The Useless Tree

Another story in a series for liberal religious kids, this one from the Taoist tradition.

A certain carpenter named Zhih was traveling to the Province of Ch’i. On reaching Shady Circle, he saw a sacred tree in the Temple of the Earth God. It was so large that its shade could cover a herd of several thousand cattle. It was a hundred yards thick at the trunk, and its trunk went up eighty feet in the air before the first branch came out.

The carpenter’s apprentice looked longingly at the tree. What a huge tree! What an enormous amount of timber could be cut out of it! Why, there would be enough timber in that one tree to make a dozen good-sized boats, or three entire houses.

Crowds stood around the tree, gazing at it in awe, but the carpenter didn’t even bother to turn his head, and kept walking. The apprentice, however, stopped to take a good look, and then had to run to catch up with his master.

“Master, ever since I have handled an adze in your service,” said the apprentice, “I have never seen such a splendid piece of timber. How was it that you did not care to stop and look at it?”

“That tree?” said the Master, “It’s not worth talking about. It’s good for nothing. If you cut down that tree and made the wood it into a boat, it would sink. If you took the wood to build a house, the house would break apart and rot. See how crooked its branches are! and see how loose and twisted is its grain! This is wood that has no use at all. Not only that, if you try to taste one of its leaves, it is so bitter that it would have taken the skin off your lips, and the odor of its fruit is enough to make you sick for an hour. It is completely useless, and because it is so useless, the tree has attained a huge size and become very old.”

The carpenter told his apprentice to dismiss the tree from his thoughts, and they continued on their way. They arrived home late at night, and both of them went straight to bed.


While the carpenter was asleep, the spirit of the tree came and spoke to him.

“What did you mean when you spoke to your apprentice about me?” said the spirit of the tree. “Of course I am not like the fine-grained wood that you carpenters like best. You carpenters especially like the wood from fruit trees and nut trees — cherry, pear-wood, and walnut.

“But think what happens! As soon as the fruits or nuts of these trees have ripened, you humans treat the trees badly, stripping them of their fruits or nuts. You break their branches, twist and break their twigs. And then you humans cut down the trees in their prime so you can turn them into boards and make them into furniture.

“Those trees destroy themselves by bearing fruits and nuts, and producing beautiful wood,” said the spirit of the tree. “I, on the other hand, do not care if I am beautiful. I only care about being useless.

“Years ago, before I learned how to be useless, I was in constant danger of being cut down. Think! If I had been useful, your great-grandfather, who was also a carpenter, would have cut me down. But because I learned how to be useless, I have grown to a great size and attained a great age.

“Do not criticize me, and I shan’t criticize you,” the spirit of the tree said. “After all, a good-for-nothing fellow like yourself, who will die much sooner than I will — do you have any right to talk about a good-for-nothing tree?”


The next morning, the carpenter told his dream to his apprentice.

The apprentice asked, “But if the goal of the tree is to be useless, how did it become sacred tree living in the Temple to the Earth God?”

“Hush!” said the master carpenter. “You don’t know what you’re talking about. And I should never have criticized the tree. The tree is a different kind of being than you and I, and we must judge it by different standards. That’s why it took refuge in the Temple — to escape the abuse of people who didn’t appreciate it.

“A spiritual person should follow the tree’s example, and learn how to be useless.”


Source: from Chuang-tzu 1.16, based on translations by Lin Yutang, Burton Watson, and James Legge.


Ma-ku is a Taoist deity of longevity. In the image below, she can be identified by her hoe and a basket of the fungus of immortality. This Ching dynasty porcelain presentation dish was made sometime in the eighteenth century, and is now in the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco (accession no. B60P376):


Today in the West, Ma-ku’s name is sometimes translated as “Hemp Maiden,” which has led a number of Westerners to misappropriate her as the patron deity of pot smokers; you can find plenty of Web sites that state this as an absolute fact. Note, however, the iconography of Ma-ku often shows her, not with marijuana, but with a basket of the fungus of immortality. And so, not surprisingly, other Western writers have jumped to the conclusion that Ma-ku is not the goddess of marijuana, but rather the goddess of psychoactive mushrooms. Obviously, psychoactive mushrooms do not produce longevity, but we Westerners do love to superimpose our own meanings on the gods and goddesses of other times and other cultures.

