16. Martial Arts

The Hong Kong film industry is also responsible for the massive rise in martial arts at religious institutions in the mainland, starting in the late 1980s, when movie makers began to hire talent, especially from Shaolin. It precipitated the reconstruction of the monastery, which had been completely razed by local warlords in the 1920s, and the establishment of numerous martial arts schools in the area. In their wake, Daoists recovered and expanded their own version of martial training, documented since the middle ages, and soon each mountain lineage began to promote its particular style and brand.

Martial arts in general are a form of physical practice geared toward fitness and self-defense in combination with ethical principles. They inherit two traditional value systems: ancient Confucian chivalry, which encouraged the practice of archery and charioteering as tools for aristocratic self-cultivation and emphasized honor, respect, good manners, precise timing, balance, and composure in all actions; plus traditional Daoist concepts of bending and softness, which stressed flexibility, yielding, humility, nonviolence, inner focus, and wisdom.

Martial practice divides into hard and soft or outer and inner, forms that focus on muscle and strength building, teach fighting techniques, and work toward the defeat of the opponent as well as those that encourage an internal awareness and have healing and even spiritual benefits.

The dominant Daoist form is taijiquan 太极拳 (Great Ultimate Boxing), which allegedly began in the Ming dynasty when the Daoist immortal Zhang Sanfeng 张三丰 looked out the window of his hermitage on Mount Wudang 武当山and saw a crane fighting with a snake. The two animals turned and twisted in a complex pattern, neither gaining advantage yet matching the cosmic interaction of yin and yang. He promptly started to imitate their movements and created the first sequence of the practice—which he later, together with other patterns, a collection of poetry, and his complete autobiography, channeled to the Sichuan Daoist Li Xiyue 李西月 (1806-1856). Zhang in due course became the patron saint of the practice; he is also the main link to Daoism which—however much it may have favored martial practices—originally had no part in its development.

Historically taijiquan began with the military general Chen Wang-ting 陈王廷(1580-1660) who, after fighting the Manchu conquest in the 1630s, retired to his hometown and began to teach martial exercises consisting of five routines and a sequence of 108 moves. Transmitted through the family, his methods were organized into a slightly less martial system by his descendant Chen Zhangxing 陈长 (1771-1853), leading to what is today known as the Chen-style, a series of rather simple moves in the four directions. The Yang-style, on the other hand, goes back to Yang Luchan 杨露禅 (1799-1872), who originally studied Shaolin boxing, then became a student of Chen Zhangxing. His practice is softer and rounder, with wide arm movements, circular patterns, and intricate flexing in the wrists and arms. Spread by his sons and developed further into various sub-lineages, it is the most popular form of taijiquan today.

The name, moreover, goes back to Neo-Confucian and Yijing cosmology and their emphasis on the notion of the Great Ultimate, symbolized in moving clouds and eventually in the well-known diagram, which appeared first in 1613.

Taijiquan is executed from a standing position and involves continuous movements that are choreographed into lengthy and complex sequences. In both its basic, unarmed and variant forms (with sword, fan, stick, or pole), it eschews the development of large muscles and powerful strength in favor of internal suppleness (jin), a springiness in tendons, sinews, and ligaments. Rather than using the mind to systematically guide qi (as in qigong, used mainly for healing), practitioners keep it open and relaxed, allowing the qi to flow smoothly in all directions and the spirit to be receptive to all stimuli. The practice combines an open and relaxed meditative awareness with soft, slow, and focused body movements; its overall goal is to flow along with the Dao at creation in a smooth, supple, and relaxed way. Taijiquan is thus both a spiritual and martial practice and today forms the foundation of Daoist training all over China.

Watch: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uo4EuvUMhXU


Read: Bidlack, Bede. 2006. “Taiji Quan: Forms, Visions, and Effects.” In Daoist Body Cultivation, edited by Livia Kohn, 179-202. Magdalena, NM: Three Pines Press.


