HERMITS AND TAOIST ASCETICS
Taoism has traditionally extolled those who lived like recluses and communed alone with nature. Sennin were Taoist mountain ascetics who lived in caves. Through rigorous training and frugal living, it was said, they obtained full understanding of the Tao, achieved immortality and were able to call up the wind and move between heaven and earth. The tradition lives on in Japan in the Yamabushi cult. Taoist texts did not have much nice to say about those who challenged nature. One line from the Tao Te Ching reads: "Those who would take over the earth and shape it to their will, never, I notice, succeed."
Taoist mountain hermits are called “xian.” According to the Encyclopedia of Religion: Usually written using the characters for "man" and for "mountain," the character for xian is said originally to have been composed of those for "man" and for "ascend." An early dictionary explains that it refers to those who, "when they grow old, do not die." Xian means "to move into the mountains"; that is why it is written with the character for "man" next to that for "mountain." Together, these etymologies circumscribe a field of meaning that links the search for survival beyond death to mountains and to the heavens—a range that quite accurately reflects both the practice and the status of xian throughout Chinese history. It also explains why the term is translated in English either as "immortal" or "transcendent."
Xian has been translated to mean both “hermit” and immortal: In an article entitled “Transcendence and Immortality”, Russell Kirkland wrote: A common problem involves the term “xian”, commonly mistranslated as "immortal." Both in China and beyond, this term has widely been regarded as a key feature of "Taoism" as it developed in imperial times. In the early and mid-20th century, leading scholars (e.g., Henri Maspero and H. G. Creel) argued over whether the ancient writers of “Laozi”and “Zhuangzi “envisioned such attainment of a deathless state. Some argued that the classical Taoists only sought a more spiritualized life and an unworried acceptance of inevitable death. The 4th-century text “Liezi”, which borrowed much from the “Zhuangzi”, seems to insist upon the finality of death, with no indication that one can transcend it. Certainly, many passages of “Laozi”and “Zhuangzi”suggest that one's goal should be to live a spiritualized life until death occurs, but others (e.g., “Laozi”50) clearly commend learning how to prevent death. The term “xian”occurs in neither the “Laozi”nor the “Neiye”, and in “Zhuangzi”it does not appear among his many terms for the idealized person (“zhenren”, etc.). But in “Zhuangzi”, a wise border guard tells Yao that the "sage" (“shengren”) "after a thousand years departs and ascends as a “xian”," and in “Zhuangzi”1 a character is ridiculed for doubting the reality of the invulnerable "spiritual person" (“shenren”) of Mt. Gushe, who ascends on dragons and extends protection and blessings to people. These passages are quite consistent with most later images of the “xian”, and suggest that such a state is both theoretically possible and a worthy goal. [Source: “Transcendence and Immortality”, Russell Kirkland, February 15, 1998]
Writings of Han times (Kaltenmark 1953) mention “xian”as denizens of distant realms, often winged beings who can fly between earth and higher worlds. Sima Qian (“Shiji” 28.1368-69), mentions men of Yan who "practiced the Way of expansive Transcendence (“fangxian tao”): they shed their mortal forms and melted away, relying upon matters involving spiritual beings (“gueishen”)." Though such images are quite vague, they provided fuel for centuries of religious and literary elaboration, both Taoist and non-Taoist. For instance, in literature from Han to Tang times, the goddess Xiwangmu "controlled access to immortality," but while poets wove bittersweet images of "immortality" as an unattainable beatitude (Cahill 1993), Taoist writers firmly believed that one can transcend "the human condition" if one can only learn the subtle secrets and practice them diligently enough.
The Four sacred mountains of Taoism, where hermits have traditionally dwelled, are: 1) Wudang Mountains, in Shiyan, Hubei Province of China; 2) Mount Qingcheng, in Dujiangyan, Sichuan Province; 3) Mount Longhu, in Yingtan, Jiangxi Province; and 4) Mount Qiyun, in Huangshan, Anhui Province.
