Dream Trippers

Global Daoism and the Predicament of Modern Spirituality

Reddit icon
e-mail icon
Twitter icon
Facebook icon
Google icon
LinkedIn icon
David A. Palmer, Elijah Siegler
  • Chicago, IL: 
    University of Chicago Press
    , November
     352 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


David Palmer and Elijah Siegler have co-authored a fascinating book on the multiple encounters between Chinese Daoism and Western Daoism in the 21st century. These encounters take many forms: through texts (including the translation of Daoist classics from Chinese into Western languages); transmissions of knowledge and status (e.g., Daoist ordination titles) through master-disciple relationships; institutions (e.g., Daoist temples in China, Daoist retreats in the West, and Daoist Studies as an academic discipline); practices (self-cultivation techniques; rituals, many of which were invented or “rediscovered” quite recently); symbols and material culture (e.g., Daoist caps and robes, ritual implements); and most importantly, places (Daoist sacred mountains) and spaces (e.g., meditation caves in the mountains). The authors combine research methods and analytical frameworks from anthropology, religious studies, cultural history, and the sociology of knowledge to brilliant effect. 

The book is the final product of more than a decade’s multi-sited research. The authors follow the lives and activities of three main groups of social actors engaged in Daoism-enabled transnational encounters. The first group consists of Western (mostly American) spiritual seekers and their Daoist teacher-entrepreneurs (think of “enterprising” rather than merely “merchant”). One prominent group is the “Dream Trippers,” a “spiritual seekers” tour group of three or four dozen people under the guidance of their guru-leader Michael Winn, a White American Daoist innovator-businessman who organizes Daoism-themed spiritual tours to China, especially to Daoist sacred mountains and other “energetic hot spots.” The second group consists of American scholar-practitioners of Daoism who sometimes became enterprising (and entrepreneurial) gurus themselves. The third group is constituted by the Chinese Daoist monastics, especially those based in Huashan (“Flower Mountain,” considered one of the most cosmically powerful Daoist sacred mountains), who interact with various kinds of foreign seekers through various degrees of effective communication, sometimes verbally but more often through embodied mystical communion (e.g., through meditating together or sharing the same ritual space).

The book is ambitiously conceived, and it succeeds in shedding a critical light on some of the most vexing analytical problems in our era of massive globalization: What mechanisms are involved in the globalization of ideas and practices? How does a body of knowledge and practices get translated from one culture to another? The authors try to investigate various forms of transnational (or intercultural) global Daoism as their case study. Among the many useful theoretical discussions, the most important one is how American-style “ontological individualism” can reconcile with the Chinese Daoist ideal of “cosmological attunement.”

The Dream Tripper spiritual tourists are seeking out “authentic Chinese Daoism” and “authentic Chinese Daoists,” but they are also experienced New Agers and innovators, as serious as they are playful. Palmer and Siegler describe in superb ethnographic detail many of their creative practices on Huashan, including an elaborate wedding ceremony (in fact that of the Dream Tripper leader Michael Winn and his partner) in the mountain—conceived by Winn as “Daoist-alchemical-cosmic-energetic” (253) that involved group chanting and the newly-wed couple spending three nights in a meditation cave dug into the granite cliff-face centuries ago. Though gratified to see some authentic-looking Daoist monks and hermits (some of whom are clearly serving as important legitimating devices for the spiritual seekers), some of the foreign practitioners think that they themselves are in possession of the true spirit and techniques of Daoism and the Chinese have unfortunately lost them due to Communist suppression and years of neglect. Therefore, it behooves the foreign Daoist practitioners to bring back to China what it now lacks: authentic Daoist spirituality. Some of the monks on Huashan think otherwise and view the foreign visitors patronizingly as pilgrims from afar and sources of income. Authenticity is a serious issue for some of the scholar-practitioners of Daoism. An important component of the book is dedicated to tracking the career trajectories and discourses of some key scholar-practitioners of Daoism in the US.

This book can serve as a key text in any research methodology class because of the considerable self-reflexive musings the authors provide on their research methodology (especially in the appendix). Participation observation, interviews (formal and informal), and documentary research are their main data-gathering methods. One notable strategy for generating useful data is asking some of the protagonists to comment on not only each other but also on the draft manuscript of the book. Even when some of the characters, practices, and views portrayed in the book might come off as slightly ridiculous or hilarious to some readers, the overall tone of the book is objective and respectful (but the ironic distance is quite evident, with plenty of intentional or unintentional straight-faced humor). When the authors do reveal their sympathies, for example over the debate on authenticity in Daoist practices between the authenticity-centred purist scholar-practitioner Louis Komjathy and the New Age innovator Michael Winn, they seem to favor innovation (because for them innovations are more interesting; 276).

Scholars of Daoism distinguish three aspects of the Daoist tradition: 1) philosophical (e.g., What is dao? The teachings of Laozi and Zhuangzi), which is often taught in philosophy or religious studies departments as examples of “Oriental Thought”; 2) self-cultivational (e.g., trying to attain “immortalhood” through various techniques); and 3) liturgical (e.g., performing funeral rituals or communal exorcisms, especially by householder Daoist priests of the Zhengyi Heavenly Master Order). The kind of Chinese Daoism (of the Quanzhen Order) and Western Daoism Palmer and Siegler’s book investigates is primarily the second kind. The first two kinds of Daoism have succeeded in becoming “translated” and globalized (despite, or thanks to, much mis-translation), even making Daoism into one of the so-called “world religions.” One wonders when the third kind of Daoism will become globalized, if that is at all a possibility. 

This book is the first detailed scholarly study on globalized Daoism and is a must-read for all scholars working on religion and spirituality (especially Daoism, new religious movements, New Age religiosities, ritual studies), the body, globalization, cross-cultural communications, tourism, Chinese Studies, and American Studies. Eminently readable and enormously stimulating, it can be used in many undergraduate and graduate courses in the above fields.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Adam Yuet Chau is Senior Lecturer in the Anthropology of Modern China in the Department of East Asian Studies at the University of Cambridge.

Date of Review: 
November 12, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

David A. Palmer is Associate Professor of Anthropology at the University of Hong Kong. He is the author of Qigong Fever: Body, Science, and Utopia in China, among other books.

Elijah Siegler is Professor of Religious Studies at the College of Charleston.


Reading Religion welcomes comments from AAR members, and you may leave a comment below by logging in with your AAR Member ID and password. Please read our policy on commenting.