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Department of the Study of Religions

Taoism: the Great Tradition

Course Code:
158000181
Unit value:
0.5
Year of study:
Year 2 or Year 3
Taught in:
Term 2

This course will offer a main narrative of Taoism as a recognisable tradition of religious ideas and practices throughout the history of China, while giving particular emphasis to the areas of cosmology, meditation, alchemy and ritual.

It will explore the early shaping of Taoist identity at the stage sometimes defined as ‘proto-Taoism’ (from antiquity to the second century CE), focusing on ancient texts like Laozi (Daode jing), Zhuangzi and Neiye. Attention will then be paid to the emergence and development of Taoism as an organised religion during the Chinese Middle Ages (3rd-9th cent.), with special emphasis on the structure and ritual of the Celestial Master (Tianshi) church and its dialectic with popular cults. Other topics will be the Shangqing and Lingbao traditions, the formation of the Taoist canon, and the relation of Taoism with Buddhism and power. The final part of the course will survey modern developments from the Song dynasty (960-1279) to the late imperial period, focusing on the Quanzhen order, the practice of Internal Alchemy and exorcistic ritual. It will also assess the presence of Taoism in contemporary China and Taiwan, and discuss the perception of Taoism in the West.

As one of the great religious traditions of the world, Taoism is a recommended topic for students in the BA Study of Religions. As a major aspect of Chinese religious identity, its study in this course may be profitably inserted in particular in a BA Study of Religions and Chinese, or a BA Study of Religions and History.

Objectives and learning outcomes of the course

At the end of the course, a student should be able to demonstrate a good understanding of the history, doctrines and rituals of Taoism, in the wider context of Chinese indigenous religion. They should be able to define and describe Taoism as an organised religion, locating its overlaps with and departures from popular cults and Buddhism. Students will be able to map the different strains and lineages of Taoism, tracing their background in classical Chinese thought, and their relevance to the identification and description of contemporary Chinese religious practice. They will also be aware of the different definitions of Taoism in contemporary Western academia.

Method of assessment

1 essay (4,500-5,000 words) worth 100%.

Suggested reading

  • Bokenkamp, Stephen. Early Daoist Scriptures, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997.
  • Kohn, Livia. Daoism and Chinese Culture. Cambridge, Mass.: Three Pines Press, 2001.
  • Kohn, Livia (ed.). Daoism Handbook. Leiden and Boston: Brill, 2000.
  • Kirkland, Russell. Taoism: The Enduring Tradition. London: Routledge, 2003.
  • Lagerwey, John. Taoist Ritual in Chinese Society and History. London: Macmillan, 1987.
  • Lopez, Donald (ed.). Religions of China in Practice. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1996.
  • Miller, James. Daoism: A Short Introduction, Oxford: Oneworld Publications, 2003.
  • Robinet, Isabelle. Taoism: Growth of a Religion, Stanford: Stanford U.P., 1997.
  • Schipper, Kristofer. The Taoist Body. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993.
  • Davis, Edward L. Society and the Supernatural in Song China. Honolulu: University of Hawai'i Press, 2001.
  • Dean, Kenneth. Taoist Ritual and Popular Cults of Southeast China. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1993.
  • Eskildsen, Stephen. Asceticism in Early Taoist Religion. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1998.
  • Hymes, Robert P. Way and Byway: Taoism, Local Religion, and Models of Divinity in Sung and Modern China. Berkeley:University of California Press, 2002.
  • Kohn, Livia, and Roth, Harold D. (eds.). Daoist Identity: History, Lineage, and Ritual. Honolulu: University of Hawai`i Press, 2002.
  • Lau, D.C. (trans.). Tao Te Ching. NY : Penguin Books, 1963.
  • Roth, Harold D. Original Tao: Inward Training (nei-yeh) and the Foundations of Taoist Mysticism. New York - Chichester: Columbia University Press, 1999.
  • Saso, Michael R. Taoism and the Rite of Cosmic Renewal. Pullman, Wash. (USA): Washington State University Press, 1990 (2nd ed.).
  • Schipper, Kristofer, and Verellen, Franciscus (eds.). The Taoist Canon: A Historical Companion to the Daozang. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004.
  • Strickmann, Michel. Chinese Magical Medicine. Edited by Bernard Faure. Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 2002.