Good Websites and Sources on Taoism: Robert Eno, Indiana University indiana.edu; Religion Facts Religion Facts Religious Tolerance religioustolerance.org ; Stanford Education plato.stanford.edu ; Taoist Texts Chinese Text Project ; Taoism chebucto.ns.ca ; Chad Hansen’s Chinese Philisophy hku.hk/philodep Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy iep.utm.edu; Wikipedia article on Chinese Philosophy religion Wikipedia Academic Info on Chinese religion academicinfo.net ; Internet Guide to Chinese Studies sino.uni-heidelberg.de lots of dead links, but maybe helpful
Dao De Jing: on the Person of the Sage
According to the Dao de jing: “Heaven endures; earth long abides. Heaven endures and earth long abides because they do not give birth to themselves. Hence they are long lived. Hence the sage places his person last, and it comes first; he treats it as something external to him and it endures. Does he not employ selflessness? Hence he attains his self-regarding ends. (ch. 7) [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University, Chinatxt chinatxt /+/]
“As you carry your bodily soul embracing one.ness, can you never depart from it? As you concentrate your “qi” and extend your suppleness, can you be as a new born babe? As you polish the dust from your mysterious mirror, can you render it free of all blemishes? As you cherish the people and order the state, can you do so without awareness? As heaven’s gate swings open and shut can you keep to the female? As your brilliant awareness penetrates everywhere can you refrain from employing it in action? You give birth to it, you nurture it – yet in giving birth you do not possess it, in doing it you do not retain it, in leading it you employ no authority: this is called mysterious power (“de”). (ch. 10) /+/
“The five colors blind men’s eyes, The five tones deafen men’s ears, The five flavors numb men’s mouths, Racing at a gallop in pursuit of the hunt, maddens men’s minds. Rare objects obstruct men’s conduct. Therefore the sage is for the belly and not for the eye. Therefore he discards the one and selects the other. (ch. 12) /+/
“Without going out your door, know the world; without looking out the window, know the Dao of Heaven. The further you travel, the less you know. Hence the sage knows without going to it, names it without seeing, does nothing and it is achieved. (ch. 47) /+/
“One who possesses virtue in abundance may be compared to a new born babe. Wasps and scorpions, poisonous snakes: none will bite him. Fierce beasts will not maul him, predatory birds will not swoop down upon him. His bones are weak, his muscles pliable, and his grasp is firm. He knows nothing of the female and the male, yet his male organ stirs. His essence is at its most pure. He can scream all day and not become hoarse. This is harmony at its height. Knowing harmony is called constant;, knowing the constant is called enlightened. To increase one’s nature is called inauspicious;, when the mind directs the “qi” it is called self-coercion. For a thing at its peak to emulate the aged, is called failing to be with the Dao. What fails to be with the Dao soon comes to an end.” (ch. 55) [The caution against the mind directing the “qi” may be contrasted with Mencius’s position in the long section on the “flood-like “qi”.”] /+/
Hermits and Chinese Religion
Hermits have lived in the mountains since ancient times. There are Taoist and Buddhist ones as well as one ones with closer affiliations to traditional Chinese folk religion. But they are not limited to Taoists or Buddhists. Poets, political figures and average people have also been hermits. [Source: Jiang Yuxia, Global Times, February 17, 2011]
Hermits are "unique images that ancient Chinese culture has nurtured. [They] represent Chinese people's pursuit of an ideal way of life," the writer Zhou Yu told the Global Times. "Their lifestyle is completely self-supporting, without demanding too much from the outside world...For hermits, to live a secluded life and practice Daoism or Buddhism is not solely about 'benevolence,' but living a real, simple life — What they do is to make their heart bright, clear and natural," explained Zhou, who is also editor of Wendao (Seeking Way), a magazine dedicated to promoting traditional Chinese culture.”
AFP reported: "Today's hermits are following a well-beaten historical path, and experts say quiet types have preferred to live alone in the mountains of China for more than 3,000 years. Unlike their Western equivalents, religiously inspired outsiders who often shunned society completely, China's mountain dwellers have historically been sought out by politicians. "Hermits played a political role, they pushed society forward and maintained ancient ideas," said Zhang Jianfeng, part-time mountain dweller and founder of a Taoism magazine. [Source: AFP, December 16, 2014 \=/]
“The officially atheist Communist Party came to power in 1949, cutting the hermits' political connections. Anti-religious campaigns reached fever pitch during the decade of upheaval beginning in 1966 known as the Cultural Revolution, when many of the temples and shrines in the Zhongnan mountains were destroyed and their denizens dispersed. Nonetheless experts estimate several hundred hermits survived the period unscathed deep in the hills, with some even said to be unaware the Communists had taken power. \=/
In recent years, more and more people have become interested in the exclusive life led by the hermits in Zhongnan Mountain, especially following the publication of books such as Road to Heaven: Encounters with Chinese Hermits by American author and translator Bill Porter in 1993.
