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  • Daoism and Anarchism: Critique of State Autonomy in Ancient and Modern China by John A. Rapp
  • Yuri Pines (bio)
John A. Rapp. Daoism and Anarchism: Critique of State Autonomy in Ancient and Modern China. Contemporary Anarchist Studies. London: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2012. xi, 240 pp. Paperback $32.95, isbn 978-1-4411-7880-0.

Throughout most of its known history, China was a monarchic state, and, in the eyes of many, it was a paradigmatic monarchic state. While the actual power of kings and emperors varied in time and space, the ideology of monarchism—namely, the conviction that all under heaven should be ruled by a single, omnipotent sovereign who should preside over a powerful bureaucracy—remained intact. Yet it would be patently wrong to identify the entire Chinese political or intellectual history as merely a manifestation of uninhibited Oriental despotism. Actually, Chinese political thought had a powerful countercurrent of strong and pointed criticism of individual rulers and of interventionist state apparatus. A few of the most radical critics even questioned the very legitimacy of the monarchic rule and of the organized state in general; their views strongly resonate with modern anarchist thought. Although historically these radical critics remained a tiny minority, their ideas might have been conducive to the acceptance of anarchist ideology in China at the beginning of the twentieth century. These ideas may be of relevance to current critics of the state in China and elsewhere.

The history of China’s anarchism—from its origins to current attempts to revitalize it—has not been heretofore systematically addressed in a single study; hence, publication of John Rapp’s Daoism and Anarchism could have become a most welcome addition to the Sinological library. Unfortunately, the book is disappointing. In particular, its first part, dealing with Daoist philosophy, is so full of inaccuracies that it cannot be recommended to any scholar interested in the supposed anarchist strands in so-called Daoist thought. This failure, in addition to manifold methodological weaknesses and an inadequate understanding of [End Page 381] primary sources, invalidates the book in general, even though its second part, which deals with anarchism in modern and current China, is undoubtedly stronger than the first. Actually, the book improves from chapter to chapter, so the last two—which deal with extra-Party and inner-Party neoanarchist critiques of the state in the People’s Republic of China—are, indeed, the best; they are well written and are highly informative. However, in what follows, I shall focus exclusively on the first part, which is essential for the author’s project to “help non-China specialists to see anarchism as not just a Euro-American concept” (p. 3) and which is, unfortunately, the weakest.

Weaknesses of Rapp’s first chapters are manifold. To begin with, they are written so haphazardly that one may well believe that the manuscript was never edited by either the author or the publisher. The chapters are full of inaccuracies and typos. These include wrong transliterations (e.g., Shen Nong 神農 and Xu Xing 許行 are consistently transliterated as Shen Nung and Xiu Xing; Empress Lü 呂后 loses the umlaut to become Empress Lu [pp. 96, 247]), incorrect dates (e.g., 141–187 c.e. for the reign dates of Emperor Wu of Han [漢武帝, r. 141–87 b.c.e.], or incomprehensible ca. 220 b.c.e.–62 c.e. for the Wei-Jin period [魏晉, 220–420 c.e.]), and odd syntaxes, for example, on p. 22, where a single sentence comprises no fewer than 132 words. At times, Rapp’s statements are simply misleading, for example, when he attributes to unnamed opponents an argument that “separation of Daoism into daojia (philosophical Daoism) and daojiao (Daoist teaching, for example, alchemical and religious traditions) is itself only a later concept of the historian Sima Qian (165–110 b.c.e.)” (p. 8). This sentence is doubly wrong: First, Rapp means not Sima Qian 司馬遷 but his father, Sima Tan 司馬談; and, second, Sima Tan did not “separate Daoism” into “daojia and daojiao,” but was arguably the first to define daojia as scholastic lineage.1 Making two obvious mistakes in a single sentence is not a good start for the book, and, unfortunately, many...