Warp, Weft, and Way

Chinese and Comparative Philosophy 中國哲學與比較哲學

Comedians as Daoist Missionaries

From friend of the blog, Mark Saltveit who, among other things, is a professional stand-up comedian, we have a special guest post. Mark writes:

I’ve written about my profession of standup comedy as applied Daoism.  I’ve just turned in a draft of this for editing to MefiMag, the print expression of the Metafilter website, who commissioned it.  I would love to get feedback and corrections from your readers for my final version.  (MefiMag doesn’t mind if this appears on the web before they print it.)

Mark will be replying to your comments himself. Enjoy.

Comedians as Taoist Missionaries

By Mark Saltveit

I’ve worked as a paid standup comedian on the West Coast for 12 years.   It’s fascinating, rewarding, and usually compelling – but it’s still work.  Comedians joke around a lot and are usually fun people, but the job itself is not especially amusing.  I’ve heard that stripping and prostitution aren’t that sexy, either.

* * *

My observations are contradictory, I think because the subject itself is.  Standup comedy runs on anti-logic, the subversion of received wisdom and rules, including (especially) its own.  Once a style of humor is expected, comedians must play against that expectation or become dull.  Unfunny.

That makes it difficult or impossible to sum up the nature of comedy in a few concise words.  Most good comedians will disavow any comic formula.  Deep down, we sense that there is a true north of comedy, but you have to develop an intuitive sense of where it is.  It’s easier to say what it isn’t.

* * *

For me, there’s a strong connection between standup (as practiced in the U.S.A, anyway) and the ancient Chinese philosophy of Daoism (or Taoism), which I’m very fond of.  This article is not a “Tao of Comedy” — that’s been done, very well, by Jay Sankey in a book called “Zen and the Art of Standup Comedy.”

My perspective is the opposite of Sankey’s.  To me, standup is a form of applied Daoism.  Or perhaps both are applied forms of some great unnamable way that I’m pursuing, my own mix of Daoism, a little Jung, some existentialism and residual Catholicism, and my own biases.  These things are very hard to spell out and pin down; that’s part of the fascination.

* * *

“Daoism” can mean a lot of different things.  There are two primary texts underpinning them all: the “Daodejing” (or “Tao Te Ching” in old Wade-Giles spelling system) by Laozi (Lao Tzu), and “Zhuangzi” (“Chuang Tzu”) by the author of the same name.  These pithy books of mysterious, paradoxical wisdom were written between 600 BCE and 300 BCE in what is now China.  Lao Tzu is a semi-mythical figure; Chuang Tzu is a historical person who lived from 369 to 286 BCE.

There are religious sects in China and Taiwan today carrying on a centuries-old lineage tradition of Daoism that resembles traditional Buddhism, with monasteries, celibate monks in robes, rituals, ceremonies and applied techniques for extending life, cultivating health, &c.

Another manifestation is a loose collection of personal practices considered by some to be applied forms of Daoism, including Qi Gong, Taijichuan (Tai Chi), Traditional Chinese Medicine, and the I Ching.  (Others would say these are simply elements of traditional Chinese culture.) These practices are popular both in China and among New Agey Americans, especially on the West Coast.

Daoism can also mean the philosophy encapsulated in the Daodejing and Zhuangzi (and developed in hundreds of later books), and this is the sense in which I (and many Westerners) use it.  A more precise term for this kind of Daoism, used by some scholars of Chinese philosophy, is “Lao-Zhuang thought.”

I read those books often, but don’t ascribe to any traditional practices.  I prefer to look for examples of this wisdom in my own, modern American life.

* * *

There is an attitude underlying comedy that shares a lot with Lao-Zhuang thought: mischievous, suspicious of authority and pomposity, fond of humble citizens and workers, very aware of the limits of knowledge and problems of communication, self-challenging, and drawn to non-logical truth, the kinds of thought not taught in school.

