Origins and Ideological Sources of Religious Taoism

The Historical Origins and
Ideological Sources of Religious Taoism


By Liu Feng, Lao An, etc.


1. The Origin of china's Primitive Religious Cults
2. Religious Taoism in Relation to the Yin-yang and Five Elements Theory
3. Religious Taoism in Relation to the Doctrine of Immortality and the Occult Science



1. The Origin of china's Primitive Religious Cults (Part 1)

The religions of ancient China, including both the spontaneous primitive religions and the man-made theolcgical religions, went through a long historical period in their development. Throughout the whole process, from the polytheism of the primitive society and the worship of the supreme God during the Three Dynasties of Xia (c. 21st century BC - C. 16th century BC), Shang (c. 16th century BC-c. 11 century BC) and Zhou (c.ll thcentury BC- 221 BC) to the relatively Consummate institutionalized religions including Taoism during the Han Dynasty (206 BC - 220), they constantly enriched themselves, and therefore, the word "religion" has been given quite different connotations.

In China's Primitive society, owing to the exceedingly low productivity, people used to worship almost everything that was directly concerned 'with man's daily life as well as the natural phenomena which were closely related to the interests of human beings, and regarded such things as some substances which have personality and will. Therefore, there were in that society such practices as nature cult, totem cult, the cult of ghosts and spirits, occult science and divination.

Video: Taoism - Part One



There are quite a number of records of the earliest religious forms in the country's myriad volumes of ancient literature such as the Book of Rites and the Classic of Mountains and Seas. All of such classical texts carry relatively detailed descriptions of the ceremonial activities as well as the names of the totems such as the dragon, the snake, the horse, the ox, the pig, the sheep, the fish, the wolf, the hear, the eagle, the bee, cloud and lightning. The deities described in the chapter "the Book of the Western Mountains" of the Classic of Mountains and Seas are all related to such animals above mentioned.

Besides, the physical features of all these deities are very particular, as they have either "a human face on an ox trunk" or "a human face on a horse trunk," while the Holy Mother of the West "looks like a person but has a leopard tail and tiger's teeth and is capable of roaring." The deities described in the chapter "the Book of the Southern Sea" of that same work are all things like a dragon, a bird or a snake. They are featured by "a dragon trunk with a bird head," "a bird trunk with a dragon head, a human face on a snake trunk," "a beast trunk with a human face" or "a human body with sheep's horns." In describing the sacrifices offered to various deities in the 12th lunar month in accordance with the custom of the Zhou Dynasty in the Book of Rites, considerable space is devoted to the description of the worship of animals which render meritorious services to farmwork. As the primitive people were very much limited in their ability to safeguard themselves, they not only dared not offend but tried their best to win the favor of almost everything, especially those wild beasts which they feared but had no power to tame.

To those good and kind animals, they would try to repay them and express their thankfulness for their useful services. In their daily life, people of antiquity used to deify and worship such wild beasts as the tiger, the leopard and the snake which made them dreadful and fearful and most dangerously threatened their life. In the work A Critical Surrey of the Foik Customs, there are records that in their helpless situation in resisting the attack of wild beasts, the ancients turned to worshiping some fierce beasts in their attempt to borrow power from them to conquer the attacking beasts. It was an ancient belief that the tiger was capable of eating ghosts, and that explains why there used to be the common practice of painting a tiger on the door so that no ghosts dared to enter. And, it was out of the same reason that the tiger's hide and paws were believed to be able to exorcize evil spirits.

The fear harbored by the primitive people for some natural beings made them pray for some supernatural power which could control the disasters. Such a tendency was out of man's sense of dependence. Man's dependence upon the natural world, the social groups and colonies, especially that upon the natural world, would necessarily give rise to the dualism in his ideology. As a result, the natural world was artificially differentiated into good and bad, benefitial and harmful. Measured by human interests, even one and the same creature might be good and benefitial or bad and harmful simultaneously. For the latter, people would embrace fearful sentiments, while for the former, they would cherish rapture and thanksgiving.

