Daoism: History of Study

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Although Daoism represents a tradition as ancient and as rich as any other major religion, the serious study of this tradition has been almost entirely a twentieth-century phenomenon and largely a phenomenon of the second half of the twentieth century at that. The reasons for this are not far to seek. From its fourth and last printing in 1445 until its reproduction by photomechanical means in 1926, the Daoist canon (Daozang ), a compendium of over one thousand different works representing the full scope of the tradition, was a decidedly rare work, the jealously guarded possession of a handful of monasteries. Until the twentieth century, moreover, few outsiders would have been inclined to persist in seeking them out. To the traditional Chinese scholar, raised in the neo-Confucian belief that Buddhism and Daoism alike were little more than gross superstition, there was little reason to take an interest in such literature.

Although certain eighteenth- and nineteenth-century scholars made use of the Daoist canon to obtain good editions of ancient philosophical or historical texts (which, as in the case of the Mozi, were often not Daoist works but were included in the canon for reasons unrelated to their contents), it was not until 1911 that a Chinese scholar lingered over the rest of the canon. This scholar was Liu Shipei, a fervent nationalist whose attitude toward tradition had been enlarged by the modern world to embrace a less orthodox range of study.

By the time Liu published the results of his readings, non-Chinese scholars who had inherited the best of the traditional Chinese polymath's zeal for knowledge (without the polymath's blind spot with regard to religion) had begun to show a lively interest in Daoism also. French Sinologists, such as Édouard Chavannes and Paul Pelliot, and Japanese, such as Tsumaki Naoyoshi, came to Daoism out of a general interest in Chinese civilization, but also from societies where the study of religion was an accepted branch of learning. Japan, in particular, had at an early stage accepted much of China's medieval culture, including the Buddhist faith, but had not undergone a neo-Confucian rejection of this legacy to the same degree. Thus, learned Buddhists, such as Tokiwa Daijō, were already confronting the complex issue of the relationship between Chinese Buddhism and Daoism in the 1920s. One of them, Ōfuchi Eshin, had even traveled abroad to investigate the millennium-old manuscripts of Daoist scriptures that had been discovered among other ancient materials at Dunhuang in Northwest China at the turn of the century.

The increased political role of Japan in China during the 1930s also brought many Buddhist scholars to China. Some, such as Fukui Kojun, returned to Japan to pursue research in the Daoist canon, now available in its modern printing in academic libraries, while others, such as Yoshioka Yoshitoyo, stayed longer to gain firsthand experience of Daoist monastic life. Yoshioka's 1941 Dōkyō no jittai (The actual state of Daoism), published in Beijing, remains an invaluable source on a mode of religious life now largely vanished. The expulsion of the Japanese from China after 1945 effectively halted all such opportunities for fieldwork and even led to the loss of much material already painstakingly collected. However, as Dōkyō to Chūgoku shakai (Daoism and Chinese society), a slim volume published in Tokyo in 1948 by Kubo Noritada, demonstrates, even after their return to Japan these scholars were concerned to relate their historical and bibliographical research to the fuller picture of Chinese society they had witnessed. Their numbers were also sufficient to found in 1950 the Japan Society of Taoistic Research (Nippon Dōkyō Gakkai) and to start, the following year, the publication of a journal, Tōhō shūkyō, a serial still published with an annual update on Daoist bibliography.

In contrast, 1950 saw the publication in Paris of the posthumous writings on Daoism of the sole French scholar to have followed up the pioneering work of Chavannes and Pelliot by carrying out research into materials in the Daoist canon. Henri Maspero (18831945), like others of his generation, came to the study of Daoism not as a specialist but as a broad-ranging scholar. He had published in the fields of Egyptology and Vietnamese studies and had produced a Sinological masterpiece, a one-volume survey of preimperial China, before his research into the China of the latter Han period and thereafter brought him face to face with the Daoist religion. During the 1930s he applied himself to unraveling the formative stages of the religion, working independently of, but using similar methods to, his Japanese contemporaries (for example, comparing materials in the Daoist canon with the Dunhuang manuscripts and with Buddhist sources). Maspero perished at Buchenwald in 1945 before he had published more than a portion of his findings. In his three-volume collected writings, compiled by Paul Demiéville, his equally erudite literary executor, an entire volume is devoted to Daoism. Maspero's description of Daoism remains a highly rewarding record of the first encounter between a modern European mind and the full complexity of this ancient religion.

