The following books were selected by Easten Law, assistant director of academic programs at Princeton Theological Seminary’s Overseas Ministries Study Center. Law’s research focuses on Chinese Christianity and Chinese religions.

Daoism is a diffuse and complex tradition of thought and religious practice dating back to the very beginnings of Chinese civilization. It arose during the Spring and Autumn/Warring States period (770 to 221 B.C.), when scholars and sages debated the nature of humanity against a backdrop of war and social instability. At that time, Daoism emerged as a way of thinking and living contrary to Confucianism and later evolved into an institutionalized religion during the late Han Dynasty around A.D. 100 to 200.

In Daoism, Laozi (老子), who is revered as a divinized sage and immortal, is believed to have penned the Daodejing (道德經), or “Scripture of the Way and Its Power/Virtue.” This collection of 81 short poetic chapters seeks to guide readers toward attaining a sagely disposition capable of discerning right action in every circumstance with effortless wisdom. The earliest copy of the Daodejing we have dates to around 300 B.C.

Another great Daoist text, the Zhuangzi (莊子), compiled sometime during the third century A.D., is a collection of whimsical parables and provocative teachings that strive to reverse the human desire for control and certainty in favor of a flexible, discerning simplicity that can adapt to every situation. Daoist religion also embraces the physical body as an important part of obtaining enlightenment, believing our bodies to be microcosms of the universe. Its practices often center physical exercises, meditative techniques, and collective rituals to strengthen our connections to the vital energies (qi 氣) that flow through us in order to harmonize ourselves and our communities with the cosmos.

The books recommended here provide a range of perspectives on Daoism for all levels of interest.

For the casual and curious: The Tao of Pooh by Benjamin Hoff

This was the very first book about Daoist thought that I read as a college student. It remains a classic introduction for curious Westerners seeking a cultural bridge for understanding some of Daoism’s philosophical foundations.

Hoff spotlights A. A. Milne’s beloved Winnie the Pooh as an exemplar of Daoist living: one who is optimistically simple yet discerning. This stands in contrast to other characters like Owl, Rabbit, Piglet, and Eeyore, who each embody a worldview in opposition to the Dao.

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Contrary to initial impressions, Pooh is no dimwit. Rather, he is a sage. Hoff skillfully integrates teachings of the Daodejing, Zhuangzi, and various Chinese writers into an integrated whole that challenges modern lifestyles driven by work and worry.

The book is an enjoyable and lighthearted introduction to Daoism that creatively captures some of its core traits without the complexities of its history and culture. Some may be turned off by its individualistic “self-help” tone, but I believe it remains the most applicable and accessible introduction to Daoist thought for the average reader.

For the more serious inquirer: Daoism: A Beginner’s Guide by James Miller

While The Dao of Pooh delivers a fun introduction to Daoist concepts, it is woefully inadequate for those seeking a serious understanding of this 3,000-year-old tradition. James Miller’s introduction to the Daoist tradition is one of the best I have encountered, in part because of the book’s creative organization.

Miller selects eight key themes for understanding this complex tradition: identity, way, body, power, light, alchemy, text, and nature. After an outstanding historical introduction that succinctly orients the reader to Daoism’s key figures, movements, and eras, each chapter provides a well-curated selection of historical and textual examples that reinforce each theme’s importance to the Daoist faith . This provides readers with a clear focus to ground their learning without getting lost in details. While textbook-like, this book is a clear and accessible introduction to the broader Daoist tradition.

For the comparative perspective: The Gourd and the Cross: Daoism and Christianity in Dialogue by Sung-hae Kim

There are very few English-language texts that bring enough expertise in both the Christian and Daoist traditions to conduct meaningful comparison. Sung-hae Kim’s collection of essays is one of them and is a rewarding read for Christians pondering the intersections between Daoist and Christian faith.

A Roman Catholic nun (Sisters of Charity of Seton Hill) and former professor of Asian religions at the Jesuit Sogang University in South Korea, Kim’s essays are the product of extended dialogues with Daoist priests.

After an introductory chapter assessing Daoism through a Christian perspective, Kim offers a series of comparative essays bringing Christian and Daoist beliefs into conversations that build common ground while also respecting real differences.

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For example, the Dao is compared with the reign of God, Jesus Christ is compared to a Daoist sage, and the concept of freedom is compared in the writings of the Zhuangzi and the New Testament. Kim’s theological reflections provide meaningful resources for bridge-building between Christ and the Dao.

For the scholarly-minded: The Taoist Body by Kristofer Schipper

The Taoist Body has become a classic for understanding the everyday lived expressions of Daoist religion, thanks to Kristofer Schipper’s unique experiences as an academically trained scholar and an ordained Daoist master.

In the 1960s and ’70s, Schipper immersed himself in the Daoist world of Tainan, a Taiwanese city famed for its dynamic religiosities. Recognizing that the Daoist tradition was better understood in action than in thought, he became the first person of European heritage to be initiated as a priest in the Zhengyi Dao lineage.

The Taoist Body contains thick descriptions of the many practices, rituals, and festivals that animate Daoist living at the grassroots level amid villages and local temples. While somewhat romanticized, Schipper’s detailed exposition of Daoist exercises and liturgies illustrates the many ways Daoist principles are baked into every aspect of traditional Chinese rural life. Moreover, Schipper ties his observations together with philosophical and ritual texts, showing the reader why Daoism is something to be practiced and physically experienced rather than understood and intellectually known.

For the globally astute: Dream Trippers: Global Daoism and the Predicament of Modern Spirituality by David A. Palmer and Elijah Siegler

If Schipper’s The Taoist Body brings us into a close encounter with the local heartbeat of Daoist practice, David Palmer and Elijah Siegler document how this complex faith is adapting to a modern globalized world.

Dream Trippers is a decade-long ethnographic study of Daoist practitioners from both sides of the Pacific. On the one hand, the text explores the ways in which Daoism is being practiced by Chinese Daoist monks at Huashan, a holy Daoist mountain, and how they are working to reclaim their heritage amid modern China’s social upheavals and transformations. On the other hand, the text also follows a group of Americans experimenting with Daoist faith and practice to address their own individual and social challenges.

More importantly, the book chronicles encounters between the two groups as they seek common ground in their culturally constrained spiritual quests, revealing a messy confluence of old and new Daoisms working themselves out in a global age. Behind the stories, the authors provide meaningful historical surveys of Daoism’s renewal in China as well as its reinvention in the United States. This is a remarkable study that highlights the complexities of spiritual seeking in today’s world across oceans and cultures.

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(Bonus) Jumping into the Classics: Recommended translations of the Daodejing and the Zhuangzi

In all the books above, much will be said about the Daodejing and the Zhuangzi. Both are rewarding reads of literary beauty and philosophical wisdom. But a quick search will yield numerous translations, and it can be hard to discern which translation of the text to pick up.

I highly recommend Stephen Addiss and Stanley Lombardo’s translation of the Daodejing . For me, Addis and Lombardo’s translation does the best job holding the literal meanings of the classical Chinese together with a poetic English phrasing. The text includes a helpful glossary of key terms.

Burton Watson’s translation of the Zhuangzi is the most highly regarded and provides a curated selection of the text’s best stories and teachings.