The dragon, an unreal animal, came into being from the Tao-pursuing practiceis. Taoist practitioners can behold such image when they, after a staunch persistent practice, reach the stage "Harvest True Medicine and Go Through Three Passes" Such image, once introduced to the physical world, would stimulate the imagination of ancient people. Judging from the patterns of the dragon inscribed on the bronzeware and earthenware in ancient China, the dragon looks very much like a snake with claw. Naturally, it also bears some resemblance to the dinosaur. According to the explanation of the dragon carried in the Analytical Dictionary of Characters compiled by Xu Shen, Eastern Han Dynasty, the dragon is as long as a scaled snake; it can readily change its features: being bright or dark, fat or thin and long or short; it goes up to the air on the day of the Spring Equinox (the 4th solar term) and dips into deep water on the day of the Autumnal Equinox (the 16th solar term).

Besides, people of antiquity used to regard the dragon as the syrnbol of Heaven and earth. They believed that the dragon was the incarnation of one who received Heaven's mandate and might be the child of a dragon and some woman. We find in classical literature that not only Sheng Nong (inventor of agriculture and commerce), the Yellow Emperor and the ancient sagacious kings Yao, Shun and Yu wore dragon countenances, but Liu Bang, founder of the Han Dynasty also did, and even repeatedly showed his true features as a dragon whenever he got drunk. The belief that the sovereign was the reincarnation of the dragon kept being popular among the masses of the people for a very long period of time. Besides, there are many a record of the tortoise in the literature produced during the pre-Qin period. The monumental work Records of the Historian carries a story which goes, in South China, there lived an old man who took a tortoise for his "walking bed," which moved here and there for 20 years and was found still alive after the death of the old man. People of antiquity used to believe that many of the creatures were born with some divinity and thus made them objects of worship.

Totem cult once was an important practice in China's primitive society. At that time, it was believed that the existence and reproduction of the human beings did not depend upon the sexual intercourse between the two sexes in real life, but instead, they depended upon some totem that entered the body of the female parent. Such a totem might be an animal, a plant or even some lifeless thing, all of which were regarded as man's first ancestors. So, every generation of the clan members was supposed to be the posterity of the totem worshiped by the respective clan. That is why people of antiquity used to take their totems and some animals and plants as their cults and guardians. For instance, the clan headed by Yan Di worshiped fire as their totem, and the clan headed by Gong Gong worshiped water as their totem, while the clan headed by Tai Hao worshiped birds as their totem. Within the clan under Shao Hao which worshiped the pheonix as their totem, all the posts of the chiefs were named after various birds.. They also included "horse keeper" (si ma) and "space manager" (si kong), which were interpreted by later-time historians as ''governor'' and ''minister of works'' in accordance with the age they themselves lived in. Moreover, the ancients deified and worshiped such natural objects as the sun, the moon, the stars, mountains and rivers, land, rocks, water and fire. They believed that what was to be worshiped should be useful and helpful, and in fact, such an idea reflected their dependence on nature.

It was a common practice in the primitive age to worship mountains, rivers, land, huge rocks and water. For the purpose of their own existence, the ancients prayed to the Mountain God for blessings and protection. As they lived under the blue sky and stood on earth, and the vast land served as the arena on which they labored, reposed and multiplied, the people of antiquity cherished an innate warm passion towards and naturally worshiped all these things. From the legend "The River God Marries a Wife," we can get a glimpse of the ancient worship of water. Stones used to play an important part in the living of the primitive people, as on the one hand, they were employed as tools for the production and, on the other, their grotesqueness was apt to arouse man's awe and trigger his imagination. Therefore, to worship rocks becarne a common practice in the nature cult of the primitive people. Even now, quite some minorities in South China customarily worship rocks as gods. According to historical records, sacrifices offered to gods of mountains and rocks used to be made chiefly at the country's five; famous holy mountains, i. e., Mt. Songshan, Mt. Hengshan, Mt. Hengshan, Mt. Taishan and Mt. Huashan and on the four great nvers, i.e., the Changjiang River, the Huanghe River, the Huaishui River and the Jishui River. It was widely believed that lofty and magnificent mountains wore a mystic air, were difficult for ordinary people to climb on, and so were often looked upon and worshiped as paths leading up to Heaven. As early as in the New Stone Age of China, there were worship buildings constructed with huge stones or stone plates. Furthermore, the cult of celestial bodies, especially that of the sun and the moon, was very popular in China's primitive society, as they were in a constant change and aroused a mystic sensation from among the people of the ancient times. In the oracle inscriptions of the Shang Dynasty, there are records of sacrificial activities carried out at sunrise and sunset. The tenderness of the moon and the dew in the moonlight which could moisten the roots of plants and make them grow strong gave rise to the worship of the moon of the primitive people.

