Chinese Philosophy in America:
How It Influenced Henry Thoreau

by Linda Brown Holt
Originally published in the Winter 2008 edition of the Qi Journal.
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The young man with the long, pleasant face and peculiar gait lumbered to the top of the cliff beside the towering pines. With an expression of deep calm, peace and satisfaction, his limpid eyes searched the great American wilderness spread before him.

[2]      He sat down beside a sparkling stream and plucked some purslane greens for lunch, scooping up pure water to slake his thirst. His coat was shabby, and he wore a tattered bag over one shoulder, but he had the poise and bearing of a man of culture, harmony and great wisdom. Wild animals approached him, suddenly docile. He smiled gently and reaching into his bag, removed a book, some medicinal herbs and a flute. Seated on a rock, he began to play.

[3]      Perhaps you know this man as Kwai Chang Caine, the fictional Chinese philosopher of the American West, whose journeys were depicted in the 1970s’ TV series, Kung Fu.  But I know him by another name, the real-life Daoist of the American East, whose adventures and convictions have made him a hero to all who value spirituality, individualism and wilderness. This man’s name is Henry David Thoreau.

[4]      If you have read Walden, "Civil Disobedience," or some of his unforgettable sayings, you know the basic life and teachings of this great American, who lived most of his life in and around Concord, Massachusetts. Why should we care about Thoreau in the 21st century? Thoreau is arguably the single most influential American writer in history in the development of the way we think about nature, conservation, wilderness, individualism, civil disobedience and challenging an unjust government. If these sound like traditional Chinese or specifically Daoist values, they are!

[5]      What many readers today do not know is that before he wrote and lectured on these topics, Thoreau was one of the first Westerners to study and absorb the teachings of the Chinese sages which were just beginning to appear in translation in European and American libraries. The scholar Kuo-chien Liang points out close parallels between Thoreau and the Daoist masters and presents evidence that the New England sage read Confucius more closely and carefully than did other writers in his circle.

[6]      This article attempts to show two streams of Chinese philosophy running through Thoreau’s life and work. First, there is the literary and philosophical influence of the Chinese classics. Second, there is the impact of living closely and observantly with nature, a practice dating back thousands of years among Chinese sages. While Thoreau did not knowingly or deliberately imitate these early conservationists of the East, he gained an almost identical understanding by independently following a similar lifestyle of simplicity, morality and compassion.

[7]      Henry Thoreau may have spent much of his life in the woods, but he was no country bumpkin. Just as the fictional Mr. Caine studied science, philosophy and medicine in one of the finest Shao Lin temples of China, Thoreau received a world-class education just 20 miles from his home. He graduated in the top half of his class (1837) at Harvard University where he mastered classical languages, literature, music, philosophy, religion and natural science.

[8]      While he didn’t lift a red-hot brazier between his bare arms as a graduation exercise, he did “leave the temple” with certain indelible images blazing in his mind. Those images were the words of the sages Confucius and Mencius whom he encountered in French and German translations in the university library and later in the personal library of his friend, mentor and commencement speaker, Ralph Waldo Emerson.

[9]      The earliest reference to Chinese thought in Thoreau’s writing can be found in his Journal entry for Aug. 22, 1838, when he was 21. These words come after several days of entries in which he laments the artificiality of organized religion. “How thrilling a noble sentiment in the oldest books, —  in Homer, the Zendavesta, or Confucius!” he writes enthusiastically. “It is a strain of music wafted down to us on the breeze of time, through the aisles of innumerable ages. By its very nobleness it is made near and audible to us.”

[10]      His passion for the Eastern wisdom tradition only increased with time. Thoreau’s English translations of excerpts from the Chinese Four Books were among the first articles to appear in the literary journal, The Dial, in 1843. His most popular books, Walden and A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers contain a number of direct quotations from the Chinese wisdom tradition.

[11]     Emerson, the author of "Nature," also lived in Concord and was one of the leaders (some say the founder) of the movement known as American Transcendentalism. This is a complex word for a simple concept, namely looking beyond forms and institutions into the heart of reality. New England’s Transcendentalists were for the most part intellectuals who greeted the natural world as a friend, not an enemy, and who enjoyed reading works of philosophy and religion outside the western tradition. Their circle included Bronson Alcott (Louisa May Alcott’s father and the founder of the adult education movement), Elizabeth Palmer Peabody (educator and publisher) and Margaret Fuller (pioneering feminist, author and editor).

