Immortal drinkers

The popular Daoist stories of the Eight Immortals (baxian 八仙) are believed to have developed sometime between the Tang (618-906 CE) and Sung dynasty (960- c. 1260 CE). These folk tales often depict poor but righteous people aided in their struggle against corrupt earthly and heavenly officials by the wise yet unpredictable immortals.

Text in painting: Mr. Iron Crutch (Tieguai Xiansheng)

With regards to alcohol the most interesting of the immortals is Li Tie Guai (Iron Crutch Li). Forced by accident to assume an ugly old beggar’s body, eccentric and prone to drink, this Daoist saint is a complex character. According to legend he has attained immortality by continuously resisting Laozi’s (the deified founder of Daoism) attempts to lure him away from the study of the Way (Dao) with money and women in order to try his determination. Yet in most of the other stories he is the more impulsive and even aggressive of the eight, boldly defying even the Jade Emperor.

In several of the stories water in wells and streams is turned to wine for the benefit of righteous people. In one such account Li Tie Guai befriends a farmer at Nine Crooked Stream, who makes the most fragrant and delicate wine. The farmer’s wine is so good, that when Li is later invited to a feast in heaven he refuses to drink the ‘inferior’ wine served there. He raises the host’s anger by his drunken deprecations, but in the end farmer’s wine is send for and everyone agrees that it is superior.

After the feast, when Li scavenge the grounds for one last sip, he accidentally cracks a jar full of the fragrant liquid. The jar falls to earth, turns into a hill from the crevices of which the remains of the wine slowly trickles down into the Nine Crooked Stream, henceforth making it fragrant with the smell of sweet wine.

[Wine has inspired Chinese poets and philosophers since ancient time. I am currently doing research on the role of alcohol in Chinese literature, trailing the line of famous imbibers from literati-poets like Tao Qian 陶潛 – also known as Tao Yuanming (365-427) and Li Bai李白(701-762) through wine gods and celestial drinkers to the drunken protagonists of contemporary fiction]

The Daoist Glutton: New article in CHAOS

My article on Daoism and eating in 棋王 (The Chess King) by Ah Cheng has been published in the latest theme issue of CHAOS Scandinavian Journal for Studies of Religion on ‘Religion and Literature’. (Unfortunately it is in Danish) Below is the abstract, click here for full article.

marts2012 024“Many critics have noted Ah Cheng’s extensive use of Daoist imagery and symbolism in his novella The King of Chess from 1984. The story refers directly to Daoist discourse of non-action (无为 wuwei) and the power of yielding/softness in its treatment of the Chinese Way (道 dao) of chess, and thus readings have focused on the metaphysical aspects of Daoism. Chess, however, is only one of the two great passions of the story’s protagonist Wang Yisheng: The other is food. This very material aspect of life and its relation to Daoist thought is the subject of this paper.

By comparing the attitude towards eating in The King of Chess with material aspects of Daoism as found in the Zhuangzi, this paper presents an analysis of how Ah Cheng uses food as a theme to communicate cultural values of early
rustic Daoism outside the discourse of traditionalism.”

More about food, Daoism and 棋王 here.

CHAOS Symposium 2012: Potatismos, Comics and Islandic sagas

Last weekend I attended the CHAOS symposium 2012 in Göteborg on Religion and Literature together with a nice blend of Swedish and Danish historians of religion, literary scholars and other interested parties.

Between rock climbing and potatismos I had the good fortune to enjoy lectures on a variety of subjects: From Lars Lönnroth’s talk on the noble and the not-so-noble heathen in the Icelandic sagas, through Claus Jacobsen’s presentation of the British wave introducing action gods into American comics, to Tao Thykier Makeeff’s introduction into the labyrinthine universe of Jorge Luis Borges where “anything is possible, even the holy trinity” (Borges).

At dinner I had an interesting discussion with Lars on the function of skjaldemjød (bards mead) in Icelandic poetry compared to the role of drinking in the school of Chinese drinking poets (a topic I’m very interested in, see Dissolved into Wine and World).

I also briefly talked with Ulrika Lagerlöf Nilsson about the interesting project ‘Skönlitteratur som historisk källa’ (fiction as historical source) that she is a part of. It seems to me that fiction, with all its particularity and inherent self-contradiction, could provide a nice counter balance to the more generalizing aspects of history writing.

I presented my paper on the material aspects of Daoism found in A Cheng’s novella 棋王 (Chess King) through an analysis focusing on the role of food and eating. (See abstract here)

Feminist daoism and Laozi’s mother

Reading Kristofer Schipper’s book The Taoist Body from 1982 in the park today (see picture) I was intrigued by the chapter on Laozi’s birth and its concluding remark: “We can now assert without any hesitation that in this world the body of the Tao is a woman’s body.” (Schipper, 1982: 129)

One of the oral myths on the birth of Laozi relates how an old woman becomes pregnant after drinking a drop of ‘sweet dew’ (gan lu甘露). She carries the baby for 80 years, but only during the day time, at night baby Laozi leaves the womb to study the Dao. When he is finally conceived (through his mother’s armpit some stories say) he already has a long white beard and is able to walk straight away. Seeing this strange ‘old child’ (Laozi 老子 literally means old child as well as old master) his mother takes fright and dies.

Many interpret from this story that Laozi was his own mother. Before his birth Laozi was Lao Jun (jun君 a term that, according to Schipper, is gender neutral but often used for female deities. It is however often used to designate lords or gentlemen, at least in a secular context) and chose to manifest him/her/itself as a woman because the female body is the only body capable of ‘transformation’ (pregnancy).

