The Humanist Spirit of Daoism

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Guying Chen
Editor(s): 
David Jones, Sarah Flavel
Translator(s): 
Hans-Georg Moeller
Modern Chinese Philosophy, Volume 15
  • Boston, MA: 
    Brill
    , February
     2018.
     236 pages.
     $150.00.
     E-Book.
    ISBN
    9789004361980.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

This book is a collection of Chen Guying’s essays and presentation manuscripts from 1995-2011. It is representative of his massive contribution to the contemporary study of philosophical Daoism, which is comprised of the School of Laozi, the School of Zhuangzi, and the Huang-Lao School, and it rehearses many of his central claims from earlier writings to contextualize his arguments for a modern-day humanism rooted in Daoist thought. 

The immediate shortcoming of the book is that the pulse of contemporary social and political change is rapid and arrhythmic, and many of the arguments in the book that foreground humanism as an answer to capitalist greed and ecological devastation seem insipid and even platitudinous. But, on the other hand, the Herculean effort of keeping one’s finger on this pulse would leave little energy to transmit ancient traditions into meaningful guides to life. Chen Guying positions himself somewhere in the middle by acknowledging trends he takes to be self-evidently true about the global zeitgeist, namely, disharmony and disconnectedness, and interweaving them with his unparalleled knowledge of the Daoist intellectual tradition, which, he argues, values precisely the antidote to these problems.

Due to the nature of this material as Chen’s unique and engaged contributions to the scholarly community, primarily in Taiwan and China, it does not read like typical Anglophonic scholarship. Claims are made confidently, even brazenly, without the stabilizing ballast of reference to contemporary secondary scholarship. One may say that it is a typical example of late 20th and early 21st century Chinese academic work. The onus in this type of scholarship is not on the ability to say things that are strictly and verifiably peer-agreed, but on the compatibility with and the furthering of the commentarial traditions aimed at preserving the intentions and insights of canonical texts. Here, contributions have an authority based on lineage, which Chen carefully traces through the chapters of this book from antiquity to modernity, including the work of Jin Yuelin and Fang Dongmei, the “New Daoists”. This all makes Chen an excellent source for educating oneself in the philosophical Daoist tradition from a Chinese scholarly perspective. 

The book is divided into two parts. The first, On the Social Concern of Daoism, is primarily the historical context for Chen’s claims about humanism in the second part, The Humanist Thought of Laozi and Zhuangzi. Of note is Chen’s extended argument for the importance of ritual propriety throughout the philosophical Daoist tradition. It was only when ritual propriety was externalized that it lost its “emotional essence” (68). So, the difference between the Confucians and the Daoists is not that the former values rituals and the latter pure spontaneity, a view seen in much Anglophone scholarship, but that the Daoist form of ritual propriety is precisely one’s emotional attunement that, with time, allows one to transcend the performance of the ritual. “There are many regulations and restrictions in human society,” Chen writes. “Ritual norms can sometimes better human civilization and sometimes these norms can become shackles of the heart-mind” (71). This reading reforms the Zhuangzian ideal of “roaming” into a sort of self-discovery that takes place among the rites and rituals that form the human experience, not the full abdication of a ritual-styled way of living. There are many such insights in the first chapter that are surprising, both in their boldness and their blandness. Bold, because Chen’s writing style is the presentation of claims as if they are indisputable, and bland, because, of course, those who sought a way of life that accorded with the Laozi and the Zhuangzi in the Warring States era and the Han Dynasty (the Jixia Daoists) considered themselves a part of the ritualized, bureaucratized, and increasingly legalized social tableau. It was not the idea of ritual they found spurious, but rather the loss of authenticity. 

Perhaps what makes this book an ideal introduction to the thought of Chen Guying is his autobiographical insertion near the end of the book. His motivation to further the humanist worldview, we find out, is not born at a distance from Western political and social structures, so his critiques are not of the “Othering” variety that cements irreconcilable differences between East and West, or the ultimate superiority of a Chinese worldview. His critiques, as he revealed in even his earliest cross-cultural work, share commonalities with the work of Friedrich Nietzsche. Chen sees the impulse toward hegemonic control and the development of a morality derived from outside the human experience as a part of the “totalitarian religiosity” of Christianity in the West, which resonates strongly with Nietzsche. Although Chen goes further to assert that this is at odds with the long tradition of “humanist religiosity” in China, he is not asserting a fundamental cultural difference. Rather, he hopes that a global trend toward tolerance, respect, pluralism, and equal interchange, as well as ecological mindfulness, will spur interest in the Daoist classics as trans-spatial and trans-temporal sources of humanist wisdom. Naturally, anyone familiar with the philosophical Daoist tradition already knows that they are relevant sources, but Chen’s candid, bold, and knowledgeable presentation of their applicability to today’s problems removes any remaining ambiguity or doubt as to the relevance of Daoism today. 

About the Reviewer(s): 

Sydney Morrow is Assistant Professor in the History, Philosophy, and Religious Studies Department at Nazarbayev University.

Date of Review: 
January 6, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Chen Guying is one of the leading scholars on Daoism in contemporary China.

Keywords: 

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