Misha Tadd is an Associate Professor in the College of Philosophy at Nankai University. His research addresses pre-Qin and Han Daoist philosophy, comparative religion and philosophy, Traditional Laozegetics, and Global Laozegetics (a concept he developed). He has edited and translated multiple books (Parasites, Worms, and the Human Body in Religion and Culture; Order in Early Chinese Excavated Texts; Comprehensive Summary Collection of the Classics of Chinese Philosophy) and published in English journals like Diogenes and Religions and top Chinese journals like Philosophical Research, History of Chinese Philosophy,and Xinhua Digest. His recent focus is on cataloguing all the Laozi translations in the world (currently 2012 works in 95 languages) and establishing a worldwide network of scholars to study this Global Laozegetics.
Tadd spoke with contributing editor Grant Wong about his essay “Global Laozegetics: A Study in Globalized Philosophy,” which has appeared in the current issue of the JHI (83.1).
Grant Wong: In your article, you argue for considering Laozegetics (“the reception and interpretation of the Laozi in Chinese commentaries”) from a “global, transcultural, and interlinguistic” perspective. What do you feel we are missing in traditional studies of the Laozi when we constrain ourselves to a strictly Chinese approach? You also note that “with its shocking quantity and variety of translations, [the Laozi] indisputably belongs to the entire world.” What does it mean for a text like the Laozi to belong to a global heritage?
Misha Tadd: To start with, most research on the Laozi does not even consider the text’s evolution and transformation within the rich Chinese commentarial tradition and simply engages with intra-textual or historically contextualized analysis. Much is lost by not engaging the broader developments of the use and meaning of the text beyond its earliest beginnings. By imagining that the “original” is all that matters, we actually misunderstand how this foundational classic has impacted individual thinkers and cultural phenomena within Chinese civilization.
This observation is even more significant when we consider the text beyond the Sinographic-sphere—the historical East Asian world that used Chinese and could engage with the Laozi untranslated. If we want to fully comprehend the impact of the Laozi and its philosophy, we must investigate the different versions or interpretive transformations represented by various translations and who was reading which ones. For example, Kafka once wrote that “Laozi’s aphorisms are adamantine nuts. I am spellbound by them, but their kernel remains concealed from me” (Hellen Zhang’s translation). But which Laozi did he mean? Studying the “original” helps little in identifying what type of text people like that celebrated author have encountered. To do so, we must ascertain what translations they read and what philosophical visions were embedded therein. Without this foundational work, the rich life of the text and its travels will remain shallowly understood.
The question of the globalized status of the Laozi, or its “belonging to the entire world,” also relates back to the first question. The common methods of Laozi research miss our current reality. To pretend that this work is only a Chinese classic and not something that has grown much larger is to erase one of the most notable examples of textual translation, transmission, and transformation in human history. We might for example consider how the dissertation by Lucas Carmichael “The Daode jing as American Scripture” asserts that the Laozi (or Daodejing) has become functionally American according to how people produce and engage its many translations and adaptations. This manifestation of the classic reveals one instance of the text “belonging” to a society or community beyond China.
Of course, my claim of the Laozi’s global status relates to the text’s variety of different ways and forms it has engaged with people and places around the world. For example, in Indonesian the Laozi often appears as a work tied to the Chinese diaspora, like with the translations of the Tridharma Association, but also becomes localized via retranslating English versions (e.g. Filsafat Kehidupan Dalam Perspektif). In Iran, a country that enthusiastically engages the Laozi, with 43 translations in Persian, one finds the influence of Seyyed Hossein Nasr and his brand of Traditionalism. Nasr actually just published his Persian Laozi translation Tā’ū Tih Chīng: Ṭarīq wa Faḍā’il-i Ān, but it is based on a manuscript from the 1970s. That work represented the first translation into Persian and was part of a period of collaboration that introduced this classic to Iran. Also involved in this project was Toshihiko Izutsu, who wrote the related groundbreaking comparative philosophical work: Sufism and Taoism. Both Nasr and Izutsu engage the Laozi as a storehouse of human wisdom and not just a culturally specific record. It is this more universalist view that has propelled the Laozi to its global status and enabled people from all backgrounds to make the text their own.
GW: In your article you speak to an ever-widening “plurality of Global Laozegetics” created by repeated translations of the text which, in turn, create new meanings for the Laozi at a global scale. As these meanings continue to accrue through varying transcultural contexts, will it still be possible to recognize common intellectual threads among the differing interpretations? At what point is the original intent behind the Laozi overshadowed by our modern understandings of the text?
MT: Even if we bracket the general critique of the notion of original intent, it is quite common to understand this text as something edited and compiled over hundreds of years. Therefore, “original intent” might be only traced to the last major editor, but even if we accept this type of limited intent, it did not remain as the dominant voice of the work for long. This is why I use the language of Laozegetics. Even before the finalization of the canonical text, people were already transforming and interpreting its content in radically different ways. The Laozegetics perspective emphasizes that this is not a question of classical versus modern or East versus West. Rather, this is a circumstance where we have a particularly flexible and abstract work that draws out many different understandings.
