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19th century Taoist ritual

Taoism has both a philosophical and a religious tradition in China. Although philosophical Taoism flourished early in the fifth century B.C., Taoism as a religion did not develop until the first century A.D. Next to Confucianism, it ranks as the second major belief system in traditional Chinese thought. The philosophy of Taoism outlined in the Tao Te Ching, attributed Lao Tze, offers a practical way of life. Later, its teachings came to be utilized in the popular religion called Tao-chiao. In the Chinese tradition, the two have been separate, but in the West they have often been confused under the one name Taoism.

Organized Taoism has traditionally been focused around localized communities and cults. The idea of having temples and monasteries came into being primarily as a response to competition from Buddhism. There are still elements of secrecy to Taoism. Many rituals are performed in secret and many of the secret societies that have popped up in Chinese history had a Taoist underpinnings. According to the official website of the State Administration for Religious Affairs, there are 8,269 Taoist venues in China. In 1998, government sources reported 600 Daoist temples and an unknown number of adherents in China. [Source: Kou Jie, Global Times January 18, 2016]

On Taoism as a religion, Terry F. Kleeman of the University of Colorado told the New York Times: “Many people, especially in the West, think of Taoism as going with the flow, getting back to nature and so on. Taoism, the religion, really has the same value structure as any other Chinese religion. It is full of very detailed codes of conduct that everyone has to observe. I think of Taoists as Confucians of the other world. Confucians deal with this world. They send petitions and documents to the emperor. Taoists do the same thing, but to the other world. But the structures and bureaucracy are very similar. [Source: Ian Johnson, Sinosphere, New York Times, August 8, 2016]

In Taoism's long history there have been a number of weird sects and cults that performed strange rituals and did things like give up all their possessions and fight battles thinking they could not be harmed by weapons. There have also been Taoist sects that established charities and orphanages and performed other good works. The Universal Red Swastika Society acted much like the Red Cross. Different Taoist orders include the formalized Qen Zhen order, which borrows some elements of Buddhism, and the less formalized Zheng Yi order. Throughout its history Taoism has been very fluid. There have been several efforts to unify Taoism with Buddhism and Confucianism and even Christianity and Islam.

The Four sacred mountains of Taoism 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; Religion Facts Religion Facts Religious Tolerance ; Stanford Education ; Taoist Texts Chinese Text Project ; Taoism ; Chad Hansen’s Chinese Philisophy Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy; Wikipedia article on Chinese Philosophy religion Wikipedia Academic Info on Chinese religion ; Internet Guide to Chinese Studies lots of dead links, but maybe helpful

Development of Religious Taoism

Lao Zi

Fang-fu Ruan wrote in the “Human Sexuality: An Encyclopedia”: Although philosophical Taoism flourished early in the fifth century B.C., Taoism as a religion did not develop until the first century A.D. The historical founder of the Taoist religion was Chang Ling, a pop ular religious leader and rebel. He urged his followers to read the Tao-te Ching and, in 143 A.D., organized them into Tao-chiao, or the Taoist religion. His followers called him Tien Shih, "Heavenly Teacher." After the founding of the Taoist religion, two major schools developed. One, Zheng Yi Pai ("Orthodox Unity School"), that is, Tien Shih Tao, was a highly organized religion. [Source: Fang-fu Ruan, “Human Sexuality: An Encyclopedia”, Haeberle, Erwin J., Bullough, Vern L. and Bonnie Bullough, eds.,

The other Taoist school, Quan Zhen Pai'm ("Perfect Realization School"), sought immortality through meditation, breathing exercises, bathing, gymnastics, sexual arts, medicines, chemistry, and other means. A measure of systemization was brought to this second school of Taoism by Wei Poyang (second century A.D.), who, in his Chou-i-ts'an-t'ung-chi (Textual Research on the Taoist and Magical Interpretation of the Book of Changes, or, in short, Ts'an-tung-chi), attempted to synthesize Taoist techniques for achieving immortality and teachings of the occult I Ching (Book of Change).

Later, the Perfect Realization School itself became divided into two major branches: the Northern Branch, which for centuries had its headquarters at Beijing's White Cloud Monastery and recognized Wang Chongyang (1112-1170 A.D.) as its founder; and the Southern Branch, which recognized Zhang Baiduan (Ziyang Zhenren) (984-1082) as its Original Master (hence, it was also called Ziyang Branch). The difference between the Northern and Southern branches, in a word, is that the Northern Branch denied fang zhong (sexual intercourse techniques) and the Southern Branch favored fang zhong as the way to achieve longevity and immortality. Zhang Baiduan wrote Wu Chen Phien (Poetical Essay on Realizing the Necessity of Regenerating the Primary Vitalities) before the division of Northern and Southern branches, and it is the basic book of Taoist sexual regimen.

