- Daoist Philosophy and Literati Writings in Late Imperial China: A Case Study of The Story of the Stone by Zuyan Zhou
The syncretist milieu of late imperial Chinese culture, manifested in a richly diversified literati voice, makes the project taken on in this impressively footnoted work a brave feat. In tracing the Daoist influence culminating in late-Ming literary works, the author creates a frame of reference for the study of The Story of the Stone by Cao Xueqin. This book is impressive in both scope and clarity, and while it purports to take Stone as the primary emphasis, it effectively brings the history surrounding both the arguably most famous novel in Chinese history and its illusive author to vivid life. In other words, vast knowledge of Stone and the ocean of literature dedicated to it is not necessary in order to appreciate this work, although such a reader will not be fully cognizant of the novel approach taken therein. The skillful untangling of not only the interwoven threads of influence coming from Confucianism, Buddhism, and Daoism but also the historical splaying of the Lao-Zhuang tradition into independent, even contradictory, ways of thinking and acting renders this study especially impressive.
The first chapter explores the historical and potentially ideological connection between Stone and the resurgence of Daoist religion, specifically Quanzhen Daoism. It draws out specific Quanzhen themes from the text of Stone, namely the skull, beauty, and mirror, which are taken to indicate the importance of avoiding illicit sexual activities. This discussion benefits from the inclusion of Buddhist images that likely influenced the writing of Stone, though the uniquely Daoist intention is emphasized over and above these concerns in the discussion of Buddhist influence on the Quanzhen school. This discussion takes the interpretation of heart and mind (xin 心) as a fulcrum for shared meaning between the novel itself and the Buddhist influence on Daoist religion. Chinese literati culture is [End Page 89] famous, infamous perhaps from the perspective of the greenhorn, for the maze of references and allusions with little to no citation information. Thankfully, and without interrupting the flow of the study itself, this book is brimming with historical asides and amusing mini biographies. The first chapter also begins to trace the influence of the Daoist concept of things being as they are, without intervention (ziran 自然), and its multifarious interpretations throughout Chinese literary history.
The second chapter focuses on Daoist philosophy exclusively, and especially on the popularity of Zhuangzian themes, including relativism and the Zhuangzi's clever reductio ad absurdum style of argumentation, in critiquing the lifestyle cultivated by the ruling elite. By evoking the evolution of the influence of the Zhuangzi from the Han dynasty on, the author creates a schematic base for describing the flowing and merging of ideas as well as what became the justification for the wanton hedonism that appears among characters in Stone. This chapter includes relevant discussions about the "cult of qing 情" (human nature) and the importance of seeking self-gratification and authenticity, which are characteristics found in the main protagonists of the story. Gratifyingly, the chapter includes an exploration of these topics as they are associated with the Song dynasty poets Ouyang Xiu and Su Shi. This section seeks to clarify the complicated stance of scholars in the Song as well as the Ming and Qing dynasties regarding eremiticism and indicates the potential influence of the tension between service and seclusion on the writing of Stone. This chapter also includes a discussion of the Daoist value of acting without artifice (wuwei 無為) and the historical tension between the style of governance outlined in the Laozi and the highly ritualized method of ruling espoused by the Confucian tradition. By focusing on the feminine aspects of those in power in Stone, the author brings out the progenitive origin of wuwei as it appears in the novel as well as in the turbulent times that characterized Cao Xueqin's life. The chapter...