7. Levels of Priesthood

To become a Daoist in China today, in continuation of Wang Kunyang’s codification, the adept first finds a local master, often living in a small temple. After some basic training and with family approval, he or she is officially adopted into a lineage. This involves an initiation ceremony with the transmission of sacred texts—including the Daode jing with its major commentaries—a vow to continue the tradition, the acceptance of ten basic precepts, and the bestowal of a religious name.

All schools and lineages follow this system, monastic practitioners typically joining a celibate institution, while lay priests continue to have families and work within their communities. Depending on the lineage chosen, each specializes in certain kinds of texts, rituals, and practices. Encouraged to look further afield, many decide to study with various teachers and some become holders of multiple lineages.

Beyond this, monastic adepts can move to an advanced level, traditionally divided into two steps of 180 and 300 precepts respectively but today merged into one rank. Selected upon recommendation of their home temples and after passing an extensive central examination, they train at the Chinese Daoist Academy (Zhongguo daojiao xueyuan 中國道教學院). Sponsored and run by the Chinese Daoist Association, it was first established in 1990 at the White Cloud Temple in Beijing as a seminary for monks. A second center, also for males, was foundedin 2010 on Mount Qingcheng 青城山in Sichuan. Since 2005, nuns have been able to undergo advanced training at a facility located at the foot of Nanyue 南岳 (Hunan), the sacred mountain of the south near Changsha.

At either place, the course lasts two years, with classes of 50-100 students. The curriculum closely matches traditional Chinese education, being broadly oriented toward cultivating the whole person, not only conveying knowledge but also mental, spiritual, and physical discipline. Students are taught many subjects, including Chinese culture, foreign languages, and temple administration, as well as Daoist history, ritual, music, literature, thought, taiji quan, internal cultivation, and more.

While including things like computer skills and business management, the training remains strongly focused on traditional values and methods. In this respect it stands in stark contrast to the narrow focus of lay Chinese education, which is almost entirely modeled on Western systems and sees success only in achieving good test results. The strong emphasis on the official doctrine of the Party, however, which still teaches that religion is an opiate for the people and will eventually be overcome by the ultimate communist society, creates a detachment in graduates toward their own tradition, often making them into apparatchiks rather than spiritual representatives.

After passing the relevant examinations, graduates undergo advanced ordination to receive further texts and extensive precepts, often a major central ceremony held at the White Cloud Temple. They then typically return to their home institutions and take on the responsibilities of managing them in a modern way. Some also remain in the capital and work for the Chinese Daoist Association or in government agencies. Usually aged between 21 and 35, the newly trained elite is set to become a vigorous force promoting the Party-approved development of Daoism in future decades.

Watch: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wnZzHLn-Tl0

Read: Kohn, Livia. 2004. Cosmos and Community: The Ethical Dimension of Daoism. Cambridge, Mass.: Three Pines Press.

6. Complete Perfection

Photograph courtesy of Helene Minot.

The Daoist school that runs the Baiyun guan and by extension all of Daoism in China is called Quanzhen 全真(Complete Perfection, Complete Reality). It goes back to the 12th century and was founded by Wang Chongyang 王重阳(1112–1170), the son of local gentry in northwest China (Shaanxi).

After receiving a classical education, he spent most of his life as an official in the military administration of the Central Asian dynasty of the Jurchen-Jin (1125-1260). In 1159, at age forty-eight, Wang retired from office and withdrew to the Zhongnan mountains 钟南山 near modern Xi’an, where he built a thatched hut and began to lead the life of an eccentric hermit. After a revelatory experience, during which Lü Dongbin appeared to him, he intensified his practice even more. In 1167, he burned his hut to the ground and moved to Shandong in eastern China, where he preached his visions and founded various religious communities until his death in 1170.

His work was continued by seven disciples, six men and one woman, known collectively as the Seven Perfected (qizhen 七真). Late immortalized in popular fiction, they observed the standard three-year mourning period for their master, then went their separate ways to spread his teaching, each founding communities and developing separate lineages (pai ). Qiu Chuji was one of them, the founder of the leading Longmen 龙门 (Dragon Gate) lineage, still in charge today.

