41. Censorship

Photograph courtesy of Helene Minot

Another level, where Daoism has an impact on China today goes beyond politics and economics and deals more with the general culture and outlook of the country. Here intellectuals and academics see issues of ethics, ecology, leadership, and more, evaluate them from a Daoist perspective, and make every effort to steer the country into a more sustainable, equitable, and creative direction. These efforts are hampered every step of the way, most importantly by the censorship that pervades all aspects of cultural and intellectual life.

The Party controls all media, both state-owned and private. All news agencies and broadcasting services belong to the state, including major newspapers, radio, and television stations. News are strictly controlled, and especially any form of protest anywhere in the world is usually blacked out. Thus, for example, when Hong Kong youths protested against mainland interference in their democratic process in 2015, occupying large parts of the city center, nobody in mainland China had a clue. Similarly, people are still surprised when, after going abroad, they first hear about the extent of suppression during the Tian’anmen democracy movement in 1989.

All content in publications and programming run by the private sector, books, CDs, videos, and magazines—on automobiles, gardening, computers, fashion, and the like—are subject to approval by censorship officials. At this point, this is usually a routine process, since writers and editors know the parameters of what is acceptable and self-censor with great efficiency.

The toughest and most complex censorship area is the internet. When it first became available in China in 1998, the government was delighted, seeing it as a major new way of influencing public opinion and establishing even more stringent controls. This proved not to be the case, and the state quickly took containing measures, establishing what they call the “golden shield,” better known as the Great Firewall of China. This prevents some of the most common and most popular Western websites from operating in China, including Google, Gmail, Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, Instagram, and more—typically companies who, unlike Microsoft, refuse to allow the state to tamper with their content and limit freedom of expression.

This tampering is relatively easy, since there are few indigenous browsers and internet providers, and keeping websites out and content limited is not as hard as it would be in a free country. On the other hand, people with a vested interest in access to Western information—notably businessmen and academics—get around the firewall by using virtual private networks (VPN), available for a few dollars a month and regularly advertised on the Chinese web. Tolerated by the government, yet under constant threat of closure, they create a virtual location for one’s computing activity, in Australia, Europe, or America, that makes it look to the censors as if one were working overseas.

In addition, with the increase in cell phone usage—1.36 billion phones registered today—and the rise of new internet giants that include instant messaging like WeChat, communication has become instantaneous and pictures of natural disasters and social protests can go viral within minutes. As a result, the government today employs over two million people to monitor internet activity and watch for subversive content. This sometimes can be just a single word or common phrase. For example, during the Arab Spring in 2011, the word “jasmine”—part of Jasmine Revolution—was banned completely, making it impossible to shop for jasmine tea. Similarly, when dissident Liu Xiaobo was awarded the Nobel Peace Price in 2010, the term “empty chair” was no longer acceptable.

On the proactive side, the state has also taken to bolster its online presence and popular image by hiring many thousands to regularly post positive comments about state policies on social media and wax enthusiastic for the new Party line of the China Dream.

Watch: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Po9qrFyZOM8


40. Underground Churches

A yet different facet of the Chinese religious scene are underground or house churches, spiritual organizations not officially registered with the state that yet attract large numbers of followers. The Bureau of Religious Affairs not only requires formal and detailed registration, comparable to applying for non-profit status in a Western country, but it also imposes various rules and regulations, including political and doctrinal guidelines that would impact organizational structure and change the fundamental tenets of the groups’ direction.

As a result, many opt to operate outside official parameters, which makes them underground but not secret, active but not incorporated. Rather than hiding them from the official eye, it puts them on the list of suspicious organizations, prevents them from buying land or build a proper church, and alerts the security police, who routinely come by to request a list of members and otherwise make their presence known every so often.

Most underground churches are Christian, serving about half of China’s 100 million believers. An example is the Early Rain Reformed Church in Chengdu, literally the Chengdu Church of Happiness Like Autumn Rain (Chengdu qiuyu zhi fujiaohui 成都秋雨之福教会) under the leadership of Wang Yi 王怡 (b. 1973), a former civil rights lawyer. Renting a space in a modern high-rise, it holds services and sponsors activities all week long, from Bible readings and prayer groups through charities for the poor and dispossessed (such as earthquake victims) to campaigns against certain government policies. Its doctrines are thoroughly Christian, with a strong focus on personal responsibility and social justice, and—supported by donations from members without any help from abroad—it operates also a nursery school, day care center, elementary school, and seminary, reaching ever deeper into civil society.