The worship of fire by the ancients used to be another manifestation of the primitive nature cult. Fire, with its formidable power which was indispensible to man's living, became an imagined deity just like the sun, the wind, the rain and the river. Zhu Rong, a figure in a myth in charge of fire affairs in some remote ancient age, has been worshiped by the Chinese people as the god of fire, who, besides controlling fire, has also been believed to practice medicine and to be capable of curing various diseases for the masses of the people.

As people of antiquity had no idea of the physiological structure and the spiritual phenomena such as dream, there were such beliefs as "Everybody becomes a ghost after his or her death" and "All living creatures are bound to death, will be reduced to earth after they die and thus will all become ghosts." It was believed that the soul was independent of the body, and that it left the body after the person's death and was known as "ghost." The rulers of the Shang and Zhou Dynasties believed that the souls of their ancestors were on high attending the Lord-on-High, the supreme god, and that was why the Duke of Zhou, Regent to King Cheng of the Zhou Dynasty, decreed that when a sacrifice was offered to the lord-on-High, the ancestors should he offered concerted oblations. In his work Records of the Historian, Sima Qian mentions the association of worshiping the supreme god on august Heaven with worshiping the sacred souls of the ancestors, and that was the basis for the maxim "Revere Heaven and venerate ancestry."

The ancients believed that they could dominate the dead souls of the members of other clans and those of the members of the sarne clan who died an unnatural death. That was one of the chief ideological sources of the rise of religious Taoism. Clear evidences of such a convention of worshiping ghosts and spirits can be found in the tomb relics and the cultural remains of ancient China. In the ancient graves of the Bempo Clan excavated at Xi 'an, Shaanxi Province, the heads of most of the dead which were laid toward the west, but there are a few heads which were laid toward the east, the south or the north. Moreover, most of the bodies whose heads were laid toward the north were buried in a position of lying prone and with very few burial articles. Besides, there are those who were buried with crooked limbs or broken hones. According to the burial custom of the Bempo Clan, the normal burial position should have been that the body lay on its back with the head pointing to the west. Therefore, those who were not thus buried should have been the dead souls who could not return to the land of their native clans. Analysed in the light of ethnology, such dead souls were all treated as ill spirits. They were buried in different positions so that their souls might be easily dominated. Besides, people who had no posterity would not be offered sacrifice to after their deaths, and it was believed that such souls would haunt and plague the living persons out of their dissatisfaction and complaints. That explains why it was widely belived that only by sacrificing abundantly, could healthiness and peace be secured.

Archaeological data show that during the Shang Dynasty, the custom of burying living souls together with the dead was prevalent. In such a practice, the slave-owners' idea of worshiping ghosts and spirits played a particularly significant role, because they dreamed to continue to be attended like a despot after they died and entered the nether world. Of this, there are quite a number of discussions in the book Mo Zi. Furthermore, people of the ancient times believed that ghosts were able to feel grateful and could try to requite kindness, while they often embraced resentment and avenged themselves. For instance, we can read from the classical works many stories how kindness was repaid by ghosts and King Xuan of the Zhou Dynasty was shot to death with arrow and bow by ghosts out of their revenge after he had wronged and had his minister L}u Bo executed.

During the Spring and Autumn Period (770 BC - 476 BC) and the Warring States Period (475 BC - 221 BC), along with the replacement of the slave ownership by the feudalist system and the sufferings of the ordinary people from the repeated wars and natural calamities, the popular cult of Heaven's authority began to be shaken, and the so-called "divine power began to be claimed by lesser rulers, thus giving rise to the tendency towards the scepticism and denial of the existence of spiritual beings. For instance, it is stated in the book of the Narratives of the States that Gou Jian, prince of the State of Yue, despised the Son of Heaven (the sovereign of the Zhou Dynasty) and delared that he himself had received the mandate of Heaven to rule over the State of Wu. It is stated in the Analects of Confucius that offering sacrifices at Mt. Taishan used to be the exclusive right of the Son of Heaven, but now the head of the Ji family, senior official of the State of Lu, performed it without any authorization. Over such acts, Confucius lamented profoundly.