True to the legacy of the founder, Complete Perfection is fundamentally an ascetic school. Adepts are vegetarian and celibate, residing in monastic communities that follow the administrative model of Chan (Zen) Buddhism, the dominant religious organization in Song China. Also spending time in solitary seclusion, retreats lasting up to 100 days, they observe stringent precepts and community rules along with Confucian-based ethics—a feature that endears the school to ruling powers. Encouraged to study with more than one master, they also undergo a period of “wandering like the clouds,” where they become mendicants for several years, spending much time on the road and temporarily joining various communities.

Their practice, besides performing regular morning and evening services, during which they chant sacred scriptures and spells, focuses on internal alchemy, the systematic inner refinement of personal into cosmic energy, that is, transmuting vital (sexual) essence first into life energy (qi ) and then into spirit. Creating an immortal embryo within, they find mystical oneness with Dao and ascend spiritually into the heavens.

Complete Perfection lineages include not only those founded by the Seven Perfected but, after the school’s ascent to central political status, also many other, traditional and local Daoist groups. Example are the Shangqing 上清lineage centered on Maoshan 茅山near Nanjing, the highest school of medieval Daoism, the Huashan 华山line near Xi’an, and various groups of lay priests who have formal standing within the school without belonging to a monastery. They each have developed their own unique training regimens, including specific forms of taiji quan and forms of internal cultivation.

Watch: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yZi8L6A3qEo

Read: Wong, Eva. 1990. Seven Taoist Masters. Boston: Shambhala.

Yao, Ted. 2000. “Quanzhen—Complete Perfection.” In Daoism Handbook, edited by Livia Kohn, 567-93. Leiden: Brill.

5. The White Cloud Temple

The Chinese Daoist Association has its main headquarters at Baiyun guan 白云观 (White Cloud Temple) in Beijing. Also called the First Temple Under Heaven, it was founded in the Tang dynasty and came fully into its own under the Mongols, when Kublai Khan (r. 1260-1294) made Beijing capital of the conquered China.

His grandfather Genghis Khan (1162-1227) summoned the Daoist leader and alchemist Qiu Chuji 邱处机, aka Changchun 长春(1148-1227), to his Central Asian capital in 1220 and—despite the fact that Qiu did not have a handy elixir of immortality to offer—made him the chief of all religions of China. When Qiu settled in the Baiyun guan as his main residence in the capital, it became the seat of the state’s overarching religious administration and has remained in this position ever since.

The temple is located about 2.5 miles west and slightly south of Tian’an men in the city center. Like all religious and palatial edifices, it consists of a series of buildings laid out on a south-to-north axis and divided by various open courtyards. After entering the main gate and crossing a narrow stone bridge said to stop harmful winds, the first building honors the Numinous Officials (Lingguan 灵官), the guardian deities of the religion. Next, flanked by bell and drum towers, comes the sanctuary to the Jade Emperor (Yuhuang 玉皇), the head of the celestial administration. Beyond this are three increasingly sacred halls, honoring Daoist commandments (laolü 老律), the patriarch Qiu Chuji, and the Three Pure Ones (Sanqing 三清), the gods of the three central Daoist heavens and their scriptures. They include the creator god Heavenly Worthy of Primordial Beginning (Yuanshi tianzun 原始天尊), the revelatory deity God of the Dao (Daojun 道君), and the hands-on savior Highest Lord Lao (Taishang Laojun 太上老君). At the very back is an ordination platform, where novices receive precepts and scriptures. There is a lovely mural of the Eight Immortals as well as the original stone stele of the famous Neijing tu 内经图 (Chart of Internal Passageways), a key document of internal alchemy

While this makes up the central torso of the monastery, its sides constitute the extremities. Traditionally that would be where residential and administrative quarters were located, together with bath houses, kitchen, and dining facilities. These are today in a side compound, not accessible to the public.

Instead the sides of the main body house further deities, including on the west the popular group of the good-fortune bringing Eight Immortals (baxian 八仙), their chief and master Lü Dongbin 吕洞宾, as well as the leading White Could abbot Wang Kunyang 王崑陽, aka Changyue 长月 (1622-1680), who codified the priestly ranks and precepts in the early Qing dynasty. On the east, moreover, we find a shrine dedicated to Hua Tuo 华佗(d. 208), an early master of Chinese medicine best known as the creator of the popular qigong form Five Animals Frolic, together with several more elemental deities, including thunder gods, the deity of fire, and the Perfect Warrior (Zhenwu 真武), the well-worshiped protector of the north and the state.

