32. Pollution

Some parents might be glad their children are not marrying and having offspring of their own, given the dreadful rate of pollution in China. For example, what is known as the Airpocalypse Beijing, a period in 2013, saw air quality above 700 on the Air Quality Index (AQI), which measures especially PM 2.5 particles, that are so small they get past nostril filters and penetrate the lungs. This rating is over 30 times worse than WHO recommended levels. To compare, Singapore in the same year declared an emergency at 300 AQI reading. Los Angeles, America’s most polluted city, usually tops off around a 100, and Paris declared a state of emergency in March 2014 when the AQI hit 150, banning half the city’s cars from the road.

Concerns over pollution are one of the top-five fears of consumers in China. People with resources relocate overseas, wanting to raise their children in a healthy environment. On the other end of the scale, foreign companies cannot get executives to live in country; if they have to work there, they commute while their families stay home. Ordinary people wear masks and order as much as they can online, and with increasing frequency voice protests, being more aware of just how bad it is since cell phones and internet connection offer AQI ratings in real time.

Already a quarter million people die every year prematurely due to pollution, and 40 percent of all deaths can be linked to it—in addition to increasingly fatty diets (China is now the second most obese nation after America).

The two major driving forces behind pollution are car ownership, up from 6.5 million drivers in 2003 to 85 million in 2013, and coal, the source of 70 percent of all Chinese energy supply. While the government, well aware of the situation and worried about growing unrest, is shutting down many smaller and older plants, it yet plans to build more newer, bigger ones. Unless they find a way to reduce car ownership or car emissions—like making electric cars mandatory as they are just starting to do—and restructure the country’s power system toward clean energy, the pollution level will increase even more and not abate for at least another decade.

In addition, water ways are polluted, lakes full of algae, fish dying in rivers, and ponds vanishing. What used to be scenic spots by rivers or lakes are now algae-infested and garbage-strewn wastelands. Plus, the overall water level of the country is down, and one prediction has China running out of water by 2030.

Watch: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2nFZaSbkf0U


Read: Rein, Shaun. 2014. The End of Copycat China: The Rise of Creativity, Innovation, and Individualism in Asia. New York: Wiley.

Martin, Richard. 2015. Coal Wars: The Future of Energy and the Fate of the Planet. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Minter, Adam. 2013. Junkyard Planet: Travels in the Billion-Dollar Trash Trade. New York: Bloomsbury.


31. Fortune Telling

Photograph courtesy of Helene Minot

One way to counteract the potential scams and frauds, as well as get a handle on other sources of insecurity, where honest Daoists are of great help, is the traditional art of fortune-telling. This comes in two major forms, temple oracles and personal consultation.

Temple oracles involve invocation of the deity by bowing before him or her, offering a prayer that contains the question to be asked, then picking a numbered wooden stick from a round bamboo container and verifying the accuracy of this choice by throwing half-moon shaped yin-yang blocks that are flat on one side and round on the other. If they land one up, one down, the god approves of the stick chosen; if not, one has to pray and pick again. Having ascertained the number, one goes to the temple office right there in or next to the sanctuary and obtains a “fortune slip,” a small strip of paper that contains a poem as well as some specific information, detailing one’s fortune.

Personal consultation is more in-depth, more long-term, and more detailed, and can best be described as fate calculation. It typically works with the eight characters—the traditional way of naming one’s year, month, day, and hour of birth—and provides information both on one’s overall destiny, the major changes that will occur in the course of several decades, and more specific short-term tendencies for the next few years.

Many Daoists practice this art. As Adeline Herrou shows in her study of Wengongci monk Yang Zhixiang as well as in her video about Master Feng, they are rather careful about it, too. “In fate,” Yang says, “there is the part on which one can act (temporary fortune) and another about which nothing can be done (overall destiny). Even then, some fortune remains impervious to all attempts of change.” Despite all this, people always have free will and make choices; they have to take responsibility for how they conduct their lives. It is part of their skill to present the inherent tendencies they see without limiting the individual’s power while yet preparing them for some developments they cannot control.

A prime area of fate calculation is the selection of a marriage partner, which has become more complicated in modernity as traditional family structures disintegrate and match-makers are far and few between. Still considered the joining of two families rather than two individuals, it is fraught with anxiety, and parents often advertise their children, complete with pictures and personal information, in a public marriage market, held in a city park, either individually or through a dating service. The Chinese equivalent of personal newspaper ads and online dating, this is yet completely different in that the parents are the main movers, and the children may not even know this is happening.

An interview with a Daoist priest to check the compatibility of fate according to the eight characters would happen long after this advertising stage, taking second place after education, income, and home ownership.

Watch: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kF78YrHiV7s&t=126s



Read: Herrou, Adeline. 2010. “A Day in the Life of a Daoist Monk.” Journal of Daoist Studies 3:117-48.

30. Scams and Insecurities

A much less pleasant dimension of increased prosperity and economic freedom is the rise in fraudulent businesses and investment scams. China is full of both, some—such as the tinkering with baby formula—making worldwide headlines. Less well known are the actual numbers. For example, in 2014, financial scams conned people out of $24 billion, while more recently police arrested 21 people involved in a Ponzi scheme centered on Ezubao, the country’s largest online financing platform, that netted them $7 billion.

