Seidel, Anna Katharina

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SEIDEL, ANNA KATHARINA . Anna K. Seidel (19381991) was an eminent sinologist and international authority on Daoism. Seidel was born in Berlin and raised primarily in Munich. Although the family was Roman Catholic, one of Seidel's grandparents was Jewish and her parents sheltered two Jewish friends amid the dangers of Nazi Germany. This made a strong impression on Seidel, shaping a commitment to tolerance and to an international, rather than specifically national, identity. Her family was also the setting for her first, albeit informal, introduction to Chinese culture: a Korean boarder in the Seidel home taught Anna to write Chinese characters and rigorously drilled her on correct forms. Formal sinological training began at the University of Munich (19581960) and the University of Hamburg (19601961). Seidel was the recipient of a prestigious Studienstiftung des Deutschen Volkes scholarship award, and in 1961 she moved to Paris for graduate studies. She trained from 1961 to 1968 at the École Pratique des Hautes Études at the Collège de France. In 1969 Seidel was made a member of the École Française d'Extrême-Orient in Kyoto, Japan. She moved to Kyoto and lived there until her death twenty-two years later, with interludes in the United States as a visiting professor at the University of Hawai'i in 1978 and at the University of California, Santa Barbara, in 1988.

In Kyoto, Seidel worked at the École Française d'Extrême-Orient's Institut du Hōbōgirin with colleague Hubert Durt, where they continued Paul Demiéville's work redacting the Hōbōgirin, a multivolume encyclopedic work of Sino-Japanese Buddhist terms. In addition to her editorial work, Seidel contributed several articles to this encyclopedia, a testament to her expertise and interest in Buddhism. Seidel originally had been attracted to Buddhist studies as a topic for her graduate training. However, when she arrived in Paris she found that the most dynamic and relatively untouched field in Sinology was Daoism, and Paris had become the center of Daoist studies. It is for her work in Daoism that Seidel achieved her international reputation. Seidel's mentors, Max Kaltenmark and Rolf A. Stein, were leaders in this field, and Seidel quickly became a key figure in securing the preeminence of the French school in Daoist studies.

Seidel's contributions were made in conjunction with a radical redefinition of Daoism. In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Daoism was understood to have two forms. One was the much admired, pure "philosophical Daoism" of Laozi and Zhuangzi, consisting of whimsical, engaging stories and a poetic, mystical vision of the cosmos. The other was deemed superstitious, the "religious Daoism" of imperial China, with esoteric ritual and "demon worship," which scholars disdained to study. Frequently this "debased Daoism" was not distinguished from the loosely organized and largely illiterate popular religious tradition. Beginning with the pioneering work of Henri Maspero in the 1920s, which was based on careful study of the hitherto ignored Daoist canon, Daoism came to be seen as a complex, coherent, integrated religion in which both religious and philosophical aspects were intertwined, forming what Seidel later called the "native high religion of China." Seidel's doctoral thesis, "La divinisation de Lao-tseu dans le taoïsme des Han" (The deification of Laozi in Han dynasty Daoism, 1969) is a powerful and influential study based on Han documents that demonstrates this approach. It shows a pivotal development in the history of Daoism: the transformation of the sage Laozi into a god. In addition to revealing the importance and centrality of Laozi as a deity, Seidel wrote seminal articles about another key but unstudied aspect of Daoism, the messianic teachings and millenarian appeal of Daoist schools. Seidel described the elaborate organization of the "Taocracy" of early imperial China that combined Daoism with the workings of state, as well as the important role of Daoism throughout imperial China as a more personal, often salvific religion that provided a means to cope with death and uncertainty.

Seidel's fresh approach was captured in the entry on "Taoism" in the fifteenth edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica (1974). In addition to demonstrating the important developments in Daoism, the article emphasized the complementary, rather than antagonistic, relationship of Confucianism and Daoism. Seidel showed that both drew on an ancient Chinese cosmology and religiosity that posits the harmonious, organic working between the human realm and heaven and earth, mediated by the ruler; the cyclic nature of change and transformation of the cosmos; and the veneration of and protection afforded by ancestors. Other aspects of Daoism, such as the ecstatic states described in the Zhuangzi and the meditation and self-perfection exercises of later schools, had roots in ancient shamanic practices and ideas of bodily and mental self-perfection. In her work, Seidel demonstrated the profound but often subtle influence of Daoism on Chinese culture, including Daoism's interaction with the imported Indian tradition of Buddhism. Seidel's work was based on a thorough examination of documents that she analyzed in the appropriate historical and cultural context, occasionally drawing connections to contemporary phenomena.

