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Reviewed by:
  • Celestial Masters: History and Ritual in Early Daoist Communities by Terry F. Kleeman
  • Stephen R. Bokenkamp
Celestial Masters: History and Ritual in Early Daoist Communities by Terry F. Kleeman. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Asia Center, 2016. Pp. xiii + 425. $49.95.

I cannot pretend that the following review is objective. Far from it: Terry Kleeman and I were classmates, studying Daoism with the same teacher, Michel Strickmann, at UC Berkeley in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Since that time, we have continued to exchange research ideas, criticisms, and support. We have even co-taught two National Endowment for the Humanities summer faculty seminars, entitled “An Introduction to Daoist Literature and History.” As scholars and friends, we are close. As critical reviewer, the best I can offer is the assurance that we disagree on a few details regarding the history of the religion. And, as any close reader of footnotes will discover as they peruse Celestial Masters, we are not shy about expressing those disagreements.

What I intend to provide the readers of this journal, then, is a report from the front lines on a major advance in our discipline. The first draft I received of a chapter from this book arrived in March of 2010, but Terry and I had discussed and debated passages that appear as evidence here beginning no later than 1993, when I sought his advice on the translation of Commands and Precepts for the Great Family of the Dao (Da Daojia lingjie 大道家令戒), as he now with reason translates the title of the 255 ce circular. And I am certainly not the only one he consulted, as the preface makes clear. Kleeman has been working on this book for a very long time. It is the work of a scholarly lifetime.

This work treats the earliest form of the “organized, institutionalized religion” of Daoism, the Celestial Masters. The religion took its name from the three generations of “teachers appointed by Heaven” (tianshi 天師): Zhang Daoling 張道陵 (trad. fl. 142 ce), Zhang Heng 張衡 (dates unknown), and Zhang Lu 張魯 (d. 215 ce). It is variously known as the “Way of the Five Pecks of Rice” (Wu dou mi dao 五斗米道) in critical sources and the “Way of the Correct and Unitary Covenant with the Powers” (Zhengyi mengwei zhi dao 正一盟威之道) in Celestial Master sources. [End Page 248]

The book is divided into two parts. The first deals with the history of Celestial Master Daoism, solving many knotty problems that, while important for how we have come to reconstruct the religion, are too numerous to list here. Kleeman’s contributions to our understanding lie precisely in the details. His approach is constructed of close readings in conjunction with an understanding of the social conditions under which these texts were produced, derived in part from archeology and epigraphy. So numerous are the details he brings to light that, insofar as possible, I have elided the phrase “for the first time” from the account that follows in order to avoid tedium. The second part of the book provides us with the most complete account of Celestial Master life and practice that we are likely to ever have.

Kleeman’s introduction does all that an introduction should do. In addition to providing an outline of the book and introducing his sources, he provides a concise definition of Daoism and sets the stage for what follows with a concise description of Han religious practice. Chapter 1 presents and analyzes what Kleeman calls “external evidence” for the foundation of the Celestial Master organization during the second century ce. Chapter 2 covers the same subject from the perspective of “internal evidence.” This is a smart move that allows readers unfamiliar with the religion to begin with a somewhat hazy outsider’s view and, in the second chapter, focus in on the hagiography and doctrinal consistency of the Celestial Masters.

But specialists also stand to learn much because Kleeman has, throughout this book, performed close readings on the sources and, wherever possible, brought them into conversation with one another. The best early example is his discussion of Ge Hong’s 葛洪 (283–343) biography of Zhang Daoling in his Shenxian zhuan 神仙傳. By rights, this account should occur in chapter...


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