From Polythetic to Synthesized: Definitions of “Religious Daoism”

Carving a well-defined image of religious Daoism out of the block of ancient and medieval Chinese thought and tradition is a laborious task. The development of Daoist concepts from the Warring States period to the fall of the Han dynasty is amorphous—an ephemeral composite of figures, beliefs, scriptures, traditions, and communities. Reflecting this problematic and multivocal nature of Daoism, academia surrounding the religion is equally as variegated. Some academics propound a relatively boundless survey of the general concepts of Daoism, but ultimately fail to provide an efficacious definition by which to capture the religion’s distinguishing features. On the other hand, movements to define the religion under a static set of requirements risk hastily excluding individuals and communities that offer key insights into the formative process of the religion. In order to conceive of a meaningful portrait of Daoism, one ought to employ a definition that carefully treads the line between excessively liberal and chauvinistic qualities. This definition ought to identify specific social communities that typify instances of religious Daoism as a means of separating them from each other and their contemporary non-Daoist traditions. Beginning with a discussion on the flaws and merits of academics’ methods to studying Daoism, I seek to elucidate a synthesized and meaningful definition by which to understand the religion.

Approaching the study of religious Daoism, one must ask the question: What method most accurately distinguishes Daoism from contemporary Chinese religions while remaining flexible in selecting out specific instances from its evolving nature? Distilling a perfect definition from an array of bureaucratic biases and personal opinions perhaps is not possible. But working towards a meaningful definition that enables a productive study of Daoism is attainable. Analyzing the scholarship of Isabelle Robinet, Gil Raz, and Stephan Bokenkamp, I attempt to glean a better understanding of Daoism.

In Taoism: Growth of a Religion, Isabelle Robinet approaches Daoism from the margins. She writes that her goal in providing a survey of Daoism’s development is “to trace the major lines of doctrinal evolution rather than to retell the events that marked its history”.[1] Setting out to provide a tidy, chronological account, she traces seminal texts and cultic practices from the Warring States era (fourth – third century B.C.E.) and proceeds to describe the various ways in which later Daoist schools would adopt and evolve the concepts. These early developments, for Robinet, demarcate examples of religious Daoism. In fact, she maintains that in differentiating “religious Daoism” from “philosophical Daoism”, one fails to understand the crucial snowball effect that characterizes the religion.[2] Though her capacity to synthesize a sea of information into a concise book is commendable, it renders a definition of religious Daoism problematically hollow. Omitting socio-political factors for the sake of brevity and inclusiveness only serves to muddy a meaningful definition by which to classify and distinguish an array of potential Daoist candidates, while excluding others.

Isabelle Robinet’s treatment of the HuangLao school is a case in point. Her discussion of HuangLao Daoism (ca. second century B.C.E.) briefly explains that the name comprises references to Huangdi (Yellow Emperor) and Laozi.[3] Its textual lineage, therefore, follows from the Books of the Yellow Emperor and Laozi, and its adherents emphasize principles of wuwei (“nonpurposive action”) and transcendence, incorporating practical Legalist ideals.[4] The reader gleans important concepts surrounding HuangLao Daoism and its ties with other Daoist sects, but might hastily classify it as an instance of “religious Daoism” based on Robinet’s discussion. Robin Yates delves into this issue, explaining that HuangLao Daoism is best understood in Mark Csikszentmihalyi’s terms as a “tradition or group of traditions … which included many different aspects, including mythological, politico-philosophical, military, divinatory, and medical”.[5] Classifying HuangLao Daoism under “religion”, as Yates explains, is problematic. Its Legalist notions and wartime instructions, directed towards imperial authority, render it more of a politico-philosophical tradition with a Daoist flavor. Understanding its history within a social framework that illuminates its distinguishing factors, one ought to think twice about clumping it together with religious Daoism.