Taoist Practices and Rituals

Magic, alchemy, divination, astrology, incantations, charms, secret mantras, special diets, meditation, scripture reading, secret finger signs, exorcism, communication with mediums, special potions and elixirs have all traditionally been key elements of Taoism. Incense sticks are an important component of Taoist religious practice. Worshippers believe the smoke helps waft prayers towards their deities.

Many Taoist practices seem like they are straight out of a spiritual self-help book. Followers are told they can reach paradise if they follow a careful program of dieting, breathing, abstinence, drug taking, confession and atonement. They are also given tips on how to pray to the dead, earn merit, escape from the underworld and use Taoist alchemy to turn bones to gold and skin to jade.

Many practices in the old days were geared towards the achievement of immortality. Taoists ate pine needles, cones and resin in the belief they made their body parts more durable. They avoided eating grain because it was believed that grain nourished death-causing demons in the heart, brain and stomach. Taoist drugs and breathing exercises often were intended to suppress these same demons.

At Mao Mountain, Taoist monks gather each morning to read ancient texts and to write calligraphy next to trees and stones while visitors climb the stairs each day to pay respect to Lao-tzu.

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Burning incense at Baiyuan Temple in Beijing

On "Taoist yoga", the Encyclopedia of Occultism and Parapsychology reports: China developed its own individual forms of yoga, often merging with Taoism. Taoist yoga developed from the Hindu concepts of kundalini and brought together special practices of physical development, diet, and meditation. These were often characterized by the term "K'ai Men," meaning "open door," expressing the idea of Taoist yoga as the doorway to the channels of mind, spirit, and body, and reflecting the harmony and balance of the principles of yin and yang in the universe. These teachings and practices, long a secret tradition, have now gained some attention in the Western countries through such authorities as Lu K'uan Yu (Charles Luk), Mantak Chia, and Maneewan Chia. On a more popular level, the simpler mind-body exercises of t'ai chi chuan, an offshoot of the Taoist tradition, have now been revived widely in China and the rest of the world. [Source: Encyclopedia of Occultism and Parapsychology, Gale Group Inc., 2001]

Taoist Rituals and Festivals

So-called crude rituals perfomed by esoteric Taoist sects have included rolling in the mud, smearing one’s face with dirt and having group sex. In Taoist exorcisms priests have confronted troublemaking spirits and attempted to control their dangerous yin forces by evoking powerful yang forces to bring about cosmic and personal harmony. Many of these rituals have been performed by small rural cult-like communities that had been declared illegal and heretical.

In healing ceremonies still practiced today patients are treated through atonement rituals and penitence. Minor sins such as drunkenness are absolved by writing down a confession and making three copies: one addressed to heaven and placed on a mountaintop; the second buried in the earth; and the third submerged underwater.

Describing a ghost placation ritual, Maggie Farely wrote in the Los Angeles Times, ‘sweating under their robes, the priests circuit the area’s temple, horns whining, cymbals crashing, then pause for breath....As the processions glides up the hill, chanting prayers.”

During the Taoist pai pai temple festival shaved pig carcasses with fish and pineapples stuffed in their mouths are paraded through the streets on decorated bamboo platforms, followed by itinerant opera troupes and puppeteers singing in high pitched voices and dancing to shrill flute music and gongs. The larger the pig the more honor received by a family. It is not unusual for a single pig to weigh a half a ton or more. To make the carcases look nice the eyebrows are plucked, the hoofs are manicured and red stamps are placed all over the hide. [Source: National Geographic, Helen and Frank Shreider, January 1969]

Taoist Exorcists in China

“W. J. Plumb, the public teacher in Chen Sin Ling, wrote: "In Fu-show [Fujian Province] there is a class of persons who collect in large numbers and make use of incense, pictures, candles, and lamps to establish what are called 'incense tables.' Taoist priests are engaged to attend the ceremonies, and they also make use of 'mediums.' The Taoist writes a hand, stands like a graven image, thus signifying his willingness to have the demon come and take possession of him. Afterward, the charm is burned and the demon spirit is worshipped and invoked, the priest, in the meanwhile going on with his chanting. After a while the medium spirit has descended, and asks what is wanted of him. Then, whoever has requests to make, takes incense sticks, makes prostrations, and asks a response respecting some dis-ease, or for protection from some calamity. In winter the same performances are carried on to a great extent by gambling companies. If some of the responses hit the mark, a large number of people are attracted. They establish a shrine and offer sacrifices, and appoint days, calling upon people from every quarter to come and consult the spirit respecting diseases. [Source: Encyclopedia of Occultism and Parapsychology, Gale Group Inc., 2001]

"There is also a class of men who establish what they call a 'Hall of Revelations.' At the present time there are many engaged in this practice. They are, for the most part, literary men of great ability. The people in large numbers apply to them for responses. The mediums spoken of above are also numerous. All of the above practices are not spirits seeking to possess men; but rather men seeking spirits to possess them, and allowing themselves to be voluntarily used as their instruments.