Watch: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=17Q4mkyaWXk

4. The Chinese Daoist Association

The Chinese Daoist Association (Zhongguo daojiao xiehui 中国道教协会) was founded in 1957 to serve as a forum for interaction with the state. Interrupted in its work during the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), when all religious activity was outlawed and the clergy had to return to the laity, it has since established branches in each province and district, created systematic registration of all monastics, founded several Daoist academies for advanced training, arranged for formal ordinations, and sponsored major rituals. Its recent leaders, Ren Farong 任法融 (b. 1936) and Li Guangfu 李光富 (b. 1955), have expanded its scope and moved toward a wider international outreach.

Its organization, just like the Party, is strictly hierarchical. Beijing at the top has authority over the provincial branches, which in turn head the regional subdivisions in charge of the local county chapters. One does not have a choice in joining the Daoist Association: all monastics and Daoist masters are members by default as well as some members of the council of lay followers. This was the main condition under which they could reinvest in religious institutions after the Cultural Revolution. Additional participants include scholars of Daoism and representatives of relevant municipal services. Thus, all the principal actors of religious activity—clerics and monastics, lay followers, scholars, local authorities—are under close supervision of the state, which watches their every move and to which they are accountable.

In Party-speak, the Chinese Daoist Association is a “patriotic religious organization that assists the government in its honorable and far-seeing religious policies, exhorts religious adepts to love the country and its religion while facilitating research on Daoist culture, harmonizing religious activities, organizing participation, and activating followers to serve the economic and cultural construction of the country fatherland.”

One way the Chinese Daoist Association controls the religion is through land management. Since all land belongs to the state and all religious properties were confiscated after 1949, negotiating the return and rebuilding of temples is often a long, drawn-out process that results in various levels of reconstruction and reorganization. Local committees keep a close eye on the reemerging religious community, always making sure that it remains in line with the framework set by the state.

In addition, the Association controls the appointment of religious leaders. Thus, the abbots, especially of larger monasteries are not elected among the brethren in-house but chosen by a council of monastics as well as state representatives in charge of the Daoist Association.

Another way is through publications. For example, it standardizes terminology and gives the stamp of approval to schools and practices by listing them in the Daojiao dacidian 道教大辞典 (Great Dictionary of the Daoist Religion) first published in 1994, as well as in its official journal, called Zhongguo daojiao中国道教 (Chinese Daoism). In addition, headquarters also publishes books for young monastics that are distributed widely through the temple network. They outline monastic rules and regulations together with approved and accepted ritual practices. A prominent example is Min Zhiting’s 闽智亭 (1924-2004) Daojiao yifan 道教仪范 (Observances of the Daoist Religion; 1986). All local associations are similarly held to publish not only newsletters of their activities but also accounts of the state of their particular institutions and records of local import.

Watch: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_ZWGfjz11_Q

Read: Herrou, Adeline. 2013. A World of Their Own: Monastics and Their Community in Contemporary China. St. Petersburg, Fla: Three Pines Press.


3. Religious Control


Organized religions, with their power to mobilize large numbers of people for potentially rebellious activities, have long been suspect to the Chinese state. Thus, the first ruler of the Ming dynasty, Emperor Taizu (r. 1368–1399), himself catapulted into power by a religious rebellion, decreed a number of administrative measures of control. Most of these remained in place until the founding of the Republic of China in 1912 and serve as ancestors of religious control today.

For example, he made all religious affairs subject to approval and control by the Ministry of Rites. Within this institution, all affairs were supervised by the Bureau of Daoist / Buddhist Registration, which had branch offices in each province, each prefecture, and each district. In this way, even the most remote religious activity occurring in the empire could be monitored and controlled by an arm of the central government.

Among other things, these offices were responsible for issuing and monitoring ordination certificate, official passports for monks and nuns. Also, only specially designated monasteries were allowed to hold ordinations, ceremonies were limited to once in three, five, or even ten years, and the number of monks and nuns was restricted to serve the government’s needs.

Ordained monks or nuns not only had to carry their certificate at all times but were also subject to the so-called All-Knowing Register, an official list that contained the names of all practitioners who had ever spent any time in a monastery. Private temples, owned and sponsored by local aristocrats, were severely curtailed and had to have an official stamp of approval from the government. The overall effect of these measures was twofold: it reduced enthusiasm for the religious path among the population, and it effected a high level of standardization among institutions and practitioners.

