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Reviewed by:
  • Daoism Explained: From the Dream of the Butterfly to the Fishnet Allegory
  • Carine Defoort (bio)
Hans-Georg Moeller. Daoism Explained: From the Dream of the Butterfly to the Fishnet Allegory. Chicago: Open Court, 2005. viii, 178 pp. Paperback $16.95, ISBN 0–8126–9563–1.

When Zhuang Zhou dreamt and turned into a butterfly, there was Zhou and there was the butterfly. There had to be a distinction between them, according to Zhuangzi, which he relates to the “changing of things.”1 In the case of Hans-Georg Moeller, there is the sinology scholar and there is the philosopher, there is the German professor and the Canadian chair. This book, Daoism Explained, is to some extent the result of his “changing of jobs” from Germany to Canada, since it is the translation of his earlier work In der Mitte des Kreises: Daoistisches Denken (Insel Verlag, 2001). And it is, more importantly, the fruitful result of the author’s expertise in both sinology and philosophy.2

The intention of the author is to free Daoist philosophy from the “metaphysical ballast” in which it has been submerged by “Western” interpretations, but not exclusively by Western scholars (p. vii). He therefore searches more “original” readings of the Laozi and the Zhuangzi and stresses the differences between ancient Daoist and modern Western philosophy. Moeller tries to avoid the Laozi commentary of Wang Bi, who “developed a nearly ‘metaphysical’ concept” of Daoist core notions (p. 15). Instead, he often takes recourse to Guo Xiang’s interpretation of the Zhuangzi because that is “a much more original contribution to Daoist philosophy” (p. 15) as opposed to “Wang Bi’s somewhat pompous and static reification of Dao” (p. 16). To some readers this may sound a bit unpromising, like one more simplistic depiction of China as the absolute Other by a postmodern Westerner. But that is not the case: Daoism Explained presents, aside from some general comparative statements about “China” and “the West,” many powerful images, subtle philosophical insights, and refreshingly new interpretations.

Following a short introduction, the book is divided into four major parts: (1) images and allegories, (2) issues, (3) structures, and (4) perspectives. The introduction (pp. 1–26) is a concise and largely chronological presentation of Daoism, beginning with Laozi and the Daodejing, followed by the Zhuangzi, Huang-Lao Daoism (Han), Daoist mysticism (Wei-Jin commentaries), Daoist practice (from the Later Han onward), Daoism today, and ending with the concept of “Dao.” In each case the author provides his readers (mainly perceived as philosophically rather than sinologically trained Westerners)3 with the basic information concerning sources, recent discoveries, authorship, and general context. At this introductory stage, Moeller does not join any debate, but presents the stage clearly and comprehensively. [End Page 179]

Part 1 (pp. 27–65) discusses various interconnected Daoist images in the Laozi and well-known allegories in the Zhuangzi. The first and most elaborated image is that of the wheel, with its opposition between the empty hub and the spokes around it: “Thirty spokes are united in one hub. It is in its [space of] emptiness where the usefulness of the cart is” (p. 27, Laozi 11). The opposition between the hub and the spokes is absolute, complementary, and momentary. Insight into their collaboration teaches one how to behave effectively in the world. The hub is the central, empty, single, undifferentiated, and unmoving pivot. By its very nature it allows the orderly action of all the different spokes. They are many, peripheral, well distinguished, and rotating orderly, permanently, and without overlapping each other. Although this interplay of center and periphery is so of itself (ziran), it is not easy for humans to realize.4 Only one trained to be a sage is able to wu wei er wu bu wei: remain nonactive at the center so that every action can orderly take place in the periphery. “If one understands their respective functions and their relation to each other, one realizes what ancient Daoism saw as essential factors determining the success or failure of an action or a process” (p. 28). Other important images in the Laozi are water, the female, and the root. Water symbolizes the power of what...