Taoism




Taoism takes its name from the concept of Tao, or Way. In Chinese, the word “Tao” (or dao in hanyu pinyin) is made up of two components, one depicting a human head, the other a motion verb meaning to pass, go through, or walk. The earliest and most important work on Taoism is a short book of some 5,000 characters known as Daode Jing (Classic of the Way and Virtue)by the legendary Laozi (literally, Old Master, around sixth century BCE). The oldest manuscripts of the Daode Jing, unearthed in 1973 from an ancient tomb in Changsha, Hunan province, China, dated to about 200 BCE. Next to the Bible, it is probably one of the most translated works in the world, with close to 100 translations in English (see Lee et al. 1994).




The “Tao” is conceived as a metaphysical reality, the origin of heaven and earth, and the very beginning and end of all things. In Chapter 42 of the Daode Jing, it states: ”The Tao gave birth to the One. The One gave birth to the Two. The Two gave birth to the Three. And the Three gave birth to the myriad creatures.” This process of creation can also be understood as a process of differentiation from unity to multiplicity.

Religious Roots and Historical Development

The origin of religious Taoism is extremely complex. As an organized religion, it probably started during the Eastern Han dynasty (25— 220 CE). However, religious Taoism did not occur suddenly in a historical and religious vacuum. Rather, it drew upon preexisting ancient Chinese religious ideas and practices, incorporating Chinese ideas of nature worship and ancestor worship. Divination and other religious arts of ancient Chinese religious experts or “shamans” also became part of the repertoire of the Taoist priests. In addition, religious Taoism was influenced by the teachings of ancient Taoist philosophers as well as the cult of immortality promulgated by religious teachers of the Warring States period (475—221 BCE). In this sense, religious Taoism can be seen as a synthesis of several currents of thought going back to the very beginning of Chinese history.

During the reign of Emperor Shun (126— 144 CE) of the Han dynasty, Zhang Ling, native of Jiangsu province, established the first Taoist sect in Sichuan, China. He claimed to have received a revelation from the divine Laozi to establish a new Taoist order. Known as the ”Celestial Master” sect, it made the Taoist philosophical classic Daode Jing the chief scripture of the sect, and followers were taught to venerate the Tao and to repent their sins. By means of sacred incantations, talismans, and purification rites, the Taoist master sought to restore the spiritual and physical health of the followers. The movement attracted a large following and quickly developed into a major religious force. At that time, the Han Empire was already on the brink of disintegration, and the country was plunged deep into civil war. The rise of religious Taoism can be viewed in the context of its ability to provide meaning and meet adherents’ spiritual and material needs at a time of sociopolitical and economic strife.

Religious Taoism may have been started as a popular movement, supported mainly by the rural peasants, but by the post Han period (third century CE) it began to attract the attention of the educated elites. The Taoist master Ge Hong (283—343 CE), an expert in Taoist alchemy and traditional medicine, is one of the key figures responsible for the ”upward” swing of the religion. Ge Hong envisioned a synthesis of Confucianism and Taoism, in which spiritual practice and moral cultivation form an inseparable union, combining the Taoist goal of attaining spiritual liberation and becoming an immortal with the Confucian emphasis on moral self cultivation, filial piety, benevolence, trustworthiness, and other moral virtues. In the fifth and sixth centuries CE, during the Eastern Jin (317— 420) dynasty, two new major Taoist sects were formed: the Supreme Purity Sect (Shangqing) and the Numinous Treasure Sect (Lingbao). Over time, the Supreme Purity Sect became the dominant Taoist group in medieval China. As the hermitage of the sect was on the famous Taoist mountain, Mao Shan, in Jiangsu province, the Supreme Purity Sect came to be known as Mao Shan Taoism. The teachings of the Supreme Purity Sect concentrated on internal spiritual cultivation, supplemented by the study of scriptures and performing good deeds. Unlike the Celestial Master Sect, it does not emphasize the performance of rituals or the use of talismans and other religious devices. The Numinous Treasure Sect had a more out ward orientation and emphasized both spiritual cultivation and rituals. It paid close attention to doing good deeds and universal salvation.

