Mountain and Forest6 min read

The Tao of Ursula K. Le Guin  — Nick Stember


Memorably described by China Miéville as an ‘unflinching radical, literary colossus, comrade, a giant of modern letters,’  tributes to Ursula K. Le Guin’s legacy have come from far and wide — to list just a few, Stephen King, John Scalzi, Neil Gaiman, N.K. Jemison, Naomi Klein — with many more doubtless to come. While Margaret Atwood has (rightly) pointed out the prescience of Le Guin’s 1969 novel, The Left-Hand of Darkness, readers might be surprised to learn that this book was inspired in part by ancient Chinese thought.

Introduced to Laozi’s Tao de Jing (‘The Classic of the Way’) by her father, Le Guin eventually published an English ‘rendition’ (not, she was adamant, a translation, as she spoke no Chinese) as A Book about the Way and the Power of the Way. Based on the same 1898 Paul Carus translation ‘bound in yellow cloth and stamped with red and blue Chinese characters and designs’ passed down from her father, Le Guin’s take on the Tao was notable for its ungendered prose, mirroring the original Chinese text. As she writes in the introduction

Scholarly translations of the Tao Te Ching as a manual for rulers use a vocabulary that emphasizes the uniqueness of the Taoist “sage,” his masculinity, his authority. This language is perpetuated, and degraded, in most popular versions. I wanted a Book of the Way accessible to a present-day, unwise, unpowerful, and perhaps unmale reader, not seeking esoteric secrets, but listening for a voice that speaks to the soul. I would like that reader to see why people have loved the book for twenty-five hundred years.

In The Left-Hand of Darkness, meanwhile, the ice planet of Gethen is divided into two civilizations, Karhide and Orogreyn, each with their own cultural traditions and religious beliefs. The dominant religion in Karhide is Handdara, whose adherents, like Taoists, believe that balance must be preserved between light and dark:

Light is the left hand of darkness
And darkness the right hand of light.
Two are one, life and death, lying
Together like lovers in kemmer.

In both Handdara and Taoism (and by extension, Chan or Zen Buddhism) darkness is associated with the female principle of yin, and light with the male principle of yang. One cannot exist without the other, as life cannot exist without death. On Gethen however, gender is fluid, and individuals do not have a fixed sex apart from when they are in kemmer — something as alien to us as it is the protagonist, Genly Ai, who arrives on the planet as emissary from the Ekumen federation.

The book opens in media res, with Ai having already spent two years in Karhide attempting to convince the leaders of the country to join the Ekumen federation. Just before his long-awaited audience with the king of Karhide, however, Ai learns that Prime Minister Estraven, who has been advocating on the Ekumen’s behalf, is suspected of collusion with Orogreyn following the unsatisfactory conclusion of a border dispute negotiation. According to the rules of shifgrethor (similar to the li, or ‘rites’ of the Confucian tradition), Estraven is exiled from Karhide, destroying Ai’s hard-earned political capital.

Discouraged, Ai travels to a Handarrata fastness, or monastery, where, despite everything that has happened, it is prophesized that Gethen will join the Ekumen within five years. Shortly thereafter, Ai receives an official invitation from Orogreyn. Although Le Guin spends far less time explaining the tenants of Yomeshta, the state religion of Orogreyn, it is said to have developed from the foretellings of a single prophet, Meshe, suggesting a connection to Judeo-Christian monotheism. After further setbacks, Genly Ai comes to an appreciation of the Handarrata teachings as they apply to world (and people) of Gethen and is (spoiler alert) ultimately successful in his mission.

For science fiction fans, the fact that The Left-Hand of Darkness owes a debt of inspiration to Taoism is nothing new, of course. As early as 1974 Douglas Barbour was pointing out parallels in Le Guin’s earlier books in the Hainish cycle, and Le Guin herself said as much in  interviews. Perhaps more surprising is the fact that Le Guin’s last novel in the Hainish cycle, The Telling, was directly inspired by the Cultural Revolution:

I learned that Taoist religion, an ancient popular religion of vast complexity and a major element of Chinese culture, had been suppressed, wiped out, by Mao Tse-tung…In one generation, one psychopathic tyrant destroyed a tradition two thousand years old…And I knew nothing about it. The enormity of the event, and the enormity of my ignorance, left me stunned.

This ‘extinction of a religion as a deliberate political act in counterpoint to the suppression of political freedom’ as Le Guin memorably puts it, is told through the story of Sutty Dass, a refugee from a future Earth gripped by religious fundamentalism. Like Genly Ai, Dass is trained to act as an agent of the Ekumen federation. The planet she is sent to, Aka, has gone to the opposite extreme of the Earth — enforced secularism under a massive corporate state. The old ideographic script (essentially, Chinese characters) has been outlawed, along with traditional forms of music, poetry, dance, meditation, food, and medicine, all in the name of ‘The March to the Stars’ (a clear stand in for the Great Leap Forward).

Trained as an anthropologist, Dass is sent ‘on holiday’ in the countryside, where she is delighted to discover the old ways of ‘Mountain and Forest’ are still (surreptitiously) being practiced. Gradually, she pieces together the history of Aka, all the while evading her government minder, a pitch-perfect caricature of a communist cadre. In words borrowed straight from the PRC textbook of modern Chinese history, the nameless apparatchik warns Dass that, “These people are not picturesque relics of a time gone by…They are the dregs of a deadly poison — the drug that stupefied my people for ten thousand years.”

Eventually, Dass comes to realize that while the source of Aka’s woes are tied up in the post-colonial legacy of the planet, they are also rooted in a misunderstanding about the goals of the Ekumen, allowing her to make an impassioned case for the preservation of the old ways. While the portrayal of the monochromatic (dare I say, Mao-suited?) bureaucrats is perhaps unavoidably heavy-handed, Dass’s advocacy of ‘tit for tat’ diplomacy — scientific knowledge in exchange for religious and cultural freedoms — shows that Le Guin likely agreed (at least in spirit) with policy of rapprochement — trade in exchange for political reforms — that the US and other developed nations  applied to China following Nixon’s pivotal 1972 visit.

While events of the two decades since the publication of The Telling (in particular, mounting arrests of activists, artists, publishers, and lawyers under trumped up charges of ‘state subversion’) likely shook Le Guin’s faith in ‘tit for tat,’ one can’t help but wonder what the ‘prankster of the patriarchy’ would have made of the (largely state-sponsored) resurgence of spirituality in China.

If the fate of the Golden Mountain, Aka’s holiest site in The Telling, turned into a ‘Corporate Site for the worship of the God of Reason,’ is anything to go by, though, the answer: probably not much at all. ∎

Ursula K. Le Guin, The Left Hand of Darkness (Ace, 1969), A Book About the Way and the Power of the Way (Shambhala, 1998), The Telling (Harcourt, 2000). Photo by Adam Jones.