Underwood - Bonzes and Taozers: Pound’s Apprehension of Buddhism and Taoism
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Bonzes and Taozers: Pound’s Apprehension of Buddhism and Taoism

Stained Glass by Reed Underwood Stained Glass


            Despite The Cantos’ unique position as an epic primarily about historiography, it’s undeniable that Pound strongly misreads historical data to advance his polemic points. This is particularly true in his understanding of Chinese history. A clear demonstration of this tendency is in Pound’s understanding of the historical and ideological disjunctions between the three major religions in China: Buddhism, Taoism and his beloved Confucianism. Pound repeatedly decries Buddhism and Taoism for their “timeless” and apolitical sensibilities, qualities he opposed to Confucianism’s religion of good government and self-ordering, seemingly without metaphysic. Yet, this has far more to do with Pound’s feelings on the opposition between Confucianism and Christianity, and Pound’s troubled perception of Western monotheism, than on the realities of Chinese religion, which was decidedly syncretic. This leads to a number of complications to Pound’s dichotomizing of Chinese belief, allowing certain Buddhist and Taoist elements to work their way into his thinking.


            Some of Pound’s comments on Taoism and Buddhism are simply derogatory. Throughout the Cantos he refers to them as “‘bonzes’ and ‘taozers’—slyly deprecating the mystic associations he sees the two religions sharing” (Gildersleeve, 193). He also calls Buddhism “Bhudmess” (Pound, 282) and “Bhud rot” (Pound, 717), showing disdain through casual punning and lax spelling. Moreover, these two terms signify disorder and uncleanness, presumably as opposed to Confucian principles of order and purity.


            Even in an early stage in his writing, Pound seemed to take a haughty view of Buddhist themes. In his earlier translations of Noh dramas, based on the notes of confirmed Buddhist Ernest Fenollosa, Pound was willing to let his sources retain their Buddhist symbolism and religious argument. But as time went on and his Confucian reading widened and his belief hardened until “in at least four of his versions of the No, religious references that are found in the original are either omitted or inadequately treated (Cheadle, 13). It should be noted, for later reference, that this process is mirrored in his excising of Christian themes from his translation of “The Seafarer”.


            The full flowering of Pound’s hostility toward Buddhism and Taoism comes in the context of the “China cantos”, a lengthy chronology of Chinese history composed with the principles of Confucian historiography in mind. In its discursive functions, the sequence serves as an attempt to show that China was successfully ruled when it followed Confucian principles, and that straying from them brings ruin and disorder.


            One of the primary ways China strayed, in Pound’s mind, from Confucian principles, is when Buddhist and Taoist practice was given a public or political platform. Phrases on the order of “Drove out the taozers and hochang” become something of a refrain, and are clearly a point of praise (hochang is another of Pound’s derogatory terms for Buddhists). Pound associates the religions with usury, a clear indicator that Pound doesn’t care for something, when the describes “Mandarins oppressing peasants to get back their grain loans/and his [a specific bad ruler] dictionary is, they say colored with hochang / interpretations and taozer…” (Pound, 298). Again, the language of contamination is used when Buddhist/Taoist interpretations “color” a dictionary. Along these lines, later in The Cantos Pound associates these religions with language degradation, decrying “these bhud-foes”, “…taoists/with their internal and external pills”, and “those who deform thought with iambics” (Pound 707). “Bhud-foes” is a pun on the French word for Buddhist, foeist, and the English foe, the redundancy of the English-French meanings meant to imply a redundancy between the English denotations of “bhud[ist]” and “foe”.


            Pound brings a very snide and dismissive rhetoric against two of the most significant religions in Chinese history. And the volume of these references is staggering, with dozens of potshots at the Eastern mystic tradition occurring in the text. One gets the impression that the defamation of Taoists and Buddhists is one of Pound’s primary purposes in writing the “China cantos.”



            Pound also “couples Buddhism with maternity and infantilism, with decadence and corruption, with emasculation in both the literal and figurative senses of the word” (Gildersleeve, 195). Gildersleeve’s point on literal emasculation is to be stressed; Pound frequently refers to “Hochang, eunuchs, and Taozers” (Pound, 302) within the same line. Pound sees these all as similar enough to list together repeatedly, and associates the passive repudiation of worldly experience represented in Taoism and Buddhism with a loss of manly virility. Moreover he sees this as a desecration of the active, self-assertive aspects of Confucian practice. Gildersleeve does interesting work with a line in Canto 54 reading “And now was a seepage of bhuddists” (Pound, 280).

