What We Are Reading Today: Early Chinese Mysticism by Livia Kohn

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Updated 08 October 2020

What We Are Reading Today: Early Chinese Mysticism by Livia Kohn

Did Chinese mysticism vanish after its first appearance in ancient Taoist philosophy, to surface only after a thousand years had passed, when the Chinese had adapted Buddhism to their own culture? 

This first integrated survey of the mystical dimension of Taoism disputes the commonly accepted idea of such a hiatus. Covering the period from the Daode jing to the end of the Tang, Livia Kohn reveals an often misunderstood Chinese mystical tradition that continued through the ages. Influenced by but ultimately independent of Buddhism, it took forms more various than the quietistic withdrawal of Laozi or the sudden enlightenment of the Chan Buddhists. 

On the basis of a new theoretical evaluation of mysticism, this study analyzes the relationship between philosophical and religious Taoism and between Buddhism and the native Chinese tradition. 

Kohn shows how the quietistic and socially oriented Daode jing was combined with the ecstatic and individualistic mysticism of the Zhuangzi, with immortality beliefs and practices, and with Buddhist insight meditation, mind analysis, and doctrines of karma and retribution. She goes on to demonstrate that Chinese mysticism, a complex synthesis by the late Six Dynasties, reached its zenith in the Tang, laying the foundations for later developments in the Song traditions of Inner Alchemy, Chan Buddhism, and Neo-Confucianism.


What We Are Reading Today: Gentlemen Revolutionaries by Tom Cutterham

Updated 20 October 2020

What We Are Reading Today: Gentlemen Revolutionaries by Tom Cutterham

In the years between the Revolutionary War and the drafting of the Constitution, American gentlemen—the merchants, lawyers, planters, and landowners who comprised the independent republic’s elite—worked hard to maintain their positions of power. Gentlemen Revolutionaries shows how their struggles over status, hierarchy, property, and control shaped the ideologies and institutions of the fledgling nation.

Tom Cutterham examines how, facing pressure from populist movements as well as the threat of foreign empires, these gentlemen argued among themselves to find new ways of justifying economic and political inequality in a republican society. At the heart of their ideology was a regime of property and contract rights derived from the norms of international commerce and 18th-century jurisprudence. But these gentlemen were not concerned with property alone. They also sought personal prestige and cultural preeminence. Cutterham describes how, painting the egalitarian freedom of the republic’s “lower sort” as dangerous licentiousness, they constructed a vision of proper social order around their own fantasies of power and justice.

 In pamphlets, speeches, letters, and poetry, they argued that the survival of the republican experiment in the US depended on the leadership of worthy gentlemen and the obedience of everyone else.

Lively and elegantly written, Gentlemen Revolutionaries demonstrates how these elites, far from giving up their attachment to gentility and privilege, recast the new republic in their own image.