Tom's Reviews > Taoism: The Enduring Tradition

Taoism by Russell Kirkland
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's review
Jan 02, 2011

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bookshelves: non-fiction, china
Read in January, 2011

First and foremost, potential readers should be fairly warned: this book is primarily a survey of Western scholarship on Taoism, not a history of Taoism itself. Which isn't to say the two aren't interrelated (they necessarily are); this is just to say the reader should not be expecting a beginner's guide to Taoist history. Kirkland's ideal audience appears to be Sinologists and students of religion who do not specialize in Taoism, so the prose is of a somewhat stilted, simplified academic style.

Furthermore, Kirkland takes on an annoyingly triumphalist tone that current scholarship is much less naive, imperialistic, erroneous, etc. than any of its predecessors. He rightly emphasizes the diversity of the Taoist tradition throughout the 2+ millennia of its existence, but does so in a way that makes it seem like he's overcorrecting past scholars' mistakes. He consistently shrinks from generalities, for good and for ill.

Another point of contention I have with this book is Kirkland's inconsistency in translating technical terms. For example, the term zhen 真 (or chen), often used to describe one of Taoism's highest ideals, becomes at times real/realized, perfect/perfected, and true/truth. The term xian 仙 (or hsien) he'll often translate as "immortal" (an extremely misleading translation which Sinology no longer uses) and other times translate (more accurately) as "transcendent." Even several titles of works from the Taoist canon change from page to page.

For all its flaws, though, Taoism: The Enduring Tradition provides a wealth of information about the historical development of Taoism. Kirkland's emphasis on particularities brings forth descriptions of many interesting historical figures and situations which have often been neglected in the West. However, these figures and situations become evidence to prove his thesis that recent Western scholarship of Taoism needs to correct the mistakes of past scholarship, rather than things to be studied in their own right.

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