What is the summary of the plot of Seven Taoist Masters: A Folk Novel of China?
This book is a beautiful description of Taoism (and what it means to be a Taoist disciple) in novel form. The main character is the narrator: Wang Tieh-hsin. We follow Wang Tieh-hsin through all of his experiences. The simplest explanation of plot is that Wang Tieh-hsin becomes a Taoist Master and enlightens many others. The novel begins with Mother Wang and her unwillingness to serve the poor. Unfortunately for Mother Wang, the beggars are actually immortals who tell her the following, a key point of the Taoist philosophy:
If your compassion and charity are sincere, you will give without expecting anything in return. If you expect to get something out of what you give, then it is not true charity. All this time your charitable deeds have been either a show for others to see or an investment in the hope of obtaining long life and prosperity.
In a more general sense, Seven Taoist Masters is about one woman and six men who experience and overcome many hardships as they journey towards the self-mastery that defines Taoism. All of the characters, including the teacher Wang Ch'ung-yang, live in the Southern Sung (in the 11th century) during the Yuan dynasty. Another interesting story perfectly explains another key point of the book: hardship is necessary to gain enlightenment. This story is about Sun Bu-er, who explains her advancement over another disciple, Ma Tan-yang. Sun Bu-er is not afraid to bathe in boiling water because she has tempered herself through hardship. She explains that Ma Tan-yang is unable to do this because of his nice house, many servants, and comfortable life. At this point Ma Tan-yang decides to leave in order to experience these hardships. At the end of the story, all of the seven characters achieve mastery of the Tao.
There are precisely seven characters who learn more about the Tao through their experiences. Further, there are many chapters that involve Wang Ch’ung-yang giving a lecture on certain Taoist qualities, such as “the meaning of stillness.” As the story goes on, Wang Ch’ung-yang eventually describes the different vehicles of the Tao to each character in turn. Therefore, the principles behind Taoism are inserted throughout the story.
Seven Taoist Masters, a novel of unknown authorship, is a classic text from China written to familiarize and educate the folk masses with basic Taoist concepts. One central figure unites the work from beginning to end: this is Wang Tieh-Hsin, and the novel is essentially an account of his journey leading to mastery of the Tao. Six additional figures are connected to Master Wang and follow similar paths of self-actualization throughout the text. However, contained within this basic plot are countless parables, lessons, subplots, and plot twists, serving the basic purpose of explaining the Tao to laymen in thirteenth century China.
Besides Master Wang, the six additional protagonists are Sun Bu'er, Ma Yu, Tan Chuduan, Liu Chuxuan, Qiu Chuji, and Hao Datong. A central theme of the novel is the necessity of enduring hardship in obtaining the enlightenment of the Tao.