Thus in this genesis of Laozi, from gender neutral divine being to woman to child, there is no father. According to Schipper this is only one of the examples of how feminine qualities are seen as superior to masculine within Daoism. He also cites a Daodejing commentary which strain that “[man] must pattern his mind after that of the earth and that of woman.” (Schipper, 1982: 127)

The feminine powers (de 德) include ‘non-action’, gentleness, creativity and knowledge of the techniques of the body. Of course this is not feminism; it is just a positive valorisation of a gender specific construction of characteristics. The interesting thing is that not only women have to conform to the feminine ideals, but men as well. It is telling, though, that many of the cited commentaries address and center around men. Even though women and female principles are valued (and indeed there were and are female Daoist priests and divinities) we must not get carried away; the primary readership seems to have been men, and it must be remembered that men were still far above women in the general social hierarchy of pre-modern China.

Whether this story of Laozi’s birth was inspired by biographies of the Buddha or the other way around (there certainly are parallels) it can be said to be an important part of the understanding of Daoism today. No mythology is pure in origin, and neither is any reading of that mythology absolutely objective. Thus the fact that Schipper is an ordained Daoist priest as well as an academic of the 1970’s, has given him some rare insights into the scriptures and practices of Daoism, but it might also have influenced his ‘feminist’ reading of the Daoism and the story of Laozi’s mother.

Of course this doesnt change the fact that I found it interesting enough to write a (rather long) blog post about it!

Organized by chaos: Symposium on religion and literature

CHAOS logo

Just had an abstract accepted for the CHAOS symposium 2012: Religion and literature in Gothenburg in May. This is another cross-disciplinary symposium, so I’m very excited and looking forward to mingling with historians of religion and hearing their thoughts on literature. As we are all used to working with fiction in some form or other, from however different perspectives (secular or sacred), it should be interesting to exchange experiences.

The program has everything from the Icelandic sagas, through the mythology of J.R.R. Tolkien to intergalactic Islam (curious to hear what that is). The symposium is organized by CHAOS (lovely antonymous effect) a Scandinavian academic journal covering the area of history of religion. All the presentations will be in Scandinavian languages.

This is my abstract:

Daoism and eating in Ah Cheng’s Chess King

Many critics have noted Ah Cheng’s extensive use of Daoist imagery and symbolism in his novella King of Chess from 1984. The story refers directly to Daoist discourse of non-action (wuwei 无为) and the power of yielding/softness in its treatment of the Chinese Way (dao 道) of chess, and thus readings have focused on the metaphysical aspects of Daoism. Chess, however, is only one of the two great passions of the story’s protagonist Wang Yisheng: The other is food. This very material aspect of life and its relation to Daoist thought is the subject of this paper.

Daoism is essentially a philosophy for engaging naturally and spontaneously with the world. Indeed Daoists view the body not as a mere vessel for a soul or a heart-mind, but rather as a whole entity; a landscape of organs. The body is our primary means of performing that role of intermediate between heaven and earth which is man’s lot. Following this logic food becomes extremely important as it is what sustains the body and powers the internal qi-circle, while eating very literally functions as a way of incorporating the world and thus effecting the constant transformation of matter that is life.

By comparing the attitude towards eating in King of Chess with the view of food and the body in early rustic Daoism, this paper presents an analysis of the ongoing reinvention and reinterpretation of Daoism in contemporary China.

The Way to Eat: Food and Daoism

In Ah Cheng’s novel 棋王 (Chess King) from 1984, the protagonist Wang Yisheng is controlled by two great passions: playing chess and eating. In his Chinese Way of playing chess he is very indebted to Daoist symbolism: “‘Softness isn’t weakness – it is taking in, gathering in, holding in’ he said. ‘To To hold and assimilate is to bring your opponent within your strategy. This strategy is up to you to create; you must do all by doing nothing. To do nothing is the Way, and it is also the invariant principle of chess.” (Ah Cheng: The King of Trees. Bonnie McDougall transl. New York: NDP, 2010. pp. 75)

This advocacy for Daoist 无为 non-action in chess-playing (The ‘Dao’ 道 in Daoism literally means the Way) appears along with reference to the complementary principles of yin and yang, nicely evocative of the black and white aesthetics of a chess board, so important in the Daoist world view.

The discourse of Daoism might likewise provide a significant angle to understanding Wang Yisheng’s attitude toward food, so at the moment I’m looking into the role of food and eating in Daoism. Today I came across this slightly eco Daoist article (published in World Religions in Education 2009) by former professor of philosophy at Durham University David Cooper, in which he states that:

“Spiritual traditions in which eating and food figure as significant issues will need to be ones where no dualism is posited between soul and body and where physical desires are not peremptorily condemned as obstacles on the spiritual path. […] But the clearest example, perhaps, of a major spiritual tradition that meets these conditions, and in which the importance of food has always been acknowledged, is Daoism. For the Daoist, the mental is not a realm set apart from the physical: rather, it is characterized by a refinement of the very same energy that flows through all existence.”

Though one might protest that food also plays an important role in the Abrahamic religions (just check out Jordan Rosenblum’s study of food regulations in early Judaism), a thing Cooper seems to rule out,  I agree very much with Cooper in his accentuation of the importance of food in Daoism.

Eating is how humans incorporate their surroundings, and take part in the constant change and transformation that characterizes the Daoist understanding of the Universe. The next step is to compare Daoist eating prescriptions and practises with Wang Yisheng’s obsession with food.