“"As to the outward appearance of persons when possessed, of course, they are the same persons as to outward form as at ordinary times; but the colour of the countenance may change. The demon may cause the subject to assume a threatening air, and a fierce, violent manner. The muscles often stand out on the face, the eyes are closed, or they protrude with a frightful stare. These demons sometimes prophesy.

“"The words spoken certainly proceed from the mouths of the persons possessed; but what is said does not appear to come from their minds or wills, but rather from some other personality, often accompanied by a change of voice. Of this there can be no doubt. When the subject returns to consciousness, he invariably declares himself ignorant of what he has said.

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Taoist priest robe

Rev. Timothy Richard wrote in response to Nevius's circular: "Let us now note the different methods adopted to cast out the evil spirits from the demoniacs. Doctors are called to do it. They use needles to puncture the tips of the fingers, the nose, the neck. They also use a certain pill, and apply it in the following manner: the thumbs of the two hands are tied tightly together, and the two big toes are tied together in the same manner. Then one pill is put on the two big toes at the root of the nail, and the other at the root of the thumb nails. At the same instant the two pills are set on fire, and they are kept until the flesh is burned. In the application of the pills, or in the piercing of the needle, the invariable cry is; 'I am going; I am going immediately. I will never dare to come back again. Oh, have mercy on me this once. I'll never return!'

“"When the doctors fail, they call on people who practice spiritism. They themselves cannot drive the demon away, but they call another demon to do it. Both the Confucianists and Taoists practice this method…. Sometimes the spirits are very ungovernable. Tables are turned, chairs are rattled, and a general noise of smashing is heard, until the very mediums themselves tremble with fear. If the demon is of this dreadful character, they quickly write another charm with the name of the particular spirit whose quiet disposition is known to them. Lutsu is a favourite one of this kind. After the burning of the charm and incense, and when prostrations are made, a little frame is procured, to which a Chinese pencil is attached. Two men on each side hold it on a table spread with sand or millet. Sometimes a prescription is written, the pencil moving of its own accord. They buy the medicine prescribed and give it to the possessed…. Should they find that burning incense and offering sacrifices fails to liberate the poor victim, they may call in conjurors, such as the Taoists, who sit on mats and are carried by invisible power from place to place. The ascend to a height of twenty or fifty feet, and are carried to a distance of four or five li (about a half mile). Of this class are those who, in Manchuria call down fire from the sky in those funerals where the corpse is burned….

“"These exorcists may belong to any of the three religions in China. The dragon procession, on the fifteenth of the first month, is said by some to commemorate a Buddhist priest's victory over evil spirits…. They paste up charms on windows and doors, and on the body of the demoniac, and conjure the demon never to return. The evil spirit answers: 'I'll never return. You need not take the trouble of pasting all these charms upon the doors and windows.'

“"Exorcists are specially hated by the evil spirits. Sometimes they feel themselves beaten fearfully; but no hand is seen. Bricks and stones may fall on them from the sky or housetops. On the road they may without warning be plastered over from head to foot with mud or filth; or may be seized when approaching a river, and held under the water and drowned."

Taoist Priests, Ascetics and Monks

Rituals are sometimes presided over by officials referred to as priests. They often wear red robes. Red is the Chinese color of good fortune. Many are laymen. In the past there were Taoist priests who did not marry, followed strict vegetarian diets and lived in monasteries but there were never very many them.

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 monks and nuns can still be found. There are 5,500 Queen Zhen order monks. They live in temples and wear blue cotton jackets and white spats. They are not allowed to eat meat or cut their long hair which is held up in elaborate topknots. Zheng Yi order monks are allowed to get married and live in houses with their families. Taoist nuns in Jiangsu wear black pants, bright blue work smocks and coil their hair above their heads. They spend their time praying, doing chores, reciting passages from ancient Taoist texts, practicing calligraphy, playing ancient instruments, and performing acts of self-cultivation.

