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

Taoist immortal Dongfang Shuo stealing a peach

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.

ancient version of the Analects from Dunhuang

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

Zhongnan Mountain Hermit

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 \=/]

Zhongnan Mountain

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

Zhongnan mountain hermit huts

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]

Painting of a hermit hut

"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."

Taoist Deities

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.

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.

Mountains of Immortals

Important Taoist Deities and Immortals

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."

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.

Many Taoist gods have bushy eyebrows. The Sun, the Moon, and the stars in the Great Bear, are also important.

Taoism, Sexuality and Love

Wang Ping wrote: “In [D]aoist sexual alchemy, human bodies become symbolic furnaces where elixir could be extracted through sexual union between yin and yang. This practice was later turned into cai yin shu, a sheer harvesting of yin from female bodies through intercourse. A man gathered or stole yin from as many women as possible to repair his broken yang until he gained health, longevity, and even immortality.’ [Source: Wang Ping, Aching for Beauty: Footbinding in China (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2000), p. 92]

Ming-era erotica

According to the “Encyclopedia of Sexuality”:“Daoism is based essentially on the participation of man in the universal order. This order depends on the equilibrium of the two elements Yin and Yang, which represent the constant duality of nature: rest and motion, liquid and solid, light and darkness, concentration and expansion, and material and spiritual. The material world being imbued with these two principles, the Daoist believes that whoever is able to act according to these principles could become the master of the world. This belief, in turn, has promoted a kind of mysticism, reflected in the magical practices of certain shamans who claim to possess the secret of the universe. [Source: Zhonghua Renmin Gonghe Guo, Fang-fu Ruan, M.D., Ph.D., and M.P. Lau, M.D. Encyclopedia of Sexuality hu-berlin.de/sexology, 1997 */]

“The Daoist refrains from troubling the natural order of things; on the contrary, he conforms to it in every circumstance. He considers the taking of initiatives to be a waste of time and energy. In respecting the basic Daoist doctrines of passivity and absence of care, he avoids the active life. These doctrines, which were adopted by many Confucian scholars as well, are summed up in the Daoist maxim: “Do nothing and everything will be accomplished simultaneously." The supreme divinity of Daoism is the Emperor of Jade. With his ministers of Death and Birth, he controls the destiny of men. The cult is replete with incantations, charms, and amulets, which once made for prosperous trade, with the shamans intervening in every possible occasion in life. */

“Taoism had some definite ideas about sex. For example, the wife's purpose is to please the husband and conceive more children. If the wife is barren, the husband can have a concubine or mistress to bear children, especially sons, for him. Both philosophical and religious Taoism included in their classics some positive ideas about sex. For example, from Lao tzu's Tao Te Ching. “All things have their backs to the female and stand facing male. When male and female combine, all things achieve harmony”. And from Taiping Jing (The Canon of Peace and Tranquility), an early classic of religious Taoism: “Through the way of copulation between husband and wife, the Yin and Yang all obtain what they need and Heaven and Earth become peace and tranquility;” “Based on one Yin and one Yang, Heaven allows both man and woman to exist and to be sexually attractive to each other, therefore life can be continued." */

Yin and Yang, Sexuality, Health and Love


According to the “Encyclopedia of Sexuality”: “Yin-Yang is a major philosophical concept developed during the Zhou dynasty (1027-221 B.C.). The concepts of Yin and Yang may be found in the majority of important Chinese classics, including such a major classic of Confucianism as the I-Ching, and such a Taoist classic as the Tao-te-ching. Thus, the Yin-Yang philosophy is among the most important unifying concepts of Chinese culture. According to the Yin-Yang philosophy, all objects and events are the products of two elements, forces, or principles: Yin, which is negative, passive, weak, and destructive; and Yang, which is positive, active, strong, and constructive. It was very natural for the Yin-Yang doctrine to become the basis of Chinese sexual philosophy. The Chinese have used the words Yin and Yang to refer to sexual organs and sexual behavior for several thousand years. Thus Yin Fu, “the door of Yin” means vulva, Yin Dao, “the passageway of Yin” means vagina, and Yang Ju, “the organ of Yang” means penis. The combination of these words into the phrases Huo Yin Yang or Yin Yang Huo He - ”the union or combination of Yin and Yang” - describes the act of sexual intercourse. [Source: Zhonghua Renmin Gonghe Guo, Fang-fu Ruan, M.D., Ph.D., and M.P. Lau, M.D. Encyclopedia of Sexuality hu-berlin.de/sexology */]

In the context of sexuality, yang is identified with semen or seminal essence (jing, yin), which is why Daoists are encouraged to have intercourse often but without ejaculating. The aim is to build up jing but retain yang through not ejaculating, but at the same time enabling the woman to reach orgasm and give off her yin essence, which additionally strengthens the man. Another Daoist practice is to get a young man and woman together and to gather up their sexual secretions and swallow them - a practice that is believed to prolong life for the Daoist. Jacobus X. (1898) reported that it was still very common at the end of the 1800s, although he did put it strongly as a “strange freak of eroticism” : “The old Celadon is accompanied by a servant or strong coolie, who copulates with a woman in his presence, and then retires ... When once the agent is retired, well and duly paid, the old debauchee is left alone with the woman, who is still resting upon the field of battle. Then the man approaches, and eagerly receives in bucca sua, the liquid which runs ex vulva feminae. */

