RLST 20, Vered Arnon
The novel Seven Taoist Masters is a Chinese folk novel serving as a teaching tool about Taoism. This dramatic novel follows a number of characters, all connected by one main figure. The progression of events following the experiences of the characters describes the training one must undergo to become a Taoist master, and through that illustrates what Taoism itself is and what its important tenets are. Furthermore, this text is presented in such a fashion that it is easy to understand and appeals readily to the general population. The purpose is to explain, defend, and popularise the Taoist teachings.
The novel begins by narrating the story of the main character, Wang Tieh-hsin. Following him and his experiences, the novel ends up covering the stories of seven other people. As a dramatic novel, it is full of dialogue and character development, plot twists, suspense, and description. The simple story is that of Wang Tieh-Hsin becoming a great Taoist Master, and his disciples eventually becoming enlightened as well. The story tells how this happened, with Taoist lessons hidden all throughout the text within the plot twists and the suspense. For example, in the first chapter, the novel is opened with a story about Mother Wang and her self-serving “charity”. When she turns away the immortals who are disguised as beggars they tell her, “‘If your compassion and charity are sincere, you will give without expecting anything in return. If you expect to get something out of what you give, then it is not true charity. All this time your charitable deeds have been either a show for others to see or an investment in the hope of obtaining long life and prosperity (p2).” Here, the Taoist teaching is woven right into the story’s dialogue. The reader can be taught without even being aware of it.
The central message of this text is the message of the Tao itself. One becomes enlightened and immortal through the processes outlined in the story. It seems to be about several specific individuals, when in fact the emphasis is on their experiences instead of on the characters as literary figures. Their response to experiences, and the lessons they learn, are a guide for how to follow the Tao. Periodically, in the narrative, large sections are devoted to description of Taoist methods, principles and doctrines. Things are repeatedly explained to characters, especially the basic teachings and methods. Wang Ch’ung-yang frequently lectures his disciples, and the content of each lecture is an important lesson for the reader as well as the characters in the story. For instance, on page 74, he says, “Today I shall expound the meaning of stillness.” There are many similar passages throughout the text. In all his explanations lies the message of the Tao.
The way in which the novel is structured makes it a successful teaching tool. The story focuses on a number of characters, instead of one individual. This prevents the reader from becoming attached to the development of one character, encouraging the reader instead to be aware of the Taoist teachings. Taoist teaching is brought alive and repeatedly displayed to the reader with dramatic flourish as well as substantive depth. In places such as chapter ten, where Wang Ch’ung-yang describes the three vehicles of the Taoist path to Sun Pu-erh, this description is really for the benefit of the reader. The novel’s teachings are disguised as part of the story’s development. This teaching method exposes the reader to the Taoist doctrines and explains the Taoist principles in a natural way, without raising suspicion or opposition from the reader.
This text was most likely written for the general population at large. Basic literacy would be essential in order to read the work, but no prior knowledge of Taoism is needed to understand the teachings in the text. Everything is explained very clearly, and in layman’s terms. In chapter eight, Wang Ch’ung-yang instructs Ma Tan-yang in the nature of attaining the Tao. He tells his disciple, “If you are able to do this, then the problems will never arise. Your heart will be like the spring wind. Your mind will be bright as the moon in a clear sky. Your heart will be open like the wide plains, and your being will be as still and rooted as the mountains. The internal energy will circulate through your body. Without realizing it, you will have attained the Tao (p47).” This passage may seem complex and full of deep symbolism, but the gentle poetry enables the reader to understand the principles intuitively, instead of needing to define technical terms. The Taoist symbolism is elaborated on and illustrated throughout the book. By building on poetic descriptions, the novel gradually reveals deeper aspects of Taoist teachings. The reader can progress smoothly from little or no knowledge of Taoism at all, to a deeper understanding of the crucial tenets.
The novel does not stress the social status of the characters. They are all just people with vague backgrounds. This fact also supports the likelihood that the text was written for the general population. The characters are easy for the common person to relate to, because there is no gap of social class to alienate their experience and prevent the reader from immediately identifying and sympathising with them. Charting the progress of simple individuals as they follow the Tao shows the reader how to follow the same path.
This work is very successful, creating and achieving exactly what it intends. It educates the reader while providing popular engaging entertainment. The Taoist path is explained to the reader with beautiful clarity in a way that is easy to understand and relate to. The reader is led along the path of the Tao, through the experiences of seven different individuals, and thus shown how they too can follow the Way. As the Tao itself is complex and multi-layered, the novel Seven Taoist Masters is at once a beautiful folk novel, as well as a gentle bearer of deeper teachings for the general population.