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137 The Inspirational Laozi Poetry, Business, and the Blues LIVIA KOHN In 1989, about a year after starting as assistant professor at Boston University , I attended a concert at the Old South Church in Copley Square. It was announced as “Songs of Lao Tsu” and involved a group of musicians and a singer presenting a poetic rendition of certain Laozi verses to blues and folk music. I enjoyed the performance and bought the cassette tape, little realizing what a treasure trove I held in my hand. The “Songs” have since been a valuable teaching aid in showing the contemporary transformation of ancient Daoist wisdom as well as a steady companion, bringing joy and harmony as well as profound insight into my life. 138 / Journal of Daoist Studies 8 (2015) The “Songs” are in many ways a key to understanding the power of the Laozi in the West: both symptomatic for its continuous yet ever changing expression in art and literature, and also carriers of an inspiration that can only be described as wondrous. To begin, please go to www. and listen to a sample of the “Songs,” their rendition of chapter 29 of the Laozi. The song you have just heard uses the translation by Witter Bynner (1881-1968), a highly poetic and deeply inspired version of the age-old text that stands out among the hundreds of translations it has received in English. The music is by Stephen Josephs (b. 1945), a highly contemporary and very American sound that merges blues, folk, and traditional rhythms. The vocals are by Paula Dudley (1955-2008), her voice carrying the beauty and inspiration of the text, at the same time challenging and haunting, serious and playful, light and intense. The combination of all three creates a unique expression of the Laozi that makes the ancient teachings relevant to our lives and brings them into our very bones in a new and unique way. Witter Bynner Harold Witter Bynner was born in Brooklyn, New York and grew up in Brookline near Boston. He graduated from Harvard in 1902 and was honored as its Phi Beta Kappa poet in 1907, publishing in The Advocate, The Harvard Monthly, and other journals. He worked as a journalist and editor, then turned to writing and lived in New Hampshire for a while. In 1916, he was involved in a literary hoax; the following year, he traveled to Japan, Korea, and China, initiating a life-long fascination with East Asia. A conscientious objector to World War I, he was drafted to do civil service and, in 1918-19, worked as an English teacher for the Students Army Training Corps at the University of California at Berkeley. There he met his Chinese muse and collaborator (see Kraft 1995; Horgan 2000). Kohn, “Inspirational Laozi” / 139 Jiang Kanghu 江亢虎 (1883-1954), the son of a scholar-official family from Jiang-xi, was trained in the Chinese classics and educated in Japan. First, he worked as a newspaper editor, then became professor at Peking University in 1904. After a second stay in Japan in 1907, he turned radically socialist, campaigning for the abolition of private property and the institution of public schooling and women’s rights—ideas that influenced the young Mao. After the Republic began in 1912, he founded the first socialist party of China, but was persecuted under the rule of Yuan Shikai and in 1917 fled to the U.S., where he taught at Berkeley. Witter Bynner strongly connected with Jiang, “a gentle scholar and stimulating companion” (Bynner 1978, 3), and they became fast friends. In 1920, both returned to China, Bynner to travel with the sculptor Beniamino Bufano, Jiang to pursue his socialist vision, participating in the Comintern congress in Moscow and founding both the New Social Democratic Party of China and Nanfang University in Shanghai. They decided to collaborate in a major project of translating Chinese poetry, upon Jiang’s suggestion selecting Sun Zhu’s 孫洙(1711-1778) Tangshi sanbai shou 唐詩三百首 (Three Hundred Poems of the Tang) (Watson 1978, 15), the most popular and widely read collection of traditional poetry in China (Nienhauser 1986, 755; see also Harris 2009). The...


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pp. 137-151
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