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Monday, January 19, 2015

GUEST POST: A Casual Fish Fry; Taoism in The Unhewn Throne Series by Brian Staveley

"Govern a nation as you would fry a small fish."

This admonition opens the sixtieth verse of the Tao Te Ching, one of Taoism’s foundational texts. Many readers have identified the Buddhist influence on my books, particularly in the world of the Shin monks; the Taoist influence, on the other hand, generally goes overlooked, even though it’s arguably more important.

The nation/fish passage strikes me as just the sort of impenetrable pronouncement that Kaden is always trying to puzzle through; Shin lore is filled with aphorisms like this. My students used to argue over this tiny passage endlessly (the fact that there are dozens of conflicting translations doesn’t help). The crucial question, of course, is simple: How exactly does one fry a small fish? Carefully and watchfully, because the fish is so delicate? Or casually, almost indifferently? After all, it’s only a small fish, not some great feast.

I’d go with the latter interpretation. The Tao Te Ching is filled with exhortations to do less, to act less, to think less. The crucial notion of wu-wei (non-action) permeates the text. Here, for instance, is verse eleven in its entirety: 

Wu is nothingness, emptiness, non-existence

Thirty spokes of a wheel all join at a common hub 
   yet only the hole at the center 
   allows the wheel to spin 

Clay is molded to form a cup 
   yet only the space within 
   allows the cup to hold water 

Walls are joined to make a room 
   Yet only by cutting out a door and a window 
   Can one enter and live there 

Thus, when a thing has existence alone 
   It is mere dead-weight 
   Only when it has wu, does it have life 

 (Trans. Jonathan Star)

The ideas here might sound familiar to people who have read The Emperor’s Blades. Near the start of the book, Kaden questions the value of emptiness. Heng, his mentor at the time, responds as follows:

 "He laughed out loud at the challenge, and then, smiling genially, replaced his pupil’s bowl and mug with two stones. Each day Kaden stood in the refectory line only to have the monk serving the food ladle his soup over the shapeless lump of granite."

 "Sometimes a chunk of lamb or carrot balanced miraculously on top. More often, he was forced to watch in famished agony as the thick broth ran off the stone and back into the serving pot. When the monks filled their own mugs with deep drafts of cold water, Kaden could only splash the stone and then lick it off, the quartz rough against his tongue."

Of course, the Shin monks aren’t Taoist any more than they’re Buddhist. The nature of their study departs from both, and there isn’t quite a corollary in either real-world philosophy to the inscrutable figure of the Blank God. The Shin have more troubling origins and, at least in some cases, goals that diverge sharply from the religious or philosophical. And yet, they might not exist at all if I’d never read the Tao Te Ching.

Official Author Website
Order The Providence Of Fire HERE
Read Fantasy Book Critic's review of The Emperor's Blades

AUTHOR INFORMATION: Brian Staveley is a teacher and writer. He has taught literature, religion, history, and philosophy, all subjects that influence his writing, and holds an MA in Creative Writing from Boston University. He works as an editor for Antilever Press, and has published poetry and essays, both in print and on-line. He lives in Vermont with his wife and young son, and divides his time between running trails, splitting wood, writing, and baby-wrangling.



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