[12]      But how did these American writers and visionaries learn about Chinese thought to begin with?  The scholar David T.Y. Ch’en points out that a number of Chinese classics had made their way into libraries such as Emerson’s in the first half of the 19th century. J.P.A. Rémusat was the author of two books relating to Chinese literature, L’Invariable Milieu (1817) and Iu-kiao-li (Two Fair Cousins) (1826), works which would have been known to educated Americans at that time. In addition, Jean-Pierre Guillaume Pauthier’s French translations of a number of Chinese manuscripts became widely available in the United States .

[13]      Pauthier wrote a book on Daoist ideas that was published in 1831 and his first Daoist translation, Le Ta Hio (The Great Learning), appeared in 1837. The Tao-te-king (Daodejing) appeared in 1838, while Les Livres sacres de l’Orient (Sacred Books of the East) was published in 1841 and republished the following year.

[14]      Thoreau had plenty of time to read and absorb Chinese literature before engaging on his experiment living beside Walden Pond from 1845 to 1847. In fact, he copied numerous excerpts from Chinese works in his Journal throughout his life.

[15]      While Thoreau appeared to prefer the translations of Pauthier, he also drew on other editions of Eastern literature also were circulating in New England at the time, including The Chinese Classical Work (The Four Books) of David Collie and The Works of Confucius of Joshua Marshman. Despite our 21st century impression that Chinese philosophy came to the West through Alan Watts or D.T. Suzuki only 50 or so years ago, scholars agree that many translations of Chinese seminal works were making the rounds at a much earlier time.

[16]      So what were these Chinese principles that H.D. Thoreau so cherished and lived in his own life? If you’ve read the Daodejing, the list will not contain any surprises.

Embracing simplicity. Thoreau was the “poster child” for simple living. In his late twenties, like a Daoist seeker, he built a plain hut by a pond at the edge of town and engaged in an experiment to scale down his needs and expenditures while sharpening his senses and understanding.

[17]      “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately,” he wrote in Walden, “to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.”

[18]      But living simply did not mean abandoning the pursuit of ideas. When Thoreau wasn’t howing beans or catching fish, he was reading the classics in Greek and Latin, and studying contemporary works in French, German and English. Certainly, translations of the Hindi scriptures and Chinese classics were among the works that influenced him the most, according to his Journal notes. As though following a Confucian ideal, his life was perfectly balanced between labor and intellectual development. In true Confucian spirit, he made time to attend to his family members who lived just slightly over a mile away in downtown Concord .

[19]   Reveling in paradox.  One of Thoreau’s most powerful essays is titled, “Life without Principle.” In fact, it is about living life with principles of the most natural and positive sort. But it wasn’t just an occasional paradoxical title that brought out the good-natured contrariness in this writer. In his essay, “Walking,” for example, he employs paradox again when he states that the fastest way to travel is to go on foot. Another example is, “The longer I have forgotten you, the more I remember you,” which he states in a letter. His writings are, in fact, filled with as much paradox as a collection of Ch’an (Zen) koans. His friend, Emerson, who was 14 years older than he, sometimes lamented that young Thoreau turned words and ideas on their head too often!

[20]   Seeing the divine in nature.  Thoreau was criticized by many for his disdain of church, but it was organized religion, “hell and brimstone” sermons and rigid “one size fits all” dogma that he deplored. For him, the Dao (though he did not call it that) was a constant presence and teacher that guided him throughout his life. “This divine reality is neither he nor she, above nor beyond, past nor future, but is now timelessly here,” writes Alan D. Hodder, author of Thoreau’s Ecstatic Witness. “Even more unusual is the mediating role performed by the senses. Not only is sensory experience affirmed, here the senses serve as the veritable channels of divine inspiration.” But Thoreau’s sensory world is not limited to the animal and vegetable kingdom. He wrote, “There is nothing inorganic,” praising rocks and stones much like a Ch’an Buddhist, seeing them as part of the grand process and cycle that is life.

