How Now Tao?

Elusive to define
but pervasive in its influence, Taoism is on the rise again in modern China.

china_taoism

Nestled on a leafy
slope of Zhongnan Mountain, Louguan
Temple is a revered place
for Taoists. Legend has it that the sage Laozi was last seen here, stopping
briefly to leave his last teaching, the Daodejing, before riding on an ox
towards the sunset, never to be seen again.

“His five thousands
words are so concise, but the connotations are most profound,” historian Sima
Qian wrote. “His Tao is of the past, yet it is still a guide for today.”

More than two
millennia after the enigmatic figure was said to have lived, Beijing has given its blessing to a seven-day
forum dedicated to the ancient book. Hundreds of Taoists priests, scholars and
adherents from Greater China and beyond descended onto the temple, some 70
kilometres from Xian, to take part in the “International Forum on the
Daodejing”. The event, which opened on April 21 in Xian and will conclude on
April 27 in Hong Kong, has an ambitious theme:
“Constructing a harmonious world through the Dao.”

As China’s
economic might keeps growing, it faces rising social discontent, ranging from
ecological problems to the widening income gap. It is little surprise that the
leaders of the Communist Party have resorted to what Marx has called the opium
of the masses – religion – in an apparent bid to fill the spiritual void and
calm the populace.

“The Daodejing has
become a very important book,” says Yeung Hom-bun, secretary-general of the
Hong Kong Taoist Association, one of the organizers. “It has a philosophical
insight that has attracted not only Taoists but also those in business and
government.”

It is difficult to
calculate how many Taoists there are in mainland China, though one estimate puts the
number to as high as 400 million. Taoist rituals are also popular among the
Chinese in Hong Kong, Taiwan,
Macau and Southeast Asia.

The Daodejing,
roughly translated as the Classic of the Way and its Virtue, has long drawn
interests from overseas. In the early 1980s and 1990s, US writer Benjamin Hoff’s interpretations of
Taoism, “The Tao of Pooh” and “The Te of Piglet”, were on the bestsellers’ list
for about a year, successfully bringing the Chinese philosophy to mainstream America. (Hoff
is said to be a Taoist, practicing Taoist meditation and taichi).

At other times, the
Daodejing sounds like a Beatnik poetry, as in Thomas Meyer’s translation from
2005. The stream of translations keeps flowing, it is said that the Daodejing
is the second most translated book in the world after the Bible.

But only recently
has Taoism regained its high-profile in its country of origin, partly because China
felt the need to claim its heritage after experiencing a breakneck speed of
modernization. “Along with Confucianism, Taoism is considered to be the essence
of Chineseness,” says Chad Hansen, chair professor of Chinese philosophy at the
University of Hong Kong who has been translating the
classic Taoist book.

Yet, in contrast to
Confucianism, he argues, Taoism is less rigid, more open and able to
accommodate differences in views and opinions that have emerged today. “Taoism
is like a big tent,” quips Hansen, author of “A Daoist Theory of Chinese
Thought.”

Taoist basic
tenets, which focus on non-action (wu-wei), humanism and relativism, may also
provide some guidance in a time of growing social pains and chronic
environmental problems. Many passages of the Daodejing emphasize balance,
peace, spontaneity and the strength of softness. It advocates harmony with both
the world and the environment. “Being one with nature, the sage is in accord
with the Tao,” the book says.

Yet the Daodejing
also contains some brutal remarks. Chapter three, for instance, has advice that
would comfort a one-party state like China: “... in governing the
people, the sage empties their minds, fills their bellies, weakens their wills
but strengthens their bones. He always keeps them innocent of knowledge and
free from desire, and ensures that the clever never dare to act.”

“On first look,
this may sound like Nazi Germany,” says Hansen. “But you should not read it
literally. I think the chapter is being rhetorical, teaching that the
fundamental value is not about status and style. If you want to focus on basic
needs, you would avoid competition.”

Of the five
religions recognised by Beijing, Taoism is the
only one indigenous to China
yet it is also the most elusive. The religious Taoism consists of different
teachings and myriad practices, from cosmology, mysticism, and alchemy to rites
and rituals.

There are different
views on what should constitute the highest Taoist pantheon, with different
regions and areas worshiping different deities. The people on the south coast,
for example, venerate Tin Hau, the goddess of the Sea, while the dragon cult –
the mythical animal is associated with controlling the rain and water – can be
seen among peasant communities in central China.

Then, there are
adherents to the philosophical aspect of Taoism, subscribing to the ideas
espoused in the Daodejing and the writings of Zhuangzi, another revered
patriarch of Taoist philosophy.

For Yeung, the
vague concept of Taoism is an advantage. “You are free to choose,” he says.
“You can look at it as a philosophy, but if you think it is a religion, go
ahead. You can have it your own way.”

The elusive
character, according to Hansen, simply confirms the concept of the Tao (the
Way). “After all,” he says, quoting the Daodejing, “the Tao that can be spoken
of is not the constant Tao.”

 

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