Daoist Studies in North America: A Survey of Scholars and Recent Trends

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Livia Kohn 柯恩

In comparison with other religions, Daoism is difficult to pinpoint. It is neither clearly an ethnic nor a universal religion, but combines elements of both. It fits to a certain degree into the mold of ancient cosmologies that see the world as cyclical and create ritual and other patterns to match the ebb and flow of the seasons. Yet it also has a distinctly linear outlook in its vision of Great Peace and the complete overcoming of the human condition in an ideal world.

The same tension between cyclical and linear also applies to its relationship to nature: for the most part Daoist practices serve to create greater harmony with nature, better health in the individual, increased communication with the gods. But then there is also its ultimate goal of immortality, which clearly means to transcend all natural constrictions and live in an utterly nonhuman manner: eating qi instead of food, flying through the air instead of walking, communing with spirits instead of people, serving as officials in the celestial administration instead of the local yamen, and living forever instead of undergoing death, rebirth, and ancestral veneration.

While all this makes it difficult to classify Daoism in a comparative framework, the picture is made more complex by the fact that the religion is also deeply embedded in Chinese culture, and often the boundaries between Daoism and other cultural aspects of China are blurred. The question “What is Daoism?” has plagued religion scholars and sinologists alike, and there is no easy answer. The boundaries between Daoism and mainstream thought, traditional cosmology, Chinese medicine, Buddhism, and popular religion are vague at best.

For example, even in its very early stages, the Daoist school of thought was closely related to other forms of Chinese philosophy, the term dao being used by all to refer to the underlying patterns of the cosmos and ideal way of governing. Throughout its history, moreover, the religion has never lost its connection to the Confucian mainstream, extolling Confucian virtues, integrating Confucian ethical principles, and often working closely with Confucians in the government of the empire. The same holds true for classical Chinese cosmology. Daoism actively participates in Chinese culture through the system of yin-yang and the five phases, a wide use of the Yijing, the traditional calendar, forms of divination (astrology, physiognomy), and various ways of manipulating qi (fengshui, music, exercises). Although often called “Daoist,” there is nothing uniquely Daoist about any of these.

Similarly blurry boundaries exist between Daoist practice and Chinese medicine, Daoist and Buddhist forms of meditation and worldview, and between Daoist worship and popular cults. Daoism has, throughout its history, continued to adapt to the changing times by integrating new and varied forms of practice and visions of the universe. It has never stopped doing so, and the increasing popularity of Daoist health spas today testifies to this ongoing process of adaptation and transformation. While this explains the apparently amorphous nature of the religion and the wide variety of its concepts and practices, it also makes it even more difficult to answer the question: What is Daoism?

Despite all these, however, there are a few things that make Daoism unique and delimit it clearly vis-à-vis other religions and the various aspects of Chinese culture. Three are most important: the concept of Dao as the underlying power that creates and supports everything in the best possible way and to which one can relate through intuition and by cultivating nonaction; the understanding of multiple layers of heaven, occupied by pure, cosmic deities and transcendent bureaucrats, in their turn aided by human priests who become their equals through ritual transformation; and the firm conviction that the qi-based human body-mind can be transmuted into an immortal spirit entity through the systematic and persistent application of longevity techniques and advanced meditations.

Daoists thus differ from Confucians in that—without denying their value—they do not see social relationships and ethical rules as central nodes of life. They expand on traditional cosmology by proposing additional levels of heaven that are closer to the purity of creation and house uniquely Daoist gods. They work with the fundamental methods of Chinese medicine yet take them to new heights by applying them to transmutation above and beyond healing and long life.

In addition, they add a dimension to popular religion by enabling their priests to become otherworld officials who engage in bureaucratic interactions with the divine, often winning law suits against spirits and successfully delivering people from the depths of hell. And they are clearly distinct from Buddhists not only because their monks keep their hair and maintain relations to their native families while their nuns and priestesses are treated as equals, but also because they do not seek release from rebirth in the complete cessation of nirvana but find ultimate perfection in a permanent spirit existence in the heavens above.

This being so, Daoism underwent a series of distinct stages of development. Three are most obvious: an ancient or classical phase that includes the philosophers and extends through the Han dynasty; a medieval or formative phase that sees the emergence of the major schools and their integration in the systematic hierarchy of the Tang; and a modern or popular phase characterized by the emergence of martial culture, the integration of popular gods, and the harmonization of the three teachings.

Each of these can be further subdivided into two sections each, delimiting the Warring States philosophers from the integrative cosmology, mythology, and medicine of the Han; the emergence of the separate schools through various revelations during the Six Dynasties from the integration and political application of Daoism in the unified empire of the Tang; and the open market and multiple facets of Song religion from the tight imperial restrictions and increasing local centers in the Ming and Qing. To all this, moreover, a seventh stage should be added that marks Daoism today with its adaptation of modernity, relation to qigong, and spread to the West.

Evolution of Study

Daoist Studies began in the 1930s after the Daoist canon, whose woodblocks had barely survived the centuries stored away in monastic basements, had been reprinted in Shanghai in 1923-25. Japan and France, present in China as colonial powers, were the two countries that purchased copies of this newly available treasure trove, and it was there that the academic study of Daoism first emerged, with few Chinese scholars taking an active interest.

The pioneers of Daoist Studies were Henri Maspero in France, Yoshioka Yoshitoyo 吉岡義 in Japan, and Chen Guofu 陳國符in China; their works are still classics in the field. The next generation of scholars furnished the grand old men of Daoist Studies, whose institutions and students are shaping it to the present day. They were Maxime Kaltenmark in France, Ōfuchi Ninji 大淵忍爾and Fukui Kōjun 福井康順in Japan.

The students of Maxime Kaltenmark, trained in the 1960s and 1970s, in turn, became the teachers of senior Western scholars today: Anna Seidel, Michel Strickmann, Isabelle Robinet, Catherine Despeux, Farzeen Baldrian-Hussein, and—most importantly, his successor—Kristofer Schipper. Due to their inspiring work and also because of the 1960s Taiwan reprint of the Daoist canon in a reduced edition (which made it both affordable and movable), the study of Daoism began to spread in the 1970s. As the field grew, leading scholars from France and Japan were responsible for organizing three international conferences, which took place in Bellagio (Italy) in 1968, Tateshina (Japan) in 1973, and Unterägeri (Switzerland) in 1979, and also included participants from various other countries. French and Japanese scholars are moreover responsible for the compilation of a number of important indexes and concordances to the Daoist canon and various individual texts, materials that are essential in opening access to key sources. The most important of these reference works is The Daoist Canon, edited by Kristofer Schipper and Franciscus Verellen (2004), a comprehensive guide to texts in the Daozang and the result of a major international cooperative project that was begun in the 1970s with funding from the European Union.

