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The Daoist Canon

Page Outline:

  1. History of the Daoist Canon
  2. Schools of Daoism & the Organization of the Canon
    1. Major Groups of Canonical Texts
    2. Minor Groups of Canonical Texts
  3. Best Known Daoist Texts

History of the Daoist Canon

Throughout history the "Daoist Canon," or Dàozàng 道藏 "Vault of the Way," has suffered from:

  1. lack of official status
  2. lack of agreement about the contents across different Daoist sects
  3. the tendency to include ever more works
  4. much overlap among the works making it up, which often duplicated parts of other works
  5. little coherence in content from one work to another
  6. the inclusion of liturgical and meditational texts that make little sense without orally transmitted exegesis, rarely stable and often lost
  7. lack of adequate indexing
  8. a tradition that regarded the details of Daoist practice as secret, so that different families transmitted different collections of Daoist books, often differently interpreted, and none wanted to have their versions published

In the XXth century the last two issues were addressed, and Chinese and western scholars have rescued a fairly extensive canon, published it in multiple copies, and indexed it.

Although there are several distinct themes, and some tend to be concentrated in certain sections, most themes are found in most sections, and the traditional organization of this vast library is both a blessing (because it represents a kind of standard) and a (somewhat greater) curse (because it inhibits understanding).

There have doubtless been hundreds or thousands of different attempts to make order from the chaos. Today we know of at least seven, of which the first is perhaps the most influential, even though it is lost:

Canon 1: Organization of the Canon by Lù Xiūjìng 陆修静 (陸修静) (Vth Century).
This general classification of materials is still used, although the original version (like many of the constituent texts) is lost, and additional texts have been added later.
Canon 2: Kāiyuán Dàozàng 开元道藏 (開元道藏) "Precious Canon of the Kāiyuán Reign (AD 713-741) [of the Táng dynasty]"
This was a complete edition of the Daoist Canon made and then lost in the Táng dynasty, the first imperially endorsed edition of the Daoist Canon.
Canon 3: Yúnjí Qīqiān 云笈七籤 (雲笈七籤) "Seven Bamboo Strips of the Cloudy Satchel"
This famous compendium of Daoist non-ritual texts was assembled by ZHĀNG Jūnfáng 张君房 (張君房) in the Northern Sòng dynasty (960-1127), who also sought to compile what he could of the remaining Táng canon.
The expanded work was lost during the Sòng. Modern reprints of this are about four volumes long. (Some bear the variant name Zhāng Jùnfáng 张俊房 [張俊房].)
Canon 4: Zhèngtǒng Dàozàng 正统道藏 (正統道藏) "Daoist Canon of the Zhèngtǒng Reign (1436-1449) [of the Míng dynasty]"
This imperially mandated compilation sought to incorporate all extant Daoist books. The work survived in two copies into the XXth century, when one was found in Paris and one in China. Copies were made in Taiwan and are now found in libraries around the world (including UCSD). Organization generally follows Canon 1.
Canon 5: Wànlì Dàozàng 万历道藏 (萬歷道藏) "Daoist Canon of the Wànlì Reign (1573-1619) [of the Míng dynasty]"
This was a supplement to Canon 4.
Canon 6. Dàozàng Jīnghuá 道藏精华 (道藏精華) "The Essential Texts of Daoism"
This work was edited in Taiwan, seeking to enlarge Canon 4 by adding post-Míng Daoist texts.

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Schools of Daoism & the Organization of the Daoist Canon

All editions of the Daoist canon include a wide and miscellaneous range of materials, a mix of philosophy (often with speculations about the perfect political system), instructions for preparing an elixir of immortality by manipulating various chemicals (referred to as "outer alchemy" or wàidān 外丹), guides to meditation (referred to as "inner alchemy" or nèidān 内丹), liturgies, charms, and even reprints of the writings of famous non-Daoists. To make matters even more complex, many of the individual works included range over more than one of these topics.

