The Myth of Wu Tao-tzu

Sven Lindqvist

Published: 2 August 2012
Trade Paperback, Demy PB
135x216mm, 128 pages
ISBN: 9781847085221

Translated by Joan Tate


'During the Tang dynasty, the Chinese artist Wu Tao-tzu was one day standing looking at a mural he had just completed. Suddenly, he clapped his hands and the temple gate opened. He went into his work and the gates closed behind him.' Thus begins Sven Lindqvist's profound meditation on art and its relationship with life, first published in 1967, and a classic in his home country - it has never been out of print.

As a young man, Sven Lindqvist was fascinated by the myth of Wu Tao-tzu, and by the possibility of entering a work of art and making it a way of life. He was drawn to artists and writers who shared this vision, especially Hermann Hesse, in his novel Glass Bead Game. Partly inspired by Hesse's work, Lindqvist lived in China for two years, learning classical calligraphy from a master teacher. There he was drawn deeper into the idea of a life of artistic perfectionism and retreat from the world. But when he left China for India and then Afghanistan, and saw the grotesque effects of poverty and extreme inequality, Lindqvist suffered a crisis of confidence and started to question his ideas about complete immersion in art at the expense of a proper engagement with life. The Myth of Wu Tao-tzu takes us on a fascinating journey through a young man's moral awakening and his grappling with profound questions of aesthetics. It contains the bracing moral anger, and poetic, intensely atmospheric travel writing Lindqvist's readers have come to love.

About the author

Image of Sven Lindqvist

Sven Lindqvist was born in Stockholm in 1932 and still lives there. He has travelled extensively through Asia, Africa and Latin America. He is the author of thirty books, including A History of Bombing, Exterminate All the Brutes and Desert Divers, shortlisted for the Thomas Cook Travel Book Award. More about the author


‘A lyrical, but hard-hitting, examination of the ways in which we use art as escapism’ Arminta Wallace



‘A writer of rare political engagement, [who], in order to convey the complexity and urgency of his beliefs, created a wholly new form of non-fiction. Philosophy, travel, memoir, essay, aphorism and polemic are all interwoven in his works’ Stuart Kelly

‘It smoulders with fury at man's inhumanity... Flinty, direct and utterly original’ Gavin Francis, Books of the Year

‘Lindqvist has developed a literary form flexible enough for him to travel in time as much as space, combining the personal and the political, mingling historical investigation, travel and literary reportage and - increasingly - fierce polemic’ Stuart Jeffries

‘Necessary and transformative... Lindqvist is a master-conjurer, creating a world in which dreams and reality are intermingled and where the line between fantasy and fate is blurred. His prose is spare, flinty, but beautifully balanced and packed with detail... Once you've stepped into Lindqvist's world, things will never look the same again’ Gavin Francis, author

‘This accessible mix of travel-writing and memoir takes Lindqvist from Sweden to China to pay homage to the Chinese artist who legend has it stepped into the very mural he had just painted and disappeared’ Lesley McDowell

‘Turn to his depiction of the great Buddhist statues of Longmen and you encounter some of the most graphic, original and sophisticated descriptive writing on China. His visit to a Beijing bathhouse is a small jewel of empathy. Just as you feel he is wandering too convoluted a mystical labyrinth, he introduces a statement of cool critical force... complex, shifting and endlessly self-reflexive’ Colin Thubron

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