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Daoism and Chinese Culture

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BY LIVIA KOHN

CAMBRIDGE: THREE PINES PRESS, 2001

218 PAGES, PAPERBACK, ISBN 1-931483-00-0

Livia Kohn presents us with a textbook meant for classroom use. In colloquial and non-technical language, clearly based on lecture notes, Livia Kohn’s classroom text, Daoism and Chinese Culture, attempts to synthesize in simple terms the very complex social reality of Daoism. Finding coherence in the almost innumerable practices, ritual techniques, and lineages, Kohn defines the unifying principle of Daoism as “aligning oneself with Dao, creating harmony and a sense of participation in it . . . create a state of overall goodness and well-being—in cosmos, nature, society, and the human body” (4). Kohn categorizes the practitioners of Daoism into three types: literati, communal, and self-cultivating. Such categorization is problematic, and many scholars of Daoism will prefer more restrictive definitions. For example, Kohn discusses the Falun Gong movement in the context of modern self-cultivation groups. But the Falun Gong movement does not describe itself as Daoist, nor would any ordained Daoist priest consider it to be Daoist.

The eleven short chapters trace the history of Daoism from its ancient roots to contemporary practices, concluding with the recent adoption of Daoism into American religious and popular culture. Within this chronological framework, Kohn traces several themes, including basic philosophical notions, communal practices, the interaction of Daoism and the state, and Buddhist impact. Particularly interesting are Kohn’s brief discussions of theoretical and comparative notions, such as millenarianism, monasticism, rituals, and meditation.

Kohn’s presentation is sometimes hasty. For instance, the Shangqing revelations were presented to Xu Mi and his son Xu Hui, and not to Xu Mai, who, as Kohn herself notes, went into reclusion before the appearance of the revelations (88). Readers should further explore such problematic points using the brief bibliographies at the end of each chapter. This will be especially important for instructors, who may be unfamiliar with the field, in preparing lessons when using this book.

The quality of the book is marred by numerous errors in spelling and grammar, and other non-felicitous uses of language. Hopefully, these will be fixed in future editions. The index, complete with Chinese characters, is helpful in navigating through the book and for cross-referencing with other sources. This book may serve well as an introductory text to Daoism in high schools and introductory level surveys of Asian religions.