In addition, several "schools" of Daoist practitioners are represented by the writings collected in the canon. Each of these felt entitled to use any works used by the others, but each had certain works that were particularly associated with it. The various comprehensive canons all seem to founder on the need to place thematically similar materials together, but also to block materials used by the same school together.

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The names of Daoist Schools that come up most commonly are:

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Major Groups of Canonical Texts:

Here is a list of the major divisions of the Daoist Canon as they were preserved in several of the editions over the centuries.

  1. Dòngzhēn 洞真 (Cavern of the Realized) (The Shàngqīng School)
    Includes books of the Shàngqīng ("Consummate Purity") School revealed starting in 364 to a certain Yáng Xī 杨牺 (楊犧) (330-386) by apparitions of Wèi Huácún 魏华存 (魏華存), founder of Shàngqīng.
    However also included here are some Língbǎo charms and liturgies, as well as the Huángdì Yīnfú Jīng 黄帝阴符经 (黃帝陰符經) (Yellow Emperor's Classic of Esoteric Charms).
  2. Dòngxuán 洞玄 (Cavern of the Mysterious) (The Língbǎo School)
    Includes the Língbǎo ("Spiritual Treasure") scriptures, traditionally thought to be originally collected by GĚ Xuán 葛玄, a relative of the IVth century alchemist GĚ Hóng 葛洪. They are a collection of rituals, liturgies, and talismans.
    However, some Shàngqīng texts are also to be found here, including the Huángtíng Nèijīing Yù Jīng.
  3. Dòngshén 洞神 (Cavern of the Spirit) (Putative Writings of Lǎo zǐ and Other Sages)
    This section originally included the Sānhuáng Jīng 三皇经 (三皇經) ("Scriptures of the Three Sovereigns"), which contained magic formulas and invocations, claiming to date from the Three Kingdoms period (25-265). They were destroyed in the Táng dynasty (618-907).
    That did not prevent the section name being kept in use. In later canons this section includes the Dàodé Jīng, Zhuāng zǐ, and related materials, as well miscellaneous later texts attributed to Lǎo zǐ. (In today's canon this section also includes some Língbǎo texts.)

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Minor Groups of Canonical Texts:

  1. Tàixuán 太玄 (Great Mystery) (Mostly Meditation)
    Originally included the Dàodé Jīng, Zhuāng Zǐ, and Liè Zǐ. This material was moved to Dòngzhèn group in Táng dynasty. In today's canon this section is largely devoted to texts of Internal Alchemy (meditation), including the Cāntōng Jí and the Huáng Dì Nèi Jīng. The section also includes the Yúnjí Qīqiān (Canon 3). Some works of the External Alchemy (chemical alchemy) are also here.
  2. Tàipíng 太平 (Great Balance) (Mostly charms and rituals)
    Includes the Tàipíng Jīng, as well as some Língbǎo charms and rituals.
  3. Tàiqīng 太清 (Great Purity) (Mostly Non-Daoist Writers)
    This section is largely given over in the modern canon to writers who are not normally classified as Daoists, including Mò zǐ, Sūn zǐ, Hánfēi zǐ, &c. Also here (perhaps to deny its assertion of authorship by Lǎo zǐ) is the Tàishàng Gǎnyīng Piàn, and the Bàopú zǐ.
  4. Zhèngyī 正一 (Orthodox Unity) also written Zhèngyǐ) (Mostly Liturgy of the Celestial Masters Sect)
    Includes the Zhèngyǐ Méngwēi Lù 正一盟微箓 (正一盟威籙) (Registers of the Classic Orthodox Practice), used by the Celestial Masters Sect (Tiānshī Dào 天师道 [天師道], as well as rituals and charms associated with Celestial Master Daoism. A few Shàngqīng scriptures are also placed here.

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Best Known Daoist Texts

The following texts are probably the most read of the material that is found in the Daoist Canon. In all cases they also circulate quite separately, and their inclusion in one or another of the canonical collections is probably mostly because of their popularity, not the cause of it.

