Daniel Reid is an American author and expert in traditional Chinese medicine and culture.
He has written numerous books and articles on various aspects of Asian self-health and self-healing practices.
On the occasion of the release of his self-biography ‘Shots from the hip‘, we interviewed him about his relationship with traditional Chinese culture.
Interview by Matteo Damiani
China-underground: The choice to study Chinese culture was almost random and you went to your first lesson of Chinese on acid. Could you have imagined at the time that your life would be remodeled on that culture?
Daniel Reid: I took that course only because I had to pick a required course, either that history or a science course.
The guy said you have to come to the first lecture to get into this course. So, I’d forgotten about that.
That day we took as I said in the book a lot of acids. I had no idea that I had to go. So I went and sat there listening.
I saw this whole thing which seems vaguely familiar to me.
I think most people in my situation at that time would have sat there and listened to that and then laughed and said ‘Wow what a trip’ and forgotten about it but to me, it just became a revelation.
I’m still doing that. I’m still on that trip.
What inspired you most about Chinese culture?
The way of life.
The traditional cultural values and how everything fit right into some basic pattern, the yin and yang, the five elements and the balance.
They apply to everything, to life, to food, to medicine.
All those things.
It just seemed to me such a well balanced.
A way to live in the world and that was different from anything else I’d ever seen.
That’s what attracted me.
How did Chinese culture change you?
Well, it took me out of the Western mode of looking at the world and what the purpose of life was, and how people should live.
A different way of living.
I found it very comfortable at first of course on it philosophically because I’d never been anywhere in China or Taiwan.
The first thing I had in mind was to learn all I could about it and I realized also in order to do that I had to learn the written language.
I mean everything about China was the opposite of the West. The writing instead of going from right to left went from top to bottom …
It just seemed so totally different. I didn’t much care for what was going on in America in those days.
And so I saw something very very different.
And I didn’t see any reason why not.
I didn’t see any reason just because I was born in America that I should have to live that way. First of all this in my mind, and then I got through high school I went there.
How did you come into contact with some of the most peculiar traditions of the Chinese culture such as qigong and Taoism?
By going to Taiwan.
At first, I didn’t know what was really going on there.
I thought ‘oh I should go to China’.
And my teacher said “You can’t go to China, there’s a cultural revolution going on. They don’t want any foreigners there.” And he said “you should come to Taiwan”. He was from Taiwan.
At the time he was from the mainland originally but he came when he was young to Taiwan.
So I went to Taiwan and I just loved it.
So after I moved there I started to meet people like Qigong teachers, Chinese doctors, Writers, people like that.
And so it was through Chinese friends who were doing those things that I learned about Taoism and the various different aspects of it.
Like Qigong and Chinese medicine.
It was not through formal training.
I didn’t go to Chinese schools in Taiwan.
I just had good friends there who were doing those things and through that direct contact with people I really learned how it works in daily life.
You have traveled extensively in the Chinese mainland after many years spent in Taiwan. What were the main differences you found at the time?
I first went in 1979 at the end of the Cultural Revolution.
It was very different.
That was a revolution against the elite culture, the elite people, the educated class, the people with money. But it was all overtime.
There was always been another culture in China, not now anymore, the peasant culture.
No different from other places.
My first impression, I think everyone who went there done so, is how materially poor the place was.
The people had nothing.
Clothes are all torn and patched up.
There were no cars, nothing.
And yet the people were so different from the poor places I’ve been to in Africa and the Middle East.
The people from the peasant culture that was totally different from the form of culture in the cities, they had nothing, they couldn’t read or write.
And they weren’t doing poetry and they didn’t wear silk clothing.
But in China the peasant had a civilization, I think that’s the best way to put it.
It was a different civilization that had been going there for 5000 years.
That was really the whole foundation of China.
So many things came from the peasant.
The whole place was very clean and neat and orderly.
And I think the biggest impression I had is how polite everybody was.
The people were very polite and welcoming to us, the first foreigners they’d ever seen.
And quite, there was no noise.
I just got this feeling that there was something very deep there that had been going on for a long time.
And of course if you look through the history of China there are so many times that there was dynastic change and usually, the person who came forward in the final battle is always some hero from the peasantry, including Mao Zedong.
