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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The Historical Origins and
Ideological Sources of Religious Taoism (Part 2)


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



2. Religious Taoism in Relation to the Yin-yang and

Five-agent:: Theories

In the course of its rise and development, religious Taoism was considerably influenced by the belief in the deities of the five realms, which was the child of the marriage of the yin-yang and five elements theories with the worship of ghosts and spirits prevalent in ancient China. Before the time of the Spring and Autumn Period and the Warring States Period, the five agents, i. e. water, fire, wood, metal and earth, whose specific features and functions were recogonized by the ordinary people through their long-term social practice, were merely material elements and did not imply the connotation of any property of social morality, just like what is stated in the Book of History, the five elements "are water, fire, wood, metal and earth. The water soaks; the fire blazes; the wood grows, either crooked or straight; the metal smelts; and the earth yields crops." It testifies that the so-called five elements originally referred to the five basic elements which constitute all the things and each of which has its own specific property and function.

However, during the Warring States Period, there emerged in China the yin-yang and five elements school represented by Zou Yan of the State of Qi. This school of philosophy combined the five virtues theory with the yin-yang and five elements theories and, after deifying them, they employed the combined theory in expounding the laws of the changes in Heaven's way and human affairs and the cause and trend of the changes of the dynasties. Besides, they explained the seasonal changes in terms of the rise and fall of the yin and yang qi, and interpreted the flourishing and declining of the dynasties as the successional generation and overcome of the five elements. They held that it was in accordance with the cycle of the successional overcome of the five elementss that the human society developed itself.

Video: Taoism - Part Two



The prosperity of the empire would necessarily show in advance auspicious omens and would take one of the five elements as the qi and color they set great store by. For instance, the establishment of the Yellow Emperor was heralded by the presence of huge-sized earthworms and mole crickets, with the prevalence of the qi of earth and the yellow color being valued, and the rule would be troubled and overcome by wood. Before the reign of King Tang of the Shang Dynasty, there was a gold sword emerging in water, the qi of metal prevailed and the white color was esteemed, while before the reign of king Wen of the Zhou Dynasty, there were red birds carrying red books between their beaks and gathering over the community of the Zhou House, the qi of fire prevailed, the black color was esteemed, and the future trouble of the empire would be of water Hence, the five virtues were determined by the presence of auspicious omens in accordance with the will of Heaven, and everything was prearranged by Heaven.

In the classic the Spring and Autumn Annals, there is a diagram in a strictly regular pattern drawn in accordance with the yin-yang and five elements theories. In this diagram, the directions of the five ancient kings are positioned as follows: the Yellow Emperor is located at the center and is supposed to possess the virtue of earth; Taihao is located in the east, is supposed to possess the virtue of wood, symbolizes spring and is alternately known as the Green Emperor; Yan Di is located in the south, is supposed to possess the virtue of fire, and symbolizes summer, alternately known as the Red Emperor; Shao Hao is located in the west, is supposed to possess the virtue of metal and symbolizes autumn, aiternately known as the White Emperor; and Zhuanxu is located in the north, is supposed to possess the virtue of water and symbolizes winter, alternately known as the Black Emperor.

During the Qin Dynasty (221 BC - 207 BC), the First Emperor of Qin (Qinshi Huangdi), after he unified the country by force, also followed the doctrine "the five virtues move in an endless cycle" as advocated by the disciples of Zou Yan. It was held that the Zhou Dynasty possessed the virtue of fire and that if the Qin Dynasty inherited that virtue of the Zhou, the rule of the Qin would not be successful. Therefore, the First Emperor of Qin made his rule the beginning of the virtue of water, changed his reign title, and decreed that all the respects to the new emperor to be paid on the first day of the 10th lunar month, all the attires, tallies, emblems and banners to be made in black, numbers to be counted with six as the unit, all tallies and credentials to be made six cun (a unit of length = 1/3 decimeter) long, all carriages to be structured six chi (a unit of length = 1/3 meter) wide and six chi long, the foot to be made up with six chi and six horses to be harnessed to one chariot.

