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  • The Emergence of Daoism: Creation of Tradition by Gil Raz
  • Andrew Meyer (bio)
Gil Raz. The Emergence of Daoism: Creation of Tradition. London: Routledge, 2012. 292pages. Hardcover $168.00, isbn 978-0-415-77849-7.

The Emergence of Daoism is an important contribution to a decades-long debate over the origins and development of Daoism. With broad erudition and painstaking analysis, Gil Raz throws new light on a host of issues that have long occasioned difficulty and confusion. His work is essential reading for anyone interested in the history of Daoism or Chinese religion more generally.

Working in a scholarly discourse exemplified by Michel Strickmann and Stephen Bokenkamp, Raz focuses upon the institutionalized Daoist religious communities of the medieval era. He shows that conventional narratives of Daoist history, positing a linear development from the founding of the Celestial Masters in 142 c.e. by Zhang Daoling, up through the emergence of the Shangqing and Lingbao scriptural traditions in the fourth and fifth centuries, to the eventual formulation of the first orthodox Daoist canon in the Tang dynasty, do not acknowledge the complexities evinced by the sources. Rather, the record demonstrates that during this entire period Daoism, in social terms, remained a very fluid phenomenon. Who could claim to be a Daoist, what sobriquet(s) they should be known by, what practices they could legitimately engage in, and what texts they should take as authoritative were all questions that remained indeterminate and heatedly contested from the earliest appearance of Daoist groups in the Han until the formation of the Tang canon (and beyond). Instead of a single Daoist community [End Page 480] evolving from Han to Tang, we should think in terms of a plurality of interacting and oftentimes competing lineages, each engaged in the construction and reconstruction of tradition using various elements inherited, shared, invented, or imported from beyond the precincts of Daoism altogether.

Raz has entered into a fraught discourse and is aware of its pitfalls. He begins by reviewing the various definitions of Daoism that have been posited in English-language scholarship, arguing that none thus far have presented a framework flexible enough to accommodate all of the diverse elements that contributed to the early history of Daoism. In their place, Raz offers a polythetic definition, a list of characteristics that delineate a family resemblance among varying groups that played a role in the emergence of the Daoist tradition.1 To be included in the scope of inquiry, a group need not exhibit all of these criteria, only most of them. While one could quibble with Raz’s list of characteristics, there is no denying that his polythetic approach yields a versatile and effective means to navigating knotty methodological problems.

Under the aegis of this definition, Raz urges us to think of the emergent Daoist tradition as a dynamic patchwork of interlinked “communities of practice” (p. 4), groups shaped as much or more by the activities they cultivated as by their theoretical doctrines or textual engagements. Over the course of The Emergence of Daoism, Raz examines a series of practices that formed the focal matrix for the evolving identity of early Daoist lineages. In chapter 1, he looks at a chronological sequence of cults of immortals and the various meditative, yogic, and dietary techniques they exemplified for the achievement of transcendence, uncovering the mechanisms by which the earliest Daoist lineages evolved from or co-opted the cults of local fang shi. Chapter 2 examines the ritual means by which early Daoist lineages were constructed and explores the process by which these transmission rites, over time, eschewed the blood sacrifices of the “common religion” in favor of “pure covenants” (p. 36) that distinguished increasingly self-conscious Daoist communities. Chapter 3 charts the evolution of the use of talismans, from its pre-Daoist origins in classical and apocryphal texts up through its development as a central vector of Daoist concepts of cosmogony and spiritual efficacy. Chapter 4 examines the history of sexual yoga among Daoist practitioners and charts the controversies these techniques incited among various lineages. Chapter 5 recounts the various attempts among medieval scholiasts to systematize the proliferating body of Daoist texts into an authoritative and orthodox...