- Reviewed by
The Daodejing is a fascinating text that has captivated scholarly minds and the popular imagination for centuries. Is it a manual for self-cultivation and government, a work of philosophy providing a metaphysical account of reality, or a treatise for deep mystical insight? Is it perhaps an ethical masterpiece intended for the ruling class, with concrete strategic suggestions aimed at remedying the moral and political turmoil surrounding Warring States China? Or is it a way of life characterized by simplicity, calmness, and freedom from the tyranny of desire? In a comprehensive and refined study, Thomas Michael sheds new light on the Daodejing in his effort to read it apart from Western Sinology's inheritance of Wang Bi's Confucian commentarial tradition.
Michael's synthetic reading discovers weaving through the text a hidden core treasure of yangsheng 養生 ("the nurture of life"), a specific regimen coupling breath circulation with techniques of bodily movement. In other words, the Daodejing is all about yangsheng. It exhibits the distilled knowledge of ancient yangsheng masters that was transmitted through the generations of their yangsheng disciples. Its central content concerns the possibility of transforming the physical body in the production of a Sage, a person who is one with the Dao. Michael attributes these teachings to a movement that he calls "early Daoism" (p. 12). This defined term sets up a frame of reference separate from the more standard distinction between "philosophical" (daojia) and "religious" (daojiao) Daoism. He rightly points out that there was no single monolithic tradition that can be designated as Daoism in early China; rather, [End Page 654] there were multiple groups and lineages that demand to be attended to much more closely.
Following the introduction in chapter 1, chapter 2 conducts a penetrating discussion of modern scholarship on Daoism. It displays the stark differences between modern English-and French-language scholarship on the subject. Michael then compares these traditions to their modern Chinese counterpart, and this is one of many striking features of the book. He engages some of the most influential modern Chinese scholars of Daoism, including Xu Dishan 许地山, Fu Qinjia 傅勤家, Qing Xitai 卿希泰, Ren Jiyu 任繼愈, and Hu Fushen 胡孚琛. This is an impressive and valuable analysis of how modern Chinese scholars have differently constructed their own understandings of early Daoism, and Michael's integrative method sets a powerful model for future cross-cultural studies.
Chapter 3 examines various readings of the Daodejing. Michael supports the daojia/daojiao split that has served as the primary interpretive approach to it, but he decisively revises our understanding of its historical construction. Modern scholars misconceive it to refer simply to a philosophical versus a religious reading, thereby reducing the rich history of its many diverse readings into a neat either/or container. Against this, Michael demonstrates that daojia refers to a Confucian reading of the Wang Bi commentary, while daojiao refers to a Daoist reading of the Heshang Gong commentary, and he documents the origins of this split in the court debates of the late Tang and early Song.
Chapter 4 attends to the Dao itself as separately conceived by Laozi and Confucius. Michael begins by exploring the range of its ancient meanings primarily from the Shijing 詩經, and shows how these two foundational thinkers advanced their conceptions of it in fundamentally opposite directions. For Confucius, the Dao concerns the perfect society, whereas for Laozi it concerns the cosmos as a whole. Michael goes on to show how each thinker then developed different paths of cultivation, the former centered on moral and the latter on physical cultivation, and this sets the stage for his ensuing explorations of the Daodejing.
Chapter 5 is the critical pivot of Michael's entire study. Here he explores the hiddenness of early Daoism as a mountainous tradition of yangsheng masters and disciples from whence the Daodejing was born. He argues that these teachings remained hidden until they were discovered by a group that came to be known as fangji 方技, conceived...