Rather than imposing Western values on Ma-ku, I’m more interested in learning her role and place in Chinese culture. I found it difficult to locate good solid information about Ma-ku in English. But Mesny’s Chinese Miscellany (1899), though not a scholarly work and probably biased by a colonial outlook, has a useful entry on Ma-ku under the general heading of Gods and Goddesses:


Ma Ku: A Taoist immortalised female saint or Hsien Nu; a portrait of Ma Ku is very popular as an emblem of longevity, and is one of the very best presents a person can make to his superiors on the occasion of a birthday feast.

During my stay in Kuei-chou, I received several such presents, in the form of a portrait of Ma Ku with a pilgrim’s staff and a basket of flowers over her shoulder, the whole embroidered in fancy coloured silk floss, on a scarlet satin tablet some 8 or 10 feet long by about 3 feet wide.

Mayers writing of Ma Ku says that she is “One of the female celebrities of Taoist fable. She is said to have been a sister of the immortalized soothsayer Wang Feng-ping (see Wang Yuan), and like him to have been admitted into the ranks of the genii [i.e., the immortals]. It is related that once when Fang-ping revealed himself in the presence of Ts’ai Ching, whom he chose as his disciple and taught, by corporeal sublimation, to free himself from the bonds of death, the genii was accompanied by his sister Ma Ku, who appeared in the semblance of a damsel of eighteen or twenty, arrayed in gorgeous apparel, and who waited on her brother and his pupil with strange viands served in platters of gold and chrysoprase.

“The wife of Ts’ai Ching was newly delivered of a child, seeing which Ma Ku took some grains of rice and threw them on the ground, where they at once became transformed into cinnabar (the magic of the alchemists). Fang-ping seeing this exclaimed with a smile, ‘Sister, do you still indulge in child’s play?’ to which the damsel replied: ‘Since I have been our handmaid, thrice has the eastern sea become fields where the mulberry grows!’…

“Hence the Tsang Sang Chih Pien, signifying the cyclic revolutions of nature and cataclysms occurring upon the earth’s surface such as beings of immeasurable longevity alone are priveleged to witness more than once.” It is on this account that the image or portrait of Ma Ku is so highly prized by the Chinese as an emblem of extreme long life and happiness.

— William Mesny, ed., Mesny’s Chinese Miscellany: A Text Book of Notes on China and the Chinese, vol. III, (Shanghai: Shanghai Mercury, 1899), p. 286.


List of faith communities near Palo Alto

I’ve been compiling a list of religious organizations mostly in Silicon Valley, from San Jose to San Francisco. The middle school class of our congregation visits other faith communities, and this list is designed to be used as a resource to help the class find places to visit.

Even though I was familiar with the work of Harvard’s Pluralism Project, even though I expected a wide diversity of religious traditions, I was still astonished at the religious diversity I found: there are hundreds of faith communities, ranging from Anabaptists to Zoroastrians, within an hour’s drive of our congregation.

Most of the research I did was online. It proved difficult to research some faith communities online, as quite a few do not have Web sites, or they have Web sites that are so outdated you don’t trust them. Yelp proved to an excellent source of information about many faith communities, especially when there were recent reviews (search for “Religious organizations” in a given locale). Youtube also proved a good source of information in a few cases; sometimes faith communities have inadequate Web sites but their members may post videos that provide useful information. One or two congregations had Facebook pages that provided the most recent information.

This list also relies on some real-world research. Our middle school class has visited some of these congregations, as noted on the list below. I also relied a lot on word-of-mouth information — people telling me about some faith community that they knew about, or had friends in, or belonged to.

Perhaps the most difficult part of making this list was figuring out a reasonable way to organize it. I started with the eight major world religions identified in Stephen Prothero’s book God Is Not One; added Zoroastrian, Sikh, Baha’i, and Jain to the list; then finished off with a list of New Religious Movements organized according to the categories in the book New Religious Movements, ed. Christopher Partridge. That takes care of the major divisions. It was more difficult to know how to categorize sub-groups within Christianity and Islam. Christianity is arguably the most diverse of the major world religions, and I did the best I could based on various scholarly reference works. Islam was also challenging to categorize, and I finally decided to use the categories from the Salatomatic Web site.

If you live in Silicon Valley, I’d love it if you looked over the list — then let me know if you see any errors or obvious omissions.

