35. Health Care

Energy-enhancing eating and a healthy lifestyle as taught in Daoist resorts are becoming ever more important, given the problematic state of China’s health care system. While everyone received free care under Mao, economic development reduced state involvement to the point that, by 2003, only about 30 percent of the population had basic health care.

This number has greatly improved over the years, so that today most Chinese are covered, mainly due to the new rural cooperative medical care initiative. A voluntary system, funded by individual contributions and government subsidies for the poor, it reaches wide swathes of the population, although it continues to be plagued by inadequate funding, staff shortages, and insufficient equipment.

One issue is that while inpatient costs are covered, most outpatient visits are not, which leaves many people still unable to pay for hospital visits. Also, location matters, again referring back to the ubiquitous household registration system. Rural medical care covers 70-80 percent of a visit to the local clinic, but only about 60 at the county hospital, and even less for more specialist services, often located in bigger cities.

In addition, waiting times are long, often lasting hours. One can pay specially to get a prebooked time slot or hire someone to stand in line in one’s stead, but both cost money. Also, physicians are notoriously underpaid and overworked, commonly making less than $800 a month, even in larger cities. One brain surgeon in Tianjin, as Shaun Reid points out, made so little he had to take bribes to pay for basic living expenses.

Given this situation, they often require a “red envelope” filled with private cash to do a proper job. They also tend to overprescribe medicines for percentages from the pharmaceutical industry and recommend unnecessary surgeries to get kickbacks. Typically, they have little time or consideration for patients who they see in rooms filled with dozens of people, affording essentially no privacy or opportunity for calm and quiet conversation.

As a result, lower-income consumers feel helpless and angry at the medical system. Poor people,” Shaun Reid quotes an informant, “in China cannot afford to get sick. We have no insurance and do not trust doctors” (2014, 57). Protests are on the rise. In 2012, for example, the Chinese Hospital Association found that on average each hospital in China had 27.3 violent incidents, up from an average of 20.6 in 2008, bur rising to a total of over 20,000 in the country in 2013. Some of these protests even turn violent. For example, a patient in Harbin stabbed four hospital workers, killing one, because he did not get immediate treatment.

Responding to these protests, the government has cracked down on corruption, notably abuses of medical funds but also on physicians and administrators taking bribes. In addition, it has started a new campaign, Healthy China 2020. By this date, all citizens should have access to high-quality health care while living healthier lives overall. Focusing on urban areas most impacted by Westernization, the state encourages people to eat a more traditional diet and get more exercise—although with pollution on the rise the latter is a double-edged sword.

Watch: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=z3qV7-cD3vQ

Read: Burns, Lawton Robert, and Gordon G. Liu, eds. 2017. China’s Health Care System and Reform. Cambridge University Press.

34. Nutrition

Photograph courtesy of Helene Minot.

Daoist dietetics are also making an impact beyond mountain resorts, nutrition and food safety becoming an ever more important issue in today’s China.

Westernization and advanced technology, while increasing food production and encouraging a more lavish lifestyle, also brought the tendency to alter and denature foodstuffs. The most blatant examples include the polishing of rice and bleaching of wheat flour, which began in China in the late 19th century. Similarly, modern bio-engineering often reduces the nutritional value of basic staples and encourages the consumption of empty calories, leading to new and increased health problems, such as hypertension, diabetes, and obesity.

Not immune to these development, the Chinese have altered their eating habits, consuming fewer fruits and vegetables and more items containing fat, flour, and sugar: soft drinks, candy, cookies, hamburgers, and the like. This situation is exacerbated by issues of food safety, compromised not only due to pollution, pesticides, and antibiotics, but often caused intentionally by unscrupulous manipulators. A prime example is the 2008 melamine scandal, when tainted baby food harmed and even killed infants. Overall, people today are highly concerned about where their food is coming from, and more and more consumers insist on organic production.

Traditional Daoist dietetics, with their high respect for nature and profound awareness of the impact different foods have on the energy system of the body, can make an important contribution to healthy living. Not only do Daoists rely dominantly on vegetables—monastics eating vegetarian—but they also emphasize purity in preparation and utensils, avoid overly stimulating and heating foods, such as onions, garlic, and ginger, and match food choice and intake to seasonal change. Rather than according to content such as carbohydrates and protein, they classify foods by their energetic impact. Thus, yang foods are stimulating, warming, and qi-enhancing; they include apricots, barley, cherries, pineapple, plums, celery, and coconut. Yin foods are calming, cooling and qi-settling; examples are bananas, tofu, cucumbers, eggplant, lettuce, mushrooms, pumpkins, tomatoes, and watermelon. Neutral foods are neither yin nor yang but generally qi-maintaining; here we have apples, cabbage, carrots, papaya, grain, beans, and eggs.

