- Pristine Affluence: Daoist Roots in the Stone Age by Livia Kohn
The archetypical Daoist immortal is depicted as a chubby bearded man wearing a loose robe, sometimes with a gourd of liquor in his hand and a donkey or water buffalo standing nearby. He rests in a scenic spot, communing, distilling, and considering the life of the mind. And, if the thesis of Pristine Affluence is to be believed, recovering prehistoric patterns of life.
Daoism is a philosophical tradition rooted in the first millennium b.c. in the Central Plains of China. As a religious movement, it was structured and shaped by political support and millenarian movements during the first millennium a.d. Texts from these two periods provide the sources from which Kohn distills the majority of her information on what Daoists did and thought in the past. Since the archaeology of Daoist communities is almost unknown (though see articles in Verellen 1998), we must make do with what Daoists said about themselves in their accounts of ideal societies, rather than look to the material residues of their practices.
The thesis of this book is that the mode of living set forth in Daoist philosophy was drawn from Palaeolithic and Mesolithic ways of life and that their similarities suggest a conscious construction and knowledge of the deep past on the part of Daoist social thinkers (pp. 7, 202, 207). Daoists, it is argued, sought to bring back a time of small, mobile, hunting and gathering communities and return to a state of “pristine affluence” (Sahlins 1972:38) as an alternative to the oppressive and stratified world in which they lived. Pristine Affluence seizes on a moment in American anthropology and society and runs with it. The idea of the original affluent society, first presented by Sahlins in 1966 (Lee and DeVore 1968), drew on the zeitgeist of that decade by depicting hunter-gatherers as living comfortably and simply without the burdens experienced in agricultural societies.
The structure of the book’s argument is to lay out two sets of information next to each other and assert that similarities between interpreted anthropological syntheses on the one hand and historical social models on the other suggest a common social organization in the past. In this case, the two sets of information include narratives of human evolution and archaeological prehistory (chapters 1–3) and Daoist ideas about social structure (chapters 4–10). Kohn’s archaeological chapters draw widely and uncritically from the last half-century of surveys of world archaeology. They cover “The Stone Age” from the earliest Hominins to the Natufian period of the Levant; “Agriculture and Civilization,” the social and biological changes of the Neolithic; and “Early Chinese Cultures,” which repeats the sequence of the previous two chapters from the Palaeolithic to the Early Bronze Age while focusing on riverine East Asia. Though her bibliography is impressively deep and includes a range of popular and academic sources, the flow of concepts and citations are scattershot and the reader is left with no strong idea of what archaeological interpretations or data are important for the argument. Also sorely [End Page 319] lacking from this section is coverage of Mesolithic society or important examples of these societies in East Asia such as the Jomon culture of the Japanese archipelago.
In the Daoism focused chapters, which have such anthropologically enticing titles as “Forms of Community,” “Leadership and Violence,” and “Foodways,” Kohn offers some primary quotes and discusses the analysis of the codes for living produced by Daoist millenarian movements of the first millennium a.d. as they reacted against and engaged with the states in which they lived. However, much like the archaeological data presented, the focus of this presentation does not center on the argument of the book. Instead, a contrast is drawn between the ideal Daoist community and the modern world. The author asserts that today’s troubled world is rooted in the development of agriculture during the Neolithic. A...