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Religion Library: Taoism

Historical Perspectives

Written by: Julia Hardy

In the 1960s, the French and Japanese scholars gathered at the first international conference on Taoism in 1968.  A second was held in Japan in 1972, and a third in Switzerland in 1979.  By the latter conference, Chinese scholars were finally free to attend, and the papers from the conference were also published in English — the first of the new scholarship on Taoism to be available in that language.

In 1980, the revival of the Chinese Taoist Association marked the beginning of a new attitude toward Taoism in China.  Located at the White Cloud Taoist temple in Beijing, the Association published a journal and produced an encyclopedic dictionary of Taoism.  Sichuan University also began to publish a journal in 1994, and scholars there organized the publication of a four-volume comprehensive work on the history of Taoism that has now been translated into English.  The Chinese Academy of Social Sciences published a comprehensive guide to the Taoist canon in 1991, and they also published an encyclopedic dictionary.

In the West, three decades of preparation led to the 2005 publication of a three-volume English language survey of the contents of the canon, published as The Taoist Canon: A Historical Companion to the TaozangIt was the work of twenty-nine scholars, and was edited by Dutch scholar Kristofer Schipper and Franciscus Verellen, an Australian educated in Paris. 

In addition to canon studies, scholars from China, Europe, and North America have conducted field studies of current Taoist groups and practices.  Research has been done not only on the Chinese mainland, but also in Japan, Okinawa, Taiwan, Thailand, Hong Kong, Singapore, as well as among immigrant Chinese communities in North America.  Western scholars have also completed a number of excellent historical studies of Taoism, and two important general works have been published in English: In 2005 a comprehensive Taoism Handbook of nearly 1,000 pages, and in 2007 an Encyclopedia of Taoism, both the collaborative efforts of dozens of scholars.

Beginning early in the 2000s, a series of yearly international conferences brought together researchers and Taoist practitioners from North America, Europe, and Asia.  In 2005 the first Taoist Studies group was established within the American Academy of Religion.  Several excellent websites (daoiststudies.org and Taoism at stanford.edu) have been created by scholars, thus making invaluable information readily accessible to a wide audience.

Despite this remarkable academic progress, a considerable gap still remains between popular perceptions of Taoism in the West and scholarly work on Taoism.  The current trend in scholarship has not captured popular interest in the way that western philosophical interpretations of the Taode jing and Zhuangzi have.   One reason for this may be the disdain some influential scholars have shown for western philosophical interpretations, sometimes expressed in colorful and denigrating language — calling them "Pooh Bear Taoism," for example, after the very popular book, The Tao of Pooh.  While it is important to educate, this disdainful attitude may have diminished interest in Taoism in general, instead of fostering interest in the exciting new perspectives on and wealth of new information about Taoism that has emerged as a result of a surge of new scholarship in the late 20th and early 21st centuries.


Study Questions:
1.     How has the Western construct of religion negatively influenced Taoism?
2.    What are some of the repercussions of the Taoist philosophical/religious divide?
3.    How has publication of Taoist texts shaped the Taoist discourse?

 

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