Daoism also celebrates a manner of action perfect for comedy; spontaneous, intuitive, humble, perfected through repetition and awareness.  Every person and thing has its own intrinsic nature (tzu-jan); not a fixed thing, but a process that develops and unfolds in concert with all the other unfolding natures.

Not coincidentally, Daoism (and its descendant, Zen) are the only philosophies or religions that are frequently humorous.

* * *

The Tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao.
The name that can be named is not the eternal name.

– Daodejing, opening lines (Gia-Feng/English translation)

Comedy mocks government, institutions and social rituals when they grow absurd, when they diverge from … what? There’s no positive norm you can name, and if you try to construct one, it’s easy to find flaws that prove it’s not the real norm.  At best, an intelligently targeted mockery can imply that good thing, point you in the right direction, or at least guide you to better choices along the way.

* * *

My act includes this joke:

I’ve actually become a Daoist missionary.  Which means I stay home and mind my own goddamned business.

Of course I don’t stay home.  I usually travel hundreds of miles to deliver pronouncements like this to the audience.  Humor has its own built-in, unspoken philosophy which, I think, overlaps Daoism in many important ways.  By practicing comedy, all comics are in effect working as unwitting Daoist missionaries.

* * *

For the vast majority of performers, comedy pays little or nothing and involves many hours of driving and waiting around  — not to mention the risk of failure.  When people ask why I do it, I usually respond “Because I get paid to drink beer while I tell people what I think.”  A better (though trite) answer might be, “Because I can.”  On a good night, comedy is a blast.  It’s like being the life of the party, an accomplished writer, the smartest student in class, and the coolest naughty kid in school, all rolled together.

But the rejection is very personal, hence very painful.  Whether your act is about you or not, it’s always by you. I’ve often wondered whether I would have become a comic had I not gotten laughs at my first open mic.  Probably not.

The flip side of that coin is the thrill seeker’s rush of disaster narrowly averted, of living by your wits, and the camaraderie with others who have been through it.  There are a lot of clean and sober comedians – perhaps replacing one wild thrill with another.

* * *

I was drinking beer with my friend Tristian Spillman, a comedian and graphic novelist in Portland, Oregon.  And he said, “Everyone thinks the Universe started as all nothing, and then the big bang exploded, filling the Universe with stuff.  But I think it started as an infinite block of solid STUFF, and nothingness exploded into it.”

(It was really good beer.)

And I said, “I think the Universe was all one Unity, which consciousness ripped apart into somethings and nothings. Heads AND tails — it’s all one coin.  That’s the deepest kind of simplicity.”

And he said, “Man, you really need a girlfriend.”

* * *

“Know the masculine, but keep to the femine”

– Daodejing, Ch. 28 (Wu translation)

You can often hear by the pitch of the laughter that a given joke is more popular with women, or with men.  (The best, of course, make everyone laugh.)  In my experience, jokes that women especially like improve the general success of my show, while jokes that mostly men like bring the mood down.  I have no theories why this seems to be true.  But I try to tape and listen to every set, and pay attention to the timbre of responses.

* * *

“When perception and understanding cease, the spirit moves freely.”

– Zhuangzi, Ch. 3 (Hinton translation)

Each audience is an organism with its own unique, collective nature, like a school of fish or a flock of birds reacting as one.  The show is another organism with its own nature, an interaction between the crowd, the performer, the zeitgeist, the physical setting and whatever happens during the show.

The best comedians intuitively grasp the natures of the crowd and show and respond, deftly.  You can’t do this logically or intellectually, any more than a professional athlete can analyze their moves during a game.  “The zone” that athletes get in is the Daoist ideal, Daoism in action.

It’s hard to describe this feeling, being in “the pocket,” but you know it when you have it and even more when you no longer do.  It’s like being in love, those early magical times that prove so elusive in a lifetime.  Often, we know it best by the sensation of having lost it.

* * *

“Way gives you shape and heaven gives you form, so why mangle yourself with good and bad?  Make an exile of your mind and wear your spirit away.”

