Life Cultivation:

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The Chinese Theory and Practice for a Long Healthy Life

By You-Sheng Li

The Following is from the book, A New Interpretation of Chinese Taoist Philosophy. (You-Sheng Li, 2005)

Chapter 12    Life Cultivation

The Emperor of the Southern Sea was called Moment, and the Emperor of the Northern Sea was called Trice. The Emperor of the Middle Land was Murkiness. Moment and Trice often went to visit the Middle Land where Murkiness treated them well. Moment and Trice wanted to repay his virtue and said, “People all have the same seven holes in their heads to see, hear, eat, and breathe but Murkiness alone has none. Let’s see if we can help by boring some for him.” Every day they bored him a new hole but Murkiness died on the seventh day. (From Chuang Tzu Chapter 7)

(1): The Taoist Life Cultivation

As noted before, Taoism was the Chinese tradition since the ancient time. Around the government, a leisurely class was formed, and they adapted Taoism as their philosophy of life. Among them life cultivation became popular. Life cultivation serves not only to keep oneself healthy, but also to cultivate one’s spiritual life along lines of Taoist belief. Soul and body are equally important to them. Taoists believe that the mind and the body are one, and a mental state of Taoist serenity promotes a healthy body.

Yang Tzu, who is believed by some scholars to be Lao Tzu’s disciple, once said, “If someone wants to offer me the throne of the emperor, offer me the wealth of the whole world as an exchange for a tiny hair on my body, I will not give away my hair.” This has become the motto of life cultivators who emphasize the value of their bodies and their lives and who regard their body and life as the centre of the world.

Those life cultivators realized that it was impossible to break away completely from the secular world. They prepared a muddled mind to deal with others in the real world.

Lieh Tzu said, “A Taoist laughs at social convention, and eludes or adapts himself to them.”

Luu (?-235 BC) said, “Kings and lords of our world often because of their wealth look down on people of Tao. It is shame on them knowing nothing about Tao and truth. Thus it says: The real part of Tao is to cultivate life and health, the remaining minor part is to manage the country, and the worse part is to manage the world. Therefore the cause of emperors and kings is only a spare time affair to the sage, whose Tao is to cultivate life and preserve the body.”

Both Lao Tzu and Chuang Tzu expounded the philosophy of life cultivation and mentioned its practical techniques. Thus the founders of Taoism laid down the ground rules from which the Chinese science of life cultivation developed and formed a major part of Chinese traditional medicine.

“Your body and fame: which is dearer? Your body and your possessions: which is worth more? Achieving fame and losing one’s life: which is worse? It costs too much to love possessions too much. There is a great chance that great wealth will be lost. Contentment does not embarrass you. The one, who knows when to stop and does not go into danger, may long endure.”(Tao Te Ching, Chapter 44)

To Lao Tzu, a plain simple lifestyle promotes health and longevity. To further his point, Lao Tzu said in Chapter 56, “Do not let your cleverness smooth out your way. Close your mouth, ears, eyes and nose to cut off all temptation. Blunt your edge, simplify your life. Bathe in light when it is bright, and bathe in dust when it is dirty. Following the natural course, and you identify yourself with Tao. It is called abstruse sameness.” When you achieve the level of abstruse sameness, there is neither closeness nor distance, neither benefit nor harm, neither nobility nor debasement. There is also no life or death.

At the beginning of Chapter 10, Lao Tzu said, “Mustering the vitalities of your soul and embracing the One (Tao), can you keep your heart to the Tao and not let them separate? Concentrating on breathing and consummating gentleness, can you be like a newborn baby?” Modern interpreters think this is a description of Chi Kong, the breathing practice, a way of meditation based on breathing activities. There are many studies regarding Chi Kong and its therapeutic effects in recent Chinese medical literature. There is a specialized hospital where various Chi Kong techniques are applied to treat patients.

Chuang Tzu expounded the philosophy of life cultivation as a four step process: No dependence, no self, transformation, and forgetting each other.

No dependence means one does not expect anything, and does not rely on anything. It is freedom in Chuang Tzu’s term. In his first chapter, Effortless Wandering of Joy, Chuang Tzu described a huge bird called P’eng and compared it with a small bird or cicada. But to Chuang Tzu, neither P’eng nor cicada are free because they rely on the water, the trees, and suitable weather to fly. Only if one goes with the law of heaven and earth, follows the change of the weather, can he wander effortlessly in the endless universe. He is entirely independent.