The overarching tendency of the early generations of scholars, in the 1940s-60s, was to focus on textual issues. Which texts belonged to what school? What were their dates? How were they related to each other? Had they survived intact or were they composites including later additions? Who were their authors? And what were the circumstances of, and motivations for, their compilation? All these were essential questions in an initial effort to come to terms with the approximately 1,500 texts of the Daoist canon plus its various supplements as well as manuscripts found at Dunhuang, a large variety of stele inscriptions, and texts contained in non-Daoist collections. Guided by Japanese scholars who excelled at this kind of philological groundwork, this effort led to a fairly clear understanding of the major schools, texts, and protagonists of the religion. It centered particularly on the formative phase in the middle ages, between the Han and Tang dynasties, leaving the study of modern Daoism to later generations.

Following the fundamental identification and analysis of texts, plus the establishment of a basic vocabulary of technical terms, in the 1970s and 1980s, scholars turned their attention to the understanding of Daoist history. Who exactly was active in what school under what circumstances and for what reasons? How did Daoist schools, concepts, and practices relate to events in Chinese history? What were their cultural and political connections to mainstream patterns? Beyond the fundamental coming-to-grips with the tradition, a key concern at this stage was also to overcome the inherent prejudice among classical sinologists. Their dominant attitude was that Daoism was a subject to be taken up after retirement and that its study had little to offer for the understanding of mainstream Chinese politics, literature, and philosophy.

Since the 1990s, while the exploration of both texts and history—especially also of modern Daoism since the Song—has continued unabatedly, the focus has shifted to also include the creation of comprehensive textbooks and encyclopedias as well as the study of Daoist practices, longevity, meditation, and ritual. It is in these areas that North American scholars have made major contributions.

American Scholarship

The first American Daoist scholars, active in the 1980s, were not trained as specialists in the field but came from a variety of other areas within Chinese Studies. Realizing increasingly that they could not properly pursue their research without taking Daoist materials into account, they explored the texts of the canon and learned more about the tradition. Over a number of years, they encouraged graduate students to pursue more specific Daoist topics, who in due course became professors at various institutions and—often under European, Japanese, and Chinese influence—developed their own preferences and methodologies, carrying the field into new regions and bringing it to new depths. The fields the first scholars came from include philosophy, literature, history, popular religion, anthropology, and medicine. Let us look at them in turn.


A key teacher of philosophical Daoist scholars in America was Julia Ching (1934-2001), who received her degree from Australian National University and spent her teaching career at the University of Toronto, Canada. A specialist of Neo-Confucianism whose main work dealt with the thought of Wang Yangming (1976), she trained two main protagonists in the study of early Daoist thought: Alan K. L. Chan, at the National University of Singapore, who is best known for his extensive study of Daode jing commentaries (1991); and Harold D. Roth, at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island, who is a pioneer in Huainanzi studies (1992; 2009) and the unearthing of early Daoist meditation techniques (1999). He has one advanced graduate student, Norman Harry Rothschild, who works on the reign of Empress Wu and now teaches at the University of Northern Florida in Jacksonville.

Many other scholars of Daoist thought come from a philosophical background. They tend to work either within traditional China or in a comparative context. Five are graduates of Harvard University. First is Victor Mair, now at the University of Pennsylvania, who studies Chinese thought and literature and has his own translations of the Daode jing (1990) and the Zhuangzi (1994) as well as an edited volume with many important contributions on the philosophy and Daoist practice represented in the Zhuangzi (1983). Like him staying within the confines of Chinese history is Robin Yates, a professor at McGill University in Montreal, Canada, who specializes in ancient manuscripts and their connection to Daoism. His most important work is a translation of the Five Classics (1997).

Similarly focused on Chinese thought is Sarah Queen who teaches at Connecticut College. Her main work deals with Dong Zhongshu and, like fellow Harvard graduate Andrew Meyer, who teaches at Brooklyn College, she is involved in the Huainanzi translation project (Roth et al. 2009). Also a Harvard graduate, but more a comparative philosopher, is Jonathan Herman who teaches at Georgia State University and is the author of a book that compares the thought of the Zhuangzi with that of the German philosopher Martin Buber (1996).

Other scholars of Daoism in a comparative context include first Robert Allinson, who earned his Ph.D. from the Univeristy of Texas at Austin and served as professor at Soka University in California. Mostly engaged in wider comparative philosophical speculation, he has brought the Zhuangzi into a wider interdisciplinary dialogue with a unique interpretation (1990). Also of great importance is Ronnie Littlejohn, a graduate of Baylor University who now teaches at Belmont University in Tennessee and focuses on philosophy in a comparative mode. He has written a general introduction to Daoism (2008). Together with Jeffrey Dippmann, a graduate of Northwestern University who teaches at Western Washington University, he is also the editor of a comprehensive volume on the Liezi (2009). Dippmann himself studies Daoist thought in comparison to Buddhism and is particularly interested in the thought of Sengzhao (2009).

Several other scholars focus again more on ancient Daoist thought within Chinese culture. Among them are Roger T. Ames, a graduate of the School of Orienal and African Studies in London and professor at the University of Hawai’i, who has worked mostly on Confucian and political thought but who has also authored a book that focuses on the Huainanzi (1983); Mark Csikszentmihalyi, a graduate of Stanford University and professor at the University of Wisconsin, who has written on Han thought and co-edited a book on interpreting the Daode jing (1999); Robert Henricks, a graduate of the University of Wisconsin and professor emeritus of Dartmouth College, who is best known for his translation of the Mawangdui and Guodian manuscripts of the Laozi (1989; 2000); Michael LaFargue, professor at Northeastern University in Boston, who does textual and historical analysis of the Daode jing (1992; 1994; with Livia Kohn 1998); Edward Slingerland, a graduate of Stanford University who teaches at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver and focuses on concepts of nonaction (2003); and Charles LeBlanc, professor at the University of Montreal (Canada), whose specialty is the Huainanzi in its various aspects (1985; 1987; 1992).

The tendency among scholars who come to Daoism from philosophy is to remain largely with the early texts, to focus on Daode jing and Zhuangzi, and work to place the texts and their ideas within early Chinese history and thought or, again, to relate them to other works in cross-cultural comparison. More and more attention is being paid to manuscripts and new editions, the Huainanzi (finally fully translated) looms large, and there is a strong urge to make ancient Daoist ideas available to scholars of other philosophies worldwide.


The most important Daoist scholar who comes from a background in literature is Edward H. Schafer (1913-1991), both a graduate and a teacher a the University of California at Berkeley. His works in the field are numerous, often using poetry to access Daoist thought and Daoist visions to properly understand poetry. His best known Daoist books focus on the nature and worship of goddesses (1973) and the practice of ecstatic travels to the stars or “pacing the void” (1977). In his long and distinguished teaching career he trained some of the most important Daoist scholars today.

They include Paul W. Kroll (University of Colorado) whose work focuses largely on Tang poetry in relation to Daoism (1981); Suzanne Cahill (University of Californa at San Diego) who has dedicated much of her career to the study of women in Daoism and authored a book on Xiwangmu (1993) and a translation of Du Guangting’s women’s biographies (2006); Judith Magee Boltz who is best known for her outstanding survey of Daoist literature from the Song dynasty onward (1987); Donald Harper (University of Chicago) who focuses on the study of ancient manuscripts, mostly of the medical tradition but often with a distinct impact on Daoism (1998); and Livia Kohn (Boston University) who has written numerous books on meditation, mysticism, mythology, ethics, and body cultivation and edited various comprehensive volumes on Daoism in general (see box). Now retired from active teaching, she serves as also the editor of the Journal of Daoist Studies, runs a Daoist publishing company (www.threepinespress.com), and is chair of the board of Legacy of Dao, a foundation dedicated to the spread of Daoist wisdom and practices (www.legacyofdao.org ).


ed., with Robin R. Wang, Internal Alchemy: Self, Society, and the Quest for Immortality. Magdalena, NM: Three Pines Press: 2009.

