Daoism: A Short Introduction

Submitted by kirkland on Thu, 02/12/2009 - 20:25
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DAOISM: A SHORT INTRODUCTION. By James Miller. Oxford: Oneworld Publications, 2003. Pp. xviii + 174. Paper, £11.99 / $17.95, ISBN 1-85168-315-1.

After a generation of rapid advances in Daoist Studies, and the publication in 2000 of the monumental Daoism Handbook edited by Livia Kohn, there was clearly a need for new introductory texts that would provide an up-to-date survey of the entire tradition. Miller’s contribution joins Kohn’s Daoism and Chinese Culture (2001, 2nd ed. 2004) and my own Taoism: The Enduring Tradition (2004). 

As the preface explains, the book is intended largely for college students, and Miller’s presentation is clearly shaped by the author’s classroom experience regarding questions and concerns raised by students encountering Daoism for the first time. For example, Miller observes that “Daoists construct their ways of being religious in quite different ways than we might expect” (x). The work is filled with useful heuristic generalizations regarding such differences, such as the following: “the human experience of change or transformation in our bodies and in the world around us lies at the heart of the Daoist experience in much the same way that faith in an eternal, unchanging deity lies at the heart of the Jewish-Christian-Islamic religious system” (ix). Teachers and students of comparative religion will thus find here an excellent starting point for looking at Daoism as today’s scholars now understand it. 

The organization of the book’s contents (outlined at http://www.jamesmiller.ca/daoism-a-beginners-guide/) “does not follow a strict linear scheme,” so the reader is “invited to leap backwards and forwards…to pursue whichever themes or lines of thought are interesting” (xii). The book’s chapters are in fact organized according to “eight keywords or fundamental themes that I believe lie at the heart of Daoism in its various cultural and historical forms. In each chapter I focus on one of these themes using it as a lens or a spotlight to illuminate a key aspect of the Daoist tradition” (xii). Preceding those chapters is a “Historical Introduction,” where Miller provides a brief sketch of “proto-Daoism” (i.e., the Laozi, Zhuangzi, and Neiye or Inward Training); “classical Daoism” (i.e., early Tianshi, Shangqing, Lingbao, and Tang Daoism); “modern Daoism” (Quanzhen or “Complete Perfection”); and “contemporary Daoism” (19th century to today). Though terse, this historical sketch is sound, clear, and very up-to-date, especially concerning the long-neglected late-imperial and contemporary eras.

Chapter one, “Identity,” proposes three different ways of conceptualizing “Daoism” as a whole—as “Chinese Religion,” as “Lineages of Transmission,” and as “Universal Path.” It includes a thoughtful and enlightening explanation of interpretative problems caused by earlier generations of colonialistic Sinology, and discusses differences between Daoist religious perspectives and “popular Chinese religion,” while noting how the two partially coalesced from Song times on. Chapter two, “Way,” examines the concept of Dao itself, while chapter three, “Body,” provides a very important and helpful explanation of “Qi: The Breath of Life,” noting how Daoist models of biospiritual cultivation rest upon assumptions different from those underlying Western thought. The remaining chapters (Power, Light, Alchemy, Text, and Nature) similarly explicate Daoist ideas and practices on Daoist terms for a Western audience. Appended is a nice glossary of major Daoist terms (in Pinyin, Wade-Giles, and Chinese characters, with a succinct English definition); a bibliography of major studies in English; and a thorough index. Each chapter concludes with a few suggested readings. A section of the preface (xii-xiii) touches on basic issues of romanization, and explains that Miller uses the spelling “Daoism” “in order to distinguish [the subject] from what ‘Taoism’ represented in the twentieth-century Western imagination.”

Miller’s book says relatively little about the socio-political dimensions of Daoism within the evolving society of China, or about the many contributions of women Daoists. And scholars may take issue with a few of his interpretive positions. But as a comprehensive “short introduction,” this nuanced and well-informed book succeeds extremely well. 


Russell Kirkland

University of Georgia

December 2, 2004