The Pristine Dao

Metaphysics in Early Daoist Discourse

By Thomas Michael

Subjects: Taoism, Asian Studies, Asian Religion And Philosophy, Philosophy
Series: SUNY series in Chinese Philosophy and Culture
Paperback : 9780791464762, 182 pages, May 2005
Hardcover : 9780791464755, 182 pages, May 2005

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Table of contents

Note on the Texts

1. Early Daoism and Metaphysics
2. Early Daoism and Cosmogony


Before the World
The Xicizhuan: An Alternative Cosmogony of the Confucian Tradition
Abyssal Waters
Placental Waters


3. Early Daoism and Cosmology


The Harmonious World
Was There an Early Daoist Cosmology before the Laozi?
The Hidden Sage Is Not a Public King
Why Politics and Religion Don’t Mix; or Do They?
The World Was Born, Not Made
Sages Live the Adventure


4. Early Daoism and Ontology


The Fractured World
Splitting Binary Differences: The Ontological Vision of the Laozi
Human Labor Gets a Turn: The Ontological Vision of the Qiwulun


5. Early Daoism and Soteriology


The Healed World
The Neiye Describes the Body as Jing
The Laozi Describes the Newborn Body
The Zhuangzi Describes the Body as Heaven
The Huainanzi Describes the Correlative Body


6. Early Daoism and Modernity

A new reading of Daoism, arguing that it originated in a particular textual tradition distinct from Confucianism and other philosophical traditions of early China.


The Laozi (Daodejing) and the Zhuangzi have long been familiar to Western readers and have served as basic sources of knowledge about early Chinese Daoism. Modern translations and studies of these works have encouraged a perception of Daoism as a mystical philosophy heavy with political implications that advises kings to become one with the Dao. Breaking with this standard approach, The Pristine Dao argues that the Laozi and the Zhuangzi participated in a much wider tradition of metaphysical discourse that included a larger corpus of early Chinese writings.

This book demonstrates that early Daoist discourse possessed a distinct, textually constituted coherence and a religious sensibility that starkly differed from the intellectual background of all other traditions of early China, including Confucianism. The author argues that this discourse is best analyzed through its emergence from the mythological imagination of early China, and that it was unified by a set of notions about the Dao that was shared by all of its participants. The author introduces certain categories from the Western religious and philosophical traditions in order to bring out the distinctive qualities constituting this discourse and to encourage its comparison with other religious and philosophical traditions.

Thomas Michael is Assistant Professor of Religion at The George Washington University.