Sadly, Maspero had no students. Maspero's great contemporary in the study of Chinese religion, Marcel Granet, more immediately influenced the experts on Chinese religion who rose to prominence in postwar Paris. Yet Granet was not unaware of the importance of Daoism, and the work of such men as Max Kaltenmark, Rolf Alfred Stein, and Michel Soymié helped maintain the primacy of Paris as the center of Daoist studies in the Western world. Nor were these men, for their part, unaware of the achievements of their Japanese colleagues: Soymié established with Yoshioka in 1965 a second Japanese journal devoted to Daoism, the Dōkyō kenkyū. By this time a number of studies of Daoism had been published in Japan, and many points of controversy were hotly debated. A new generation of European researchers specifically interested in Daoism emerged, and the new publication soon introduced the findings of Anna Seidel and K. M. Schipper to a Japanese audience.

While the two major streams of Daoist studies were beginning to flow together, research in China remained almost as it had been in France in the 1930s, the domain of one lone scholar. Since the reprinting of the Daoist canon, established specialists in the history of Chinese religion, such as Chen Yinke and Chen Yuan, had devoted articles to aspects of Daoist history, and one small volume attempting an account of the whole development of Daoism had been published, partly on the basis of early Japanese research. But from 1949 onward the only aspects of Daoist studies to see publication were those connected with the history of peasant uprisings or the history of science. In the former area the textual scholar Wang Ming produced in 1960 an excellent edition of the Taiping jing, a major Daoist scripture associated with the Yellow Turban insurgents of the Han dynasty, but subsequent discussion of the text by a number of academics tended not to focus on religious issues.

In 1963 Chen Guofu, a historian of science and the "lone scholar" referred to above, managed to republish an expanded version of an outstanding monograph, originally published in 1949, on the formation of the Daoist canon. Chen had initially undertaken his lengthy and painstaking research during the 1940s, when his interest in the history of Chinese alchemy led him to the question of the dating of Daoist texts on this subject. But especially in the 1963 edition of his Daozang yuanliu kao, he also included gleanings on many other topics that had caught his eye in the course of his readings. Other scholars, unable to claim to be furthering the study of science rather than religion, were less fortunate. Man Wentong, who had published some worthwhile research on Daoist texts in the 1940s, saw his work confiscated during the late 1950s; only a few further notes were published posthumously in 1980. The Chinese Cultural Revolution of the 1960s ended for a while the activities of the Zhongguo Daojiao Xiehui (the Chinese Daoist Association), a group formed in 1957 but unable even then to achieve much in either religious or academic terms.

Chen Guofu had begun his alchemical researches while studying in the United States under Tenney L. Davis at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and it was almost exclusively this scientific aspect of Daoism that had continued to attract the attention of the English-speaking worldapart, that is, from the perennial fascination with the Dao de jing, reinvigorated for academics in the 1970s and 1990s by discoveries of early versions of its text. Thus, when the first international conference on Daoism met in Italy in 1968, two historians of science, Joseph Needham from Great Britain and Nathan Sivin from the United States, joined with experts on religion such as Schipper and Seidel. No Chinese scholar attended, nor did any senior scholar from Japan. This situation was rectified in 1972 at the next conference, which was held in Japan so a number of Japanese scholars could attend, as did Hou Ching-lang, originally from Taiwan but trained in Paris. Hou was by no means the first Chinese to have conducted research into Daoism there. In 1960 Wu Chi-yu had used the Dunhuang manuscripts to compile an edition of an important Daoist scripture, the Benji jing. A few other Chinese scholars had by now published on Daoism in Hong Kong, Taiwan, or farther afieldLiu Tsʾun-yan in Australia, for instance. But it was not until 1979, at a third conference held in Switzerland, that the situation in Beijing had changed sufficiently for Chen Guofu to participate. Daoist studies were thus finally able to achieve true international status and to win a degree of recognition in Daoism's native land.

The change of climate in the People's Republic of China manifested itself in a number of other ways. The year 1979 also saw the first publication of a new academic periodical, Shijie zongjiao (World religion), marking the start of the officially recognized study of religion in post-1949 China. Although it was initially much concerned with the history of atheism, in the following year articles on Daoism were included. The first volume of an outline history of Chinese Daoist thought, Zhongguo Daojiao sixiang shigang, and a new textual study by Wang Ming also appeared at this time. By 1980 the Chinese Daoist Association was active once more. In 1981 a dictionary of religion (Zongjiao cedian ) containing a large number of entries on Daoism, was published. The first dictionary of Daoism as such, the Daojiao dacidian by Li Shuhuan, appeared in 1979 in Taiwan, but while Li's status as a Daoist priest contrasts markedly with that of the Marxist compilers of the later volume, inasmuch as neither dictionary incorporated the findings of non-Chinese scholars, both fell well below the standard that could have been achieved through international cooperation.