Besides, the name of the Huanghe River was changed into the "River of Water Virtue," to mark the starting of the rule by the virtue of water. Moreover, it was stressed that such qualities as intestinal fortitude and rigor were to be cultivated and that everything had to go by laws and regulations. The supposition that the Qin House should rule by the virtue of water was grounded on the legend that in the old days, Duke Wen of Qin had once gone out hunting and captured a black dragon, which was supposed to be the auspicious omen of the virtue of water. Since water was supposed to overcome fire, the House of Qin in possession of the virtue of water should have managed to replace the rule of the House of Zhou which was in possession of the virtue of fire. It was believed that all this happened by the will of Heaven. Herein lies the real meaning of the doctrine followed by the disciples of Zou Yan that the five virtues move in an endless cycle and are applied to explain the replacement of the dynasties.

During the Western Han Dynasty (206 BC - AD 24), the philosopher-statesman Dong Zhongshu rearranged the sequence of the five elements. He strained the interpretations of the successional relationship of overcome of the five elements by analogizing it to the changes in the human society and human affairs. He holds that Heaven possesses the five elements: the first is wood, the second fire, the third earth, the fourth metal and the fifth water, and that wood is the start, while water is the end. Based upon such a sequence, he further expounds the doctrine of successional generation (begetting) between the five elements and analogizes it to the relationship between father and son, as wood generates (begets) fire, fire generates earth, earth generates metal and metal generates water.

Besides, the successional relationship of overcome between the five elements is brought in force between every other elements in the cycle, i.e. , wood overcomes earth, earth overcomes fire, fire overcomes metal and metal overcomes wood. Further more, Dong Zhongshu holds that the locations of the five elements should be that wood is on the left, metal on the right, fire in the front, water in the rear and earth at the center. And then, the corresponding seasons should be: wood located in the east stands for the qi of spring; fire located in the south stands for the qi of summer; metal located in the west stands for the qi of autumn; water located in the north stands for the qi of winter; and earth located at the center stands for all the four seasons. That Dong Zhongshu interpreted the theory of the five elemens in terms of qi rections, locations, seasons and feudalethics was intended to justify the rightness of the feudalist moral codes and order in the interests of the feudalist rulers.

The work Huainan Zi couples the five elements further with the so-calletl five directions, the five divine rulers, the five attendant spirits, the five measurements, the five seasonal periods, the five deities, the five beasts, the five musical scales and the five stems (for marking the days), thus asserting the whole universe being composetl of various "five elements" in a rigid mechanic pattern.

The above table shows clearly that the five legendary forefa thers are listed as five divine rulers (corresponding to the five a gents), assisted by the five attendant spirits, resorting to the five measurements, ruling over the land in the five directions throughout all the seasons, under the protection of the five star deities and resulting in the flourishing of the five beasts and the five musical scales through all the five days. All this symbolizes how the divine spirits of man's ancestors ruled over the world in the light of the five agents theory. Thus, the five agents were officially deified.

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The Historical Origins and
Ideological Sources of Religious Taoism (Part 3)


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



3. Religious Taoism in Relation to the Doctrine of Immortality and the Occult Science

The chief pursuit of religious Taoism may be said to be a long and serene life and become an immortal on earth. And such an idea of immortality became an important constituent of religious Taoism. However, it came into existence long before the rise of Taoism. For instance, the Classic of Mountains and Seas carries quite a number of records of the theory of immortality which existed for long. As a matter of fact, by the time of the Spring and Autumn Period and the Warring States Period, the social productivity had grown considerably, man's ability to conquer nature had been enhanced, and man's role in social production began to become prominent and be gradually recognized. All this found its Clear expression in people's scepticism of Heaven's will and the existence of any spiritual beings and in the tendency to stress more on man himself than on the deities.

The social progress in the human world promoted the awakening of man's self-consciousness, and at the same time enhanced his pursuit for his own values, thus arousing the longing of people for a long and serene life. For instance, fluke Xiang of the State of Qi once asked Heaven why the term of human life was so short, while Duke Jing of that same state once shed tears in the capital, lamenting the shortness of human life.