The term ‘seepage, with all its connotations of sewage, “taints” the purer body of Confucianism with Buddhism. ‘Seepage may refer, as well, to blood, the ‘unclean’ monthly menses during which so many cultures—from ancient to present day—have segregated women. (Gildersleeve, 195)

This tracks with a strong discourse of physical and cultural contamination present in the “China cantos”.


            Why do Taoism and Buddhism draw so much of Pound’s ire? The problem may be best understood as having less to do with the nature of the two Eastern religions in and of themselves, and much more to do with Pound’s ongoing polemic against Christianity.


            Pound made numerous statements about the “similarity” between Buddhism and Christianity. Cheadle quotes Pound from the Introduction to Pound’s book of Noh translations saying “ascetic Buddhism and ascetic Christianity have about the same set of preachments” (Cheadle, 13). Gildersleeve connects this to Roland Barthes’ description of Occidental perception of Buddhism as “ and orientalized Christianity, with ‘nuns…monks….and…the faithful” (Gildersleeve, 198). Again, Pound opposes these religions to Confucianism, which he sees as alone in its assertion of “male activeness” against “feminine passivity”. This he ultimately connects to a slackening of attention on the supernatural in Confucianism, as opposed to the Christian “kingdom not of this world”, Taoist mysticism and Buddhist non-attachment. In Canto 74, from the Pisan section, makes the Confucian/Christian opposition clear saying “Yu has nothing pinned on Jehovah” (Pound, 460), citing a mythological Confucian king and the Latin name for God in a kind of contest.


            The thematic discourse of “The China cantos” also furthers this association, by linking Confucian resistance to Taoism and Buddhism with their resistance to later Christian colonials. “Xtians are disturbing good customs/seeking to uproot Kung’s laws/seeking to break up Kung’s teaching” (Pound, 334), Pound observes Christians was in the same sprit of disruption and corruption that he sees the Buddhists and Taoists, and with the same recourse to smug misspelling. Pound is most proud of Confucian history when it conspires to push out difference, like Lycurgus who “wanted to keep Sparta, Sparta…not a melting pot” (Pound, 641). Pound frames this as a matter of racial purity, of the “melting pot” versus “Sparta”. Cheadle describes this sentiment of Pound’s as that of a “Confucian-Fascist Empire”. To so radically de-and-re-contextualize the relationships between the major religions of Chinese history indicates Pound’s ideological engagement with that history rather than the detached, Confucian outlook he purports to have.


            It’s important to take stock of one of Pound’s major frames for the “China cantos”. Joseph-Anna-Marie de Moyria de Mailla was a French Jesuit missionary to China who learned Cantonese and Mandarin. He gained an astonishing level of prominence in the court, and was allowed to produce a French translation of a section of the Emperor’s royal history annals. It’s this twelve-volume translation, called “Histoire générale de la Chine", that Pound redacts and translates in his “China cantos”. Thus Pound’s writing is glimpsed through three lenses, all of which see Confucianism in a better light: first, that of Confucian historiography (as Confucians were the sources for the original history annals). Second, that of de Mailla’s own interpretation of the texts, which has its own prejudices toward Confucianism. And finally, Pound’s redaction, which has already been shown to have an ideological aim against China’s other religions. While Pound cannot be connected to all the anti-Buddhist/anti-Taoist sentiment in the “China cantos”, he did select freely from a rather large document to produce a work of some 79 pages, a work that is populated with and guided by the discourse of a kind of Orientalist polemic against Chrtistianity.



            The fact is, this all amounts to a strong misreading of Chinese history. Eastern religion often has a certain syncretism that gets lost on the West, with it’s crystallized and clearly delineated religious forms. For example, the Confucian emphasis on rites has its origin in the same agrarian, I-Ching religions that philosophical Taoism arose from. Taoism predates Confucianism in China, so Pound’s connection of it to foreignness and spoiling is preposterous. The word “Tao”, which Pound translated as “process”, sees frequent use in Confucian texts, and its impossible to believe there wouldn’t be connotative slippage between the uses in the two different traditions (Cheadle, 90-93).


            While Buddhism was indeed an immigrant to China, coming over the Himalaya from India, its history was heavily ingrained with that of Confucianism. Cheadle writes

According to the ‘China Cantos’…Confucianism remained ‘Confucianism’ for twenty-five hundred years by rejecting indigenous Taoism and foreign ‘importations’, Buddhism and Christianity. Pound’s opinion in this regard is too absolute; the very least that must be said is that the Neo-Confucian movement of the eleventh and twelfth centuries reshaped Confucianism by emphasizing its metaphysical aspects and that this was in response to the growing influence of Taoism and Buddhism among the Chinese. (Cheadle, 259)


The realities of Chinese history ultimately outstrip Pound’s attempt to use them to his own discursive purposes, that of intellectually buttressing his dream of a “Confucian-Fascist Empire.”


