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Chinese Missionaries Find a Niche in South Africa

(An SA Blog post in honor of the Chinese New Year.)

2500 years ago or thereabouts, the great Chinese philosopher Lao Tse decided to leave his homeland, and struck out for new parts. Before crossing out of China, however, he was accosted by a soldier, who told him he couldn’t just disappear – he had to leave something behind, for the Chinese to remember him by.

So, the story goes, Lao Tse left a piece of writing: the Tao Te Ching, or the Way of the Tao, which has since become one of the world’s great texts, and which has generated a number of religious offspring, most notably Taoism.

Now Lao Tse’s philosophy has been carried to South Africa by a new generation of immigrants from Taiwan, blown in at seeming random, along with so many other seeds of possibility since the country emerged from racist rule over a decade ago.

There is Taoism, though, and there is Taoism. There is a codified religion with dates and symbols and set rituals, and there is a smile, a shrug, and the words – “It’s difficult to name what is nameless, nothing.”

Chinese Taoists in South Africa tend toward the latter description of what they do here: they’re not “Taoists” like Christians are “Christians”, but they do follow the teachings in the Tao Te Ching, and they are as determined as any Christian missionary to spread their take on enlightenment.

As Mr. Hung-Shiang Harrison of Plattekloof puts it, they are here “to pioneer Tao”.

Mr. Harrison and his fellow missionaries run what they term “holy houses” out of their own homes, which dot the suburbs of Cape Town and Johannesburg. He estimates the number of “Tao pioneer” families in South Africa at over 100.

At Mr. Harrison’s and other holy houses, the object is to cultivate one’s true, inner nature – and in that way get closer to God. Saints and prophets from all religions are honored, but not worshipped; lamps are lit; tea is drunk; and the Tao is pursued. Just don’t pursue the Tao – it’s not possible to pursue nothing, remember. (Reminds Your Correspondent of the classic Zen koan, If you see the Buddha on the road, kill him!)

Since holy house services don’t follow a set schedule, you can’t simply show up for a dose of Taoism. But if you are predisposed to the Way of the Tao, don’t worry, the Way will find you.