A Ku Indeed!

Calling All Taoists

Posted in Chinese Philosophy, Taoism by Chris on January 7, 2009

feb3_taoism_ttl1I’m in the middle of getting my syllabus organized for my Chinese Philosophy course. I’m trying something new this time. Typically, I just have students read each book from cover to cover, and we try as a class to undergo the messy business of constructing the text’s meaning as we move from chapter to chapter (messy but fun!). This time I’m going to try a thematic approach, just to see how it works. So, in the Analects, perhaps one day we’ll read a collection of aphorisms on ren, and another day we’ll do the same for xiao (and so on for other key concepts).

Now, I have a firm grasp of what passages link up with what themes within the Confucian authors, but I’m less skilled at this for Taoism. So I need the help of the Taoists lurkers. See below:

For the Tao Te Ching, I’m thinking of these themes (a day each):

Tao (the way)

Yin-Yang (opposition pairs)

Wu-Wei (no-action)

Pu (simplicity/uncarved wood)

Government and Society

Does any of you have any clear thoughts about chapter numbers that must be mentioned under these headings? For example, it’s obvious that chapter 60 (the small fish and all) goes under the “government and society” section, and chapter 1 goes under “Tao”. I have a lot of chapter numbers already pencilled into these categories, but I’m curious what chapters strike you as obvious or central, so I make sure I don’t leave one out inadvertently. 

Of course, if you think there’s a theme I don’t have above that it would a crime to leave out, let me know!

If any of you have the time or the inclination, I’d appreciate any thoughts you might have.


12 Responses

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  1. Sam said, on January 7, 2009 at 7:27 pm

    I think you really need to have a category for “Te” (De), “Integrity.” It’s a key idea – and helps set up the idea of a “holographic” ontology (I am reading Ames!). Don’t have my text with me here, but you can find many passages that speak to it.
    I would also suggest “Tzu-jan” (Ziran), which Hinton translates as “occurrence appearing of itelf,” but which is often rendered as “nature” or “so of itself.” It’s a good opening to the idea of spontaneity.

  2. Bao Pu said, on January 7, 2009 at 9:43 pm

    Hi Chris,

    Tao (the way)
    1, 4, 6 (?), 14, 21, 25, 32 (beginning), 34, 37 (beginning), 40, 42, 51

    Wu-Wei (no-action)
    37, 47 (end), 48, 57 (end), 63, 64

    Pu (simplicity/uncarved wood)
    3, 12 (simplicity), 19, 28, 37, 80 (?)

    Government and Society
    3, 13 (end), 17, 49 (beginning), 53, 60, 65, 72, 75, 80

    Other possible themes:

    Yu (desire)
    1, 3, 12, 19 (end), 44, 46, 53, 57, 64 (end), 80

    5 (end), 9, 12, 15 (end), 19 (end), 23 (beginning), 29 (end), 32, 44, 46, 55 (end), 77, 81

    De (power, character, kindness)
    28, 38, 41 (middle), 51, 54, 55, 63 (middle), 79

    Ziran (naturalness, spontaneity)
    25, 32 (middle), 37, 57 (end)

    Pliancy/resilience (Rou/Ruo)
    36 (one line), 43, 76, 78

    30, 31, 46, 68, 69

    Hall & Ames have a Thematic Index on pages 233-236.

  3. Bao Pu said, on January 8, 2009 at 5:26 am

    Also, the Daodejing’s stance on knowledge/ignorance might be be another good theme.

  4. Chris said, on January 8, 2009 at 7:04 am


    Thanks for the help!

    I had actually planned two days under the heading “wu-wei” and thought of that section as containing te (and ziran). But it may make more sense to me more explicit and separate them with their own headings. Thanks for pointing this out.

    On a side note:

    What do you think of Ames’ work? I tend to really like the Hall and Ames work on Confucius (Thinking through Confucius) — even while coming to realize more and more as time goes on just how skeptical some people are about it (in the field).

    Much as I really enjoy his work (Ames specifically), there are occasions when I am reading Ames when I have a hard time getting past his writing style, which can tend to get (in my opinion) too vague and abstract, especially when he’s discussing important but hard to grasp central notions. Specifically: much as I am attracted to the “field and focus” idea of selfhood (briefly discussed in TTC), whenever I try to read his full article on it (“Focus-Field Self”), I reach for the Advil part way through. No doubt this is partly due to my own lack of ability, but every once in a while I wish he would tone down the abstraction and dumb things down a bit for idiots like me.

    Bao Pu:

    Also, Bao, thanks for the extra headers. I can’t dedicate too much time to the TTJ (I have two weeks), so I can’t break it up too much (much as it would be fun). What I will do is make a point of discussing, say, a poem on one of the bottom themes as a sub-part or component of discussing one of the larger headers. A proper treatment of the book, IMO, would take probably a month (well, the way I tend to do things anyway).

    Also — what great help with the poem numbers! I don’t have Hall and Ames’ translation. I’ll need to pick it up pronto, as a thematic index is exactly what I’m after here!

  5. Bao Pu said, on January 8, 2009 at 5:25 pm

    Hi Chris,

    I figured you wouldn’t want too many themes to cover. I was just posting alternative suggestions. Desire/desirelessness (Wuyu) is one which might be good to adopt, seeing that is is a popular theme in Buddhism as well. You could probably deal with it along with Pu, since most of the passage which mention Pu also mention being without desires/having fewer desires. Your welcome for the ‘poem’ numbers.

