Coleridge’s Daoism? Joseph Needham, Dominican Sinology, and Romantic Pantheism

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In 1926, Joseph Needham (1900–95), who would become the foremost An-glophone sinologist of the twentieth century, authored a study of Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s essay “The Theory of Life” (ca. 1816). Needham’s attraction to Romanticism is logical given his philosophical inclinations. In Science and Civilisation in China (1954–), he demonstrates that Romantic authors were primed for a favorable reception of Daoism (or “Taoism”), the philosophy of adherence to the dao (道), commonly translated as “the Way.” Needham presents the Daoist sage as a version of the paradigmatic “noble savage,” popular in eighteenth-century discourse that idealized naturalism (2: 129). He follows his identification of this analogy in eighteenth-century European thought in characterizing the Daoist attitude as anti-feudal (2: 130). Although Needham terms William Blake “exceedingly ‘Taoist’ ” as a religious thinker, his portrayal of Chinese sages who shunned organized society in favor of proximity to the natural world corresponds similarly to Coleridge and the Wordsworths’ advocacy of rural retirement (2: 162).

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)205-220
Number of pages16
JournalThe Wordsworth Circle
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - 2020


  • Romanticism
  • China
  • Literary studies
  • Orientalism
  • philosophy
  • Missionaries

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