In Chinese history there have been various religions such as Buddhism, Daoism (Taoism), Islam and Christianity, both Catholic and Protestant, but among them only Daoism (Taoism) is the religion of the Chinese people.* To be more precise, Daoism (Taoism) is a religion of the Han people and has certain concrete features that come from this association. It has had a large influence on Chinese culture, psychology, customs, science and technology, medicine and hygiene, philosophy and even on Chinese politics and economics. How did the Daoist religion arise and what are its particular characteristics relative to other religions?
Daoist religion was born at the time of the Han Emperor Shun-di at the end of the first century A.D. At this time China already had a written history of about 2,000 years. At the end of the Warring States period (that is, the third and second centuries B.C.) there had existed people called "immortals" who claimed that by certain practices they could `extend their lives and not die.' These `immortals' were only individuals practicing by themselves; they never formed any kind of religious organization. However, at the end of the Western Han period (at the beginning of the first century A.D.) Buddhism came to China from India. The entry of Buddhism had a transformative effect and sped up the foundation of a Chinese religion. Because Buddhism was a foreign culture entering China, however, it elicited a strong reaction among the Chinese people.
The interaction of Chinese culture with a foreign culture led to both borrowing and criticizing. We can see both of these in the earliest of the Daoist religious writings, the Taiping Jing. In this work Daoists borrowed such Buddhist terms as the `three realms', but also criticized Buddhists for their so-called `four practices.' (These were the unfilial abandonment of father and mother to become a monk, the abandoning of wife and therefore the cutting off of future generations, the practice of begging, and the practice of eating excrement). The Daoists said that this was contravening the spiritual way of heaven. In particular, once established the Daoist religion set forth the doctrine of `Laozi (Lao Tzu) converting the barbarians' in order to criticize Buddhism. They said that Laozi (Lao Tzu), the original teacher of Daoism (Taoism) in the Zhou period (the sixth century B.C.), had left China through the Hangu Pass and gone to India, where he had taught Shakyamuni, the historical Buddha. Therefore, the Buddha was the disciple of Laozi (Lao Tzu).
The founder of the Daoist religion is generally recognized to be Zhang Daoling. There are two views in the Chinese scholarly community as to where the Daoist religion originated. The scholar Chen Yinge claims that the Daoist religion originated in Shandong, Jiangsu and other coastal areas. Another scholar, Meng Wentong, claims that it originated in Sichuan and was influenced by the customs and practices of minority peoples there. I think that the Daoist religion originated in the coastal areas because the immortals were active in this area. Further, Zhang Daoling himself was from Feng County in Jiangsu and only later went to Sichuan, where he formally established the organization of the Daoist religion. It is quite possible that certain elements of minority peoples' customs were absorbed into his teachings at that time.
The Daoist religion that later developed in Sichuan and the Han River area is called Five Pecks of Rice Daoism (Taoism) because people on entering the sect made an offering of five pecks of rice. It is also called Heavenly Teacher Daoism (Taoism) because the leader of this sect, Zhang Daoling, was called the Heavenly Teacher. Heavenly Teacher Daoism (Taoism) was passed on from Zhang to his son, Zhang Heng, and again transmitted to Zhang Lu, the latter's son. Zhang Lu established a Daoist kingdom in the Han River area, which he ruled for thirty years. Eventually he was defeated by Cao, to whom he surrendered. Zhang Lu's son, Zhang Sheng, fled to Longhu Mountain in Jiangxi where he became the fourth generation Heavenly Teacher. At the present time this sect of Daoism (Taoism) has already been transmitted to its sixty-fifth generation. The sixty-fourth generation Heavenly Teacher is in Taiwan. His nephew is on the Chinese mainland continuing the tradition as the sixty-fifth generation Heavenly Teacher. This young Heavenly Teacher, a man in his twenties, came to my home to study the Daoist religion.
After the Five Pecks of Rich school, in Yan (Hebei), Qi (Shandong), Jiang (Jiangsu), and Huai (Huaihe, Anhui), another sect of the Daoist religion was founded by Zhang Jiao called Taiping Daoism (Taoism). Zhang Jiao used the Daoist religion to organize an extremely large-scale peasant uprising. When this was put down, Taiping Daoism (Taoism) largely disappeared.
