Portrait of Kristofer Schipper,
commissioned for commemorative ritual in Suzhou, 2021 (see below).
Not only in the West but in Taiwan and China, the great influence of the great Daoist scholar Kristofer Schipper (Chinese name Shi Zhouren 施舟人, 1934–2021) is clear from the many tributes to him that have been appearing. Here’s a selection from the various extensive lists going round.
Perhaps the most accessible starting-point is Ian Johnson’s NYT article (Chinese version here). You can find numerous posts on the websites of the Society for the Study of Chinese Religions (SSCR) and the Chengdu-based Centre for the Study of Chinese Religions (CSCR); by subscribing to the European Network for the Study of Religions in China (ENSRC); as well as on douban and Wechat.
The SSCR and CSCR sites include tributes by John Lagerwey, Vincent Goossaert, Franciscus Verellen, Brigitte Baptandier, Lee Fong-mao, Lü Pengzhi, Lü Chuikuan, Ye Mingsheng, Stephen Bokenkamp, Terry Kleeman, and David Palmer. See also e.g. Ken Dean (live), Richard Wang, and an online discussion held by the Global Daoist Studies Forum. Doubtless the bibliography will continue to grow.
Several of these sites also give extensive lists of Schipper’s writings—this one looks comprehensive. Just a few of the seminal works that we keep consulting:
- Le fen-deng (1975)
- “Vernacular and classical ritual in Taoism”, Journal of Asian studies 45.1 (1986)
- Le Corps taoïste (1982; English version The Daoist body 1994).
And I’ve reflected on his 1989 article on Pacing the Void hymns.
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Schipper was brought up in Holland, where during the war his parents sheltered Jewish children from the Nazis. As Vincent Goossaert commented, “This really shaped his worldview, both his hatred of nationalism and his deeply humanistic preference for local democracy instead of great national narratives”.
Schipper with Chen Rongsheng, 1960s.
After training with Max Kaltenmark in Paris, in 1962 Schipper went to study in Taiwan; based at the Academia Sinica, he became a disciple of the great household Daoist priest Chen Rongsheng 陳榮盛 (1927–2014) in Tainan (see video tribute in n.1 here), who ordained him in 1968. He returned to Paris in 1970, taking up a position at the École Pratique des Hautes Études.
Schipper went on to create a massive project on the Daoist canon; the result, co-edited with Franciscus Verellen, was The Taoist canon: a historical companion to the Daozang (3 vols., 2004), an essential companion to texts found both in libraries and in the manual collections of local ritual specialists. His distinction between texts “in general circulation” and those distinctive to local traditions has been most useful to me in trying to classify collections of ritual manuals among northern household Daoists (see e.g. under Recopying ritual manuals, and Daoists of Hunyuan).
We might almost regard Schipper as a Daoist equivalent of Nadia Boulanger. Paris has been an île sacrée for Daoist studies, with Schipper bridging the lineage from Henri Maspero and Max Kaltenmark to John Lagerwey and Vincent Goossaert; his vast influence is clear from the list of his pupils, many of whom have gone on to distinguished careers.
If his main contribution was in sinology and textual research, his influence extended to anthropology. As Ian Johnson writes:
His ideas contributed to an understanding of how Chinese society has been organized through its history—by local autonomous groups often centred on temples rather than the emperor and his vaunted bureaucracy, as historians have traditionally tended to depict it.
Ken Dean observed:
He was able to show that there was a religion of the people of China that was deeply connected to local forms of self-organization and self-government. It was part of a change in how people described Chinese society.
While Taiwan had hitherto been the most fruitful fieldsite to study Daoist ritual, by the late 1970s, as a huge revival of tradition got under way in mainland China, it was becoming clear that there too there was now a vast field to explore—and Schipper was among the first to build bridges. Recruiting regional fieldworkers, scholars like C.K. Wang, John Lagerwey, and Ken Dean now initiated fieldwork projects on local ritual traditions throughout south China, which still continue to yield major results (see e.g. Lü Pengzhi’s massive Daojiao yishi congshu series). Such projects have tended to focus on the “salvage” of early history rather than documenting modern social change (among exceptions, see e.g. Yang Der-ruey on Shanghai, Qi Kun for Hunan); the historiography and ethnography of Daoism remain rather separate fields (see Debunking “living fossils”).
