Finding the Way is an audacious novel. It takes some courage to pen a fictional life of such a revered figure as Laozi. He is, after all, a much loved philosopher considered to be the founder of Taoism, and sometimes even worshipped as a deity (my wife’s family actually has a temple dedicated to him).
In telling the tale of Laozi’s life, author Wayne Ng didn’t have many concrete facts to work with; the historical records are scant and vague – so much so that some scholars have argued that Laozi as we know him did not exist and he is instead an invented amalgam of people from the time. However, if we take the Chinese historical records as accurate, then in the sixth century B.C., he worked in the Royal Archives of the court of the Zhou dynasty in the city of Chengzhou, and while there he and Confucius crossed paths. Ng says in a “Historical Note” at the start of the book: “It is conceivable that they met during the reign of King Jing (544-520 B.C), who supposedly had two sons, Prince Meng and Prince Chao, one of whom, according to the stories handed down, killed the other.”
Finding the Way has an effective framing device, which draws on the first century B.C. account in Sima Qian’s Records of the Grand Historian. You’ve probably seen the picture of an elderly Laozi riding a water buffalo. According to legend, near the end of his life, the weary, disillusioned sage, headed off to the west on such a creature, but was detained by a border guard at the Hangu Pass. The novel starts from this point, with Laozi recounting his life to the officer and a scribe taking the account down. This is a twist on the legend that the guard had Laozi write down his philosophy in what would become known as the Tao Te Ching (Dao De Jing).
In Ng’s novel we follow Laozi’s life from childhood. He’s the youngest of five siblings in a rural village during a harsh time of warfare and banditry as China’s ancient Zhou dynasty struggles for its survival. Laozi’s father and eldest brother are conscripted into the army, and Laozi is forced to flee when his village is attacked. Decades later, when he has gained some intellectual renown as a scholar, he ends up overseeing the archives of the royal court of the Zhou. We are introduced to a pompous King, his deranged Queen, and twin princes Meng and Chao, who are engaged in a struggle to succeed their ailing father. Added to this volatile situation is the arrival of Confucius.
Philosophers are frustrating subjects for story-telling: they deflect questions with more questions; get bogged down in definitions and abstractions; point out the limits of language, perception and understanding; and they talk in riddles. Taoism seems especially challenging on this score. With an explanatory founding text that starts out with “The Tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao; The name that can be named is not the eternal name,” you know you’re going to have a hard time nailing things done. And the Taoist concept of wu wei (“non action”), which discourages involvement in human affairs, is hardly high-octane fuel for protagonists.
In one passage, Captain Yin, the border guard who has asked Laozi to recount his life’s story (and one which involves Yin’s grandfather), is perplexed by Laozi’s digression to describe the auctioning of a poor peasant girl.
“Old Master, please excuse my impertinence, but what does the farm girl have to do with the Way, or with my grandfather?”
Lao Tzu poured himself some freshly-boiled water.
“Everything and nothing.” He gently blew on his water. “The Way surrounded her as it does me. As it does all of us. The harmony of Nature flows freely. It is the very rhythm of life. This order allows us to act without action and to do without doing, ….”
Lao Tzu sensed Captain Yin’s confusion, and so he elaborated. “My good Captain, the Way is not a block of wood to be carved, nor is it a set of edicts from our rulers to be studied and practiced. Yet through it, all things are done. It is by how you live that you see and understand it. I had asked you if soldiering and war were acts of nature or human folly. Was this girl’s life, or even that of the King’s, fated and fixed? Were they part of the stream running with the wind, or were they logs thrown in to dam its flow?”
“Everything and nothing,” as an answer? Profound or just annoying? I never completely warmed to Ng’s Laozi, although he does come across as a believable character. This is not a hagiographic treatment of the sage, who is at turns presented as wise and gullible.
Confucius makes quite a late appearance in the novel – page 147 of 267 – and the two philosophers have less direct interaction than you might expect, which I think is a good choice on the author’s part. A battle of philosophies approach would have likely led to an overly wordy back and forth. This doesn’t happen; as the title of the novel suggests, the story is about Laozi finding the way.
The competing ideologies are in part played out by the rival princes, the struggles at court cleverly incorporated by Ng to add intrigue and spice to the story. Prince Meng is receptive to Laozi’s ideas of following nature, but the bold, aggressive Prince Chao prefers Confucius’ emphasis on duty, order, and stability, of subjects being obedient to their rulers. This sets things up for a deadly battle between the princes, and by extension between Taoism and Confucianism, the abstract philosophies given a harsh test in the cutthroat realpolitik of war and power struggles and neither found especially effective.
Finding the Way is well written, especially so for a debut novel. It’s an easy, enjoyable read, with memorable characters and good plotting. One minor complaint is a lack of chronological signposting. There are not enough markers indicating the passage of time. We jump years, even decades, with little indication.
Inevitably for a novel examining Taoism and Confucianism, there is a certain amount of exposition. I thought the balance was okay, though there were times when the dialogue was a little unnatural. The plot moves at a steady pace then changes gears, driving forward with speed and drama near the end, where we have a couple of tasty plot twists and a satisfying resolution.
Wayne Ng is a first-generation Canadian. He works as a school social worker in Ottawa. He’s currently writing a fictional novel on Sun Tzu (of The Art of War fame). To learn more about the author, visit his website, WayneNgWrites.com.