Gregory Smits, a professor at Pennsylvania State University, wrote: “Daoists thought that sexual intercourse could nourish life by strengthening the forces of yin-yang. Specifically, proper sexual training could cure disease, make the body lighter, make the senses more acute, and increase one's store of healthy, vital qi. Daoists tended to regard men as being in greater danger of suffering from a weakening of their yang energies than were women from a weakening of their yin energies. Therefore, for men to have sex with women was a primary way of recharging their yang energies via contact with female yin energy. Sexual union with men would also be beneficial for women, enhancing their yin energies, though women were generally considered to be much stronger than men when it came to retaining their vital energies. So, in this way of thinking, men needed women more than women needed men. [Source: “Topics in Premodern Chinese History”, Chapter Seven: Later Daoism by Gregory Smits]

Taoist Sexual Training

Gregory Smits, a professor at Pennsylvania State University, wrote: “Be aware that such training was rigorous and bore little resemblance to modern recreational sex. Indeed such sexual training was more like a battle in which men and women sought to obtain each other's bodily fluids and essences. In this battle, to attain orgasm was to go down to defeat (mainly for men; in this view, women suffered little if any from orgasms). Insofar as people today might regard sexual activities as an aid to good health, the physical and psychological release of orgasm is usually a major beneficial component. In Daoist sexual training, precisely the opposite was the case. Especially for men, ejaculation was the road to a feeble and short life. [Source: “Topics in Premodern Chinese History”, Chapter Seven: Later Daoism by Gregory Smits; “Koshoku to Chugoku bunka: Chugoku no rekishi wa yoru ni tsukurareta [Lust and Chinese culture: Chinese history was created at night],” (Kawaguchi-shi, Japan: Nihon kyohosha, 2004), pp. 129-134 ==]


“The actual details of the techniques varied, but the basic idea was for men to engage in sexual intercourses with one or more women (one text recommends 10 per day) and attain a high degree of excitement without ejaculation. This process cultivates sexual energy (jing ?) as a man absorbs as much yin as possible without relinquishing any of his yang. The additional yin strengthens him by further enhancing his store of yang vitality. A slight variation might involve a man having sexual intercourse with one woman such that she has a succession of orgasms but he has none. Suppose that such a couple were to start this process and not stop, orgasm after orgasm (for her only). There would be no long-term effect on the woman. For the man, however — according to one training manual — the following benefits would accrue from his partner's orgasms 1-9: 1) his voice becomes clear; 2) his skin is clarified; 3) his eyes and ears become acute; 4) his bones and connective tissues are strengthened; 5) his buttocks and groin becomes tight; 6) the vessels carrying blood and qi open up; 7) life-long diseases are cured; 8) his lifespan is extended; 9) he attains immortality. Good luck guys--and remember not to ejaculate!” ==

“In another variation of this basic idea, a man could indeed ejaculate, at least by contemporary understandings of this action. Suppose that a couple begins a training session and the man continues for a very long time without orgasm. But then, the moment of his climax approaches and his partner presses hard on his urethra between the scrotum and the anus just at the moment of ejaculation. This pressing will divert the seminal fluid into the bladder. Although the fluid thus diverted would eventually leave the body through urination, Daoists regarded it has having been "conserved." The entire process was thought to circulate vital essence, via jing, throughout a man's body, eventually nourishing his brain. (For those interested in the technical term for this practice, it is huanjing bunao shuo, which literally means something like "the theory of the circulation of jing enhancing the brain".) ==

“What about women? Could any of these techniques lead them closer to immortality? Yes, women could enhance their strength by contact with male yang energy generated via sexual intercourse and by absorbing male energy via a partner's ejaculation. Generally, the ideal conditions for a woman would be the converse of those described above for men. In other words, she would have sexual intercourse for a long time with one or more men, and they would attain orgasms and she would not. In this way, she would maximally absorb their vital essence, thereby strengthening hers. Obviously there is the quality of a zero-sum game in this situation, with benefit for women coming at the expense of harm to the men who give up their vital essence. Indeed, in Chinese literature is full of accounts of men being seduced by beautiful women (sometimes they are really foxes). Often these men become thinner, paler, weaker, and sometimes dead as a result of her draining him of his vitality. Such accounts are undoubtedly part of a male fear of female sexuality that seems to be found in all human cultures. ==