When you sit there lost in nothingness in meditation, you reach such a state of mind: There is no self. No self is an ultimate goal of Taoist life cultivation. One not only has no self in meditation but also no self in real life. At such a level there is no border between oneself and the outside world. Seer and the seen become one. This is the transformation. Chuang Tzu said once he dreamed he was a butterfly knowing nothing about himself as Chuang Tzu, and woke up to be himself knowing nothing about the butterfly. This is what’s known as transformation. When the source runs dry and fish are stranded on dry ground, together they will breathe the moisture on one another and wet one another with their spit. But how much more would they enjoy forgetting each other in a river or a lake? Rather than praising the sage king and cursing the tyrant, it is better to forget them both and enter the flow of Tao.

Once we are in the ocean of Tao, we will forget each other, forget all the happiness and sorrow of the secular life, and enter into a state of enjoyable eternity. Chuang Tzu also mentioned meditation and breathing practices but in different terms. Sitting lost and heart fast are apparently types of meditation. Along the spine as a meridian is thought, by many, to be a special type of breathing practice called the little circled heaven. Taoist philosophy has a strong element of religion though neither Lao Tzu nor Chuang Tzu embraced the idea of physical immortality. Later there emerged a Chinese Taoist religion, which took immortality as the goal of their religious practice.

(2) Nature and Man are One

Nobel Prize winner Frank C.N. Yang gave a speech recently at the People’s Hall in Beijing, China, saying that, the concept of seeing nature and man as One was one of the reasons why science developed in the West but not in China. Both Confucians and Taoists believe in this big One theory. On the other hand, Taoists lived in nature, observed nature, and measured nature. Taoism was the only continuing force to promote the development of science in Chinese history. A Taoist temple is called Tao-Observation in Chinese, namely a place to observe nature. Early human beings lived in small groups surrounded by nature: trees, mountains, animals etc. Of course they saw themselves as part of nature. Only when cities developed where humans are surrounded by humans, has man had the sense of a human world separated from the natural world. Although seeing nature and man as One is regarded as an Oriental view, pre-Socratic Greek philosophers had similar ideas. For Example, Anaximander of Miletus in the mid-6th century BC postulated an infinite and ageless reality that must encompass all worlds. Psychologists believe that young infants do not know the separation of oneself from the surrounding world but see themselves and the world as one. It is a frightening experience to them when they first realize that they are physically separate from their surroundings. Adults often have a desire to return to that infant feeling where one’s self is only part of the large whole. But they also want independence. They repeat the psychological cycle over and over: hold me tight, put me down, and leave me alone.

In meditation, Taoists want to be lost in nature, and to be united with Oneness. Modern psychologists have identified some personality traits. One of them is spirituality or self-transcendence trait. It is consistent with and similar to the Taoist idea: Nature and man are One. Geneticist, Dean H. Hamer, and his colleagues at the National Cancer Institute USA recruited more than 1,000 men and women, who agreed to take a standardized, 240-question personality test called the Temperament and Character Inventory (TCI). Among the traits the TCI measures is one known as self-transcendence, which consists of three other traits: self-forgetfulness, or the ability to get entirely lost in an experience; transpersonal identification, or a feeling of connectedness to a larger universe; and mysticism, or an openness to things not literally provable.

Some of the questions are as follows:

1. I often feel so connected to the people around me that it is like there is no separation between us. True or false

2. I often do things to help protect animals and plants from extinction. True or false

3. I am fascinated by the many things in life that cannot be scientifically explained. True or false

4. Often I have unexpected flashes of insight or understanding while relaxing. True or false

5. I sometimes feel so connected to nature that everything seems to be part of one living organism. True or false

6. I seem to have a “sixth sense” that sometimes allows me to know what is going to happen. True or false

7. Sometimes I have felt like I was part of something with no limits or boundaries in time and space. True or false.

8. I am often called “absent-minded” because I get so wrapped up in what I am doing that I lose track of everything else. True or false