Areas of fraud are widespread, including online marketing, metal works, agricultural products, streetcar systems, and more, usually with impressively documented assets that do not exist in actual fact. Rob Schmitz describes the situation vividly in his book, Street of Eternal Happiness. Friends with Auntie Fu, the wife of a pensioner who sells scallion pancakes out of his street-level window at 50 cents a pop, he does his best to dissuade her from investing in questionable schemes. These involve a mushroom farm in the northeast without any mushrooms, a mall-centered sales scheme focusing on special-app terminals, and others of similar ilk. Dead set on making a killer in the market, deluded by entirely fictional profit figures—especially in contrast to the interest rates offered by banks—and impressed by the claim that the companies are listed on Western stock exchanges, Auntie Fu remains undeterred and loses $50,000 of her hard-earned pension.

Many Chinese are in the same boat, as protests in various places document, but they are not alone. Over seventy Chinese companies, listed at the New York Stock Exchange, were found fraudulent and banned, but only after numerous Americans made substantial investments in them.

Daoism, too, is not exempt from this trend, as the well-publicized case of Li Yi 李一(b. 1969) documents, the one “not of the constant way,” as the headline puts it. An initiated Daoist master, Li Yi served as abbot of the Shaolong guan 绍龙观 (Summoning Dragons Temple), located in the Jinyun shan 缙云山nature preserve near the mega-city of Chongqing in southwest China. Claiming to have started Daoist practice at age 3 and attained academic recognition by major universities—both entirely fictional—he styled himself a living god in possession of supernatural healing powers. To prove these, he regularly faked miracles and soon attracted over 60,000 followers, including some well-known pop stars and internet giants like Jack Ma. In the process, he made himself rich by charging thousands of dollars for spa treatments and courses in magical powers.

Coming to the attention of the authorities, the Bureau of Religious Affairs started an investigation into his claims and practices in 2010, leading to a formal trial and sentencing to several years in prison. The case has highlighted the potential dangers of miracle healers and thrown a rather unfavorably light on the Daoist Association, which allowed him not only to practice unchallenged but also to rise to the status of abbot within its ranks.

Watch: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AFtc6VPfDaw


Read: Schmitz, Rob. 2016. Street of Eternal Happiness: Big City Dreams along a Shanghai Road. New York: Crown Publishers, chs. 9, 11.


29. The Celestial Masters

Photograph courtesy of Helene Minot

While Daoist monastics of the Complete Perfection school, if assigned to city temples, will also perform relevant life ceremonies, the dominant community Daoists belong to the school of the Celestial Masters(Tianshi 天师), more formally known as the Way of Orthodox Unity (Zhengyi dao 正一道).

The school was founded by the ecstatic seeker and alchemist Zhang Daoling 张道凌 after receiving a revelation in Sichuan, an event variously placed on either Mount Heming or Qingcheng. The, the story goes, in 142, Lord Lao appeared to him and told him that the end of the world was at hand. He was to instruct the people to repent and prepare themselves for the momentous changes by becoming morally pure so they could serve as the “seed people” of the new age of Great Peace. Closing the “Covenant of Orthodox Unity,” the god appointed Zhang as his representative on earth with the title “celestial master” and gave him healing powers as a sign of his empowerment.

Zhang followed the god’s orders and, in an era characterized by continuous disasters, gathered thousands of people around him. As a token for his efforts, he took five pecks of rice from his followers, whom he organized into tight units and controlled with a strict moral code and ritual schedule, creating a semi-independent state on a religious and ritual basis.

Seeing themselves as advisers to a potent worldly ruler, the early Celestial Masters submitted to the warlord Cao Cao 曹操around 215, who in due course decided not to tolerate a separate organization in his territory. He forcefully moved large numbers of Celestial Masters followers to different parts of the empire, where they spread their cult, transforming it gradually into a major organized religion.

As such they are still present today. The current Celestial Master, the 65th of his lineage, resides in Taiwan with mainland headquarters on Mount Longhu in Jiangxi. Especially in southeastern China, Celestial Masters priests control a wide network of Daoist temples and communities, specializing in purifications, exorcisms, and cosmic renewal rituals. In addition, an intact and functioning community of Celestial Masters Daoism is still found among the Yao in northern Thailand, who adopted the religion in the 12th century.

Their teaching focuses heavily on divine protection against demons, partly by receiving and carrying ritual registers with names of divine generals who can fight off all sorts of attacks. In addition, they provide relevant talismans and perform complex rituals of healing and exorcism, identifying invading demons and expelling noxious influences with a variety of means—herbs, wands, spells, dances, and more.

Watch: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nx-HK-4Xx2U

Read: Kleeman, Terry F. 2016. Celestial Masters: History and Ritual in Early Daoist Communities. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Yenching Institute.

Hsieh, Shu-Wei. 2016. “Possession and Ritual: Daoist and Popular Healing in Taiwan.” Journal of Daoist Studies 9:73-100.



