Laughing at the Tao: Debates Among Buddhists


Taoists in Medieval China

Reviewed by Chi-tim Lai

The Journal of Religion

Vol.77 No.4

Oct 1997


Copyright by University of Chicago

            This book is an important new addition to the growing study of 
            Taoist thought in medieval China. Livia Kohn's intriguing book shows 
            her sophisticated knowledge and linguistic skills in reappraising 
            original texts of medieval Chinese religious thought. Heavily shaped 
            by Japanese Taoist scholarship, especially in its sophisticated 
            textual analysis and knowledge of textual transmission, Kohn offers 
            a remarkable and close translation and annotation of the Xiandao lun 
            (Laughing at the Tao), an indispensable reference for the field of 
            medieval Chinese religions. 
            There is no question for scholars in medieval Chinese religion that 
            the sixth-century Xiandao lun, commissioned by a court official, 
            Zhen Luan, and presented to the emperor of the Northern Zhou in 570, 
            provides very important information for understanding the 
            complicated arguments in the debates among Buddhists and Taoists in 
            medieval China. In her introduction, Kohn rightly points out the 
            exact meaning of the religious debates in medieval Chinese cultural 
            history: "The medieval debates among Buddhists and Taoists . . . 
            formed an integral part of the adaptation of Buddhism into Chinese 
            culture" (p. 3). In this sense, the Xiandao lun, one of the full 
            original texts of the arguments which survived, doubtless serves as 
            an indispensable reference for the study of both medieval Taoism and 
            Buddhism. The publication of Kohn's complete translation and 
            annotation of the Xiandao lun is definitely an important moment in 
            the growing study of medieval Chinese religions in the 
            English-speaking world. 
            The book begins with a brief and insightful introduction that aims 
            to provide a good sense of the historical and cultural context 
            within which the Xiandao lun was situated. Chiefly based on the 
            writings of Erik Zurcher, Leon Hurvitz, Tonnami Mamoru, and 
            Tsukamoto Zenryu in the field of medieval Chinese Buddhism, Kohn 
            summarizes the main issues of the confrontation between Buddhists 
            and Taoists, such as the theory of the "conversion of the 
            barbarians" (huahu) (pp. 11-17) and the main anti-Taoist arguments 
            by the Buddhists (pp. 37-41). Although her summary draws from a 
            classification of the "phases and types" (p. 6) of the 
            confrontation, Kohn basically adopts the usual demarcation of the 
            southern debates and the northern debates, arguing that they were 
            different both in concerns and contexts (pp. 5, 7, 23). Despite the 
            need to further rethink the fruitfulness and accuracy of 
            classificatory models that always presume the unquestionable 
            differences of the north and the south in Chinese cultural history, 
            Kohn's effort to make sense of the origin and the intentionality of 
            the Xiandao lun within the context of the political-religious 
            struggles of the state of Northern Zhou will have an impact on the 
            field of medieval Chinese intellectual history. Given this 
            methodological concern, a more detailed biographical account of Zhen 
            Luan and a sociological comparison of his anti-Taoist arguments with 
            the preceding ones may further serve such purpose. 
            The main portion of the book is Kohn's highly praised translation 
            and annotation of the Xiandao lun (pp. 49-156). The formidable 
            annotation on the thirty-six sections (pu) of the three scrolls 
            (chuan) distinguishes this text from the regular form of 
            English-language translation of Chinese texts. It provides detailed 
            information about the Taoist and Buddhist sources of the words, 
            phrases, and concepts of the text. Though a formidable task here, 
            this close attention to the source-texts exposition in the 
            annotation unfortunately means that less attention is given to 
            matters of syntax, structure, interpretation, and how the text might 
            be used. 
            Although Kohn has wholeheartedly acknowledged her great reliance on 
            the "excellence of Japanese Taoist scholarship" (p. xii) in 
            developing and shaping her translation and annotation of the Xiandao 
            lun, I am still surprised by the close identification between her 
            English version and the Japanese version published in 1988, which 
            was commissioned by a research group of Japanese scholars based on 
            the Jimbun kagaku kenkyujo at Kyoto University. Given the frequency 
            of Kohn's citation of "Kenkyuhan, 1988" (the Japanese translation 
            and annotation), one cannot help asking if her English version is 
            another work of "translation." 
            Nevertheless, her heavy use of the "Kenkyuhan, 1988" text should not 
            affect the contribution and originality of what Kohn has done in 
            this formidable English version of the Xiandao lun. Not only is it 
            the first complete translation of the text into English but also one 
            should applaud Kohn's effort to provide extended bibliographical 
            information, including English, Japanese, and Chinese sources, in 
            every annotation and in the two appendixes in the end (pp. 159-223). 
            This detailed bibliographical reference again shows that studies in 
            this field can no longer remain within one language.