Taoism in Bits

Posted by Professor Paul Bowman

Professor Paul Bowman presented ‘Taoism in Bits’ as a Research Seminar in the School on 25 January and will again as part of a newly formed research cluster on 2 February, to welcome Chinese New Year 2017 and showcase the Chinese research specialisms of Cardiff University.

As I have researched and written a lot about martial arts over the past decade, I was invited to give a talk as part of a series of seminars designed to mark the Chinese new year and to signal the birth of a new China Research Cluster. Not having undertaken any new research on China or Chinese martial arts as such, I decided to reflect in this talk on the mid to late twentieth century explosion in the circulation of ideas connected with Taoism and Zen (Chan) Buddhism in Western popular culture.

Reflecting on the form and content of these ideas, my argument is that the introduction of ostensibly Chinese and Japanese philosophical notions into Western contexts and consciousnesses was never a simple act of transparent cross-cultural communication, from East to West. Rather, it always involved huge imaginative leaps and complex processes of projection, translation and transformation.

With reference to prominent examples such as the hippy counterculture, the films and writings of Bruce Lee, the TV series Kung Fu, and others, my argument is that Western popular cultural encounters with ideas, ideals and conceptual universes like those of Taoism were always ‘in bits’.

However, if this sounds like a bad thing, the rest of my argument is that this is not a negative or bad thing, and that, in fact, thinking about the ways in which ideas and practices travel and how they transform, over time and place, across cultures and within cultures, can teach us a great deal about how culture and communication always ‘work’ – or don’t, and what we might make of such fragmentation and complexity.

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