– Zhuangzi, chapter 5, Hinton translation

You can plan set in advance, structuring your sets, working on your writing or accents or movements, and strategizing about the likely crowd.  The performance itself, though, moves far too quickly to analyze in real time.  You have to be in the moment.

The adjustments a comic makes might include changing the subject, talking to audience members instead of telling their jokes, or riffing on something that just happened.  Usually though, they are more subtle, instinctual, and hopefully invisible to the audience — speaking a bit more loudly or quietly, slowing down, expanding your persona to fill the room or pulling in more intimately, forcing the crowd to come to you.  Often, you don’t notice you’re adjusting.

Even afterwards, there are limits to understanding it through analysis.  Lao-Zhuang thought encourages what I call “mystical empiricism” – in other words, direct apprehension of phenomena, not mediated through words, logic and theory.  You learn by doing, by experiencing things directly with the right awareness.

Those mediating thoughts are great tools, but they can only take you to a certain point.  Real artistry, the deep skill of a master craftsman, involves subtleties that require carefully honed intuition developed through long experience.

Any comedian will tell you that the best way to improve, perhaps the only way, is stage time.  More time spent on stage performing.  Yet you don’t want to be in your head onstage.  I try to record each of my sets and listen to it afterwards.  I treat it like a dream – don’t try to analyze it so much as experience it again, and pay attention to anything that pops into my head.

* * *

There’s only one way to know if a joke or bit is funny – perform it on stage.  Then, how can you not know?  The audience is right in front of you.  The silence of even 60 people is very loud; that of 200 is deafening.

To me, any performance is communication, and stand up gives you more immediate and vocal feedback than any other kind of entertainment – even sex work.  If the audience doesn’t laugh at a joke, you were not funny at that moment, no matter how brilliant you might think that bit is (or how well it did last night).

The process is somewhat mystical to me.  Sure, there are rules that generally work.  For example, use sets of 3 examples in a joke; the first two set a pattern, the third – your punch line – breaks the pattern.  But I think of new jokes the way a scientist looks at promising new cancer drugs.  Some look good on paper but just aren’t effective; others are created by accident and work miracles.

* * *

“The purpose of a rabbit snare is to catch rabbits. When the rabbits are caught, the snare is forgotten.

The purpose of words is to convey ideas.  When the ideas are grasped, the words are forgotten.

Where can I find a man who has forgotten words? He is the one I would like to talk to.”

– Zhuangzi, chapter 26 (Thomas Merton’s version)

Brevity is essential to good comedy writing.  It’s as if every bit has a certain amount of humor, and the resulting laughter is that amount divided by the number of words used to convey it.  Punch lines are relatively easy; it’s the setup that’s tricky.  We all know people who are funny in social situations.  The difference between them and a comedian is that your friends already share a common experience, a story you all know, or a situation you are currently in.  A comic must create a shared experience like that for complete strangers in one or two sentences.

Reacting to something that happens in the club, whether a heckle or a dropped dish, eliminates the need for words altogether, since the audience has shared that experience.  That’s why “improv” is so potent.

* * *

Before he was famous, I took a film class from the director Gus Van Sant. He said that most improvisation in film goes badly, because the director just hasn’t finished the script and hopes to pull it out at the last minute.  But the pressure of the moment blocks the spontaneity and inspiration you need to improvise.

He said that to improvise well, you need to have a complete, polished script and storyboards for every shot in the film; only then can you relax enough to trust the moment, throw away that script and do something different.

That’s how standup is for me.  Only when I have a solid plan, and tight jokes and bits prepared, can I trust the moment enough to wander successfully.

* * *

How to fight against a much stronger opponent:

A drunk walks out of a bar, and a fly lands on his nose. He tries to smash it and bloodies his own face.

One trick is flying away just before you get crushed.

The other is, knowing when your opponent is drunk.