The thing that impressed me was that the real strength and foundation of the Chinese civilization as it hadn’t survived for five thousand years was not really the formal culture.
The beautiful part, the Jade carvings, and the palaces, it wasn’t that at all. It was in the peasant sector.
And they had their own way of life.
It was self-contained.
The ceremonies and the festivals.
It kept them going for so long.
I think that’s why they managed to survive.
All that upheaval during the revolution and so many years of foreign domination and all that, it was the strength of the peasantry which was still that.
Not many people lived in the cities.
And there was no modern culture, no modernization at all in the industry.
But it was still there.
I’ve never been in any other place that was very very poor and didn’t have much material wealth, where people were so calm and easygoing.
Never quite content with themselves.
Of course, they all wanted to develop the country and make some money and all that, but there wasn’t that desperation that I saw in other places.
How do you think China is changed?
Well, what’s changed is that.
I think it’s become mostly an urban culture now, people have moved to the cities more and more and they all want everyone must have an iPhone or a car. But that’s all western stuff.
Their urban culture now is not necessarily particularly Chinese.
It’s just what’s going on everywhere else in the world.
And so, because of the cultural revolution, all of that stuff on the surface, the beauty just disappeared.
But also what disappeared was that really strong foundation from the countryside because people didn’t want that anymore.
They wanted material comfort.
And so they all moved by now to the cities.
Well, I think you must have known as well that today all over the world there’s so many Chinese coming out and traveling.
People’s impression of Chinese people is not the same as it used to be.
Chinese people throughout history when they do go other places were always known for their polite notice and refinement, and sophistication.
Now they’re considered to be rather rude.
They don’t really make that very very good impression.
Most of them don’t really even understand what it meant for 5000 years to be Chinese.
They sort of go by an international standard that they get from the internet and movies, Gucci and all those famous brands that are popular in the West.
They have lost some sort of roots of their own.
And it was so fast because when I first went there in 1979 and again in 1980 and 1985 it was all like that.
But then I didn’t go for a long time.
When I finally went back to the early 2000s, I think it was 2005 or 6, it was so completely different.
Personally, I think that they need to restore some part of their culture because that’s the way that China has evolved for so long.
And kind of lost now.
Do you have any advice for young people who want to approach Chinese culture?
If they want to study their old culture I still think Taiwan is probably the best place to go. China is starting to come back in some places.
But there’s a lot of controls about the old culture that they don’t really like.
Some of the stuff that was going on before and there’s always the question of orthodox following the party line.
So just do what I did, if you want to learn Qigong, go and find some Qigong teachers.
If you’re interested in medicine you are going to hang around the medicine shops if you’re interested in the tea culture, go to the tea places.
All of these things are still going and the best way to learn it is to make friends with Chinese people who are doing that.
I don’t think it’s necessary to go to schools because if you want to learn things in school you can just go to a university in the West and do it just as well.
The other thing I would suggest is to learn the language. Because Chinese people are more comfortable in their own language.
They open up a lot more and if they really want to learn if they get serious and they want to become China freaks as it was like me they should learn at least some basic part of the written language because so much of the ancient wisdom and knowledge is built right into the ideograms.
The way they’re structured and meanings, the concepts, the philosophies are right there in the writing just in the way that the writing works because they are pictures of ideas, not an alphabet.
When will the sequel of your book be released?
Well, the second book should be coming out in maybe I think July or August.
I’m working on the final draft right now.
It’s already written but I’m just cleaning up a bit. It’s a very different one than the first book, that’s all sex drugs and rock and roll … The late 60s …
In the second one, I go much more into the work that I’m known for which is in health Qigong, Chinese medicine, and there’s a lot of material also on the spiritual practices that my wife and I do.
So the second book which is bigger than the first book is more to do with the things I’ve done in my work and the things I write about.
I think one of the things that my memoir tells is that it’s not necessarily the case that to be a spiritual practitioner, you have to live in a monastery or go to a mountain cave, or you have to be a scholar.
There are many different paths to go to the same goal.
And as long as you have a vision of what you want to do, it can be done in any context.