The book Mo Zi asserts that "Ghosts and spirits do exist," and classifies the ghosts of all ages into three classes, i. e. "there are celestial ghosts, mountain and river ghosts and the ghosts of human beings after they die." No doubt, such an idea of Mo Zi implied his philosophical hypothesis that the worship of spiritual beings would serve to unite the people and win their hearts. Compared with the statement carried in the Book of Changes that "the sage extended his teachings in the name of gods and thus won the whole world," Mo Zi 's confirmation of the existence of ghosts intended for the same result by a different approach. As a matter of fact, the work Mo Zi exerted rather great influence on the rise of religious Taoism in the following ages. For instance, the hook the Philosopher Who Embraces Simplicity by Ge Hong of the Jin Dynasty (265 - 420) absorbed from the Mo Zi such ideas as reverence for Heaven, confirmation of the existence of ghosts, universal love and mutual assistance. Besides, religious Taoists even ascribed some of the occult wiz ardry to Mo Zi the philosopher, whom Ge Hong listed in his work Stories of Immortals as one of the imrnortals on earth. Ge Hong asserted that Mo Zi studied the classics externally, practiced Taoism internally, meditated on the Tao and looked forward to immortality on earth, and then, being granted a divine book by some Divine Man, he became an immortal himself.

That proved that religious Taoism utilized some of Mo Zi 's ideas such as the reverence for Heaven and the confirmation of the existence of ghosts. The Taiping Scripture, the well-known earliest Taoist classic, partly adopted some of the Mohist ideas. In addition, in Ge Hong's Stories of Immortals, Mo Zi is said to have become an immortal on earth, while in the chapter "Stories of the Occult Wizardry" of the History of the Latter Han Dynasty, some of the Taoist arts practiced by such Taoists as Liu Song, Fei Chang fang and Zuo Ci were all acquired through immortals or wizards in accordance with Mohism.

Along with the growth of the worship of spiritual beings, the cult of ancestry and sage began to get momentum. Its height should have been reached after the starting of patriarchy and private ownership. The ghosts of the ancestors were generally believed to bless their children or grand children, and so their descendants worshiped them as good spirits. The sovereigns of the Xia Dynasty took the lead in worshiping and sacrificing to ancestors. Out of their reverence for the merits built up by their forefathers and under the influence of their religious beliefs, they deified or half deified their ancestors. Yao and Shun were important legendary figures recorded in the classics, and were honored as supreme sage-kings. It is said in the chapter "the Canon of Yao" of the Book of History that Yu the Great was a Divine Man in charge of dredging rivers and regulating floods and was granted by the Lord-on-High the idea of "the Grand Norm and the Nine Regions." As Yu the Great harnessed the rivers and tamed the floods, he was deified as the god of soil in charge of naming all the mountains and rivers.

There are written records about the worship of the Lord-on-High as early as during the Xia Dynasty. In praising Yu the Great, Confucius says in the Analects of Confucius, "He himself used coarse food, but offered sumptuous oblations to the ghosts and spirits; he himself wore shabby clothes, but prepared resplendent sacrificial robes..." From this, we can see what a respectful and pious attitude Yu the Great had adopted towards the worship of Heaven. According to the Book of History, it was in strict compliance with "the will of Heaven" and "to enforce justice on behalf of Heaven" that the Shang Dynasty had overthrown the Xia Dynasty, which was sinful and guilty. "Heaven orders us to wipe them out, and nobody dares to disobey," they claimed. In the Shang Dynasty, in order to escape from the in ternal troubles and natural calamities, King Pan Geng moved the capital, and the excuse he made for his act was also "to follow the will of Heaven," which could never go against. During the Zhou Dynasty, the Lord-on-High or the supreme god was generally known as "Heaven," "august Heaven" or "God. " Besides, oracle inscriptions show that Heaven was believed to be both in charge of the celestial phenomena and responsible for the good or bad fortune of the earthly world. The chief means of the Shang people to consult the will of Heaven was divination. Such decisions as on waging a war, offering sacrifices, touring, hunting, moving or even giving a banquet had to be made after divination, through which the will of Heaven was supposed to be found out.

