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De Weg Terug – Jan de Meyer (2022)

Jan de Meyer (1961-) is a Flemish sinologist (scholar of Chinese studies) who wrote several books and translated traditional texts. Some of his work is in English, most is in Dutch. This is one such Dutch title. Earlier I read Wat Kan Ik Leren Van De Taoïsten? (‘What can I learn of the Taoists?’) (2020). This is also a Dutch title, perhaps that was the reason I did not review it.

The title of the present book translates to ‘The way back’. It is about “Chinese hermits and Daoism”. Where the other title (‘what can I learn’) presents translations of classic, Chinese texts (with elucidations) about a list of subjects, ‘the way back’ is an in depth study into the subject of Chinese hermitage.

Early in the book De Meyer explains that Chinese hermitage is not quite the same as people retreating into a cloister. The book is mostly about people who have retreated to inhabitable areas, often mountains, to stay away from normal life. Some of these hermits also studied Confucianism, Taoism, or both. Some made a name of being wise. Then the irony occurs that some of these people fled the dangers of society (China has a violent past), when at the same time they are approached for public functions. The book seems to say that in ancient China you either worked for the government or you retreated from public life.

Spanning centuries upon centuries, De Meyer presents a long list of hermits, some (relatively) famous, some translated into a Western language for the first time. You encounter Taoism, some Confucianism, Chinese culture and politics and of course the life of the (un)common man and woman.

Just as in the other book, De Meyer has a very easy-to-read writing style with humour and obviously a massive knowledge about his subject. A book about people living in mountains may seem a bit dull, but ‘the way back’ is a very nice book about old and not-so-old Chinese culture.

2022 Athenaeum, isbn 9789025313029

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