9. I often feel a strong sense of unity with all the things around me. True or false

10. Even after thinking a long time, I have learned to trust my feelings more than my logical reasons. True or false

11. I often feel a strong spiritual or emotional connection with all the people around me. True or false

12. Often when I am concentrating on something, I lose awareness of the passage of time. True or false

13. I have made real personal sacrifices in order to make the world a better place, like trying to prevent war, poverty and injustice. True or false

14. I have had experiences that made my role in life so clear to me that I felt very happy and excited. True or false

15. I believe that I have experienced extrasensory perception. True or false

16. I have had moments of great joy in which I suddenly had a clear, deep feeling of oneness with all that exists. True or false

17. Often when I look at an ordinary thing, something wonderful happens. I get the feeling that I am seeing it fresh for the first time. True or false

18. I love the blooming of flowers in the spring as much as seeing an old friend again. True and false

19. It often seems to other people like I am in another world because I am so completely unaware of things going on around me. True or false

20. I believe that miracles happen. True or false

Scoring: Give yourself one point for each true answer and 0 points for each false answer. 14 and above=highly spiritual, a real mystic; 12-13=spiritually aware, easily lost in the moment; 8-11=spiritually average; could develop more spiritual life if desired; 6-9=a practical empiricist lacking self-transcendence; 1-5=highly sceptical, resistant to developing spiritual awareness.

Data collected by scientists in the USA and Australia suggests that spirituality as measured by the self-transcendence scale is indeed inheritable just like other personality traits. Hamer was able to link spirituality with a specific gene known as VMAT2. This gene is coded for a protein (vesicular monoamine transporter) that controls the amount of crucial brain-signalling chemicals. Those brain chemicals can be triggered by certain drugs that can bring about mystical-like experience. (Kluger, Jeffrey et al., 2004) Such scientific studies certainly clarify that the desire to unite with the outside world is natural and innate, but spirituality involves much more than one or two genes.

(3) Imagination and Reality

One of the reasons Chuang Tzu has been so popular in Chinese history is his abundant imagination and carefree style. As noted above, Chuang Tzu thought both big and small, powerful and powerless entities have their own strengths and weaknesses, but neither is independent. The only independent truly vehicles are the soul and imagination. Close your eyes and let your mind fly in the universe. You can go anywhere you want for free.

Imagination is the power of the mind (1) to consider things which are not present to the senses, and (2) to consider what is not real. In the first sense, some animals have imagination too. A chimpanzee jumps and stretches out his hand trying to reach a banana which is hung on the wall. After many failures, he sits there quietly to figure out a way to solve the problem. Suddenly he sees a cardboard box nearby, and pulls the box over and places it against the wall. He jumps on the box and gets the banana. Similar behaviors can be observed in other mammals or even in birds. The explanation is that during such quiet moments, the animal imagines a way to solve the problem. Imagination is believed to be present through the process of all thought in animals and in humans. It is the power of abstract thinking which animals lack. The imagination of unreal things is, however, limited to humans. Humans can create an illusory world which is more beautiful and more complex than the real one.

A New Interpretation of Chinese Taoist Philosophy 174 Is there any difference between imagination and reality? Of course there is. If you want to build a house but do not move a muscle except to imagine building it, there will be no house. If you imagine the beauty and the comfort of the house, you may even enjoy the beauty and the comfort if you are good at imagining. To a man and his body, the difference between imagination and reality is not always as important as it is thought to be. The difference does not leave an unbridgeable gap. There are many reports of so-called phantom limbs. The amputation apparently does not stop the patient from having sensations from the phantom leg. Since the leg is gone, this experience is imaginary or hallucinatory. When the loss of a limb occurs to patients who are more than six or eight years old, almost all of them will report the experience of phantom limbs. In 10% to 15% of the cases, the patients feel pain from the amputated limbs. Characteristically, the patient complains of cramp. The patient may say his non-existent toes are twisted or curled tightly. Apparently there are some neuron cells in the brain that are allocated to receive sensation signals from the amputated limb, and for certain reason, those cells are excited as though there is cramp. In other words these neuron cells are imagining.

