For a long time now there has been talk about how Confucianism might figure, or not, in the soft power strategy of the PRC state. And now it seems Beijing is starting to look toward Daoism for the same purposes:
China hosted a high-profile International Taoism Forum here on Sunday in an effort to spread the religion's influence on the world stage.
In a message to the forum, China's senior leader Jia Qinglin urged the 500 participants from more than 20 countries, including China, the United States, France, Spain, Germany, Italy, Japan, to explore the essence of Taoism and make Chinese culture more attractive in the world.
There are a couple of things to notice here. First, "Daoism" is being taken in its religious expression:
Taoism was a 1,800-year-old religion originated from Lao Tze's philosophy. Lao Tze (BC 571-471) was the author of the book Tao De Ching, in which he pointed out that everything in the universe was born from vacuum or nothing and the balance and harmony should be achieved between human beings and nature.
The 1,800 year idea comes from the rise of more organized religious forms of Daoism in the Han dynasty. And that's legit. But we need to remember that key texts - the Daodejing and Zhuangzi - pre-date the Han and have been taken, throughout Chinese history, and certainly in the contemporary West, in a secular (i.e no deification of Laozi and others), philosophical manner. The history of pre-Han "Daoism" is complex - it is probably best to assume that there was no self-conscious philosophical school that understood itself as "Daoist," though the texts and ideas of what would later be named "Daoism" circulated and infused the culture at large. Scott Barnwell has a couple of great posts on just this topic both at Warp, Weft and Way and at his own blog, Bao Pu.
Long story short: there's more to Daoism that the "1,800 year old religion" moniker reveals.
And that more complex history, and the secular, philosophical, political readings of Daoists texts, most notably the Daodejing, could pose some problems for the effort to make Daoism into a soft power resource for the PRC state.
One problem is that the Daodejing, rather like the Analects and Mencius, can rather easily become a source of critique of any state that attempts to use it for political purposes. What might Politburo Standing Committee member Jia Qinglin have to say in response to passage 75:
The people are starving, and it's only because you leaders feast on taxes that they're starving.
The people are impossible to rule, and it's only because you leaders are masters of extenuation that they're impossible to rule.
The people take death lightly, and it's only because you leaders crave life's lavish pleasures that they take death lightly,
they who act without concern for life: it's a wisdom far beyond treasuring life.
Perhaps he'd have to say: pay no attention to that passage, and it doesn't really apply to China today, anyway... because, you know, there isn't crushing economic inequality and political exclusion here... er, can we change the subject please...
And then we would turn to passage 53:
Understanding sparse and sparser still I travel the Great Way, nothing to fear unless I stray.
The Great Way is open and smooth, but people adore twisty paths: Government in ruins, fields overgrown and granaries bare, they indulge in elegant robes and sharp swords, lavish food and drink, all those trappings of luxury.
It's vainglorious thievery - not the Way, not the Way at all.
What's that Mr. Jia? You can't quite hear what we're saying over the roar of Lamborghinis on Jinbao Street?
The Xinhua story reporting on the officially sanctioned Daoist conference also has this:
"Lao Tze said that 'big country should keep itself in a humble position,' but in the modern world, a number of powerful countries prefer to use violence to bully weak countries -- that is not in accordance with the 'Way'," said Ren Farong, president of Chinese Taoist Association.
So, perhaps we should ask Mr. Jia: Taiwan is a small country and the PRC is a big country, does this mean that the PRC should dismantle all of the missiles it has pointed at Taiwan and renounce the use of force in its relations with the island?.... But we know what the answer would be.
Just some examples of where Daoism can lead politically, none of which seem to serve the interests of the PRC state.
To be absolutely clear: I am all in favor of the widest circulation of Daoism and Daoist ideas in the world today. It is great that there are large internatoinal conferences discussing Daoism and its contemporary relevance in China and elsewhere. However, while the CCP might want to claim Daoism as a soft power resource, I don't think this will work because the more anyone takes Daoism seriously, the more questions he or she will have about politics and economics in the PRC. Daoism will not bolster state power in China, it will, as it always has, undermine it....