- Lao-tzu and the Tao-te-ching
Modern scholarship on the Tao Te Ching has tended to focus on questions of authorship and the intended meaning of the text, often working from both the unquestioned assumption that matters of origination are of primary historical importance and the quasi-theological bias that the original textual meaning is somehow the "right" or authoritative one. But the role of the Tao Te Ching in Chinese history and culture, as well as that of its purported author, is a much more complex affair. The text has been the subject of more than seven hundred commentaries and has been appropriated by vast networks of scholars, government officials, self-conscious religious communities, and laypeople, while Lao Tzu himself has undergone a fascinating history of deification and aesthetic representation. With Lao-tzu and the Tao-te-ching, editors Livia Kohn and Michael LaFargue take steps toward filling in some of the complicated (and much overlooked) post-canonical history by assembling essays on subjects ranging from the ritual uses of the text to modern hermeneutic experiments. The volume includes nine new essays, as well as three older ones reprinted or translated from earlier sources.
The book is organized in four sections—"Ancient Myths," "Chinese Interpretations," "Modern Readings," and "Critical Methods"—although there is noticeable [End Page 625] overlap among the parts. The twelve essays are of varying quality and of varying use for different readers. Some of the material is highly technical and presupposes a sinological audience, while other material rehearses data that should already be familiar to scholars of ancient Chinese philosophy but may be tremendously useful to those who are interested in the text but lacking the scholarly background. One case of the latter is Julia Hardy's "Influential Western Interpretations of the Tao-te-ching," which does not especially break new ground but is a wonderful historical synopsis of Western scholarship on the text, as it meticulously identifies the key interpretive voices and sorts out their positions. Hardy gives only brief attention to the earliest eighteenth- and nineteenth-century scholarship—omitting, for example, any mention of Victor von Strauss' 1870 German rendition—which might actually have been most edifying for specialists. LaFargue and Julian Pas' "On Translating the Tao-te-ching" is essentially a primer on hermeneutic problems relevant to the text that serves as an intelligent corrective to the uncoordinated body of Taoist materials available to novice readers.
What may be most clear from several of the essays taken in tandem is that the popular Western "mystical" reading of the text not only is one of many historical interpretations but is also very much heir to Wang Pi's intellectual lineage. In "A Tale of Two Commentaries: Ho-shang-kung and Wang Pi on the Lao-tzu," Alan K. L. Chan notes how such standard tenets as the spiritualized metaphysical understanding of Tao, the relationship between nonbeing and creativity, and the identification of naturalness and nonaction with spontaneity originate with Wang Pi but are nowhere to be found in the earlier Ho-shang-kung reading. The latter employs typical Han dynasty correlative cosmological interpretive methods, referring to naturalness as the preservation of energies in the physical body and to "the One" not as an abstract metaphysical oneness but as "the original substance of life itself, energy in its most pure and potent form" (p. 93). According to Isabel Robinet's "Later Commen-taries: Textual Polysemy and Syncretistic Interpretations," the panoply of text interpretations falls into roughly three categories—"technical or specialist readings," "philosophical exegeses," and "inner alchemy interpretations," which she then proceeds to divide further into "philological" and "ideological" readings. This is all further complicated when one considers the Tao Te Ching not as a strictly philosophical text but as a collection of polemical aphorisms, as LaFargue does in "Recovering the Tao-te-ching's Original Meaning: Some Remarks on Historical Hermeneutics," or as a ritual, liturgical or meditative aid, as Kohn does in "The Tao-te-ching in Ritual."
Lao-tzu and the...