Gil Raz introduces his polythetic definition of religious Daoism as the appropriate method in his Emergence of Daoism: Creation of Tradition. In response to authors like Isabelle Robinet, he writes, “Simplistic use of labels such as Celestial Master, Shangqing, and Lingbao … obscures the social reality of Daoism in medieval China”.[6] He emphasizes studying the social and adversarial aspect of Daoism’s development by focusing on various “communities of practice” and the ways in which their texts respond to one another. Discussing issues indicative of a traditional, linear narrative of early Daoism, he writes, “These traditions are, of course, the immediate precursors of many medieval Daoist practices. They were, however, diverse in their practices and social context, and they were not univocal in their cosmological assumptions”.[7] Raz’s approach to the study of Daoism is dominated by the image of the biological process of evolution and the competitive principles of survival. Those communities that most appropriately adapt their cosmology to their social environment are more apt to persist. Like individual organisms, Daoist sects competed with each other for imperial resources (i.e., official recognition or a position in court). Failed mutations that diverge from the species ought to be considered instances of religious Daoism, as long as they adhere, to some degree or other, to the five criteria of his polythetic definition.

Constructing this kind of definition provides for a better, more structured approach to studying religious Daoism. Perhaps representative of the elusive nature of its subject, however, Gil Raz’s definition is not without shortcomings. He suggests a five-point list of criteria that “allows a wide variation within the Daoist religious groups, while conforming to what Daoists themselves seem to have accepted as Daoism”.[8] This set of criteria, briefly, constitutes instances of religious Daoism as those that attain a degree of esoteric lineages of transmitted rituals that enable effective communication between humans and the Dao, rejection of those practices that fail to align with the Dao, and an eschatological vision underlying the search for transcendence. Employing weak, unbinding language, he offers a view of religious Daoism that incorporates “the canonic texts of the Three Caverns and Celestial Master Daoism [as] the center of the emerging Daoist tradition”, but recognizes “other lineages of the Six Dynasties, which may share some characteristics, but not others”.[9] This unbinding quality makes it difficult to understand if Raz’s definition is at all helpful. He accurately places emphasis on practice as a means of understanding Daoism, but does not solve the liberalness issue of which Isabelle Robinet’s work is guilty. For instance, his first criteria—a view of the Dao as an overarching force, but not necessarily personified—includes nearly all of ancient and medieval Chinese thought. Surely, a “primary criterion” ought to distinguish Daoism from, say, Confucianism at the outset. Likewise, although he recognizes the development of the Three Caverns canon (sandong) as crucial, it is not clear, based on his definition, why the earlier Taiqing (ca. third – fourth centuries C.E.)  practitioners of waidan (“outer alchemy”), so pivotal to the canonical development, would not suffice as examples of religious Daoism. As Fabrizio Pregadio explains, the Taiqing alchemists achieved transcendence through a successive process of rituals (e.g., offering of gifts to the gods; facing the sun during ingestion of the elixir) that were esoterically transmitted through texts.[10] The very process of alchemy is a communication with the gods and ultimate transcendence to Higher Clarity. They meet most, if not all, of Raz’s criteria, yet they fall short of what one wants to count as religious Daoism. Looking at Stephen Bokenkamp’s method, the latter statement will be clearer.

Stephan Bokenkamp’s Early Daoist Scriptures narrows the discussion of religious Daoism to three formative lineages: Celestial Masters (or Way of the Five Pecks of Rice [142 C.E.]), Shangqing (Upper Clarity [late fourth century C.E.]), and Lingbao (Numinous Gem [ca. 400 C.E.]). He places the Celestial Masters at the chronological forefront of organized Daoist communities “for which we have substantial documentation”,[11] and claims that all contemporary Daoist sects “without exception found it necessary to position themselves either in continuation of or in reaction to the Celestial Masters”.[12] As Bokenkamp acknowledges, designating the Celestial Masters as the single origin of religious Daoism is historically problematic.[13] However, identifying the earliest clear example of a religious Daoist community enables one to sharpen a definition of the religion. Commentaries play a major role in this identification. As Bokenkamp explains, the Xiang’er commentary (Thinking of You) on the Laozi exemplifies a community’s practical reinterpretation of a vague, mystical text.[14] The authors belonged to a community that brought a popular bureaucratic pantheon down to earth, installing their own corresponding bureaucracy and expanding their moral domain throughout the spectrum of social strata. Employing the Celestial Masters as a comparative platform that instantiates a clear community of practicing Daoists, one may then meaningfully trace the lineage of religious Daoism as it responds and adapts within and to this early community.