During the Southern Song dynasty, around 1167, a new Taoist sect with a strong monastic flavor — the Complete Perfection (Quanzhen) Sect — was founded. Its teachings prescribed a heavy dose of monastic discipline. Practitioners had to remain celibate, embrace poverty, abstain from indulgence of all kinds, including food and sleep, and refrain from injuring all forms of life. The Complete Perfection Sect was very successful and attracted a large following. In response, the other Taoist lineages gradually joined forces to form a new orthodoxy known as Right One (Zhengyi) Sect (see Qing 1988; Ren 1990).

Both the Complete Perfection and Right One Taoism venerate the ”Three Pristine Ones” as the supreme gods of the cosmos. In terms of practice, however, the two are quite different. Complete Perfection Taoism is monastic; all priests must observe celibacy and live in seclusion. Right One Taoism is more lay oriented; its priests can marry and live among the common people. Doctrinally, Complete Perfection Tao ism emphasizes quiet self cultivation, while Right One Taoism relies mainly on the use of talismans, incantations, prayers, and the performance of rituals.

Divine Hierarchy and Key Taoist Ideas

In Taoist religion, both Laozi and his follower Zhuangzi are worshiped as gods and founders of the religion. As an incarnation of Tao, Laozi is regarded as the ”Supreme Venerable Lord.” The ”Three Pristine Ones” and the other divinities of Taoism, including the Heavenly Gods, the Earth Gods, and the Human Gods, are all considered to have evolved from Tao. Thus, Religious Taoism is a devotional religion with a polytheistic structure. It has a highly sophisticated and hierarchically structured pantheon with countless gods and goddesses under the command of a sovereign high god and with specific stations in the divine hierarchy. The organizational principle seems to have been modeled on that of the imperial government. However, from the Taoist perspective, the earthly government reflects the structure of the heavenly kingdom.

The highest level of the Taoist pantheon is comprised of the Lordly Spirits of Anterior Heaven. It is headed by the ”Three Pristine Ones” (Sanqing): the ”Celestial Venerable of the Original Beginning” (Yuanshi Tianzun), the ”Celestial Venerable of the Numinous Treasure” (Lingbao Tianzun), and the ”Celestial Venerable of the Way and Virtue” (Daode Tianzun), also commonly known as the ”Supreme Venerable Lord.” However, the ”Three Pristine Ones” are perceived to be so exalted that they reign, but do not rule. Cosmic governance is delegated to a subordinate chief known as the ”Great Sovereign Jade Emperor” (Yuhuang Dadi). The Jade Emperor, whose ”birthday” is celebrated on the ninth day of the first month in the Chinese lunar calendar, is the supreme high god, the ruler of the Taoist universe. He has direct command over all deities and has absolute control over all human and divine matters. Like the imperial emperor, his counterpart on earth, the Jade Emperor is assisted by a multitude of officials and functionaries. These, in turn, are organized into a divine bureaucracy, and can be classified in terms of their rank, jurisdiction, functions, and responsibilities, such as the God of Wealth, the Earth God, the Kitchen God, and the Door God.

Broadly speaking, Taoism can be divided into three interrelated traditions. A Taoist philosophical tradition associated  with Laozi’s Daode Jing, Zhuangzi’s work, and other texts; a religious tradition with an organized doctrine, formalized cult activities, and institutional leadership; and a popular religion tradition, where there is a syncretic mix of Taoist beliefs, folk beliefs and rituals, including ancestor worship, and elements of Confucianism and Buddhism. This tradition is often referred to as a “diffused” religion, with no canonical scriptures and its rituals and religious ideas largely orally transmitted from one generation to the next.

