Regents' Professor Stephen Bokenkamp, a faculty member in the School of International Letters and Cultures and the School of Historical, Philosophical and Religious Studies at Arizona State University, first began studying Daoism as a graduate student at the University of California, Berkeley.
One of two students studying under a visiting professor — the first to start a course on Daoism in the United States — Bokenkamp began studying his very first Daoist text: "Declarations of the Perfected." In this class, Bokenkamp recalls, “Every translation of mine had a line drawn through it and another translation written above it. I didn’t get a single thing right in that class.”
Now, Bokenkamp is one of the leading scholars of medieval Chinese Daoism and literature and has recently been elected a member of the American Society for the Study of Religion.
The American Society for the Study of Religion is a society of elected members whose purpose is to promote and advance the scholarly study of religion in its various forms. In addition, the society seeks to foster communication among those who are engaged in such study. Occasionally, the society will also lend its voice in support of religion departments across the country whose home institutions may not fully comprehend the value of the study of religion.
“It’s all about what we can do to promote the study of religion in universities,” Bokenkamp said. “That’s the main goal of this: to think of ways to support the study of religion.”
Bokenkamp’s work with Chinese Daoism is exemplary of this mission, as there are only a few people around the world who research Daoism.
“When I started studying, it was during the Cultural Revolution, and yet not 10 years later I was touring Chinese religious sites with scholars who told me that they used to knock the heads off of these statues,” he said. In many universities, philosophy and religious studies departments traditionally focus on Confucianism as the center of Chinese civilization.
“Scholarship has seen Confucianism at the center of Chinese life, but that’s really only the educated class traditionally. Daoism, which has been the religion of the people, has been ignored,” Bokenkamp said.
In addition to his election to the American Society of the Study of Religion, Bokenkamp is a recipient of the Guggenheim award and has published multiple books and articles. In 2017, a conference on religion and literature in medieval China was held in Bokenkamp’s honor.
“I’m having a lot of fun translating this same fourth-century text that I stumbled through in my very first class in Daoism at Berkeley,” Bokenkamp said.
Bokenkamp hopes to continue to make Daoism more widely known among scholars and to build more opportunities for students to find jobs.
This article was written in collaboration with Raegan Mills, co-editor of the School of International Letters and Cultures newsletter.
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