- Riding the Wind with Liezi: New Perspectives on the Daoist Classic edited by Ronnie Littlejohn and Jeffrey Dippmann
The Liezi is one of the lesser-known Daoist classics in the West even though English translations of the text are not lacking. Scholarly studies are scarce, and thus the publication of Riding the Wind with Liezi: New Perspectives on the Daoist Classic, edited by Ronnie Littlejohn and Jeffrey Dippmann, should be celebrated. This new anthology contains Roger Ames’ helpful introduction and twelve essays by scholars who are mostly trained in philosophy and religion. The essays are grouped under the three headings of “The Liezi Text,” “Interpretive Essays,” and “Applying the Teachings of the Liezi,” but, strictly speaking, only the contributions of T. H. Barrett, Ronnie Littlejohn, and Jeffrey Dippmann (the last presented under “Interpretive Essays”) deal with the textual issues of the Liezi. Barrett provides a richly detailed history of how the classic was read in the first thousand years since its composition while the latter two offer different interpretations of those parts of the Liezi valorizing magico-religious practices promoted in the sectarian Daoism that was popular in early medieval China.
The remaining nine essays explore a fairly consistent and well-known core of Daoist teachings concerning cosmology and its concomitant spiritual cultivation, where the self is viewed both as an autonomous locus of transformative praxis and an adaptive agent within a natural and social context that it inevitably implicates and confronts. Little surprise that the characteristic Daoist ideas of qi (vital energy), wuwei (nonaction), and ziran (spontaneity) appear in virtually all of these essays with varying emphases, if only in different ways of expression such as “unselfconsciousness” (P. J. Ivanhoe’s “The Theme of Unselfconsciousness in the Liezi”) and “effortless action” (Erin M. Cline’s “How to Fish Like a Daoist”). Many of the essays are comparative in nature (“Is the Liezi an Encheiridion?” by May Sim; “The That-Beyond-Which of the Pristine Dao” by Thomas Michael; “I, Robot: Self as Machine in the Liezi” by Jeffrey L. Richey; “Dancing with Yinyang: The Art of Emergence” by Robin R. Wang; and “When Butterflies Change into Birds: Life and Death in the Liezi” by David Jones). These, along with the three textual studies, perhaps justify the subtitle of the anthology.
Most of the philosophical essays effectively annotate the Liezi with well-known ideas, such as qi, ziran, and wuwei, in Daoist (or, broadly, Chinese) thought and in [End Page 686] some cases Western philosophy and science, appealing to concepts such as determinism, God, Truth, and evolution. As they are, they could easily impress the reader that this oft-neglected classic is indeed little more than a derivation of early Daoist philosophy; the Liezi, then, is merely a convenient platform for rehashing typical Daoist ideas and appears to offer little that is original in itself. David Jones baldly and repeatedly admits that the Liezi is no different from other Daoist classics except that it articulates their common teachings more explicitly or accessibly. But this raises an important question: what is unique about the Liezi as a Daoist philosophical text? The anthology does not provide an answer.
In fact, what some of the essays argue to be unique to the Liezi actually comes from the Zhuangzi. For instance, Jones, relying on a key passage in chapter 1 of the Liezi, contends that the classic “places the relationship between life and death in the more general context of a universal evolutionary framework” (pp. 141–142). While his argument is sound, it would hold equally well if his references to the Liezi are replaced with text selections from the Zhuangzi. The singular Liezi passage that substantiates his argument on “evolution” also appears in chapter 18 of the Zhuangzi (with differences that may deserve a careful examination), a critical fact that he does not acknowledge. Similarly, on the basis of the first two paragraphs in chapter 1 of the Liezi, Michael...