Historical Perspectives

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. 

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 ( and Taoism at 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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