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Christopher Bradley

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Taoists are assholes [Jun. 1st, 2010|04:11 pm]
Christopher Bradley
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. . . in The Romance of the Three Kingdoms. There are some spoilers, here, FYI.

The "hero" of Three Kingdoms is Liu Bei (more for political reasons at the time that Three Kingdoms was written, about 1100 years after the events in the book than because Liu Bei was a "hero" and Cao Cao a "villain" - modern historical thought generally regards the villain better than the hero; Cao was a skilled administrator, brilliant strategist, poet and warrior who left his kingdom in better shape than he found it and established an enduring stable government . . . but in the novel, he's a bad guy, hehe) takes a while to get into the role and only does so when he gets a Taoist advisor, Zhuge Liang aka Kongming or "Sleeping Dragon".

Well, in the course of the novel, Kongming uses his knowledge of a medical condition of an enemy general to essentially assassinate the enemy general. Then, Kongming goes to the general's funeral and so successfully feigns sorry that everyone is fooled into thinking that Kongming couldn't be responsbile for the death. Afterward, he's going back to his boat and he meets an old friend, Pang Tong aka Young Phoenix, another Taoist priest, and they have a good laugh about how stupid everyone was to think that Kongming's grief was real. This is just one of my asshole things that Kongming and Pang Tong do in the course of the novel.

In short, Taoists are assholes in Romance of the Three Kingdoms.

As someone who occasionally identifies as a Taoist, I mostly find this amusing, but not for the reasons most people suspect. The favored reading of Taoist texts and philosophy in the West is a real flower power love-and-peace-harmony-with-the-universe interpretation. Kind of a minimalist discarding of everything that isn't important until you're at peace with yourself and others, acting with natural benevolence towards everyone and everything. (Hey, I identify as a Taoist. I never said I was good at it. I am, no doubt, trying too hard!) This is a legitimate and ancient interpretation of philosophical Taoism.

But it ain't really representative of Taoism as practiced. Most Taoism, as practiced in China, was part of their folk religion, stuff like Laozi is in heaven and the Tao is kept in a box sort of stuff, with drunken kung-fu immortals and demons and magic. That's the most commonly practiced form of Taoism, historically speaking, and certainly Kongming and Pang Tong do Taoist magic in the course of the novel.

Philosophically, however, there's another interpretation which reads the Tao Te Ching not as a benevolent guide to finding inner peace but as a ruthless, Machiavellian guide to securing and keeping power. It's this kind of pragmatic, amoral Taoism that Kongming and Pang Tong practice, and the reason why they were so useful as advisors. They've discarded sentiment and concerned themselves with power alone.

Here in the West . . . we don't like that kind of Taoism. We'd much rather that China be interested in the peace-and-love Taoism and not the ruthlessly-sweep-all-before-you Taoism. We like the Taoism of the fat and happy guy under the worthless tree, enjoying the shade, not the Taoism of pragmatic strategies without a hint of morality. Of course, the Chinese feel no particular reason to oblige our interpretations of their religion and philosophy. And because of the rule of communism in China, Taoism isn't practiced that often in China, and when it it it's often in syncretic, modern forms like Falun Gong. But the influence is, of course, there - Taoist influence is a permanent part of Chinese political thought much like Machiavelli is a constant influence in Western political thought. Tao also serves as a counterbalance to Kong. Kong teaches loyalty, the importance of responsibility up and down the chain of command, be it familial or governmental. Laozi teaches one to say, "Fuck all that. Do whatever needs to be done to accomplish your objectives." The cruel Taoism is part of the cultural heritage of China (and to some extent in Korea, Japan, Vietnam and a couple of other countries) and is part of the profound depth of their cultural toolbox.

But, again, "we Westerners" don't like to think too hard about that. The Taoism of invincible warriors and unbeatable strategists acting without morality or sentiment to gain and keep power just isn't something we want to think too hard about. And, for my part, I don't want to cast China as being full of people who are scheming manipulators, because that's a throwback to racist inscrutible Oriental stereotypes. Obviously, China is more complex than that. The peace-and-love interpretation of Taoism is alive and well in China not to mention, of course, Buddhism and the teachings of Kong. But I think that, in regards to Taoism, Westerns go another, equally racist stereotypical way - by trying to force Taoism into a tiny box because we're uncomfortable with the idea of a China of proud warriors and cunning strategists. We often want them to be the fat and happy man under the worthless tree, a jug of wine at hand - a very non-threatening image as opposed to the extremely threatening image of the ruthless Kongming emotionally manipulating people at a funeral so he can screw them again, later on. Even tho' Kongming's Taoism is a normal interpretation of Taoist philosophy.