Introducing Daoism. London: Routledge, 2008.

Meditation Works: In the Daoist, Buddhist, and Hindu Traditions. Magdalena, NM: Three Pines Press: 2008.

Chinese Healing Exercises: The Tradition of Daoyin. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2008.

ed., Daoist Body Cultivation: Traditional Models and Contemporary Practices. Magdalena, NM: Three Pines Press: 2006.

Health and Long Life: The Chinese Way. Cambridge, Mass.: Three Pines Press, 2005.

Supplement to ‘Cosmos and Community’. E-Dao Series. Cambridge, Mass.: Three Pines Press, 2004.

Cosmos and Community: The Ethical Dimension of Daoism. Cambridge, Mass.: Three Pines Press, 2004.

The Daoist Monastic Manual: A Translation of the Fengdao Kejie. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004.

Monastic Life in Medieval Daoism: A Cross-Cultural Perspective. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2003.

Women in Daoism. With Catherine Despeux. Cambridge, Mass.: Three Pines Press, 2003.

ed., with Harold D. Roth, Daoist Identity: History, Lineage, and Ritual. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2002.

Daoism and Chinese Culture. Cambridge, Mass.: Three Pines Press, 2001.

ed., Daoism Handbook. Leiden: E. Brill, 2000.

God of the Dao: Lord Lao in History and Myth. University of Michigan, Center for Chinese Studies, 1998.

ed., with Michael LaFargue, Lao-tzu and the Tao-te-ching. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1998.

Laughing at the Tao: Debates Among Buddhists and Taoists in Medieval China. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1995.

The Taoist Experience: An Anthology. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1993.

Early Chinese Mysticism: Philosophy and Soteriology in the Taoist Tradition. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1992.

Taoist Mystical Philosophy: The Scripture of Western Ascension. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1991. Reprinted by Three Pines Press, 2007.

ed., Taoist Meditation and Longevity Techniques. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan, Center for Chinese Studies Publications, 1989.

Seven Steps to the Tao: Sima Chengzhen’s Zuowanglun. St. Augustin/Nettetal: Monumenta Serica Monograph 20, 1987.

Leben und Legende des Ch’en T’uan. Frankfurt: Peter Lang, Würzburger Sino-Japonica 9, 1981.

Livia Kohn has three students who graduated from Boston University and are becoming prominent in the field: James Miller (Queen’s University, Kingston, Ontario) focuses on the study of Shangqing Daoism (2008) and, besides co-editing the key volume on Daoism and ecology (Girardot et al. 2001), has written a thematic introduction to the religion at large (2003). He is also the originator and key organizer of the most important website in the field: www.daoiststudies.org. Louis Komjathy (University of San Diego) is the author of a major analytical volume on mystical practices of the Quanzhen school (2007) and an anthology of Quanzhen texts (2013) as well as the compiler of a key index to Daoist texts both in the Daoist canon and in later collections (2003). An inititated Daoist and long-time practitioner, he also runs his own foundation (www.daoistfoundation.org ). Shawn Arthur (Appalachian State University) studies dietary practices and works particularly on bigu; he expects to publish his dissertation, “Ancient Daoist Diets for Health and Longevity,” in the next year or two. All three scholars are part of a new trend within American Daoist Studies to focus more actively on practices of meditation and body cultivation and to combine historical, scholarly analysis actively with engagement in practices—whether one’s own or in dialogue with practicing Daoists. Another, earlier student of hers, who graduated under Kenneth DeWoskin from the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, is Thomas E. Smith, who now lives and works in Taiwan. His main focus is on medieval saints, immortals, and legends (1992), and he is currently working on a translation of the Liexian zhuan.

Beyond the Berkeley-based crowd, another Daoist scholar with a strong base in literature is Richard Mather, professor emeritus of the University of Minnesota. His focus is on early medieval literature and he stands out for his translation of the Shishuo xinyu (1976), from which he developed a keen interest in Daoist topics and worked on related themes (e.g., 1979). More recently, there is Robert Campany, a graduate of the University of Chicago (Anthony Yü) who taught for many years at Indiana University and is now at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. His meticulous attention to detail and philological competence have stood him in good service as he translated and analyzed the Shenxian zhuan (2002) as well as in his new study of early Daoist asceticism (2009).

Overall, scholars who come to Daoist Studies from a background in literature tend to create powerful translations of important works. They often focus on textual analysis. In terms of content, they enjoy studying various religious practices and are interested in issues of mythology and sainthood. Their methodology is philological with a heavy dose of religious studies.


The first American scholar to pay attention to Daoism from the historical perspective was Holmes Welch (1924-1981), a professor at Harvard University whose main interest was in the modern transformation of Buddhism. His Taoism: The Parting of the Way (1965) served as the standard presentation of the tradition well into the 1990s, when Isabelle Robinet’s Taoism: Growth of a Religion first appeared. He was also, together with Anna Seidel, the editor of the presentations at the second international conference in Tateshina, Japan, creating a volume that serves as model and inspiration to the present day (1979). Another early scholar of Daoist history is Tao-chung (Ted) Yao who earned his doctorate at the University of Arizona with a dissertation on the development of the Quanzhen school (1980) and later served as professor at the University of Hawai’i. He has moved on to other topics, but does revisit Quanzhen every so often (2000).

The most important representative of the history-based approach to Daoist Studies in America, which places ritual and sociological aspects in the forefront of inquiry, is Michel Strickmann (1942-1994). An American citizen, he studied with Kristofer Schipper in Paris, then succeeded Edward H. Schafer at the University of California at Berkeley (1978-1991) to eventually return to France where he taught at the University of Bordeaux. His work was firmly dedicated to making sinologists aware of the importance of Daoist sources and to placing Daoism in its rightful place in Chinese history. Much of his work focuses on the Shangqing revelations, their alchemical practices, and their visions of the messiah or Latter-Day Saint (1981), but he also excelled as the editor of a key volume on Daoist Studies that contains many pathbreaking works (1985). At the time of his death, he was deeply immersed in the study of both tantric buddhist ritual in medieval China and Daoist magical medicine. Both studies were later edited and appeared posthumously (1996; 2002).

His most important students, from his time at UC Berkeley are Stephen R. Bokenkamp (Indiana University, then Arizona State University) and Terry Kleeman (University of Colorado). Both have made important contributions to our understanding of medieval Daoism, offering extensive translations and analytical studies, notably of the Lingbao school (Bokenkamp 1997; 2007) as well as of the god of literature (Wenchang) and the political structures of the early Celestial Masters (Kleeman 1994; 1998). Among their students especially Gil Raz stands out: he teaches at Dartmouth College and studies dietary and sexual practices of the early medieval period.