Hermits and Early Taoism
Dr. Robert Eno of Indiana University wrote: “Righteous hermits were much admired in Classical China, and men who withdrew from society to live in poverty “in the cliffs and caves” paradoxically often enjoyed a type of celebrity status. The legend of Bo Yi and Shu Qi, the hermits who descended from their mountain retreat because of the righteousness of King Wen of Zhou, led to the popular idea of hermits as virtue-barometers – they rose to the mountains when power was in the hands of immoral rulers, but would come back down to society when a sage king finally appeared. Patrician lords very much valued visits from men with reputations as righteous hermits, and this probably created the opportunity for men to appear at court seeking patronage on the basis of their eremitic purity. [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University /+/ ]
“Possibly during the fourth century B.C., this eremitic tradition seems to have generated a complex of new ideas that included appreciation for the majestic rhythms of the natural world apart from human society, a celebration of the isolated individual whose lonely stance signaled a unique power of enlightenment, and a growing interest in the potential social and political leverage that such renunciation of social and political entanglements seemed to promise. The product that emerged from these trends is the “Dao de jing”, perhaps the most famous of all Chinese books.” /+/
“The “Dao de jing” is a mix of poetry and prose that conveys a deep sense of mystery and awe. In it, two very different types of ideas are combined. The first expresses the anti-social voice of the hermit who has found in his retreat to Nature an order and beauty utterly lacking in the chaotic and sordid world of the late Zhou. The second is a political voice that claims that the lessons learned from a renunciation of the world of human values and an immersion in the world of Nature may be used to obtain the greatest of all human prizes – the kingship of China!, As we read the text, we cannot help but be struck by the awe-inspiring isolation of the secluded hermit and the intimate and original vision of nature that he presents.” /+/
Analects on Taoist Hermits
Book XVIII of the “Analects” provides in order to get an idea of the role which Daoist hermits played in Warring States society, and the ambivalent attitude of Confucians towards them (you may safely assume that Book XVIII was compiled a century or two after Confucius’ death).
Chapter I. 1. The Viscount of Wei withdrew from the court. The Viscount of Chi became a slave to Chau. Pi-kan remonstrated with him and died. 2. Confucius said, 'The Yin dynasty possessed these three men of virtue.' [Source: ca. 500 B.C., Project Gutenberg, translated by James Legge, 1861]
Chapter II. Hui of Liu-hsia being chief criminal judge, was thrice dismissed from his office. Some one said to him, 'Is it not yet time for you, sir, to leave this?' He replied, 'Serving men in an upright way, where shall I go to, and not experience such a thrice- repeated dismissal? If I choose to serve men in a crooked way, what necessity is there for me to leave the country of my parents?'
Chapter III. The duke Ching of Ch'i, with reference to the manner in which he should treat Confucius, said, 'I cannot treat him as I would the chief of the Chi family. I will treat him in a manner between that accorded to the chief of the Chi, and that given to the chief of the Mang family.' He also said, 'I am old; I cannot use his doctrines.' Confucius took his departure.
Chapter IV. The people of Ch'i sent to Lu a present of female musicians, which Chi Hwan received, and for three days no court was held. Confucius took his departure.
Chapter V. 1. The madman of Ch'u, Chieh-yu, passed by Confucius, singing and saying, 'O FANG! O FANG! How is your virtue degenerated! As to the past, reproof is useless; but the future may still be provided against. Give up your vain pursuit. Give up your vain pursuit. Peril awaits those who now engage in affairs of government.' 2. Confucius alighted and wished to converse with him, but Chieh-yu hastened away, so that he could not talk with him.
Chapter VI. 1. Ch'ang-tsu and Chieh-ni were at work in the field together, when Confucius passed by them, and sent Tsze-lu to inquire for the ford. 2. Ch'ang-tsu said, 'Who is he that holds the reins in the carriage there?' Tsze-lu told him, 'It is K'ung Ch'iu.' 'Is it not K'ung Ch'iu of Lu?' asked he. 'Yes,' was the reply, to which the other rejoined, 'He knows the ford.' 3. Tsze-lu then inquired of Chieh-ni, who said to him, 'Who are you, sir?' He answered, 'I am Chung Yu.' 'Are you not the disciple of K'ung Ch'iu of Lu?' asked the other. 'I am,' replied he, and then Chieh-ni said to him, 'Disorder, like a swelling flood, spreads over the whole empire, and who is he that will change its state for you? Than follow one who merely withdraws from this one and that one, had you not better follow those who have withdrawn from the world altogether?' With this he fell to covering up the seed, and proceeded with his work, without stopping. 4. Tsze-lu went and reported their remarks, when the Master observed with a sigh, 'It is impossible to associate with birds and beasts, as if they were the same with us. If I associate not with these people,— with mankind,— with whom shall I associate? If right principles prevailed through the empire, there would be no use for me to change its state.'
