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  • Daoism and Anarchism: Critiques of State Autonomy in Ancient and Modern China by John Rapp
  • Thomas M. Hughes
Daoism and Anarchism: Critiques of State Autonomy in Ancient and Modern China. By John Rapp . New York : Continuum International Publishing Group , 2012 . Pp. xi + 292 . Paper $32.95 , ISBN 978-1-441-17880-0 .

John Rapp’s Daoism and Anarchism: Critiques of State Autonomy in Ancient and Modern China seeks to advance a relatively straightforward thesis: China has a rich and politically useful anarchist tradition originating in Daoism. This may oversimplify some nuance developed by Rapp to head off potential criticisms, both from Daoists and anarchists alike. Thus, it may be more accurate to identify two related sub-theses. The first thesis claims that China has its own homegrown anti-state tradition in Daoism. The second thesis claims that Daoism is a legitimate form of anarchism, comparable to what the West finds in Proudhon, Bakunin, Kropotkin, and Tolstoy. The first thesis responds to those who claim that China has always ideologically been state-oriented or authoritarian. The second thesis responds to Eurocentric anarchists who claim that anarchism is a distinctly Western phenomenon. [End Page 1106]

The text divides into two parts, with an appendix of original English translations of Daoist texts. Part 1 deals with anarchist tendencies in traditional Daoist texts, especially the received Daodejing and the inner chapters of the Zhuangzi. These provide the seed for the anarchist strain of Daoism that Rapp wishes to advance. This seed is fertilized by supplemental interpretations of Daoist figures, such as Ruan Ji, Bao Jingyan, Tao Qian, and (for Rapp) the problematic Wu Nengzi. Expertise on Daoism is unnecessary to follow the argument, as Rapp does an excellent job of positioning and explaining the major relevant texts. Part 2 focuses on more contemporary Chinese political thought, from Mao Zedong on. Part 2 serves two goals. The first advances the argument that Maoist-inspired thought should not be understood as anarchist at all, contrary to its rhetoric. The second, and perhaps more important, suggests that a form of anarchist thought exists in contemporary China, even if it does not self-identify as such.

Taken together, the two parts present a fairly strong argument: Contemporary China can and should have its state institutions criticized by Chinese thinkers utilizing Chinese intellectual traditions. Rapp’s account of Daoism would allow for an activist to claim that China’s state rules for itself, not for the people it governs. While other Chinese schools of thought such as Confucianism, Legalism, or Maoism may argue that this is indicative of bad leadership that ought to be replaced, Rapp convincingly argues that Daoism provides a unique framework from which to critique the state as such, and not simply the current state actors. In his own words, “Daoist anarchism would teach anyone trying to revive a radical critique of state autonomy . . . that people must constantly be on guard for making compromises with the state out of their own interests as intellectuals and political activists” (p. 218).

Wu Nengzi provides the ultimate example of Daoist accommodation. Like earlier Daoists, Wu begins with a utopian vision without imposed hierarchies (p. 91), but concludes in a very Confucian way, including an accommodationist stance to the state (p. 97). According to Rapp, Wu reveals an underlying danger in moving from an account of the universe that is based on overarching unity to a nihilist account. He writes:

The shift in emphasis . . . was literally from everything to nothing, that is, from the belief in an overarching unity of the universe that cannot be objectively known and applied by some to rule over others to the idea that everything that seemingly exists comes from nothing and thus that there were no a priori principles that would make all rule illegitimate.

(p. 101)

For Rapp this lesson is not limited to Daoism, but provides a lesson for postmodern anarchists who tend toward nihilism.

There remains a concern as to whether this is about anarchism at all. Rapp simplifies anarchist thought into one claim, what he refers to as “the basic anarchist critique,” defined as “the idea that the state rules for itself whenever it can, not for individuals...