Stimulated by such a longing, the theory of immortality appeared in areas along the east coast of the country, while in West China, there appeared the advocation of the theory of nourishment of life initiated by the philosopher Zihua Zi. In the following ages, along with the development of the arts of nourishing life and curing diseases, some achievements were made in improving health and curing diseases, and there were legendary figures who enjoyed miraculous longevity. For example, Peng Zu, a high official of the Shang Dynasty, lived for more than 800 years because he constantly took in cassia twigs and was good at doing physical and breathing exercises. For another example, Duke Rongcheng of the Zhou Dynasty, who claimed to be the teacher of the Yellow Emperor and once made an audience with King Mu of Zhou, was particularly good at nourishing life and doing physical and breathing exercises. In his old age, consequently , his hair turned black again from white, his teeth cut again after they came off, and lived as long as the legendary Lao Zi did. All this reflected the good wish of the ancients for a long life. To make such a dream come true, people began to seek for the so-called elixir of life. A well-known Chinese myth goes that Chang'e, wife of the formidable bowman named Yi, stole and drank the liquid of elixir distilled by the deity the Holy Mother of the West for the banquet held by King Mu of the Zhou House on Mt. Kunlun, and, as a result, she flew and ascended into the palace in the moon. It is true that it is nothing but a myth, but from it we can still perceive the eagerness of the people of antiquity to find some kind of elixir and a way to immortality.

During the time from the Spring and Autumn Period and the Warring States Period through the period from the Qin Dynasty to the Han Dynasty, the pursuit of an everlasting life and immortality gradually became very popular owing to the discussions carried on the subject among scholars, the advocation on the part of the practitioners of occult science and the favor and patronage given by emperors and princes. And, following its steps, such a theory was inherited and developed by religious Taoism and became one prominent constituent characterizing this indigenous Chinese religion and making it radically different from all the heterogenous religions. The theory of immortality, as an important ideological source of religious Taoism, was indebted, to the greatest extent, to philosophical Taoism among all the philosophical schcols during China's pre-Qin times, especially to the two masterpieces of the Taoist school the Lao Zi and the Zhuang Zi.

Taoism as a schcol of philosophy advocates quietude and nonaction (wu wei) and to let everything develop in its natural course. It holds that the Tao (way) is the origin of the myriad things in the universe and is the law governing the changes of all things. In the respect of self-cultivation, philosophical Taoism holds that there exists a way to an everlasting life with unfailing senses, as there is quite some space dedicated to the discussion of such a point in the Lao Zi. The way to increase the span of existence as advocated by Lao Zi chiefly emphasizes the self-nourishment of life. But at the time, people widely believed that one who was good at nourishing life had no fatal point whatsoever all over the body, no beasts could ever hurt him and even weapons could not work upon him. Therefore, such a man was not afraid of facing female rhinoceros or tigers on his way and did not need any armor to protect himself in any kind of fighting. According to tradition, Lao Zi himself was particularly good at nourishing his life, and lived for more than 160 years or even 200 years, thus well deserving the name of a man of great achievement in increasing the span of his life. Naturally, the philosopher Lao Zi's great achievement lies not only in enjoying a long life himself, but, more significantly, in his proposal for the way to obtain a long life with unfailing senses. He believes that the most important point in prolonging one's life is to "keep your soul, embrace unity, and forever hold fast to the Tao," i.e. , to keep the unquiet physical soul from straying the body; in so doing, the key point is "never let the Valley Spirit die," i.e. to cultivate one's mind and never make it exhausted. And for this purpose, one should always keep one's mind in a state of constant tranquility and indifference to fame or gain; one must adhere to the principle of quietude and non-action (wu wei), selflessness, few desires, happiness out of contentment and hold oneself aloof from the earthly world.

