- Kristofer Schipper: A Life for Dao
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On February 18th, 2021, the eminent sinologist, scholar of Daoist studies, and ordained Daoist priest, Kristofer Marinus Schipper, passed away in Amsterdam at the age of 86.
His departure profoundly shook the scholarly world of Daoist studies, many of his personal students and disciples, some by now established professors in their own rights, responded with tributes and memories.1 In addition, an online memorial (in keeping with the time of pandemic we are living now) was organized by the Global Forum of Daoist [End Page 223] Studies on March 27th 2021, where students of Professor Schipper and other scholars of Daoist studies, who have been inspired by his work over the past half a century, came together to share memories and pay tribute to him.2
The Daoist Association of China called on its members to hold ceremonies in honor of Professor Schipper’s passing. His student Zhu Yiwen, in a tribute on the blog Sixth Tone,3 describes an elaborate ceremony held for him in the Xuanmiao temple near Suzhou, to which local and international scholars, friends, and fellow Daoists contributed. Zhu also reports that in several other Daoist temples in China ceremonies in honor of Professor Schipper were held at different dates, commemorating his passing to a higher celestial realm.
The commemorations from the international scholarly community as well as from Daoist circles in China, illustrate in a way Professor Schipper’s trailblazing work, which had a foundational impact on the development of Daoist Studies.
Born October 23rd 1934 in Sweden and raised in the Netherlands, Kristofer Schipper pursued his studies in Paris, learning from the eminent scholars of Chinese religions Max Kaltenmark (1910–2002) and Rolf Stein (1911–1999), among others. After graduating in 1962, he took a position as a researcher at the École Française d’Extrême-Orient. This offered him the opportunity to do research in Taiwan, where he found the possibility to join the troupe of a famous Daoist family, the Chens of Tainan. In due time he was initiated into Daoism, and his formal ordination occurred in 1966.
At a time when sinology was studied mostly through books and Daoism was almost synonymous to the works of Laozi and Zhuangzi, Professor Schipper found access to the living religion, that is, to the liturgical tradition of the Heavenly Masters or Way of Orthodox Unity as practiced in Taiwan (Girardot 1995). At the time, this was remarkable. Access to mainland China remained difficult if not impossible. Taiwan [End Page 224] offered a more accessible alternative place to experience China, but academic study in Taiwan as in the West in the 1960s was largely limited to the study of texts. Kristofer Schipper instead learned about the lived religion, its rituals and liturgies, from the practicing priests, thus gaining a new and different perspective and point of access to the Daoist religion. In due course, he welcomed many students into this newly found world of lived Daoism in Taiwan, and inspired also many scholars of later generations.
Upon his return to Paris, he taught as Professor for Chinese Religions and Daoist Studies at the École Pratique des Hautes Études from 1972 until his retirement in 2000. In addition, from 1993–1999, he also held the position of Professor of Chinese Culture at the University of Leiden. After retiring from his positions in Leiden and Paris, he moved to Fuzhou in China, where he was appointed as Professor at Fuzhou University and founded, together with his wife, Dr. Yuan Bingling, the Library of the Western Belvedere (Xiguan cangshulou 西觀藏書樓).
Kristofer Schipper combined his unique access to the practiced contemporary Daoist religion with a keen interest in the canonical texts of Daoism. One of his first publications, which offered insights from his experiences in Daoist ritual, was Le Fen-teng, Rituel taoiste, published in 1975 as volume CIII of the Publications de l'École Française d'Êxtreme-Orient. A reviewer remarked already then that “the major contribution of Dr. Schipper's work must certainly be found in the clear proof given of the relationship between the Taiwanese ritual texts...