Taoist Anecdotes

Dear friends,

This selection is about the more emotional and free-spirited side of Taoism.

The main passage comes from Holmes Welch’s The Parting of the Way, which lays out the basic notion that Taoism split into a philosophical and a superstitious branch, and is a nightmare and a half to find these days.

The shorter passages come from the Chapter 20 — Neo-Taoism: The Sentimentalists — from Fung Yu-lan’s A Short History of Chinese Philosophy. (The Longer one is also hard to find.)

If you want it in the original, the vast majority of these anecdotes come from Chapter 23 of the Shishuo Xinyu, which has been translated in full by Richard Mather. (The others come from Chapter 2.) 

Beyond that, the Yang Chu chapter of the Liezi  (the third most eminent Taoist text) sums up the Way of following one’s immediate impulses — mainly sense desires — which is a part of the spirit of feng liu

Here goes.

The term ch’ing ‘tan, or “pure conversation”, implies philosophy for its own sake. It was “pure” in the same sense that certain government offices were called “pure” towards the end of the Han dynasty, when Confucian scholars formed a faction opposed to corruption and even to jobs involving the opportunity for corruption. The ch’ing t’an for Taoists, on somewhat different grounds than these Confucians, also turned their backs on impurity, that is, on worldly advantage.

Some members of the school were scholars. Wang Pi (225-249 CE) who is usually considered with Ho Yen to be its founder, wrote commentaries on the Book of Changes and the Tao Te Ching. Hsiang Hsiu (221-ca 300), wrote commentary on the Chuang Tzu which we have, somewhat expanded, over the signature of Kuo Hsiang. Chi K’ang (232-262) was both a scholar and a poet: he wrote essays on the lute and on “life-nurture”.

Wang Pi, Hsiang Hsiu and Kuo Hsiang maintained the curious thesis that Confucius was a greater Taoist than Lao Tzu and Chuang Tzu. While these two had merely talked about Non-Being, Confucius had reached it – which was why he never talked about it, just as he never talked about eliminating desire because in his own spiritual development he had even eliminated the desire to eliminate desire. Wang, Hsiang, and Kuo amplified on the old Taoist themes of following nature, determinism, and relativity. But they attacked the idea of the Sage as a hermit. Fung Yu-lan believes that they wished to make Taoism into a philosophy better adapted to participants in worldly life. And, in fact, some of them did enter government service. They seem to represent a more purely philosophical, more Confucian wing of the ch’ing ‘tan school.

Other members of the school refused office. They seem to represent a more Taoist, more lyrical wing. Their lyricism is often termed feng liu (“wandering from convention”). Feng liu is best exemplified in the activities of a group known as the Seven Sages of the Bamboo Grove. Not far from Chi K’ang’s luxurious estate in Honan was a grove of bamboo where he and certain Taoist friends used to walk in the heat of the afternoon, making up poetry, drinking a little wine, and playing the lute. Here, too, they indulged themselves in “pure conversation” which would end, as Fung Yu-lan puts it, when they reached the Unnameable and then “Stopped talking and silently understood each other with a smile.” Their strolls invariably wound up at the local tavern. There they would turn to serious drinking. By the end of the evening they would be in a stupor of glorious indifference to the world and intimacy with the Tao. (…)

Two of the Sages, for example, were Juan Chi (210-263) and his nephew Juan Hsien. Like Chi K’ang, they were poets and accomplished musicians. They were also devoted to the bottle. Indeed, Juan Chi scandalized the Confucians by drinking heavily through his mother’s mourning. Since the Juans considered cups an unnatural sophistication, they used to set a monstrous bowl of wine on the ground and sit around it sipping its contents directly. Sometimes the pigs trotted over for a taste. No matter! There was room for all to drink together.

The most celebrated drinker among the Seven Sages was Liu Ling (221-300). His eulogy of wine is still preserved. He used to have a servant follow him about with a flask in one hand and a shovel in the other – the first in case he wanted a drink, the second for digging his grave wherever he fell. Liu Ling is also the person who liked to go about his house naked. Once he was interrupted by some stuffy Confucian visitors. They expressed surprise at the absence of trousers. Liu replied: “The whole universe is my house and this room is my trousers. What are you doing here inside my trousers?”

A couple further anecdotes from Shisuo Xinyu, via the aforementioned ‘Sentimentalists’ chapter.

