Taoism

 

Taoism

Xuandi Temple on Wudang Mountain, Hubei
Xuandi Temple on Wudang Mountain, Hubei
Taoism is a genuinely Chinese religion. Some hold the opinion that without understanding it, there can be no understanding of Chinese culture.
 What is Taoism?
 History
 System of Deities

 

Doctrines

Lao Zi was the creator of this religion. According to the Shi Ji, or Records of the Historian, by Sima Qian , Lao Zi was named Li Er, with Dan as his alias. He was a reputed thinker around 6th century B.C. There are many legends about Lao Zi but few historical records. He left a 5, 000-word book and went on his ox from Hangu Pass and to where nobody knows! Lao Zi's 5,000 words are rather concise compared to his profound ideological system but there were numerous books interpreting the true meaning of his book.

A Taoist in Yuquan Temple, Tianshui
A Taoist in Yuquan Temple, Tianshui
Tao, originally, meant 'road' and then implied 'to rule' and 'principle'. Lao Zi used Tao to propound his ideological system; therefore his school of thinking is called Taoism. At the time Lao Zi created this religion, it was simply a school of philosophy. During the Eastern Han Dynasty, it became a religion.

Tao is the origin of the eternal world. It is boundless in time and space. Ordinary people can become gods when they have Tao. This religion pursues immortality and preservation of health; its uttermost goal is to become an immortal being. This can be obtained through cultivating one's moral character and perfecting one's moral integrity.

A Taoist phrase is to say an ordinary man can become immortal if he does good 3,000 times and accomplishes 800 exploits. Of course the number is symbolic. It requires people to do good without making it known to others as the gods will know it naturally, much like the Christian principle expressed in Matthew 6:3-4, "But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your alms may be done in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you."

Wong Tai Sin Temple, Hong Kong
Wong Tai Sin Temple, Hong Kong
Tao is wu wei, namely Non-action. Non-action is to follow the rule of nature instead of overriding it. By conforming to the natural rules, Tao does nothing but it can do everything. Tao makes everything run smoothly but it does not boast about its own achievement. Those learning this religion should be pure and take non-action.

Dialectic thinking is abundant in Lao Zi's system. He contended that Tao turned to the opposite during the circulation, like existing and non-existing, up and down, long and short, front and back, fortune and misfortune, strong and weak. Based on his thinking, a proverb was later devised, "Things will develop in the opposite direction when they become extreme." For example, this religion holds that flexibility can defeat strength. Water was used as a metaphor in Lao Zi to explain the prowess of flexibility. Nothing can be more flexible and soft than water but it can defeat all tough things. Similarly, it emphasizes humbleness and tenderness.

This religion has its drawbacks. For example, Lao Zi promoted the idea of a return to a small state with a small population; people did not socialize though they lived so near that the barks of dogs could be heard. These ideas prevented social development. Also, Chinese intellectuals resorted to a hermitic way of life whenever they met setbacks; when they were successful, they would say "the less hermitry was to live in the remote areas while the great hermitry was to live in the court". The inner worldly and outer worldly attitudes made the Chinese intellects hover between the active Confucianism and the passive Taoism.

 

Development

Religious Ceremony in Ba Xian An Monastery, Xian
Religious Ceremony Held in 
Ba Xian An Monastery, Xian
Taoism became a religion during the Eastern Han Dynasty and Lao Zi was respected as the creator.

During Three Kingdoms, many scholar-bureaucrats practiced Taoism and it soon became separated into an aristocrat sect and a folk sect. This situation lasted till the Jin Dynasty but doctrines were not strictly adhered to due to the chaotic political background.

Sui Emperors professed to Buddhism but still placed importance on this religion. Ten Taoist temples were constructed in Chang'an (today's Xian) under the order of Emperor Yang, the notorious tyrant of Chinese history.

Tang Emperors regarded themselves as offspring of Lao Zi and Taoism developed rapidly and had a profound repercussion on the subsequent dynasties.

Unlike Buddhism, Taoism does not advocate asceticism. It pursues longevity and holds an open view toward sex. In the heyday (during Tang Dynasty), there is no strict restriction on this. Taoist nuns were not uncommon. A poem satirizes that beautiful nuns were used to attract people as a means to compete with Buddhist temples.

Zhenwu God in Taoism
Zhenwu God in Taoism
In the middle years of the Tang Dynasty, aristocratic women, court maidens, and almes flocked to join the Taoist nuns, which had the effect of making this group more romantic and better endowed from a cultural and artistic point of view. The reasons why women became nuns varied; which meant that their prime purpose was not merely an ascetic life filled with devotion. Many were so beautiful that the temples were filled with people coming to solely to admire them. All these facts were noted in the Tang records. Many poets fell in love with Taoist nuns and many beautiful and sentimental poems were left when their love was unrequited. As Taoist nuns were called Nv Guan and later Nv Guan Zi, became a ci pai, a name of the tunes to which ci poems were composed.

Special institutions were set up by the Ming court to rule over the Taoist affairs. Another big event is the integration of the stories of the Eight Immortals. Over its long history, many legends about Taoist figures emerged and the most well-known are those of the Eight Immortals. A colloquial phrase has it, "like the Eight Immortals crossing the sea, each one showing his or her special feats'. These Eight Immortals are seven men and a woman. The images of the Eight immortals can be seen in many artifacts, from the bridal sedan to cakes, vases, paper-cutting and paintings.

Taoism was suppressed by the Qing rulers as well as by the foreign invaders consequent upon the Opium War. It has been faced with a huge impact from foreign culture but it remains an influential system of thought among the Chinese people.

 

Famous Taoist Holy Mountains:

Mt.Wudang, Mt.Longhushan, Mt.Qingcheng, Mt.Qiyun, Mt.Huashan, Mt.Laoshan, Mt.Huangshan, Mt.Hengshan in Hunan, Mt.Hengshan in Shanxi, Mt.Songshan, Mt.Taishan, Mt. Wuyishan,etc.

 

Famous Taoist Holy Temples:

Temple of the Eight Immortals (Ba Xian An) in Xian
Qingyang Temple in Chengdu
Wong Tai Sin Temple in Hong Kong
Zixiao (Purple Heaven) Temple on Mt. Wudang in Hubei
Louguantai in Xian