            This inability to contain the syncretic nature of eastern belief leads to Pound letting up on his embargo on other religious sentiments in his later writing. One of the best examples of this process is his return to the Noh in the “Pisan Cantos”. Taoist themes are given a new prominence. Pound frequently refers to “the way” and “the process”, as in the lines from Canto 74: “The wind is part of the process/The rain is part of the process” (Pound, 455). The duality of the yin and yang is present in the relation on “wind” to “rain”. The sense of oneness with nature that is so much a part of the Tao is recapitulated in the “Pisan Cantos”, as Pound becomes more involved with the smaller machinations of nature. The work smacks of the very non-attachment to earthly volition that Pound found so distasteful in Taoism. It’s as if the forced physical confinement of his situation in Pisa opened Pound to the poetic possibilities of renunciation.


            Gildersleeve explores how the “Pisan Cantos” are also complicated by the presence of the Buddhist deity Kuanon. She is a Buddhist goddess associated with love and compassion. Her later appearance in Pound is a holdover from his translations of the Noh, where she has a central role in the drama Tamura. Gildersleeve explains that many critics have read her presence in the Cantos as a figure for Aphrodite, but he goes on to argue that she has a self-sufficient role in Pound’s imagination as another manifestation of “the eternal feminine”. He even argued that the references to “the eyes” of the goddess that appear in Pound’s tent belong as much to Kuanon as to Aphrodite, with whom they’re usually associated (Gildersleeve, passim).


            Pound’s final published works bear even more comparison to Easten philosophies on non-attachment. Canto 116 reads as the very moment when Pound renounces the great desire of his life, to write his “paradiso”. He admits that he “cannot make it cohere” (Pound, 816), echoing a Buddhist belief in the ultimate failure of human work. He later affirms a Tao-like sensibility that “…it coheres all right/even if my notes do not cohere.” The unnamed “it” that Pound refers to in the poem is something like the unnamable Tao of the Tao Te Ching. These lines show an eternal macrocosm that contains a series of ephemeral microcosms, a system figured by the notes that will not cohere but which are contained within the coherent it. This is a symbol of impermanence within permanence that resonates well with Pound’s larger poetics.


            The brief note for Canto 120 is the high point of Taoist and Buddhist themes in Pound’s Cantos. He enjoins, “Do not move/Let the wind speak/that is paradise” (Pound, 822). Here even the most basic actions of “men in the world” are stripped away; and in renouncing movement and renouncing speech one attains Paradise: a basic formula of Buddhism’s renunciation of desire. Similarly, the wind is often used in connection with “the process” in the later Cantos, and allowing it to speak rather than the self connotes with the alignment of self-interest with the Tao, a concept as prominent in Confucianism as it is in Taoism. Moreover, this passage is framed by lines recalling the Christian acts of Confession: “I have tried to write Paradise”, and Contrition: “Let the Gods forgive what I/have made/Let those I love try to forgive/what I have made.”, as well as his Mediterranean paganism This scrap of a Canto therefore contains an ideogram for the refinement of his Confucian/Pagan beliefs in a non-attachment that he relates to Buddhism and Taoism, and to a degree, Christianity (although no such olive branch is extended to Judaism, as if one was expected).


            Late in life, Pound admitted that he’d been hasty about Taoism and Buddhism, and that there was more to them that he’d initially allowed. But his initial contempt for these groups of people he knew primarily through musty historical documents is still revealing of one of the many ambivalences in Pounds work. Despite his life long poetic commitment to accuracy, he consistently let his penchant for discourse get in the way of accurate representation. In painting Buddhists and Taoists with the same polemic brushes he used to color the Western tradition, Pound failed to perceive and depict anything accurate about these two traditions in the “China cantos”, and this strongly misrepresented a crucial element of Chinese history.


Cheadle, Mary Patterson. Ezra Pound’s Confucian Translations. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press, 1997.


Gildersleeve, Britton. “‘Enigma’ at the Heart of Paradise: Buddhism, Kuanon,, and the Feminine Ideogram in The Cantos.” Ezra Pound and China. Zhaoming Qian. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1999.


“Joseph-Anna-Marie de Moyria de Mailla.” Catholic Encyclopedia. 9 May 2008.


Pound, Ezra. The Cantos of Ezra Pound. New York: New Directions, 1996.


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