[21]   Being equally at ease in the physical and mental worlds.  Despite his great learning, Thoreau was known for his manual dexterity. He was comfortable and at home in the physical world. He moved smoothly, fearlessly and effortlessly through life, like a taiji master. Considering how rare it was to have an elite university education in the 1830s, Thoreau’s enthusiasm for physical work and his ability to excel at carpentry, chopping wood, even shoveling dung, was all the more remarkable. Working in his father’s pencil factory, he developed a practical process for improving the lead in pencils. For a time, he was “handyman in residence” at the Emerson household, where he tended the garden and entertained the children by popping popcorn in the fireplace, performing magic tricks and even building and furnishing a dollhouse! Visitors still flock to the Emerson House in Concord where they can see Henry’s room at the top of the stairs (though much fancier than it was in his time) and some of the items he made for the family, such as a glove drawer handily located under a chair.

[22]   Cultivating balance.  Did Thoreau know about yin and yang? No matter: he lived it. Even during his two years on Walden Pond, where he led a contemplative existence, he also enjoyed the visits of neighbors and often sauntered into town to have dinner with family and friends. He craved the wild, but also yearned for and appreciated civilization. At the end of two years on the pond, he was ready to return to the village. Pond/village, wilderness/community: these are the pairs of opposites that underpin his philosophy and his life.

[23]   Freedom above all else.  Thoreau was the champion of freedom for all people and an anti-slavery activist. But he knew that true freedom begins in the heart of each individual. A person who is tied to a job he or she does not love is not free. More than a century before anyone said, “Do what you love, the money will follow,” Thoreau wrote, “You must get your living by loving.” Why squander our precious lives in quiet desperation when we can live fully and deliberately? Truly, this is freedom we can all embrace without abandoning our responsibilities and obligations.

[24]   Being true to self.  The sages of Chinese philosophy challenge each of us to be true to our authentic self, not to make compromises that will chisel away at our integrity. Thoreau gave up a teaching position rather than to have to inflict corporal punishment on students and may have lost the woman he loved rather than to accept her father’s religious views. Standing up for our inner truth may be painful, but at the end of the day, we know we have not betrayed the Way and its power.

[25]   Bloom where you’re planted.  Thoreau was born in the small town of Concord , Mass., and lived and died there. Yet few have had his “big picture” vision of the wholeness of life and all things in balance. Like Laoji:

Chapter Forty-seven

The Daodejing
Without going outside, you may know the whole world.
Without looking through the window, you may see the ways of heaven.
The farther you go, the less you know.
Thus the sage knows without traveling;
He sees without looking;
He works without doing.

[26]      Thoreau wrote in his Journal, “It matters not where or how far you travel, the further commonly the worse, — but how much alive you are.”

[27]   Finding expression in art and music.  Surprising to many, Henry was an enthusiastic musician who frequently played the flute, whether at home or in the woods. He was a talented singer and dancer, who sang in the choir during the dedication of the Concord battle monument. Friends tell of him breaking into a graceful dance step or singing his favorite song, “Tom Bowling,” with power and great emotion at any opportunity. The story goes that he once belted out the tune while he was stuck in a cave beside a river bank, waiting for the rain to stop. “ The dampness seemed to be favorable to my voice,” he later wrote, no doubt with a twinkle in his eye.

[28]      Music was a large part of family life, with his sister Sophia playing the piano and his father also playing the flute. Less well known is Thoreau’s skill as a draftsman, possibly relating to his professional work as a surveyor. His Journals, which have been published in several editions, contain many intriguing pen-and-ink drawings, some of which contain universal symbols of spirituality and peace. Music and art, as they were to the Chinese sages, were inextricable elements in Thoreau’s experience of life.

[29]   Laughing at hypocrisy, resisting evil.  Thoreau’s writing is filled with humor and biting satire. People who attended his lectures often talked about laughing heartily at his many good-natured jabs at authority and cultural norms. But he took injustice seriously. He went to jail one night rather than pay a tax in support of slavery. At least once, he personally nursed a wounded fugitive slave and escorted him to the train station, helped him dodge the authorities who were looking for him and made sure he was safe on his way to Canada before Thoreau returned home. At risk to his personal safety, he lectured to standing-room-only crowds in support of the abolitionist John Brown. He was a man who lived and embodied his principles.

