Religions of the World and Ecology home

Jonathan R. Herman, Assistant Professor of Philosophy and Religious Studies at Georgia State University, received his doctorate in Chinese Religion from Harvard University in 1992. He is the author of I and Tao: Martin Buber's Encounter with Chuang Tzu (SUNY Press, 1996) and several essays on hermeneutics and comparative mysticism.


Abstract of paper given at Taoism and Ecology conference
Taoist Environmentalism in the West: Ursula K. Le Guin's Transmission of Taoism

One fascinating aspect of Taoism is that it is now taking hold in the West, albeit in a form that may be only intermittently related to its Chinese roots. There are now self-professed Taoists in America, poets and artists who claim Taoist influence, and even "translations" of and commentaries on classical texts by people who neither speak nor read Chinese. Many scholars dismiss such phenomena as the results of misinformation or fraud; others view them as part of the organic process of tradition and transformation. In any event, they are rapidly becoming an important aspect of Western culture and they may someday force scholars to reconfigure their understandings of "Taoism." One of the most interesting and intellectually responsible figures in this phenomenon is Ursula K. Le Guin, the fantasist and science fiction author who has also written extensively on feminism, literature, and social issues. Le Guin was exposed to Taoism in her youth -- her father had requested that passages from the Taode jing be read at his funeral -- and Taoist themes are evident in many of her works. One text in particular, The Lathe of Heaven, draws its title from a mistranslation of Zhuangzi and quotes both it and the Taode jing throughout. In this essay, I will examine how Le Guin's transformation of Taoism reflects an environmental ethic, focusing both on her works of fiction and on her recently published rendition -- she insists that it is not a "translation" -- of Laozi's Taode jing.

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