While these are three different traditions, they are interrelated and draw from some of the key ideas of Taoism, such as the conception of yin and yang, and the five elements. For Taoists, the origin of the universe is known as the Great Beginning. The universe began as a void, from which the great breath (Taiji) developed. The Great Breath in turn gathered momentum, and split into two equal breaths; a light pure breath, yang, moves upwards and created heaven, while the opaque heavy breath, yin, descended and created earth (Robinet 1997: 8). Together, they constitute the cycle of life and death. The positioning of these forces is considered instrumental for social order on earth, and a disjuncture in the correct positioning will result in hazards and natural calamities (Kuah 2003: 23-4). Yin and yang form the foundation of both philosophical and religious Taoism. From these two forces, the five elements, fire, water, earth, wood, and metal, are produced. These, in turn, govern the four seasons and all aspects of human existence.

Religious Specialists

As noted above, the concepts of yin and yang form the foundation of both philosophical and religious Taoism. The classical texts of Laozi and Zhuangzi explicate the principles of this philosophy, while the priests, mediums, and so on found in religious Taoism draw on these ideas in the performance of rituals relating to birth, marriage, death, festival cycles, and all aspects of human life. Taoist priests, daoshi, are professionals who earn their living through providing a range of religious services and ritual performance. These ritual specialists, particularly in Taiwan, are called ”red headed” Taoists or barefoot masters as they wear a red turban around their head and are barefoot when dressed in ceremonial ritual costumes.

Curing rituals are the most common of their services. Using divination techniques and traditional Chinese medical knowledge, they diagnose ailments. A simple cure for the illness requires the priest to write a charm, which the patient places in his or her house, or burns to drink the ashes as tea or to wash with. Complex problems may require more elaborate ritual solutions. For example, a daoshi may be called upon to exorcise demons that have invaded a person’s dwelling or body. He performs dramatic rites, including sword dances and elaborate gestures, to chase the demons away.

In addition to the daoshi, there is another class of religious specialists who draw on Taoist ideas. Chinese spirit mediums, or shamans, are called dang ki, literally, ”child diviners.” Chinese spirit mediumship is based on the idea that a spiritual being, or shen, can temporarily possess a human body. In such a state, the dang ki becomes the personification of the shen and mediates between the human and spiritual worlds. Human beings can then consult the spirits seeking advice as well as solutions to human problems. Mediums, when possessed, enter into a state of trance. Rituals performed by spirit mediums include the sacrifice of offerings of food and joss papers, that is, paper printed in gold and silver and sometimes inscribed with prayers that are burnt, to appease the spirits.

There is a clear hierarchical distinction between the dang ki and the daoshi. Daoshi are regarded as the religious superiors of the shamans. To be a daoshi is to fill an office that is hereditary, and they are considered as the administrators of the spiritual world, a reflection of the bureaucracy that governs the earthly world. In fact, in Taoist traditions, Laozi is regarded as the first Heavenly Master and Zhang Ling (or Zhang Daoling) the universal head of the Taoist liturgical tradition. Succeeding Heavenly Masters have been representatives from this family line. The Heavenly Masters bestow the hereditary office on the daoshi, who then become the priests of the regional and lay organizations. Thus, the group of daoshi is a confederacy of masters, not a church. The legitimacy of their mastership rests in part on the ownership of the manuscripts for liturgical use: books for reciting, rituals, collection of formularies, secret formulas, talismans and diagrams, passed down from each generation in the family (Schipper 1993: 59).

There is a clear distinction between the vernacular fashi and the classical daoshi. Besides the contrasting vestments and ceremonial garbs, the rituals performed by the two are significantly different. Vernacular rituals often contain ballads that describe a journey or the myth of the deity invoked. They also tend to give a mythological rendering of the other worlds. The classical rituals, on the other hand, do not contain such mythological aspects or journey narratives, as they are concerned with the expression of moral law and sentiment. They also constantly refer to the abstract cosmology of Taoism. Another distinct difference between the two is the use of trance techniques. Classical Taoism does not practice trance techniques that are quite commonly used by the vernacular Taoist priests. The classical Taoist rejects all forms of individual rites as opposed to communal rites) such as healing and exorcism. Despite the apparent ritual differences between classical and vernacular Taoist priests, many of the rituals are complementary and may be per formed together, as during the jiao festival, staged to pacify wandering ghosts, to purify the community’s territory, and to reach cosmic renewal (see Liu 2003).