Other historically trained scholars that graduated from UC Berkeley—from the History Department rather than under Michel Strickmann—are Peter Nickerson (Duke University) and Edward Davis (University of Hawai’i). Nickerson’s specialty is death rituals and ancestor visions of medieval Daoism, and he has a contribution in Bokenkamp’s anthology (1997). Davis’s main focus is on Song-dynasty ritual masters and spirit mediums in relation to Daoist lineages and practices (2001).

Also important among historians is Russell Kirkland who graduated under Judith Berling from Indiana University and now teaches at the University of Georgia. His dissertation focuses on the biographies of great Daoist masters of the Tang dynasty (1986); he has made important contributions to the periodization and analytical evaluation of Daoism (1997); and he is the author of a historical survey of the tradition (2004). Then there is Charles Benn, an independent scholar and adjunct lecturer at the University of Hawai’i who originally graduated from the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor. He focuses dominantly on the Tang dyansty and has made an important contribution to our understanding of Daoist ritual and ordination in connection with the imperial court (1991) and has recently published a book on Tang daily life (2002). And there is Wang Li, a graduate of the University of Iowa who now serves as a librarian at Brown University, whose dissertation explores the life and work of neidan master Bai Yuchan (2004).

Two other historians, finally, have come to Daoism from different directions but made important contributions to the field. They are Catherine Bell, who graduated from the University of Chicago with a dissertation on medieval Daoist ritual (1983) and later, as professor at Santa Clara University, moved on to study ritual theory in general (e.g., 1992); and Victor Xiong, a graduate of Australian National University who now teaches at Western Michigan University, whose specialty is the material culture and active living situation in medieval China (2000). His contribution to Daoism lies in creating the concrete details of Daoist life in the middle ages and he is an expert in the tradition.

Although history pervades the work of many Daoist scholars in America, it is the key focus and disciplinary background of these researchers. Their main thrust is to understand the societal and political connections of the tradition as well as to examine the sources in a critical context. They are also eager to debunk preconceptions and create accurate periodizations and work hard to gain full acceptance for Daoism among sinologists and historians alike.

Popular Religion

Popular religion, the study of community gods, widespread rituals, and folk practices is another venue that has led scholars into the field of Daoist Studies. The senior scholar in this dimension is Daniel Overmyer, a graduate of Harvard University who spent his teaching career at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada. His specialty is the study of folk religious cults and activities in the late imperial and modern periods, most importantly those inspired by Buddhism (1976) and the mediumnistic new religious of the post-war period (1986). Three of his students have become professors and are making major contributions to the field today. Stephen Eskildsen (University of Tennessee at Chattanooga) focuses largely on Daoist cultivation practices of the late medieval and Song periods. He has published a general volume on asceticism (1998) and a specialized study of the practices of Quanzhen masters (2004) and is currently exploring advanced alchemical meditation methods and their effects in a cross-cultural analysis. Shinyi Chao (Rutgers University in Camden) also focuses on internal alchemy, but her studies tend to emphasize more the ritual and devotional dimension, notably as related to the god Xuanwu or Zhenwu, the Perfect Warrior. Philip Clart (University of Missouri, now Universität Leipzig), on the other hand, works more within the popular religious sphere: his dissertation is on the ritual context of morality books in the late imperial period. His main work is on the legend and alchemical practices associated with Han Xiangzi, one of the Eight Immortals (2007).

Another popular religion scholar to be mentioned here is Norman Girardot, who received his Ph. D. at the University of Chicago under the guidance of Mircea Eliade and spent his teaching career at Lehigh University in Pennsylvania. His main Daoist work is an in-depth textual and cross-cultural study of Hundun or “chaos,” both in terms of mythology/cosmology and Daoist mysticism and practices (1983). He has contributed widely to the field, organizing conferences and serving on numerous committees; he has also, unlike many more historically bound scholars, keenly aware of the ramifications of Daoist culture in modern America. Among younger scholars, there is also Paul R. Katz, a graduate of Princeton University who now works at the Academia Sinica in Taiwan. Coming from a background in popular cults (1993), his main focus within Daoism is the study of the legend, depictions, and worship of Lü Dongbin (2000) as well as of other popular figures.

Scholars who examine Daoism from a background in popular religion tend to be strongly aware of the sociological and experiential dimensions of the religion. Generally oriented towards history, they make important contributions to our understanding of the actual practice and social situation of Daoism in various ages.


A completely different line of approach to Daoism comes from the field of anthropology. Scholars here tend to spend much time in China: participant observers—and in some cases ordained Daoists—they focus on the concrete realities of the religion as it is practiced today, studying what exactly Daoists do and how they do it, what training and lineage they possess, how their practice fits into the larger society, and what regional differences there might be in different parts of the country.

The first American scholar of this kind is Michael Saso, who received his Ph. D. in anthropology from the University of London and spent his teaching career at the University of Hawai’i. He retired from there in 1990 to live in China where he teaches and connects to Daoist activities. A religious practitioner from an early age, he was ordained as a Jesuit, a Daoist priest, and a Tendai monk. His main fieldwork in Daoism took place in Taiwan, and he was the first to provide an in-depth description of the jiao or, as he called it, “festival of cosmic renewal” (1972). He also apprenticed with a local Daoist in Xinzhu, Master Zhuang, and published his Daoist materials despite being sworn to secrecy (1978). His additional claim that this represented the truly “orthodox” tradition of the religion earned him a scathing review by Michel Strickmann (1980) and destroyed his chances of a professorship at Yale. Dispirited by this criticism, he continued to work in a more low-key mode, focusing on Daoist community practices (1990) and modern forms of meditation (1995). He is still active in the field, but more inside of China than within the American scholarly community.

The most important current representative of the anthropological mode is Kenneth Dean, a graduate of Standford University who teaches at McGill University in Montreal. Doing extensive fieldwork in southeastern China, notably the province of Fujian, he describes ritual patterns, social structures, and venerated deities with meticulous competence both in their contemporary and historical dimensions (1993; 1998). His main student is Sara Neswald who currently teaches in Taiwan. Her specialty is the practice of women’s internal alchemy and she is involves in several research projects on its contemporary practice as well as the translation of relevant texts.

Another Stanford graduate who works in anthropology is James Robson, now professor at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor. He specializes on sacred mountains and especially the Southern Peak (Nanyue) with its various temples and cults, starting from a Buddhist perspective but including all different aspects (1995; 2009). Since the mountain is essential in Daoist history and worship, his work is important for our understanding of the tradition. Also from Stanford is Julius Tsai, now professor at San Diego State University. After extensive fieldwork in Taiwan, he focuses on issues of social contextualization of ritual as well as Daoist religious biography. Last but not least, there is Michael Puett, a graduate of the University of Chicago who now teaches at Harvard. Using anthropological approaches in a historical setting, his main focus is the development of early Chinese ritual and ancestral sacrifice in conjunction with traditional thought about divinity and self-cultivation (2002). He has a continued vibrant interest in the Daoist tradition and is moving to work with Shangqing and other medieval texts.


