The Taoist Canon: A Historical Companion to the Daozang

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The Taoist Canon: A Historical Companion to the Daozang (Daozang tongkao 道藏通考). Edited by Kristofer Schipper and Franciscus Verellen. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004 (2005). 3 vols. Pp.  xix + 1637; illustrations; indexes. Cloth, $175.00, ISBN 0-226-73817-5.


The publication of the three-volume Companion must be considered one of the most historically significant events for the field of Daoist Studies and a milestone in Chinese area studies. These volumes provide an analytical and topical survey of the entire contents of the Ming-dynasty (1368-1644) Daoist Canon, which consists of roughly 1500 texts from two originally distinct collections: (1) the Zhengtong daozang 正統道藏 (Daoist Canon of the Zhengtong Reign; printed in 1444-1445), and (2) the Xu daozang 續道藏 (Supplement to the Daoist Canon; dat. 1607). With contributions from twenty-nine scholars, the guiding motivation behind the Companion centers on opening the apparent impenetrability of the Daoist Canon because “[a]t every turn, the Daozang holds new and significant discoveries in store that are transforming our perceptions of Chinese religion and society” (xiii). Moreover, according to the editors, the Daozang may be read as a chart for the Daoist adept’s path to initiation, a library for all branches of Daoist learning, and a core history of the Daoist tradition in continuous interaction with the larger contours of Chinese religious and cultural history (xiii-xiv; see also 2-5).


Almost thirty years in the making, the Companion is the culmination of the European Tao-Tsang Project, which was originally proposed by Kristofer Schipper (Shi Zhouren 施舟人) at the European Conference of Chinese Studies in 1976. “The aim was to provide the first comprehensive, systematic, and analytical bibliography of the Ming canon. All texts were to be investigated for their date, authorship, and significance, as well as abstracted” (45). Under the direction of Schipper, the headquarters of the project was established at the Center for Documentation and Research on Taoism of the École Pratique des Hautes Études and a steering committee was installed. Three working groups were established, one in Paris, one in Würzburg, and at a later stage, one in Rome. From this, it is obvious that the Tao-Tsang Project was primarily a European undertaking. In the ensuing years, various scholars, including many of the major European researchers of Daoism, joined the project. The work was, in turn, organized to progress in stages, which consisted of training sessions and workshops to develop the required specialist skills, and then a systematic, cooperative investigation of each text of the Daoist Canon. These various entries were originally written in four different languages: French, German, English, and Italian. At the final sessions of the steering committee it was decided that the work should be presented in English, and Schipper took responsibility for completing the work and editing it for publication. An initial deadline was set for 1993. In 1991, Franciscus Verellen joined Schipper as co-editor. In addition to the challenges of editing and finding contributors, the work was also stalled by organizational and historical concerns. The editors eventually decided to abandon the received Daoist textual classifications (Three Caverns, Four Supplements, and Twelve Categories) in favor of a historical and topological classification system. The preparation of the final manuscript was coordinated entirely by Franciscus Verellen, which included the daunting task of formatting the entire manuscript and compiling the bibliographic section. Such is the contents of volume three, and it was this material that made the actual publication date summer of 2005 rather than the announced and printed date of 2004. As one can see from this abridged history, the Tao-Tsang Project was a monumental undertaking and the publication of the Companion cannot but be considered an equally remarkable accomplishment. It should also be mentioned that various publications in the late 1980s and 1990s identified the Companion, most often referred to as The Handbook of the Taoist Canon, as “forthcoming.” 


The Companion consists of three volumes: (1) general introduction and first two historical divisions; (2) second historical division; and (3) bibliographical material and various indexes. The general introduction provides systematic discussions of the history of the Daoist Canon before the Ming dynasty, the Ming Canon and its supplement, and the Tao-Tsang Project. This is followed by the historical and topological entries. The Companion assigns an entry to each work in the Daozang. The works are identified by their full titles and by “work numbers” in the sequential order of their original appearance in the Ming-dynasty Daoist Canon. These catalogue numbers are based on Shi Zhouren 施舟任 (Kristofer Schipper) and Chen Yaoting’s 陳耀庭D aozang suoyin 道藏索引(Concordance to the Daoist Canon; 1996), which is a revised version of Schipper’s Concordance du Tao-tsang (1975), usually abbreviated as “CT” or “DZ” but appearing as a number without abbreviation in the Companion. 


