A few months ago, I was talking to someone, and is often the case, I was feeling rather talkative. I was talking about my study of Chinese, and as soon as I paused and let my talkee get a word in edgewise, she said "It's funny that you study Chinese...doesn't their culture value silence? Like in the Dao De Jing?" Well, although in this specific case, I may have been being inharmoniously talkative, the episode made me think of cultural stereotypes of the Chinese, and where those stereotypes come from, what they mean, and how much truth is behind them.

The Dao De Jing is the probably the best known work of Chinese Literature in the United States, and one of the best known mystical works. It is the source of any number of popular works, and it is often quoted by people who may not even know they are quoting it.

How much is really known about the work? All we know is it accredited to a person or group of people known as Laozi, "The Old Master" or "The Elders". It dates from the Warring States period, when many different schools of thoughts were contending. And of course, Daoism, which is a very wide label, later claimed the book to be their own. However, when we look at one of the main streams of where Daoism came from, the early Shamanistic culture centered in the province of Chu, we see very few parallels with the Dao De Jing.

As an example of Shamanistic writings, I took the Li Sao of Qu Yuan, which is the most famous example of this form of literature. I could as well have taken the writings of William Blake or Chiaole Ren as an example of Shamanistic writing, but Qu Yuan was closer physically and culturally to the Dao dE Jing.

  • Narrativity The Li Sao tells a story, where the protagonist goes through a process of development, where he undertakes various difficulties, and his mystical insight comes as a result of these episodes.
    On the other hand, the Dao De Jing has no narrative development. There is no episodes, no narrator, no conflict, no resolution. Whatever insights the writer has into the universe we seem to just have to accept as being laid down from on high.
  • Autobiography The Li Sao is an autobiographical poem. starting with the first lines, which tell about Qu Yuan's birth and education. The entire poem is driven by a conflict within his nature, that of being torn between loyalty to his king, and the fact that his kind is surrounded by traitourous sycophants.
    On the other hand, the Dao De Jing has no autobiograhpy, and indeed the few times that it uses the first person, it seems to be using it as a device, rather than talking about an actual person.
  • Nature The Li Sao presents us with a bewildering assortment of nature terms, flowery both literally and metaphorically. He names a great number of specific plants and birds, all having various hidden meanings.
    On the other hand, the Dao De Jing, although it talks about Nature in the abstract sense, seems to have no direct metaphors dealing with specific types of plants or animals. For someone living in a society still surrounded by wilderness, it would seem to hard to avoid knowing about these concrete natural facts, but somehow the author still manages to do so.
  • Cosmology The Li Sao takes the part of a wide ranging journey across the Cosmos, where the author travels to the Nine Heavens, meets dragons in their palaces, and climbs mystical mountains. There seems to be a well developed cosmology behind this work, although trying to sort it out systematically would be quite difficult.
    On the other hand, the Dao De Jing's cosmology seems to be limited to Heaven and Earth, and variations on them, which seems to be more metaphysical categories, rather than actual places the author imagines visiting.

It would seem, then, that in the matter of the landmarks of the Shamanistic tradition that much of Daoism would later develop out of, the Dao De Jing is sadly lacking. It is hard to say what the Dao De Jing is, besides perhaps an academic work on dialectics.

This also means that it is possible to have emotions other than minimalistic serenity and still appreciate Chinese culture.

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