Not entirely unrelated to the anthropological approach is the way into Daoism from a background in medicine. Physical health and bodily integrity are central features in Daoist practice; the religion relies heavily on longevity techniques as a preparation for more advanced meditations. Not only is the vision of the Daoist body an extension of its conceptualization in Chinese medicine, but the methods used in both areas often coincide or are intimately linked. Thus, scholars from a literature background—at least in the second and third generations—have made inroads into the medical dimension of Daoism (Kohn, Arthur, Harper). Similarly, scholars of medicine have contributed significantly to Daoist Studies.

The most important figure in this field is Nathan Sivin, a graduate of the History of Science program at Harvard University who taught at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia until his retirement. Best known for his extensive studies in the history of Chinese medicine, he also contributed a major work on Daoist alchemy (1968) and a study of contemporary practice (1988). He has two students of renown: Marta Hanson, now at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, who is a specialist of Qing-dynasty medicine in conjunction with Manchu studies and has a continued, if somewhat distant interest in all things Daoist; and Lowell Skar, at the University of Michigan in Dearborn, who works largely on Daoist healing since the Song, notably internal alchemy and Thunder Rites (e.g., 1997). He has published various articles on the subject and is working on a book.

Another professor of Chinese medicine with a Daoist connection is Charlotte Furth, a Standford graduate who teaches at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. Her main contribution to the field is a highly acclaimed social history of women’s medicine (fuke) from the Song to the early Qing dynasties, which is highly relevant to the understanding of the body, female alchemy, and various Daoist practices related to medicine (1999). Her main student is Xun Liu劉迅, originally from Wuhan, who is now professor at Rutgers University in New Brunswick. His main work examines the life and work of the Daoist master Chen Yingning, internal alchemy, and community in early 20th-century Shanghai (2009); in addition, he studies Daoism in the Ming and Qing, examining Daoist meditation and sociological structures, and is currently involved in a research project that documents the history and current situation of Daoist temples in local society in Nanyang and Wuhan.

Last but not least, there is Douglas Wile, professor at Brooklyn College in New York, whose main focus is the history and textual documentation of taiji quan (1983; 1996; 1999). His most important contribution to Daoism is the analysis and translation of sexual manuals, including materials on women’s practice (1992). A similar direction is also followed by Barbara Davis, who holds an M.A. in East Asian Studies from the University of Minnesota and serves as the editor of T’ai Chi Ch’uan Journal. She, too, has translated the major taiji classics (2004).

There are not many students of Daoism with a background and/or interest in medicine but they provide an important dimension to the exploration of the tradition since they are keenly aware of its foundation in physical practice and the cosmic understanding of the human body. They also contribute significantly to the outreach of Daoist Studies to the examination of medical and longevity practices in traditional China.

Art History

The first American scholar to come to Daoism from the field of art history is Arthur Pontynen, who received his degree from the University of Iowa in Iowa City (1983) where he still teaches today. Having written various articles on statues of Laozi and other objects of early Daoist art, he has since moved on to the more general examination of art in relation to morality (2006).

A major splash in the American study of Daoist art occurred in 2000, when Stephen Little in cooperation with Shawn Eichman organized a major exhibition of Daoist art in Chicago and San Francisco. Stephen Little is a graduate of the Royal College of Art in London and author of a general book on Daoist art (1988). At the time curator of Asian art at the Art Institute of Chicago, he now serves as the director of the Honolulu Academy of Arts in Hawaii. Shawn Eichman received wrote his dissertation on medieval Daoism at the University of Toronto and, after time at the Nelson-Atkins Museum in Kansas City and the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond, is now also at the Honolulu Academy of Arts. Their joint exhibition for the first time bought together major Daoist art works from all over the world, assembling pieces of all different kinds and from many periods of Chinese history. Its catalog (2000) not only depicts and describes the artifacts but also contains a series of important articles on iconography, architecture, and artistic history. Is still the most profound publication in the field. Its authors, though, serving as museum curators have to move on to focus on wider presentations of Asian art and are only doing limited work on Daoism these days.

The one scholar whose current full academic concentration is on Daoist art is Shih-shan Susan Huang, originally from Taiwan. After graduating from Yale University, she now teaches at Rice University in Houston. Her dissertation is on Daoist art of the Song dynasty in relation to ritual and cosmology (2002) and she is working on a comprehensive volume on Daoist art of that period.

Daoist art is still largely unexplored and underrepresented as a field. All too often are Daoist art works classified as “Buddhist” or “unknown” and no attention is paid to their uniqueness and their importance in the deeper understanding of Chinese religion and culture. Among all the fields, this needs the strongest growth as time goes along.


The United States being a major immigrant country, there are also several scholars in Daoist Studies who were born and trained in Europe but are now either permanent residents or citizens. They include: Angelika Cedzich (Germany), who received her doctorate from the University of Würzburg, now teaches at DePaul University in Chicago, and works mainly on medieval Daoist history, notably ritual structures and immortality visions (2001); Hans-Georg Moeller (Germany), who graduated from the University of Bonn, teaches at Brock University in St. Catherines, Canada, and focuses on the understanding and interpretation of ancient Daoist philosophy, notably the Daode jing (2004; 2006; 2007); Thomas Hahn (Germany), a graduate of Frankfurt University who now serves as a librarian at Cornell University and whose main work is the anthropological study of Daoist mountains (1988); Poul Andersen (Denmark), a graduate of the University of Copenhagen and professor at the University of Hawai’i, whose work centers on the Sanhuang school (1991) and medieval meditation practices (1980) and who is currently involved in the Daoist iconography project, a major milestone in Daoist art history; Fabrizio Pregadio (Italy) of the University of Venice and now at Stanford University, whose main work deals with operative alchemy both in terms of practices and cosmology (2006) but who also excelled as the editor of a major encyclopedia (2008). Elena Valussi (Italy), who graduated from the School of Oriental and African Studies in London, now teaches at Columbia College in Chicago, and is the main exponent of the study of female alchemy in late Qing dynasty (2003).

They all have become vital and important members of the Daoist academic community in North America and make valuable contributions in scholarship, publications, and conference leadership. To give just one example of the latter, Elena Valussi organized the first integrated workshop on nüdan, entitled “Female Meditation Techniques in Late Imperial and Modern China,” which convened at UC Los Angeles in November, 2008. A group of fifteen scholars and five practitioners poured over texts and discussed issues of conceptualization and practice to the great illumination of all participants.


In addition to Daoist scholars, there are also highly trained academics whose main work is the translation of classical Chinese texts. Most important among them is Burton Watson, both graduate and professor at Columbia University, who has translated exceedingly numerous works of history, literature, poetry, and religion into beautiful and highly accessible English. Within Daoism, especially his Zhuangzi translation (1968) is outstanding and has remained a classic in the field.

More specialized on religious works is Thomas Cleary, a Harvard graduate who now lives in California. His translations are more verbatim and tend to require background knowledge or additional study, but they are highly popular and inform the vision the greater American public has of Daoism.

Translations by Thomas Cleary

The Taoist I Ching. Boston: Shambhala, 1986.