    Regarding Ames’ work, I first started reading his work about ten years ago. I own his Lunyu translation with Rosemont, his Laozi translation with Hall and his Huainanzi chapter one translation with Lau. (I’ve also read parts of Thinking Through Confucius and Thinking from the Han.) In the beginning, although I found his writing difficult and tedious, I found him quite convincing. But over the years, I tend more and more to disagree with him. I feel he tries too hard to read modern process philosophy into the early Chinese philosophic tradition. I do agree that some things are better explained through the language of process philosophy, but not nearly to the extent that he does.

  6. Bao Pu said, on January 8, 2009 at 5:32 pm

    Oh, I also have Ames’ Huainanzi chapter 9: “The Art of Rulership,” which was written before he got heavily into process philosophy. It’s excellent. It covers alot of stuff, from differing perspectives in ancient China.

    If you can’t get a copy of Hall & Ames’ Laozi, I can scan and email you the thematic index.

  7. Chris said, on January 8, 2009 at 5:40 pm


    My impression of Ames is similar for the most part. I like a great deal of what he says (in Thinking Through Confucius). However, to be honest, I’m not sure if I like it because I think the case for his position is, in comparison with rival interpretations, on better textual ground or because I simply like what he has to say from a person or ideological point of view and so I am pulled towards it due to personal bias.

    At times I think his textual readings are more convincing than others, but there are certainly times when I get the impression that he is forcing some interpretations to get all of the details of a larger picture to cohere (I got that impression in the second half of TTC). At other times I’m pretty sure I just like the overall picture he puts together from a personal point of view. 🙂

    I think his writing varies from very clear at times to very obscure at other times, though again the latter could be more my fault as opposed to his. I’m not sure. Still, there are certain subjects that are so abstract that you simply must use lots of practical down to earth analogies to help the reader out, and there are times that he just doesn’t do that, and instead leaves you at the mercy of a very unwieldy (at times) set of concepts and descriptions to explain complex subjects.

  8. Chris said, on January 8, 2009 at 5:42 pm


    If you have a scanner at home and could email me the thematic index easily and without much trouble, that would be great! Only if it’s a simple matter — if not, I’ll just see if I can find it somewhere.

  9. Sam said, on January 8, 2009 at 9:11 pm

    I am at about the same place with Ames. Since I have come to ancient thought only rather recently (last six years or so…) I have not read that deeply into the secondary literature (I spend more time reading the classic texts themselves…). But I read Thinking Through Confucius very carefully and, like Chris, was taken with it, probably because it was saying something I wanted it to say. But I must add that I think his interpretation is generally accurate, at least in the sense that the kind of process thing he does also captures a Taoist and an Yi Jing sensibility. There are resonances between him and F. Mote as well…
    But upon re-reading his intro to Sun Tzu (for my January class), I found myself questioning things more. His emphasis on immanence and particularity miss something of Mencius (has he translated that? I think not…), the greater possibility for a more extensive, continuous, something-close-to-universal possibility of human nature embedded in the heart/mind. It’s not clear to me how well his approach handles that…

  10. Will said, on January 9, 2009 at 11:41 am


    You’ve got a fairly good start there with Bao Pu’s recommendations, but you’re interested, I’ve got a slightly different take on the subject.

    I’m not sure how much Chinese culture has incorporated Western pop-culture (probably quite a bit more than I’d estimate), but the ‘Tao of Pooh’ by Benjamin Hoff is a (surprisingly) fantastic introduction to Taoism. If Winnie-the-Pooh is fairly well known amongst Chinese youth (like the “Hello Kitty” effect here), you’d probably have no problem introducing the text (or at least excerpts from it). If not, I would suggest you read it yourself and pull out the major themes. (The ‘Te of Piglet,’ however, I’m not so thrilled with–Hoff gets really preachy at times, he seems disgruntled more than anything.)

    I say this because one of the major themes of Taoism is skepticism and critique of the intellectual elite. Pulling out Ames (who, in all regards, is a brilliant intellectual), may undermine the message of the Tao. The Tao is obscured by the human intellect, and an overly-academic reading of its core work (I now believe) obscures the message. It’s meant to be experienced, not dissected and filtered through reason and logic. A playful and lighthearted approach is more respectful and fruitful, in the long run.

    Its a tricky text. On one hand, I see the need to analyze it and think about it intellectually (it does present more than a few philosophical ideas that have major implications on one’s way of life), but on the other hand, I don’t believe it was really meant to be read in that way. I think Laozi would have a tongue-in-cheek attitude towards those intellectual elite who over-analyze every line of it. Ames included. A sort of Taoist “I told you so” mentality. And then they’d walk away like the Madman of Chu…

    Just a thought…


  11. Bao Pu said, on January 9, 2009 at 8:13 pm

    Hi Chris. I just sent an email to the address you mention on the right side of your page, but I got a reply: “This is an automatically generated Delivery Status Notification. Delivery to the following recipients failed.” Help me out.

  12. Chris said, on January 9, 2009 at 8:18 pm

    Bao –

    Oh geez! I have the wrong extension over there!

    It’s cpanza@drury.edu, not cpanza@drury.com.


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