Stressing the community aspect of the scriptures he discusses, Stephan Bokenkamp clearly works within a social dimension of religious Daoism. This makes Gil Raz’s criticism of the scholar rather peculiar. Raz focuses on Bokenkamp’s definition concerning the Dao’s active agency in human affairs (internal and external), with emphasis on a deified Laozi.[15] He falls short of acknowledging another, perhaps implicit, criterion in Bokenkamp’s book: organized social community is central. Positing a deified active agent as a criterion and working within the structure of highly organized religious communities and their scriptures, Bokenkamp maintains a moderately broad traditional lineage requirement, while bringing the discussion into focus. However, Bokenkamp does not make claims to Daoist sects outside of the three traditional lineages he examines. In order to break from the limits of Bokenkamp’s work, one ought to adopt a modified version of Gil Raz’s polythetic definition—one that employs Bokenkamp’s personified Dao criterion. This is simply to amend Raz’s first and “primary criterion” with stronger language, requiring a personified view of the Dao, particularly Laozi, emphasizing the Celestial Masters as a paragon of religious Daoism, and solving the overly inclusive issue characteristic of his polythetic definition.

Examining the previously mentioned Taiqing tradition under this new light, one glimpses the issues of classifying it as “religious Daoism”. Although its texts provide recipes and directions for communicating with the Dao and transcending, these texts do not suffice as “commentaries” on a scripture that typifies early Daoist thought and the development of clear religious communities. Pre-Shangqing alchemy practitioners were too heterogeneous to instantiate a unified community. Fabrizio Pregadio discusses the “striving for integration” that marked the development of the Shangqing and Lingbao corpora.[16] In order to account for the myriad “doctrinal and textual legacies that existed in Jiangnan”, the corpora enveloped the methods of the alchemists. Separate from this unification, however, the Taiqing tradition ought not to be considered religious Daoism.

Integration, unification, adaption, and evolution by “natural” selection—all of these terms appropriately describe the religion of Daoism and its development. Without the appropriate scaffolding around which to build these concepts, however, the process appears meaningless. For this reason, one looks to the Celestial Masters, as Bokenkamp does, for a solid base that clearly instantiates a community of religious Daoism. This community formed a highly organized bureaucracy from notions tied to a personified Dao, which mirrored and blended with its celestial bureaucracy, bringing order and shape to Daoism. From this base, one employs Gil Raz’s polythetic approach, modified to emphasize a personified Dao, to other potential religious candidates of Daoism. This distinction enables one to meaningfully navigate the field by dividing examples into more precise instances, and not clumping concepts into a single trajectory of the religion. This synthesized definition, emphasizing the Celestial Masters, only insists on using the latter as a central point of departure and not the foremost chronological instance of a Daoist community. With these methods in mind, one may hope to traverse the fragmentary field of Daoism with the goal of meaningfully integrating the myriad things.


[1] Isabelle Robinet, Taoism: Growth of a Religion (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1997), xv.
[2] Ibid., 2.
[3] Ibid., 46.
[4] Ibid, 47.
[5] Robin D. S. Yates, Five Lost Classics: Tao, HuangLao, and Yin-Yang in Han China (New York: Ballantine, 1997), 12.
[6] Gil Raz, The Emergence of Daoism: Creation of Tradition (Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge, 2012), 4.
[7] Ibid., 21.
[8] Ibid., 18.
[9] Ibid.
[10] Fabrizio Pregadio, Great Clarity: Daoism and Alchemy in Early Medieval China (Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 2006), 9.
[11] Stephan R. Bokenkamp, Early Daoist Scriptures (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997), 1.
[12] Ibid., 15.
[13] Ibid., 14.
[14] Ibid., 31.
[15] Ibid., 12.
[16] Pregadio, Great Clarity, 19.

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