If you’ve progressed beyond being a beginner in the Chinese martial arts, no doubt you’ve discovered how pervasive the influence of Chinese philosophy is upon our precious practices. Daoism, Buddhism, Confucianism, and other venerated Chinese doctrines are tightly woven within the fabric of all Chinese arts. But how much do you really need to know about them to practice authentically? For most of us it’s far too much to ask to become a Chinese philosophy scholar. However, once you reach a certain level of proficiency in the arts, it is important to have a basic understanding at the very least.
Daoism is a good starting point. It is the simplest, although paradoxically, that simplicity can lead to complexity. While there are several Daoist texts, the most important one is the Dao De Jing by Lao Zi. He was born in the 6th century, and by some accounts, he lived to be 200 (as the first ancestor of Daoism, his status has some legendary proportions). Whatever his truth might be, his Dao De Jing is unquestionably profound. It is one of pillars of Chinese thought and one of the world’s great philosophical works from the Axial Age.
Not only is the Dao De Jing the central text of Daoism, but it’s also very short. Given its brevity, there’s simply no excuse. At a certain point in everyone’s Chinese martial arts journey, it must be engaged. I first read in back when I was in high school. I can’t say I understood it back then, but it did help me in my World History class – that and the fact that I’m obviously of Asian descent because my high school World History teacher was racist.
I cannot remember that teacher’s name anymore (she’s surely passed away by now), but I remember her face because she was one of my early wins as a minority. My high school had about two-thousand students, but there were only a few dozen of us that were persons of color at that time. Being in the minority presented so many obstacles, but still, there were some advantages too. My history teacher thought I’d do better in the China section of her class. She assumed I’d know all about Chinese history because of my ancestry. But truth be told, my knowledge was about the same as any other American student back then. My exam scores in her China section weren’t much better than any of the other country sections. Nevertheless, my grade improved because she projected that it would. She just gave me extra credit even though I didn’t do anything extra beyond being Chinese. It was an odd instance of tokenism but given all the other racial issues I dealt with back then, I was glad of it. That’s another story.
My only advantage in that class was that I had already read the Dao De Jing as part of my exploration of Kung Fu. We examined the Gia-Fu Feng and Jane English translation. In the late seventies, there were only few English translations available. The Feng/English was first published in 1972, and it has always stuck out in my memory because English was a great name for a translator.
However, my old high school teacher actively denigrated any other philosophy or religion that wasn’t Christian in her class. For the Dao De Jing, she fixated on the last line of Chapter 5 as a falsehood. That reads “More words count less. Hold fast to the center.” She used this to mock Lao Zi, saying that it was nonsensical for the author to state that in a book of a lot of words. According to her, this statement invalidated the entire work. It was even a question about this on her exam.
I remember biting my tongue over that. Even as a teenager, I could see my teacher’s prejudice. But as a person of color surrounded by a dominantly white community, I had to pick my battles, and this wasn’t worth the trouble. I answered that test question in accordance with her misguided beliefs, which is something every student has to do once in a while when their teacher is whack.
Her assertion was absurd for many reasons. The Dao De Jing is one of the shortest sacred texts in the world. It’s only about 5000 characters long. In comparison, the King James Bible is 783,137 words. Nevertheless, it is within this simplicity where the complexity of the Dao De Jing lies. Lao Zi’s text is so sparse that it is wide open to interpretation. And for readers of English, there is an additional level of translation that intrinsically imbues the translator’s inclinations.
Today, I’ve read the Dao De Jing several times in my life (like I said, it’s short). I’ve engaged several different translations. Back in 1997, there were already enough translations that esteemed fantasy author Ursula K. Le Guin even wrote a rendition based on other English translations. She does not know Chinese. Her Dao De Jing remains popular today, and even more translations have emerged. Why so many? Again, if you’ve progressed beyond being a beginner, you’ve likely discovered that translating Chinese is can be tricky, and with a work as profound as the Dao De Jing, it is even trickier. One of the great things about the internet today is that there are several websites that present multiple English translations of the Dao De Jing together for comparison. Now anyone exploring this time-honored work in English has ample resources at their fingertips.
Just prior to the pandemic, Dr. Yang, Jwing-Ming offered his own translation, specifically for practitioners. In his insightful work The Dao De Jing: A Qigong Interpretation, he decodes the Daoist classic with explanations as applied specifically to qigong. Consequently his interpretations can apply to all martial arts because qi lies at the core of it all. And from its roots, the very notion of qi is essentially Daoist.
The The Dao De Jing: A Qigong Interpretation is an extensive work at 594 pages. That defies Feng and English’s “More words count less.” Nevertheless, Dr. Yang translates this passage as “Too much talking is awkward and deviates from the Dao, it is better to keep (ourselves) at the center (i.e., neutral thinking or quiet). He goes on to explain this in his general interpretation, “The more we talk about it, the farther we are separated from Nature (truth).”
Surely any discussion is distinct from ‘nature’ but how else can we grapple with such philosophies if we do not discuss them? To give my old high school teacher some benefit of the doubt, this is a paradoxical bit of wisdom. Perhaps that’s what triggered her. Some minds reject the notion of paradoxical wisdom, but Daoism embraces it. Somewhere within such paradoxes lies truth, but the nature of the Dao often invites you to put yourself inside the paradox and find your own resolution. This is a lot like martial arts training to my way of thinking.
I feel I understand the Dao De Jing a little better now that I’ve had over forty years to digest it. However, it’s still full of mysterious wisdom that I have yet to unravel. Dr. Yang’s book provides a lot of fresh insights. It is another road map, especially for practitioners like me, to help find the way of the Dao.
The above is an original article by Gene Ching, Staff Writer for YMAA Publication Center.