To answer your question more directly, the initial usage of the text was overshadowed quite quickly, though exactly what that might be is still obscure. The earliest Laozi commentaries, “JieLao”and “Yu Lao,” are identified with Hanfeizi (c. 280–233 BC), a political thinker sometimes called the “Machiavelli of China.” They present a very hard-nosed political exegesis that is quite distinct from most contemporary readings of “the original.” But that is because the majority of modern scholars understand the Laozi through the lens of commentaries written hundreds of years later. Increased awareness of the impact of the commentarial and even translation tradition on how we imagine the original meaning is one of the great values in this broad research. To pretend to engage the text with untainted eyes is counterproductive, and the remedy is investigating all types of interpretations and their historical impacts.
GW: Throughout your article you detail how different philosophers have interpreted the Laozi from varying political perspectives. It seems as if many translators and readers have read their own meanings into the Laozi without regard to the original intent behind the text. What, then, makes the Laozi distinctive in its numerous translations? In other words, what makes the Laozi, across these translations, the Laozi?
MT: While I’m suspect of the concept of an “original,” there are degrees to which the commentators and translators either more closely follow the exact contents of the text or venture in more creative directions. I do not pass judgment on these different approaches, and I’m not sure why one philological hermeneutic is necessarily superior to any other. Certainly, if we take into consideration the Chinese pre-modern tradition, that is not the approach that would be considered “authentic.” For example, the Daoist priest Du Daojian (1237-1318) explained that the Laozi is not static but transforms with the times: “Han dynasty commentators produced the Han Laozi, Jin dynasty commentators produced the Jin Laozi, and Tang and Song dynasty commentators produced the Tang and Song Laozi” (Xuanjing yuanzhi fahui). This suggests the true “original” Chinese text was conceived as a living transforming manifestation of the Dao in the world.
Of course, in the midst of so many transformations, what remains the same? Why refer to the translated or reinterpreted texts by the same name? There are two sides to this question. First is the issue of content; second is the question of form. Regarding content, it is possible to read the text against its more literal meaning, but at certain points this becomes quite difficult without completely rewriting the work. Most frequently the radical interpretations identify a few concepts or passages as the core and read everything from that perspective. For a text like the Laozi, this is almost a necessity. As I mentioned before, there are different layers of material edited together, and as a result the reader must construct coherency. Still, continuity remains. Regardless of the different metaphysics or political ideologies seen within the text, there exists a consistency in regard to the hidden nature of things, a subversion of language or logic, a critique of selfish humanity, a tendency away from violence, and an ideal of indirect use of power. Regarding form, there is a point in translation especially when the text becomes something different, it becomes rewritten or reimagined to a degree that the result can only be called Laozi-inspired. The exact border between these two manifestations remains murky. To be honest, I have not yet found the perfect standard to delineate the more creative translations from merely related works. For now, I consider the traditional eighty-one chapter divisions, or the basic content of said chapters, to be a useful measure. However, not all Chinese texts and editions include that full content, so this is a topic that deserves continued reflection.
GW: As you note in your article, there exist to your count “2000 translations in 94 languages” of the Laozi. This is a massive base of sources for any one scholar to study, especially given the translations’ varying philosophical, temporal, cultural, and linguistic contexts. Considering these challenges, where do you see yourself taking future research on the Laozi? Are there any particular intellectual trends within these translations that you plan to focus on?
MT: My article is a preliminary macro-history of the Laozi in translation that emerged while building a bibliography of all such translations. That bibliographic work continues with a plan of publication in 2022. Since I submitted the article’s final draft, I’ve already identified twelve new translations and one new language (Kyrgyz). The finalized bibliography will provide a foundation for all people interested in such research, the numbers of which are already growing. Last year, I hosted “The International Conference on Global Laozegetics” at Nankai University; it included over 40 scholars from 12 countries. The goal was to initiate a large dialogue between scholars of the Laozi text from China and those operating in all types of languages like Slovakian, Danish, Thai, Urdu, and Latin. This project brought together experts in language, translation studies, cultural studies, philosophy, and philology. Bridging these disciplinary divides presented challenges, but the event was quite successful. As a result, Nankai University’s College of Philosophy is planning to establish “The Global Laozegetics Research Center.” This platform will facilitate the gathering of people from around the world to investigate the totality of the history and philosophical significance of the Laozi in its many forms.
Therefore, the future of this research relates both to building a new field of study and to developing my own individual projects. For the former, I will be guest editing a special issue for the journal Religions on “Global Laozegetics” in May this year to more fully begin the conversation. For the latter, one of many examples is a study of Stanislas Julien’s 1842 French Laozi, called Le livre de la voie et la vertu,that traces which traditional commentaries inspired the translations of individual passages and then tracks the lineages of those interpretations trans-lingually. Basically, this means mapping interconnections between Chinese and non-Chinese Laozegetics. In summation, Global Laozegetics is a quickly developing direction of research that offers rich opportunities for scholars from multiple specialties using varied methodologies. All are encouraged to participate in this expansive endeavor.
Grant Wong is a Ph.D. student of twentieth-century American popular culture at the University of South Carolina. He is particularly interested in how popular culture in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s manifested itself in all aspects of American life, especially within music, capitalism, thought, and youth culture. Grant’s writing can be found in Slate and PopMatters.
Featured Image: Nicholas Roerich, “Laozi,” 1924. Courtesy of WikiArt.