock­ing, but Bryan Van Nor­den ar­gues in Tak­ing Back Phi­los­o­phy that it is al­most hereti­cal in most US uni­ver­si­ties. This is a won­der­fully lu­cid, pur­pose­fully polem­i­cal tract call­ing for non-West­ern philoso­phies to be in­tro­duced into uni­ver­sity cur­ric­ula. A bet­ter verb might ac­tu­ally be “rein­tro­duced,” for, as Van Nor­den shows, non-West­ern thinkers like Con­fu­cius were con­sid­ered to be philoso­phers un­til the dis­ci­pline nar­rowed its field of vi­sion in the nine­teenth cen­tury. Van Nor­den fo­cuses on Chi­nese phi­los­o­phy be­cause he knows it best—he taught Chi­nese and com­par­a­tive phi­los­o­phy for twenty years at Vas­sar and cur­rently is a vis­it­ing pro­fes­sor at Yale-NUS Col­lege in Sin­ga­pore— but he says it ap­plies to other non-West­ern philoso­phers as well.

Van Nor­den floated the idea of mak­ing phi­los­o­phy more di­verse in a 2016 New York Times col­umn that he co-wrote with Jay L. Garfield.5 The two were pil­lo­ried for their ef­fort. One crit­i­cism was that phi­los­o­phy orig­i­nated with Plato, so Chi­nese like Con­fu­cius couldn’t be philoso­phers. An­other strange ar­gu­ment was that non-West­ern philoso­phers might be sages with some smart ideas but they didn’t ar­gue their points rig­or­ously enough.

As Van Nor­den points out, none of these crit­ics is able to read the works they dis­miss in the orig­i­nal lan­guage, and most ad­mit to hav­ing barely en­gaged with them in trans­la­tion. But their prej­u­dices are not un­usual; in­stead, they are com­mon in uni­ver­si­ties across the United States. Most strik­ing is that of the top fifty phi­los­o­phy de­part­ments in the United States that grant a Ph.D., only six have a reg­u­lar fac­ulty mem­ber who teaches Chi­nese phi­los­o­phy. By con­trast, each of them has fac­ulty who can lec­ture on the an­cient Greek Par­menides, of whom his­tory has left us only one work. Why should we care? Van Nor­den says it’s not about po­lit­i­cal cor­rect­ness. In­stead, he shows how Chi­nese philoso­phers have much to of­fer the great philo­soph­i­cal de­bates. Hobbes, for ex­am­ple, ar­gues that peo­ple act out of self-in­ter­est and that co­er­cive power is nec­es­sary to com­pel hu­mans to fol­low rules. China has philo­soph­i­cal schools with sim­i­lar ideas: Le­gal­ism and its op­po­nent, Con­fu­cian­ism. How West­ern phi­los­o­phy de­part­ments can marginal­ize these Chi­nese thinkers is a mys­tery. Per­haps if more Chi­nese phi­los­o­phy were taught, then the ideas that un­der­pin Dao­ism would be de­mys­ti­fied. In­stead of China be­ing seen as a repos­i­tory of Ori­en­tal wis­dom, its ideas would be taken se­ri­ously as part of a dia­logue that en­gages all peo­ple ev­ery­where: one about how to live dig­ni­fied lives with a higher mean­ing.

5“If Phi­los­o­phy Won’t Diver­sify, Let’s Call It What It Re­ally Is,” The New York Times, May 11, 2016.

Daoist prac­ti­tion­ers med­i­tat­ing in a cave in Jin­hua, Zhe­jiang prov­ince, China, 2011

Tourists on one of Michael Winn’s Dream Trips prac­tic­ing qigong at Jade Spring Monastery, Mt. Hua, Shaanxi prov­ince, China, June 2012

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