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Religion Library: Taoism

Historical Perspectives

Written by: Julia Hardy

From the time of the Jesuit presence in China in the 16th - 18th centuries until the late 1970s, western scholars divided philosophical Taoism (the Taode jing, the Zhangzi, and similar texts) from religious Taoism (e.g., the Way of the Celestial Masters, Shangqing, Lingbao, Quanzhen).  The former was regarded as a sophisticated and appealing philosophy of life, while the later was denigrated as superstitious nonsense. 

This attitude was influenced by Confucian scholars who were the Jesuits' primary contacts.  It was accepted for many centuries because it resonated with a western reluctance to accept religious ideas outside the spectrum of Judaism and Christianity, and appealed equally to those who were attracted to a tradition that seemed to be free of theistic implications.  The belief that Taoism was "a religion without a god" ignored entirely the presence of a large pantheon of deities in favor of the philosophical ideas presented in the Taode jing and Zhuangzi.

One scholar who was instrumental in bringing about a change in attitude toward religious Taoism was Michel Strickmann, who in the late 1970s proposed that the term "Taoism" be used only to refer to the Way of the Celestial Masters and other subsequent religious organizations.  He argued that the religious/philosophical division, with its decided preference for the philosophical, had led to a disinterest in the large and diverse Taoist canon.  It also ignored thousands of years of Chinese social history.  Furthermore, it encouraged a tendency to place anything not clearly "Buddhist" or "Confucian" into the category of "religious Taoism," thereby confusing Taoism with Chinese popular religion. 

As scholar and ordained Taoist priest Kristofer Schipper has argued, the disdainful attitude toward "religious Taoism" also led, in China, to the wholesale destruction of Taoist temples, books, and art in the last two centuries — in the name of Communism or Modernization or Christianity.

Not everything was destroyed, however.  A printing of the complete Taoist canon was sponsored by the Nationalist Chinese government in 1926, and subsequently acquired by a number of libraries throughout the world.  This printing provided an international audience with access to the canon for the first time. 

French scholar Henri Maspero was one of the first Europeans to study the canon.  Unfortunately, he perished at Buchenwald in 1945 before he could publish more than a little of his research.  Three volumes of his work were published posthumously, one of which was devoted entirely to Taoism.  In 1950 the Japanese Society of Taoistic Research was founded, and the following year began to publish a journal.  Other French scholars continued research on Taoism, and soon a second Japanese journal was established. 

 

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