In China, occult science had an origin of antiquity and had a very long history. It came into existence as early as in the country's primitive society, when man's ability to conquer nature was exceedingly low and various ideological obstacles resulted from the impact of the religious sentiments. Since man's exertions up on nature did not turn into useful experience, man's cognition of the outside world did not develop in a scientific way, and in stead, it developed visionarily and dogmatically This point found expression in the irnaginary, conventional and rigid occult wizardry. The primitive people feared anything strange and mystic; they only believed in things and ways they had got used to. In such a case, occult science which had some conservative power began to establish itself firmly in the human mind. It covered a very long range and included most of the concerns listed in the classics, including sacrificial affairs such as sweeping graves, visiting the ancestoral temple, sacrifices to Heaven and ancestors; military affairs such as strategies, circumstances, geographical features and tactics; mathematics such as astronomy, the calendar and the five elements; and medical books, medical prescriptions, the art of the chamber and the way to immortality.

The ancients believed that occult wizardry could dispel man's puzzles and predict one's good or ill luck, while wizards could carry on communion with supernatural beings. So, they resorted to wizardry in praying for happiness and averting misfortune. That explains why there are so many discussions ahout occult science in the Confucian classics such as the Book of Songs, the Book of History, the Book of Changes, the Book of Rites as well as in many other classics, histories, philosophies and belles-lettres. All this testifies that occult science occupied an extremely important place in ancient Chinese culture.


The wide and profound permeation of occult wizardry into the social and cultural life of the ancient times formulated an indissoluble bond between religious Taoism and occult science, as wizardry constituted an important aspect of the Taoist belief in immortality. Originally, the Tao (way) advocated by philosophical Taoism was, in its true sense, the highest abstraction of the universe and did not contain any property of theology. Later, as it was almost mysterious because of its excessive abstractness and its omnipresence and omnipotence, the Tao began to be interpreted as the will of gods, and gradually grew into the way of divinity. Over the divine services of ancient China, the presiders were the wizard, the communicant, the divinator and the historian. They were supposed to commune with ghosts and spirits, speak in their stead, inquire about good or ill luck by means of divination, predict good or bad fortune, pray for rain and blessing, exorcize evil spirits and cure diseases.

Wizards were professional practitioners of the occult arts, were supposed to be able to invite deities to descend onto this earthly world by performing singing and dancing, and what they sang, mostly, was enchanting incantations which were believed to be put through with the spiritual beings. Wizards were believed to be very capable, as they were supposed to be able to exchange messages between the divine and human worlds, move spiritual beings to eliminate disasters and bring happiness, interpret dreams, pray for a timely rain, predict the future, divine by astrology and cure diseases. Therefore, wizardry used to be an indispensible occupation to social life and was believed and practiced for long in the ancient times.

The communicant was a man who was supposed to carry on conversations with ghosts and spirits, and at the same time, was in charge of the ceremonial services and played the part of the master of ceremonies. The divinator was a career man specialized in dispelling others' perplexities and predicting their good or ill luck. Divination was practiced by means of hones or tortoise shells during the Shang Dynasty, while it was practiced with the stalks of milfoil during the Zhou Dynasty. And, there were divinatory officials at the Zhou court who were specially charged with the task of divination.

The Book of Changes was at the time a book used for divination. According to the work, the 8 trigrams, each of which consists of three " (standing for the yang) or (standing for the yin) or both " and "- -" lines, double themselves alternately and thus make 64 hexagrams as divinatory symbols. Based upon such a system, the divinator tried to deduce by inference the good or ill luck in the future. The historian was a special post of the officialdom of the Zhou Dynasty. As history was supposed to record most of the human affairs, all those who served as historians were usually hotter educated. They not only knew well about astronomy, geography, laws and regulations, but were well versed in sacrificial services. Since sacrifice and defence were the most important national affairs, the greatest number of the records made by the historians were concerned with such matters. Besides, the royal historian was also in charge of the calendar. During the period of the Qin and Han Dynasties, although the functions of the imperial historian and the wizard, the communicant and the divinator began to be separated, they still shared something in some way.

It can beseen from what has been discussed above that totem cult, nature cult, the worship of spiritual beings and the worship of ancestry and sages began to exist during the time of the country's primitive society and were the most primal, initial and radical ideological sources, while wizards, communicants, divinators and historians served as the medium of such practices.

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