Terry Kleeman

Celestial Masters

History and Ritual in Early Daoist Communities

Harvard University Press 2016

New Books in East Asian StudiesNew Books in HistoryNew Books in Peoples & PlacesNew Books in Politics & SocietyNew Books in ReligionNew Books in Religion & FaithNew Books Network December 7, 2017 Kristian Petersen

Despite the general perception that Daoism is simply an informal and carefree philosophical perspective, the Daoist tradition is a highly formalized spectrum of ritual...

Despite the general perception that Daoism is simply an informal and carefree philosophical perspective, the Daoist tradition is a highly formalized spectrum of ritual practices and communal beliefs. Religious Daoism emerged within the rich second-century political and social milieu when challengers to official rulership offered alternative political structures to the imperial order. The establishment of the Celestial Master theocracy in Northwest China provided a structured system that emphasized the apocalyptic urgency of social reform. The new community was shaped by rigid codes of conduct and supported by religious professionals who mediated the bureaucratic relationship with a pantheon of gods. With unparalleled detail, Celestial Masters: History and Ritual in Early Daoist Communities (Harvard University Press, 2016), by Terry Kleeman, Professor of Chinese and Religious Studies at the University of Colorado at Boulder, outlines the historical development of the Daoist church during this formative period. He also provides a thorough account of the ritual and institutional life of Daoist communities during the first five centuries. In the second half of the book, Kleeman explains the various roles for community members including the Daoist citizen, the novice, and the parish priest. In our conversation we discussed Chinese official histories, the Daoist Canon, the Celestial Master founder Zhang Daoling, the relationship between Daoism and Buddhism, the Xianger commentary of Laozis Dao De Jing, ordination rituals, gender and women, petitions and talismans, Daoist daily and seasonal life, and rituals for the dead.


Kristian Petersen is an Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Nebraska Omaha. He is the author of Interpreting Islam in China: Pilgrimage, Scripture, and Language in the Han Kitab (Oxford University Press, 2017). He is currently working on a monograph entitled The Cinematic Lives of Muslims, and is the editor of the forthcoming volumes Muslims in the Movies: A Global Anthology (ILEX Foundation) and New Approaches to Islam in Film (Routledge). You can find out more about his work on his website, follow him on Twitter @BabaKristian, or email him at [email protected].

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