Daoism 102

Recently a friend asked me to recommend something to read about Daoism. Though I’m not a practicing Daoist, something I think would be difficult to do without spending time either in China or near a large Chinese community, the philosophical ideas in many early Daoist texts are at the core of my spiritual beliefs. So I was surprised how many books I had to recommend to my friend. I had to stop myself at eight. I thought I’d share the list here as well.

First, though, I’d like to mention two sorts of books that are not on the list and why.

1- Various books aimed at a Western audience that introduce Daoism mostly as an aid to personal growth. While I think these books are sincere, they make me nervous on two fronts:

A. They tend to take complex religious traditions (in Daoism’s case, two thousand years of practice and hundreds of books in its canon) and reduce them to an annex of psychological self-help. While they are aimed at the open-minded, I think in practice this approach is condescending: as if we can jump straight to the essential truths of other cultures without taking a long, and usually difficult, time to understand them.

i. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that the notion that an especially sensitive or enlightened person can jump straight into understanding the essential truths of another tradition or culture is a deeply protestant idea. (I have a whole post on this.)

B. They often rely on a neat divide between East and West that is an inheritance from Colonial, Orientalist thought. This especially true of approaches that treat “the” East as a kind of magical supplement for what ails “the” West. For more, see Edward Said’s 1978 book, Orientalism.

C. They sometimes treat Daoism almost as if it were simply an offshoot or variant of Buddhism. While Chinese traditions have been intertwined since the Han synthesis, Confucianism, Daoism, and Buddhism are nontheles distinctive, and often were at odds with one another over their long histories.

2- Books that don’t reflect recent scholarship. I think this 1998 quote from Russell Kirkland (from the article listed below) explains why:

“the primary problem involved in teaching Taoism today is that only the most recent textbooks and reference works have begun to reflect the radical new perspectives on Taoism that began to emerge among specialists in the 1970s and 1980s. Until very recently indeed, what passed for academic depictions of Taoism was only a perpetuation of the images created by nineteenth-century scholars like James Legee.”

So, here’s my list:

  1. The chapter on Daoism in Stephen Prothero’s recent book God Is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions That Run the World–and Why Their Differences Matter. HarperCollins, 2010. This is the best general introduction I know of that reflects both recent scholarship and the historical diversity of Daoist texts and practices.
  2.  An article by Russell Kirkland (which I will be happy to email you) “Teaching Taoism in the 1990s.” Besides covering recent, revolutionary, scholarship, Kirkland  discusses the paradox that many of his students were initially interested in Daoism by new-agey treatments of it that are actually smug and patronizing. So the students have to go through a realization that whatever they believe in may not actually have much to do with Daoism as a religion or even a philosophical tradition. Kirkland also has many study guides online.
  3. The best anthology of Daoist texts is The Taoist Experience by Livia Kohn. State University of New York Press, 1993.
  4. My favorite translation of Lao Tzu, especially of interest to someone with a background in philosophy, is A Philosophical Translation, Dao De Jing: Making This Life Significant, translated with commentary by Roger T. Ames and David L. Hall. Ballantine, 2003.
  5. My favorite book about Chinese philosophy that focuses mostly on Daoism (but also keeps an eye on recent Continental Philosophy) is The Propensity of Things: Toward a History of Efficacy in China by François Jullien. Zone Books, 1999. I just really like this book.
  6. My favorite novel ever may well be The Journey West which has an endlessly entertaining monkey king who storms the Daoist heaven and causes all kind of problems with various Daoist deities. Though it may have originally been a Buddhist parody of Daoism, Sun Wu Kong (the monkey) ended up becoming a deity himself. The whole novel is 4 volumes and at least 1,000 hugely entertaining pages, but there are also various condensed versions that are good. Condensed version: The Monkey and the Monk: An Abridgment of the Journey West. Translated by Anthony Yu. University of Chicago Press, 2006.
  7. As a visual thinker, I enjoyed Taoism and the Arts of ChinaThe Art Institute of Chicago, 2000. The scholarship is up to date, and I found the art itself engrossing.
  8. Seven Taoist Masters: A Folk Novel of China. Translated by Eva Wong.  Shambala, 2004. Among other things, this highlights women’s prominence in Daoism, as well as the idea of a Daoist immortal and the staggering number of different paths by which one might become one.

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