In terms of the historical scheme, all of the works are assigned to one of three periods: (1) Eastern Zhou to Six Dynasties (vol. 1); (2) Sui, Tang, and Five Dynasties (vol. 1); and (3) Song, Yuan, and Ming (vol. 2). Within these chronological divisions, the classification follows a topological interpretative framework that applies roughly the same structural pattern across the different periods. For each period, a first distinction is made between texts in general circulation (A), and texts in internal circulation (B). Within category A, the texts are classified according to subject, whereas in category B the framework is determined by the orders, schools, or textual traditions to which the works belong. Most often each division is preceded by a brief general introduction and historical overview. Each individual textual entry consists of a heading, an article and, if applicable, a bibliography. The “heading” contains the complete Chinese title, the length of the work, attribution and date, as well as the catalogue number. The “article” focuses on the following items: translation or paraphrase of the work’s title; details of provenance, authorship, and transmission, based on factual evidence from prefaces, postfaces, colophons, or bibliographic sources; important independent editions outside the Ming-dynasty Daoist Canon; internal evidence bearing on chronological relationships and affiliations with other works in the canon; and description of the nature and purpose of the work, including a characterization or brief summary of its contents. In this respect, the Companion goes far beyond Ren Jiyu 任繼愈 and Zhong Zhaopeng’s 鐘肇鵬important initial attempt at an analytical survey in their Daozang tiyao 道藏提要 (Descriptive Notes on the Daoist Canon; 1991). Unfortunately, the Companion frequently does not provide a complete and accurate translation of the titles of the corresponding texts and title abbreviations are rarely noted or established. The inclusion of these details would have helped to standardize the academic citation of Daoist texts. The “bibliography” includes only references to studies that are exclusively or substantially concerned with the subject of the entry, but these often are not exhaustive. For example, the entry on the Quanzhen qinggui (Pure Regulations of Compete Perfection; DZ 1235) (1170) does not mention that the text has been translated by Vincent Goossaert in his dissertation (1997), while the entry on the Dadan zhizhi (Direct Pointers to the Great Elixir; DZ 244) (1171) does not mention that the text has been translated by Paulino Belamide in his dissertation (2002). Moreover, in the entire contents of the Companion no mention is made to the Daoism Handbook (Brill, 2000 [Cloth], 2004 [Paper]).


In addition to the general introduction, volume 1, “Antiquity through the Middle Ages,” consists of two parts. Part 1 covers the Eastern Zhou (770-256 B.C.E.) to the Six Dynasties (420-589 C.E.). Under texts in general circulation, one finds sections on philosophy (including texts and commentaries), divination, medicine and pharmacology, yangsheng, alchemy, sacred history and geography, collected works, and compendiums and encyclopedias. Under texts in internal circulation, there are sections on Tianshi (Celestial Masters), Shangqing (Highest Clarity), Lingbao (Numinous Treasure), texts in the Dongshen (Cavern Spirit) division of the Daoist Canon, other revealed scriptures, and the Taiping jing (Scripture of Great Peace). Part 2 covers the Sui (581-618), Tang (618-907), and Five Dynasties (907-960). Under texts in general circulation, one finds sections on philosophy (including commentaries, Tang philosophical texts, the Yinfu jing and its commentaries, and commentaries on the Cantong qi), divination and numerology, medicine and pharmacology, yangsheng, alchemy, sacred history and geography, collected works, and handbooks and encyclopedias. For texts in internal circulation, there are sections on the general liturgical organization of the Tang, Zhengyi (Orthodox Unity; a.k.a. Tianshi), the Taiping (Great Peace) division, the Taixuan (Great Mystery) division, Sanhuang (Three Sovereigns) scriptures and rituals, Dongyuan (Cavern Abyss) and Shengxuan (Ascent to the Mystery) scriptures and rituals, Lingbao, and the Dongzhen (Cavern Perfection) division. 


