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Chinese Mysticism


Chinese mysticism was, and is, a vibrant phenomenon with ancient, secular roots that over time, and via religious enterprises, developed new forms. Not only did Chinese mysticism mix the secular and religious, but also the social range was total. To see this better, one must not think of Chinese mystical practice as simply its tools, for example, alchemically larded manuals of healing and longevity, or fengshui (mantic siting). Such arts often draw on China's mantic way by employing instinctive—nontextual, nonmechanistic—skills. The artisan becomes a psychopomp, a shaman leading a client to special knowledge, clarity, or health. And arts were guarded within family groups, which made them in some sense mustikos. But they could also be entirely mechanical. One cannot describe as mystical the act of looking up an interpretive symbol inscribed on a calibrated siting compass. Chinese mysticism is best seen in the long arc of textual guides to, and metaphysical supports for, self-cultivation. All three paths interlaced, eventually in the practices of cult communities, and eventually as techniques for establishing relations with divinities.


Chang, K. C. Art, Myth, and Ritual: The Path to Political Authority in Ancient China. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1983. An eloquent exploration of the role of ancient shaman-priests in asserting text and symbol as political tools.

Csikszentmihàlyi, Mark. "Traditional Taxonomies and Revealed Texts in the Han." In Daoist Identity: History, Lineage, and Ritual, edited by Livia Kohn and Harold D. Roth, 81–101. Honolulu: University of Hawai'i Press, 2002.

Dean, Kenneth. Taoist Ritual and Popular Cults of Southeastern China. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press 1993.

DeWoskin, Kenneth J. Doctors, Diviners, and Magicians in Ancient China: Biographies of Fang-shih. New York: Columbia University Press, 1983.

Harper, Donald. "Warring States Natural Philosophy and Occult Thought." Chapter 12 in The Cambridge History of Ancient China: From the Origins of Civilization to 221 B.C, edited by Michael Loewe and Edward L. Shaughnessy. Cambridge, U.K., and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1999.

Harper, Donald. "Warring States, Qin, and Han Manuscripts Related to Natural Philosophy and the Occult." In New Sources of Early Chinese History: An Introduction to the Reading of Inscriptions and Manuscripts, edited by Edward L. Shaughnessy, 223–252. Berkeley: The Society for the Study of Early China and The Institute of East Asian Studies, University of California, 1997.

Keightley, David N. "Shang Divination and Metaphysics." Philosophy East & West 38, no. 4 (1988): 367–395.

Kohn, Livia. Early Chinese Mysticism: Philosophy and Soteriology in the Taoist Tradition. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1992. The first chapter gives a useful anthropological summary of recent discussions on the nature of mysticism.

Roth, Harold. Original Tao: Inward Training and the Foundations of Taoist Mysticism. New York: Columbia University Press, 1999.

——. "Psychology and Self-Cultivation in Early Taoistic Thought." Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies 51 (1991): 599–650.

Sivin, Nathan. "State, Cosmos, and Body in the Last Three Centuries B.C." Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies 55, no. 1 (1995): 5–37.

Strickmann, Michel. Mantras et mandarins: Le bouddhisme tantrique en Chine. Paris: Gallimard, 1996. Groundbreaking insights into the way Tantric-seeming tools of individual transcendence, demonifugic protection, and salvation wove through Daoism and Buddhism.

——. "The Mao Shan Revelations: Taoism and the Aristocracy." T'oung Pao 63 (1978): 1–64.

Wilhelm, Richard. The I Ching, or Book of Changes. 3rd ed. Translated by Cary F. Baynes. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1967.

Howard L. Goodman

Additional topics

Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Chimaeras to ClusterChinese Mysticism - China's "mantic Way": Knowledge Through Insight And Technics, Self-cultivation As A Secular Pursuit: C. 400 B.c.e.–1600 C.e.