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Reviewed by:
  • Taosim: The Enduring Tradition
  • Eric Sean Nelson (bio)
Russell Kirkland. Taoism: The Enduring Tradition. New York and London: Routledge, 2004. xxii, 282 pp. Paperback $19.95, ISBN 0-415-26322-0. Cloth $150.00, ISBN 0-415-26321-2.

Taoism: The Enduring Tradition is a provocative reinterpretation of the diverse ideas and practices called Daoism. Arguing that Chinese and Western interpreters have radically misconstrued the Daoist tradition, Russell Kirkland reconstructs its history and import in this innovative, yet at times overly polemical, work. It is a valuable introduction to the Daoist tradition, particularly for what has been dismissed as "religious Daoism" (Daojiao), as well as current research and controversies concerning Daoism's significance.

In chapter 1, Kirkland argues that Daoism is in need of being internally elucidated according to its own criteria. It should be: (1) contextually interpreted as a Chinese phenomenon, (2) based on a more complete interpretation of the full range of Daoist texts of all tendencies and periods without excluding some a priori, and (3) engaged as a living and diverse tradition and form of life. Thus, Daoism needs to be conceptualized according to the self-interpretation of Daoists rather than Chinese and Western critiques or faddish adaptations. For Kirkland, belonging to a Daoist heritage, lineage, and tradition constitutes being Daoist such that Daoist identity and thought cannot be defined by the philosophical and sinological reconstruction of a few "classics." These claims imply that Daoism should be situated in its social-political context to bring into focus its moral and social dimensions, including the questions of power, gender, and class explored in chapter 4.

Kirkland begins chapter 2 by considering the retrospective and inaccurate Han classification of "philosophical schools" that oversimplified the diversity of pre-Han thought. Since (1) Daojia is an anachronistic Han invention and (2) the Daodejing and the Zhuangzi are not coherent self-consciously "Daoist" texts but rather compilations arising from varied and sometimes contradictory sources, there is no such thing as "early," "classical," or "philosophical" Daoism centered on "basic concepts" such as dao, wuwei, or ziran. Instead these ideas have (1) shared origins, as visible in Mengzi's reference to the self-cultivation of flood like qi; (2) origins in different intellectual circles, such as wuwei emerging from texts labeled as Confucian and legalist; or (3) a different meaning than what is later ascribed to them by Han dynasty, neo-Confucian, and Western thinkers, such as interpreting ziran in the Daodejing as "spontaneity" or "naturalness." Although mostly insightful, Kirkland problematically employs words such as "spontaneity" or "naturalness" as if they have one univocal meaning, namely, their everyday Western sense of arbitrary and individualistic self-assertion at odds with any sort of self-cultivation [End Page 432] However, instead of exclusive opposites, there is a different sense in which the ease and directness of spontaneity and naturalness can be said to define Daoist-not to mention Confucian-self-cultivation. Likewise, he claims that no Daoist ever suggested "living according to nature" yet uses arguably equivalent phrases such as learning "how to live in accord with life's unseen forces and subtle processes" (p. 59) and "living in accord with what really is" (p. 191). This creates the impression that Kirkland's critique of other approaches to Daoism is in part merely verbal insofar as he inadequately defines concepts, conflates words with their popular usage, and leaves unexamined which or what kind of nature, reality, unseen forces, and life might be at stake in these philosophical and sinological arguments.

A further weakness is his effort to deemphasize the significance of the Zhuangzi (not to mention xuanxue, which is mostly ignored) for Daoism while still using this text to support various arguments about its further development. Kirkland claims in chapter 2 that the Zhuangzi has no great import for actual Daoism, and yet argues in chapter 5 that the Zhuangzi provides the central source and exemplar of the Daoist sage and perfected person (zhenren). Much like Ge Hong's critique of xuanxue, and despite Girardot's convincing arguments that biospiritual practices are present in this text, Kirkland only finds a beautiful, yet empty and ethically bankrupt, idea of life in the Zhuangzi without any...


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pp. 432-434
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