* * *

In smaller towns, audience members frequently send a drink (almost always a shot of tequila) to the comic, about a fourth of the way through the show.  This is partly a favor, a reward, a toast, but there’s a darker element as well.  It feels like a test, an offer of communion that can’t (or shouldn’t) be refused.  Comics in recovery learn to arrange with the bartender in advance to substitute apple juice.  Refusing the drink is always a mistake.

Olga Sanchez, a director of live theater (and my wife), describes the stage as an altar on which the actors are sacrificed for the redemption of the audience.  Comedy is a bit different because the comic is writer, director, performer and master of ceremonies.  He is the priest and the sacrifice, the self-deprecating fool who commands the room.

* * *

“Although the tiger is entirely different from the human, it treats you gently if you obey its nature.  But if you ignore its nature, it can kill you.” – Zhuangzi, chapter 4 (Hinton translation)

Early on, a wise older comic told me to ignore hecklers unless most of the crowd can hear them.  Let’s say you savage someone who is drunkenly responding to everything you say.  If they are near the stage and the crowd didn’t hear them, it looks like you suddenly attacked a random person in the crowd, making you an asshole and the rest of the crowd defensive.

Also, the attention encourages sparring and more heckling, even if you “win.”  You are playing their game, as Ken Kesey might have said; even if you “win” you are yielding power and control of the agenda.  I would rather tell my stories than duel with drunks.

Still, sometimes you need to handle it.  The thing to understand is that the heckler has stepped forward, as you have, out of the audience.  The one who rejoins the audience first wins; you need to embody the crowd’s response to this outlier.  A couple of polite requests to shut up so we can all enjoy the show, followed by a fast vicious crushing as needed, work well.    A clever slam can actually be too good, because the spontaneity and drama of the moment is hard to top.

One time, early in my set, a drunken stripper started yelling “We love dick!” after any remotely suggestive statement.  (She had done this to the previous comic, too.)  No one in the crowd could have missed her hollering, so finally I said “Yeah, but ironically you’re only woman in this club who no man wants to fuck.”  The place exploded and she shut up, but the rest of my bits paled next to that moment, and the set suffered.

* * *

There’s a cliché that comedians say out loud the things that people think but are afraid to say.  I think it goes a bit deeper, an ability to express (not necessarily in words) untapped emotions and energy that audience members may not even be aware of, as well as conscious frustrations, yearnings and bafflement.  These are the raw fuel of laughter, which the comic shapes with their (hopefully) unique perspective.

In a great comedy set, the comic does this while being fully present in the unique gestalt of the show, intuitively unleashing and embodying that energy, reflecting it back to everyone sharing it with you.  You’re a conduit, effortlessly and spontaneously uttering the most hilarious things off the top of your head, thinking quickly but speaking clearly.  It’s like the audience is telling you, telepathically, the perfect thing to say and you’re just following instructions.  If it was a Hollywood movie, there would be golden beams of light from every audient pouring into you and lifting you in the air, transcendent, glorious.  Nirvana.

* * *

Most comedians think of themselves as either “city comics” (aka “alternative comics”) or “road comics” (aka “road dogs”).

City comics live in New York or Los Angeles or San Francisco or Boston, maybe Seattle or Austin.  They have day jobs and perform short sets at showcase clubs that don’t pay but offer exposure, as they’re angling for TV appearances.  Their acts have distinctive styles (which road dogs might call gimmicks); think of Steven Wright with his sad sack demeanor and verbal paradoxes, or Mitch Hedburg’s rock star look and cerebral stoner one-liners.  Lesser city comics resort to in-jokes that only friends laugh at, and often despise the audience.

Road dogs often work in comedy full time, piecing together a very low salary from 3 to 5 day “weeks” at smaller clubs and strings of “one-nighters” at bars in small towns, often hundreds of miles apart.  They are not given lodging on their off nights and usually drive around the country, sleeping in their cars between gigs.  Some wrangle “corporates” (higher paid private gigs) or move on to squeaky clean and highly paid cruise ship work.  Lesser road comics steal jokes and premises, pander to popular prejudice, or get lazy and rehash their older material for decades at a time.  One wag said that road comics aren’t really entertainers so much as truckers who deliver jokes to small towns.