Chapter VII. 1. Tsze-lu, following the Master, happened to fall behind, when he met an old man, carrying across his shoulder on a staff a basket for weeds. Tsze-lu said to him, 'Have you seen my master, sir!' The old man replied, 'Your four limbs are unaccustomed to toil; you cannot distinguish the five kinds of grain:— who is your master?' With this, he planted his staff in the ground, and proceeded to weed. 2. Tsze-lu joined his hands across his breast, and stood before him. 3. The old man kept Tsze-lu to pass the night in his house, killed a fowl, prepared millet, and feasted him. He also introduced to him his two sons. 4. Next day, Tsze-lu went on his way, and reported his adventure. The Master said, 'He is a recluse,' and sent Tsze-lu back to see him again, but when he got to the place, the old man was gone. 5. Tsze-lu then said to the family, 'Not to take office is not righteous. If the relations between old and young may not be neglected, how is it that he sets aside the duties that should be observed between sovereign and minister? Wishing to maintain his personal purity, he allows that great relation to come to confusion. A superior man takes office, and performs the righteous duties belonging to it. As to the failure of right principles to make progress, he is aware of that.'
Chapter VIII. 1. The men who have retired to privacy from the world have been Po-i, Shu-ch'i, Yu-chung, I-yi, Chu-chang, Hui of Liu-hsia, and Shao-lien. 2. The Master said, 'Refusing to surrender their wills, or to submit to any taint in their persons;— such, I think, were Po-i and Shu-ch'i. 3. 'It may be said of Hui of Liu-hsia, and of Shao-lien, that they surrendered their wills, and submitted to taint in their persons, but their words corresponded with reason, and their actions were such as men are anxious to see. This is all that is to be remarked in them. 4. 'It may be said of Yu-chung and I-yi, that, while they hid themselves in their seclusion, they gave a license to their words; but, in their persons, they succeeded in preserving their purity, and, in their retirement, they acted according to the exigency of the times. 5. 'I am different from all these. I have no course for which I am predetermined, and no course against which I am predetermined.'
Chapter IX. 1. The grand music master, Chih, went to Ch'i. 2. Kan, the master of the band at the second meal, went to Ch'u. Liao, the band master at the third meal, went to Ts'ai. Chueh, the band master at the fourth meal, went to Ch'in. 3. Fang-shu, the drum master, withdrew to the north of the river. 4. Wu, the master of the hand drum, withdrew to the Han. 5. Yang, the assistant music master, and Hsiang, master of the musical stone, withdrew to an island in the sea.
Chapter X. The duke of Chau addressed his son, the duke of Lu, saying, 'The virtuous prince does not neglect his relations. He does not cause the great ministers to repine at his not employing them. Without some great cause, he does not dismiss from their offices the members of old families. He does not seek in one man talents for every employment.'
Chapter XI. To Chau belonged the eight officers, Po-ta, Po- kwo, Chung-tu, Chung-hwu, Shu-ya, Shu-hsia, Chi-sui, and Chi-kwa.
Zhongnan Mountain Hermits
The Zhongnan Mountains sometimes called the Taiyi Mountains or Zhounan Mountains are located in Shaanxi Province, south of Xian. The highest point is 2604-meter-high Cui Hua Mountain. Other notable peaks and places include Lou Guan Tai, (where Taoist sage Laozi is said to have dwelt and conveyed the Dao De Jing) as well as Nan Wutai and Guifeng. The Zhongnan mountains have been a popular dwelling-place for Daoist hermits since at least the Qin Dynasty. Buddhist monks began living in the mountains after Buddhism's introduction into China from India in the early first millennium AD. The Complete Perfection Sect, one of the largest branches of modern Taoism, was founded in the Zhongnan mountains by Song Dynasty Taoist Wang Chongyang. Due to the mountains' close proximity to the ancient capital of Chang'an, officials who incurred the imperial court's wrath often fled to these mountains to escape punishment. [Source: Wikipedia]
AFP reported: “His unheated hut is half way up a mountain with no electricity, and his diet consists mostly of cabbage. But Master Hou says he has found a recipe for joy. "There is no happier way for a person to live on this earth," he declared, balancing on a hard wooden stool outside his primitive mud brick dwelling. Hundreds of millions have moved to China's urban areas during a decades-long economic boom, but some are turning their backs on the bright lights and big cities to live as hermits. Their choice puts them in touch with an ancient tradition undergoing a surprising modern-day revival. [Source: AFP, December 16, 2014 \=/]
