By Sinan Farooqui
This colloquium “American Daoists in China: Cultural Appropriation or Soft Power”, hosted by the Center for the Study of Contemporary China, featured Professor David A. Palmer, an associate professor in the department of sociology and in the Institute for Humanities and Social Sciences of the University of Hong Kong.
Professor David A. Palmer
The talk was based on the newly released book, “Dream Trippers: Global Daoism and the Predicament of Modern Spirituality”, co-authored with Elijah Siegler, which provides a multi-sited ethnographic study of transnational encounters between American spiritual tourists and practitioners and the Chinese monks and hermits of the sacred Daoist peak of Huashan. Palmer begins by bringing up cultural appropriation, laughingly talking about the prevalence of the matter in the United States. He introduced to the audience a group of Americans who openly appropriate Chinese culture, bringing up Michael Winn, the individual who introduces Daoism to Americans and furthermore, arranges trips to China to visit Daoist mountains and monks.
Palmer took a brief break to interact with the audience in a hilarious manner, asking them to define Daoism, which he does so as the indigenous religion of China, which has several sacred mountains, such as Huashan peak near Xi’an. Palmer shows several video clips which he took during his field research, one of which depicts a Daoist wedding at the top of the mountain organized by Michael Winn, even though there is no such thing as a Daoist wedding in traditional literature. The wedding seemed to be carefully planned, talking about the union of Ying and Yang, alluding to the union of man and woman, heaven and earth at the top of the mountain.
Professor Palmer interacts with the students
Palmer then reveals the American perspectives regarding their activities. Michael Winn sees American daoists as the ambassadors of the Dao, reportedly saying, “When 40 foreigners come to cultivate at Qinkeping [a Daoist monastery], more than doubling the population of the Huashan valley, it shakes them [the Chinese daoists], and awakens them to the value of what they are doing”. The idea that the Americans are more acquainted with the Dao is common among the dream trippers, as evidenced by the following quotes: “The Chinese are more lost than the Americans”, “It us Americans that are going to preserve the Tao” and “China is not a society where this is going to bloom again, but in America you can do anything”.
After talking about the American Daoists, Palmer moves on to the Chinese monks (Quanzhen monks) and how they view the Americans. Many monks talked about the goddess of liberty, bringing up the Statue of Liberty which many monks believe to be a manifestation of a Daoist goddess, who spreads the spirit of liberty around the world. The main surviving opinion is that only the Chinese can understand the Dao. The foreigners who are knowledgeable about the Dao are deemed by the monks to have been Chinese in their past or future lives. As one of the monks told Palmer, on why only the Chinese understand the Dao, “The Chinese have a deep faith without a trace of suspicion…suspicion interferes with the power of the message, may distort it” [as opposed to westerners who ask skeptical questions]. Moreover, these monks feel as if the Americans do not care about the history of the Dao, or the genealogy of the masters. Moreover, Chinese monks believe that if you want to progress in the Dao, you need to follow morals and virtues, which Americans do not show.
Palmer also introduces another group of individuals known as the scholar practitioners, who are individuals who are specialists in Daoist literature, but also general practitioners of most Daoist techniques. Palmer talked about his colleague Komjathy, who is of the view that most of what goes by the name of Daoism in the West, especially though the internet, is starkly different to authentic Daoist literature.
In summation, the American Daoists are unapologetic about the ‘appropriation’ of the Daoist body, meditation and healing practices in the culture of American spiritual and sexual freedom, while on the other hand, Chinese officials see potential and challenge in using Daoism as a tool to wield soft power and Chinese monks use the Americans as a foil for discourses on the spiritual superiority or decline of their orthodox traditions.