Another, less noble, example is the Central Church in Shanghai, whose members, as Rob Schmitz notes, come from all walks of life to meet in a private apartment home, praying and chanting together in support of Christ, the Bible, love, community, and career. Highly modern in outlook and performance, the Church uses flat-screen televisions, amplified sound, and rock music together with min-skirted hip-hop dancers to encourage “Jesus to come into my heart.” Their leader, Preacher Jiang, used to be career criminal in one of the more notorious Shanghai triads and remains highly critical of the Party. He whips his congregation into a frenzy, praising God, Jesus, and the Bible, then suggests that all make monetary offerings in gratitude and to receive additional grace lest they be struck by disease and misfortune.

A case from a different section of the religious spectrum, as also described by Rob Schmitz, is the unauthorized Buddhist temple in an unnamed, remote farming village several hours outside of Shanghai, run by a young meditation master, also unnamed, together with several apprentices. Consisting of five interconnected red-tile-roofed buildings that hold meeting rooms, living quarters, a canteen, and two worship halls, it grows gradually as donations come in. Spiritual seekers from the city, often in need of healing, visit there for a weekend pilgrimage, prostrate themselves multiple times, repent their sins, and sit together in meditation. The master, when he appears, exudes great authority and pronounces judgment on questions from the congregation, interpreting dreams, suggesting karmic cleansing for cases of disease, and giving advice on business matters. He then holds a special prayer ceremony, complete with chantings and prostrations, where everyone can pursue their particular issues, laying them at the foot of the Buddha in hope for resolution.

As far as Daoism is concerned, there are also underground groups, but they tend to remain rather well hidden. Typically associated with practices that even mainstream Daoists dismiss, such as sexual techniques and operative alchemy, they show up on occasion in internet blogs or are mentioned at conferences, but there is no clear reporting to date.

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


Read: https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/young-restless-and-reformed-in-china

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

Schmitz, Rob. 2016. Street of Eternal Happiness: Big City Dreams along a Shanghai Road. New York: Crown Publishers, chs. 4, 13.


39. The Li Priests

A group of priests specializing in Daoist rituals, notably funerals, are the members of the Li family from Yanggao 陽高 county in Shanxi, one of several local ensembles. Lay practitioners who have transmitted their art over many generations, they call themselves yin-yang to indicate that they traverse the worlds of the living and the dead.

The current patriarch is Li Manshan 李滿山 (b. 1946), a versatile musician and experienced ritual specialist who stays close to his native village and pays little attention to material possessions. He learned his skills from his father Li Qing 李清 (1926-1999), an awesome musician on the mouth-organ as well as an impressive master of performing rituals and vocal liturgy. The next generation is led by Li Manshan’s son Li Bin 李斌 (b. 1977), who moved to the county seat so his own son could get a better education and is expanding the group’s clientele to city dwellers.

Their main skills involve fortune-telling, scripture recitation, and music—the latter being what catapulted them into national and international recognition, giving performances in Carnegie Hall and all over Europe. Locally they serve after a death has occurred. They site the grave using a Feng Shui compass and determine the most auspicious time of burial with the help of the deceased’s eight characters. They decorate the coffin with hand-drawn efficacious talismans, usually on the third day after the death, a process that may take up to seven hours. Before the actual funeral, they decorate the soul hall, commonly the living room in the deceased’s home, and also provide all the paper artifacts that will accompany him to heaven: houses, cars, feasts, money, and more. Li Bin and his wife make these paper replicas in their funerary shop in town, while back in the village Li Manshan’s wife helps out with sundry tasks.

At the actual funeral, which lasts several days, they dress up in formal Daoist gear, complete with mortarboard hats, to play numerous tunes, commonly lasting from 15 to 30 minutes each and often accompanied by the chanting of relevant scriptures. They do this throughout the entire liturgy, from Announcement through Opening Scriptures, Thanking the Earth, Inviting Deities, and Transferring Offerings all the way to Burial. On occasion, Li Manshan writes out magical symbols on red strips of paper used to seal the coffin. In between bouts of music, the Daoists rest.