Understanding Reality: A Taoist Alchemical Classic by Chang Po-tuan. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1987.

Immortal Sisters: Secrets of Taoist Women. Boston: Shambhala, 1989.

The Book of Balance and Harmony: Chung He Chi. San Francisco: North Point Press, 1989.

The Book of Leadership and Strategy: Lessons of Chinese Masters. Boston: Shambhala, 1990.

Vitality Energy Spirit: A Taoist Sourcebook. Boston: Shambhala, 1991.

The Secret of the Golden Flower: The Classic Chinese Book of Life. San Francisco: Harper, 1992.

Opening the Dragon Gate: The Making of a Modern Taoist Wizard. By Chen Kaiguo and Zheng Shunchao. Tokyo: Tuttle, 1997.

Taoist Meditation: Methods for Cultivating a Healthy Mind and Body. Boston: Shambhala, 2000.

Another prolific translator of Daoist materials who comes from a background in devotional Daoist practice is Eva Wong, a member of Fung Loy Kok from Hong Kong who now works as an independent scholar in Colorado. Her translations tend to focus on historically recent texts relevant to practitioners of the Quanzhen school; her translations tend to be popular and contain a certain degree of creative freedom. They areall published by Shambhala (Boston), a popular religious press run by the Dharmadhatu organization of Tibetan Buddhists.

Translations by Eva Wong

Seven Taoist Masters (1990)

Cultivating Stillness: A Taoist Manual for Transforming Body and Mind (1992)

Teachings of the Tao (1997)

Cultivating the Energy of Life: A Translation of the Hui-ming Ching and its Commentaries (1998)

Harmonizing Yin and Yang: The Dragon-Tiger Classic (1998)


A completely different dimension of Daoist Studies that has emeged in North Americal over the last two decades is the publication of works relevant to Daoist thought and practice by practitioners of the religion. Again, like the translations by Eva Wong, their work tends to be more of an inspirational than academic nature; their translations and historical data may lack accuracy and be slanted to demonstration certain points rather than exploring the tradition in all its dimension. However, they make an important contribution, since they represent the tradition in its modern, Western form and provide the initial access to Daoism for many general readers.

The most detached among them is Solala Towler, a student of Daoist philosophy and long-term practitioner of taiji quan and qigong who came to the practice for health reasons. He now runs a small temple, the Abode of the Eternal Tao, in Eugene, Oregon and publishes the popular magazine The Empty Vessel. He gives frequent presentations at meetings and conferences, is active (as are most practitioners) in the National Qigong Association (www.nqa.org), and has written two books on the status and who’s who of American Daoism (1996; 1997) as well as two more recent volumes on qi practice and Daoist literature (2002; 2005)

Two prolific authors among practitioners both come from a background in internal alchemy and teach the inner circulation of qi for health and immortality. They are Ni Hua-ching and Michael Winn. Ni Hua-ching came originally from Wenzhou in Zhejiang. A physician of Chinese medicine, he fled to Taiwan in 1949 where he began to study Daoist arts. In 1976, he was invited tojoin the Taoist Sanctuary in Los Angeles, where he taught Daoist internal arts and founded a school of Chinese medicine. His numerous publications extol the virtues and details of Daoist practice (e. g., 1978; 1989; 1992). Michael Winn is the senior American student of Mantak Chia (b. 1944) from Thailand who founded and runs the worldwide organization of Healing Tao. Originally a war correspondent, he experimented with various kinds of internal cultivation until he met Master Chia in New York in the late 1970s. Since then he has become a full-time master who founded Healing Tao University in North Carolina (formerly upstate New York), has authored and co-authored numerous works (e.g., 1984; 2006), presents Daoist arts in video and audio, guides tours to China on a regular bases, and teaches workshops worldwide.

Similarly important to the understanding of Daoism in America today are three futher practitioner-writers whose main focus is qigong for healing—simple practices of breathing and conscious movement (often coupled with dietary and other health regimens) that enhance people’s well-being and often serve as a first introduction to Daoist thought and spirituality. Ken Cohen, a graduate of UC Berkeley who now resides in the remote mountains of Colorado, has studied taiji quan and qigong with many masters both in China and the West, Besides running workshops and teaching in various ways, also cooperates actively with Western medical authorities in research on alternative medicine. His book on qigong (1997) is a classic in the field and by far the most comprehensive presentation of the subject. Also a Berkeley graduate with a long-term dedication to Chinese healing who spent many years studying in Taiwan and now lives in Australia is Daniel Reid, the author of numerous books and articles that extol the virtues of qi practice and a Daoist attitude to life (1989; 1994; 2003). Last but not least, Roger Jahnke, a graduate of Chang Yi-hsiang’s World Medicine Institute in Hawai’i, is an acupuncturist who turned to qigong to provide patients with methods of self-healing rather than outside reliance. He lives and works in Santa Barbara and, like Ken Cohen, is actively involved in bringing self-healing to hospitals and into the Western medical establishment. His two books (1997; 2002) focus on how to work with qi toward a more integrated life in a modern, Western setting.

Practitioners, to sum up, make up a growing dimension of Daoist Studies in America. Themselves deeply immersed in the practice and with close ties to Chinese masters and models, they bring traditional practices into American society and thus create the image Americans have of the Daoist tradition. Numerous students and interested general readers begin their Daoist awareness when they suffer from one or the other illness that Western methods cannot treat. Finding relief through Chinese medicine, then learning some kind of qi exercises, they not only experience new levels of well-being but become curious about the practices and how they work. This leads them to Daoist worldview and philosophy and often also to inquiries into Daoist history. The practitioner-writers, in other words, are not only the translators of Daoist practice into Western models of lifestyle and healing but also the first gate to the Dao for the general public. They connect Daoist scholars to the end consumer and contribute significantly to the understanding and growing importance of Daoist Studies in North America.

Current Trends

Having said all that, the current tendency with the academic study of Daoist today, after having explored the textual and historical basis of the tradition, is to create comprehensive surveys, integrated histories, and encyclopedic collections. These works greatly support the spread of Daoist knowledge among academics of other fields, active practitioners, and the general public. They also serve as textbooks in college classes and allow interested students to access relevant information with relative ease. In addition, there is a trend toward the intensified exploration of new areas of study, including the relation of Daoism to other aspects of Chinese culture, such as politics and the arts. This trend, too, opens the examination and presentation of the tradition to a wider audience—notably scholars and the public interested in a deeper understanding of China, its history and culture.

Another widening effect is achieved through the increased dialogue with contemporary practitioners, both in China and the West. More and more young scholars are undertaking field work in China, not only studying priests, monks, nuns, and Daoist business men, but also learning from them. The same holds true for students of Daoism in the West. Where scholars until the 1990s tended to ignore Daoist practitioners—who were, admittedly, often self-styled and focused mainly on Chinese medicine or the Daode jing—the 21st century has seen an active and ongoing exchange between scholars and practitioners that is growing at a rapid rate.

