Historical Dictionary of Taoism

Submitted by Komjathy on Thu, 02/12/2009 - 20:25
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HISTORICAL DICTIONARY OF TAOISM. By Julian F. Pas, with Man Kam Leung. Historical Dictionaries of Religions, Philosophies, and Movements, no. 18. Lanham (MD): The Scarecrow Press, Inc., 1998. Pp. xlii + 414; tables; illustrations; appendix. Cloth, $64.00, ISBN 0-8108-3369-7.


This work is the final scholarly publication of the late Julian Pas (1929-2000), Professor Emeritus of Religious Studies and historian of Chinese religions at the University of Saskatchewan. The book is intended for non-specialists and general audience readers: "this volume is written especially for non-specialist, educated readers to use as a reference work" (xii). It must therefore be evaluated with this intention in mind.


The book consists of five principal sections: (1) Chronology of Taoist History; (2) Introduction; (3) The Dictionary; (4) Bibliography; and (5) Appendix: Centers of Taoist Study and Practice Today. I will discuss each section in turn. The first part, "Chronology of Taoist History" (xxiv-xliii), is a historical table of major personages, texts, and movements of Daoism. Covering every major period of Chinese history, from the Warring States (480-222 B.C.E.) to the Republication (1912-1949), this chart is an easily-accessible and helpful overview of the entire breadth of the Daoist tradition. It also includes relevant information on Buddhism and "other schools" in China. 


Next, we find the introduction where Pas discusses the "nature of Daoism" (repeatedly), historical antecedents and parallel developments, Daoism in modern times, Daoism and Chinese culture, and unity versus multiplicity (1-50). This section is the most problematic, as it can easily disorient and mislead the non-specialist reader. Here Pas makes the (historically inaccurate and philosophically unconvincing) argument that Daoism is best understood in terms of a "Daoist philosophy" ("philosophical Daoism"; read "Protestant Daoism") and "Daoist religion" ("religious Daoism"; read "Catholic Daoism") dichotomy. Pas makes many contortions in his attempt to justify such an outdated interpretative framework, claiming (1) "The distinction between two Taoisms is not just a Western device; it is found in the Chinese tradition itself….The first term is Tao-chia/Daojia ('School of the Way')….The other term is Tao-chiao/Daojiao ('Doctrine of the Way')" (1-2), and (2) "[T]he various branches of Taoism have two distinct orientations, distinct intentionalities, and are based on two basically different worldviews: One may call them Taoist naturalism and Taoist theism" (46). 


With regards to the former, the Western construction of "philosophical Daoism" has no correlation to the Chinese term daojia, a taxonomic category used by Han historiographers as a way of classifying texts and as a veiled reference to the Huang-Lao tradition. With regards to the latter, Pas' distinction presupposes a dichotomy that contradicts a classical Daoist worldview, rooted in the "emanationist cosmogony/cosmology" of the classical texts of the Warring States period. That is, if the Dao is both immanent and transcendent, neither immanent nor transcendent, then there is no necessary distinction between "nature" and "gods." Deities are simply differently differentiated aspects of the Dao, and worshipping deities is not, in and of itself, different than having reverence for the unnamable mystery which is the Dao. 


Pas' confusion in turn stems from his own prejudices. He has a personal investment in the superiority of "philosophical Daoism": "What attracts me most to Taoism is its philosophy. Taoism as a religion…is an illusion" (xi). He is, moreover, indebted to a Christian theological understanding (he received theological degrees from the University of Louvain, Belgium): "In general…the Christian model is very similar to the Taoist situation" (50).


The dictionary proper (51-375) contains approximately 275 entries arranged alphabetically according to Wade-Giles romanization with secondary pinyin listings (for Pas' justification see xv). The entries are generally concise, accurate, and helpful. However, there are also a number of romanization mistakes in the related pinyin listings: Chang San-feng/Zhang Sanfong > Zhang Sanfeng, Cheng-yi/ Zhengi > Zhengyi, Chung-li Ch'uan/Zhongli Chuan > Zhongli Quan, Ch'uan-chen/Chuanzhen > Quanzhen, etc. Scholars will also find the absence of Chinese characters a major deficiency. Next, the bibliography (377-412) is a topically-arranged catalogue which parallels Pas' A Select Bibliography of Taoism (China Pavilion, 1997). This bibliography is a helpful guide to further reading that may deepen the interested reader's understanding of Daoism. Finally, the appendix, "Centers of Taoist Study and Practice Today" (413-14), is extremely brief and fails to document the very real presence of Daoist teachers and organizations in the West. These reservations aside, this dictionary is a good reference tool for non-specialists wishing to gain a better understanding of the Daoist tradition. All libraries should acquire a copy. (See also Journal of Chinese Religions 27 [1999]: 166-69.) 


Louis Komjathy

Boston University

Date Posted: May 9, 2003