These properties, moreover, are associated with the four seasons, with people’s ages, and with particular mental states. Thus, foods eaten in spring should be stimulating and neutral; in summer, they should have a calming and cooling effect. By the same token, young people tend to be warmer, more energetic, and more yang in quality, needing calming and cooling foods, while older folks have increased yin and tend to like meats, stews, and warming dishes. A lack of confidence, moreover, can be alleviated by consuming more yang food, while tendencies toward aggression will benefit from a mellowing yin-rich diet.

Organic, vegetarian restaurants that take these aspects into consideration are multiplying and becoming widely popular today, often run by Buddhists but increasingly also by Daoists. In addition, some Daoists also run restaurants specializing in medicated dishes (yaoshan 藥膳) that bolster and tonify qi as part of nutritional therapy or personal self-care. These dishes, geared to individual conditions, balance yin and yang, strengthen the constitution, prevent and treat diseases, and lengthen life. Many restaurants cater particularly to middle-aged men, helping them to supplement qi, prevent the depletion of sexual essence, and generally improve the functioning of their organs. Dishes include regular foodstuffs, supplemented by qi-enhancing herbs, such as ginseng, astralagus, schisandra, chrysanthemum, fennel, hawthorn, and Asian cornelian cherry, all part and parcel of the Daoist apothecary.

Watch: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MpWa3Xvalcw


Read: Anderson, Eugene N., and Marja L. Anderson. 1977. “Modern China: South.” In Food in Chinese Culture, edited by K. C. Chang, 317-82. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Kohn, Livia. 2010. Daoist Dietetics: Food for Immortality. Dunedin, Fla.: Three Pines Press.


33. Resorts

Photograph courtesy of Helene Minot

Besides invoking Daoist ideas of honoring nature and protecting the environment, on which more later, monastics have begun to style their mountain and country temples as pollution sanctuaries and are increasingly reinventing themselves as environmentalists.

Mountains are by nature away from cities and industrial zones, plus they tend to rise up into the skies, often reaching above toxic vapors. When I first climbed Huashan in 1991, I was surprised to see real sunlight once I got to a certain level, something entirely absent in the plains and cities below. In addition, the notion of “sacred mountain” encourages a strong sense of protection, not only for humans but also for animals and trees, encouraging biodiversity ad seeing all as part of an integrated universal and cosmic system that should not be tinkered with.

To enhance the purity of their centers, as Yang Shihua, abbot of Maoshan, the center of Highest Clarity Daoism, notes, Daoists erect their structures in an environmentally friendly manner, building around existing trees and rock formations. They use renewal solar energy rather than coal-produced electricity, keep motorized traffic to a minimum, conserve and recycle all materials as much as possible, and in general create a wholesome and healthy environment while encouraging a greater ecological awareness.

In addition, and with full support of the Chinese Daoist Association, they also offer resort-type spa services, often invoking the Daoist ideal of longevity. An example I visited a few years ago is the Daoist Long Life Center in the Blue Iris Garden (Qingzhi yuan 青芷园) condo complex in Beijing. Run by Wang Chengya 王称雅, a Beijing University graduate and White Cloud ordinand, the Center at the time occupied several floors of the community building. Arranged according to fengshui principles, its rooms are extremely well furnished and tastefully decorated with Daoist art.

Clients are first taken to two intake rooms to have themselves evaluated for physical ailments and astrological predispositions. They then receive a treatment plan, which includes dietary suggestions, herbal concoctions, special teas as well as herbal baths, massages, facials, qigong, and healing exercises. The Center employs an extensive staff and has a high rate of success, treating senior party cadres, the prime minister, and increasing numbers of foreigners.

Its model has been replicated widely among Daoist centers and especially mountains, where healthy living is a growing focus—entirely in line with the traditional Daoist view that all spiritual development begins with a healthy body, where qi flows smoothly and harmoniously. Also in line with historical precedent is the notion of temples as resorts—documented as far back as the Tang dynasty 1200 years ago and well described for the early 20th century, city dwellers would relocate to the mountains in the summer to escape the heat and humidity, then use the opportunity to improve their health and learn various longevity techniques—from diet through herbs, teas, exercise, and breathing to deep levels of meditation.

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


Read: https://www.chinadialogue.net/culture/9669-Taoist-monks-find-new-role-as-environmentalists/en

Miller, James. 2017. China’s Green Religion: Daoism and the Quest for a Sustainable Future. New York: Columbia University Press.

Girardot, Norman, James Miller, and Liu Xiaogan, eds. 2001. Daoism and Ecology: Ways within a Cosmic Landscape. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, Center for the Study of World Religions.

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.