It’s hard for non-Chinese people (which means most people I meet) to remember, and it makes it hard to be seen as anything but Chinese—even though I’m American-born. But the name is a reminder, too, of how names can seem to foretell one’s fate. I didn’t know it growing up, but eventually I would have a career writing about the Tao that is my name. That wasn’t out of conscious striving, but when I look back, it seems to have been predestined. Now I have accepted it, in the same way that one doesn’t really have a choice but to accept who one is, and I realize that the name binds everything about me together.
Deng is my surname. Ming means "bright, light, clear, evident, understand, know." Tao means "movement, path, way, means, doctrine." It is the root of the name of one of China’s great spiritual traditions, Taoism. Since 1983, I have been known internationally as an author who writes about the Tao.
How could two grandfathers, one a gambler and hard drinker, the other a garment factory owner and Methodist lay minister, come together to give me a name that would foreshadow a career writing about China’s only indigenous religious tradition? And writing
about it in English and in the United States, far from the homeland from which both of them had immigrated? There’s no way to answer that question directly—only to say that the search for that understanding is in itself a kind of tao.
Finding Taoism involved another process of discovery and searching. It began when I found three intriguing books on my mother’s bookshelf: Manual of Zen Buddhism, by D. T. Suzuki; Three Ways of Thought in Ancient China, by Arthur Waley; and The Way of Life, Lao Tzu: A New Translation of the Tao Te Ching, by R. B. Blakney. Both Zen and Taoism fascinated me. As mysterious and strange as Zen’s reputation is, even today, Taoism seemed to be stranger still: it seemed to underlie all of Chinese history, from the sorcerers in the court of Qin Shihuang, the First Emperor of China, to the beliefs of innumerable artists, musicians, and poets. What was this religious tradition that seemed contrary to all of Chinese culture, that advocated wild nonconformity where my Confucian Chinese school teachers advocated strict morality and conventionality, and that laughed at the piety of Buddhism? Read more