Li Manshan’s band consists of six players, mostly family members but also including Wu Mei 吳美, who as a teenager found himself fascinated by the profession and asked to become Li Qing’s disciple. He is now the group’s star player, a virtuoso on any instrument who often plays solos. Instruments include different kinds of drums, gongs, cymbals, conches, clarinets, mouth-organs, and strings. The tunes, often discordant and haunting, convey messages to the divine, including the announcement of the death, the desire for deliverance into an immortals’ heaven, and blessings for the descendants.

For their national and international performances, they choose an adapted program, beginning with an opening procession around the hall onto the stage, using mouth-organ rather than the traditional percussion for Opening Scriptures. Then, feeling that the mournful cadences of the initial piece that lasts seventeen minutes may be to heavy for the uninitiated, they just sing the first three couplets. Next come an abbreviated version of a long mouth-organ suite, followed by the uproarious Catching the Tiger sequence. Yellow Dragon Thrice Transforms Its Body, finale of the Transferring Offerings ritual, makes a rousing percussion interlude, and they conclude with a rather short version of a medieval hymn, leading into the final Chasing Round the Five Quarters.

Watch: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=S2jmjxxRXBI&t=6s



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

Jones, Stephen. 2017. Daoist Priests of the Li Family: Ritual Life in Rural China. St. Petersburg, Fla.: Three Pines Press.



38. Auspicious Graves

Even with all the qigong and mental purity, life eventually comes to an end. Traditional belief has it, that human beings consist of two parts that in themselves contain both physical and spiritual elements, that is, slower and faster vacillating levels of qi.

These parts are a heavenly or more spiritual (yang) dimension, the so-called spirit soul (hun ), which comes from heaven, and an earthly and more material (yin) part, known as the material soul (po ), which arises from earth. They come together during gestation and are fully viable throughout life, guiding people toward more spiritual, artistic, and intellectual pursuits (hun)while also making sure they remain alive by providing instinctual needs for food, sleep, and companionship (po).

At death, the two separate and go back to their realms of origin. Thus, the spirit soul, guided in a formal funeral, moves up to reside in an ancestral heaven. Its symbolic replica on earth is the ancestral tablet, today often complete with a photograph of the deceased, through which it is honored and spiritually fed. Traditionally kept on the ancestral altar in the family home, it is today mostly placed in a pagoda at a Buddhist (and to a lesser degree Daoist) temple, where it receives regular blessings through the monks’ chanting.

The material soul stays with the physical corpse of the person, whose remains—today usually cremains—are buried in a cemetery. Traditionally, it required grave goods, including meals, gifts, texts, and personal belongings. Today, these are still provided at funerals, consisting mostly of paper replicas of desirable items. Ancestors are believed to be conscious and knowledgeable of their descendants’ affairs. They require regular supplies of food, wine, incense, and incantations, and will in due return send good fortune and provide protection. The relationship is strictly reciprocal, and disasters and illnesses in life are often attributed to neglect of one’s ancestral duties.

Ghosts in this context are the unhappy or discontented dead. Some are people who died violently and who have come back to wreak vengeance; others are ancestors who have been neglected by their families and are hungry and in search of sustenance; yet others are mutant animals, creatures that have somehow gained the power to change their shape and cause trouble. To deal with these, people take basic precautions such as hanging demon-dispelling branches or talismans over their doors, muttering spells against ghosts whenever they enter an unknown area, or performing a divination before venturing out. In some cases, a community decides to take on the proper worship of such an entity, and a ghost can develop into a god, especially if prayers or rites turn out to be highly efficacious.

A key factor in the entire after-death process is the siting of graves, matching the belief, still important today, that ancestral spirits can only rest properly and benefit the living if their material souls are in proper harmony with the earth. Using methods of Feng Shui, learned masters who are often Daoists calculate the best place and time of interment. Both have to match the birth and death dates of the deceased, and especially the exact direction and layout of the grave has a direct and inescapable influence on the good fortune of the surviving family.

Picking up on old customs, wealthier people today, as Liao Yiwu describes in his interview with Huang Tianyuan, a 90-year-old fengshui master, pick and develop auspicious spots for their own graves while still alive. One local chief, he relates, purchased the indicated spot, had a major tomb structure erected, and moved all his ancestors into it. “He also ordered the craftsmen to build a grave for himself, which was more spacious than his house. After the project was completed, the chief hosted a huge banquet, with twenty tables full of guests.” This lavishness, however, to the master was counterproductive. “I was invited but didn’t go. I got my butt out of there as soon as I could. If a person becomes to greedy, he starts to carry bad energy. I was afraid he would pass that bad energy on to me.”