“Hundreds of small huts dot the jagged peaks of the remote Zhongnan mountains in central China, where followers of Buddhism and local Taoist traditions have for centuries sought to live far from the madding crowds. "The Zhongnan mountains have a special aura," said Hou, who moved to the hills almost a decade ago and wrapped himself in a long black robe, smiling as the wind rustled the surrounding woods. Hou grew up in the bustling coastal city of Zhuhai, next to the gambling Mecca of Macau, but now his days consist almost entirely of meditation, with pauses to chop firewood and vegetables. "Cities are places of restless life. Here is where you can find inner joy," he said. "Now I'm happy to be alone." \=/
“Winter temperatures can drop below minus 20 degrees Celsius and deadly snakes lurk under rocks, but the mountaintops are growing increasingly crowded amid rising dissatisfaction with materialism. Hou — who looks in his 40s but says Taoists do not reveal their age — was recently joined by two apprentices. Wang Gaofeng, 26, has a wispier beard than his master, and said he had quit a management-level job in China's vast railway system a year ago. "Watching TV and playing video games are just temporary excitement, like opium. That kind of pleasure is quickly gone," he said, chomping on some freshly boiled cabbage. It is a radically individualistic contrast to the collectivist mantras of past decades. \=/
New Breed of Taoist Mountain Hermits
The numbers of mountain hermits have risen since the government relaxed religious controls in the 1980s. "Twenty years ago, there were just a few hundred people living in the Zhongnan mountains. But in the last few years, the number has increased very quickly," Zhang Jianfeng, part-time mountain dweller and founder of a Taoism magazine, told AFP. "Now perhaps there are too many people blindly moving to the mountains. There are incidents every year, people eating poisonous mushrooms, or freezing to death... some people lack common sense." [Source: AFP, December 16, 2014 \=/]
AFP reported: “Much of the hermit revival can be attributed to American writer Bill Porter, who in the 1993 published the first book about the mountain dwellers. It was a commercial failure in the US, leaving Porter living on government food stamps. But its 2006 Chinese translation became a hit, selling more than 100,000 copies. "In the 1980s no one paid the hermits any attention, because everyone had a chance to make a buck and improve their lives materially," said the shaggy-bearded author. "People thought it absurd to go in the opposite direction." Now he notes more well-educated former professionals among the denizens of what he calls "hermit heaven", and one who did not want to be named told AFP he was a government official on sabbatical. "You get a much wider mix, people who are jaded or disillusioned in the current economy and are seeking something more," said Porter. \=/
“China's decades of breakneck economic growth have created a substantial middle class, but a few of them now openly question materialist values. Around a dozen young people from across China live in a clump of wooden huts which acts as a testing ground for aspiring hermits, albeit outfitted with electricity and a DVD player. \=/
“Liu Jingchong, 38, moved in after quitting a lucrative job in the southern city of Guangzhou this year, and plans to live completely alone. "I felt life was an endless circle: finding a better car, better job, a better girlfriend, but not going anywhere," he said, sitting cross-legged on a cushion. "When I'm alone on the mountain, I will just need shelter, a pot, and seeds from the pine trees." \=/
“More than half the hermits in the range are said to be women, and Li Yunqi, 26, spent several weeks at the cottages. "I like the life of a hermit, living on a mountain. I came here for inner peace and to escape the noise of the city," she said, wearing a puffy pink coat and fiddling with a smartphone as an off-road vehicle carried her down a muddy path to civilisation." \=/
Attraction of the Hermit Lifestyle and Zhongnan Mountain
Jiang Yuxia wrote in the Global Times: “Cherishing his reverence and curiosity for Chinese hermits, writer Zhou Yu was eager to change his fast-paced urban life. He thus embarked on a journey, in the spring of 2010, to seek hermits in the legendary Zhongnan Mountain, one of the birthplaces of Taoism, in northwest China's Shaanxi Province. Also known as Taiyi or Difei Mountain, Zhongnan Mountain is a section of the Qinling Mountains with the reputation of "Fairyland," "the first paradise under heaven" and a home to hermits for over 3,000 years. Legend has it that Taoism founder Laozipreached scriptures and nurtured the idea for his classic work Tao the Ching here. [Source: Jiang Yuxia, Global Times, February 17, 2011]
"Everyone wishes that he or she has the chance to get to know about his or her own life again and the lifestyle of hermits provides us another picture. . . When they realize that they need to make adjustments to their lives, they go to the mountains to seek them," Zhou said. However, he added, real hermits don't have to live in mountains. "If you don't have peace and quiet in your heart, you cannot have tranquility even if you live deep in the mountains...Start with the simplest practice: To get to know your needs and desires, and find a proper position for yourself. If you can do that, you can find peace and quiet even if you live in the city."
