Fabrizio Pregadio
November 11, 1996
[Excerpted from Pregadio's longer bibliographical essay at]
Copyright © 1996 Fabrizio Pregadio

        The term daozang, usually rendered as "Taoist Canon", originally referred to the collections of texts housed in each Taoist monastery. It later designated Imperially-sponsored collections of Taoist texts kept in the Imperial libraries. The Taoist Canon of the Ming period -- the Zhengtong Daozang or Taoist Canon of the Zhengtong Era -- is the latest such collection and the only one that is extant today.

        The almost 1,500 texts found in the present Taoist Canon are formally divided into "Three Grottoes" (sandong) and "Four Supplements" (sifu). The division into Three Grottoes apparently dates from ca. A.D. 400, and mirrors the division into Three Vehicles (sansheng) of the Buddhist doctrine. Each of the Three Grottoes originally included the texts of one scriptural tradition:

  1. Authenticity Grotto (Dongzhen): texts of the Shangqing (Supreme Purity) tradition;
  2. Mystery Grotto (Dongxuan): texts of the Lingbao (Sacred Treasure) tradition;
  3. Spirit Grotto (Dongshen): texts of the Sanhuang (Three Sovereigns) tradition.

        These three corpora were related to different stages of initiation, from the lowest (Sanhuang) to the highest (Shangqing). Schipper (1985) has shown that, in general and until the Tang period, the initiation of a Taoist master took place in five major phases. Each was marked by the transmission of "Registers" (lu, containing both disciplinary rules and lists of the divinities on which the Master obtained control) and scriptural corpora, including -- in the later stages -- those of the Lingbao and the Shangqing traditions.

        The Four Supplements, established ca. A.D. 500, originally contained works that traced their roots in one major scripture, except the last that included the texts of an established tradition:

  1. Great Mystery (Taixuan), based on the Laozi (Daode jing);
  2. Great Peace (Taiping), based on the Taiping jing;
  3. Great Purity (Taiqing), based on the Taiqing jing and other alchemical texts deemed to have been revealed by the Great Purity, one of the several Heavens distinguished in Taoist cosmography;
  4. Orthodox One (Zhengyi), based on the texts belonging to the identically named tradition, also known as Tianshi dao or Way of the Heavenly Masters.

        Each of the Three Grottoes is divided into Twelve Sections (shier bu), originally designed to host different kinds of texts:

1. Benwen (Main texts)
7. Weiyi (Ceremonies)
2. Shenfu (Talismans)
8. Fangfa (Rituals)
3. Yujue (Commentaries)
9. Zhongshu (Practices)
4. Lingtu (Diagrams and illustrations)
10. Jizhuan (Biographies)
5. Pulu (Histories and genealogies)
11. Zansong (Hymns)
6. Jielü (Precepts)
12. Biaozou (Memorials)

        The present-day Taoist Canon formally preserves the division into Grottoes, Supplements and Sections, but often shows substantial departures from this ideal arrangement especially due to the inclusion of texts that resulted from revelations or teachings later than the date in which those divisions were elaborated. This is the reason of the well known lack of organization in the Canon. On the other hand, as Michel Strickmann noted in the introduction to his Le Taoïsme du Mao Chan (1979: 4-5), more than one third of the present Canon is taken by only twenty different texts, and more than one half by about seventy commentaries to the texts of classical Taoism.

        The classical study on the scriptural corpora found in the present-day Taoist Canon is Chen Guofu's Daozang yuanliu kao (A study on the evolution of the Taoist Canon; 1963), a work that is often considered as the foundation of modern Taoist studies. A chapter entitled "The origin and transmission of the Three Grottoes and the Four Supplements" (pp. 1-104) traces the formation of the seven sections listed above, which parallels the history of Taoism until the Tang period. Texts dating from the Song, Yuan and Ming periods are introduced in chapters concerned with literary genres (revelation, ritual, hagiography, topography, epigraphy, historiography, literary anthologies, dialogic treatises, exegesis, and encyclopaedic compilation) in Judith Boltz's Survey of Taoist Literature: Tenth to Seventeenth Centuries (1987a). The origin of the classification into Twelve Sections is the object of a study by Yamada Toshiaki (1984).

        The best synthetic descriptions of the Canon are two other works by Boltz (1986a and 1987b), and a two-part study by Stephen Bokenkamp (1986) and Boltz (1986b), respectively. Among the more recent Japanese studies those by Ozaki Masaharu (1983 and 1986) deserve special mention. An article by L. Gauchet (1948) on the composition of the Canon is still of interest though it dates from an earlier stage of research.

        Of the several scriptural corpora represented in the present-day Taoist Canon only the corpus of the Shangqing (Supreme Purity) tradition has been studied in an exhaustive fashion, in two works by Strickmann (1979) and Isabelle Robinet (1984), respectively. The original corpus of the Lingbao (Sacred Treasure) tradition was reconstructed by Ôfuchi Ninji (1974) in a work concerned with the catalogue compiled by Lu Xiujing (406-477). The reconstruction by Ôfuchi served as basis for the most detailed study in a Western language on the origins of this tradition, published by Bokenkamp in 1983.

