Taoism: The Enduring Tradition

Submitted by Raz Gil on Thu, 02/12/2009 - 20:31
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TAOISM: THE ENDURING TRADITION. By Russell Kirkland. New York and London: Routledge, 2004. Pp. xxii + 282. Paper, $19.95, ISBN 0-415-26322-0


Russell Kirkland sets out to “shock educated readers, at all levels, into seeing Taoism as something quite different from what they have usually been told that it is…such readers have frequently, in effect, been lied to.” Those liars, Kirkland says, are the scholars of Chinese history and culture who did not consider Daoism worthy of study. The goal of this book is to correct the misunderstandings regarding Daoism by providing a corrective to the traditional discourse of “sinology,” a label which simultaneously refers to colonialist paradigms of knowledge as well as to Neo-Confucian biases in scholarship, especially the secularist construction of Confucianism which has dominated Asian studies in twentieth-century American academia. Kirkland introduces his method in Chapter 1, while responding to a wide range of clichés about Daoism.       


In chapter 2, Kirkland examines the texts of “Classical Taoism.” Placing the Zhuangzi and the Laozi into their intellectual milieu, he considers the implications of the Guodian Laozi manuscripts to our understanding of the development of the Laozi, and even speculates as to the “real” identity of Laozi, which I will not disclose… Kirkland’s iconoclasm extends beyond Daoism, challenging the received tradition regarding the pre-Qin schools, stressing the liturgical aspects of Confucianism, and even questioning whether the best translation for Tian is god rather than the “orthodox translation” of heaven. His detailed discussion of the Neiye chapter of the Guanzi and its importance in the history of “biospiritual cultivation” is especially useful. 


Chapter 3 is a summary of the historical development of Daoism from Han to Qing, beginning with an interesting analysis of the intricate relationship between Daoism and Han Confucianism. The discussions of Celestial Master Taoism, Shangqing and Lingbao are very brief. The analysis of Daoism during the Tang and the Song focuses on the close links between the various Taoist lineages and the state. This relationship was lost after 1126. This watershed in the history of Taoism led to the emergence of new socio-political modalities, expressed in the traditions of Quanzhen and Zhengyi, which remain the two main Daoist traditions in China today. 


The Daoism of early medieval China has been privileged in Daoist studies, Kirkland suggests, while the Daoist traditions of late imperial China remain neglected. I am far less sanguine than Kirkland about our current state of knowledge of the formative period of Daoism. For example, a simple issue such as when does Daoism as a religious institution begin is less than clear. Kirkland provides various dates: The first socio-politcal group whose members identified themselves as Daoists appeared in the fifth century CE (p.16); it was not until 500 CE that a socially coherent Daoist group emerged (76); Lu Xiujing (406-477) is the founder of Daoism (89). Kirkland also refers to the “earliest “Taoist” religious movement – the Celestial Masters (T’ien-shi) of the second century” (25). 


The problem here is twofold. First, wishing to be inclusive in his description of Daoism, Kirkland does not provide clear definitions for determining boundaries between groups. Secondly, the scholarly bias towards the Celestial Master tradition which Kirkland complains about is inherent to the sources themselves. Arguing that Lu Xiujing, the compiler of the first Taoist canon and codifier of ritual, may be considered the founder of Daoism, Kirkland adduces the exclusion of Celestial Master texts from the canon as signifying a difference between the earlier group and the aristocratic traditions of the fourth century. But Lu Xiujing’s Abridged Codes for the Daoist Community (HY 1119) envisions an idealized community based on Celestial Master mythography and ritual. Lu saw himself as a reformer of Celestial Master Daoism. Surely Lu’s reasons for excluding Celestial Master texts are far more complex then Kirkland suggests. 


In Chapter 4, Kirkland examines the socio-political realities of Daoism. He begins by showing that Daoists were often members of the literati class and not marginal figures, as is often assumed. Kirkland then examines the place of women in Daoism, beginning with an investigation of the feminine ideal in the Laozi, followed by a sociological study focusing on Tang and Song Daoism. The third section examines the intimate relationship between Daoism and the imperial state. Rather than being rebels, Daoists from the Han to the Song supported and provided legitimacy to the imperial system. Especially valuable here is a discussion of the notion of Dao-nature (daoxing), a Taoist response to the Buddhist notion of Buddha-nature, which remains an understudied facet of the continuing engagement between Buddhism and Daoism.


In chapter 5, the most provocative part of the book, Kirkland discusses the goal of the Daoist life. Did Daoists accept death as part of the natural process, or did they seek longevity, immortality, or transcendence? What do the terms xian, zhenren, shengren, shijie mean; and how did these meanings vary across the Daoist tradition? Showing the diversity of positions in the inherently multivocal Daoist tradition, Kirkland discounts the facile charge that Daoists were “inconsistent” in their views. Yet, there are commonalities. Kirkland suggests that despite the various modalities of transcendence, almost all Daoists “believed that death cannot be avoided, and yet death can be transcended” (187). The fundamental goal of Taoism is “cultivating reality.” Many specialists may find this challenging. As Kirkland points out, zhen, usually understood as “to perfect,” is a key notion throughout the Daoist tradition. Kirkland’s rendering of the term as “reality” will certainly stimulate debate.


Minor quibbles include the editorial decision to dispense with Chinese graphs, even for personal names or book titles, not including HY numbers for texts inculded in the Daozang, and the use of different renderings for the same Chinese terms (e.g. Heavenly Masters, Celestial Masters and T’ien-shi). 


Kirkland is certainly succesful at challenging many common misconceptions regarding Daoism. While challenging current Daoist scholarship, he readily admits that as our knowledge of Daoism progresses, many of his interpretations will be further nuanced, or even radicaly changed. Much of the material presented in this concise book may not be new to experts in the field, but Kirkland’s provocative and lucid presentation would be valuable in classes on Daoism and, perhaps more importantly, in general classes on Chinese religion, culture and history where, as Kirkland puts it, the “enemies of Taoism” still dominate the discourse. 


Gil Raz

Dartmouth College

March 21, 2005