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

Read: Liao, Yiwu. 2009. The Corpse Walker: Real-Life Stories, China from the Bottom Up. New York: Anchor, 61-72.

Seaman, Gary. 1992. “Winds, Waters, Seeds, and Souls: Folk Concepts of Physiology and Etiology in Chinese Geomancy.” In Paths to Asian Medical Knowledge, edited by Charles Leslie and Allan Young, 74-97. Berkeley: University of California Press.


37. Qigong

The most radical empowerment of individuals with regard to health in China today is the practice of qigong 气功 or “energy work,” a system of slow body movements in coordination with deep breathing and mental guiding of qi that releases tension, effects healing, and contributes to overall well-being. It began in 1947, when a CCP cadre named Liu Guizhen 刘贵真fell terminally ill and recovered with the help of traditional Daoist exercises. The Party, seeing the potential for widespread healthcare, adopted them in its own way, making sure that qigong would be free from ancient cosmological concepts and superstitions while becoming more compatible with Western science.

They duly made it the main vehicle of health maintenance for Party cadres, predominantly practiced in a medical setting and limited to healing purposes. During the Cultural Revolution it was banned, and practitioners went underground. In the 1970s, they returned and took the practice away from the Party. Creating their own modern forms, increasingly specialized to impact specific organs or conditions, they ran classes in parks that proved highly effective in the healing of diseases, even advanced forms of cancer, and made qigong into the widespread, popular practice known best in the West.

Responding to this increase, the government in the 1980s set up various national and regional organizations, sort of the Daoist Association for qigong. At the same time, the main focus of the practice among the populace shifted away from healing to the acquisition of extraordinary powers like clairvoyance, telepathy, psychokinesis, distance healing, and so on. The craze for these powers slowed down in the 1990s, when several highly popular masters were arrested for fraud and many feats were unveiled as quackery.

While the state issued more stringent regulations, demanding that qigong leaders be certified doctors or therapists, millions of followers found themselves at a loss of who to trust. This vacuum was filled by new groups that made ethics a fundamental part of the practice and added more religious features, such as chanting, ritual, and meditation. To all intents and purposes new religions, they claimed to lead their followers to transcendent salvation.

The most prominent among these, with millions of followers, was Falun gong 法轮功 (www.falundafa.org), a messianic cult founded in 1992 by Li Hongzhi 李洪志. A self-proclaimed bodhisattva, he set out to rid the planet of demons and ready it for the new world to come. To this end, he controlled people’s lives and minds, prohibiting the reading of anything except his books and any healing besides his five key practices. He was also opposed to mixed marriages, women’s autonomy, and various other modern features. His group was outlawed and has been actively persecuted since 1999, some people, as Liao Yiwu documents, still hiding from the authorities, living without proper registration and in constant fear.

The fall-out from the persecution was that all modern forms of qigong—unlike ancient healing exercises—are now technically prohibited in China and should not be practiced in public. Exercise in parks today tends to focus on taijiquan, which is officially sanctioned as a sport with Olympic aspirations, Western-style aerobics, ballroom dancing, as well as various new forms of movement to music. Also, yoga is making great headway in China, seen entirely as a physical workout and to the exclusion of all spirituality or religious context.

At the same time, Daoist temples, adapting to the physical fitness market, sponsor exercise practice closely matching qigong patterns for lay followers and encourage it among its residents. Some of them have also developed specific styles so that, in addition to Wudang martial arts, there are now systems related to various holy places, such as the Mount Emei Sage Style in 24 movements that opens the meridians and enhances internal healing.

An example that shows just how much Daoists have adopted bodily well-being as part of their doctrine appears in the short pamphlet Daojiao yangsheng quanxiao geyan 道教养生全孝格言 (Pertinent Words on Daoist Long Life and Filial Piety), a publication of the Daoist temple on top of Mount Qingcheng. Entirely focused on health, it encourages physical movement along the lines of qigong without ever mentioning the term.

Practice self-massage.

Study fist or sword,

Kick a ball,

Or go for a walk,

Maybe bathe in sunlight—

But never cease your efforts.

Its only more religious note is an encouragement to “accumulate merit” by doing good deeds and behaving ethically, which too will aid health and long life by keeping conscience clean and the mind pure.