Although Chinese scholarship on Daoism lagged behind that of France and Japan, the potential for development was great. In the early 1980s Daoist priests appeared once again in China's streets and marketplaces, showing that the living tradition of the religion had not been cut off entirely by the Cultural Revolution and that scholars might still learn from it firsthand. Furthermore, China's bibliographic resources remained (and still remain) the envy of the outside world. One might mention, for example, the epigraphical sources on Song Daoism used by the historian Chen Yuan, besides those related to canonical literature. At this point international work was already under way on a complete bibliographic guide to the canon in its modern reprinted form. Based in Paris under the direction of Schipper, it was sponsored by the European Association for Chinese Studies and involved scholars from European countries and beyond. Even before publication of the guide, the project led to the publication of concordances to important Daoist texts and to an analysis by John Lagerwey of a sixth-century Daoist encyclopedia, published by Lagerwey as the Wushang piyao (1981). It also indirectly stimulated a monograph by Piet van der Loon titled Taoist Works in the Libraries of the Sung Period (1984).

In Japan, major collaborative ventures were preceded by publications reflecting the work of individual careers. First Yoshioka and then Kubo produced histories of Daoism aimed at general audiences. Ōfuchi Ninji completed a catalog of all the Daoist manuscripts from Dunhuang with a companion volume of photographs of every text. These two works were published as Tonkō Dōkyō, respectively subtitled Mokuroku-hen and Zuroku-hen, in Tokyo in 1978 and 1979. Collaborative ventures began when a volume on Daoism was required for a series on the rich material of Dunhuang, and no fewer than ten writers (including Schipper) joined under the editorship of Yoshioka. Yoshioka died in 1979, but the volume, Tonkō to Chūgoku Dōkyō, eventually appeared in 1983. It includes a sixty-two-page general bibliography of Daoism based on material he had earlier collected. Yoshioka had in a sense initiated cooperative scholarship in Japanese Daoist studies somewhat earlier. A Festschrift in his honor, Dōkyō kenkyū ronshū (Collected essays in Daoist studies), drawing on the work of fifty-four Japanese and foreign contributors, was published in Tokyo in 1977.

In 1983 a comprehensive survey of Daoism involving the work of twenty-three scholars was published in Japan under the general title Dōkyō. This was the first collaborative attempt at a full description of the religion in any language. The three volumes of this survey, Dōkyō to wa nani ka?, Dōkyō no tenkai, and Dōkyō no dempō, are devoted respectively to a description of Daoism itself, an assessment of its importance in relation to other aspects of Chinese life and thought, and a survey of its spread beyond its Chinese origins. The last volume also contains surveys of research in Japan and elsewhere. The study of Daoism outside mainland China became increasingly prominent, especially as it moved from historical to anthropological research. Historical research has not, however, decreased in importance. Pioneering works such as the Hanʿguk Togyosa of Yi Nūng-hwa, a study of the history of Daoism published in Seoul, South Korea, in 1959, have successors in the publications of Japanese scholars concerned to reassess the impact of Daoist beliefs on the history of their own culture. Of these, the symposium Dōkyō to kodai tennōsei, which appeared in Tokyo in 1978 under the editorship of Fukunaga Mitsuji, deals with an issue of no slight importance to the modern Japanese, namely the possibility of Daoist influence on such a quintessentially Japanese institution as the emperorship.

However, it is in the investigation of Daoism as practiced nowadays outside mainland China that the greatest diversity of scholarly activity became apparent. Kubo, in his research into Daoist beliefs associated with the hour gengshen, has covered not only Japan but also Okinawa. Of the many ethnographers and others concerned with recording Daoist practices in Taiwan, one scholar based on that island, Liu Zhiwan, published the first part of his study Chūgoku Dōkyō no matsuri to shinkō in Tokyo in 1983. In 1975 the American Michael Saso published in Taipei twenty-five volumes of Daoist texts used under the title Zhuanglin xu Daozang. The Daoist practices of the Yao people of northern Thailand were recorded by Japanese scholars and have attracted the attention of French, American, and Dutch scholars. Daoism in Hong Kong, Singapore, and other overseas Chinese communities was investigated to some extent as well.

By the mid-1980s, Daoist studies were thus no longer confined to one or two pioneers working in isolation, and in the late twentieth century and early twenty-first century the trend toward the internationalization of Daoist studies has continued, even though the initial series of international conferences has not been maintained. The steady revival and progress of academic life in the People's Republic of China saw the emergence of strong centers of research outside the Institute for the Study of World Religions in the China Academy of Social Sciences, Beijing, which launched Shijie zongjiao. Sichuan University in Chengdu, for example, has since 1986 published a journal, Zongjiaoxue yanjiu (Religious studies), which consistently carries articles on Daoism, and also completed publication between 1988 and 1995, under the editorship of Qing Xitai, of the first comprehensive history of Daoism up to the twentieth century, spread over four volumes, a work now available in English translation. The Chinese Daoist Association, meanwhile, published not only its own journal but also a major encyclopedic dictionary in 1994, a year before an even larger work of the same type from the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, which had already produced a comprehensive guide to the literature in the canon in 1991. In some respects, publication on Daoism in China (notably the series Zangwai daoshu and its continuation, supplementing existing canonical collections, and especially the republication of traditional works on self-cultivation) was assisted by the rapid rise of interest in qigong in the late 1980s, though government worries about the implications of the craze eventually led to its increasing regulation in the following decade, especially after 1999.

