First Int’l Summit on Laozi & Daoist Culture

Part II Daoism Conference East/West Divide

The First International Summit on Laozi and Daoist Culture held Nov. 5-7 at the China World Hotel in Beijing launched Daoism as an official native religion of China. More than 600 Daoist academics and clergy from all over the world attended or made presentations. The current entry is Part II, see November 30, 2009 entry, PRC Embraces Daoism, below for Part I .

In the Great Hall of the People, Beijing.

Following our luncheon at the Great Hall of the People we were shuttled back to the hotel for the beginning presentations. The conference was categorized into three groups: A, B & C. The "foreign group" for Western scholars was ascribed to Group B. We had instant translation via headsets for both Chinese and English presentations. As it was already late in the day, there were only two panels presenting and then a few moments to spare before a banquet in the evening.

Some notable presentations that afternoon were from Mary Bockover of Humboldt State who spoke on Desire in the DaoDeJing, Kimberly Powers, a doctoral student at the Ecole Pratique des Hautes Etudes on The Shamanic Influence on Early Daoism and Huang Zhi’an of the Chinese Taoist Association who spoke on Daoist Culture and Human Civilization in the 21st Century. The banquet afterwards was classical Chinese food, interspersed with a few speeches by conference organizers and most of us went off to bed as early as possible. I had a bath. My first real bath in China [since I moved here in 2008.]

Day 2 of our conference dawned. I woke early and looked out the hotel window to see… nothing. Smog? Dust storm? At nearly 6 am, downtown Beijing visibility was practically zero. I had heard that smog was a problem in Beijing, but the day before had been clear and sunny and cold. Today, the air was a sickly yellow and almost completely opaque. I had thought to practice Taiji outside before my morning presentation. I spied one lone Daoist in full dress strolling outside as day broke, but declined to risk it myself. Instead I went downstairs to the hotel gym and found a room to practice in. Afterwards, a delicious breakfast — the hotel’s food was fresh, amazing in its variety and had many Western appointments including silverware and coffee.

China World Hotel Dining Room

My panel, Daoist Conception of Body, Health and Medicine was presenting at 9:50 am. There were six of us and we each had about 15 minutes to present. Most had PowerPoints and the hotel’s tech gurus managed it all easily. Donald Davis of Old Dominion [whom I had met at the Wudangshan Daoism Conference this summer] moderated and Rey Tiquia of University of Melbourne, Australia opened. We had a lively panel with lots of humor. Tiquia cleverly mixed tongue-in-cheek with academic rigor and focused on whether the Dao has a physical ‘body.’ Next up, the keen-minded Deborah Sommer, from Gettysburg College, on Concepts of the Body in the Zhuang zi. Vincenzo di Ieso, president of the Taoist Association of Italy, presented thereafter new research on Daoist Qi gong with a demonstration of his abilities to read energy in a room and then I presented Xing Shen Zhuang Fa: A Daoyin to Liberate the Spine. Here is an excerpt:

…During the presentation…

This presentation gives a brief overview of xing shen zhuang fa形神庄法  , a rare Daoyin form seldom presented in public that seeks to open the body and the mind by stretching and releasing muscles, nerves and fascia along the spine. It is the only Daoyin form that focuses exclusively on the spine and the entire spinal column.


Xing shen zhuang fa opens and releases the spine through a series of slow, gentle movements that begin at the cervicals and finish with the tailbone. Regular practice of these standing postures has been known to strengthen internal organs, heal disease and clear subtle and physical obstructions in the spine and elsewhere.

The series of simple exercises also awakens sensitivity and promotes health, strength, flexibility, lightness and suppleness originating from the spine and extending to the limbs. The movements, like many Daoyin forms, are not strenuous and can be done by most anyone regardless of athletic ability.

The ultimate achievement from the xing shen zhuang practice however is song , that elusive state of total awareness and relaxation that is the key to Daoist longevity and ascension practices.

Donald Davis with microphone, me demonstrating one of the form’s movements.

The full academic paper was submitted to the conference and is to be published in a collection in the following months.

My presentation over, I sat down to listen to author and scholar Livia Kohn of Boston University speak on Daoist Body Cultivation and Behavioral Kinesiology and Healing Dao senior instructor and prolific Daoist alchemy author Michael Winn speaking on The Role of qi gong and Inner Alchemy in the West’s Emerging Science of Consciousness.