[30]   Keeping a low profile and doing one’s best work.  Zhuangzi writes that a twisted, homely tree lives longer than its beautiful cousins which are cut down to make valuable furnishings. Scholar Robert D. Richardson Jr. writes that Thoreau closed a chapter of Walden with a story by a Persian poet about the only tree that could be ”truly free, the cypress, because it produced nothing and thus was free of the cyclical and tyrannical process of getting and spending.” Thoreau was a plain, unassuming man, who didn’t seek glory and fame, only to live in harmony with the natural world and to produce good work, which he did painstakingly, with years of careful editing. His grave is marked by a small stone a few inches wide bearing only his first name, “Henry,” and yet he has positively influenced the lives of millions of people throughout the world.

[31]   Child-like, not childish.  To the three young children of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Thoreau was a favorite playmate and companion during his many visits and while he took care of the house in the master’s absence. Emerson’s son Edward wrote a delightful reminiscence about the man who was his inspiration, revealing to cynics and nay-sayers Thoreau’s true love of people, spontaneous sense of fun, his warmth and kindness. Children flocked to be with this young man who marched to the beat of a “different drummer,” to use his own famous phrase. Stories abound about his role as a trusted nature guide and friend to youngsters. For example, once a little girl — it may have been Louisa May Alcott or one of the Emerson daughters — was playing in the garden, and Thoreau said, “Wait! Look down here!” The girl looked in vain for anything of interest in the grass. “All I see is a cobweb,” she pouted. “Ah,” said Henry, “that isn’t a cobweb. That is a fairy’s lace handkerchief!”

[32]   Striving to become a shen.  In Chinese philosophy, seekers strive to become shen, a fully realized being. Thoreau believed that through personal discipline and cultivation, individuals could rise to a higher state of existence. “ I know of no more encouraging fact than the unquestionable ability of man to elevate his life by a conscious endeavor,” he wrote in Walden. Thoreau was an optimist who believed each of us could achieve a potential greater than we imagined. Yet he was modest and unassuming, preferring to write what was right, rather than what was profitable or would make him look important in other people’s eyes. “…the sage works without recognition,” wrote Laoji. “He achieves what has to be done without dwelling on it. He does not try to show his knowledge.”

[33]   Cherishing the present moment.  Like a Chinese Buddhist or Daoist master, Thoreau taught that we encounter the divine in the present moment, not the distant past or some unforeseeable future. “God himself culminates in the present moment,” he wrote, “and will never be more divine in the lapse of all the ages, and we are enabled to apprehend at all what is sublime and noble only by the perpetual instilling and drenching of the reality which surrounds us.” How like Ch’an master Lin-Chi who said, “What counts is this present moment — there’s nothing that requires a lot of time.”

[34]      I spent three long weekends in Concord this past summer and fall, retracing Thoreau’s footsteps and visiting the homes and libraries of the Transcendentalists. For one whose love of the Dao is filtered through a totally American consciousness, it was a kind of homecoming. I visited the parlors where he conversed with Emerson, the Alcotts and the novelist Nathaniel Hawthorne, and, at the Concord Museum, saw his flute and the modest contents of the hut he built and called home for two years. How amazing to reflect on the good this one man did, influencing conservationists John Muir and John Burroughs; inspiring millions to reverence nature and find their own individual paths to Truth; leading the fight against slavery and other forms of injustice. Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. both acknowledged their debt to Henry David Thoreau.

[35]      Most meaningful during my visit was the sunny morning spent in the woods beside Walden Pond, sitting on the forest floor among pine cones descended from trees Thoreau once knew intimately. I placed a stone on a small mountain of rocks left by visitors, and later, two miles away in town, added a pinecone to those that other admirers had placed reverently over his grave.

[36]      Gazing at the shimmering pond filled with laughing swimmers, someone took an apple from a backpack and sat on a tree stump, listening to the crickets and feeling kinship with the dragonflies whistling by. From a cloudless blue sky, the sun smiled its blessings on the earth. The silent observer wasn’t Mr. Caine, nor even the ghost of Henry Thoreau. It was everyone who loves the natural world that Thoreau wrote about after he had immersed himself in the heart of Eastern thought.

[37]      Truly, some lessons last forever.


Linda Brown Holt is an independent scholar in the field of comparative religious literature, and graduate faculty mentor and capstone coordinator with Thomas Edison State College.

Related link: Thoreau and Taoism, by David T.Y. Ch'en
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