Rare Daoist canon comes to ASU Libraries

Daoist canon

Daoism, one of China's indigenous major religions, traces its roots back to the sixth century BC. In the West, there are few texts available, and perhaps only 10 percent of all the collected texts have been translated worldwide. But traditions practiced more and more frequently in the United States, such as Tai Chi, and Feng Shui, have their roots in Daoism, and have even found their way into literature, such as the children’s book “Tao (Dao) of Pooh.” The concepts of Yin and Yang, the two sides of Chi or Qi energy, are also important  in Daoist religion.

The vast literature of the Daoist canon, or Daozang, survives in a Ming Dynasty edition of some 1,500 different texts. Compiled under imperial auspices and completed in 1445 – with a supplement added in 1607 – many of the books in the Daozang concern the history, organization, and liturgies of China's indigenous religion. A large number of the works deal with medicine, alchemy, and divination.

In a rare visit to the United States, a delegation from the Chinese Daoist Association  will come to ASU to present the ASU Library with a string-bound Daoist canon reprinted after this original 1445 woodblock edition. The remarkable donation will be accompanied by three events for the public: a round-table discussion, a musical performance, and the official presentation to the Hayden Library.

Daoist celebrations

The first of the celebratory events starts at 2 p.m., Nov. 8, in Hayden Library, room C-6. Students can meet with the Chinese Daoist Association delegation and join in a roundtable discussion about their lives, practices, and the relationship between religious organizations and the government. 

Daoism also uses music as a medium through which to communicate with the spirits during religious ceremonies. Joining the delegation are a group of Daoist musicians from White Cloud Temple in Beijing, China, who will perform from 7-9 p.m., Nov. 9, in Armstrong Hall’s Great Hall.

The official presentation of the canon will occur on Nov. 13, accompanied by a lecture by professor Zhang Jiyu, vice president of the Chinese Daoist Association. The association is the official Chinese organization overseeing organized Daoism in China and is headquartered at White Cloud Temple in Beijing. These festivities take place from 10 a.m.-noon in the Hayden Library, room C-6. Receiving the canon will be Jeanne Richardson, chief officer of the Collections and Scholarly Communication Office.

Exceptional Chinese Studies

One reason ASU was chosen for this significant donation is ASU’s strength in Chinese historical, literary, and religious studies and scholars in these fields are finding that they need to know something about Daoism, says Steve Bokenkamp, a professor of Chinese in School of International Letters and Culture, and religious studies in the School of Historical, Philosophical and Religious Studies, academic units in ASU’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.

“The first scholarly studies of Daoist books in the West were conducted in 1917. Scholars first reaction was that they were fabricated, and then that Daosim, which is China’s own organized religion, was a pale imitation of Buddhism,” says Bokenkamp. “It’s only been in the second half of the 20th century that scholars have understood Daoism history and practice. We now know that Daoism was a revered religion, scripturally based, with ecclesiastical organization, ritual practice and codes of morality dating back to the Celestial Masters church of the second Century CE and intimately involved in the cultural history of China.”

“This is an important acquisition for the university for many reasons,” notes Bokenkamp. “The photolithographic copy of the canon that we currently have is illegible at points. But the underlying reason is that Daoism, as a religion, is the only organized national religion to arise in China – discounting Confucianism, which really is a philosophy of governance – and scholars are now discovering that Daoism has contributed to the shape of Chinese society and culture for about 2,000 years.”

The Dao (Tao) of ASU

The Dao is said to have first appeared, as a deity, Lord Lao (Laozi), on Cranecall Mountain in Sichuan Province. Bokenkamp visited the region in 1986 as a visitor with Sichuan University. His given Chinese name is Bo Yi, which spoken means “White Barbarian” and is similar to that of a Chinese cultural hero from the founding of the Zhou dynasty (roughly 1,000 BCE). Bokenkamp’s name is inscribed in a poem hanging on the gate where Daoism first emerged. He was one of the first Westerners to visit the region and the mountain after the Chinese cultural revolution.

Daoism holds that the Dao infuses all things and that humans are to respond to this inherent order with self-effacement, compassion, humility, and equanimity. Daoist priests embody these qualities and further serve society through ritual actions that help to bring the cosmos into alignment with the Dao, heal disasters, and promote peace.

Bokenkamp is the author of two notable works on Daosim, the “Early Daoist Scriptures,” and “Ancestors and Anxiety: Daoism and the Birth of Rebirth in China.” He began his study of the Chinese language during his service in the U.S. Army from 1970 to 1977. He now speaks three classical and four modern languages, in addition to English. He is in the process of authoring two new works with roots in China. The first is “A Medieval Feminist Critique of the Chinese World Order: Religious Writings in Support of ‘Empress Wu’,” about the self-construction of China’s only woman “emperor.” The second work, for which he received a Guggenheim Award, is a translation the “Zhen’gao” or “Declarations of the Perfected,” a sixth century CE Chinese book of celestially-revealed material.

In addition to Bokenkamp, others playing key roles in the acquisition are Chen Huaiyu, a professor of Buddism in the School of Historical, Philosophical and Religious Studies, Liu Xuewen, a doctoral student in Daoism and Chinese Literature in the School of International Letters and Culture, who is also a member of the White Cloud Abbey and one of the first Daoists to ever receive a doctorate, and Qian Liu, Chinese Studies librarian with ASU Libraries.

The events are co-sponsored by ASU Libraries and the School of International Letters and Cultures, the Center for the Study of Religion and Conflict, the School of Historical, Philosophical and Religious Studies and the Center for Asian Research – academic units of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.

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