Laughing at the Tao:

Debates Among Buddhists and Taoists in Medieval China

Reviewed by Farzeen, Baldrian-Hussein

Asian Folkore Studies

Vol.55 No.2


Oct 1996

COPYRIGHT 1996 Asian Folklore Studies (Japan)

            This new book by Professor Kohn is a fully annotated translation of 
            a sixth-century anti-Taoist polemical text written by the official 
            Zhen Luan during the reign of Emperor Wu (r. 560-78) of the Northern 
            Zhou dynasty (556-81). The text, entitled Xiaodao lun [Laughing at 
            the Tao], is one of many documenting the struggle for power and 
            influence at court by rival Buddhists and Taoists. Acrimonious 
            debates between the two began in the third century, when a Taoist 
            named Wang Fou forged a sutra, the Huahu jing [Scripture of the 
            Conversion of the Barbarians], in which Laozi is said to have 
            traveled to the West and there, as the Buddha, convened the 
            "barbarians" to Buddhism. Taoism was thus claimed to be superior to 
            Buddhism. This was denied by the Buddhists, starting a debate that 
            continued throughout the fifth and sixth centuries and later. 
            The Xiaodao lun is important for understanding not only the history 
            of Chinese religion and its complex relationship to statecraft and 
            society, but also the nature of medieval Taoism, since the text is a 
            treasure trove of quotations from Taoist texts, many no longer 
            extant. Zhen Luan, a metropolitan commandant, renowned 
            mathematician, and astronomer, was equally at home with Confucian, 
            Buddhist, and Taoist literature. Although a staunch Confucian, he 
            had been attracted to Taoism in his youth but distanced himself from 
            it out of disgust for the sexual rites practised by the Taoist 
            community. When the emperor, in search of a unifying orthodoxy to 
            integrate all the teachings and beliefs of the time, commissioned 
            Zhen Luan to evaluate Buddhism and Taoism, he hoped thereby to 
            install the latter as a state religion. By keeping Confucianism on 
            the political plane and Taoism on the religious, the emperor, of 
            non-Chinese origin, intended to demonstrate his complete 
            Sinicization. Buddhism was seen as a negative, outlandish religion 
            incapable of adapting itself to Chinese culture and Confucian 
            tradition, while indigenous Taoism was seen as part of the ethnic 
            Chinese heritage and thus as superior to the religion of the 
            "foreign barbarians." 
            It was under these circumstances that Zhen Luan wrote the treatise 
            presented to the emperor in 570 CE Zhen was not a devout Buddhist, 
            but he felt that Buddhism was a more appropriate state religion than 
            organized Taoism (philosophical Taoism was deemed acceptable) with 
            its exorcisms, talismans, vulgar sexual rites, and immortality 
            techniques. He consequently set himself the task of denigrating and 
            ridiculing all aspects of Taoism, drawing upon Taoist texts and 
            scriptures to lay bare their doctrinal inconsistencies, lack of 
            logic, and superstitions. 
            In his zealous attempt to revile the Taoists, Zhen Luan proved that 
            he had understood neither Taoism nor the intentions of the emperor. 
            The emperor's desire was to legitimate the dynasty and show that he 
            had received the mandate of heaven from a "Master of the Country", 
            similar to the legitimation of the Wei (220-65) and Liu Song 
            dynasties by a dynastic teacher (SEIDEL 1969, 82). Zhen's examples 
            of Taoist plagiarism of Buddhist texts simply proved to the emperor 
            that Taoism had assimilated Buddhism without loss of identity 
            (LAGERWEY 1981, 29-30). The emperor, unconvinced by Zhen's 
            arguments, had the treatise "burned then and there" (32); neither 
            Kohn nor Lagerwey explain the provenance of the extant version of 
            the text. 
            Kohn's translation, based primarily on Japanese scholarship, was 
            made during her participation in a research seminar at the Institute 
            for Research in Humanities (Jinbun Kagaku Kenkyujo), Kyoto, in the 
            1980s and revised to its present form after publication of the 