Taoist Hermit at Zhongnan Mountain
After traveling to Zhongnan Mountain Zhou came across "Hermit Ming," who has resided in a thatched valley cottage for a decade, living an ascetic and self-sufficient life. Although Ming does not meet the typical image of ancient hermits, his unique lifestyle, both traditional and modern, and charisma aroused Zhou's interest enough for him to stay and turn the story of his solitary life into his latest book, Bai Yun Shen Chu (“Deep in the Clouds”). [Source: Jiang Yuxia, Global Times, February 17, 2011]
"Hermit Ming lives in the mountain not only to practice Taoism, but to have a place where he can live a life in which he can face disputes peacefully," Zhou wrote in the book. "Only in this way are his mind and body able to grow like trees and flowers to show their natural side." Ming's daily routine, according to Jiang, consists of: “an early morning start to do chores including hoeing weeds, tilling land and picking herbs; two meals a day, snack and tea at lunchtime, dinner at four; then a walk before settling down to read sutras or do other chores." By sunset he returned home, “falling asleep to the sounds of springs, wind and birds."
“Born into a wealthy South China family of Traditional Chinese Medicine practitioners for generations," Jiang wrote, “Ming was beset with strict rules, complex relationships and feuds among family members from a young age. After witnessing a series of mishaps and the death of his mother at eight, Ming left his family at 17 and began his long-cherished dream of traveling around the country to seek answers to the many questions that had bothered him, including life and death. With only an aluminum mug and two lighters, Ming traveled all the way to Fujian, Guangdong, Jiangxi, Hubei and other provinces before he finally settled down at Zhongnan Mountain."
“In the valley, he built his own cottage with help from other hermits and villagers living at the foot of the mountain, spending time growing vegetables, practicing Taosim and doing his chores. Unlike those secluded hermits recorded in old books, Ming is unconventional: He does not reject the outside world or its civilization. He has a telephone at his place to keep contact with other hermit friends while they travel around and is skilled at riding a motorbike. He has shared quarters with a female hermit for a decade. Ming has explored as far as Nepal to have a look of the outside world and is friendly to unexpected, curious visitors."
According to Ming, "the major reason that we have too many agonies is because we receive too much information and we are not good at dealing with it properly. Then you become unhappy... When you live in the mountain, you have time to think about problems." Ming's lifestyle has also evoked Zhou to ponder modern urban life and even seek a way out. "In our life, most of the time we are asking for things from others to satisfy our endless demands. Hermits, however, are the other way round," Zhou said. “I found the possibility of a [new] lifestyle. When we feel bothered, we begin to examine our lives and ask ourselves if there are chances to change it. To some extend, many hermits in Zhongnan Mountain can be called seekers of a new lifestyle."
Taoism is a polytheist religion. Taoists believes that the universe can be divided into two parts, human being and gods. The latter can also be further divided into smaller groups, such as gods and ghosts. Each kind of god has its highest commander. The highest revered god is personalized into "San Qiang" gods, i.e. Yu Qing, Shang Qing, and Tai Qing. Tai Qing is Laozi, the legendary founder of Taoism.
Pure Taoism doesn't dwell on an all-knowing, all-powerful God, or even nature spirits, rather it deals with "nonbeing," the "unity of experience," and "oneness" with chi. Taoism's association with gods is mainly the result of its associations with Chinese folk religions.
There are thousands of Taoist gods. Some are holy men. Others occupy rivers, streams and mountains. Most have individual responsibilities and specific powers and abilities to grant wishes in particular areas of expertise. Taoists who need something pray to the appropriate deity in special shrines called departments or halls in Taoist temples.
Most Taoist gods are associated with a spot in the external world and a corresponding spot on the inside of man and often have a role in preventing disease. The position of Taoist deities in a large pantheon often mirrors those of secular officials in a bureaucracy. Many Chinese cities to this day have a temple dedicated to the City God, the heavenly equivalent of a mayor. Many Taoist gods have bushy eyebrows. The Sun, the Moon, and the stars in the Great Bear, are also important.
Important Taoist Deities
Most Taoist gods originated as local folk gods. Important ones include Shou Hsing (God of Longevity), Fu Hsing (God of Happiness), Lu Hsing (God of High Rank), Tsai She (God of Wealth), Pao Sheng (God of Medicine), Ju Lai Of (God of Luck), Chu Sheng Niang (Goddess of Birth and Fertility), Kuan Kung (God of War), and a variety of local underworld magistrates. Tsao Chun (the Kitchen God) controls each persons lifespan and destiny. He and his wife observe everybody during the year and issue reports to the Jade Emperor at New Year.