In the Three Kingdoms and Western Jin periods (the third century A.D.) the Daoist religion was hemmed in by imperial rulers and developed very little. However, in the Eastern Jin period (fourth century A.D.) the Daoist religion began to develop speedily and many nobles adhered to it. For example, the most famous aristocratic families of the time for generations believed in Daoism (Taoism). The most famous calligrapher in Chinese history, Wang Xizhi, was also a follower of the Daoist religion. One story recounts that Wang Xizhi particularly loved geese and wanted to buy the dozen or so geese raised by a Daoist priest. The priest would not sell, and Wang asked a second and a third time. Finally the priest said that if Wang would copy out for the whole Dao De Jing (Tao Te Ching) he would give him the geese. So Wang copied the entire work.
An interesting development occurred in the Tang period (618-907), whose rulers had the surname Li. At this time the leaders of the Daoist religion were looking for a mythological figure they could venerate as the founder of the religion, and they came upon Laozi (Lao Tzu), who was also named Li. This was not a coincidence. First of all, even before the Daoist religion was formally established, Laozi (Lao Tzu) had been mythologized. Second, the Han dynasty had venerated Confucian thought as orthodoxy, which, of course, honored Confucius. The Daoists claimed that Laozi (Lao Tzu) was Confucius's teacher, thus hoping to overcome the Confucianists. Now, according to the Shiji, Laozi (Lao Tzu) was surnamed Li with a given name of Erh. Since the Tang emperors were also surnamed Li, in order to increase their own importance they said that they were descendants of Laozi (Lao Tzu). Because of this, the Tang emperors took the Daoist religion relatively seriously: emperor Xuanzong even wrote his own commentary on the Dao De Jing (Tao Te Ching).
After the Daoist religion was established, on the one hand, it struggled with Buddhism and, on the other, it absorbed Buddhist thought. But the Daoist religion also has its own definite characteristics. Many religions seek to understand or answer such questions as What happens to human beings after death? For example, Buddhists seek to answer the question: What can people do after death to keep from being reborn into this world? The Daoists, however, seek to answer this question: How can people keep from dying? The ideal in the Daoist religion is for people to `extend their lives and not die,' to `fly up in this very body'--that is, to become an immortal.
Regarding this question the Daoist religion has certain theories. Daoists claim that people have both a spirit or soul and a body, both of which are constructed from qi. The qi that makes up the spirit or soul is called soul-qi. The qi that makes up the body is called form-qi. Only when the soul-qi and the body-qi are joined together in a single person do we have life. People should seek two things--to live forever and to obtain good fortune. If you die, everything is finished, so in order to seek to extend life, first, you must get a body that does not decay so that the spirit or soul will have a place to abide. Then seek a method for the soul to stay with the body, otherwise you will be dead and not be able to achieve any kind of good fortune.
Because of this Daoists seek ways to keep body and soul together, and Daoism (Taoism) has various methods to accomplish this purpose. The most basic of these are of two sorts: the outer pill and the inner pill. The outer pill consists of using various minerals, especially mercury, in order to concoct a potion. It is hoped that by ingesting various potions one can keep one's body from decaying, and then the soul can continue forever in its midst. They claim that if you put a bronze mud on your feet and soak your feet in water for a very long time, you will not decay. If you can find the so-called golden pill, once you eat it your whole body will be able to live forever without decaying.
The inner pill is a series of practices that cause the qi within the human body to circulate through certain channels. This is called "working on your qi' and is the same kind of thing that is known these days as qigong. If the qi continually circulates in the human body, the whole body will be suffused with the light of an extremely fine qi. The body itself will become as light as qi and the person will be able to ascend to heaven, which is called "to fly up in this very body."
When Daoism (Taoism) became a religion it had to have its own deities to venerate. At first the deity most venerated was the mythologized Laozi (Lao Tzu), called `Laojun' or 'Taishang Laojun.' Afterwards, under the influence of Buddhism, very many other deities were added. Originally Buddhism had only Shakyamuni as the Buddha, but afterwards they said that before Shakyamuni there had been seven other Buddhas. Towards the end of the Northern and Southern Dynasties a Daoist priest named Tao Hongjing wrote a book called Zhenling Weiye Tu in which he divided Daoist deities into seven levels. The highest level contained three deities. In the center was one called Yuanshi Tiandao. On his left was Gaoshang Daojun and on his right was Yuanhuang Daojun. Laozi (Lao Tzu), or Taishang Laojun, was placed below on the fourth level. Today in Daoist temples the formal hall is called the Hall of the Three Pure Ones, and most sects worship these three deities. However, not all Daoist sects are alike. Some still claim Taishang Laojun as the highest deity, saying that he existed before Heaven and Earth were dreaded and that in different times he has different causes. Originally he was Pan'gu Xiansheng. Heaven and Earth were separated by him, and he has various spiritual powers.