On the other hand, the Zhuang Zi proposes a number of arts for the way to immortality and carries quite some descriptions of various immortals on earth. In its opinion, the Tao (way) is metaphysical; it can be passed on but can never be taught; and it can be acquired but can never be perceived. It made the ghosts holy and the rulers divine and gave birth to both heaven and earth. It is not high although it exists above the Great Ultimate, nor is it deep though it exists below the Sixth Ultimate. It came into being before both heaven and earth and yet it is not ancient; it began to work long before the remote ancient ages and yet it is not old. The functions of the Tao are boundless and miraculous. It was just because of their attainment of the Tao that the kings, the Divine Men, the immortals and the sages of antiquity became extraordinary. The Yellow Emperor, for instance, obtained the Tao and then ascended to heaven, while the Holy Mother of the West obtained the Tao and is residing in the Shaoguang Palace and her dates of birth and death remain unknown.

In the Zhuang Zi, immortals, including the Genuine Man, the Perfect Man and the Divine Man, are all vividly described. It is said that the Genuine Men of the ancient ages never feared any height they climbed, were never drowned in any deep water they dived into and were never burnt in any fire they stood in. They never dreamed in sleeping and never worried about anything when awakening; they were never greedy in eating and always breathing deeply.

The book tells us that the Genuine Man respires out of or into his heels rather than through the throat like an ordinary man does; he has wonderful magic power as he can rnake the sea frozen though it is not cold at all and can cleave great mountains with fierce thunderbolts; he can mount the clouds, speed across the sky, ride on the sun and the moon, and visit all the five lakes and the four seas. In the Zhuang Zi, there is a tale which goes: there lives in a great mountain a Divine Man, whose skin looks as white as ice and snow and whose figure is as slender and graceful as that of a maiden. He does not live on food, but takes in wind, drinks dew, rides on the back of a dragon, flies through the misty air and roams beyond the boundaries of the four seas. Such carefree excursionalists as depicted in the Zhuang Zi who ride on the clouds, speed through the misty air, roam within or beyond the boundaries of the four seas and are never limited by any connditions are indeed the most ideal im mortals visioned or dreamed by Zhuang Z

Furthermore, it is believed in the Zhuang Zi that the practice of the Tao enables people to recover their youthful vigor and promises longevity. The book carries very concrete and detailed instructions about the methods to practice the Tao. It advices that in doing the physical and breathing exercises, one should respire with an open mouth, exhale the foul air and inhale the fresh air. The person should hang himself like a bear onto the branch of a tree and stretch his limbs like a flying bird. However, such exercises are to be done merely for the purpose of prolonging life and they are preferred by people who are engaged in doing physical and breathing exercises and take good care of the shapes of their boodies as well as those who intend to enjoy a long life such as Peng Zu. That is only the first and preliminary method of practicing the Tao.

The second method of practicing the Tao, according to the Zhuang Zi, is to hold the Primal Unity. It is said that Master Guangcheng Zi was lying on his back with his head pointing to the south when the Yellow Emperor prostrated himself in the wind before the master, crawled on his knees, and, after kowtowing for several times, begged, "Sir, I am told that you have attained the perfect Tao, and I wonder how should one build up one's health so that one can live long?" Master Guangcheng Zi stood up quickly and replied, "An excellent question! Come on, and I will tell you what the perfect Tao is. Essentially, the perfect Tao is distant, dim, lusterless and soundless. It cannot be seen, nor can it be heard. As long as you can hold your soul and sink into quietude, your health will be regulated naturally. But only when you keep absolutely serene, can you obtain quietude within yourself. Remember, never make your body fatigue and never make your soul in a trance. In such a way, you can live long. Besides, you should not try to see anything with your eyes, not try to hear anything with your ears and not try to think about anything in your mind, so that your soul can hold fast to your body and you will enjoy a long life. Try your best to free yourself of all kinds of worries, and the abundance of your knowledge will lead you to a most brilliant future. Try your best to hold yourself and the myriad things will flourish naturally. Personally, I have held myself fast to the right Tao and always placed myself in the harmony between the yin and the ying. That is why my health has been taken good care of. I have been living now for 1, 200 years and my health has never shown any sign of decline."