The modern equivalent of the Ministry of Rites is the Bureau of Religious Affairs. It acknowledges five religions: Buddhism, Daoism, Islam, Catholicism, and Protestantism—defining religion along Western models rather than indigenous qualities and strictly limiting approved forms. For example, it does not accept the leadership position of the Pope, so that the official Chinese Catholic Church is separate from Rome. Only groups and organizations properly accredited can run places of worship and make use of their land, goods, and income. Whether a Buddhist monastery, Daoist temple, Muslim mosque, or Christian church, all are subject to state regulations—which they have to post in their reception area—and their inhabitants are state employees who receive a monthly stipend from the government.

This limitation has resulted in the flourishing of large numbers of so-called underground churches or temples—of all denominations—which are monitored by the Ministry of State Security, aka the secret police, and for the most part left alone, with periodic bouts of harassment.

The heir of the Bureau of Registration, moreover, is the Religious Association, a kind of counseling committee made up of religious representatives, prominent lay followers, scholars, and local officials that serves as the administrative link between the Bureau of Religious Affairs and the people on the ground. Just like in the Ming dynasty established in a hierarchical pattern that reaches throughout the entire country, these Associations intensify the interference of the government in religious matters. Thus, for example, all Buddhist temples are controlled by the Chinese Buddhist Association with headquarters in the Guangjisi 广济寺 (Temple of the Wide Salvation) in Beijing. All advanced practitioners are subject to its guidance as they train at the Buddhist Academy, housed at the Fayuansi 法源寺 (Source of Dharma Temple) of the Chan school and the Yonghegong 雍和宫 (Palace of Peace and Harmony, i.e., Lama Temple), of the Tantric school.

Watch:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4YvtrM5j3lE

2. The Party

The driving force behind the great China experiment is the Chinese Communist Party, founded with Soviet help in 1927 and rising to prominence during the anti-Japanese war, when its members cooperated with the peasants rather than suppressing and exploiting them as the Nationalists did. After the Japanese withdrew in 1945, the Communists gained control in a bloody civil war and founded the People’s Republic in 1949.

Closely following the Leninist and Stalinist model, the Party under Mao developed into a centrally ruled, authoritarian organization that today has 85 million members or one in every fifteen citizens. The core of power lies with the Party Secretary, selected among nine members of the Standing Committee of the 25-member Politburo. It in turn sits at the center of a vast and largely secret system, controlling both the military and civil administration through Party committees on all five levels of government—provinces, cities, counties, townships, and villages.

The Party is the legislative arm of Chinese governance, setting all policies, making all rules, and creating all laws. The government proper is its executive, entirely dependent on the Party. The Party staffs all ministries and agencies through an elaborate and opaque appointments system; it instructs them on policy through behind-the-scenes committees; and guides their political posture and public statements through the propaganda network. The officials working in public institutions are trained, and retrained, at regular intervals, through the Party’s extensive nationwide network of 2,800 schools, now called Civil Management Training Centers, before they are eligible for promotion.

The judiciary branch, too, is firmly in Party hands. All decisions and punishments meted out by the courts occur at the behest and direction of Party organs, which ultimately control the judges directly and the lawyers indirectly through legal associations and licensing.

As well as sitting above state-owned businesses and regulatory agencies, Party departments oversee key think-tanks, the courts, the media, approved religions and other organizations, as well as all universities and educational institutions, and maintain direct influence over many private companies. To maintain power, moreover, the Party has eradicated political rivals, eliminated the autonomy of the courts and press, restricted religion and civil society, denigrated rival versions of nationhood, centralized political power, established extensive networks of security police, and dispatched dissidents to labor camps (MacGregor 2010, 15, xxii).

No other central party of a similar nature has survived this long—they either collapse into different forms of authoritarian government (as in Russia) or give way to democratic institutions (as in Taiwan and the former East Bloc countries). The Chinese Communist Party, too, shows signs of an end-stage Leninist institution. Most leading members have either property or citizenship abroad, ready to jump ship at a moment’s notice. To shore up its power and rally the people’s support, the Party today engages in wide publicity campaigns and makes major efforts to curb corruption. Still, protests are numerous, typically centering around real estate, health care, and pollution, and any number of incidents—natural disasters, terrorist acts, economic failure—can potentially set off cataclysmic changes.

Watch: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oHOkhAplfn0

Read: Shambaugh, David. 2016. China’s Future. Cambridge: Polity Press.

McGregor, Richard. 2011. The Party: 1.3 Billion People, 1 Secret Regime. London: Penguin.