mr. sc. Milivoj Vodopija, review of “Lao Tzu” by Ksenija Premur

Ksenija Premur’s study Lao Tzu deals with the classic, perhaps in the overall cultural reach the most crucial topic of Chinese philosophy – Daoism. The author approaches Daoism by philosophical-literary and comparative methodology. The manuscript, as an extremely valuable contribution to our knowledge of classical Chinese philosophy, contains a biography – real and legendary – of Lao Tzu, an essay on transculturalism and the fundamental premises and origins of philosophical thought in Asia, a critical translation of Dao De Jing (Chapter 81), and perhaps most importantly of all, the original comments on each of these chapters. The translation was not done directly from Chinese (such an undertaking is available, in principle, only to large academic circles such as German and English), but on the basis of Russian, English and Slovenian translations.

The Chinese thinker Lao Tzu (6th century BC), a slightly older contemporary of Confucius, is credited with the authorship of Dao De Jing, a collection of chapters made up of 5,000 characters that, along with Confucianism, shapes the most fundamental direction of Chinese philosophical thought. The later centuries have shown, in fact, its advantage over Confucianism, and this is especially true in the context of the Western reception of the East, in which Dao De Jing occupies the most prominent place. Today, the universal notions of yin and yang originate from Daoism, and the Chinese book of wisdom (and prophecy) Yi Jing is connected with it, as well as the technique of harmonizing living space with the forces of heaven and earth – Feng Shui.

All of the above has penetrated the cultural mainstream of the West, which inevitably raises a number of questions about the Western reception of the cultural content of the East. All these phenomena, ultimately even yoga itself, were extracted from their organic milieu and transplanted into ours, the western one. What happens, what is transformed, what is added, and what is lost is the subject of anthropological studies of transculturalism. One of the phenomena, especially characteristic of the classics of Chinese philosophy, is the phenomenon of post-war publishing and the search for meaning. There are more pocket translations of Dao De Jing on the street stands of Zagreb and Belgrade small publishers than in London bookstores. War, demolition, and the earthquake of values ​​and beliefs, activate the search for meaning (Viktor Frankl – logotherapy!), and anxiety persists in the thought tissue of society. This phenomenon is well known in psychology as well as in cultural anthropology. Every crisis of society provokes the search for the occult, the oriental, the miraculous, the otherworldly. Thus, the classic work of Chinese philosophy, Lao Tzu’s Dao De Jing, was included in that offer.

It is important to emphasize that Ksenija Premur’s book is not a part of that trend, that fashionable orientalist mainstream. It is scientific and critical literature, original not only in the translation it contains, but also in the comments of Dao De Jing, written for the first time in our country. The comments are the soul and the real way of understanding all Eastern philosophies. We can freely say – from Judea onwards. The original work, be it Torah or Ji Ching, is often short, but centuries have enriched it with abundant chained comments that illuminate it, make it digestible, and connect it with human reality, the mental as well as the secular. The Rabbinic and the Mandarin traditions are more based on the commentary rather than the original.

Above all, commentaries are a bridge that spans the centuries, and are, therefore, important for the upkeep of every religious, philosophical and spiritual tradition. The commentary is what makes the original text, itself often cryptic and elusive, permanently relevant. The commentary reveals hermetic knowledge and messages. It resolves ambiguities. Without commentary, a bare translation of Dao De Jing would be just another crypto-mystical scripture intended for popular consumption of spirituality. Ksenija Premur transformed her decades-long study of Asian philosophies into the most precious interpretive form, and with it, she gave a critical and scientific character to this book as well. There is no doubt that for the Croatian academic, and orientalist community, this book represents a contribution worth incorporating into its already well-established tradition.

mr. sc. Milivoj Vodopija,
social anthropologist