And now: the list! Continue reading “List of faith communities near Palo Alto”

Ho Hsien-ku

Ho Hsien-ku [Pinyin: He Xian’gu] is one of the Eight Taoist Immortals (Pa-hsien, Pinyin Baxian), and the only one who is unambiguously female. Six of the other Eight Immortals are definitely male, though at least one source (W. Perceval Yetts, “Eight Immortals,” p. 805) notes that Lan Ts’ai-ho may be depicted by artists as gender-ambiguous.

These Immortals began as humans, and transcended their humanity to become more than human. They could not be classed as either God or saint in the senses of those words used in the dominant Western religious traditions; but given their immortality and their powers, I would class them as deities. “The Eight Immortals are a group of seven men and one woman who are said to have attained immortality inspired by each other, and who continue to serve humanity by appearing in seances and inspirations” (Livia Kohn, Daoism and Chinese Culture, [Cambridge, Mass.: Three Pines Press, 2004], p. 164).

Below the photograph, I’ll append a brief biographical account of Ho Hsien-ku by W. Perceval Yetts, from “The Eight Immortals,” The Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland, (London: 1916), pp. 781-783 (endotes are Yetts’ own notes).

Ho Hsien-ku

Above: Ho Hsien-ku with a lotus, an ivory sculpture made between 1850 and 1911 (Ch’ing Dynasty) at the Asian Art Museum (accession no. R2005.71.47).


“Ho Hsien-ku,” from “The Eight Immortals by Perceval Yetts:

Ho Hsien-ku is shown as a comely girl sometimes dressed in elaborate robes, but more often wearing over a simple garment the leafy cape and skirt affected by the hsien [English: enlightened one, immortal]. A large ladle is her recognized emblem. Its bowl, made of bamboo basketwork, is often filled with several objects associated with Taoist immortality, e.g., the magic fungus (1) and peach; (2) sprigs of bamboo and of pine; (3) and flowers of the narcissus. (4) The place of the ladle may be taken by the more picturesque long-stalked lotus bloom; and sometimes she holds just a fly-whisk or the basket of wild fruit and herbs gathered for her mother.

Biography from Lieh hsien chuan [Collected Biographies of Immortals by Lieh-hsien chuan], ii, 32, 33:

Ho Hsien-ku was the daughter of Ho T‘ai, of the town of Tsêng-ch‘êng, in the prefecture of Canton. At birth she had six long hairs on the crown of her head. When she was about 14 or 15 a divine personage appeared to her in a dream and instructed her to eat powdered mica, (5) in order that her body might become etherealized and immune from death. So she swallowed it, and also vowed to remain a virgin.

Up hill and down dale she used to flit just like a creature with wings. Every day at dawn she sallied forth, to return at dusk, bringing back mountain fruits she had gathered for her mother. Later on by slow degrees she gave up taking ordinary food. (6)

The Empress Wu (7) dispatched a messenger to summon her to attend at the palace, but on the way thither she [Ho Hsien-ku] disappeared. (8)

In the ching lung period (about A.D. 707) she ascended on high in broad daylight, (9) and became a hsien. In the ninth year of the t‘ien pao period (A.D. 750) Ho Hsien-ku reappeared, standing amidst rainbow clouds over a shrine dedicated to Ma Ku. Again, in the to li period (about A.D. 772) she appeared in the flesh on the Hsiao-shih Tower at Canton.


[These are W. Perceval Yetts’s own notes.]

(1) This, the most ubiquitous object in Chinese art, has received various botanical names. (See Bretschneider, “Botanicum Sinicum,” Journal of the Chinese British Royal Asiatic Society, vol. xxv, p. 40, and vol. xxix, p. 418.) Its branches expand into flattened umbilicated extremities with scalloped edges. It is probably largely because of the resistance its wood-like substance offers to decay that it has been adopted as the emblem par excellence of immortality. There are records of its supernatural qualities having been recognized as early as the third century B.C. (see Chavannes, Les Mémoires historiques de Se-ma Ts’ien, vol. ii, p. 176 seq.), and to the present day it is sold by native apothecaries as a drug capable of prolonging life.

(2) Any representation of the magic peach is a covert allusion to that enigmatical figure, Hsi Wang Mu, the Queen of Taoist Fairyland. Among the wonders of her mountain domain was the tree that bore but once in 3,000 years peaches the taste of which gave immortality.

