The Art of Orientalism or: What Westerners Get Wrong About Daoism

I was scrolling through my Facebook news feed yesterday, and I saw a post by the SETI Institute. As an avid fan of both science fiction and astronomy (science fact, I suppose), I almost always read what they write.

What I see is “Neil deGrasse Tyson Selects the Eight Books Every Intelligent Person on the Planet Should Read”. Now, I’m no fan of the new atheist crowd, but I read a lot, so I was curious. First of all, while his quips about the Bible, The Prince, and The Age of Reason are obviously problematic, his thoughts on the Art of War aren’t just “problematic”, they’re just plain wrong.


Tyson writes one should read the Art of War “to learn that the act of killing fellow humans can be raised to an art”. Though Sunzi talks of the “art” of war, it is a text more about the “Dao” or “Way” of war, for indeed, in anything that may be done, the Daoist tradition (which Sun Tzu was part of) postulates there is a specific method in doing it (See: Zhuangzi’s story of the butcher of the ox). This way can be understood as an “art”, but this eliminates the metaphysical understanding of Dao present in the Art of War . Dao implies that which can be done can be done perfectly. This is not the same as being “raised to an art”. If war MUST be waged, as in China, it oft has, it ought to be done correctly to minimize inefficiencies.


Any further cursory glance at Sun Tzu’s Art of War tells the reader the text is nothing about “killing people”. In fact, the exact opposite is recommended. The ultimate victory espoused in The Art of War is a psychological, ideological, and political victory. Sunzi says, “Thus it is that in war the victorious strategist only seeks battle after the victory has been won, whereas he who is destined to defeat first fights and afterwards looks for victory.” That is, only wage war when victory is swift and painless. A well waged war in Sunzi’s eyes would be the Icelandic Cod Wars, where a small nation got what they wanted without a single death on either side. A horrible war would be World War 2, where even though “we” the liberal world won, and war was indeed raised to an “art” with extreme variance in tactics, technique, and skill, death and destruction reigned supreme.

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The Chinese certainly understood war was brutal and savage. Sunzi does not seek to “raise” war to anything other than a detestable side effect of politics and the moral deficiency of States and Kings. As Sunzi writes, “In the practical art of war, the best thing of all is to take the enemy’s country whole and intact; to shatter and destroy it is not so good. So, too, it is better to recapture an army entire than to destroy it, to capture a regiment, a detachment or a company entire than to destroy them.” Not so much about “killing” than it is about victory. Sunzi would see wholesale slaughter or acts of killing as always inferior to capture, political victory, or pretty much any other means of dominance. The way Tyson phrases it, you might think Sunzi was some bloodthirsty aestheticizer of violence.

To take this further, Tyson is not the first nor the last nor the most egregious of misinterpreters of Chinese thought. However, in the 21st century, one would assume intelligent men like Tyson would be able to free themselves from the shackles of 19th century Orientalism and Colonialism when reading a text they consider important enough to suggest to millions of people. Giradot, Kirkland, and others have written extensively on how Orientalism has corrupted Westerners (and my own) views of Daoism/Militarism/Confucianism/Legalism/Mohism, etc, and anyone interested in Chinese philosophy must be made aware of this.

Now, on to specific critiques of the “New Age” Daoism that has emerged in the West. Daoism is not about “doing nothing”; all of its sacred texts purport objective morals, a “truth” to the world, and present a vision of reality that is quite “active”. As my professor of Eastern Religion puts it, “Daoism is the most active religion there is!” We function (act) in accordance to our form: this is the Way.

In addition, the Tao Te Ching is not the central text of Daoism, nor is anything written in it of more worth than other understandings of Daoist tradition. While it is obviously influential, the Nei-yeh and other earlier texts are more so. Only in the West, where Legge and other Euro-centric interpreters of Chinese religion have shaped our views so immensely is the Tao Te Ching elevated to such a high status.


Furthermore, Daoism is not “non-theistic”. It may be in the sense that the Dao, or as Zhuangzi calls it, the “Transforming Creator” and “Great Smelter” is an invisible, infinite, and non-anthropomorphized force, but this is similar to Islamic and Christian conceptions of God anyway! Islam calls for union with Allah, just as Daoism calls for unity with the Dao. If you want to call this “non-theistic”, feel free. But the “higher power” in Daoism is not so distant from commonly notated “theistic” religions.

Though it is always a good thing in my mind for people, whether they be “Westerners”, “Orientals”, or otherwise to grapple with other religions, one cannot allow for the uninitiated to corrupt and degrade these traditions. All this leads to is misunderstanding and the ultimate loss of knowledge. And as Tyson shows us, misunderstanding can afflict even the most “intelligent” among us.


One thought on “The Art of Orientalism or: What Westerners Get Wrong About Daoism

  1. Autistic Cat

    Also, art of war in original Chinese is 孫子兵法, which would translate literally to “Sun Tzu’s Military Rules”, and Sun Tzu explicitly says that the best way to win is to not fight at all. So saying “to learn that the act of killing fellow humans can be raised to an art” is showing ignorance since Sun Tzu never espoused killing other than for necessary reasons, and I doubt that Tyson actually read the book more than the front cover.


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