In July 2006, a farmer killed an abbot of Taoist temple and nine other people at the temple because he thought the abbot flirted with his wife. Arthur Henderson Smith, an American missionary, wrote in “Chinese Characteristics” in 1894: “The whole body of Buddhist and Taoist priests in China is an organized army of parasites. Their stock in trade is the irrepressible human instinct of worship, and by means of this alone, they are able to persuade the shrewd and practical Chinese to support the priests in such ease and comparative luxury as but a small proportion of the population are able to attain. In addition to receiving the income from the land which is given to the temples, afterthe wheat and autumn harvests, the priests go about levying their tax, on every family in the village, a tax consisting of a greater or less contribution in grain, the refusal of which would certainly lead to dramatic consequences. Besides this, each priest is well paid in food and in money for his services at the temples on special days, or at funerals. Taking into consideration the industry and the economy of the Chinese people, and contrasting these characteristics with the phenomena exhibited in the lives of the priest, it is not strange that a poet has said "The sun ishigh on the mountain monastery, but the priest is not yet up; from this we see that fame and gain are not equal to indolence." [Source:“Chinese Characteristics” by Arthur Henderson Smith, 1894. Smith (1845 -1932) spent 54 years in China. In the 1920s, “Chinese Characteristics” was still the most widely read book on China among foreign residents there. He spent much of his time in Pangzhuang, a village in Shandong.]

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Taoist Temples

Taoist temples are dominated by the roof, usually yellow or green, which is adorned with images of gods and dragons. Taoist temples usually have black pillars while Buddhist temples have red ones.The interior usually consists of a courtyard, a main hall with an altar where offerings are placed. Around the courtyard or courtyards are different shrines (known as "departments" or "halls") dedicated to different deities or legendary figures. The temples usually feature elements linked to nature worship and ancestor worship and have symbols — often animals such as cranes, bats or monkeys — that are supposed to bring good luck.

Within the Dong Yue Temple in Beijing are 76 office-like "departments," each containing sculptures of gods and spirits that can help people with particular ailments or problems. They include the Department for the Promotion of 15 Kinds of Decent Lifestyles, the Department of Timely Retribution, the Department of Suppressing Schemes, the Department of Flying Birds and the Department of Wandering Ghosts.

The main halls are usually dedicated to the Three Immortals, each shown riding a different animal (a crane, tiger and deer), which represent the three levels of the Taoism. A statue of Guanyin, the multi-armed Buddhist Goddess of Mercy, is usually also present. Other figures that are often present include the Yellow Emperor; the Eight Immortals; Wen Cheng, who is said to bring good luck for those taking exams; Zhue Liang and other legendary heros form the ancient story “Three Kingdoms”; and Guan Yu, the red-faced god of war and healing.

Taoists believe that their gods live lives that are similar to those of people. Shrines in Taoist temples often have bedrooms and food for the gods they house. Many Taoist temples feature deities associated with certain trades or aspects of life that are worshiped and treated like patron saints. See Taoist Gods.

At Baiyun Gong Temples in Beijing the Hall of the Gods of Wealth is the busiest shrine. The eastern and western halls contain collections of Taoist relics, including paintings of the horrors of hell, where sinners are sawn in half and meet other punishments. In a western courtyard there is a shrine with twelve deities, each dedicated to a sign of the zodiac. Many Taoist temples have three gates at the entrance’symbolizing the three states of Taoism, desire, substance and emptiness.

Many Taoist temples have hanging brass coins with a hole in the middle. Women wait in line to throw tokens through the holes. Those who succeed, the legend goes, will bear a son. Tapist temples also often contain shiny, well-worn bronze mule statues. Rubbing these is said to bring good health.

Taoist Arts and Sports

Taoism has been a major influence on Chinese art forms such as painting, ritual object making, sculpture, calligraphy and clothing. Themes include rituals, cosmology and mountains.

Although tai chi is secular its spiritual underpinnings are deeply Taoist. The gentle, slow movements and abdominal breathing all come from Taoist health and longevity exercises. The slow movements are believed to stimulate the flow of qi ("vital energy"), control the balance of yin and yang and produce harmony with the universe.

The origins of tai chi are unclear. It wasn't widely practiced by the Chinese public until the mid-19th century when the master Yang Lu Chan taught the martial art to the Manchu Imperial Guard and later to mandarin scholars.

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Image Sources: 1) Taoist ritual,; 2) Taoism Baiyuan Temple in Beijing, China Hiking; 3) Taoist Priest Robe Chicago art museum; 4) Temple, Taoist Sacred Sites ; 5) Taoist martial arts, China Hiking; 6) Painting, Chicago art museum; Asia Obscura

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated September 2021

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