(3) Bamboo and pine, being evergreen, are emblems of longevity.

(4) The name the narcissus bears is sufficient reason why it should be included in this category.

(5) For the meaning of [what is here translated as “mica”]: see note by Dr. Laufer in T‘oung Pao, vol. xvi, p. 192. Perhaps a parallel may be found here between the alchemy of China and the West. Talc, a mineral often confused with mica, figures prominently in the writings of mediaeval alchemists, and as late as 1670 it was advocated as a mysterious preservative of youth and beauty by the Apothecary in Ordinary to the English Royal Honsehold, N. le Febure by name, in his Compleat Body of Chymistry, pt. ii, p. 106 seq.

(6) One of the first steps on the road to hsien-ship. Taoists are often said to have given up the ordinary diet of cereals. Some gradually reduce their food till they die of starvation. So emaciated is their condition that their bodies after death become mummified, and thus they do actually attain a kind of corporeal immortality. Particulars of this aspect of Chinese eschatology are to be found in an article by the writer in The Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society for July, 1911.

(7) The notorious woman who, through the possession of an extraordinary personality and a genius for intrigue, rose from obscurity to become the supreme ruler of China during the latter part of the seventh century. See Mayers, Chinese Reader’s Manual, pt. i, No. 862; and Giles, Biographical Dictionary, No. 2331.

(8) I.e., Ho Hsien-ku eluded the envoy. Chinese legend abounds in instances of summonses to Court being sent to hermit sages and others who had cut themselves off from worldly affairs. The recipients have almost invariably shown a consistent contempt for mundane honors by refusing to comply, and imperial curiosity as to their reputed wisdom or powers of magic has remained unsatisfied.

(9) The actual period of the day or night when emancipation from earthly ties takes place and the final stage in becoming a hsien is completed is considered in Taoist lore to have a determining influence upon the subsequent career of the hsien. See, for example, the following passage from the Chi hsien lu: “When (after death) the body remains like that of a living man, the condition is that of release from the flesh, shih chieh; when the legs do not become discolored nor the skin wrinkled — that is shih chieh; when the eyes remain bright and unsunken, in no respect differing from those of a living man — that is shih chieh; when resuscitation follows death — that is shih chieh; when the corpse vanishes before it is encoffined, and when the hair falls off before the mortal body soars (to heaven) — both of these are shih chieh. Most perfect is the release that takes place in broad daylight, but less complete is the release that occurs at midnight. When it takes place at dawn or at dusk, then the persons concerned are relegated to a terrestrial abode” (i.e. they will not reach the celestial paradise, but remain in haunts of the hsien on earth, such as the K’un-lun Mountains, the Isles of the Blest, and the Five Sacred Hills).


Above: Drawing of Ho Hsien-ku in Yetts, p. 781 (public domain image).

Kuan yin

Kuan yin (in Pinyin, Guanyin) is a deity with multiple identities, including multiple gender identities. According to the Lotus Sutra, the Buddha said, “If living beings in this land must be saved by means of someone in the body of a Buddha, Guanshiyin Bodhisattva will manifest in the body of a Buddha and speak Dharma for them.” And if someone needs to be saved by this boddhisattva, Guanshiyin, who is also known as Guanyin or Avalokiteshvara, will manifest him/herself in whatever form works best:

“If they must be saved by someone in the body of the wife of an Elder, a layman, a minister of state, or a Brahman, he [sic] will manifest in a wife’s body and speak Dharma for them. If they must be saved by someone in the body of a pure youth or pure maiden, he will manifest in the body of a pure youth or pure maiden and speak Dharma for them. If they must be saved by someone in the body of a heavenly dragon, yaksha, gandharva, asura, garuda, kinnara, mahoraga, human or non-human, and so forth, he will manifest in such a body and speak Dharma for them.” [trans. from City of Ten Thousand Buddhas Web site


Above: “The Boddhisattva Avalokiteshvara (Chinese: Guanyin), 1300-1400 CE,” Asian Art Museum, catalog no. B61S37+

Guanyin also became a Daoist deity, a female immortal; one can chant a spell to the Daoist Guanyin “whereby one will accomplish unimaginable virtues, and give evidence to the penetration of the absolute.” (Guanyin mizhou tu)


Above: A Daoist Guanyin, adapted from Henrik Sorenson’s article “Looting the Pantheon.”