Last, but not least, Daoist scholars are actively engaged in various academic associations, opening an engagement with scholars of Chinese culture and of other religions. They work hard not only to have their voice heard in relevant venues such as a journal of their own, but also to create independent sections in important scholarly societies such as the American Academy of Religion. As a result, Daoist Studies is emerging from being merely one aspect of Chinese religions into a field of its own, and academics who study and teach other religions or comparative topics such as, for example, the role of women or the nature of ritual, now have access to clearly presented information and accordingly can bring Daoism into the discussion of religion in general.

Following the model of Japanese and Chinese scholars, Western academics have recently made the effort to present integrated and comprehensive surveys of the Daoist religion. The earliest work of this kind was the three-volume Dōkyō, a collection of systematically arranged articles edited by a group of Japanese scholars under the leadership of Fukui Kōjun and published in 1983. It was followed, in 1994, by two comprehensive Japanese dictionaries, one arranged again in thematic format, featuring relevant articles, the other itemizing a huge number of topics. All three publications, moreover, were richly furnished with colorful illustrations and priced for the general market. They contributed greatly to the spread of Daoist awareness in Japan

Around the same time, Chinese scholars began to present systematic histories of Daoism, notably those by Qing Xitai (1988) and Ren Jiyu (1990), as well as three major dictionaries (1994). Edited by Wu Feng, Li Yangzheng, and Hu Fuchen respectively, they are each several thousand pages long and build on the cooperation of numerous local Daoist associations and hundreds of scholars. They present descriptions of Daoist scriptures, personages, organizations, and practices; collect information from many different localities and summarize issues of current scholarship; and provide bibliographies of Daoist Studies as well as systematic chronologies.

In the West, the first publication of this kind was the Daoism Handbook, edited by Livia Kohn (2000). Arranged chronologically and thematically, it comprises articles by thirty scholars from various countries (including Germany, Italy, France, Australia, China, Japan, and Korea) and covers not only the major schools and periods but also thematic issues such as women, divination, talismans, art, music, and sacred mountains, as well as Daoism in Korea and Japan. A seminal effort that continues to inspire scholars and followers, it has since been reprinted in a two-volume paperback version.

Along the same lines, but arranged according to individual items rather than articles, is the Encyclopedia of Taoism, another intense work of international cooperation under the leadership of Fabrizio Pregadio (2005). More than any other work it allows easy access to detailed information on specific texts, people, temples, and concepts, and has been lauded as a model of the presentation of complex and often intractable data.

As for systematic presentations of Daoism, an early effort was made by Holmes Welch in his Taoism: The Parting of the Way (1965). Still very sketchy, this short volume outlines the main contours of Daoist history and for the first time made Westerners aware that there is more to Daoism than the Daode jing. A more powerful work is Isabelle Robinet’s Histoire du taoïsme: Dès origins au XIVe siècle (1991), which came out in English under the title Taoism: Growth of A Religion (1997). A well founded chronological survey, it became the standard for Daoist histories in the 1990s. However, as the French title suggests, it outlines the religion only to the fourteenth century, matching available research at the time and leaving out all modern developments.

This changed in the 21st century, when three books appeared in English that each presented Daoism in a different way and from a different perspective. Livia Kohn’s Daoism and Chinese Culture (2001) is a chronological survey of Daoist history from the beginnings to the present day that takes into account events in Chinese history and strives to create connections with developments and key features of Chinese culture. James Miller’s Daoism: A Short Introduction (2003) is a thematically rather than chronologically arranged work that presents the tradition through its ideas and practices which it places in both historical and contemporary contexts. Russell Kirkland’s Taoism: The Enduring Tradition (2004) is neither a historical survey nor a thematic presentation but a critical evaluation of what scholars know and do not know about Daoism. The work serves to correct innumerable preconceptions and argues for a different perspective on the religion. Rather than fundamental information on the religion, it provides a different way of looking at it.

Several areas of Daoist Studies that have received only little attention so far are increasingly on a priority list for exploration among young scholars. They include first of all the connection of Daoism to the arts: literature, music, painting, calligraphy, ceramics, and so on. All too often these aspects are neglected, and Daoist works are not recognized as such. For example, when Stephen Little put together the exhibition “Taoism and the Arts of China” in Chicago in 2000, he discovered many Daoist art works that had been wrongly classified as Buddhist or simply set aside as “unknown,” lingering in the basements of reputable institutions. Similarly, scholars are only beginning to glimpse the impact of Daoist-minded emperors on the symbolism and execution of paintings and calligraphy, as well as the evolution of musical patterns due to Daoist ritual.

Another desirable research goal is the better understanding of Daoist political thought and activities. We know of the Daoist theocracy in the Northern Wei, the use the Tang emperor Xuanzong made of the religion in governing his empire, and of the Daoist infatuation of Song Huizong and the Jiajing emperor of the Ming. However, there is no comprehensive understanding of how Daoists view politics and how they have related to the political elite and to government over the millennia.

A third unexplored area is Daoist philosophy—not the Daode jing which is almost too well-known by now, but Daoist religious thought as presented by intellectuals who were also ordained priests and deeply embedded in ritual, devotion, and cosmology. Especially in the Six Dynasties and the Tang, numerous works were written under Buddhist influence that have hardly been examined yet. Advanced practitioners of internal alchemy have created profound treatises on cosmology and philosophy that remain untranslated and for the most part unread. And, of course, there are all those later thinkers harmonizing the three teachings, whose particular take on Daoism yet remains to be studied.

Fourth and finally, scholars are beginning to pay attention to the regional diversity of the religion and its adoption by ethnic minorities in China. Again, a few facts are known, such as that the Yao, a tribe in southwest China and northeastern Thailand converted to the Celestial Masters in the middle ages and still runs its society along Daoist lines, with libationers as officials and the Three Primes as key festival days. However, there is much more than that, and Daoism has exerted various levels of influence on minorities while developing with vast regional differences. These can be explored historically; they are also increasingly the subject of ethnographic investigations, which also shed light on social mobility and structural factors in the practice of religion.

The practical side of the religion, its actual activation in the daily life of dedicated followers, was neglected as an academic resource for the longest time. This had to do with the fact that all religious institutions were shut down under Chinese Communism and that very few serious masters offered courses and training programs in the West. In the past twenty years, this has changed considerably, and we now have a strong presence of Daoist practitioners both in China and in the West.

In China, academic studies of actual Daoist practice include the ethnographic analysis of Daoist temples, the documentation of ritual activities and festivals, and the conscientious recording of the current status and modern history of both individual masters and complex institutions. In the West, they involve an increasing number of cooperative ventures, such as joint conferences, scholar-practitioner workshops, and practitioners’ reports at meetings and in journals. The old prejudice that pure Daoism could only be found in its original country—and there only before World War II, is giving way to an increasing awareness that authentic masters and well-trained teachers are spreading methods of qigong, taiji quan, and Daoist meditation which not only make increasing inroads among the general populace but are having a strong impact on health awareness and spiritual aspirations in the modern world.

Activities and Resources

Daoist scholars match the increasing strength of their field and are active in a variety of venues. They have a strong presence in several key academic associations, publish their own journal, websites, and data bases, and convene more and more often in specialized workshops and international conferences.