Dàodé Jīng 道德经 (道德經) "The Scripture of the Way and its Efficacy"
The most famous Daoist text, probably dating from some time in the Warring States period (475-221 BC), although some scholars place it earlier, usually in the Spring & Autumn period (770-476) of the Eastern Zhōu dynasty (770-256).
The work appears to contain proverbs and other brief sayings from many much earlier sources, and it is traditionally attributed to "the old sage(s)" or lǎo zǐ 老子, which was probably the earliest title of the book itself. Unfortunately for clarity, the term "old sage(s)" was soon (mis)understood as the title of a single person (which is why it is now spelled Lǎozǐ). Lǎozǐ is in turn, through a process of "folk euhemerism" (definition), considered to have the proper name of LǏ Ěr 李耳, to be a native of the ancient state of Chǔ (near modern HB and HN) during the Eastern Zhōu, to have met Confucius (who did not impress him), and to be the miracle-working founder of Daoism. An alternative name for him was Lǎo Dān 老聃.
In the XXth century earlier texts were found that included some additional material and that also suggest a different ordering of the chapters and the probable title Dédào Jīng 德道经 (德道經). (The definitive translation of the new text is by Robert Henricks.)
The Dàodé Jīng text is frustratingly ambiguous, and this has led to its Rorschach-like interest both for Chinese (who have produced thousands of commentaries on it) and for Western readers, who, even if they do not know much Chinese, are keen to produce idiosyncratic and imaginative translations, sometimes with little to justify them. However even most skilled translators of Classical Chinese produce sometimes widely differing interpretations of this text. Click here for some examples.
The Dàodé Jīng is best known in the Anglophone world under the older spellings "Tao-tê Ching" and "Tao-te-ching," and the name of the putative author was formerly often spelled "Lao Tzu," "Lao-Tz'u," "Lao Tse," "Lao Ts'ê," or various other ways.
On-line Translation: James Legge http://www.sacred-texts.com/tao/taote.htm
Bàopú Zǐ 抱朴子 "The Sage Who Embraces Simplicity"
A work by Gě Hóng 葛洪 (ca A.D. 268-334), one of the most important Neo-Daoist writers.
Cāntōng Qì 参通契 (參通契) "The Triplex Unity"
A work by Wèi Bóyáng 魏伯阳 (魏伯陽) of late Hàn times, whose interest was in finding the elixir of immortality, using insights gained from the trigrams of the Yì Jīng 易经 (易經).
Fēngshén Yǎnyì 封神演义 (封神演義) "Canonization of the Gods"
A Míng dynasty novel recounting how the gods came to have their places in the pantheon.
An enormously popular work, this novel is at once a summation of popular stories and a stimulus to their representation in other media, such as traveling theatricals. Although not included in the Daoist Canon, to my knowledge, this work is arguably the single most important influence on popular understanding of Daoism as a religious system. (Click here for a 40-page summary of this entertaining work. Click here for a listing of other influential late-dynastic novels.)

