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From spy to Regents' Professor: The dao of Stephen Bokenkamp

Stephen Bokenkamp

Regents' Professor Stephen Bokenkamp is considered a top scholar in Daoism in the U.S. and is universally recognized as one of the world's leading authorities on Chinese religion.

September 03, 2015

Stephen Bokenkamp was a pacifist during the height of the Vietnam War. So the Army made him a spy.

This was in 1970 while he was taking a break from studying English literature and Japanese at St. Olaf College in Minnesota. He had run out of money to pay for his tuition, and that’s when Uncle Sam pounced.

Faced with the prospect of fighting a war he did not believe in, Bokenkamp looked for alternative forms of service.

His visits to recruiters paid off and Bokenkamp became a cryptographer, also known as a code breaker, for seven years with the Army Security Agency, assigned to the National Security Agency. The move not only preserved his pacifist ideals, but also set the stage for him to later become one of the world’s leading authorities on Chinese religion and literature.

“It was an interesting and very heavy job for a 22-year-old,” said Bokenkamp, who has worked in the School of International Letters and Culture since 2007 and was recently named by Arizona State University as one of four Regents' Professors for the 2014-2015 academic year.

“But I decided that studying language for the sole purpose of spying was wrong, and so rather than stay with the NSA, I went to graduate school.”

Bokenkamp made the transition from the military back to college in 1977, where he eventually earned his master's and doctorate at the University of California, Berkeley, the epicenter of the ’60s counterculture movement.

While at Berkeley, Bokenkamp studied Tang Dynasty literature, Daoism and Buddhism and read 1,500-year-old works and other ancient manuscripts. His period of study took place in the immediate aftermath of the Cultural Revolution, in which Chinese Communist Party Leader leader Mao Zedong tried to erase all vestiges of China’s past, killing millions of people and imprisoning millions more.

“During this period China was shutting down universities and doing away with a lot of its heritage, including religion,” Bokenkamp said. “It was without success, but China lost 10 years of culture.”

As a top U.S. scholar of Daoism, Bokenkamp has spent a majority of his career helping reconnect China with its past, including debunking the misperception that it’s the least religious country on Earth.

“It’s very hard for Westerners to comprehend how religion works in China. When Westerners think about religion, we say, ‘I am a Methodist; I belong to the Methodist Church. I am a Mormon; I belong to the LDS church,’ ” Bokenkamp said. “The Chinese don’t see it that way. They see religion as a tool that you can use in various parts of your life. The metaphors they often use are associated with the word ‘path.’ So religious conflict in China has been very rare throughout their history.”

Speaking of history, Bokenkamp believes his work is as relevant as ever given the U.S.’s economic dependence on China and the nation’s emergence from a secretive past.

“China has decided they are going to play a role in the world and the questions we need to ask ourselves is, ‘How do we understand their role? How do we interact and partner with them?’ ” he said. “The grounds for collaboration are all there. Their best and brightest are trained at American universities, including ASU.”

Bokenkamp said he has enjoyed his eight years at ASU, which have challenged him intellectually and professionally. He recently won a Guggenheim award for translation work on his new book, “Zhen’gao” or “Declarations of the Perfected,” a sixth-century Chinese book of celestially revealed material.

“When I came to this university, President Crow said I’d be doing things I’d never done before, and he was right,” Bokenkamp said. “This has been a stimulating place to be.”

Much more stimulating, than say, being a spy.

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