Goddesses, female saints, manifestations of yin play an important role in Taoism. The five legendary emperors, including the great Yellow Emperor, are given prominent roles too. At the top of heap is the all powerful “Greatest One” — described as the “Celestial Venerable of the Mysterious Origin” of the Taoist trinity. The other two members of the trinity are the “August Ruler of the Tao” and the “August Old Ruler." Lao-tze is regarded as the incarnation of the “August Old Ruler."
According to the National Palace Museum, Taipei: “China has many myths and legends, and the spirits and immortals from them form the central characters. The imagination of ancient Chinese has given each of these figures vivid and individual personalities, and artists have depicted them based on such narrations as well as their own imagination. Gentle and elegant, or unpredictable and changing, these portrayals offer a powerful visual impact. The books in the National Palace Museum's collection include many portrayals of spirits and immortals, such as in "Ch'en Chang-hou's Engraved Illustrations of 'The Songs of Ch'u'", "Hsiao Yun-ts'ung's Illustrated 'Inquiry of the Heavens'", "Drinking Menus of the Deities", "Hung's Adventures of Deities", "Tsai Tz'u-t'ang's Re-engraved Embroidered Deities", "Re-engraved Embroidered Legends of Ascension to Immortality" and so on. Sometimes they are portrayed in novels and plays. These portrayals, together with narratives, created a bridge between the world of mortals and the magical world of spirits and immortals. [Source: National Palace Museum, Taipei npm.gov.tw]
The Eight Immortals are key figures in Taoism. They include 1) Chung Li Chu, a figure from the Han dynasty (202 B.C. to A.D. 220), who helped feed thousands of people; 2) Lun Tung-pin, an official who traveled widely and helped the poor and exorcized evil demons; 3) Lan Tsa-ho, a poet and singer who sang about life and giving money to the poor; 4) Tsao Kuo-chi; 5) The aforementioned Western Royal Mother, or Heavenly Empress who possessed the peach of immortality, which all the immortals need to retain their immortality.
In "The Nine Songs", "Hsiang-chun" and "Lady Hsiang" are songs dedicated to the worship of the River Hsiang. In legend, Hsiang-chun and Lady Hsiang were originally two wives of the emperor Shun, and after their death they became goddesses of the River Hsiang. In a print, Hsiang-chun holds a long-stemmed lotus and her sleeves flutter gently with the elegance one would imagine of a goddess.
An illustration from "Inquiry of the Heavens", done by Hsiao Yun-ts'ung during the early Qing dynasty, depicts the story of Hou I shooting down suns. According to legend, there were ten suns in ancient times, and when they all appeared at the same time the world would burn and suffer. Therefore, Emperor Yao ordered Hou I to shoot down nine of the suns, and upon falling they all turned into crows.
Story of the Three Star Gods: Happiness, Prosperity and Longevity
According to the National Palace Museum, Taipei: ““The Three Star Gods refer to the three immortals of happiness, prosperity, and longevity, popular deities representing common aspirations of the people. Since the origins of these gods are quite ancient, any attempt to determine a definitive source for them inevitably meets with widely divergent opinions. Regardless of which one is correct, the explanation finding most favor says that after the worship of star constellations in ancient China gradually personified them in the form of deities, a popular belief in this trinity developed. [Source: National Palace Museum, Taipei, npm.gov.tw]
“The Star God of Happiness originated with the New Year Star, which is actually Jupiter and believed to bring fortune to people. In popular legend, King Wen of the Zhou enjoyed the happiness of a hundred children, gradually making him the representative figure for this deity. The God of Happiness can also be traced to the Three Officials of Taoism, in which the Official of the Heavens brings fortune, the Official of the Earth pardons offenses, and the Official of the Waters relieves hardship. As this belief passed down through the ages, the idea that the Official of the Heavens could bestow fortune emerged as the most popular among people. As a result, this official became the object of worship as a god of happiness. Popular images of the Official of the Heavens often show him wearing red robes in an elegant and poised manner.