15. Public Spectaculars

Photograph courtesy of Helene Minot

Another way in which scenic spots, and therefore also Daoist mountains, are increasing tourist revenue is by staging public spectaculars, what the Chinese call “large-scale musical dramas performed in real landscape settings” (daxing shanshui shijing yinyue ju 大型山水实景音乐剧).

Essentially organizers take a scenic spot, usually a flat area or body of water flanked by hillsides or mountains, and set up a stand of bleachers for people to sit, mostly in the open, but some under a wooden or metal roof. They then stage elaborate performances, always at night time, with spectacular light and special effects, that involve various levels of music, singing, dance, and acrobatics—performers appearing at odd times in odd places, rising up from the ground or the water, swooping down from the mountain side, or popping up from behind boulders and temple buildings.

Themes involve local tales and represent the specific activities or traditions of the area, so that, for example, the performance on Mount Tianmen in Hunan tells the story of a divine fox lady who entices innocent young scholars with her wiles. On the southern sacred mountain, the spectacular involves large numbers of Shaolin monks who demonstrate both their devotional and martial activities to the accompaniment of Buddhist-inspired songs. A performance I watched near a mountain dedicated to Lord Lao south of Luoyang showed various Daoist themes, including creation from chaos and the ascent of flying immortals.

Public spectaculars in many ways are the pinnacle of the “Disney-fication” of traditional Chinese culture and religion, coming right after the use of Daoism to construct character and plot in Hong Kong horror and martial arts movies like “Crouching Dragon Hidden Tiger” and “A Chinese Ghost Story.” Here heroes somersault at will and fly through the air, activate potent talismans and chant lines from the Daode jing to make themselves invulnerable in battle. They vanquish supernatural man-eating wolves in the forest, overcome the powers of tree monsters, exorcise ghosts from deserted temples, and even descend into the depths of hell, full of powerful dark forces and their hapless victims. Mediating between humans and spirits, between the living and the dead, Daoist-inspired heroes, using ritual and other means, help innocents to recover their lives and honor their ancestors.

In addition, there are also comparatively tame historical dramas that retell major Daoist myths and legends, such as the life stories of the Eight Immortals and the movie rendition of Laozi’s life, Laozi chu hangu guan 老子出函谷关 (Laozi Emigrated through the Hangu Pass), both with English subtitles. Altogether, these various venues ensure the continued vibrant presence of Daoism in popular culture, making optimal use of the entertainment value especially of its more supernatural and magical aspects.

Watch: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lo7Xcobi4Z4 (Hunan)

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=p7Hi6LWVlRg&list=PL9m6GyhkgEO39i-Njy_vJPafaRKNSpjnJ (Shaolin)

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5YN9AKEW5as (Ghost Story)

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tQjamxNnOVc (Eight Immortals)

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yiS7EzS6wbo (Laozi)

Read: Cahill, Suzanne. 2011. “What to Fear and How to Protect Yourself: Daoism and Hong Kong Horror Movies.” Journal of Daoist Studies 4:202-18.

14. New Expansions

Photograph courtesy of Helene Minot

All the major sites connected to events in Laozi’s life in China have long been honored with temples, statues, and inscriptions. Thus, his birthplace in Bozhou, now located in a town called Luyi 鹿邑 on the Anhui-Henan border, is the site of a major temple, the Taiqing gong 太清宫(Great Clarity Palace), built around one of the oldest Daoist steles, the Shengmu bei 圣母碑(Holy Mother Stele), erected in honor of Laozi’s mother in 153 CE.

The place where Yin Xi spotted the sage and where the Daode jing was transmitted is known as Louguan tai 楼观台 (Lookout Tower), located about 80 miles southwest of Xi’an and also the site of the largest state-sponsored Daoist monastery in the Tang, Zongsheng guan 宗圣观(Monastery of the Ancestral Sage).

The meeting place in the market of Chengdu, finally, grew into a major sanctuary, named Qingyang gong after the sign of the ram. In the Qing dynasty, the site was expanded to house the Erxian’an 二仙庵 (Two Immortals’ Hermitage), dedicated to Lü Dongbin and Han Xiangzi 韩箱子of the Eight Immortals and serving as a state-sponsored center for the printing and distribution of Daoist scriptures.

