Chinese Studies Daoism
Alan K. L. Chan
  • LAST REVIEWED: 27 April 2020
  • LAST MODIFIED: 22 April 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199920082-0046


The term “Daoism” or “Taoism” denotes one of the major religions of China. In some sources it also designates an intellectual tradition represented chiefly by the early Chinese thinkers Laozi and Zhuangzi. Daoism derives its name from the concept of Dao, usually translated into English as Way. In early Chinese literature Dao depicts a thoroughfare and by extension what is deemed the right or proper way in an ethical or political context. In this basic sense Dao entered the shared intellectual vocabulary of early China. However, in the Daodejing (Classic of the Way and virtue), the foundational work of Daoism attributed to Laozi, the concept of Dao acquires richer connotations as the ultimate source of the cosmos and all beings and the paradigm for the ideal ethical and political life. Other thinkers, notably Zhuangzi, similarly focused on the deeper significance of Dao, and during the Han dynasty (206 BCE–220 CE), historians discerned sufficient similarities among them to speak of a Daoist current or “school” of thought. Toward the end of the Han period, Daoism as an organized religion arrived on the Chinese scene. In 142 CE a new revelation was granted to a scholar and recluse named Zhang Ling on Mount Heming in modern Sichuan Province by the “Most High Lord Lao” (i.e., Laozi), now shown to be a divine being. The Dao is a divine reality and the Daodejing a wondrous scripture of profound meaning and salvific power. As Daoist sources further relate, Zhang established a new religious community and assumed the title of Celestial Master. The Way of the Celestial Masters, as the tradition came to be called, remains one of the main branches of Daoism. The relationship between the Daoist religion and the earlier discourse on Dao is complex. Modern Chinese sources employ two distinct terms—daojia 道家 and daojiao 道教—in discussing the Daoist tradition. Whereas daojia typically denotes the teachings associated with Laozi and Zhuangzi, daojiao almost invariably refers to the Daoist religion. This usage is also common in Japanese and Korean scholarship. Some Western authors consequently define daojia as “philosophical Daoism” and daojiao as “religious Daoism.” This has, however, been largely rejected in late-20th- and early-21st-century studies. Daojiao, literally the teachings of Dao, did not figure as a term of contrast to Daoist philosophy in premodern China. Leaving the terminological debate aside, Daoism may be said to have engaged a particular hermeneutic frame in appropriating the earlier discourses on Dao, which when integrated with other doctrinal and ritual innovations gave rise to a richly complex tradition. Nevertheless, studies on Laozi and Zhuangzi will be presented in separate sections in this bibliography in view of the interest they command. Daoism is a large topic. The selections here privilege late-20th- and early-21st-century general studies on its history, scriptures, rituals, self-cultivation practices, and modern development that would guide the reader to more specialized research and earlier works of importance to the study of Daoism. Note that most studies in English before the 21st century adopt the Wade-Giles system of transliterating Chinese terms. More recent studies tend to follow the Hanyu Pinyin system standard in mainland China. “Dao,” “Laozi,” “Daodejing,” and “Zhuangzi” in Pinyin would appear as “Tao,” “Lao-tzu,” “Tao-te ching,” and “Chuang-tzu,” respectively, in Wade-Giles Romanization, to give but a few key examples.

General Overviews

After the founding of Daoism in the Han period by the Celestial Masters, different lineages came to enrich the Daoist tradition. These include the Shangqing or Highest Clarity, the Lingbao or Numinous Treasure, and later the Quanzhen or Complete Perfection traditions, among others. Meditation practices associated with the Shangqing school and the ritual innovations of the Lingbao lineage set the stage for the flourishing of Daoism during the Tang dynasty. The later Quanzhen tradition added a monastic dimension to Daoism. The development of these schools; the interaction with Buddhism and Confucianism; the growth of Daoist scriptures, rituals, and self-cultivation practices; and the influence of Daoism on politics, society, and culture all render writing a general overview of Daoism a challenge for scholars. Maspero 1981, published posthumously after the author’s death in 1945, is a pioneering work that did much to spur research interest in Daoism. Welch and Seidel 1979 is also a landmark study. Kirkland 2004, Kohn 2009, Littlejohn 2009, Miller 2003, and Van Ess 2011 are efforts at introducing Daoism to a wider audience generally united in their effort to dismantle the artificial divide between philosophy and religion in understanding Daoism, which arose from a different, Western taxonomy of knowledge. Mou, et al. 1993 offers a detailed introduction. Robinet 1997 (cited under History) and Kaltenmark 1969 (cited under Studies on Early Daoist Thought) also provide excellent general introductions to Daoism.