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Hán Fēi Zǐ 韩非子 (韓非子) "Master Hán Fēi"
A philosopher (and his book) dating to about the IIIrd century BC, concerned with government, but influenced by Daoism.
Despite Daoist influences, this work is especially associated with Legalism, a school of statesmanship advocating universal application of unbending law. He served in more than one small state, including Qín , under the monarch who was to become the first emperor of a unified China. A rival named Yáo Jià 姚贾 (姚賈) is said to have become envious of him and to have arranged his arrest. He committed suicide in prison in about 230 BC.
Huáinán Zǐ 淮南子 "Masters of Huáinán"
A work of the early Hàn dynasty (206 BC - AD 24).
Liú Ān 刘安 (劉安), grandson of the founding Hàn emperor, was the king of a domain called Huáinán, where he was the patron of scholars and artists, including, tradition tells us, a group of eight Daoist miracle-workers, whose discussions constitute the "Masters of Huáinán" text, which includes a mix of observations on government and on nature, but which explicitly supernaturalizes Daoist ideas. It came to be a canonical text of importance in religious Daoism. After Liú Ān's death, the political correctness of Confucian orthodoxy came to prevail in Huáinán, memories of the Masters of Huáinán were lost to history, and their text became politically insignificant.
In later times the name came to be thought of as singular, and Huáinán zǐ, misunderstood to mean "the sage named Huáinán," was credited with the invention of bean curd and regarded as the patron god of bean curd sellers.
For a brief sample extract on this web site, click here.
Huáng Dì Nèi Jīng 黄帝内经 (黃帝内經) "The Yellow Emperor's Classic of Internal [Medicine]"
A major meditational guide.
Huángtíng Nèijīing Yù Jīng. 黄庭内经玉经 (黃庭内經玉經) "Yellow Court Jade Classic of Internal [Images]"
A text associated with Shàngqīng 上清 Daoism.
Lǎo Zǐ 老子
See Dàodé Jīng, above.
Liè Zǐ 列子 "Master Liè"
A philosopher (and his book) dating from the Warring States period (period 04e).
The philosopher is named Liè Yùkòu 列御寇 (or Liè Yǔkòu 列圄寇). Although the book is well known and widely studied, scholars suspect (as usual) that it is the product of many different authors. The evidence is that many passages are quotations from other works (often lost). Liè Zǐ, at least as seen through this text, is an advocate of "naturalness" (zìrán 自然), which means going with the flow with little conscious striving. The book includes a mass of anecdotes, like much of the Zhuāng Zǐ 庄子 (莊子) text.
One brief anecdote from the Liè Zǐ collection is available on this web site. (Link)

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Shén-Xiān Zhuàn 神仙传 (神仙傳) "Tales of Gods and Immortals"
A collection of traditional tales of the pantheon, including many tales of perilous adventures and magical feats.
Tàipíng Jīng 太平经 (太平經) "Scripture of the Great Balance"
This work includes the earliest texts on formulas for making the elixir of immortality, an activity referred to as making the wàidān 外丹 or "External Alchemy." However it is largely a discussion of what a perfect kingdom might be like, complete with charms designed to help keep away disasters.
Tàishàng Gǎnyīng Piàn 太上感应篇 (太上感應篇) "Treatise on Actions and their Retributions"
A popular morality tract, putatively (but not really) authored by Lǎo zǐ.
In the last few centuries this work has been a great favorite among people who would print it and distribute copies gratis in temples and other public places in order to elevate the level of public morality. For a translation on this web site, click here.
Wén Zǐ 文子 "The Literary Masters"
A compilation of Daoist teachings probably made about 100 BC.
Most of the text claims to be sayings of Lǎo zǐ (much as later texts often do), and includes passages, sometimes with commentary, from the Dàodé Jīng, Zhuāng Zǐ, and the Huáinán Zǐ, although it lacks most of the stories that make the latter two texts attractive reading.
Zhuāng Zǐ 庄子 (莊子) "Master Zhuāng"
A collection of anecdotes and stories and some philosophical commentary.
Master Zhuāng was an historical person, living in the Warring States period (475-221 BC). The text is usually regarded as the most important Daoist text after the Dàodé Jīng, and it is appreciated for the much greater intelligibility of the material it contains, and the thought-provoking but sometimes lighthearted anecdotes are among the most widely read texts in Classical Chinese. In Chinese scholarly circles, Lǎozǐ and Zhuāng zǐ, taken together, are referred to as simply Lǎo-Zhuāng.
The word zhuāng () is both a common surname and a word that means village, by the way, so, although most Chinese understand "Zhuāng zǐ" to mean "a philosopher named Zhuāng," it is possible that the name actually should be understood as "a village sage" or "village sages," just as Lǎo zǐ is "an old philosopher."
Some brief anecdotes from the Zhuāngzǐ collection are available on this web site. (Link)

An unsolicited translation of this page is available as follows.

Russian by Babur Muradov
(In the Russian version, most internal links to other pages of this web site contain long prefixes leading to a dead end with a link to a Russian search engine (Яндекс). If the characters between "//" and "pages" are removed from the address line, the links continue to reference this web site.) (Link added 2021-07-16)

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