Daoism and Chinese Culture

Submitted by James Miller on Thu, 02/12/2009 - 20:29
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Daoism and Chinese Culture. By Livia Kohn. Cambridge, Mass.: Three Pines Press, 2004 (2001). 2nd rev. ed. Pp. x + 228, illustrations, charts. Paper, $19.95, ISBN 1-931483-00-0.

Livia Kohn’s Daoism and Chinese Culture, now available in a second, revised edition (cleansed of the typographical errors that characterized the first edition), represents the first of three recent introductory textbooks on Daoism. Of the three, Kohn’s is the most historical (Russell Kirkland’s Taoism: The Enduring Tradition [Routledge, 2004] is more theoretical and James Miller’s Daoism: A Short Introduction [Oneworld, 2003] is thematic). Still, Kohn’s historical narrative of Daoism is discontinuous because, as Kohn explains in her acknowledgements, “the text is thematically divided into four parts: Ancient Thought, Religious Communities, Spiritual Practices, and Modernity” (vii). Daoism and Chinese Culture is designed to be used in combination with Kohn’s The Taoist Experience (State University of New York Press, 1993), with each chapter concluding with lists of relevant sections of the Daoist primary sources published in that anthology. As Kohn’s historical survey is meant primarily for classroom use, evaluating whether this structure works pedagogically is the main task of this review.

In the introduction, Kohn wisely if expectedly offers a capsule history of the study (and misinterpretation) of Daoism. Although nothing new to scholars of Daoism, such a preamble will help students counteract the pernicious effects of world religions textbooks or popular stereotypes, which characterize the whole of the Daoist tradition as a philosophy of holism invented by a sage named Laozi. In the introduction Kohn also argues that there are “three types of organization and practice: literati, communal, and self-cultivation” (5). This tripartite division works well in the classroom as long it is made clear to literal-minded undergraduates that these are not indigenous categories, but Kohn’s heuristic inventions.

Part one, “Ancient Thought,” consists of three chapters: (1) “Laozi and the Daode jing,” which also includes a useful survey of Confucian virtues; (2) “The Zhuangzi;” and (3) “Han Cosmology and Immortality,” which is arguably the chapter that best justifies the inclusion of “Chinese Culture” as part of the book’s title. The latter aptly summarizes the Five Agents (wuxing), the stem and branch system of the Chinese calendar, traditional burial practices, and other essential pieces of the traditional Chinese worldview, which would be as relevant for the first-time traveler to China as they are in the classroom.

Part two, “Religious Communities,” also includes three chapters: (4) “Communal Organizations,” which mainly focuses on the Tianshi (Celestial Masters) movement; (5) “Self-Cultivation Groups,” dealing primarily with the Shangqing (Highest Clarity) and Lingbao (Numinous Treasure) revelations; and (6) “Daoism and the State,” a short and somewhat miscellaneous chapter. Part three, “Spiritual Practices,” comprises chapters on “Ritual and Meditation,” “Spells, Talismans, and Inner Alchemy,” which also contains background information on Tantric Buddhism and the Yijing (Classic of Changes), and “Monasticism,” which primarily concerns Quanzhen (Complete Perfection) Daoism.


Part four, Modernity,” is the most strictly chronological section, and comprises two chapters: “Changes in the Ming and Qing” and “Daoism Today.” The very existence of this last chapter provides a great service to teachers who want to stress Daoism as a living religion. This chapter emphasizes both contemporary Daoism’s continuity and discontinuity with the past. The chapter’s final section describes various self-styled Daoist masters in North America, which Kohn sees as replicating the three types of organization which were outlined in the introduction. This last chapter is more tantalizing and less thorough than the others, and here especially a teacher should be armed with more background to be prepared in the classroom. Two appendices, a brief discussion of Daoism in other Asian countries and a chronological chart which matches Daoist dates with events in world and Chinese history, complete this textbook.

Daoism and Chinese Culture packs a powerful punch in two hundred pages. Some might complain that the chapter titles do not always convey the contents of the chapter—why does the chapter on “Daoism and the State” include the founding of Louguantai? Why does the “Ritual and Meditation” chapter treat the formation of the Daoist Canon? In fact, any attempt to treat Daoism both thematically and chronologically make such choices inevitable, and Kohn has insured that each chapter and section flows beautifully into the next. The book includes juicy nuggets of Daoist primary texts and, at the end of each chapter, a well-chosen list of primary and secondary sources. Clear, concise, and comprehensive, Daoism and the Chinese Culture is a reliable, perhaps essential, option for any college-level course on Daoism, Chinese religions, or religions of East Asia. Students need a trusted expert like Livia Kohn to guide them through the rich and mysterious forest of Daoism.

Elijah Siegler

College of Charleston

January 24, 2005