Taoism in today's China

Wednesday January 20, 2016: Le Taoism in today's China, lecture by Catherine Despeux, Professor emeritus of the National Institute of Languages ​​and Civilizations (INALCO).

Laozi, probably mythical character, would have lived at 5rd century BC JC and would have been contemporary of Confucius. According to legend, Laozi, dissatisfied with the behavior of the rulers, decided to go west on a buffalo. But before leaving the country, the guardian of the pass, Yin Xi, would have asked him to leave a teaching and this is how Laozi would have transmitted the Daode jing (Book of the Way and Virtue), key text of Taoist thought.

Under the Han Dynasty, there appeared a religious Taoism under an emperor who was surrounded by scholars who laid the foundations for a well-organized state religion, with for example a Cult to Heaven made every year in the Temple of Heaven. This Taoist religion, it is considered that it begins with the deification of Laozi in 165. A text of this date tells us that at the imperial palace, the emperor then worshiped Laozi as well as the Yellow Emperor and the Buddha. It was at this time that religious movements developed which are called Laozi and have been subversive. One of them, named School of five bushels of rice, was founded between 120 and 145 in Sichuan by Zhang Daoling. This first politico-religious movement, endowed with a government based on religious foundations, will be at the origin of the two most important current schools of Taoism.

Having been deified, Laozi becomes Taishang Laojun (the Most High Lord) and is no longer a historical person, but a cosmic force. He has neither face nor form but he communicates with the world of the living by signs that are interpreted by soothsayers. These interpretations will be in the history of China the source of many drifts and manipulations by emperors and ministers eager for power.

Religious Taoism incorporated local elements of shamanic type and some notions of Buddhism, imitating their descriptions of paradises and hells for example. After'School of five bushels also called the Way of the Heavenly Masters (Tianshi dao) appears at 4rd century, the current Shangqing (Supreme Purity) which will develop eremitism and meditation techniques. At the same time the current Lingbao (School of the Magic Jewel) will specialize in rituals and incorporate Buddhist conceptions. From the 10rd century, currents will develop that are rather exorcist in nature and appeal to the force of thunder. At 12rd century, the current Quanzhen (Total Perfection) will absorb elements of the three previous currents (Tainshi, Shangqing et Lingbao), but will remain an essentially monastic current. This current will particularly develop techniques of internal alchemy.

In today's China, the two main currents are the current Zhengyi from the Celestial Masters, rather layman and ritualist, and the current Quanzhen rather monastic.

In China, the state must intervene in all matters concerning society, including religious affairs. It recognizes, in principle, freedom of thought, religious freedom but not freedom of expression or freedom of action. Despite repeated attempts, China has failed to separate religions from the state. At the end of the Qing Dynasty, the country seeking to modernize, was the scene of major debates between science and religion. Temples were destroyed at the end of 19rd century. These destructions resumed in 1904, the date from which it was legal to confiscate the property of the temples to build schools. In 1912, with the advent of the republic, the fight against certain aspects of traditional life, including beliefs and popular customs, was particularly virulent. Sun Yatsen and the Kuomitang have fought these aspects more ferociously than Mao Zedong will. Sun Yatsen sold the temples to 1922 as schools, and in 1949, when Mao Zedong came to power, more than half of the temples had already been destroyed.

From 1949, Mao Zedong encouraged the creation of religious associations under the control of the state and the Taoist association was founded in 1957. The activity of these religious associations was stopped during the Cultural Revolution but resumed in the 80s with Deng Xiaoping's policy of openness. Five official religions are then recognized with five different associations: Buddhism, Taoism, Islam, Catholicism and Protestantism. Today, religion is no longer the opium of the people but is officially at the service of the State. Article 36 of the constitution says that “citizens of the People's Republic of China enjoy religious freedom, no body ofÉstate, no social group, no individual can compel a citizen to marry a religion or not to practice it, or adopt a discriminatory attitude towards the citizens believing or non-believers, theÉtat protects regular religious practices". Despite this, in practice, protecting is often synonymous with banning, suppressing and controlling.

The Taoist Association includes a national, provincial and local level. At the national level, there is the Office of Religious Affairs of the Council of State whose regulation was established in 1994 and revised in 2005. This office is the equivalent of the department that dealt with religious affairs in imperial China. An Office of Religious Affairs also exists at the provincial level as well as at the local level. For any religious activity, it is necessary to ask the authorization of the Bureau (local, provincial and national), whether to resume a cult, to establish a new one, to restore a temple or simply to make a pilgrimage. The by-law is posted in places of worship and any resident or out-of-town person must be registered. These places of worship can sell artistic objects, books, ritual objects and their revenues come mainly from this trade, but also from the activity of divination or care of the Taoist, and donations from individuals or the secular community.

The National Taoist Association, founded in 1957, has its headquarters in the Temple of the White Clouds (Baiyun Guan) in Beijing since 1984, temple of the monacal current Quanzhen. The two great currents of contemporary Taoism are the current Quanzhen and the current Zhengyi who is attached from 11rd century to a mountain in Jiangxi Province, the Longhushan (Mount Tiger and Dragon). The latter was recognized only in 1992. More recently, we see local currents that claim to be recognized in order to benefit from certain advantages and for several years, various provincial currents have developed.