“The increasing Daoist appropriation and transformation of the Avalokiteshvara cult and the associated teachings which took place during the later imperial period, is also reflected in the mid-Qing work, the Guanyin xin jing bijue (‘Secret Explanation on the Heart Scripture of Avalokiteshvara’). This text, which to all appearances and purposes appears to be a Buddhist commentary on the Prajnaparamitahrdaya sutra, one of the most important and popular Buddhist scriptures in China, on closer examination turns out to be a Daoist commentary on the Buddhist sutra. In addition to its full-scale doctrinal modification, it casts Avalokiteshvara in the role as a female immortal (nuxian) from the Zhou dynasty (1122–255 BCE). … the level of appropriation [of Buddhist deities by Daoism] could, and often did, go well beyond superficial borrowing, ending with something akin to full-scale integration.”

— Henrik H. Sørensen, “Looting the Pantheon: On the Daoist Appropriation of Buddhist Divinities and Saints,” The electronic Journal of East and Central Asian Religions, vol. 1 (Edinburgh: Asian Studies at the University of Edinburgh, 2013), p. 62.



Above: porcelain image of the Taoist deity Toumu [Doumu], made in Fujian province in the 18th century, now in the Asian Art Museum, San Francisco (catalog no. B60P1362).

“The Dipper Mother [Doumu] is a star deity and a Daoist adoption of the Tantric deity Marici, a personification of light and dawn. As a savior and healer, she is invoked through visualizations that unite the adept with cosmic light and ‘oneness with cosmic principles’ (75-76). As the cosmic mother of the nine star-gods of the dipper, she is a nurturer and instructress, but the Dipper Mother also maintains her own salvific powers and authority.”

From a book review Sara Elaine Neswald of McGill Univ. on the Daoist Studies Web site (dated 2 Dec. 2004), of the book Women in Daoism by Catherine Despeux and Livia Kohn (Cambridge, Mass.: Three Pines Press, 2003).

The Land of the Great

This is my retelling of one section of “Visits to Strange Nations,” which may be found (in translation) in the section on “Anonymous Chinese work of the 17th century,” Gems of Chinese Literature, 2nd ed., trans. Herbert A Giles (Shanghai: Kelly and Walsh, 1923). This story was also retold by Sophia Fahs in From Long Ago and Many Lands, available online through Google Books — click here. My version of the story has a different bias than does Fahs’s version, and perhaps hews closer to the original.



In the year 684, the scholar T’ang Ao and his friend Lin Chih-yang grew disgusted with the behavior of Empress Wu, ruler of their home land of China. These two friends thought the empress was both foolish and aggressive, and they also felt that under her reign anything might be bought or sold, including a person’s honor. They decided they would travel the world and see how other nations were ruled, and so they found a guide, a man named Toh Chiu-kung who seemed to know everything and to have traveled everywhere, and then they got on board a ship and sailed over the sea.

After visiting several nations, they came at last to the Land of Great People. In fact, they almost passed by this small nation except that T’ang had heard that in the Land of the Great, no one walked but instead everyone had their own personal cloud which carried them where they wanted to go. Toh warned that they would have to leave the ship and walk a long way inland to really see this country. But T’ang must go see the Land of the Great, so they began to walk inland over some steep hills.

Soon they became lost in a maze of trails, and did not know which way to turn. They were very glad when at last they saw a small temple hidden in among bamboos. Out of the temple came an old man who looked perfectly ordinary except for two things. First, he was riding on a cloud. Second, while in their country anyone who lived in a temple would have to be a priest who shaved their head, did not eat meat, did not drink wine, and was not married — well, this old man had long hair, carried a glass of wine in one hand, a plate of meat in the other hand, and through the door they could see his wife seated at a table.

It is hard to say which shocked the two friends more — a man floating upon a cloud, or a long-haired, meat-eating, wine-drinking, married priest! However, they remained polite. The old man smiled at them, put down his wine and meat, and invited them into the temple. T’ang, speaking for his friends, bowed low and asked what the name of the temple. The old man replied that it was the temple of the goddess of mercy, and that he was the priest of the goddess.

Upon hearing this, Lin asked, “But, respected sir, how can it be that you are a priest but do not shave your head?” Lin decided not to ask about the wine or the meat, or the man’s wife.

