SOAS University of London

Department of Religions & Philosophies, School of History, Religions & Philosophies

The Great Tradition of Taoism

Module Code:
FHEQ Level:
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.

The seminars will focus on selected readings of textual materials in translation and in-depth discussion of the topic treated in the lectures.

As a major aspect of Chinese religious identity, Taoism is a recommended major to students in the MA Religions who focus on the religious traditions of China and East Asia at large; it is of particular relevance to students pursuing the specialist pathway in Buddhist Studies as a tool for the understanding of East Asian Buddhism; topics treated during the course are also relevant to the specialist pathways in Japanese Religions and Gender Studies and Religions.

Objectives and learning outcomes of the module

At the end of the course a student should be able to:

  • demonstrate a sound knowledge of the history, doctrines and rituals of Taoism, in the wider context of Chinese indigenous religion;
  • define and describe Taoism as an organised religion, locating its overlaps with and departures from popular cults and Buddhism;
  • 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;
  •  be aware of the different definitions of Taoism in contemporary Western academia.


This is a 10 week course where the students will spend 2 hours in lectures and 1 hour in seminars/tutorials.

Scope and syllabus

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.

Method of assessment

  • One 1,500 word response paper worth 25% of final mark, due Week 7 of term 2

  • One 4,000 word essay worth 75% of final mark, due week 1 of term 3

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.


Important notice regarding changes to programmes and modules