The Daoist religion has one female deity of particular power who is named Xiwang Mu (Queen Mother of the West). Xiwang Mu existed as a deity before the founding of the Daoist religion. In the Shanhaijing (from the fourth to the second century B.C.) Xiwang Mu is not yet a female deity, but either of undifferentiated sex or male. Only after the Mutianzi Zhuan does Xiwang Mu become a female deity. This book recounts the story of the Zhou King Mu (of about 1000 B.C.) who went to the Kunlun Mountains to seek Xiwang Mu. In the earliest Daoist scriptures, however, where it is said there that the character `Mu' indicates the proof of the longevity of the deity Xiwang Mu is merely a deity of long life. Thus `Mu' here does not necessarily mean a female deity. Only in the Jin and Northern and Southern Dynasties, when the Daoist religion set up Dongwang Gong as a counterpart to Xiwang Mu, did Xi-Wang Mu emerge as an important female deity.
The Daoist religion took the human body and its cultivation very seriously, as in such matters as exilers, the inner and outer pill, and qigong. Because of this it has had a great influence on ancient medicine, pharmacology, chemistry and the nourishment of the human body. Many great Daoist leaders such as Ge Hong, Tao Hongjing and Sun Simiao were important scientists of Old China. Because of this, people today who research the history and development of Chinese science and technology cannot but study the history of the Daoist religion. The English historian of science, Joseph Needham, in his Science and Civilization in China, has relied extensively on the writings of the Daoist religion.
Daoists have written many works. The earliest collection of Daoist works, called the Zhengtong Daozang, has five thousand volumes. It was compiled in 1445 in the tenth year of the Zhengtong Emperor of the Ming. Later, in the Wanli period, a supplement appeared. These are important resources for the study of the history of Chinese religion.
In China today Daoism (Taoism) is one of the important religions. About three thousand people who have formally become Daoist priests, and several important Daoist temples have been restored. In Beijing there is a Daoist temple, called the Temple of the White Clouds (Baiyun Guan), which was established in the Yuan dynasty (the thirteenth century) and belongs to the Guanzhen sect of Daoism (Taoism). Its Hall of the Three Pure Ones is very fine; it also has two areas for the display of historical objects of the Daoist religion. In Chengdu, Sichuan there is the Green Goat palace and in Wuahn the Temple of Eternal Spring, both of which have been very well restored and belong to the Guanzhen Daoist sect. In Xian a Daoist temple called Louguan Tai belongs to the Northern sect of Daoism (Taoism). It was first built in the Northern Zhou dynasty (fifth century A.D.), but what exists now was rebuilt in the Ming (fifteenth and sixteenth centuries). It is said that in the Louguan Tai, Laozi (Lao Tzu), before he left for the West, dictated the Dao De Jing (Tao Te Ching) to the gatekeeper, named Yixi.
Longhu Mountain in Jiangxi is the birthplace of the Zhengyi sect of Daoism
(Taoism). Maoshan in Jiangsu is the birthplace of Tao Hongjing's Maoshan sect.
Hangzhou has a Daoist temple in Geling where, it is said, Ge Hong refined the pill. At
each of these Daoist temples are Daoist priests, young and old, male and female. At
Beijing's Temple of the White Clouds a school of Daoist religion teaches priests how
to read Daoist scriptures. Beijing also has a Daoist Association, a national organization publishing the Journal of the Chinese Daoist Association. At Sichuan University the Institute for the Study of Religion is dedicated solely to the Daoist religion
and is editing a Daoist dictionary. Beijing University has established an Institute for
the Study of the History of the Daoist Religion, where I teach. The Institute for the
Study of World Religions at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences in Beijing is
doing a synopsis of the five thousand volumes of the Daoist canon. Two national
conferences have been devoted to the study of the Daoist religion, one at Beijing
University. Thus the study of Daoist currently is developing very quickly.