Taoism and Chinese Culture

Confucianism, Taoism, and Buddhism form the three pillars of traditional Chinese culture. They provide a window to help understand the Chinese, their values, customs, and way of life. Taoism, unlike other religions that also flourished in China, is an indigenous religious tradition, shaped and formed by native religious beliefs from the start. Taoism can be said to embody a synthesis of traditional Chinese culture. As a popular religion, its teachings influenced the masses. In addition, it penetrated Confucian traditions and added Taoist features and hues to the Confucian landscape. By blending its doctrine of immortality with Confucian ethics and political philosophy, it had a substantial impact on the educated elite as well.

Taoism also influenced the nature of moral education and self cultivation in China, with its emphasis on performing good deeds and the accumulation of religious merits. One popular belief is that to become a ”celestial immortal” a person is required to perform at least 1,300 good deeds. Later, when the genre of Taoist writings known as ”Ledgers of Merit and Demerit” gained currency, the moral teachings of Taoism became even more widespread. Essentially, daily actions are classified into good and bad deeds, each of which is assigned a fixed number of merit or demerit points. In this way, Taoism was able to regulate behavior and promote its vision of the good life.

External alchemy and internal alchemy, natural methods of nourishing and preserving life, represent the two foci of Taoist self cultivation. External alchemy is above all concerned with the manufacture of an ”elixir” of everlasting life and involved an understanding of the nature of chemical processes and the properties of plants and minerals. Internal alchemy is concerned with nourishing and strengthening the internal vital energy that contributed to the concept of Qi, which plays a central role in the teachings of religious Taoism. Although external and internal alchemy may no longer be pursued in their classical form, their influence remains today. Rather than through overt missionary effort or deliberate indoctrination, Taoist practices sim ply merged with the common Chinese conception of physical health and spiritual well being. Other more conspicuous practices such as hanging a symbol of the ”eight trigrams” in the front of a house or pasting talismans on doors to ward off evil spirits, among countless other practices, likewise reflect the pervasive presence of Taoism in Chinese culture.

Taoism was able to sink deep roots in China, not simply because of the worship of many gods and goddesses. The dimension of practice is equally important, especially in terms of various forms of religious arts. Taoism incorporated ancient astronomy, medicine, mathematics, alchemy, and other religious arts into its understanding of Tao, and further developed various forms of divination such as astrology and geomancy. All these activities were and still are intimately related to the everyday life of the Chinese. Many practices that originated from Taoism, from the use of herbs and drugs and the art of Qigong (breathing exercise) to certain rituals and customs, have gradually and imperceptibly become part of the daily life of Chinese people.

Contemporary Taoism

The classical secularization hypothesis suggests that a consequence of modernity, and for some scholars an inevitable outcome, is the decline in social significance of religion. The process implies that sectors of society are increasingly removed from the domination or religious institutions and symbols. In the main, it is argued that the process of secularization has been dependent on the rise of empiricist thinking and differentiation of roles and functions within society. The religious situation of Taoism in China, Taiwan, and Hong Kong shows that rather than secularization, there has been a revival of Taoist practices and rituals.

Revivalism in China

Despite the tenets of orthodox Marxist theory, and suppression and strict restrictions placed on religions during the communist era, religion in China is thriving, particularly after economic liberalization. Thousands of temples destroyed or damaged during the Cultural Revolution have been restored and increasing numbers of people are taking part in ritual activities. Currently, China has over 1,500 Taoist temples and more than 25,000 Taoist priests and nuns. With the rebuilding and reconsecrating of the temples, many Taoist priests found new job opportunities and returned to work. In addition, many Chinese communities began to celebrate elaborate Taoist jiao, communal sacrifices, as well as reviving elaborate funerary and ancestral rituals. There has been a renaissance of popular religion with the growing popularity of temple cults, local deities, and temple festivals. With the boom in economic activity, many Chinese could also afford to rebuild temples to their local god.

