issue 15
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The Tao of the West

Western Transformations of Taoist Thought
JJ Clarke
Routledge, 2000, $19.95/£13.99 p/b

JJ Clarke’s books on the encounter of Asian and Western thought (notably Oriental Enlightenment: the Encounter of Asian and European Thought) have made him one of the leading interpreters of this cultural meeting (though, as his twenty-five page bibliography shows he is scarcely alone). The West’s encounter with Buddhism has received most attention, and while serious, committed practice of Buddhism has been established in the West, that of Taoism has not. But Clarke shows that Taoist influences have entered Western life in many ways: from the vogues for Chinese landscape gardening, watercolours, and feng shui to the popularisation of T'ai Chi and sexual yoga. And the elliptical ethics and metaphysics of the Taoist classics have produced popular interest and comparisons with post-modernism.

Clarke is a reliable guide to the ensuing debates, and he refuses either to define Taoist insights in the terms of their Western analogues, or to render them wholly alien. Indeed, he is so scrupulous that it is not always clear what he does think. Perhaps his strength is as an intellectual historian rather than an interpreter. He convincingly suggests that Taoist influences on the West have been considerably stronger than is usually realised, and that they are set to grow.