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  • Good for Nothing? Jan De Meyer’s Translation of the Tang Text Wunengzi
  • Carine Defoort (bio)
Jan De Meyer. Wunengzi Nietskunner: Het taoïsme en de bevrijding van de geest (Wunengzi good for nothing: Taoism and the liberation of the mind). Amsterdam-Antwerp: Augustus, 2011. 159 pp. Hardcover €19.95, ISBN 978-9-045-70449-4.

Dutch is a language in which China scholars seldom publish their research, being the mother tongue of only 23 million people, mostly in the Netherlands and Belgium. When Dutch-speaking sinology and China scholars produce academic work, it is mainly in English, while Dutch is reserved for lowbrow publications. However, some scholars have produced Dutch translations and informative books that can be perfectly enjoyed by both audiences: experts in the field as well as the general public. The most outstanding examples are the Dutch scholars J. J. L. Duyvendak, Kristofer Schipper, and Wilt Idema, in the fields of Chinese philosophy, religion, and literature. The younger Belgian scholar, Jan De Meyer, combines these domains: he has recently extensively translated and commented upon Chinese sources which were, hitherto, unavailable in Dutch, both in the field of literature1 and in philosophy, mainly Taoism.2 De Meyer lives as a professional translator in the French countryside and teaches a course on non-Western philosophy at the University of Ghent, in Belgium.3

De Meyer’s study of the Wunengzi contains the first full translation not only into Dutch, but into any Western language. Little research has been devoted to this Taoist source from the late Tang dynasty.4 Written under the pen name 無能子 (Master Good for Nothing),5 the book reflects on how to get quietly on with one’s life in times of war and chaos. The postface indicates that it was written in the spring of 887, when Wunengzi hid at the poor home of the Jing family, spending most of his time in bed. Outside, the political struggle for power following the rebellion of Huang Chao (d. 884) was leading the dynasty to its end (officially in 907). The author of the postface claims that he got hold of his good friend’s manuscript, written in bed, and that he mainly structured the material into three parts (juan), with a total number of thirty-four chapters (pian). Even though in the received edition eleven chapters are indicated as missing, De Meyer argues that we possibly possess the full text but only divided differently.6 [End Page 121]

The first and shortest part of De Meyer’s study provides an introduction to the Wunengzi. It begins with an overview of the political and intellectual history of the Tang dynasty. De Meyer knows this period particularly well, thanks to his previous research on the Tang scholars Luo Yin 羅隱 (833–910) and Wu Yun 吳筠 (d. 778).7 The introductory part also contains a translation of the postface of the book, reflections on the completeness of its received edition, an analysis of the name “Wunengzi,” speculations about the author, and an evaluation of his proclaimed anarchism.8 De Meyer suggests that Good for Nothing’s ideas largely resonate with anarchism (e.g., a plea for individual autonomy, rejection of authority based on force, and the ideal of a harmonious society), but do not coincide with it: they are both less and more radical than what is usually considered anarchism in the West.9 On the one hand, Wunengzi lacks the anarchist eagerness to provide a concrete program for creating a nonauthoritarian state, and rather than actively rousing a revolution, he suggests accepting the world as it is by adapting one’s own mindset. However, on the other hand, his ideas are also more radical in the sense that they criticize not only the political system but, more generally, any system that is constructed on the basis of desires and that controls people with conventions and language.

The main body of De Meyer’s book consists of a full translation of the Wunengzi, with each section followed by his clarifications and reflections. The first part presents Wunengzi’s main ideas in the form of essays. It begins with a cosmogony and primitivist account of how man fell from the...