            research material in Japanese. She draws upon the ample annotations 
            and textual identification of Chinese sources in the Japanese 
            version but leaves out the philological notes. In her own notes she 
            adds a wealth of information from secondary sources, including 
            analyses and discussions of texts, interpretations, and comparisons. 
            The notes and references to numerous studies on the subject in 
            Western languages should prove invaluable both to the general reader 
            and to specialists in the field. 
            The book contains an introduction (1-46); translation (44-156) with 
            copious notes; summaries of the major texts of medieval debates 
            (Appendix 1, 159-86); short entries discussing provenance, dates, 
            editions, and contents of Taoist texts cited in the Xiaodao lun 
            (Appendix 2, 187-223); Chinese titles of texts cited (Appendix 3, 
            225-34) (these without Chinese characters or page references); 
            glossary of Chinese names, terms, and book titles (234-43) (with 
            characters but no page references); bibliography (245-65); index 
            The book is very well structured, but there remain some minor points 
            that detract from its overall value. The lack of Chinese characters 
            is the first problem, especially in the case of reign titles. 
            Translations such as "Established Prime (140 BCE)" or "seventh year 
            of Everlasting Peace (64 CE)," (58, 93) are, without transcriptions, 
            difficult reading for the specialist, while the general reader 
            probably pays more attention to the date than to the ornate 
            translation. If characters were too difficult to include in the book 
            (surprising in this day and age), some transcriptions at least could 
            have been added. Moreover, a reduced photocopy of the Xiaodao lun, 
            which is not a very long text, would have helped avoid some 
            confusions arising in the translation. 
            Regarding the sentence "His feet are one hundred paces wide," Kohn 
            states in note 7 that she "read 'feet' for 'body'" following the 
            Japanese version (113). But the standard edition of the Xiaodao lun 
            also reads, so why the correction? On the same page a text entitled 
            Laozi yi bai bashi jie [The one hundred and eighty precepts of 
            Laozi] is quoted, but the standard edition gives the title as Laozi 
            bai baishi jie zhonglu [Hundred and eighty important rules], a title 
            commonly used in Tang texts. There are also some problems of 
            interpretation. "Daoshi shou sanwu jiangjun, jin yan zhi fa" is 
            rendered, "Taoists receive the commanding general's method to 
            control the three [forces] and five [phases]," yet here the numbers 
            three and five are clearly referring to registers of protection that 
            enable the Taoist to control and exorcise noxious elements (see the 
            list of Registers in CHEN 1963, 352). There exist other anomalies, 
            such as "Size of the Sun and the Moon" (83, heading) for textual 
            differences concerning the diameter of the sun. 
               Typographical errors abound, but these are of lesser consequence: 
            Quig ?? Qing (32, 219), fanzhi ?? fangzhi (56), caudron ?? cauldron 
            (68), you can served ?? serve (70), Longan ?? Louguan (98, n. 1), 
            Siuin ?? Sivin (152, n. 14), Hans-Georg Muller or Moller? (Kohn 
            forthcoming b, 252). Mistakes in the bibliography are more serious, 
            since these entail a loss of time for the student. An example: 
            Granet, Marcel. 1918. Universismus and [1892-1910] 1964. The 
            Religious System of China, 6 volumes. Both of these books are by de 
            Groot, and Granet's Danses et legendes de la Chine ancienne (written 
            ancienne) is sandwiched between them. 
            In sum, setting aside these minor details, the book is well 
            presented, informative, useful, and a delight to read. 
            CHEN Guofu 1963 Daozang yuanliu kao. Peking: Zhonghua. 
            LAGERWEY, John 1981 Wu-shang pi-yao: Somme taoiste du VIe siecle. 
            Paris: Ecole Francaise d'Extreme-Orient. 
            SEIDEL, Anna 1969 La divinisation de Lao Tseu dans le Taoisme des 
            Han. Paris: Ecole Francaise d'Extreme-Orient. 
            Farzeen BALDRIAN-HUSSEIN Korntal, Germany