Daoist Identity: History, Lineage, and Ritual

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Daoist Identity: History, Lineage, and Ritual. Edited by Livia Kohn and Harold Roth. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2002. Pp. x + 392; illustrations; photographs; glossary. Cloth, $56.00, ISBN 0-8248-2429-6; paper, $28.00, 0-8248-2504-7. 


Studies on Daoism have often seen themselves confronted with the need to stake out their territory—a need to define “things Daoist.” A relative newcomer in the humanities, the study of Daoism found itself in an arena where most issues of philosophy and religion had long been claimed by scholars of Confucianism and Buddhism. Matters were additionally complicated by the absence in Daoism of a clear point of origin: “Daoism” does not refer to a founding figure. Moreover, those who considered themselves Daoists seem to have attributed only minimal importance to “scriptural truths,” with phrases like “The Master said…” being virtually irrelevant to Daoist dialectics. Thus, a canonical point of reference from which an identity can be derived does not naturally impose itself.


No wonder, then, that the publication of Daoist Identity: History, Lineage, and Ritual, edited by Professors Livia Kohn and Harold Roth, could potentially be a landmark in the field. Indeed, among the striking features of this book is its broad range of topics, including an unusually strong presence of Japanese scholarship, which comprises more than half of the chapters (though the conspicuous lack of Chinese contributions is curious). All in all, the thirteen chapters form a rich ensemble of perspectives and approaches, subdivided into four categories: Part I, Early Formations; Part II, Texts and Symbols; Part III, Lineages and Local Culture; andPart IV, Ritual Boundaries.


In the introduction, Kohn and Roth state their intention to “do away with the futile endeavor to find permanence and solidity in the tradition and begin by looking at identity as process” (8). Although one wonders what exactly is meant by “tradition” if stripped of permanent and solid characteristics (a question reinforced by the statement in the next paragraph that “there are certain general or typical patterns in Daoist identity formation,” in which “key ideas or concepts” play a role), the focus on “process” is certainly an interesting one—and, as the articles in this volume attest to, a fruitful one. However, it is unfortunate that none of the chapters have been devoted to the formation of Daoist identity as an object of scholarly study, thereby allowing scholars to dwell on a self-created blind spot.


In the first chapter of Part I, “Early Formations,” Terry Kleeman surprises readers with the hitherto largely ignored fact that even in the case of the “founding fathers” of Daoism, the Celestial Masters, “non-Chinese ethnic groups have played a significant role in Daoism from the beginning” (24). In chapter two, Tsuchiya Masaaki notices a great degree of “self-reflection and critical self-evaluation” (55) in the confession of sins as practiced under the Way of Great Peace. Peter Nickerson argues in Chapter three that, contrary to common assumptions, with the advent of the Way of the Celestial Masters, “Daoist soteriology involved no revolution, no fundamental paradigmatic shift, from the religious treatments of death that had preceded it” (62).


Part II, “Texts and Symbols,” opens with a chapter by Mark Csikszentmihàlyi. The author explores “traditional taxonomies” current among the communities of Confucius and Mozi, as well as during the Warring States, the Han dynasty, and finally taxonomies concerning the revealed text. Csikszentmihàlyi argues that Han dynasty foundational movements “must not be studied in isolation from their antecedents but […] that the Laozi is not the right place to start” (82). Chapter five, by Suzanne Cahill, describes one of the most emotional ways in which Daoist identity has been expressed. Focusing on the poetry of Yu Xuanji (844-868), Cahill shows how adherence to the Dao can be revealed through poetic images of material culture, such as textiles, boats, and zithers, all spoken “in a powerful individual voice” (124). In chapter six, Mabuchi Masaya finds a Daoist strand of thinking adopted by the Ming dynasty scholar-official Wang Dao, who advocated a return “to the deepest roots of morality in the Dao” as expressed in the “highest language” of the Laozi (132; 130).


Part III opens with a chapter by Edward Davis on the patronage of the cult to the Xu brothers in Fujian. Davis argues that, contrary to Arthur Wolfe’s paradigm, “the cult to gods and the cult to ancestors were often conflated” and “more in tune with the popular tradition of Fujian” (160). Chapter eight, by Mori Yuria, surveys the transmission and adaptation of the Taiyi jinhua zongzhi in sectarian contexts. In chapter nine, Shiga Ichiko traces the development of daotan, “religious organization[s] centered on spirit-writing and the worship of Daoist deities” in Guangdong and Hong Kong (186).


The first chapter of Part IV is by Charles Orzech, a scholar of Chinese Buddhism. His interesting comparative study of Buddhist fang yankou and Daoist pudu rituals shows how the former has become “translated” into the latter, taking on a distinctive Daoist form. Also surveying interactions between Buddhism and Daoism, Mitamura Keiko maps out Buddhist influence upon Daoist hand signs, and vice versa. Chapter twelve, by Maruyama Hiroshi, comprises a study of documents used in Taiwanese Daoist rituals. According to Maruyama, the written document “is essential in defining Daoist ritual as Daoist” (256), and he succeeds in finding textual precedents that help define a ritual continuity from the Song dynasty to the present. Chapter thirteen shows how the use of meat in Taiwanese Daoist rituals (historically a taboo) is no reason to doubt their Daoist nature. Asano Haruji argues that these offerings are a concession to popular demand, but “included on the periphery, placed carefully away from the holiest altars” (291).


As this collection of articles revolves around the question of Daoist identity, with each chapter soliciting a unique definition of Daoism based on individual positions in the process of identity formation, certainly the notion of a single, authoritative (authoritarian) Daoist identity is challenged. Although questions as to what Daoist identity entails may not be answered in this volume, nonetheless, in the process of reviewing the question, new advances have been made and new inspirations aroused. The discussion stimulated in this book deserves to be continued.


Mark Meulenbeld

Princeton University/Academia Sinica


January 24, 2005