City comics look down on road dogs as mindless hacks, repeating ancient stereotypes about men being dogs and women being cats.  Road dogs look down on city comics as unfunny, self-important wimps who couldn’t last half an hour at a “real” gig. Comics of either camp who’ve actually worked together often share a deep, battle-worn camaraderie that transcends this pettiness.

* * *

“When an archer is shooting for nothing, he has all his skill.
If he shoots for a brass buckle, he is already nervous.
If he shoots for a prize of gold, he is out of his mind! …
His skill has not changed, but the prize divides him.”

- Zhuangzi, Ch. 19 (Merton’s version)

My home town (Portland, Oregon) is in the midst of a comedy boom that is making “city comedy” almost possible, but until very recently, all professional comics here have been road dogs.  I love the new shows in town where dumb dirty humor is discouraged and a comedian can try any crazy idea and at least get an attentive listen.  I also love driving for hours by myself and soaking up the vast beauty of the inland west, connecting with people I would never otherwise meet in places like Winnemucca, Nevada.

Unlike most comics who hit their first open mic in their early 20s, I didn’t start until I was 38 and married, with children and a mortgage.  I’m probably the only comic in America who wishes he could be driving around the country and sleeping in the back of his station wagon, because I know how much that stage time would improve my act.

Television (or movie) fame is the one surefire route to success as a comic.  But I have no intention of moving to Los Angeles or New York, given my family.  I fully realize that this means I am unlikely to become a success, financially.  I don’t love that fact, but it frees me to enjoy my shows for what they are now, not as a stepping stone.

[Mark's other websites: www.howtobesimpleminded.com, www.palindromist.orghttps://www.facebook.com/pages/Mark-Saltveit/137595799651401 ]

June 21st, 2011 Posted by | Chinese philosophy - 中國哲學 - 中国哲学, Comedy, Daoism, Humor, Taoism | 20 comments

20 Responses to Comedians as Daoist Missionaries

  1. Dan Robins says:

    Hi Mark! Thanks for making your article available here.

    I think what’s most appealing to me about this article is that it’s making the connection between skilled behaviour and Daoist by emphasising the importance of responding to people and their responses. I don’t think you get that even when people appeal to athletes in the zone and such, and it’s really important, I think.

    One of the things I wondered about while reading it was how much of it carries over to other sorts of public performance. Mark mentions theater, of course. But because of what I do for a living, I mostly wondered about teaching and about giving academic talks.

    Both of those activities have aspects that match up very well with things that Mark says, I think. Especially interesting for me is the idea that you improvise best when you’re working from a detailed script. With me, I think this is false when I’m teaching material I know very well (if I’m lecturing on the Mohists, for example). But it’s almost always true if I’m giving a talk—if I just try to wing it, the result is usually an awkward mess, but if I have the talk written out and know it well, I spend a lot of time off-script, and I mostly think it works.

    In both cases (though of course especially with teaching) you need to have a sense of what’s going on with the people you’re interacting with and the dynamic that develops between you. The reason this is especially true with teaching may be largely because when giving an academic talk you generally assume a fairly high degree of shared experience, or anyway much more than you can assume in a classroom.

    Part of why this interests me is that I think it tends to break down the sort of reason/intuition dichotomy that Mark relies on. Reasoning also requires the kinds of sensitivity and flexibility that gets valued in, say, the Zhuangzi skill stories, and both teaching and giving talks (and responding to questions and comments after talks!) make that clear.

    Also, maybe teachers should study what comedians have to say about hecklers.