The stream of monographs and research aids produced in Japan has increased to a flood, and more concise encyclopedic dictionaries drawing on a wider range of international scholarship have been published in Japan. The French language has remained important for scholarship in the field, even though scholars who had initially published in French often choose to publish in English or see their work translated. The same holds true for the less conspicuous but not unimportant tradition of Daoist studies in Germany. During the last decade of the twentieth century the study of Daoism in English at last came into its own. The only journal exclusively dedicated to it, Taoist Resources, lasted less than a decade (19881997) before being absorbed into the Journal of Chinese Religions, but this and other established periodicals find much more room for contributions on Daoism. Stephen Bokenkamp's pioneering Early Daoist Scriptures initiated the first monographic series in English dedicated to Daoism (in 1997), whereas established social historians like Robert Hymes and Edward L. Davis publish volumes exploring the role of Daoism in local society from the eleventh century onwards.

In part, this willingness of North American university presses to venture into what had been before the 1980s a virtually unknown area was the result of the emergence of a wider reading public in the English-speaking world, a public still primarily interested in the Dao de jing, feng-shui, or the martial arts, but also prepared to explore further. To cater to such interests a number of websites emerged, including some of real academic value, such as that maintained by the Italian expert on alchemy, Fabrizio Pregadio, who is also editor of a substantial and groundbreaking encyclopedia of Daoism in English. Livia Kohn, who had from early in her career attempted to provide materials in English to meet the needs of higher education in North America, edited the first major work of reference on Daoism in English, the Daoism Handbook, though her student James Miller has achieved an even more remarkable feat by condensing knowledge into a readable introductory volume. Miller's work has earned the approbation of at least one ordained Daoist priest engaged in doctoral research in English. The combination of religious and academic qualifications goes back to Schipper's contacts with Daoist circles in Taiwan, but the increasingly obvious strength of the religion throughout the Chinese world suggests it is a combination that may become more common in the future. Certainly the revival of Daoist practice on a large scale in China itself has enabled scholars such as Kenneth Dean and Lagerwey, partly inspired by the pioneering work of der Loon, to combine textual scholarship and fieldwork to bring new insights into many aspects of Daoist ritual and its relationship to Chinese social life.

Meanwhile, the very vibrancy of the religion in the contemporary world has started to stimulate reflection on the way it was originally represented in Western scholarship as a moribund tradition perpetuated only by ignorant charlatans. In this, the lead has been taken by the Australian scholar Benjamin Penny, who has briefly examined some of the influences working on nineteenth-century accounts of Daoism. In 2003 Elena Valussi challenged the rhetoric of decline in later Daoism through a London doctorate devoted to the emergence in the Qing period of texts promoting the self-cultivation of women. These show an ongoing pattern of adaptation and innovation into the twentieth century not easy to reconcile with the negative assessments of Western missionary observers. The early twenty-first century is at last seeing the recognition of Daoism as a religious tradition of remarkable richness and historic depth that has by no means been extinguished by modernity and that may yet have much to teach. Several of those responsible for demonstrating this, like Anna Seidel (19381991), Michel Strickmann (19421994), and Isabelle Robinet (19322000), did not live to see the full fruits of their efforts.


Retrospective surveys with a narrow focus are K. M. Schipper, "The History of Taoist Studies in Europe," in Europe Studies China, edited by Ming Wilson and John Cayley (London, 1995), pp. 467491; and Fukui Fumimasa, "The History of Taoist Studies in Japan and Some Related Issues," Acta Asiatica 68 (1995), pp. 118. J. J. Clarke, The Tao of the West: Western Transformations of Taoist Thought (London, 2000), is an outsider's account useful for its information on the broader context of the acceptance of Daoism as a topic of study. Lai Chi-Tim, "Daoism in China Today, 19802002," China Quarterly 174 (June 2003), pp. 413427, is an account of the religion in its homeland. James Miller, Daoism: A Short Introduction (Oxford, 2003), is an up-to-date summary. Livia Kohn, ed., Daoism Handbook (Leiden, 2000), is a compendious source of information in Eng-lish. Fabrizio Pregadio's website, available at http://venus.unive.it/pregadio/taoism.html, is a gateway to the mysteries of Daoism.

T. H. Barrett (1987 and 2005)