While all three were greatly reduced during the Cultural Revolution, they have seen an unprecedented revival, leading not only to the restoration of the original temples but also to the creation of expansive exhibition areas and archaeological parks. Historically accurate and built in cooperation with top scholars at leading universities, they include the life-sized model of a Warring States village, complete with watch tower, living quarters, and kitchens in the Taiqing gong, and the compete reconstruction of huge, imperially sponsored monasteries at Louguantai and in Chengdu, where the Erxian’an is now the Culture Park.

This development matches another major craze in the Chinese tourism scene, a form of architecture known as “duplitecture” that puts life-sized replicas of world-famous monuments into Chinese cities or parks. For example, Hangzhou sports a White House, an Eiffel Tower, and a Venetian residential compound. while Suzhou has fifty-six replicas of famous bridges, including those at the Tower of London, Sydney harbor, and the Seine in Paris.

Oftentimes such construction requires that villages and city quarters be razed and populations relocated to make room for the ambitious modern redevelopment, made possible only through the close cooperation and even collusion between Party executives, officials, and business men. Developments of this scale tend to occur where big money meets official corruption, a manifestation of what is known as crony capitalism, the dominant form of doing business in China today.

Government officials, in close connection to Party secretaries, have unlimited control over real estate, state owned enterprises, and positions in the local administration, and essentially all of these are for sale at the right price and for people with the right connections. More specifically a local entrepreneur might bribe an influential politician or Party member by sending cash in red envelopes, commonly given at major festivals such as New Year’s. He or she would then be appointed to an office with impact in the area of his business, enabling him to steer regulations and state funds in a favorable direction, making a profit of several hundred percent. Another scheme is the forced repossession of land, which the state legally owns, by local officials for resale to developers, again at a huge profit. Ordinary people are quite helpless in this process and have to accept the—often pitiful—recompensation and/or relocation, lest they be forcefully removed or even killed by the local police under orders from the government.

Daoist redevelopment, while for the most part run by and for the Daoists themselves, has not been exempt from this ubiquitous pattern, and especially the large-scale construction of archaeological parks—with Disney-style rides and high entrance fees—do less for the religion than the business world.

Watch: Louguan tai: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6IsHRDsGk5M

Qingyang gong: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MfTniALudmc

Read: Pei, Minxin. 2016. China’s Crony Capitalism. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press.

Schmitz, Rob. 2016. Street of Eternal Happiness: Big City Dreams along a Shanghai Road. New York: Crown Publishers, chs. 2, 10.



13. Laozi

Other major Daoist sites center on the alleged author of the Daode jing, the semi-legendary figure of Laozi 老子, later to be identified with Dao itself and divinized as Highest Lord Lao (Taishang Laojun 太上老君), rising eventually to the status of leading deity and member of the Three Pure Ones.

Early sources describe him as living in the 6thcentury BCE, born as Li Er 李耳 or Li Dan 李旦in Bozhou 亳州in eastern Henan. Serving as an official scribe under the Zhou dynasty, he had both eminent knowledge of the rites and strong reclusive tendencies. Confucius heard of him and went to learn his teaching. Despite being rebuffed, he came away with such a deep impression that he compared Laozi to a dragon.

Later, so the story continues, when Laozi felt that the dynasty was declining, he left China for the western lands and was stopped by the border guard Yin Xi 尹喜, who had spotted the sage’s unique energy from his lookout tower and asked him to transmit his ideas, then compiled them into the Daode jing 道德经. A medieval expansion of the story has Yin Xi beg the sage to take him along on his travels. However, Laozi denies the request and tells him to practice self-cultivation and chant the Daode jing 10,000 times over a three-year period, then meet up with him further west in Sichuan. He was to look for the sign of a black ram (qingyang 青羊) for sale in the market of Chengdu 成都, and follow its owner home, where Laozi would be staying.