After Winn finished, I got a cup of tea and ran into several colleagues who complained they had been turned away from Conference room A where the Chinese scholars were giving their presentations. My colleagues are Western scholars, fluent in Mandarin and the others had headsets. We wondered why we were separated. I left my friends in the hall and plucked myself up and out and walked the short distance to Conference room A. Sure enough, two suited hotel staff with earphones and walkie talkies stood at the entrance of the glass doors and denied me entry. They pointed to my badge which says Group B [meaning I belong in Conference room B] and turned me away. I shrugged, puzzled. On my way back, I ran into Winn. Both of us former journalists, we didn’t take well to being herded. Winn suggested we instead try Conference room C–if we could sneak in–and see what was going on there.

Winn and I, headsets in hand, slipped into the back of room C. We sat down and listened as a very strident sounding woman spoke in Mandarin. After a second the translation in English began:

…The West thinks that China is telling lies…Why don’t they believe us? The West, when powerful it will invade. We have a lot of harmony. We have power and yet we do not attack. Religion is integrated in China. Our religions live in peace and harmony. But in the West they are not mixable and the religions contradict. They believe in religious conflict. We believe they are inclusive and can meld together. Also, some differences: in the West, people are evil there is original sin, into material things and are self-centered. They use forks and knives to cut their food. In the East, we believe people are good natured, we believe in the collective, we use chopsticks to eat our food. In the West, knowledge is power. In the East, we learn and be good natured with the idea that you are serving people. Knowledge is not equal to wisdom. Wisdom is coming from knowledge. In the West they believe in games: checks and balances, geographical and geopolitical boundaries. In the East, we believe in harmony, achieved through the distribution of power and using resources for harmonious living….

Wise Winn, he nodded off. Me, with my mouth agape, I took notes.

The experience in Conference room C set me to looking for the excerpts from Conference room A papers published in brief in the conference materials. Here is what I found, of those that were translated into English [errors in the original]…

  • The Interpretation of TaoTeChing in The Vision of Comparative Culture

  • Zheng Hailing, Institute of Comparative Culture and Translation, School of Foreign Language and Literature, BNU… Hegel’s misreading and misinterpretation for Confucius and Lao Tse works…highlighting the inevitable linguistic obstacles in the internationalization of Taoism. Language translation, which functions as one of the important means for cross-culture communications, inevitably result in some barriers.

  • [Title and Author in Mandarin only; excerpt in English]…Philosophy is the soul of a nation…However, since May the Fourth Movement, total Westernization has mislead China in to the mud of western philosophical ideas and thus the effort of nearly hundred years has turned into nothing. Based on Taoist ideas this article tries to clarify matters and get to the bottom of things and to lay a solid foundation for the revitalization of great Chinese civilization. The philosophic category and rhetoric the writer uses are fully that of western philosophy. This is what is called as ‘taking foreign advantages to control foreigners’ or cutting through his shield with his spear.

  • [No title] Gong Butan, School of Law, Wuhan University…In the process of cultural globalization, local culture is straightly facing the impact and pressure of western strong culture, which becomes the internal motivation of Chinese traditional culture’s rejuvenation. DaoDeJing is increasingly and broadly applied into many fields such as politics, business, science, etc. in contemporary China, as a newly emerging group in China’s market economy, Daoist businessman plays a main role as enterprise manager and carries a heavy duty of rejuvenating the traditional Daoist culture nowadays.

I first wrote about the differences between the West and the East and the divisions, barriers and challenges between our cultures and Daoism after my first Daoism conference in China at Wudangshan in June of 2009. That article was submitted to the Beijing Review and was due to run the week of November 2 — concurrent with this conference in Beijing. It was pulled at the last minute from publication as ‘unsuitable’ over the protestations of my editor who has published my work before. That article is posted in this blog under Dao Assembly: East Meets West in Mt. Wudang, November 21, 2009.

Part III on the Beijing conference where the organizers take over 100 foreign scholars on a wild bus trip through Henan province to see the ‘birthplace’ of Laozi and the Longmen Grottos, with pictures, will follow in a few days.


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