Opinion: A Response to Professor Paul Bowman’s “Taoism in Bits”


It was an inspiring seminar delivered by Professor Paul Bowman on a Wednesday afternoon (25 January, 2017), many thoughts emerged, and this post would like to articulate several points, as a response to his talk on “Taoism in Bits”.

Two central arguments were made in this talk. The first which I totally agree, that “Western popular cultural encounters with ideas, ideals and conceptual universes like those of Taoism were always in ‘bits’” Indeed, these bits can be seen everywhere, such as those quotes in pictures that social media users circulate online, a Yin Yang symbol on one’s t-shirt, or a tattoo on one’s arm. In comparison to its depth of philosophy, literature and science that Daoism offers, these are all tiny little bits of an energy of thoughts. These bits, to some extent, are only materiality stuck within the time and space of our current consumer society.

Professor Bowman further argued, that perhaps we should treat such fragmentary cultural translation from the East to the West as a positive phenomenon, because it allows new possibilities of interpretation of this concept, where they may rise new engagements or embodiments of Dao in different contexts. At the same time, these bits through translation may be able to intrigue us to think about the complexity of a certain concept’s trans-cultural process.

This is where I would hesitate, to celebrate so quickly about the fragmentary translation or the “liberation” of Dao. First of all, the problematic of an incomplete translation is not based on cultural differences. In our everyday life, many things are mistranslated. It’s only because the term ‘Dao’ stands out to be a ‘Eastern concept’ that such incomplete translation becomes more mysterious. In fact, I would argue, such case is not different from other mythologies that we see around us. Could we perhaps focus on the questions around interpretation rather than ‘East and West’? If we focus too much on the latter, our thinking could indeed keep us away from inquiring into the fundament of a problematic. This problematic, in my view, is not necessarily the cultural gap of East and West. While Professor Bowman argued that these bits of Daoim in Western popular culture are here to invite us to think about the complexity of cultural translation; it seems, however, ‘in bits’ is the very opposite of complexity. If an original concept or idea has been translated into something fragmentarily, how could it even make this process complex?  Isn’t this only a simplistic manner, rather than a process that pays attention to specificities and details during the translation?

Is it because there is nothing we can do with the wide spread of many bits of many things in our everyday life, that we can only give up on getting close to authenticity? Or rather, is it because we try to avoid to be accused as an essentialist, that we now give up the ambition in holding on to authenticity? The ‘authenticity’ I use here refers more toward genuineness and honesty rather than as an aesthetic quality. Interpretation, discourse (in a rhetorical sense) and integrity continue to be my long-life thinking passion. Professor Bowman’s popular topic has opened up an exciting space to trigger further debate and discussion. For certain, its public articulation next week as part of the newly established China Research Cluster Research Seminar Series at Cardiff University shall create a wider resonance.

Thanks to those ‘bits’ of Daoism in popular culture, at least we now have a common thing to engage with to tackle some rather complex questions.