Above is an image of a bat, the homonym for fortune signifying its descent from the Heavens. As for the God of Prosperity, a saying identifies him as the sixth star in the celestial Wenchang Palace and specifically in charge of rank and position. After some forced explanation, he becomes the chief star official of prosperity. The spokesperson for the Star God of Prosperity emerged as Immortal Zhang of the Five Dynasties period, shown wearing an official's robe and crown with a deer and monkey by his side. Both these animals are homonyms in Chinese for advancing in position and promotion, or even receiving immediate ennoblement. The Star God of Longevity is known as such for being the eldest of the constellations. Also called the Elder of the Far South and Elder Immortal of the Far South, he is a favorite among the people and one of the most easily recognized. Short and plump, he leans on a staff with a large head and protruding forehead. He has long eyebrows and a gentle countenance, his white facial hair hanging down to the waist. Smiling and cupping his hands, he has an amusing appearance and is often accompanied by the red-crowned crane and peach of immortality, both of which stand for longevity.
“The Three Star Gods are major figures of belief among people in pursuit of prosperity, happiness, and longevity. Their images often appear in New Year's folk paintings and prints, but such works entering the imperial collection are extremely few. The simple composition of Chen Hongshou's "The Three Star Gods" from the Ming dynasty, for example, features flowing lines and the Star Gods of Prosperity, Happiness, and Longevity as literati. Besides the God of Longevity holding spirit fungus and his easily recognized staff, the Gods of Happiness and Prosperity appear like scholars, the three looking and talking to each other. "Happiness, Prosperity, and Longevity" by the Ming painter Shang Xi shows an attendant offering longevity peach accompanied by the deer of immortality and bat of prosperity. Suggesting prosperity and happiness, it shows another way that this subject appeared in the Ming and Qing dynasties. Most such tapestries and embroideries focus on the blessing for longevity, such as the anonymous embroidery of "The Three Star Gods" and an imperial tapestry of "The Three Star Gods with Painting." The compositions of such works often show the three gods in a gathering below a pine tree, the characteristics of the three quite obvious. The God of Happiness wears a red official's robe and is accompanied by a "grant-wishing" tablet and the peony, symbolizing nobility. The God of Prosperity is frequently shown holding a child, symbolizing "Immortal Zhang Sending Children" and "Five Sons Achieving Success." The God of Longevity has the peach of immortality and is surrounded by children, holding a spirit fungus or cistern and chime with other symbols of prosperity, such as the peony and treasure vase, which all have the connotation of auspiciousness, nobility, and peace, the imagery having become formalized by this time.
Biographies of Immortals
Biographies of immortals were common. On “Biographies of Fifty-five Immortals”, with text written by Hung Ying-ming (Ming dynasty), the National Palace Museum, Taipei reports: “In the literature of ancient China, there are many biographies about immortals. This literary tradition began with Biographies of Immortals by Liu Hsiang (77B.C.-6B.C.) of the Han dynasty. It continued with Biographical notices of ninety-two immortals by Ko Hung (283-363) of the Eastern Chin dynasty and Supplement to Biographies of Immortals by Shen Fen of the Southern T'ang dynasty (937-975). [Source: National Palace Museum, Taipei, npm.gov.tw]
“ In the year 1600, this literary genre fully developed with the publication of A Complete Account of Immortals printed by the Wan Hu-hsuan print house of Huichow Prefecture. Not only did the numbers of Taoist immortals mentioned in the publications increase, but also the simple pictures accompanying the stories developed into extravagant illustrated texts, allowing the immortals to appear before the eyes of the readers.
“Written by Hung Ying-ming, the author of the popular book on Confucian learning entitled Vegetable Roots Discourses, the Biographies is composed of four chapters on fifty-five immortals. Beginning with the immortal Lao-tse, the book finishes with the famous alchemist Wei Po-yang of the Eastern Han dynasty. The latter sections also include explanatory notes on the immortality, recording the immortals' views. Every biography is accompanied by an illustration that may appear slightly dull but still retains a natural beauty and an interesting flavor.
Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons, Hermit: daoist wandering blog; hermit hut: View of China.
Text Sources: Robert Eno, Indiana University ; Asia for Educators, Columbia University afe.easia.columbia.edu; University of Washington’s Visual Sourcebook of Chinese Civilization, depts.washington.edu/chinaciv /=\; National Palace Museum, Taipei \=/; Library of Congress; New York Times; Washington Post; Los Angeles Times; China National Tourist Office (CNTO); Xinhua; China.org; China Daily; Japan News; Times of London; National Geographic; The New Yorker; Time; Newsweek; Reuters; Associated Press; Lonely Planet Guides; Compton’s Encyclopedia; Smithsonian magazine; The Guardian; Yomiuri Shimbun; AFP; Wikipedia; BBC. Many sources are cited at the end of the facts for which they are used.
Last updated September 2021