The resurgence in religious activities is also linked to the donations from overseas Chinese. They return in large numbers to attend religious rituals and to bury their dead, or at least hold services in their places of origin for those who have died overseas. Many have been persuaded to make large contributions to local schools, hospitals, and roads once they have been allowed to conduct the rituals (see Dean 1993; Fan 2003; Lai 2003a).

Although the state has always wanted the Taoists to conform to the Buddhist ideal of celibacy and monastic life, most of the Taoist priests or daoshi live a married life at home, wearing liturgical vestments when performing the rituals. Since they perform services and ceremonies in the context of the cults of various gods in local temples, they are not easily distinguishable from local temple shamans whose religious activities have been criticized as superstitious. In order to legitimize and effectively manage this group of Taoist priests, the National Daoist Association has classified the “correct” or “recognized” daoshi of the Zhengyi order. By law, the daoshi have to register with their local Taoist association and will receive a ”Daoist certificate belonging to the Zhengyi sect,” which is issued by the National Daoist Association (Lai 2003a: 424).

Popular religious practices have not lost their importance as China begins its modernization process. Instead, Fan argues that there has been an increase in spirituality among the population as many urban workers who have moved beyond basic struggle for survival are now faced with deeper questions of personal meaning. In his study on religion in the modern city of Shenzhen, Fan shows the trend toward a privatization of popular religion among urban Chinese. To them, religious beliefs are private concerns and the search for spiritual meaning is a personal one. Although many of these urban Chinese do not organize large communal worship events, they still uphold the traditional Chinese popular religion worldview of mingyun, yuanfen, and feng shui (Fan 2003: 455).

Taiwan’s Religious Situation

Since the end of martial law in Taiwan, religion is thriving. Taoism, with over 4.5 million adherents, is one of the most popular religions in Taiwan. The number of Buddhist and Taoist temples in Taiwan nearly doubled in 50 years from 3,661 in 1930 to 5,531 in 1981. According to the statistics provided by the Ministry of the Interior, by 2003 Taiwan was home to 8,604 Taoist temples that had registered with the state. In addition, there are numerous unregistered temples and household shrines (Katz 2003: 396).

Popular religion or folk religion is very wide spread. Temple cults in particular have retained their importance as sites for daily worship and community festivals, with popular deities worshiped for their ability to provide health and prosperity. Some of the popular deities include Mazu (patron goddess of the sea and fishermen) and the Royal Lords. Not only are these temple cults and festivals flourishing, they are also moving beyond their local boundaries to play a significant role on the national stage. These temples have also extended their reach into social services, and currently operate a total of 20 hospital and clinics as well as 180 schools ranging from kindergarten to university (Katz 2003).

In Taiwan, another modern, syncretic form of religion similar to those found in the folk or temple cults is currently growing in significance. The Yi Guan Dao (Religion of the One Unity) draws upon both traditional teachings and each of the world’s major religions. Yi Guan Dao adherents try to identify common principles underlying Buddhism, Christianity, Islam, Judaism, and Hinduism. They ascribe to an idea of a god above all other gods called Mingming Shangdi (God of Clarity). Yi Guan Dao adherents follow many of the Confucian rituals and engage in ancestor worship. They strive to uphold the precepts of not killing, stealing, committing adultery, lying, and drinking alcohol while putting into practice the ideals of benevolence, righteousness, and universal love envisioned by Confucian teaching. As of 2001, the Yi Guan Dao had 887,000 believers, making it the third most popular religion in terms of number of adherents.

