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the complete review - philosophy / fiction

Master Incapable

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To purchase Master Incapable

Title: Master Incapable
Author: (unknown)
Genre: Non/fiction
Written: 887 (Eng. 2023)
Length: 133 pages
Original in: Chinese
Availability: Master Incapable - US
Master Incapable - UK
Master Incapable - Canada
from: Bookshop.org (US)
  • A Medieval Daoist on the Liberation of the Mind
  • Chinese title: 无能子
  • Translated and with an Introduction by Jan De Meyer
  • A translation by Catrina Siu, edited by John A. Rapp, appears in Rapp's Daoism and Anarchism (2012); De Meyer finds: "errors and imprecisions are frequent, the transcription of Chinese names is sloppy, and the annotation is feeble" here
  • This is a bilingual edition, with the original Chinese text facing the English translation
  • A volume in the Hsu-Tang Library of Classical Chinese Literature

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Our Assessment:

(--) : very well-presented edition of an interesting text

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
China Review Int'l* . (18:2) Fall/2011 Carine Defoort

(* review of Jan De Meyer's Dutch translation of the text, Wunengzi (Nietskunner) (2011))

  From the Reviews:
  • "Wunengzi appeals to the most fundamental in us that consists of a nameless and invisible vitality, which is best cultivated by a nonintentional way of living. Undeniably, the author of the Wunengzi identifies with Taoism, more specifically with the Laozi, Zhuangzi, and Liezi. This is obvious from his promotion of unmotivated action, non-intentionality, lacking desires, and spontaneity; his elaboration on the danger of terminology and forced language; and his use of imagery, such as water and the dark feminine. De Meyer distinguishes this philosophy from other types of Taoism that are more syncretic, liturgical, alchemical, or striving for immortality. (...) The chapters of the middle part clearly form a set, all named after a historical personality followed by shuo (about); they are not only more concrete than the previous part in their reference to a common lore of stories, but they also allow a bit more argumentative subtlety and variety, thanks to the portrayal of different positions in the dialogues." - Carine Defoort, China Review International

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Master Incapable is a Daoist work written by an author known only as 'Master Incapable' in 887, presented in three short books and thirty four chapters, compiled and arranged by a friend who also appended a Preface to the work. The Preface describes the writing of the book, in the household where Master Incapable had found refuge during the Huang Chao Rebellion, where: "During the daytime, he liked to lie in bed without sleeping. Lying there, he would fill a few sheets of paper with writing". The friend describes the resulting work:

For the most part, it consists of records of things transmitted or witnessed, and in some cases, conversations he once had with brothers and friends. Its purport is essentially to illuminate the principle of naturalness and explore the boundaries of human nature and the heavenly-ordained lifespan.
       As translator Jan De Meyer explains in his Introduction, although a late Tang work: "Master Incapable takes us straight back to the fountainhead of Daoist thought", as the collection does indeed go very much back to Daoist basics.
       The first chapter already presents where Master Incapable finds things went wrong with humans -- as made clear by its title: 'The Fault of the Sages'. He makes the case for humans being no different from (other) animals -- noting also that humans are wrong to think that they are something separate and apart, because of intellect and language: animals show intellect as well, and: "How do you know there is no language among them ?" In earliest times, before humans became distinct thanks to their intellect becoming more rampant, all creatures lives simply and naturally:
They depended on their spontaneous nature and followed their natural authenticity; they were neither controlled nor governed. Simplicity and purity were the ordering principles, and this situation lasted for a long time.
       This is also the state he consider the ideal, and that humans should aspire to, while he criticizes the system that arose among humans, including the separation that occurred when: "Those whose intellect had grown most profusely selected one of their own to govern the masses", this division between ruler and subjects leading to a cascade of issues, including that:
We forced classification upon them, and since then there is honor and disgrace. The result is that now we have watered down authenticity and purity, and intensified cravings and desires, so that they harbor quarrelsome minds.
       Master Incapable notes that: "Naturalness is now for animals, and an absence of naturalness is for humans" -- and he argues for the superiority of naturalness, and that humans should tend that way again. As he explains in the following chapter: "What I call 'the foundation' is to make nonpurposive action the center", and 'nonpurposive action' (無為) -- a kind of stepped-back, laid-back go-with-the-flow attitude, rather than following ambition and the like -- is indeed central to his philosophy: quoting Daodejing, he notes that "Taking no purposive action implies that nothing will be left undone" -- and, as a corollary: "Taking action, on the other hand, implies that some things will be left undone". And, as he contrasts in his concluding section:
Nonpurposive action is our own choice, and cravings and desires are our own choice. Nonpurposive action leads to serenity, while cravings and desires lead to undertaking. Serenity leads to happiness, and undertakings lead to worrying.
       Rulers such as Yao and Shun who are free from intentionality are lauded -- not least also because they recognized their sons were unworthy to succeed them and so:
Each excluded his own son as he were a wart or a tumor, and let go of the empire as if it were snot or spit. because of this, the empire will think of them with affection even after ten thousand years.
       In 'Discourse on Song Yu', Qu Yuan, a chamberlain for the three royal clans, is concerned about the state of Chu being ill-governed, and he tries forcefully to convince the king to make certain changes, only to find himself expelled. Song Yu tries to explain how Yuan's purposive action was misguided: many things can not be changed, and it's foolish for one person to try: "you, Grand Master, must be very deluded indeed in your desire to order the entire state of Chu alone !" Song Yu also makes the case for moral steadfastness -- not least, in noting that: "Emptying one's mind and keeping purposive action at a distance is thoroughly understanding moral steadfastness".
       This episode is also amusing in its conclusion, as Yuan not only fails to embrace Song Yu's advice, he fails to understand it -- and Master Incapable sees only a quick end for him. In 'Discourse on Sun Deng' we meet another figure, Xi Kang, who goes to seek advice from a master, Sun Deng, but can't grasp it, leading an all-too purposive life. Sun Deng -- who believes, for example, that: "A gentleman of consummate virtue has an appearance of ignorance" -- can't help but be dismissive -- "How could you be worthy of my teachings ?" -- and this chapter and episode, too, comes to a neat, abrupt conclusion:
     Kang looked dazed, like someone just waking up from a drunken stupor. As expected, he was later executed.
       In 'Reply to Tong's Question', Master Incapable reminds Tong that: "The physical form and material things are the root of decay and decline", and obsessing over such things leads to misery. Master Incapable emphasizes acceptance of mortality; by doing so, one can move beyond it -- the 'liberation of the mind' of the subtitle that book is given here.
       Jan De Meyer's Introduction is helpful in introducing this: "important but relatively little-known Daoist text". Thorough footnotes, as well text-critical endnotes, are helpful, not least in noting the earlier Daoist texts Master Incapable relies on and quotes from, but also in explaining historical references -- though for those not familiar with the (extensive) history, philosophy, and literature it can be difficult to get more than a basic sense of all of it.
       Master Incapable itself is relatively accessible -- the short chapters help, as does their arrangement, ones with similar approaches collected together in each of the three parts -- and while some of the philosophy (and the tradition and history surrounding it) and the terminology that is used may be foreign to many readers, the basics are straightforward enough. Many of the chapters are brief essays or scenes, and they are quite well-formed and formulated -- and there is certainly enough variety over the short work that it is fairly easy for any reader to get through.
       This is a volume in the new Hsu-Tang Library of Classical Chinese Literature -- a series that, like the Loeb Classical Library, the Murty Classical Library of India, or the Library of Arabic Literature, presents the original text facing the English translation. The translation reads well, and both the foot- and end-notes explain some of the translation choices that have been made; of course, it is always nice to have the original text available for comparison.
       As readers will note, the Chinese is often far more concise here, but De Meyer's filling-out of the English generally reads well -- sometimes beautifully, as, appropriately enough, for:

You have a talent for literary ornamentation and embellishment, but you lack the workings of the dark and blurry.
       With its useful supporting material and annotations, as well as the original text, this volume presents an interesting -- and quite entertaining -- text very well. It is certainly scholarly-thorough, but is also readily accessible to interested readers

- M.A.Orthofer, 27 October 2023

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Master Incapable: Other books of interest under review:

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© 2023 the complete review

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