According to the myth, all this came to pass, and the two sages set off toward the west, where they underwent a series of ordeals, reminiscent of the myth of the hero, and finally succeeded to “covert the
barbarians” (huahu
化胡), leading to the rise of an Indian version of the religion, identified as Buddhism.

Beyond these tales connected to the semi-historical Laozi, Daoist doctrine has him appear numerous times in the world, from the very creation of the universe, where he emerged as the pure power of Dao, through all the major stages of cultural development, which he guided by appearing as sagely imperial adviser, to a various miraculous appearances to emperors and leading Daoists, indicating his approval of certain reigns and policies. Laozi is also credited with a variety of healing and meditation exercises as well as with the rescue and protection of people in need.

Watch: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dFb7Hxva5rg

Read: Kohn, Livia. 1998. God of the Dao: Lord Lao in History and Myth. University of Michigan, Center for Chinese Studies.

12. Daoist Sites

There are numerous Daoist mountains all over China, busily building or rebuilding temples and setting up an increasingly tourist-friendly infrastructure. The most prominent tend to be associated with the founding of major schools, commemorating the revelation of Daoist scriptures to leading masters.

Among the earliest is the appearance of Lord Lao, the divinized Laozi, to Zhang Daoling 张道陵 in 142 CE, which led to the founding of the Celestial Masters (Tianshi 天师), still strong in Taiwan and southeast China. The event occurred in Sichuan in the southwest, and several mountains claim the honor, most importantly Qingcheng shan 青城山 and Heming shan 鹤鸣山.

Qingcheng shan is only a short high-speed train ride from Chengdu and receives the bulk of visitors. Besides the prominent Celestial Master’s Cave (Tianshi dong天师洞), a large monastery a short walk up the hill, it has a flourishing hotel community at its base, sports a gigantic statue of Lord Lao on the central peak, offers accommodation and restaurants at the top, and is easily accessible by cable car. It is also the site of the second major Daoist Academy run by the Daoist Association.s

Heming shan, in contrast, is more laid back, an active community of monks and nuns that receives few visitors, whose buildings were badly damaged in the 2008 earthquake. To encourage more tourists, the local authorities have created a new version of the site on a nearby hill, with big and modern but largely empty worship halls, a few talisman and souvenir stands, plus a prominent vegetarian Daoist restaurant nearby. This arrangement allows the religious practitioners to pursue their cultivation while tourists get to see a modern, sanitized version of the compound.

A second major Daoist revelation took place in the 360s on Maoshan 茅山 near Nanjing, when various immortals such as Wei Huacun connected to the medium Yang Xi, hired by the aristocratic Xu family to inquire about the fate of their ancestors. They described in detail the heaven of Highest Clarity (Shangqing 上清) and its illustrious denizens and also provided meditation and practice instructions that allowed dedicated practitioners to communicate with and eventually become one of them.

Maoshan was badly damaged during the Cultural Revolution and recovered slowly, its two sides following rather different economic models. Monks on the north side toward the district center of Jurong 句容closely worked with the authorities, attracted large amounts in investment, encouraged the creation of a natural park or “scenic area,” erected a gigantic Lord Lao at the top, and sponsored various health enhancement ventures, overall vigorously commercializing the site.

The nuns on the south side, in contrast, focused more on religious and cultivation practices. Refusing to take entrance fees or accept state-sponsored funding, they instead attracted private donors and put Daoist culture on the map by training a music troupe that rose to great renown. Their halls are less ostentatious and more spiritually potent or “numinous” (ling ), they provide fewer tourist facilities, and generally attract a clientele that is more thoughtful and devout.

Watch: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6N4NNdJ42EE

Read: Johnson, Ian. 2012. “Two Sides of a Mountain: The Modern Transformation of Maoshan.” Journal of Daoist Studies 5:89-116.


11. Sacred Mountains

Photograph courtesy of Helene Minot

The prime target of tourism are the sacred mountains of the four cardinal directions and the center. Chinese cosmology postulates that the earth is flat and square, covered by the round, all-embracing canopy of the sky or heaven—giving it the overall shape of a turtle. Within this framework, the heavenly dome is held up by five major pillars: these are the five sacred mountains who, while consisting of multiple peaks, tend to rise rather steeply from the surrounding planes.

