The Journal of Religion
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.