John Muir and the Soft Power of Taoism

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Two days ago, during the evening walk with my friend, Tony, we discussed the effect of Taoism on our society. Tony came from mainland China. He became a Christian while he was a graduate student studying in the American Midwest. He is a great admirer if American culture and Western civilization. Like many Chinese Christians in this country, he also has great disdain for China and Chinese culture.

First, some background. Traditionally, China has two major schools of thought — Confucianism and Taoism. Confucianism is yang — it is active, explicit and dominant. Taoism, on the other hand, is yin — it is passive, implicit and submissive. Tony likes Taoism more than Confucianism. But he considers Taoism’s impact on society as insignificant because, historically speaking, China’s ruling elite were Confucians and they had the ear of the emperor. The Taoists tend to be the artists, poets and hermits. They were the “Hippies” of old China. They have never had real power to influence government policy.

But I disagree with Tony’s view. The power of Taoism is subtle. But it is definitely there. Today, we may consider Taoist power as “soft power.” Just yesterday, I looked up the history of America’s national parks, as I was celebrating John Muir’s birthday. Muir is often known as the father of our national parks. As it turned out, Muir was heavily influenced by the Transcendentalists, especially Thoreau and Emerson. Muir even called himself a disciple of Thoreau. Now, if we look into the intellectual roots of Transcendentalism, then we will discover unmistakable Eastern influences. Professor David Simpson of DePaul University examined the possible origin of Emerson’s and Thoreau’s ideas. He mentioned Orientalism and mysticism as one of the sources. He wrote on his homepage the following:

Emerson owned an extensive library of Oriental literature in translation and was well versed in the texts and sacred writings of Hinduism (the Vedas and Upanishads), Buddhism, Confucianism, and Islam. Thoreau was introduced to Oriental religion and literature at Harvard and maintained an avid interest in Eastern spiritual lore throughout his life.

As a Chinese who grew up in Hong Kong, I know very well that Taoism never influences society through the emperor’s edicts or brute force. Rather, it enters the public’s consciousness through literature, philosophy, poetry and songs. It is quite likely that John Muir’s theology of nature is inspired by his reading of Oriental scriptures. One author, Raymond Barnett, even called Muir the accidental Taoist.

While the West’s influence on the world is through mainstream ideologies and government policies, the East’s influence on the West is through subtle and soft power. The West’s environmentalist and conservation movement is at least partially inspired by Eastern philosophy and spirituality. This is by no means trivial or insignificant.

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