    • Thank you very much for the kind comments. Ironically, a lot of my approach to hecklers comes from a book about classroom discipline I read, that my ex-wife (a teacher) had. Despite a very dull title — it may have been “Responsible Classroom Discipline” by Vernon Jones, 1981, but I can’t find any details on it online — it was a very colorful book by a guy who had been a teacher in Boston’s Combat Zone for many years.

      2 things stood out:
      1) be very organized and have clear, firm rules. The first time a kid violates any of them — for example, not bringing a pencil as required on the first day of school — bust their chops hard, to let people know you’re strict. (I took that as specific to a “bad” school or nightclub.)

      2) When a kid starts cussing you out, with every horrible bad name, let them exhaust themselves and DON’T REACT. In fact, when they pause, ask if they have more to say. Let them climb out as far on that branch as they want. They’ll run with it, be unsure without a reaction to push against, and eventually look ridiculous and impotent. Then when they are done, bust their chops calmly (send them to the principle’s office, or whatever.) It reminds me very much of the fighting roosters passage in Zhuangzi.

      I am precisely trying to get beyond the reason/intuition dichotomy that I think is responsible for so many ridiculous excesses of “New Age” thought in America. The way I see it, Daoism demonstrates that there is important truth not accessible by logic or traditional argument. BUT IMHO you need to be more skeptical, not less so, when you venture off that main highway. It’s like Bob Dylan’s quote — “to be an outlaw, you must be completely honest.”

  2. Dan Robins says:

    Oops, I also meant to object to this:

    These pithy books of mysterious, paradoxical wisdom were written between 600 BCE and 300 BCE in what is now China. Lao Tzu is a semi-mythical figure; Chuang Tzu is a historical person who lived from 369 to 286 BCE.

    Neither text stands a chance of being as old as 600 BCE, and probably neither was complete by 300 BCE (with the Zhuangzi at least this is pretty much a consensus view, and Bruce Brooks’s statistical argument based on the Guodian finds is very strong with respect to the Daodejing). And Zhuangzi may have been a real person, but that is far from a given, and any attempt to assign him dates is very speculative.

    • Dan Robins says:

      (And the Zhuangzi is not really a pithy book.)

    • Thanks very much for the points on DDJ and Zhuangzi, I knew I wasn’t up to speed with the latest scholarship. Sounds like a better description would be something like “No one is even sure if there was an historical person named Zhuangzi, and Lao Tzu is almost certainly a legendary figure.” As for dates, can anyone suggest a better range reflecting current scholarship? Perhaps, “between 400 BCE and 200 BCE”? Does that work for both books?

      Mark

    • True. The individual stories/parables/analogies tend to be pretty concise, at least the ones I like, though there are altogether too many and some are much weaker. Not unlike my article that way.

      Mark

  3. Bill Haines says:

    I think this is a wonderful piece. My only criticism would be that recent scholarship shows (I gather) that the Zhuangzi is very unlikely to have been written by Zhuangzi. Even the “inner chapters,” often thought to be the one part that could be by Zhuangzi, are unlikely to have been written by one person. I’m unfamiliar with the arguments about this, but if I wanted to know them I’d start here:
    link to cjfraser.net

    • Thank you very much. That’s quite an interesting review. Here’s a very basic question: Older books I’ve seen describe the Chuang-Tzu as having been written by an author of the same name, and I followed that in my article with more modern spelling. Fraser’s rejoinder, however, describes the book as Zhuangzi and the (reputed) author of the Inner Chapters (or part of them, he would argue) as Zhuang Zhou. Are these two distinct names that happen to be the same under Wade-Giles? What am I missing here?

      Thank you very much. Mark

      • Bill Haines says:

        Hi Mark, Good question. Zi (Tzu, Tse, …) is an honorific suffix. Zhuangzi is Master Zhuang. His name (or one of his names, and assuming there’s a he there) is Zhuang Zhou. Laozi can translate as “Old Master.” Zi is sometimes used in this sense as a freestanding word, but as a freestanding word it much more often means “child,” which seems to have been its original meaning. Rulers sometimes called themselves “Small child,” expressing something like “Your humble servant;” maybe that’s how the term came to mean “Master.” But I haven’t researched the question.