There are three major academic associations in the U.S. that provide a venue for Daoist Studies: the Society for the Study of Chinese Religions (SSCR) with its Journal of Chinese Religions; the Association for Asian Studies (AAS), which publishes the Journal of Asian Studies; and the American Academy of Religions (AAR), which has its own organ, the Journal of the American Academy of Religion. The two latter have large-scale annual meetings that draw thousands of scholars from Religious or Asian Studies; at each, Daoist scholars furnish several panels and present new explorations. They also actively participate in regional conventions of these two organizations as well as in SSCR meetings, usually held in conjunction with the other annual meetings of the two larger associations. In the AAR, in particular, Daoist Studies has just been elevated from “consultation” to “group” status, which means its representatives can now offer two independent panels at each annual meeting. The journals of all these organizations, moreover, time and again carry important contributions to the field.

A uniquely Daoist academic journal, called Taoist Resources, was first founded in 1988, upon the initiative of two self-styled Daoist nuns who contacted a number of Chinese religion scholars with only secondary interest in Daoism. When the nuns found themselves overwhelmed by the task, the journal passed on to the editorship of Stephen R. Bokenkamp at the University of Indiana, where it prospered in twice annual issues for ten years. In 1997, however, a decision was made to absorb it into the Journal of Chinese Religions, published by the SSCR.

Another effort at establishing an independent Daoist forum was undertaken in 2008, with the creation of the Journal of Daoist Studies, facilitated by Livia Kohn, Russell Kirkland, Ronnie Littlejohn. Published through Three Pines Press, it divides into three sections: academic articles, forum on contemporary practice, and news of the field. The first issue contains five paper that raise some of the issues at the forefront of the field, such as Daoist philosophy in a religious context, a deeper understanding of inner alchemy, and relating the thought of the Zhuangzi to contemporary psychology. The section on contemporary practice has several reports on Chinese temples, training facilities, and ritual activities as well as presentations by American Daoists on their education, methods, and concerns.

In addition, various online data bases present important materials for the study of Daoism. They include a directory of scholars, students, syllabi, publications, and events at www.daoiststudies.org (James Miller); an extensive data base of Daoist artworks (Poul Anderson); a growing textual collection as part if the Chinese Religions Initiative (Fabrizio Pregadio); an overview of textual and organizational resources on the Daoism Information Page (Gene Thursby); as well as articles and information on Daoist Studies at www.daoistcenter.org (Louis Komjathy)

There are, moreover, several new foundations that hope to attract wealthy sponsors to enhance the academic study and practical dissemination of Daoism. They include the Daoist Foundation, with its goal of “preserving and transmitting traditional Daoist culture” (www.daoistfoundation.org); as well as Legacy of Dao, “dedicated to spreading ancient Daoist wisdom in the modern world” and “making ancient Daoist knowledge and practices available to everyone” (www.legacyofdao.org). Both organizations, once funded, will offer scholarships to help with the creation of translations of Daoist texts, encourage the increased production of video documentations and practice DVDs, and sponsor conferences and workshops.

The three international conferences sponsored by French and Japanese scholars in the 1960s and 1970s did not result in a sustained multi-national effort. The next event of this sort was a small workshop at Toyo University in Tokyo in 1995, when a group of Japanese scholars invited seven Americans to discuss recent explorations in the field. This was followed by a reciprocal invitation of Japanese academics to America in 1998; they convened a 3-day workshop at the Breckinridge Center of Brunswick University in Maine. Both events resulted in publications, edited by Yamada Toshiaki and Fukui Fumimasa (1998) as well as by Livia Kohn and Harold Roth (2002).

Most important in the evolution of Daoist conferences was the 2002 initiative by Qing Xitai, the doyen of Daoist Studies in China. He asked Liu Xun, a specialist of modern Daoist history who grew up in Wuhan and graduated from the University of Southern California, to establish a venue for Chinese Daoist scholars to meet and interact with Western academics to enhance the international expansion of the field. Liu Xun, in turn, asked Livia Kohn to help him with the organization.

This led to the first large-scale International Conference on Daoist Studies, “Daoism and the Contemporary World,” held in June, 2003 at Boston University in cooperation with the Fairbank Center of Harvard University. Unlike all earlier events, this was open to the general public, attracted large numbers of practitioners, and addressed also an interested general audience, such as people involved in Chinese medicine and the martial arts. Funding had been secured to invite a substantial group of scholars from China, however, they could not participate in the end because of the outbreak of SARS that year. Still, the meeting was highly successful and attracted over 150 participants.

The one Chinese scholar who managed to come was Zhang Qin from Sichuan University, who was so enthused about the meeting that he invited everyone to his home for the following year. The second conference accordingly took place in 2004 in Chengdu City and on Mount Qingcheng in Sichuan. This was followed by a third event, held on an island in a Bavarian lake under the sponsorship of the University of Munich and the German Medical Society for Qigong Yangsheng. The fourth conference took place in Hong Kong in 2007. Organized by the Hong Kong Taoist Association and the Yuen-Yuen Institute, it was held in conjunction with a Grand Offering to All Heavens, allowing participants to actively engage with contemporary Daoist ritual. Participation has continued to increase and there is a strong sense of a growing international community of Daoist Studies.

No meeting is planned for 2008. After this, the event is planned to occur every year on the first weekend in June. In 2009, it will be held on Mount Wudang in Hubei; in 2020, it will be at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles. A specific website informs of new ventures and provides access to conference papers ( www.daoism-conference.cn).

In addition to these large international efforts, there have also been quite a number of smaller workshops on Daoist Studies, usually focused on one or the other specific theme. Important events include the conference on “Daoism and Ecology,” organized by Norman Girardot and Livia Kohn (Harvard University, 1998); the symposium on “Daoism and the Arts of China,” organized by Stephen Little and Shawn Eichman (Art Institute of Chicago, 2000); the dialogue of scholars and practitioners under the heading “Daoist Cultivation: Traditional Models and Contemporary Practices,” run by Livia Kohn in cooperation with Harrison Moretz and Louis Komjathy(Vashon Island, 2001); the workshop on “Tantra and Daoism: The Globalization of Religion and Its Experience,” arranged by Livia Kohn and David Eckel (Boston University, 2002); the conference on “Between Eternity and Modernity: Daoist Tradition and Transformation in 20th-century China,” convened by Xun Liu and David Palmer (Harvard University, Harvard 2005); the symposium on “Quanzhen Daoism in Modern Chinese Society and Culture,” arranged by Xun Liu and Vincent Goossaert (UC Berkeley, 2006), and the workshop on “Internal Alchemy: Energetic Transformations for Vitality and Transcendence,” organized by Livia Kohn (New Mexico, 2007). Similar events continue to be organized, such as the meeting on the translation and interpretation of texts on women’s alchemy, convened by Elena Valussi and Robin R. Wang (Los Angeles, 2008), and a general Daoism symposium at the University of British Columbia, organized by Edward Slingerland (Vancouver, 2008).

Taking all these developments together, there is a widespread effort to enhance and increase the development of Daoist Studies. Coupled with a growing presence of Daoist-related practices among the larger populace, this is bound to lead to a greater awareness, wider knowledge, improved presentation, and higher relevance of Daoism in the modern world.


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