“My wife and I have lived here and been the priests ever since we were young,” said the old man. “Every day, we burn incense and candles before the shrine. Here in our country, when we heard that China had accepted the Law of the Buddha, and that priests with shaved heads had become common there, we too decided to accept the Law of the Buddha, but we decided to do away with the usual promises of a priest. Thus we can grow our hair, get married, eat meat, and drink wine.”

When the old man learned that his visitors were from China, he urged them to stay with him. But no, they said they must go on to see the chief city of the Land of the Great.

“But could you please answer one question,” said T’ang. “Could you please explain the reason why the people of your country all have clouds underneath their feet? Is this something that you are born with?”

“Yes, we are born with these clouds,” said the old man. “The clouds come in various colors, and colors change depending on the character of each person. The best clouds have stripes like a rainbow. The second-best clouds are yellow in color. The worst clouds have no color at all, and look dark, as if there is nothingness, or a hole, underneath the person’s feet.”

T’ang asked the old man to show them the way to the city so they could see more of these clouds, and the old man explained which trail to follow.

Soon they were in the great city. There were throngs of people in the city streets, each moving around on a small cloud. They saw clouds of many different colors: red, yellow, orange, green, and so on. At last they saw a homeless man, who obviously hadn’t taken a bath in weeks, whose cloud looked like a brilliant rainbow.

“Why, the priest told us that a rainbow cloud was best of all,” said T’ang, “and here we see a filthy, dirty homeless person with a rainbow cloud!”

“You may remember,” said Lin, “that that priest had a rainbow cloud himself. Yet how could a wine-drinking, meat-eating, long-haired, married priest be considered to be a good person? Just so, how could a homeless person be considered to be a good person? There is something here I do not understand.”

“As you know,” said Toh, their guide, “I have been to this country before. What I learned then was that the color of a person’s cloud comes from the kind of person they are, from the kinds of actions they take, but it does not matter whether they are rich or poor. So the clouds of good and virtuous people show the best colors, and the clouds of wicked people show the worst colors, whether they like it or not. The only way you can change the color of your cloud to a better color is to become a better person, and it does not matter if you are homeless, or if you a priest who eats meat.

“Because of this fact,” continued Toh, “there are poor people who ride on rainbow clouds, as we have just seen, and there are rich and powerful people whose ride on clouds that lack all color at all, and look like holes of darkness. Of course, everyone avoids the people who have a cloud of darkness. On the other hand, the people of this country get the greatest pleasure from seeing acts of kindness. So it is that people are not constantly trying to get the better of each other; no, they are always trying to become better people.”

“Is this why they are called the Land of the Great?” asked T’ang.

“Yes,” said Toh. “The people in the nations next to this one call them the Land of the Great — not because they are bigger and taller than other people, but rather because they are high-minded and good.”

Suddenly they noticed that the people around them were pushing back to the sides of the street, leaving the center of the street to a person of great wealth and power, who looked almost exactly like a wealthy powerful person in their own land, with a red umbrella over his head, with assistants in front and behind carrying official documents and beating gongs, and so on. The difference was that this wealthy person was riding on a cloud that was carefully and completely covered by a red silk cloth.

“Obviously,” said T’ang, “in this country, the wealthy and powerful do not need to ride on horses, for they can move about on these convenient clouds. But one thing I do not understand — why is this man’s cloud mysteriously covered by a red silk cloth?”

“The fact is,” said Toh, lowering his voice so he could not be heard except by the two friends, “this man, like too many other people with lots of money and a high social position, has a cloud of a bad color. His cloud is not exactly one of those horrible clouds of dark nothingness. But his cloud is the color of charcoal and ashes. This means he is not completely bad, but it does mean — as we like to say — that his hands are not so clean as they ought to be.”

“In other words,” said Lin, “he is not exactly a wicked person, but he most certainly is not a good person.”

“That is a good way of putting it,” said Toh. “His cloud takes on the color of his inmost mind. He is not a good man, and so his cloud a bad color. He tries to cover up his bad-colored cloud with red silk, but red silk does not change the color of his cloud. Nothing will change the color of his cloud until his heart becomes good again, until all his actions are once again good. But still, he covers his cloud with red silk, because at least that way no one is quite sure just how bad he really is.”

“How unjust this is!” cried Lin.

“But why do you think this is unjust?” asked T’ang.