By the 1990s, Schipper’s concern for the history of religious life within local society resulted in another major collaborative project between the EFEO and Chinese scholars on the temples of old Beijing, still ongoing. Despite his focus on south China, he was most supportive of research on northern ritual practice (even my own, such as In search of the folk Daoists of north China, and related articles under Local ritual). After retiring in 2003, he and his wife made their home in Fuzhou, further inspiring Chinese scholars.
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1991: left, as liturgist; right, “rousing the altar” (naotan 鬧壇).
While Schipper’s early training as a Daoist priest was to form the inspiration for his career, one method where later scholars have roundly ignored his example is participant observation—a route very rarely taken in Daoist studies, though de rigueur in ethnomusicology. Even more remarkable was Schipper’s apprenticeship to Chen Rongsheng, which opened up the path for studying the ritual practice of household Daoists. Of course, “becoming a Daoist priest” can only refer to one particular tradition—the ritual practices that Schipper acquired (including its language, melodies, chants, and style of percussion) were particular to one region of Taiwan.
Analysing an ancient ritual manual, or even a modern ritual, in silent, immobile text is not the same as performing it. Sure, few scholars will find the time—though they are happy to devote years to poring over Song-dynasty ritual compendiums in libraries, to collect silent immobile texts in the field, and then to create more such texts themselves. Of course, performing as an occupational Daoist priest, as part of a ritual group, can only be done by living in China or Taiwan; it’s an unlikely career path for academics, yet it has hardly appealed to them even as an interlude. Still, the insights to be gained from even a basic training are most valuable (see e.g. Drum patterns of Yanggao ritual).
Schipper doesn’t seem to have discussed any tensions between textual research and living performance. Though uniquely placed to write a detailed ethnography of Daoists’ lives, that wasn’t his main concern; for him, the lessons gained from learning to perform look to have been more about texts than practice. It was John Lagerwey, in his Taoist ritual in Chinese society and history (1987), who provided the most detailed account of Chen Rongsheng’s ritual practice. See also my remarks on documenting ritual in film, and Appendix 1 of my Daoist priests of the Li family.
So Schipper’s training as a Daoist priest, while most thorough, was part of his studies within the bounds of academic sinology, rather than a vocational conversion. It can work the other way round too: some practising temple priests, such as Min Zhiting, have undertaken research on historical texts.
Around the same period in Taiwan, Michael Saso learned to perform Daoist ritual, also going on to become a scholar before eventually returning to the Catholic priesthood. More recently, another remarkable exception is Tao Jin 陶金 (an accomplished young architect who writes many profound articles on Daoism), who studied with masters in Beijing and Suzhou and was ordained in Suzhou in 2018 (see under Ritual life around Suzhou). Meanwhile in Taiwan, Stephen Flanigan 馮思明 has learned to perform Daoist ritual to inform his academic studies in Hawaii. While the pull of an academic career is strong, the path that Schipper opened up has brought added depth to the field.
Outside academia, many in the West have espoused individual versions of Daoist meditation (often with a New-Age tinge—see David Palmer, Dream trippers: global Daoism and the predicament of modern spirituality, 2017); but for them, as for scholars, the idea of learning to perform ritual has largely remained alien.
Schipper also had suitable esteem for nanguan, the exquisite chamber ballads so popular in Hokkien communities of south Fujian and Taiwan (see the tribute from Lü Chuikuan), whose melodies were incorporated into Daoist ritual there—even if I’ve suggested that he may have overestimated the importance of a concert in Paris in 1986 for the revival in south Fujian.
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Commemorative ritual for Schipper at the Chenghuang miao, Shanghai.
Notably, several Daoist temples have held commemorative rituals for Schipper (listed here, and here). For the sixth “sevens”, temple priests performed shengdu gonggde daochang 升度功德到場 rituals: at the Xuanmiao guan in Suzhou, with some of the most distinctive ritual segments that are performed there, and at Huotongshan, Fujian. For the seventh “sevens”, rituals were held in Shanghai, Fuzhou, Longhushan, and Beijing.
Kristofer Schipper’s work is a benchmark within a range of disciplines, firmly establishing the study of Daoism—in particular its rituals—as a core element in our understanding of traditional Chinese culture.