Volume 2, “The Modern Period,” covers the Song (Northern: 960-1126; Southern: 1127-1279), Yuan (1260-1368), and Ming (1368-1644). This “modern period” ends with the Ming because the latest texts contained in the received Daoist Canon only date to the late fifteenth century. Under texts in general circulation, one finds sections on philosophy (including commentaries on the Daode jing, Zhuangzi, Liezi, Yinfu jing, Cantong qi, commentaries on the scriptures of earlier Daoist movements, as well as treatises and essays), divination and numerology, medicine and pharmacology, neidan and yangsheng (here are subdivisions on the Zhong-Lü textual tradition and the so-called Southern School), alchemy, sacred history and geography, collectanea, as well as handbooks and anthologies. Under texts in internal circulation, there are sections on Zhengyi, Sanhuang, Lingbao, Shangqing, Tianxin zhengfa (Celestial Heart) and related rites, Shenxiao (Divine Empyrean) and thunder rites, Qingwei (Pure Tenuity), Jingming (Clear Brightness), Quanzhen (Complete Perfection), the Beidi (Northern Thearch) and Xuantian shangdi (Supreme Thearch of the Dark Heaven) cult, the Wenchang (God of Learning) cult, the Hongen Lingji zhenjun (Perfected Lords of Vast Mercy and Numinous Salvation) cult, Zhenyuan (Perfect Origin) scriptures, and other popular cults. While such organization and analysis have clearly resulted in making the Daoist Canon more accessible, one is left to wonder if such organization perhaps also does a disservice to the occasional entropy and disorganization of the collection, as certain Chinese and Japanese scholars have formerly suggested (see xiii, 41-44). For example, should Li Daochun’s Zhonghe ji (Anthology of Central Harmony; DZ 249) (1174) or the anonymous Nei riyong jing (Scripture for Daily Internal Practice; DZ 645) (1187) really be categorized as “Quanzhen” works? If so, what are the determining criteria for such inclusion? General remarks are made on pages 1130-1133, but many of the individual entries do not contain specific information.


Volume 3, “Biographies, Bibliography, Indexes,” contains biographical notices of frequently mentioned Daoists, the bibliography, information on the twenty-nine contributors, and indexes. The latter includes a classified title index, work number index, Pinyin title index, finding list for other Daozang editions (Yiwen yinshu, Xin wenfeng, and Sanjia ben), and the general index. In order to utilize these indexes, one must know the complete Chinese title, as abbreviations are again not included. Here it should also be noted that the contributors use the idiosyncratic “logia” for translating yulu, usually rendered as “recorded sayings” or “discourse records.” 


As with any publication, there are certain details that deserve closer scrutiny and deeper reflection. In terms of general comments, it is unfortunate that the editors’ have chosen to use “Taoist” and “Taoism” rather than “Daoist” and “Daoism,” while simultaneously employing the Pinyin romanization system (see the comments in my review of Eskildsen’s Teachings and Practices). On some level, any serious researcher is aware that “Taoism/Daoism/Taoïsme/Taoismus” is a Western construct, but if this is all that it is, rather than a place-holder for a religious tradition (Daoist practitioners, communities, and their material expressions), then one might choose to write fiction over history. The Companion also categorizes the Song, Yuan, and Ming as the “modern period,” but this leaves out roughly four hundred years of Daoist history and textual production. Such is, perhaps, a consequence of the centrality of a Ming-dynasty textual collection in Daoist Studies. It might be more productive to think about Daoist history in terms of the following periodization model: (1) Classical Daoism (Warring States, Qin, and Early Han); (2) Early Daoism (Later Han); (3) Early Medieval Daoism (Period of Disunity and Sui); (4) Late Medieval Daoism (Tang, Song-Jin, and Yuan); (5) Late Imperial Daoism (Ming and Qing); (6) Modern Daoism (Republican and Communist); and (7) Contemporary Daoism. The final period encompasses more contemporary developments in mainland China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan. It also includes the transmission and transformation of Daoism in other Asian, European, and North American contexts, as well as the establishment of the field of Daoist Studies throughout the world. While helpful, such periods should not lull one into believing that they encompass the dramatic changes that occurred between, for instance, the Tang and Song-Jin periods. 