  • Kirkland, Russell. Taoism: The Enduring Tradition. New York: Routledge, 2004.

    The book begins with a spirited methodological discussion challenging what the author holds to be erroneous assumptions about Daoism. The remaining chapters set out the discourses on Dao in pre-Han texts—the “classical legacy”; the historical development of Daoism; its sociopolitical context, including women in Daoism; and the Daoist ethical and spiritual ideal.

  • Kohn, Livia. Introducing Daoism. London: Routledge, 2009.

    Written in simple, student-friendly prose and forming a part of Routledge’s World Religions series, this work covers more than sixty topics in thirteen chapters grouped under four parts: “Foundations,” “Development,” “Modernity,” and “Reflections.” Each chapter closes with a summary of the key points presented, discussion questions, and suggestions for further reading.

  • Littlejohn, Ronnie L. Daoism: An Introduction. New York: Tauris, 2009.

    Likening the Daoist tradition to a kudzu vine, the book presents in twelve chapters its “trunk,” “branches,” and “overlapping stems.” The presentation follows a largely historical framework and includes a discussion on Daoism and Chinese literature generally not found in other surveys.

  • Maspero, Henri. Taoism and Chinese Religion. Translated by Frank A. Kierman Jr. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1981.

    English translation of Le Taoïsme et les religions chinoises (Paris: Gallimard, 1971). Published after Maspero’s death, this work brings together his research on a variety of Daoist topics. The chapters “Taoism in the First Centuries A.D.” and “Methods of ‘Nourishing the Vital Principle’ in the Ancient Taoist Religion” in particular broke new ground. Still an influential study.

  • Miller, James. Daoism: A Short Introduction. Oxford: Oneworld, 2003.

    A thematic introduction intended for use as a college text with a historical introduction distinguishing “proto,” “classical,” and “contemporary” Daoism followed by discussion on key concepts and practices with some attention to Daoism in the early 21st century. Also published under the title Daoism: A Beginner’s Guide. Miller maintains one of the best websites on Daoism, Daoist Studies.

  • Mou Zhongjian 牟钟鉴, Hu Fuchen 胡孚琛, and Wang Baoxuan 王葆玹, eds. Daojiao tonglun: Jian lun daojia xueshuo (道教通论: 兼论道家学说). Jinan, China: Qi lu shushe, 1993.

    Led by three eminent scholars, this single-volume introduction to Daoism consists of three parts. Part 1 focuses especially on Laozi and Zhuangzi and argues that the ideas of Laozi have deep religious roots; Part 2 is devoted to the history of Daoism; and Part 3 discusses Daoist spiritual practices and Daoism and Chinese art and literature.

  • Van Ess, Hans. Der Daoismus: Von Laozi bis heute. Munich: Beck, 2011.

    Short, historically oriented introduction that traverses confidently through some of the methodological issues, Laozi, Zhuangzi, the Huang-Lao tradition that flourished during the early Han period, the “divinization” of Laozi, spiritual cultivation, the major Daoist sects, the Daoist canon, and Daoism in the early 21st century.

  • Welch, Holmes, and Anna Seidel, eds. Facets of Taoism: Essays in Chinese Religion. Papers presented at a conference held September 1972 in Tateshina, Japan. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1979.

    The nine essays collected here represented the most advanced scholarship on Daoism at the time. Based on a conference held in 1972, the volume brings together some of the finest scholars from Japan, Europe, and North America. Chapter 9 is a bibliographic essay, “Taoist Studies in Japan.” The essays by Rolf Stein and Michel Strickmann remain important.

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