        A more complete overview of the texts making the Taoism Canon will be possible with the publication of the Handbook of the Taoist Canon (Chicago: University of Chicago Press), the fruit of a project sponsored by the European Science Foundation and directed by Kristofer Schipper at the École Pratique des Hautes Études in Paris. Its three projected volumes, co-edited by Schipper and Verellen, will contain entries for each text, arranged both chronologically and by tradition, and provided with details on the date, authorship, transmission, relation to other sources, and contents of each text. A similar project was completed a few years ago by the Research Institute of World Religions of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (Zhongguo Shehui Kexue Yuan Shijie Zongjiao Yanjiusuo). Its results were published in an important work entitled Daozang tiyao, edited by Ren Jiyu and Zhong Zhaopeng in 1991 (see Boltz 1994). In addition to entries on each text (of a somewhat unequal value), this volume contains several appendixes, the most useful of which are one containing short biographical notes on about 500 authors, and one containing a classification of the texts into nine main categories and several sub-categories. (Some entries preliminarily published in 1984 by the Shijie Zongjiao Yanjiusuo Daojiao Yanjiu Shi are still worthy of being consulted, as they are more detailed than the corresponding entries in the definitive publication.)



BOKENKAMP, Stephen R. 1983. "Sources of the Ling-pao Scriptures". In Michel Strickmann, ed., Tantric and Taoist Studies in Honour of R.A. Stein, vol. 2: 434-486. Bruxelles: Institute Belge des Hautes Études Chinoises.

BOKENKAMP, Stephen R. 1986. "Taoist Literature. Part I: Through the T'ang Dynasty". In William H. Nienhauser, Jr., ed., The Indiana Companion to Traditional Chinese Literature, 138-152. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

BOLTZ, Judith M. 1986a. "Tao-tsang". In William H. Nienhauser, Jr., ed., The Indiana Companion to Traditional Chinese Literature, 763-766. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

BOLTZ, Judith M. 1986b. "Taoist Literature. Part II: Five Dynasties to the Ming". In William H. Nienhauser, Jr., ed., The Indiana Companion to Traditional Chinese Literature, 152-174. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

BOLTZ, Judith M. 1987a. A Survey of Taoist Literature. Tenth to Seventeenth Centuries. Berkeley: Institute of East Asian Studies, University of California. (China Research Monographs, 32.)

BOLTZ, Judith M. 1987b. "Taoist Literature". In Mircea Eliade, ed., Encyclopedia of Religion, vol. 14: 317-329. New York and London: MacMillan, 1987.

BOLTZ, Judith M. 1993. "Notes on the Daozang tiyao". China Review International 1: 1-33.

CHEN Guofu. 1963. Daozang yuanliu kao [Studies on the evolution of the Taoist Canon]. Second edition. 2 vols. Beijing: Zhonghua Shuju. Repr. 1985.

GAUCHET, L. 1948. "Contributionà l'étude du taoïsme". Bulletin de l'Université de l'Aurore, sér. 3, 9: 1-38.

ÔFUCHI Ninji. 1974. "On Ku Ling-pao-ching". Acta Asiatica 27: 33-56.

OZAKI Masaharu. 1983. "Dôkyô kyôten" [Taoist texts]. In Fukui Kôjun et al., eds., Dôkyô [Taoism], vol. 1: 73-120. Tokyo: Hirakawa Shuppansa.

OZAKI Masaharu. 1986. "Dôzô no seiritsu to sono shûhen" [The compilation and contents of the Daozang]. In Akizuki Kan'ei, ed., Dôkyô kenkyû no susume. Sono genjô to mondai-ten o kangaeru [Invitation to the study of Taoism: Reflections on its present state and issues], 79-109. Tokyo: Hirakawa Shuppansha.

REN Jiyu and ZHONG Zhaopeng. 1991. Daozang tiyao [Critical notes on the Taoist Canon]. Beijing: Zhongguo Shehui Kexue Chubanshe.

ROBINET, Isabelle. 1984. La révélation du Shangqing dans l'histoire du taoïsme. 2 vols. Paris: École Française d'Extrême-Orient. (Publications de l'EFEO, 131.)

SCHIPPER, Kristofer. 1985. "Taoist Ordination Ranks in the Tunhuang Manuscripts". In Gert Naundorf et al., eds., Religion und Philosophie in Ostasien. Festschrift fûr Hans Steininger zum 65. Geburtstag, 127-148. Würzburg: Königshausen und Neumann.

SHIJIE ZONGJIAO YANJIUSUO DAOJIAO YANJIUSHI [Research Institute on World Religions - Research Group on Taoism], ed. 1984. "Daozang tiyao xuankan" [Selections from Critical notes on the Taoist Canon]. Shijie zongjiao yanjiu 1984.2: 1-29; 1984.3: 84-101.

STRICKMANN, Michel. 1979. Le taoïsme du Mao Chan. Chronique d'une rév lation. Paris: Collège de France, Institut des HautesÉtudes Chinoises. (M émoires de l'Institut des HautesÉtudes Chinoises, 17.)

YAMADA Toshiaki. 1984. "Dôzô jûni-rui seiritsu ni kansuru hito shiryô no haikei" [A source on the formation of the classification of the Taoist Canon into Twelve Sections]. In Makyo Ryôkai Hakushi Shôhju Kinen Ronshû Kankôkai, ed., Makyo Ryôkai Hakushi shôju kinen ronshû. Chûgoku no shûkyô, shisô to kagaku [English title: Religion, Thought and Science in China. A Festschrift in Honor of Prof. Ryôkai Makyo on his Seventieth Birthday], 519-37. Tokyo: Kokusho Kankôkai.