Trigger Warning: This Article Contains Chinese Loanwords
BEIJING – George Lucas’s multi-billion dollars STAR WARS franchise, now owned by the Disney Company, is going to be very popular in China, too. That’s because STAR WARS is basically a metaphor for Taoism.
STAR WARS is a space saga with aliens and superhumans. The latter are the so-called “Jedi knights” who mastered “the Force” and embark on the “Jedi’s Way.” Taoism is a 2500 years old cosmic Chinese philosophy about the Force (Qi), the Way (Dao), and about superhuman persons –the Junzi (or Daojun)- embarking on the Way of Tao.
Those who studied Taoism know about its fundamentals: In the beginning there was the Tao, then the Tao beget the two opposing forces: Yin and Yang. In STAR WARS we have the Force, which begets the two opposing forces: the Light Side and the Dark Side of the Force. The practitioners of the Way (or Tao) are heroes and antiheroes (called Jedi Masters and Sith Lords in STAR WARS). Both in STAR WARS and in Taoism, the practitioners can use powerful telekinesis and extend their life-spans considerably through self-cultivation and mediation (Shen-xiu). Both the Jedis in STAR WARS and the Daojun in Taoism practice Wu-wei –effortless action (sometimes translated as non-action). The hierarchies of practitioners in Taoism is this: First we have the superior gentleman (Junzi), then the Taoist gentleman (Daojun), followed by the Taoist sages (Shengren).
The highest level in Taoism, however, is the Xianren –Taoist immortals. In the STAR WARS franchise, Darth Vadar, Master Yoda, and the Emperor are in effect (Taoist) Xianren. You can see this when even after their mortal deaths, they appear as guiding spirits (Shen) to their followers. Obi-Wan Kenobi is depicted throughout the STAR WARS franchise as rising through the ranks of a talented Junzi to a noble Daojun (when he picks his first disciple, Anakin Skywalker) and then a Shengren (sage). His first disciple, Anakin, is lost to the Dark Side. As a sage, Obi-Wan Kenobi, gets a second chance and picks his second disciple, Luke Skywalker (who will later defeat his father, Anakin). When Obi-Wan chooses to be physically killed, he does so faithfully in knowing that the Force would grant him immortality (Xianren). Last, all the persons mentioned are practicing ancient forms of martial arts (Wu) and wear Taoist robes (Daofu). Laymen observers want to see in them “Buddhist monks”, but Buddhist shave their heads, while Taoists do not. The Jedi monks in STAR WARS, with exemption of natural boldness, do not shave their heads for the Force.
This all is NOT “new” discovery. On the contrary: EVERYONE who knows about Taoism and has seen STAR WARS knows these resemblances. George Lucas, who created the story in 1977, is not denying it. Taoist teachers all over the world use STAR WARS to explain Taoism. The internet is full of memes, such as ‘The Tao of Star Wars’ or ‘Tao Te Jedi’. Nor is cultural China the only one being ripped-off by more resourceful Americans in Hollywood. (For example, Disney had famously looted German folklore and Grimm’s Fairy Tales after WW2.) But with Chinese Taoism it is different: STAR WARS is not marketed as Eastern philosophy, let alone Chinese one. The idea that a billion dollar industry and franchise is Chinese philosophy in disguise? Unthinkable to most patriotic Americans!
The original STAR WARS staff in 1977 was all-white. Aliens stood in as substitute for the exotic Asians. According to the greatest promotion of any movie in the world history, and co-opted Western media, STAR WARS is expected to gross big time in China this Christmas. Consuming your own culture via US-American brands and processing of course is a bit like cultural cannibalism. But then, it is simultaneously intensively gratifying to hear that tens of millions of Americans and Europeans unknowingly have been turned into zealous Taoists.
Thorsten J. Pattberg (PhD, Peking University) is a German philosopher and critic.
Note: A version of this article was published (print edition) in China Daily on December 24, 2015, under the title ‘Star Wars is Taoism in American garb‘.
<–This is The East-West Dichotomy, published by China’s Foreign Language Press.
Unfortunately, you cannot buy the book because the only 2,000 existing copies were sold out in China in no time, sorry.
However, you can still find the East-West Dichotomy in major university libraries, including Harvard, Cambridge, Oxford, Princeton, Tokyo, and even Hawaii.
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