1.Laozi deified

Laozi divinized. © Catherine Despeux

2.Zixiaogong. Wudang

Zixiaogong Temple in Wudangshan. © Catherine Despeux

The temples can be divided into two categories according to whether they are managed by monastic orders or by laymen of the current Zhengyi. The temples of the current Quanzhen are in principle constantly open to the public for liturgical practices in the morning and evening, for ceremonies according to a calendar of festivals and various ceremonies.

Community temples of the current Zhengyi are places where all kinds of activities are practiced, including divination and important festivals. These temples are fundamental for the community because they are the places where we will arbitrate conflicts and manage the community. The disputes and conflicts of the community are brought before the gods; the leaders of the temples, who are part of the community, will participate in this arbitration. These temples also render very important ritual services on the occasion of funerals, illnesses with exorcist rituals and places of teaching to transmit a certain moral

It is very difficult to differentiate a Taoist temple Quanzhen of a Buddhist temple, however, the red, blue, and yellow colors often predominate for the walls of the Taoist temples. Some temples have resident monastic clergy but also priests Zhengyi who come to work during the day and return home at night.

Lay community temples bring together family lineages. They are not easily recognizable on the outside and are not open all the time; in fact they are the homes of the village gods. Leaders of lay communities in charge of such temples lead a normal daily life and are called in in the event of ceremonies or religious activities. Some villages have several active community temples and a large number of gods, mixing Taoist and Buddhist deities. Some ceremonies can be animated with masked dances which tell the story of the gods.

Taoism has long since preached that to achieve the Dao (the Way) you had to be in good health. It is in this Taoism with a common ground of thought with traditional Chinese medicine that techniques such as those used in qigongsuch as breathing, visualization, concentration and meditation. The qigong has been replaced by Yangsheng (to feed or maintain one's life) in the 90 years. The Yangsheng is in the hands of the Taoist religious managed by the associations and therefore easier to control than the small movements of the qigong. Currently there are many centers of Yangsheng which are attached to the major Taoist centers, as part of the evolution of contemporary Taoism.

Another characteristic of this contemporary Taoism is to spread abroad by exporting practices that attract Westerners, be it the Yangsheng, geomancy or meditation. The State has promoted the export of these practices in an international way, first in Asia (Japan, South-East Asia, Taiwan), then in the West where, recently, there are Taoist associations, particularly in United States and Europe.

Local 3.temple Nanchang

Local temple near Nanchang (Jianxi). © Catherine Despeux

4.taijiquan at wudangshan

Taijiquan in Wudangshan. © Catherine Despeux

The Chinese government, fully aware of the great disparity between urban and rural areas, is seeking to develop the provinces and the countryside. Taoism is a means of providing the provinces with economic assistance because most temples are part of China's heritage legacy. Chinese but also foreign tourism will visit them, he goes to the mountains to immerse himself in the Taoist thought and possibly to practice activities such as the taijiquan (Tai chi). Mount Wudang in Hubei Province, believed to be the cradle of the arts of taijiquan, is well known for its monasteries but also for its centers of learning of meditation, martial arts and traditional medicine. Mount Qingcheng in Sichuan is home to a school of taijiquan that the master wishes to develop. He comes regularly to Europe to teach and also teaches this martial art in some primary schools of the region not only for the physical activity but also to train young people who later will be able to become teachers of this discipline.

Another aspect of contemporary Taoism is the desire to establish parity between men and women. An Institute of Taoist Studies for men is located near Chengdu; it teaches ritual, temple management, politics, medicine, music, etc. Since 2007, there is also an Institute of Taoist Studies for women in the province of Hunan, a province which has always been a region of female worship. The curriculum, similar to that of the men, emphasizes more activities that seem rather feminine like the tea ceremony, music and calligraphy.

Contemporary Taoism is the bearer of a powerful nationalism and contributes to the affirmation of national identity. It is considered very important for Chinese identity and for society because many charities are due to the temples and relieve the state of responsibilities that once fell upon it. The new Taoism is the guarantor of harmony: harmony of nature and man, harmony of society.

5. Huangtingguan-Nanyue Hunan

Temple of a female Huangtingguan cult. Nanyue (Hunan). © Catherine Despeux

6. Zhengyi ceremony at Wudangshan

Zhengyi ceremony at Wudangshan. © Catherine Despeux

This contemporary Taoism is a new Taoism, modernized in its forms with both a respect for tradition but also a simplification of both rituals and meditative methods. If this contemporary development allows the Taoists to exercise their activities in broad daylight, to benefit from economic facilities, it presents on the other hand constraints and the Taoists complain of being forced to play the hoteliers, to be overburdened with administrative and management tasks, to be obliged to attend multiple meetings organized by the authorities and, finally, not to have enough time to practice. Eremitic Taoism became very difficult and only a few were tenaciously able to take refuge in the remote places of the Zhongnan Mountains of the Xian region. There, they can practice their fasting, live in simplicity and destitution, in the silence and peace of a still preserved nature, in a word, follow the precepts of Laozi.


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