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  • Daoism and Peacebuilding:Toward an Agenda for Research and Practice1
  • Ashley South (bio)

There are profound yet underexplored connections between Daoism and peacebuilding. The yin-yang symbol represents the dynamic unity of distinct yet interrelated forces; the borders between yin and yang are fluid and, at certain points in cycles of energy, interchangeable.2 This is a recognition of difference within a broader understanding of complementarity. Yin-yang theory recognizes the inevitability of change and the need for skillful management and transformation of conflicts. Peace is a key concept in Daoist philosophy—not as static harmony but as vibrant and living balance—and the Daoist classics have much to say about warfare, both in principle and in practice.

There are some striking similarities and comparisons between the rich tradition of Daoist practices, philosophy, political theory, and literature and applications in the field of peacebuilding as developed in the context of peace studies and international relations in Western academia [End Page 137] and by aid agencies (nongovernmental organizations [NGOs], the UN, etc.). These connections have not previously been analyzed beyond general comments. This article offers some tentative perspectives from which the Daoism/peacebuilding nexus might be explored, and sketches elements of a proposed agenda for research and practice.3


Daoist visions of peace appear mainly in the classics, particularly the Daode jing, the Zhuangzi, and the Sunzi bingfa (Art of War). Here as elsewhere peace is an "essentially contested concept,"4 meaning different things to different actors. It looks different to a villager in a war zone, to a refugee, to a government—or rebel—soldier, to a businessperson looking to invest, to an NGO aid worker, or to an international diplomat (Richmond 2007). Definitions of peace often include notions of tranquility and calm; a more limited definition, and the primary one adopted here, is the idea of peace as the absence of violence—peace does not imply lack of conflict but, rather, the nonviolent management (and potential resolution) of differences.

For the purposes of this essay, peacebuilding is taken as aiming to reduce and control levels of violence without necessarily addressing its root causes. Going beyond conflict management to address the underlying issues and inequalities that structure conflicts, its activities generally involve a commitment to transformative action on the understanding that conflict is caused not only by direct violence but also by underlying systems of structural violence. These terms were first developed in the 1970s by the Norwegian sociologist Johan Galtung, who argued that peacebuilders must address the root causes of conflict by building capacities for conflict management/resolution and transformation among other [End Page 138] strategies. Galtung (1996) developed an agenda aimed at transforming unjust social and political structures, in order to build equitable peace.

Another key founder of peacebuilding as an academic enterprise and field of practice is the sociologist John Paul Lederach (2003). For him, peacebuilding needs to engage both with political elites and with mid-ranking and grassroots actors, including (but not limited to) NGOs and other civil groups. Although less explicitly political than Galtung, Lederach introduced the concept of "conflict transformation," holding that conflict is a natural and normal part of life and that these energies can be changed in positive ways (in the personal, relational, structural, and deep cultural dimensions). Over the past two decades, peacebuilding practice has become diverse and somewhat professionalized.

However, the field is not without its critics (Richmond 2007). International acknowledgment—or co-optation—of the peacebuilding agenda owes much to UN Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali's 1992 Agenda for Peace, which defined post-conflict peacebuilding as "action to identify and support structures which will tend to strengthen and solidify peace in order to avoid a relapse into conflict", and called also for greater efforts at 'preventative diplomacy'.

There is broad agreement and extensive scholarly exploration regarding how religious ideas and practice can contribute positively toward peacebuilding (Dietrich et al. 2011). There is also a good deal of historical and contemporary evidence indicating that religion can exacerbate and drive violent conflicts (Jeong 2000). This seems to be particularly—although not exclusively—true for the exclusionary or fundamentalist elements of the Judeo-Christian and Islamic faiths.

A survey...


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pp. 137-152
Launched on MUSE
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