  4. How is this for the (revised) paragraph on the historical basis of the DDJ & Zhuangzi?

    There are two primary texts underpinning them all: the “Daodejing” (or “Tao Te Ching” in the old Wade-Giles spelling system) by Laozi, and “Zhuangzi” by Zhuang Zhou. These pithy books of mysterious, paradoxical wisdom were written between 400 BCE and 220 BCE in what is now China, and were probably added to for another couple centuries or more after that. We’re not even sure if there was an historical person named Zhuang Zhou (aka Chuang Tzu, Zhuangzi, and Lao Tzu (aka Lao Tzu, Lao Tan, Li Er) is almost certainly a legendary figure.

    • Typos in that last line, sorry — meant to write
      We’re not even sure if there was an historical person named Zhuang Zhou (aka Chuang Tzu, Zhuangzi), and Laozi (aka Lao Tzu, Lao Tan, Li Er) is almost certainly a legendary figure.

    • Bill Haines says:

      How about this:

      There are two mysterious books of pithy, paradoxical wisdom underpinning them all: the “Daodejing” (or “Tao Te Ching” in the old Wade-Giles spelling system), supposedly by Laozi (Master Lao), and the “Zhuangzi,” supposedly by Zhuangzi (Master Zhuang). Both books are probably collections put together over centuries, starting some time after 400 BCE. Laozi himself is probably a myth, and we’re not too sure about Zhuangzi.

      • Very nice, thanks. That’s my new draft paragraph.

        Perhaps I’m reaching too far for specificity here, especially given the scope of my article, but my sense from Fraser’s review is that scholars seem pretty confident that each book had a core text (not necessarily the Inner Chapters with Zhuangzi, perhaps chunks of each of the 3 divisions) that was pretty solid by about 220 BCE, and probably no earlier than 300 BCE. And that these core texts — which we are unable to clearly identify in our currrent version — were then added to for many years.

        Does that sound accurate? Thanks again.

        • Stephen C. Walker says:

          Mark – certainly some parts had to be written before other parts, and sometimes we see plain evidence of interpolations, allusions, and commentaries incorporated into the flow of the text as we have it. Hence we can separate out some bits of an anthology as in all probability later than other bits of the anthology, and some bits can be pinpointed as presupposing the existence of other texts outside the home anthology. But even this much is rarely possible with Laozi and Zhuangzi. Relying on linguistic clues, historical references, and so on gives us a very vague sense of date for most of the material.

          I don’t think many would disagree that those anthologies were primarily composed in the 4th and 3rd centuries. Some of the Zhuangzi material may have been composed in the 2nd, and people continued editing and altering the texts in various ways long afterward. The search for a “core text”, in those terms, probably represents the specter of the “original author” (Zhuang Zhou or Lao Dan) conception.

  5. Bill Haines says:

    Hi Mark – unfortunately, I’m really not the person to ask about this! For example, I haven’t read the review. Here’s another place to look: link to baopu81.wordpress.com

  6. This is the revised key paragraph I sent to my editor. Thank you all very much for your help!!

    “Daoism” can mean a lot of different things. There are two mysterious books of pithy, paradoxical wisdom underpinning them all: the “Daodejing” (or “Tao Te Ching” in the old Wade-Giles spelling system), attributed to Laozi (Lao Tzu, i.e. Master Lao), and the “Zhuangzi,” attributed to Zhuangzi (Chuang Tzu, or Master Zhuang). Both books are probably collections or anthologies composed primarily in the 4th and 3rd centuries BCE and modified many times over the centuries. Laozi himself is almost certainly a legendary figure, and we’re not too sure about Zhuangzi, either.

  7. Brian Griffith says:

    Thanks a lot Mark,
    We hear a lot about the Daoist path requiring openness, flexibility, etc., but your stories show vividly how much courage is involved.

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