“It is unjust that these clouds exist only here, in the Land of the Great,” said Lin. “It would be very useful if we had these clouds in our own nation, for if every wicked person rode about upon a marker of their wickedness, why, that would make good people’s lives easier.”

“My dear friend,” said Toh, “though wicked people in our nation do not ride about on colored clouds, nevertheless you can tell from a person’s looks what the color of their heart is. Someone with a bright, shining look in their eyes surely must have a rainbow-colored heart. And we all know people who have a blankness in their looks that shows an emptiness in their hearts.”

“That may be so,” answered Lin, “but I for one have been fooled by a person’s looks. I would rather we could see the color of the cloud they ride about on.”



The story comes from the Chinese novel Ching Jua Yuan, which was written in the 17th century by Li Ju-chen, and is “an allegoric romance in total support of Confucian morality and Taoist wisdom” (C. T. Hsia, “The Scholar-Novelist and Chinese Culture: A Re-appraisal of Ching Hua Yuan,” in Chinese Novel: Critical and Theoretical Essays, ed. Andrew H. Plaks [Princeton University, 2014], p. 266). As such, it is a useful source for portraying to children Confucian ideals of morality. Young T’ang Ao and his friend Lin grow disgusted with the state of morals in their own country; and so they go on visits to other nations, where they find strange peoples who are in some sense more moral than in their own country.

Some scholars have seen this novel as a satire of the position of women in traditional Chinese society (for one such interpretation see Lin Yutang’s Feminist Thought in Ancient China, 1935). I have included a second episode from the novel (see no. 3 below) that gives some taste of that possibility. If, in the episode above, there is little evidence of any feminist inclination, it is important to know that that inclination does exist elsewhere in the novel. Thus, while the novel may support traditional Confucian morality, there existed more than one interpretation of that traditional morality; and this particular interpretation of Confucianism was more progressive in its attitudes towards women than others.

In addition to the Confucian component, there is also a strong Taoist component to the novel. Toh Chiu-kung, for example, becomes a wise elder to the two young men: “He is in one sense almost co-eval with the Yellow Emperor and certainly enjoys the free and easy wandering of Chuang Tzu and Lieh Tzu” (C. T. Hsia, p. 278). Toh, the guide, is a sort of Taoist sage-figure, guiding the two younger men on their visits to strange nations.

“Domesticated eristic debate”

There’s an interesting post with a long comment thread at the blog Warp, Weft, and Way that touches on the differences between Chinese and Western philosophical traditions. The opening paragraphs captured my attention, but then I found myself questioning whether Western philosophy is defined too narrowly:

A core feature of philosophical culture in the Western tradition is the supposition that debating about abstract matters is productive of insight, and that it encourages (or at least comports with) the attainment of appealing moral and religious goals. The canonical thinkers of classical Greece and China all deplore eristic debate, where the point of articulating and defending theses is simply to gain victory over the opponent. Plato and Aristotle, however, domesticate the procedures of eristic debate, yoking precise definition and dogged discussion of entailments and justification to ideals of friendship and inquiry.

I think this kind of domestication never took place in classical China: the moralists with lasting influence (Confucians and Daoists) were not inclined to think friendship and inquiry well-served by prolonged argumentative discussion….

From my perspective as a former student of philosophy who now does theology, the cases of Plato and Aristotle are interesting and foundational to Western thought — but these two philosophers do not adequately represent the full spectrum of Western thought.

Western theology, which has been understood as both a subset and a superset of Western philosophy, includes several mystical traditions that tend more towards enigmatical pronouncements than towards reasoned debate (or domesticated eristic debate). For example, in the American intellectual tradition, Emerson tends towards mysticism; and it can be very hard to try to engage in reasoned debate with Emerson, since he tends to transrational and aphoristic pronouncements that depend more on intuition than reason. Another example from ancient times might be Jesus of Nazareth’s parables, as reported by later followers.

The Western theological tradition draws not just on Greek philosophy, but also on the deep reservoir of the Hebrew Bible and the Jewish intellectual tradition. This expands the Western theological repertoire well beyond reasoned debate. Neither Ecclesiastes nor the parables of Jesus can be characterized as reasoned debate, yet both have serious intellectual content. None of this is to deny that there is a distinct difference between Chinese and Western intellectual traditions, but whether theology is a subset or superset of Western philosophy, I’m not convinced Western philosophy can be reduced to domesticated eristic debate.