Watch: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=r-PeMnWzeNc


Read: Palmer, David. 2007. Qigong Fever: Body, Science and Utopia in China. New York: Columbia University Press.

Kohn, Livia. 2008. Chinese Healing Exercises: The Tradition of Daoyin. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press.

Liao, Yiwu. 2009. The Corpse Walker: Real-Life Stories, China from the Bottom Up. New York: Anchor, 230-41.

36. Temple Clinics

Photograph courtesy of Helene Minot

Corruption and uncaring physicians tend to occur mainly in hospitals focusing on Western biomedicine. Traditional Chinese doctors, who use various indigenous methods such as herbs, massages, cupping, acupuncture, and dietary modification, by the nature of their field have to look at the whole patient, including his social situation, lifestyle, and mental attitude. Despite serious Communist efforts to modernize and streamline these methods into a biomedically acceptable system with streamlined treatment protocols, formally known as TCM, doctors still see symptoms as indications of systemic imbalance and prescribe exercises and lifestyle changes as much as interventions by herbs or needles.

Daoists, never entirely taken in by TCM while always seeing patients within the larger framework of society and cosmos, follow a system called Classical Chinese Medicine that adheres strictly to the ancient teachings as codified in the Huangdi neijing 黄帝内经 (Inner Classic of the Yellow Emperor) and is entirely geared toward individual uniqueness and personal cultivation. Seeing the body as a major portal to spiritual cultivation, Daoists have long had an intimate connection to medicine. Many leading Daoists were also physicians, and vice versa—the most prominent being Sun Simiao 孙思邈 (581-682), Tang dynasty Daoist, alchemist, physician, pharmacologist, and more, now widely venerated as the King of Medicines (Yaowang 药王).

Today, many temples house clinics and monks often train in various medical techniques. Thus, for example, Huang Zongsheng 黄宗胜, abbot of the Changchun guan 长春观 (Temple of Eternal Spring) in Wuhan, early on specialized in herbal formulas, notably for swollen eyes and female troubles. He not only prices his medicines low, so people can afford them, but also offers them in free trials, not charging anything at all until patients experienced some relief. In addition, he and other Daoist doctors often hold free clinics for the poor, working the first half of the day for free, then seeing paying patients in the afternoon. Part of their service to society and world, this is possible because the temple takes care of their room and board, and they had few personal needs and no dependents to support.

Generally today, temple clinics use the full gamut of Chinese medical techniques to treat, and strive to create a something they call “Daoism in life” (shenghuo daojiao 生活道教). This vision encourages temple Daoists to offer social in addition to medical services, such as psychological counseling for people confused by the modern world, thereby raise the religion’s presence in society.

Another form Daoist health care takes is qi-healing, using vital energy to stimulate physical health, either activated by the patient through qigong exercises or infused by a practitioner via laying-on of hands. While qigong as an unsupervised, private community practice has been outlawed since the Falun gong protests in 1999, its medical use in properly accredited and government-supported clinics has been on the rise.

An example is the Eight Trigrams Red Cross Medical Exchange Center in the western outskirts of Beijing. Founded by Master Wan Sujian (b. 1953), originally trained as a Western-style physician and working for the People’s Liberation Army, it offers training in qigong exercises, vigorous (almost acrobatic) gongfu routines, external qi-healing, traditional music, tea ceremony, and Daoist ritual.

Qigong exercises in this context serve to tonify the three elixir fields, purify the meridians, strengthen the essence, and harmonize yin and yang energies. External qi-healing, here commonly undertaken by a group of six to eight practitioners, involves both hands-on massage techniques and external qi transmission without direct touch. These and other forms of energy-enhancing treatments closely engage the patient in the healing process, gradually shifting both diagnostic awareness and control over treatment protocols to the patient.

Watch: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mcSAD-Cqs5o

Read: Liu, Xun. 2008. “Profile of a Quanzhen Doctor: Abbot Huang Zongsheng at Wuhan’s Monastery of Eternal Spring.” Journal of Daoist Studies 1:145-60.

Rinaldini, Michael. 2008. “How I Became a Daoist Priest.” Journal of Daoist Studies 1:181-87.

Favraud, Georges. 2016. “Immortals’ Medicine: Daoist Healers and Social Change.” Journal of Daoist Studies 9:101-20.