Ma Yuan: Walking on a Path in Spring

Love at First Read–A Daoist Thanksgiving

The Great Clod burdens me with form, labors me with life, eases me in old age, and rests me in death. So if I think well of my life, for the same reason I must think well of my death.
— the Zhuangzi, Ch. 6, transl. Burton Watson*

On Beauty, Tragedy, and Inspired Irresponsibility


Zhuangzi, Daoism’s second sage, dreams he’s a butterfly. Or is the butterfly dreaming it’s Zhuangzi? Zhuangzi isn’t sure.

One of the beauties of teaching Chinese history, for me, is that I make my living doing something I passionately love to do. Not only would I do this job for free — I would even pay to do it.**

But this beauty has a tragic side too: the demands of the teaching profession allows precious little extra time to write regularly about the daily riches of the mind flowing through the hours in the classroom. My beloved John Keats, that sublime, gorgeous, tragic English Romantic poet who died so young — only 24! — expresses this tragedy well in his sonnet, “When I Have Fears” [emphasis added]:

When I have fears that I may cease to be
Before my pen has glean’d my teeming brain,
Before high-piled books, in charactery,
Hold like rich garners the full ripen’d grain;

When I behold, upon the night’s starr’d face,
Huge cloudy symbols of a high romance,
And think that I may never live to trace
Their shadows, with the magic hand of chance;
And when I feel, fair creature of an hour,
That I shall never look upon thee more,
Never have relish in the faery power
Of unreflecting love;–then on the shore
Of the wide world I stand alone, and think
Till love and fame to nothingness do sink.

That “teeming brain” is the real pay of teaching Chinese history and thought. That “fear” of “ceas[ing] to be” before being able to write out the thoughts flowing from the daily work is the tragedy.

So, stack of papers to mark and lesson-planning template currently demanding my time? For the moment, be damned. Because I have just fallen in love with the mind of a man named Chad Hansen, after reading the first five pages of his ground-breaking 1992 study, A Daoist Theory of Chinese Thought.

A Masterpiece of Thanksgiving: A Daoism Scholar’s “Acknowledgments” Section

The kicker? Those five pages are merely his “Acknowledgments” section — that conventional section of the author’s “thank yous” acknowledging all the people (“I’d like to thank my wife for her patience while I researched and wrote this book”) , places (“and Stanford University for the year off to allow me to write”), and experiences (“and my students over the years for their feedback and insights”) that deserve a moment of gratitude and civilized recognition.

Many readers skip the “Acknowledgments” section without reading in order to get on with reading the actual book. Those that skip Hansen’s pay a high price for their unstill impatience. Because Hansen expresses his thanks like a fellow lover of the life of the mind.

A. Thanking Thinkers

He thanks A.C. Graham, for instance, with this loving line:

The entire field of Chinese thought could not have advanced to the point of being philosophically interesting without his magnificent lifelong contribution. Without any hesitation, I rank his publication of Later Mohist Logic, Ethics, and Science as a far more important event in understanding Chinese thought than the unearthing of the Mawang-dui tombs (vii).

Hansen wins me with the fearless choice of the word “magnificent” to describe the world of the mind, and even more with that last claim about the importance of Graham’s book. It speaks volumes of Hansen’s own lucky fortune to know the love of the life of the mind — of reading only “the best that has been thought and said in the world”, as Matthew Arnold so wonderfully put it — that he can so confidently rank the views unfolded in Graham’s book over the most exciting archaeological discovery from the 2100-year-old Han Dynasty tombs at Mawang-dui (to see how exciting, go here, here and here).

On the following page, Hansen becomes more beautiful — yes, beautiful — still. After thanking Graham and two other 20th century scholars for being “the three giants of Anglo-American sinology” and “links in the chain of creative transmission” of ancient Chinese thought, Hansen wins me with his fourth choice — a scholar not so close to us in time:

[T]he presence of the passion and commitment to preserving dao is a debt we all owe to Confucianism–and its first great innovative transmitter, Confucius.

Lovely. “I’d like to thank three white guys who wrote recent books, and one Chinese guy named Confucius who died 24 centuries ago for his book.” This is the life of the mind: living or dead, ancient or modern, as long as the ideas are fine and there to be shared about “the finest things that have been thought and said” on a subject, space and time don’t matter. Confucius is not a hero or a superhuman giant; he’s a fellow conversationalist with the rest of us. Hansen’s acknowledgment of Confucius’ contribution to this fine conversation is itself fine (and “fine!” is what I wrote next to it in the margin):

Without [Confucius’] transmission, there would be no possibility of this odyssey of the mind. It gives the resources for traversing the greatest conceptual, linguistic, and space-time distance possible in the actual world (vii). [emphasis added]

Hansen mentions that he’s in his 30th — 30th! — year of studying, teaching, and thinking about ancient Chinese thought. I’m only in my 5th, a novice compared to him, with less than five years of concentrated study and only maybe 20 or 30 of its key texts under my belt. So reading Hansen’s “Acknowledgments” gives a special pleasure to me when it lists so many of the writers I have managed to explore — the 19th century Scottish missionary James Legge, who was first to translate the Confucian and Daoist classics into English while in Hong Kong after the Opium Wars; stellar 20th century “transmitters” into English like Wing-sit Chan, Burton Watson, William Theodore de Bary, Joseph Needham, and Bernard Karlgren; Tu Wei-Ming and P.J. Ivanhoe; the exquisite Roger Ames, Henry Rosemont, and Robert Eno. I’ve enjoyed these men in my own timeless conversations with their writings, my own scribblings in their margins (extending them, challenging them, qualifying them, and sometimes merely drawing a smiley-face, a “quotable,” a “!”, a “wtf?!”, a “wow,” a “fine!“). I don’t know Hansen, but we know the same people and their ideas. I look forward to meeting Hansen and hearing his ideas, finally. God knows I’ve come across his name dozens of times in my readings so far.