One must also recognize that the Companion is largely a product of Western European Sinology: 24 contributors are European (Dutch, French, German, and Italian), 3 are Chinese scholars primarily trained in Europe, and two are Americans (Terry Kleeman and Nathan Sivin). This composition is obviously a matter of practicality and convenience, as much of the work involved attending seminars and work sessions in Europe. Nonetheless, major voices in the field of Daoist Studies are absent, some of whom and their areas of specialization include Stephen Bokenkamp on the Lingbao scriptures, Judith Boltz on various late medieval texts, Robert Campany on Daoist hagiography, and Livia Kohn on various Tang-dynasty texts. The inclusion of these and other North American scholars might have increased the depth and accuracy of the Companion. Moreover, scholars are left to reflect on the ways in which European Sinological approaches and concerns have determined the organizational structure and resulting interpretation of Daoism documented in this catalogue.


In addition to historical and topical analysis, and insights into textual families and contents, most researchers utilizing the Companion will be seeking guidance concerning date and authorship. Here the editors of the Companion are clear concerning their aspirations: “We kept fast to the idea that we should aim to say the first word about a given text, not the last” (47), and “the results of our labors are far from perfect and will invite many corrections” (52). It is in the area of dating and authorship that the Companion is sometimes not systematic, exhaustive, or comprehensive. Here I will mention two examples from the Quanzhen order. First, in the unattributed general introduction to “Rules and Organization” the reader is informed that the “Chongyang lijiao shiwu lun, although often translated and quoted in the secondary literature, is simply a short programmatic description of the Quanzhen lifestyle of uncertain date and authorship” (1168). However, the individual entry (1170) suggests that the text was, in fact, written by Wang Chongyang, the founder of Quanzhen. With little evidence for or against, the researcher is left to find his or her own conclusions. The second example comes from the individual entry on the Chongyang zhenren jinguan yusuo jue (Perfected Chongyang’s Instructions on the Gold Pass and Jade Gate; DZ 1156) (1185), which states that “the contents and predominant terminology of this work differ greatly from other writings that can be confidently attributed to Wang Zhe.” The entry then simultaneously suggests that the text may have been written by Wang Chongyang before moving to Shandong and/or come from a later phase of Quanzhen history. However, the situation is far more complex and problematic than this entry suggests. As my Ph.D. dissertation suggests (Boston University, 2005), the Jinguan yusuo jue seems to be a discourse record of instructions given by Wang Chongyang during a variety of occasions, and there are, in fact, parallels between this text and other extant writings by Wang, the poetry anthologies in particular. 


Specialists are, then, left with much work to do in terms of dating and authorship. For this, the Companion has established an important methodology: “internal textual criticism” (see 4-5, 42, 47). This method traces quotations and identical textual passages and searches for datable elements such as specific names and terms and the use of stylistic and linguistic criteria. These internal criteria can be used to construct relative chronologies consisting of dates terminus ante quem and terminus post quem, which then, whenever they can be linked to some clearly datable source, may be transformed into a fairly accurate absolute chronology. However, in many individual entries the evaluative criteria and analytical results are not documented, and so scholars are sometimes left with even the most rudimentary work to do. All of this points to the continued difficulty of dating Daoist texts, even with such a monumental research tool as the Companion. Considered in the face of such challenges, the editors and contributors have done a truly remarkable service to the field of Daoist Studies that deserves one’s deep respect and gratitude.


In combination with the Daoism Handbook (edited by Livia Kohn, 2000) and the forthcoming Encyclopedia of Taoism (edited by Fabrizio Pregadio), the Companion will revolutionize Daoist Studies in the West. Compared to similar works, The Taoist Canon is reasonably priced at $175 for the set of three volumes. Scholars of Daoism will find the Companion an indispensable research tool. Every research library with East Asian collections and every scholar of Chinese religions should also acquire these volumes. The Ming-dynasty Daoist Canon is, at last, accessible to such a degree that the field of Daoist Studies may broaden its areas of inquiry and discovery. 


Louis Komjathy

Institute of Religion, Science, and Social Studies

Shandong University 


August 31, 2005