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Reviewed by:
  • Daoism: A Short Introduction
  • Franklin J. Woo (bio)
James Miller . Daoism: A Short Introduction. Oxford: Oneworld Publications, 2003. xviii, 174 pp. Paperback $17.95, ISBN 1-85168-315-1.

James Miller is an assistant professor of East Asian Traditions at Queen's University in Kingston, Ontario, Canada, and claims Livia Kohn and Robert Cummings Neville as "my teachers" (p. xv). With Liu Xiaogan and Norman J. Girardot, he is editor of Daoism and Ecology (Harvard University Press, 2001).1

On the back cover of Daoism: A Short Introduction, Norman Girardot offers high praise for this book, saying that it is "just the introductory text we have been waiting for-thoroughly up-to-date, admirably well written and truly undergraduate friendly, with an intelligent, and freshly different, thematic organization. It's a book that pulsates with a Daoist spirit."

Although Daoism "is truly becoming a world religion," says Miller, "it seems to resist being pinned down in neat categories," because the tradition "is a marvelous history of continuous change rather than a linear progress or development" (p. ix). Of all the books on Daoism that this reviewer has read, no two authors seem to agree on what aspects of the subject need emphasis. In this short volume of only 151 pages of text, the author gives his readers not the last word on Daoism but invaluable handles "to develop your own understanding" of this rich and complex tradition, in the form of eight dynamic themes with a "wide range of meanings" (p. xii). [End Page 197]

These themes, which have occurred regularly throughout the author's own exploration of Daoism are: (1) Identity (jia 家), (2) the Way (dao 道), (3) the Body (ti 體), (4) Power (de 德), (5) Light (guang 光), (6) Alchemy (dan 丹), (7) Text (jing 經), and (8) Nature (ziran 自然). Each theme with its corresponding Chinese ideogram(s) encapsulates an aspect of Daoism, and each is the subject of one of the book's eight chapters of approximately equal length.

A three-page "Timeline of Daoist History" precedes the very helpful first chapter, which is an all-important overview of the subject in a historical survey that covers the following topics: Proto-Daoism, from antiquity to the second century C.E.; Classical Daoism, from 142 C.E., when Zhang Daoling established the Way of the Celestial Masters, parallel to the development of the Way of Highest Clarity and the Way of Numinous Treasure, culminating with the flourishing of art and culture in the Tang dynasty (618-906); Modern Daoism, a period beginning in the Song dynasty where the boundaries between "Daoism," "Buddhism," and "Confucianism" are quite blurred and when the Way of Complete Perfection, a monastic movement influenced by Buddhism, was founded by Wang Zhe (1113-1170), with Daoism reaching the court of Chinggis Khan in the Yuan; Contemporary Daoism, which became a world phenomenon that has included such Daoist-influenced activities such as Taijiquan and Qigong, not to mention the controversial Falun Dafa or Falun Gong, with its syncretic insights into the practices related to health and well-being in both Daoism and Buddhism. All of these have gained popularity in Europe and North America in recent decades. Although quite a broad sweep in fifteen pages, Miller's historical account provides the needed roadmap for this introduction to Daoism and all its ramifications. Phenomenologically, the richness and complexity of Daoism provide valuable insights into religion in general and popular religion in particular.

As with all of the subsequent eight chapters, the Historical Introduction ends with its own thematic "Suggestions for further Reading." The richness and complexity of Daoism can be seen in any one of these theme chapters. For example, in the chapter on "Text" (jing 經), Miller claims that the wide selection of Daoist texts has a variety of functions such as instruction on governance, alchemic formulas for health and longevity, methods and techniques for aligning bodies with the Dao such as the Neiye 內業,2 two cryptic books on exorcism and healing, and writings in the form of aphorisms (Westerners who are used to organized, systematic, logical explanations may be at a loss in deciphering their exact meanings). Furthermore, the talismanic dimension of texts is also underscored by the contemporary...


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