The Religious Situation in Hong Kong

Buddhism and Taoism, traditional Chinese religions, have a large local following with more than 600 Chinese temples in Hong Kong. Religious practices are still very much observed today. Tablets for ancestors, Master of the Site (dizhu), Heaven God (tiangong), Kitchen God (zaojun), and Door God (menguan) are commonly found in homes where there is the practice of local religion. People regularly organize temple festivals to celebrate the birthdays of the local deities and to seek blessings. Leading deities include Buddha, Kwan Yin, Guandi, and Luzu. Tian Hou, the Queen of Heaven and Protector of Seafarers, is reputed to be worshiped by 250,000 people. During the Tian Hou Festival, which falls on the 23rd day of the third moon, many worshipers visit the most famous Tian Hou temple, at Joss House Bay on the Clear Water Bay Peninsula. The jiao festival is another popular event for the community. During the major jiao event, a large stage is constructed for the Taoist rituals and Cantonese opera. Taoist priests are hired to perform rituals that last several days. After the Taoist ritual, a Cantonese opera is performed for several days to signify the beginning of a new cosmic cycle (Liu 2003). In addition, many participate in deity festivals, birthdays, Hungry Ghost festivals, and communal jiao festivals. There are an estimated 500 Taoist masters of the Zhengyi tradition (known as Nahmmouh Taoist masters in Hong Kong) who are in high demand, especially for the performance of funerary rituals (Lai 2003b: 464).

In his research on Hong Kong, Lai (2003b) notes that in contrast to the Zhengyi Taoist tradition, which does not usually unite as a community to conduct group worship, many Hong Kong Taoists belong to sects, halls, and temples. Many of these include altars devoted to cult of Lu Dongbin. Lu Dongbin was a Taoist in the latter half of the Tang dynasty. He is an immor tal and was presented as a master of internal alchemy and venerated as the patriarch of the Taoist Quanzhen order. He is also worshipped in the popular religious tradition as a deity famed for exorcistic and healing powers. Such Lu Dongbin cults were very popular in Guandong and many Taoist altars in Hong Kong are offspring of main altars in Guangdong.

In recent years, the Taoist organizations in Hong Kong have also evolved into socially conscious, charitable organizations. Once offsprings of parent institutions in Guangdong, they have supported the revival of Taoism in mainland China. With greater economic prosperity in Hong Kong, the Taoist organizations have raised millions of dollars to reconstruct temples in China. They have also funded universities, schools, and hospitals, established social services for old people, and set up orphanages, clinics, and study rooms for students (Lai 2003b: 466).

References:

  1. Dean, K. (1993) Taoist Ritual and Popular Cults of Southeast China. Princeton University Press, Princeton.
  2. Fan, L. (2003) Popular Religion in Contemporary China. Social Compass 50(4): 449 57.
  3. Katz, P. R. (2003) Religion and the State in Post­War Taiwan. China Quarterly 174 (June). Kohn, L. (1991) Taoist Mystical Philosophy: The Scripture of Western Ascension. State University of New York Press, Albany.
  4. Kuah, K. E. (2003) State, Society, and Religious Engineering: Towards a Reformist Buddhism in Singapore. Eastern Universities Press,
  5. Lai, C.-T. (2003a) Daoism in China Today, 1980 2003. China (Quarterly 174 (June).
  6. Lai, C.-T. (2003b) Hong Kong Daoism: A Study of Daoist Altars and Lü Dongbin Cults. Social Compass 50(4): 459 70.
  7. Lee, C.-Y., Chan, A., & Tsu, T. (1994) Taoism: Outlines of a Chinese Religious Tradition. Taoist Federation, Singapore.
  8. Liu, T.-S. (2003) A Nameless but Active Religion:An Anthropologist’s View of Local Religion in Hong Kong and Macau. China (Quarterly 174( June).
  9. Liu,T.-Y. (1989)Daojiao shi Shenme (What is Taoism?). Institute of East Asian Philosophies, Singapore.
  10. Overmyer, D. L. (2003) Religion in China Today: Introduction. China Quarterly 174 ( June).
  11. Qing, X. (1988) Zhongguo Daojiao Shi (History of the Taoist Religion of China). Sichuan People’s Press, Chengdu.
  12. Ren, J. (Ed.) (1990) Zhongguo Daojiao Shi (History of the Taoist Religion of China). Shanghai People’s Press, Shanghai.
  13. Robinet, I. (1997) Taoism: Growth of a Religion. P. Brooks. Stanford University Press, Stanford.
  14. Schipper, K. (1993) The Taoist Body. K. C. Duval. University of California Press,
  15. Welch, H. & Seidel, A. (Eds.) (1979) Facets of Tao ism: Essays in Chinese Religion. Yale University Press, New Haven.

Back to Sociology of Religion