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  • Daoist Literary Criticism
  • John Leonard (bio)

Philosophical Daoism, it may seem, has no time for literary criticism, for the same reason that Plato was opposed to poetry in The Republic: poetry or literature is a second order representation, a description or imitation of life not the immediate thing. The Daoism of the Daode jing and, particularly, the Zhuangzi tends to be interested in people’s acceptance of Dao—in what happens and what is—excluding any ideological or emotional glosses on that immediate experience. When Daoist writers in these works discuss language, it is often to denigrate false ideas wrapped in eloquent words and to return to reality: as the Zhuangzi has it, “Words are for catching ideas; once you’ve caught the idea, you can forget about the words” (ch 26; Mair 1994, 277).

Literary Practice

Both the Daode jing and the Zhuangzi are notable for their literary stylistics. The Daode jing could be viewed either as manual on statecraft, or a parody of a manual of statecraft, either way there is no doubting the literary and poetic sophistication of its text(s). The Zhuangzi is even more renowned as a treasure-house of fine writing, “Impressive for both its bold philosophical imagination and its striking literary style” (De Bary 1968, vii). And indeed in the Zhuangzi it is impossible to escape specific discussion of literary method. In the chapter after the stern injunction to forget words quoted earlier, a section is devoted to this very topic.

Zhuangzi or one of his followers—chapters 26 and 27 are part of a group of chapters held to have been written by a “school of Zhuangzi”—mentions (in Mair’s translation) first “metaphors,” effective nine times out of ten, then “quotations,” effective seven times out of ten. But the [End Page 129] writer’s preferred mode of discourse is by “impromptu words [which] pour forth every day and harmonize within the framework of nature” (ch. 27; Mair 1994, 278–79). In other words, inspired Daoist writing that can remove people from the problem of imposing their own values on the world and return them to a cogent view of what is:

Impromptu words pour forth every day and harmonize within the framework of nature… There are grounds for affirmation and there are grounds for denial… Why are things so? They are so because we declare them to be so. Why are things not so? They are so because we declare them to be not so… All things are possessed of that which we may say is so; all things are possessed of that which we may affirm… If it were not for the impromptu words that pour forth every day and harmonize within the framework of nature, who could last long?

If the school of Zhuangzi were still functioning today they would no doubt point out that our ideological concerns, our concern to affirm or deny, were getting in the way of vital action that needed to be taken on, for example, on global warming, which definitely “is,” beyond affirmation or denial.

In later Daoist texts a concern with a Daoist literary practice continues. For example, the Liezi reuses a passage from the Zhuangzi (ch. 33; Mair 1994, 341), originally applied to self-cultivation in a social context, in a passage which turns the stress towards to literary technique, the Daoist here is simply to reproduce what is experienced, with no expectation that this understanding gained will be used in immediate social actions:

If nothing in you stays rigid,Outward things will disclose themselves.Moving, be like water.Still, be like a mirror.Respond like an echo.

(Graham 1990, 90)

And by this period in history works of pure literary criticism, or how-to books on writing, heavily influenced by philosophical Daoism were already being written, such as the Wen Fu by Lu Chi (Hamill 1991). The history of the influence of Daoism on Chinese literary culture in later [End Page 130] centuries, as well as on art, has been summarized by Chung-yuan Chan (1963).

In 2010 Three Pines Press published my work The Way of Poetry. I wrote this work as a practicing poet concerned to show how western...