Seidel not only promoted Sinology, but was passionate about cooperation between colleagues of different nationalities and the formation of a truly international scholarly community. To that end, her residence in Kyoto was famous as a haven and meeting place for young scholars from Europe, North America, and Asia. Seidel would encourage and assist young colleagues, often lending materials from her private library. She participated in the Bellagio conference on Daoism in 1968, and the Tateshina conference in 1972, events that saw a gathering of Daoist experts from around the globe. With Holmes Welch, to whom she was briefly married, Seidel coedited a volume of essays that grew from the Tateshina conference, Facets of Taoism (1979). In 1985, Seidel founded Cahiers d'Extrême-Asie, a highly regarded French and English bilingual journal published by École Française d'Extrême-Orient. An express aim of this journal was to bring together the scholarly communities from various continents. Seidel exemplified this in her own work, writing eloquently in German, English, French, and Japanese. She continued making scholarly contributions up until the end of her life, despite serious illness. Her "Chronicle of Taoist Studies in the West 19501990" was issued in print weeks before her untimely death in San Francisco in 1991 at age 53; "Mountains and Hells: Religious Geography in Japanese Mandara Paintings" and other articles were published posthumously.


Seidel, Anna K. La divinisation de Lao tseu dans le taoïsme des Han. Paris, 1969; reprinted 1992.

Seidel, Anna K. "A Taoist Immortal of the Ming Dynasty: Chang Sanfeng." In Self and Society in Ming Thought, edited by W. Theodore de Bary, pp. 483531. New York and London, 1970.

Seidel, Anna K. "The Image of the Perfect Ruler in Early Taoist Messianism: Lao tzu and Li Hung." History of Religions 9 (1969/1970): 216247.

Seidel, Anna K., and Michel Strickmann. "Taoism." In Encyclopaedia Britannica, 15th ed., vol. 17, pp. 10341044. Chicago, 1974.

Seidel, Anna K. "Buying One's Way to Heaven: The Celestial Treasury in Chinese Religions." History of Religions 17 (1978): 419431.

Seidel, Anna K., and Holmes Welch, eds. Facets of Taoism: Essays in Chinese Religion. New Haven, 1979.

Seidel, Anna K. "Taoist Messianism" Numen 31, no. 2 (1983): 161174.

Seidel, Anna K. "Imperial Treasures and Taoist Sacraments" In Tantric and Taoist Studies in Honor of Rolf A. Stein, edited by Michel Strickmann, vol. 2, pp. 291371. Brussels, 19811983.

Seidel, Anna K. "Post-mortem Immorality, or the Taoist Resurrection of Body." In Gilgul: Essays on Transformation, Revolution, and Permanence in the History of Religions, edited by Shaul Shaked, David Dean Shulman, Gedaliahu A. G. Stroumsa, dedicated to J. Zwi Werblowsky, pp. 223237. Leiden, 1987.

Seidel, Anna K. "Chronicle of Taoist Studies in the West 19501990." Cahiers d'Extrême-Asie 5 (19891990): 223347.

Seidel, Anna K. "Mountains and Hells: Religious Geography in Japanese Mandara Paintings." Studies in Central and East Asian Religions 56 (19921993): 122133.

Seidel, Anna K. Taoismus, die inoffizielle Hochreligion Chinas. Tokyo, 1990. Translated into English as "Taoism: The Unofficial High Religion of China." Taoist Resources 7, no. 2 (1997): 3972. Translated into French as "Taoïsme, religion non-officielle de la Chine." Cahiers d'Extrême-Asie 8 (1995): 139.

Seidel, Anna K. "Descente aux enfers et redemption des femmes dans le bouddhisme populaire japonaisle pèlerinage du Mont Tateyama." Cahiers d'Extrême-Asie 9 (1996-1997): 114.

An extensive bibliography of Seidel's works is found with her obituary by Fabrizio Pregadio in Taoist Resources 3, no. 2 (1992): 6771. Another comprehensive list of her works appears in Cahiers d'Extrême-Asie 8 (1995): xixxxi. Among the twenty obituaries in scholarly journals, those published in Numen 38, no. 2 (1991): 283284 and the Japanese Journal of Religious Studies 17, no. 1 (1992): 13, are most easily accessible. A more personal account of Seidel's work and life is Phyllis Brook Schafer's "Discovering a Religion," Taoist Resources 4, no. 2 (1993): 18.

Jennifer Oldstone-Moore (2005)

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Seidel, Anna Katharina

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