“Stepping back and taking a broader view of tradition Chinese concerns with male sexual activity and health (not necessarily from a strictly Daoist point of view), the situation was quite complicated. Ruth Rogaski wrote: “Unlike other aspects of qi within the body, jing is difficult to nurture or augment through breathing or the ingestion of food and drugs. Indeed, much like the Original qi bestowed before birth, jing exists within the body in finite quantities. Jing is essential for life and health, but one only has so much of it. Once it is spent, it is gone. It seems that one should avoid losing jing at all costs, and yet there were obvious forces working against that option. Many medical experts held that sexual abstinence resulted in blockages and infirmities, and thus consoled moderate sexual activities as part of a healthy life. Even Confucius recognized that sexual desire (along with a desire for food) was at the root of human nature, and thus impossible to avoid. Another one of Confucius' dictums held that there was nothing more unfilial than leaving this life without having fathered descendants. Nevertheless, the anxiety over the loss of seminal essence remained. In the words of the seventeenth-century physician and alchemist Sun Simiao, "When jing is reduced, illness results, when jing is used up, death results. One cannot help but be worried; one cannot help but be cautious." One of the crueler paradoxes of male existence, therefore, was the fact that the activity of sex and procreation, so vital to the survival of humankind, inevitably resulted in a loss of that which maintained individual human life. [Source: Ruth Rogaski, “Hygienic Modernity: Meanings of Health and Disease in Treaty-Port China” (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004), pp. 38-39. |=|]

“This paradox fostered an approach to sex and health that can best be described as an economy. Certainly jing was something that needed to be "economized," carefully invested and not carelessly spent. But this "sexual economy" also meant that a careful calculus of inputs and outputs, of benefits and drawbacks, would determine how much sexual activity could be tolerated while still allowing for the maintenance of overall health. . . . the gravest advice warns against entering the bedchamber in a state of intoxication (zui yi ru fang). Sex was a serious business, and one needed a clear mind to keep track of its accounts.” |=|

“Obviously, Daoist notions of sexual training are at variance with most of today's prevailing views of sexuality, relations between men and women, and related topics. Jin Wenxue, a scholar of cultural studies, is rather critical of Daoist notions of sexual training, particularly the idea of diverted semen nourishing a man's brain, which he calls an "absurd theory." However, he points out one aspect of the historical significance of Daoist sexual training that is often overlooked: it produced and codified a wide variety of sexual techniques that contributed to the broader sexual culture of China.” ==

Taoist Sexual Training Techniques

What were Taoist sexual training techniques like. To prepare, according to one description: “The celebrants, not to exceed twenty in number, first bathe, burn incense, and offer salutations to the officiating priest . . . and invocations to the gods. The participants now begin meditative visualizations based on colored [qi] (white, yellow, red, green, and black) corresponding to the five directions and five organs. The couples kneel facing each other and carry out more . . . visualizations and petitions to the deities for health and salvation. Following this, the priest helps the supplicants remove their garments and loosen their hair. Now the couples interlace their hands in various ritual patterns and recite formulas, followed by a series of gestures with hands and feet relating to the eight trigrams, twelve Earthly Branches, and organs. [Source: Douglas Wile, Art of the Bedchamber: The Chinese Sexual Yoga Classics Including Women's Solo Meditation Texts [Albany: State University of New York Press, 1992], pp. 25-26).

On the main activities a sixth-century text reads: “ Raising his hand and inhaling living [qi] through his nose, he swallows yang according to the numbers 3, 5, 7, and 9, and recites: "May the [dao] of heaven be set in motion." The second partner now recites: "May the [dao] of earth be set in motion." Following this he enters the "gate of birth" to a depth of half the head, while reciting: "Oh celestial deities and immortals, I would shake heaven and move earth that the 'five lords' . . . might hear my plea." Now the second partner recites: "Oh, celestial deities and '[dantian] palace' . . . I would move earth and shake heaven that the five deities of the body might each be strong." He then penetrates to the greatest depth, closes his mouth and inhales living [qi] through his nose and exhales through his mouth three times. Gnashing his teeth, he recites: "May none and one be born in the midst." Now he withdraws and returns to a depth of half a head. (Quoted in Wile, Art of the Bedchamber, p. 26).

Smits wrote: “And the process continues as long as possible--no ejaculations please! Incidentally, Daoist training also featured other, ways of conditioning the body with respect to sexual energies that did not involve sexual intercourse. One of these techniques for men--apparently popular enough even today to generate some commercial activity--was "iron crotch training" [tiedang gong and other names]. It was designed to, quite literally, strengthen the genitals in a manner much like a weight lifter or body builder might develop other parts of the body. Another Daoist meditation technique took the opposite approach--it allegedly shrank the penis and testicles to a very small size to prevent vital energy leaking from them. For some reason, this shrinking technique seems to have less appeal today than the iron crotch approach.” [Source: “Topics in Premodern Chinese History”, Chapter Seven: Later Daoism by Gregory Smits; “Koshoku to Chugoku bunka: Chugoku no rekishi wa yoru ni tsukurareta [Lust and Chinese culture: Chinese history was created at night],” (Kawaguchi-shi, Japan: Nihon kyohosha, 2004), pp. 129-134 ==]

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

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