(Curzon Encyclopaedias of Religion) Fabrizio Pregadio (Editor) Published by Routledge, London and New York, 2008 Hardcover, 1551 pages, RRP £145.
(Reviewed by Meredith Churchill, EJOM Vol. 6 No. 1)
The histories of the continually evolving traditions of Taoism and traditional Chinese medicine are intricately intertwined. As Taoism scholar Russell Kirkland (2004, p.68) has pointed out, both Taoism and Chinese medicine share the central themes that our world consists of qi and that our own lives must be understood in relation to this cosmological fact. Both Taoism and traditional Chinese medicine have, over the ages, promoted various models of ‘biospiritual cultivation’, the goals of which included health, longevity and what one might term spiritual transcendence. While few western practitioners of traditional Chinese medicine are familiar with ancient Taoist works such as the Nei ye, the Lu shi chun qiu, or the early commentaries to the Dao de jing, the collective wisdom contained in these texts regarding the inner cultivation of subtle, beneficial, physiological forces in the interests of personal and social welfare is most relevant to how we conceptualise what we do in our twenty-first century treatment rooms. From the earliest Taoist classics which teach us about qi, jing and shen, through Song traditions of Internal Alchemy and their modern counterparts, the cultivation of qi is a dominant motif. Increasing our familiarity with the many ways in which this motif has been expressed throughout long history and vast geographical expanse considerably enriches our appreciation for the multivalent resonances within the complex field of Chinese medicine.
The scholarly study of Taoism is still in its infancy, although it has emerged from the earliest period of enquiry when papers with titles such as “What is Taoism?” and “On the Word ‘Taoist’ as a Source of Perplexity” were written (these by the distinguished scholars H.G.Creel and Nathan Sivin respectively). While the issue over whether Taoism should be classified as religion or philosophy seems to no longer be hotly debated, the field of Taoist studies is still plagued – or perhaps enriched – by other fierce controversies, involving quandaries about definitions and periodisations, with scholars even arguing about which academic department should ‘own’ the discipline (Comparative Religion? Sinology? East Asian Studies?). The long-awaited publication of The Encyclopedia of Taoism marks a milestone in the maturing development of Taoist Studies.
The Encyclopaedia of Taoism is an enormous collaborative project by a large number of the world’s most eminent scholars of Taoism. According to the Introduction by the editor, Fabrizio Pregadio, the intention of the book is “to illustrate the central principles and historical forms of Taoism, which is among the most misconceived traditions that have survived to the present day”, and “to provide an overview of the Taoist tradition through a wide selection of themes”. The book can be read as a sort of ‘pick’n’mix’, although reader be warned: starting with one entry will automatically lead to perusing others, because of the excellent cross-referencing (which links each entry with other related entries and with the comprehensive bibliography at the end of the work) and the inherent fascination of the material, and may lead to reading much more than one originally intended. I confess to finding it unputdownable. More disciplined types may find most relevant the Overview sections on “Cosmogony and Cosmology” and “Taoist Views of the Human Being” (which includes valuable material about Taoist views of the human body), and individual entries such as dumai and renmai; Huangdi neijing; hun and po; jing, qi, shen; jingluo; mingmen; Sun Simiao; ti and yong; yangshen; Yin and Yang, etc.
Viewing these rather familiar topics through the particular lens of Taoist scholarship provides a somewhat more nuanced and complex perspective, always a good thing in the opinion of this reviewer. And there are other topics that practitioners tend not to be familiar with, but might benefit from getting to know, especially those relating to the historical and cultural background of the concepts we use. Besides providing a much firmer contextual grounding which enriches how I think about Chinese medicine, I have found that learning about Taoism enables me to answer patients’ questions in a much clearer and more informed way. While the cost of the book may be prohibitive to all but the keenest students of classical Chinese medicine, there is much here to interest the practitioner, and I believe that The Encyclopedia of Taoism would be a most useful addition to college libraries.
References: Kirkland, Russell. (2004.) Taoism: The Enduring Tradition. New York and Oxford: Routledge.
Meredith Churchill Meredith Churchill trained as a midwife, acupuncturist, and osteopath, and now runs an acupuncture practice in North London. She is currently completing a Buddhist Studies MA at the School of Oriental and African Studies, London.
Editor’s note: Although EJOM normally uses the pin yin system of Chinese transliteration (Dao rather than Tao for instance) in cases such as this where the book reviewed uses an earlier system (such as Wade-Giles), to avoid confusion and in the spirit of the published work we also revert to the older method in the review.