  • Wang Hui-chih was living at Shan-yin. One night he was awakened by a heavy snowfall. Opening the window, he saw a gleaming whiteness all about him. (…) Suddenly he thought of his friend Tai K’uei. Immediately he took a boat and went to see Tai. It required the whole night for him to reach Tai’s house, but when he was just about to knock at the door, he stopped and returned home. When asked about the reason for this act, he replied: ‘I came on the impulse of my pleasure, and now it is ended, so I go back. Why should I see Tai?’
  • Chung Hui regretted that he had not yet enjoyed the opportunity of meeting Chi K’ang. Therefore he one day went with several other notables to visit him. Chi K’ang’s hobby was that of forging metal, and when Chung Hui arrived there, he found Chi K’ang at his forge under a great tree. Hsiang Hsiu was assisting Chi K’ang to blow the fire with a bellows, and Chi K’ang himself continued his hammering just as if no one else were there. For a while the host and guests did not exchange a single word. But when Chung Hui started to go, Chi K’ang asked him: “What did you hear that caused you to come, and what have you seen that causes you to go?” To this, Chung Hui answered: “I heard what I heard, so I came, and I have seen what I have seen, so I go.”
  • “When Wang Hui-chih was traveling by boat, he met Huan Yi traveling b land along the bank. Wang Hui-chih had heard of Huan Yi’s fame as a flute player, but he was not acquainted with him. When someone told him that the man traveling on the bank was Huan Yi, he sent a messenger to ask him to play the flute. Huan Yi had also heard of the fame of Wang Hui-chih, so he descended from his chariot, sat on a chair, and played the flute three times. After that, he ascended his chariot and went away. The two men did not exchange even a single word.”

    Wang Hui-chih asked Huan Yi to play the flute for him, because he knew he could play it well, and Huan Yi played for him, because he knew Wang could appreciate his playing. When this had been done, what else was there to talk about?
  • Huan Yi, when he heard people singing, would exclaim: “What can I do!” Hsieh An heard of this and remarked: “Huan Yi can indeed be said to have deep feelings.”
  • Chig-tun was fond of cranes. Once, a friend gave him two young ones. When they grew up, Chih-tun was forced to clip their wings so that they would not fly away. When this was done, the cranes looked despondent, and Chih-tun too was depressed, and said: “Since they have wings that can reach the sky, how can they be content to be a pet of man?” Hence, when their feathers had grown again, he let them fly away.
  • When Wang lost a child, his friend Shan Chien went to condole him. Wang could not restrain himself from weeping, whereupon Shan said to him: “It was only a baby, so why do you behave like this?” Wang Jung replied: “The sage forgets emotions, and lowly people do not reach emotions. It is people like ourselves who have the most emotions.” To this Shan Chien agreed and wept also.
  • Wei Chieh, when about to cross the Yangtze, felt much depressed, and said: “When I see this vastness, I cannot help but feel that all kinds of sentiments are gathering in my mind. Being not without feeling, how can one endure these emotions?”
  • When Wang Ch’in ascended the Mao Mountain, he wept and said: ‘Wang must at last die for his emotions.”
  • The neighbor of Juan Chi had a beautiful wife. The neighbor was a wine merchant, and Juan Chi used to go to his house to drink with the merchant’s wife. When Juan became drunk, he would sleep beside her. The husband at first was naturally suspicious, but after paying careful attention, he found that Juan Chi did nothing more than sleep there.
  • Shan T’ao, Chi K’ang and Juan Chi were great friends. Shan T’ao’s wife, Han, noticed the close friendship of the three and asked her husband about it. 

    Shan T’ao said: “At present they are the only men who can be my friends.” 

    It was the custom in China then that a lady was not allowed to be introduced to the friends of her husband. Hence Han told her husband that, when next his two friends came, she would like to have a secret peep at them. So on the next visit, she asked her husband to have them stay overnight. She prepared a feast for them, and, during the night, peeped in at the guests through a hole in the wall. So absorbed was she in looking at them that she stood there the whole night. 

    In the morning the husband came to her room and asked: “What do you think of them?” 

    She replied: “In talent you are not equal to them, but with your knowledge, you can make friends with them.” 

    To this Shan T’ao said: “They, also, consider my knowledge to be superior.”

Fung Yu-lan takes this as an expression of the sensual but fundamentally non-sexual nature of feng liu, but I hope I’m not totally deranged when I say that I think I came across this passage somewhere else, where the commentator interprets her as peeping at them copulating raucously with various women. Just goes to show, I guess.

To sum up:

Such are the characteristics of the feng liu spirit of the Chin Neo-Taoists. According to them, feng liu derives from tzu jan [pinyin: ziran] (sponteneity, naturalness), which stands in opposition to ming chiao (morals and institutions), which form the classical tradition of Confucianism. Even in this period, however, when Confucianism was in eclipse, one famous scholar and writer named Yueh Kuang said: “In ming-chiao too there is fundamentally room for happiness.”

And so the conversation spirals ever onward.


P.S. Sorry for the mix of Pinyin and Wades-Giles transliteration. I very simply just cannot be arsed to pick one and change everything around.