In the Shadows of the Dao

Laozi, the Sage, and the Daodejing

By Thomas Michael

Subjects: Taoism, Religion, Asian Religion And Philosophy, Asian Studies, Chinese Studies
Series: SUNY series in Chinese Philosophy and Culture
Paperback : 9781438458984, 332 pages, July 2016
Hardcover : 9781438458977, 332 pages, October 2015

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Table of contents


1. Reading the Daodejing Synthetically

On the Early Daoism Label

2. Modern Scholarship on the Daodejing

Religious and Philosophical Approaches to the Daodejing
Modern Western Approaches to the Daodejing
Modern Chinese Approaches to the Daodejing

3. Traditions of Reading the Daodejing
Daojia, Daojiao, and Early Daoism
The Role of Commentary in the Daodejing
The Heshang Gong Commentary
The Xiang’er Commentary
The Wang Bi Commentary
Three Commentaries in Comparison

4. The Daos of Laozi and Confucius

Records of the Interview
Glimpses into the Dao of Antiquity
The Fault Line
Two Disciplines of the Body
Laozi and Confucius Revisited

5. Early Daoism, Yangsheng, and the Daodejing

The Hiddenness of Early Daoism
A Separate History
Orality and the Daodejing
Early Daoism and Yangsheng
Two Master Traditions and a Third
Yangsheng and the Daodejing

6. The Sage and the World

Early Chinese Archetypes: the Sage, the King, and the General
The Benefits of the Sage
Qi: The Stuff of Life
De: Circulation Is Not Always Virtuous
De in Action

7. The Sage and the Project

The Death-World
The Great Project of the World

8. The Sage and Bad Knowledge

A Confucian Study Break
Knowledge and Yangsheng Sequences
Brightness and Yangsheng Sequences
Knowledge Is a Sickness
The Question of Early Daoism Revisited

9. The Sage and Good Knowledge

The Second-Order Harmony
Yangsheng and the Knowledge of the Sage

Appendix: The Daodejing

Challenges standard views of the origins of the Daodejing, revealing the work’s roots in a tradition of physical cultivation.


Thomas Michael's study of the early history of the Daodejing reveals that the work is grounded in a unique tradition of early Daoism, one unrelated to other early Chinese schools of thought and practice. The text is associated with a tradition of hermits committed to yangsheng, a particular practice of physical cultivation involving techniques of breath circulation in combination with specific bodily movements leading to a physical union with the Dao. Michael explores the ways in which the text systematically anchored these techniques to a Dao-centered worldview. Including a new translation of the Daodejing, In the Shadows of the Dao opens new approaches to understanding the early history of one of the world's great religious texts and great religious traditions.

Thomas Michael specializes in early Chinese religion, philosophy, and shamanism, and is the author of The Pristine Dao: Metaphysics in Early Daoist Discourse, also published by SUNY Press.


"…illuminating … a worthy addition to anyone's library. " — Journal of Chinese Religions

"…the scholarship and research that inform the arguments are outstanding. The book is a welcome addition to the study of the Daodejing. " — China Review International

"Michael's work provides a fresh and innovative methodological approach to a well-known and much studied text. Unlike the vast majority of previous studies, which situate the Daodejing in an ahistorical philosophical realm divorced from ritual and practice, Michael's analysis takes seriously the possibility that the text both contains and advocates for self-transformative practices. In addition, his translation, while not intended to be a stand-alone work, significantly contributes another important perspective. This excellent, groundbreaking book lays the foundation for a new round of vigorous debate and scholarly attention. " — Jeffrey Dippmann, coeditor of Riding the Wind with Liezi: New Perspectives on the Daoist Classic