The function of neuron cells is to produce nerve impulses: depolarization followed immediately by re-polarization. The process takes about a thousandth of a second at any point of the cell. There is no difference between imagination and reality at the cell level, since this process of de-polarization and re-polarization is the very same for any mental activity whether it is imaginary or real. Are there any special neuron cells for imagination? The answer is no. Theoretically there is no difference between imagination and reality at the brain level, though a given imagination may not match the perception of any reality. There are some reports that people who are born blind have the ability to imagine a visual world just like sighted people, and some of those blind people can even become notable artists who paint out of their visual imagination. Thus imagination does not need perception or life experience as its prerequisite. It has been estimated that at least a million Americans a year are asked to take a lie detector test. Lie is an act of imagination. If there is no difference between imagination and reality at the cell level and at the brain level, how can a lie detector work to tell the difference? The secret is when you are telling a lie, your brain is aware of fact that you are lying, and such awareness produces some physical changes that can be detected by a lie detector. When one is lost in imagination, there will be no such awareness in the experienced liar. On the other hand, such awareness can appear, by pure imagination, in inexperienced, innocent people. As a result, lie detectors often make serious mistakes.

In recent years MRI (magnetic resonant imaging) produces brain images while the patient’s brain is still in function. It is called functional MRI scanning. Since our brain consists of many functional parts, certain parts are working while other parts are resting. The working parts have more blood supply which can be detected by fMRI. In such tests, the same parts of the brain function for both imaginary and real happenings. When a husband has an abdominal operation with his wife beside him, watching the whole procedure, both husband and wife can show the same pattern in their fMRI. Sympathetically and imaginatively, the wife has felt the same pain as her husband.

A common disorder is called hysterical paralysis. The patient imagines his legs are paralyzed, though they are perfectly normal. Such patients can stay in bed for years but can walk immediately if the physician is able to stop the patient’s imagination.

Dreams are also the product of imagination. But we must accept that some of our dreams are more important than some real events in our life. A dream may affect our emotion for days while we easily forget some of our life experiences. Some dreams are so vivid, so real, that they leave us a permanent memory.

When we have a visual dream, our eyeballs move rapidly though our eyelids are closed. Imagination is associated with slight muscle movements or muscle tension. When we think in words, the vocal organs and related oral muscles may mimic the speaking. Some psychic instructors ask you to close your eyes, and move one of your toes. Nothing is moved, but your imagination moves your toes. Instructors say it is the psychic body you have moved. In such cases, an impulse signal has reached the toe muscle and caused muscle tension, though the toe did not move.

The conclusion is if you imagine happiness, you may get the real thing. It is real to your mind, it is real to your brain, and it is real to your body. What more can you expect? If you imagine as Chuang Tzu, think as Chuang Tzu, and act out as Chuang Tzu, you are then a real Chuang Tzu: Happiness does not need any logical reason. If you have a group of people who have the same ideas as you have, you may talk and act out your imagined happiness. When you and the people surrounding you are imagining the same happiness, the happiness is more real and lasting. In 1979 Ellen Langer, a psychologist, and her colleagues at Harvard asked a group of healthy subjects, aged 75 or older to go on a week retreat where everything was arranged as if it were 1959 and the subjects were asked to talk and act as if it were 1959. Compared to the control group, the make-believe group improved in memory and manual dexterity, and they were much more self-sufficient. In other words, the acting out became a real experience to their bodies. Their physical bodies were to some extent twenty years younger just as they had imagined. Controversially, imagination sometime produces miracles. Some cancer patients lie down and imagine that their white blood cells and body energy have come to kill the cancer cells. Some patients still die, but some have been miraculously cured. Some people who perform the breathing practice Chi Kong can reduce their blood pressure and heart beat rate at will, and can survive a long time without food. Chi Kong is also a practice of the imagination: imagining the body energy or breathing air traveling along certain routes inside and outside of the body. Imagination also has the power to stop physical pain and even transform pain into an enjoyable experience. Some people have a major operation without anaesthesia. They are able to shift their attention to something else and ignore the surgery and pain it has caused. They imagine there is no surgery.

There was more than three hundred years of political instability from 220 to 589 AD in China. It was dangerous to be an intellectual in those years. If the emperor offered you a position in his court, since he liked to have highly educated people to decorate his royalty, you were facing a dangerous choice. If you refused, you might be killed by the emperor but if you agreed, you might lose your head when the emperor was overthrown. In such a circumstance, Taoism prevailed and developed into so-called neo-Taoism. Those neo-Taoist intellectuals behaved like alcoholics or crazy people, which disqualified them from being chosen by the emperor. The famous ones were the seven saints of the bamboo grove, and they were good at poetry. One of the poets was said to sit in a horsepulled cart loaded with wine. Two servicemen were following behind holding a spade and shovel. The driver asked where to go. “Wherever the horses may lead,” he said. “What is it for us?” the two servicemen asked. “Bury me at once wherever I die.”