They all have leading mountain gods, closely embedded in the supernatural hierarchy under the rule of the Jade Emperor. Serving in various celestial departments, these deities outrank those of lesser peaks and social organizations such as cities, just as the Dragon King of the Eastern Sea, the chief officer in charge of water and rain making, is higher in status that his counterpart in a mere lake or river.

The five sacred mountains have long played an important role in imperial ritual. A most potent sign for an emperor having achieved cosmic harmony was his performance of the Feng and Shan sacrifices on Mount Tai, the sacred peak of the east. In Daoism, the five are further represented by cosmic talismans, the most potent among many divine charts and diagrams for various geographical locations. Just as maps were magical in the old days, bestowing control over the land to their owner, so the talismans of the five sacred mountains grant cosmic power over the country.

More specifically, Mount Tai 泰山 in the east (elev. 1545 m), near Confucius’s birthplace in Qufu 曲阜 (Shandong), has traditionally been the realm of the dead, lorded over and judged by its deity, the Lord of Mount Tai (Tai-shan fujun 泰山府君). Numerous bamboo slips found in tombs from the Han dynasty onward contain petitions addressed to him as much as other Daoist gods, including lists of grave goods and presents to be given to the responsible otherworldly bureaucrats. His daughter, moreover, is the Goddess of the Morning Clouds (Bixia yuanjun 碧霞元君), a very popular Daoist deity who brings children, prosperity, and good fortune.

Mount Song 嵩山in the center (elev. 1440 m), near Luoyang 洛阳(Henan), honors a variety of Daoist saints and historical heroes, but is better known for being close to the center of Buddhist martial arts, the Shaolin Monastery 少林寺. Here numerous schools train children and youngsters in all sorts of acrobatics and martial methods, enabling them to serve as artists, body guards, and even film stars.

Mount Hua 华山in the west (elev. 2200 m), about 80 miles east of Xi’an西安,with its highly dangerous five scraggly peaks—now accessible by cable car—is famous for being the home of the Hairy Lady (Maonü 毛女), a lady at the court of the First Emperor who fled into the mountains and became immortal, discovered several centuries later and duly killed by civilization. In addition, it housed the early Song master Chen Tuan 陈抟(d. 989), famed physiognomist and adviser to emperors, who developed ecstatic shamanic journeys called “sleep exercises.”

Mount Heng 恒山in the north (elev. 2017 m), near Datong 大同 (Shanxi), known for temples hanging improbably from steep cliffs, provided refuge to the Tang immortal Zhang Guolao 张果老, a member of the Eight Immortals who excelled in magic, herbalism, and martial arts and is best known for riding backwards on his donkey.

The other Mount Heng 衡山in the south (elev. 1290 m), near Changsha 长沙 (Hunan), finally, is where the immortal lady Wei Huacun 魏华存 (251-334) lived in seclusion. A senior leader of the early Celestial Masters, she perfected personal cultivation and ascended to the heavens, from where she appeared to the medium Yang Xi in the 360s, providing key information on the newly discovered heaven of Highest Clarity (Shangqing 上清) and thus becoming a major revelatory deity of this school. Her independence and spiritual prowess has inspired numerous Daoist women, and the Kundao Academy is close to her sanctuary.

With high-speed train stations nearby and roadways as well as cable cars making even high peaks accessible, these five have become top religious tourist destinations. They all charge entrance fees at their base, which go to the Department of Tourism, as well as money for specific temples and overnight stays that remain with the Daoists. Roadside shrines are shared by vendors, and scenic restaurants complete the scene.

Watch: East— https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CNcP3kwm94U

Center— https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cqTFt0e_9eo

West— https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tvIvBgrZFWU

North— https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=91X8o1Kwi4c

South— https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tf74Vnmb6Fc

Read: Hahn, Thomas H. 2000. “Daoist Sacred Sites.” In Daoism Handbook, edited by Livia Kohn, 683-707. Leiden: Brill.