28. Major Life Events

Another area where Daoist traditions continue in a modern guise is the celebration of major life events, typically associated with what Arnold van Gennep (1909) has called “rites of passage.” These are, most importantly, marriage, childbirth, and death—times when people pass from one social status to another, to being husband and wife, parents, and eventually ancestors. Lesser transitions that are yet no less important in today’s world are college graduation, the first job, and retirement, plus various other landmarks, such as promotions or the purchase of one’s first home.

In all these cases, people pass through a threshold or liminal phase, when they are no longer in one stage and have not yet reached the next. In other words, the bride going down the aisle is no longer a daughter and not yet a wife; the woman in labor is no longer pregnant and not yet a mother; the boy during initiation is no longer a child and not yet a man. This means that, in terms of social context, the person is for a time between positions assigned by law, custom, convention, and ceremony. Stripped of the values and symbols of ordinary society, he or she is reduced to a more basic before being fashioned anew and endowed with the additional powers of the new level.

All this requires spiritual and community assistance, as manifest worldwide in youth initiations (think bar mitzvah), weddings, college graduations, baptisms, funerals, and more. Typically rites combine formal thanksgiving with prayers for protection—for example, appreciating the divine support that led to the birth of the child plus invocation to keep it safe and healthy as he or she grows up.

In China, unable to eliminate these festivities completely, the Party worked hard to strip them of their religious content and setting, replacing them instead with civil ceremonies while striving to put a stop to the—often devastating—expenses the ceremonies used to incur. With modernization and prosperity, traditional celebrations have made a comeback, combined often also with increasingly fashionable Western forms, so that today brides often wear white and grooms show up in tuxedos.

Daoists as much as other religious specialists are actively involved in these various life events. They determine the most auspicious time and place for the ceremony, organize its parts according to five-phases cosmology, purify the ritual objects, invoke the proper deities, send the correct petitions to the right divine officials, provide talismans for protection, and set up divine support for the future. In addition to the major transitions of life, they also perform blessings as needed, such as for a new house, a new car, a new job, overall ensuring that worldly life is connected to, and supported by, the greater cosmic realm.

Watch: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GnGeWLRVpuk (wedding)

Read: Saso, Michael. 1990. Blue Dragon White Tiger: Taoist Rites of Passage. Washington, D.C.: The Taoist Center.

Schmitz, Rob. 2016. Street of Eternal Happiness: Big City Dreams along a Shanghai Road. New York: Crown Publishers, ch. 12.


27. Pilgrimages

Pilgrimages to sacred sites to celebrate a particular deity, have played an important role in Chinese religion, documented from early ascents to sacred mountains to late medieval worship of the Perfect Warrior on Mount Wudang. After a hiatus during the Cultural Revolution, they have come to the fore again, to the point where in Beijing alone there are about eighty associations dedicated to celebrating the Daoist Goddess of the Morning Clouds during her two-week festival in late May at her sanctuary on Miaofeng shan 妙峰山, a medium-level peak about 40 miles west of the city.

Pilgrimage associations are non-profit organizations, encouraged and supervised by government officials, but essentially independent. They decide who gets to ascend the mountain and how they have to behave, what qualifications and requirements each has to meet. In all cases, the associations center on piety and charity. They come in two major forms, martial and civilian. While the former focus on physical performances, demonstrating their skills as lion dancers, sword fighters, stilt walkers, taiji boxers, acrobats, and more, the latter work hard to make the pilgrims welcome by providing them with physical and moral sustenance as they climb the mountain.

Each group has about thirty to forty members; their founders often dedicated senior individuals, who either have a long family tradition of service or made a vow to give charity in this manner after the goddess helped them through a major crisis. Both apply to Ni Zhenshan, founder of the Whole Heart Philanthropic Salvation Tea Association, which runs a small shrine on the ascent to the sanctuary and there provides pilgrims with good-quality tea and steamed buns. Chen Deqing, the founder of the Deqing Fresh Flower Association, began her activities in the 1980s, when, already in her fifties, she rode her pedal-powered trishaw to the mountain to honor the goddess with flowers. Today, with the support of family members and followers, she spends thousands of dollars on flowers while hosting her own shrine on the mountain and becoming a quasi-priestess for the festival’s duration.

The pilgrimage to Miaofeng shan, as others around the country, has grown substantially over the years, and even the younger generation is increasingly participating. Thus, Ni Jintang, the younger son of the patriarch, eagerly stepped into a leadership role upon his father’s passing, vigorously organizing the chaos of the first night, conscientiously recording the members’ names, and generously offering donation opportunities to like-minded businessmen. Martial practitioners, too, engage more and more young people, who learn the arts of performance from their parents and grandparents while yet juggling busy lives in the city. Their repertoire may be smaller, their skills may not be as precisely honed, but the will is there, and the tradition continues.

Watch: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AnmYw3XTaWI

Read: Johnson, Ian. 2017. The Souls of China: The Return of Religion after Mao. New York: Pantheon Books.

Lagerwey, John. 1992. “The Pilgrimage to Wu-tang Shan.” In Pilgrims and Sacred Sites in China, edited by Susan Naquin and Chün-fang Yü, 293-332. Berkeley: University of California Press.