One of their poems has the following lines:

My eyes follow the geese in the blue sky,
My hands play a tune on the zither to say bye.
I rock up and down to my perfect enjoyment,
My mind travels in space where has no government.

(4) The Cultivation of Happiness

Happiness is indeed something that can be cultivated and harvested afterwards. As discussed in Chapter 11, the truly Taoist pursuit is momentary enjoyment whereas sustained happiness is a more modern cultural concept. But Taoists are not radical social activists, and they adapt themselves to modern society in line with the Taoist philosophy. Meanwhile they do not forget their fundamental goal, raising the level of Taoist enlightenment. To achieve Tao is the ultimate happiness for a Taoist.

Further understanding of the Taoist philosophy will empty our secular mind to make it more susceptible to happiness. Tranquility and serenity are our goal. Many North Americans now feel rushed too much, and complain about the bustling noise filling their ears. Once tranquility is with us, we again become open to leisurely enjoyment and graceful living. There is no need to struggle for expensive possessions and extensive ownership. To me, it is always enjoyable and enlightening to read Taoist classics and other related writings. Fifteen minutes meditation each day also helps to incline our mind to its leisurely nature and prepare our body to allow its self healing mechanisms to function. A simple technique that may work for everybody is to identify and list all those positive factors that make you happy and those negative ones that make you unhappy. You may change your list at any time if you realize something new. You can put this list on your desk or anywhere you will often see it to remind you: Reduce the negative factors and increase the positive factors in your life. You may find it very effective, especially if you are bothered with anxiety or depression.

To change one’s perspective or worldview and modify one’s philosophy of life is also helpful to make one happier. Taoist philosophy and its writings provide a good new perspective to look at life. In the Taoist view, irrationality and an unfixed perspective are human nature and are wired into our brain. Culture, education, and social environment eventually bring people into a deadlocked struggle with themselves. It is important to see the relativity of our truth, beliefs, and values, and keep a flexible mind. If you are stuck in such a deadlock of unhappiness, you may let yourself off the hook for a while or even practice meditation. Once you are in a leisurely state of mind, you may be able to look at things differently. Family and friends also may help you look at things from a different perspective.

There are many other techniques to cultivate happiness if you look for books on this topic in the library but the above represents the Taoist view.

(5) The Taoist Goal of Self Cultivation

In modern society, what do you have to do if you want to pursue Taoist life cultivation and, for practical reasons, do not want to join a monastery? Since Taoist monasteries are few and may not suit us all, it is most practical to pursue Taoist life cultivation yourself. There are five ways, we can pursue life cultivation on our own:

1. Pursue a Simple and Happy Life: If life is simple, there is nothing left to worry about except happiness. Enjoy what you have and do not pursue what you cannot get. I have a book by Robert Taylor et al, titled Simple Pleasures, Soothing Suggestions and Small Comforts for Living Well Year Round. I am sure you can find similar books in libraries and book stores. Such books open our eyes to new horizons where happiness attainable from your own setting and with limited facilities. Do not try to make a hundred dollars more than your wife’s sister’s husband, but try to make yourself happier in ways that a hundred dollars cannot buy. As to simplifying of life, there is no fixed rule, just do those things which you find simple and which bring happiness to you.

2. Keep in Touch with Nature: There are numerous ways to keep in touch with nature. You can travel to the mountains and waters to see God’s creation, but you can also submerge yourself in the nearby woods or even lie down in the tall grass and weeds. I prefer visiting somewhere where I cannot see anything civilization has left us but only see God’s creation, trees, rivers, birds, and butterflies. Of course you can work in your garden or on your windowsill plants. You may indulge in a book dedicated to nature with vivid descriptions and colorful photographs. You may also sit down to meditate in an ideal natural setting. When you have a feeling that you are part of nature and the natural process, and are at one with the growing and blooming plants, you will feel much healthier and happier.

