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Reviewed by:
  • Early Daoist Scriptures
  • Barbara Hendrischke (bio)
Stephen R. Bokenkamp. Early Daoist Scriptures. Taoist Classics, vol. 1. Berkeley, Los Angeles, and London: University of California Press, 1997. xviii, 502 pp. Hardcover $50.00, ISBN 0-520-20322-4.

This book is the first reliable introduction to the early period of religious Daoism, at least in a Western language. Until now, this field was the monopoly of Japanese scholars, who, in great detail and with painstaking care, have told the tale of the early Daoists.1 However, even if they had been translated, these studies would have been of limited use to the nonspecialist. They have their own, in many cases Buddhist-oriented, agenda and speak to their own audience, presupposing a layer of knowledge and interest not always identical with that of the Western student of Chinese religion. While Bokenkamp's book does not replace Maspero's enthusiastic account written in the 1930s, which became the starting point for all wider interest in the religion, it sets a new landmark. It puts all the old enthusiasm on a new footing, arrived at after decades of intensive, worldwide research. It also signifies the growth of "dao-ology" in the United States, to which the author of the book has greatly contributed through a range of publications—who would dare to write about Lingbao Daoism without consulting him?—and in particular through editing the periodical Daoist Resources, which from 1989 to 1998 was published at the East Asian Studies Center of the University of Indiana.

The book certainly achieves its rather moderate aim "to contribute to our own understanding of the religion." Furthermore, it can be argued that it also provides an instructive model of how such understanding can be obtained. This is no small achievement and is arrived at on the basis of a methodological approach that can only be called conservative—and is also, I would like to suggest, completely appropriate. Bokenkamp's approach is philological. His book centers on [End Page 386] the full translation (always a first translation) of short texts from Daoism's formative years. Through an analysis of their prefaces, through the search for author and date, through the factual information that the texts convey, and, last but not least, through their message the formation of the religion unfolds.

The image of Daoism thus arrived at is more trustworthy than other constructions. What we can put together on the basis of outside, non-Daoist sources is so meager that it cannot explain why the religion not only survived after the end of the Sichuan Celestial Master community but in the course of a few centuries became the equivalent of a national religion. On the other hand, what has been constructed on the basis of Daoist historiography, or rather hagiography, although often quite plausible, does not withstand scholarly scrutiny in that it comes from texts of dubious date and authorship that were produced, with the aim of glorification, in a period and an environment far removed from the events in question. While it can probably be argued that other great Daologists like A. Seidel or M. Strickmann followed a similar method, and similarly reached convincing results, what we call "Early Daoism" has also been misrepresented by relying on the dry account of the historian, the glorification of the believer, or a highly speculative combination of the two.

The book is mainly concerned with the translation and interpretation of six Daoist texts, written from the second to the early fifth centuries. These are introduced by an account of their origin, their position in the development of the religion, and their basic points of doctrine. Translations are accompanied by a twofold commentary, which must indeed, as the author suggests, be seen as user-friendly. Annotations that are crucial for the understanding of passages are presented as footnotes, with the intention of making what the text says accessible to the nonspecialist. Annotations for the specialist—in particular, references to textual variants and other philological details—follow the translations as endnotes. Throughout the book the annotations are masterly. While the author's way of writing is often quite decisive and moves with energy in a chosen direction, he makes use...


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pp. 386-391
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