More love for Hansen when he writes about my own cherished Herbert Fingarette, whose slim Confucius: The Secular as Sacred stopped time for me on so many of its gem-like pages: Fingarette’s radical re-interpretation of Confucius upset the traditional scholarly understanding and, like any radical in the company of mainstream thinkers, received much unkind criticism. Apparently Hansen was among those critics, wrote something unkind, and came to understand Fingarette’s brilliance only later. So how kind of Hansen to state in his “Acknowledgment,”

[I was similarly delighted by] Fingarette’s picture of Confucius, to which my review was too unkind. I have always appreciated his ground-breaking vision of the depth of Confucius’ reliance on [ritual] convention (ix). [emphasis added]


B. Thanking Parents, with a Twist

If you’re still with me in this unexpectedly long love letter, your reward is here, as I close with Hansen’s final acknowledgments, which are among the most unusual and delightful acts of literary gratitude I have ever encountered.

Hansen gives the standard thanks to his university employers, his professors as a student, his wife for her patience and for “making space for [his] bizarre work habits and curious interest in wildly different ways of thinking” (x), and for her feedback as he wrote (as a life-long nocturne typing this mental love letter at a 24-hour open-air Singapore “Hawker Center” at 3 a.m., while my wife sleeps at home — a normal “bizarre work habit” of my own — I hear Hansen on this one loud and clear. Marriage to a mental traveler is no normal marriage, nor is it an easy one). But when he gets to the equally standard thanks to his parents, he adds the following endearing and non-standard twist:

Lest I forget what we must all learn from Confucians, let me also thank my parents. They provide the basis on which we all build. In my case they gave me both the habit of early rising and hard work and a love of learning (x). [emphasis added]

“What we must all learn from Confucians” indeed. They take “Honor thy father and thy mother” into dimensions of depth and beauty unknown to our Commandment-following biblical tradition. To see Hansen acknowledge this influence of Confucius — and the urgency that Westerners learn it suggests his view that they haven’t — adds still more to the pleasure of getting to know this man in his first pages. Ditto that “love of learning”: the key word, as for this entire letter, is “love.”

C. Thanking the Dao

All nice and good — beautiful, even. But the next paragraph’s turn from a Confucian to a “Daoist acknowledgment“? Just wow:

If personal history and transmission of culture is a cause [of the ideas I present in this book], then so is evolution. My thanks to the primates, large mammals, the plant kingdom, and the unfathomable natural forces on which they rest. The electromagnetic field coursing through my computer no doubt flows from the Big Bang. (Mysticism is an easy matter [in] these days of black holes and singularity) (x).

Just look at that.

D. Thanking . . . wtf?!

And now get ready for this:

No serious skeptic can cite natural causes and ignore supernatural ones. A specific footnote of thanks to Dan Hoffman for originating the theory that I am a reincarnation of Zhuangzi. Apparently Zhuangzi decided that the distortion and misunderstanding of his doctrine had gone on long enough and needed a missionary. What better than to use the barbarian [English-American] system? He chose rebirth in the Rocky plateaus of the High Uintah mountains of Utah where one can grow to outward maturity acquiring a minimal cultural endowment . . . . where [the] nearest neighbors were three miles away.

From there, Hansen writes, his Zhuangzi-possessed self was whisked to Hong Kong,

where I saw more people in fifteen minutes than I had seen in my whole life. There I quickly learned there was more gospel to learn than to teach (xi).

And oh, my young and still so often literal-minded students, if you are reading this, please see that Hansen is, in the best Zhuangzi-fashion imaginable, pulling your leg with this reincarnation stuff — and showing you, maybe for the first time (or second, since hopefully your reading of the Analects showed you the same thing), that scholars are far from the dusty, boring old squares our anti-intellectual American culture likes to stereotype them as being!.

E. (wtf?!, part 2) Thanking Mormonism

I’ll leave the final acknowledgment to Joseph Smith, founder of Mormonism (and unwitting agent of Zhuangzi’s master plan, according to Hansen!), and his Mormon influence on Hansen “despite [Hansen’s] professed atheism” (xi) for you to enjoy if you buy the book.

Me? I only hope I don’t “cease to be” before moving as slowly, lovingly, and joyously through the rest of Hansen’s book as I have through these mere first five pages. Thanks to Zhuangzi, I “love my death as much as my life,” and will happily pass when my Yang flows south and my Qi flows back into the “Big Lump” of life. But that doesn’t stop me from wanting a few more years to enjoy these conversations with other strangers speaking on pages, letting me speak back on them, and in that way becoming “friends of the mind.”


*Complete Zhuangzi online here.

** Two years ago, when I first “fell in,” I literally offered $1,000 to the other teacher of Chinese history at my school to let me take her sections, so I could have all the sections and take the subject places that only a lover knows. But, bad luck, she said no. At the end of that year, that bad luck became good: a whim of course scheduling complications gave all the History of China classes to me anyway. The rest is pure, loving history.

Cross-posted from my China blog, Writing China.

Feature image: Walking on a Mountain Path in Spring, by Song Dyansty painter Ma Yuan, c. 1160 CE

2 thoughts on “Love at First Read–A Daoist Thanksgiving”

  1. I thought about death a while back, as I do from time to time, and realized to my surprise that the purpose of death is to allow future generations to change and grow. There’s no need to hasten it, but neither is it the terrible thing it seems.

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