3. Transcendence of the Negative Effects of Life: I always prefer reading Chuang Tzu as a way to unlash my imagination into endless space to enrich my life. You may prefer other methods but the study of Taoist philosophy or any other similar theories is essential. 4. Meditation: You can follow any techniques, but you have to spend time keeping your attention inside your body. That’s what animals and our ancestors did, but we have forgotten how because of the pressures of modern civilization. Your body needs your attention to balance itself and to fight diseases. The breathing practice Chi Kong is designed for this purpose, though other techniques may work as well.

5. Try to Harmonize Your Social Circle According to Taoist Principles: Simplicity, equality, and Oneness. It is impossible to establish an isolated Taoist primary society for us to live in, but we can at least try to improve our social environment. The influence and distractions of modern society surround us and pressure us. It is a most tiring task if we keep fighting against them and neglect to enlighten our mind. The ultimate goal of Taoist life cultivation is the obtainment of Tao and to transform ourselves from a secular man to a real man. Buddhism emphasizes that everybody has a Buddha nature and can suddenly come to enlightenment. If we can come back to our born nature and block away the influences and attractions of secondary society, we will have the Tao with us and become real persons.

(6) The Taoist Deities

It is clear that the early Taoist philosophers like Lao Tzu and Chuang Tzu did not pay particular attention to any gods except Tao. They only used the word gods occasionally in a casual manner. As quoted in Chapter 2 from Chuang Tzu: “In the ancient time, yin and yang were in harmony; gods and spirits were quiet and did not interfere with people.” Such a description about gods fits well with the primitive primary society and the Taoist philosophy.

The Taoist religion that developed later introduced a large number of deities for worshippers, though some of those deities came from folk cults and Chinese traditions. Those deities were organized in a way that reflected the secular history of the Chinese empire, though Taoist influence was also present.

The Book of Changes mentioned, “Observing that the four seasons rotate in order, Sage used the religious gods to educate the people. All people under heaven obeyed him willingly.” (Book of Changes, 20 Vigilance) Thus Chinese rulers had long known the effectiveness of religious gods as a means to control the thought of the people. Unlike in the West where religion shared power with the monarchy, Chinese rulers used religions to control their people. Chinese emperors had the power to close down any religions and, in fact, both Buddhism and Taoism were banned sometimes but released later. Christianity was established in China during the Tang dynasty (618-907) but vanished later because of an official ban from the empress.

Under such political circumstances, it was understandable that the Taoist religion introduced deities to attract believers and please the emperor. Without those deities, Taoism as a religion might not have been able to survive to today.

Among the numerous deities approved by the secondary society, only three may be from the primitive primary society, the Heavenly Mother, the Primary Heavenly Revered One, and Heaven and Earth. As discussed in Chapter 5, the worship of a female goddess was universal in many cultures during their early stages including the Chinese. During Shang dynasty (1766-1123 BC) in addition to worship the super God which is thought to be a female, Chinese people worshiped the East Mother and the West Mother but these became one, the West Queen Mother, in the Taoist deities. Ordinary Chinese people referred to her as the Heavenly Queen Mother. Since the word Queen is apparently reference from the secondary society, here we call her the Heavenly Mother with the word Queen omitted.

(7) Taoist Influence on Chinese Medicine

Chinese traditional medicine has been developed under the influence of Taoist philosophy and this association of Taoist religion with medicine has been regarded as its major attraction to the people. The differences between Chinese and Western medicine can be found in those parts that grew out of the influence of Taoist philosophy. Chinese medicine considers the patient as a whole while Western medicine considers the disease only. A major treatment in Chinese medicine is to help the patient’s adjustment and strengthen the patient’s defences against the disease. Chinese medicine sees the lack of harmony with nature as a major reason why disorders develop.

Chinese medicine advocates moderation when fulfilling one’s physical desires. Excess pleasure will weaken or damage our health. The Taoist theories of yin yang and the five elements are the fundamental theories of Chinese medicine.

Taoist breathing practices and Chinese acupuncture share the same theory: Energy circulates along more than a dozen routs inside the body. Because of the Taoist pursuit of longevity and immortality, tonic medicine and hygiene are a major part of Chinese medicine. In other words, Chinese medicine emphasizes prevention.

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A New Interpretation of Chinese Taoist Philosophy
An Anthropological/Psychological View
Paper back with references and index, 243 pages

You-Sheng Li, Ph.D.
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