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.