The third method of practicing the Tao is to sit in a void mind. In the Zhuang Zi, it is suggested in the name of the in quiry and reply between Confucius and his favorite disciple Yan Hui. It is said that one day, Yan Hui mentioned to his master Confucius that he had made some progress. Confucius asked, "In what respect?" Yan replied, "In the fact that I have forgotten the principles of humanity and righteousness." A few days later, Yan Hui mentioned again to his master that he had made some further progress as he had forgotten the significance of rites and music. Another few days passed and Yan went to Confucius again, saying, "Sir, I have made the greatest progress, as I am able now to sit in a void mind." At this, Confucius felt surprised and asked about the true meaning of sitting in a void mind. Yan Hui replied, "Make no use of your limbs, discard your intelligence, get away from your body and rid yourself of your wisdom. Then, keep yourself open and blend yourself completely with the great Tao. That is the way to sit in a void mind."

The three methods of practicing the Tao listed above as suggested by Zhuang Zi was inherited and developed by religious Taoism in the following ages. Besides, the immortals depicted in the zhuang Zi such as Guangcheng Zi, the Yellow Emperor, the. Holy Mother of the West and Peng Zu were greatly revered and worshiped by the practitioners of occult science and Taoist priests of the following ages.

In his monumental work the Complaints in Excile (Li Sao) by Qu Yuan (c. 340 BC - c. 278 BC), the country's brilliant poet of the Warring States Period, there are also quite a number of lines expressing the longing for immortality and tales of immortals. The vivid and romantic tales of visionary roves and dreaming to ascend to heaven in this work share strong similarities with the tales of the immortals described in the Taoist scriptures of the later ages. This testifies that at the time the doctrine of immortality was considerably popular in the southern states of the Warring States Period. Under the influence of such a doctrine, not only ascending to heaven and becoming a celestial being were longed for by the world, but physical and breathing exercise began to be done widely.

Furthermore, in both the Zhuang Zi and the Elegies of Chu such occult arts as the making of elixir of life are also discussed. Indeed, at the time, people who were engaged in alchemy to seek for a long life were by no means few. As a matter of fact, the talk of immortals and the elixir of life was very popular in the northern states such as Yan and Qi. In fact, such a tendency could be seen in the legendary miraculous deeds of Bian Que, the well-known physician of Shangdong.

According to the Records of the Historian, Bian Que was a native of the county of Bohai and used to be the manager of an inn in his youth. There at his inn long stayed a guest named Changsang Jun, whose extraordinariness in his laudable demeanor could be discerned by Bian Que alone. Thus, Bian Que often entertained the man, while Changsang Jun, in his turn, also knew that Bian was no ordinary man. One day, Changsang Jun invited Bian Que to have an individual talk with him, and said to him in a mysterious manner,"I've got a secret recipe for the elixir of life. Since I myself am aged, I intend to pass it onto you. But you must never disclose it." Bian Que promised, "I will keep it a secret forever." Then, Changsang Jun gave him a doze of the drug and told him, "This medicine has to be swallowed down with rain-water which has never fallen on the ground. Then, after 30 days, you will be able to see through all things." Finishing these words, the old man disappeared abruptly. That made Bian Que realiz that the old man was some supernatural being. So he immediately began to do what he was told and after taking the medicine for 30 days, he could really see any person standing on the other side of a wall. In pursuing his career as a physician, Bian Que resorted to such an unusual ability and managed to find out the focus oi diseases within the internal organs by seeing through the body. From such a tale, we can see that Bian Que was extraordinary in deed. On the one hand, the old man Changsang Jun who offerred Bian Que the magic drug and the secret recipe not only had a keen insight into a man's moral character, but was miraculously powerful himself. Cn the other hand, after he took the drug offered by Changsang Jun for 30 days, Bian Que 5 vision became won derfully sharp, as he could see through a wall and the human in ternal organs. The tale that Changsang Jun the Divine Man offered the magic drug and made Bian Que 5 vision wonderfully sharp should have been the anticipatory model of the popular belief in immortals and the elixir of life during the following ages.

Since the existence of immortals and fairylands was widely believed, there were necessarily people who made serious and enthusiastic efforts in their pursuing. In attaining the way to immortality, the key point was how to break through the deadline of one's life span and realise the immortality of the individual. Thus, recipes for everlasting youthfulness and immortality emerged as the times required.

During the Warring States period, occult wizards from the coastal areas of the State of Qi cooked up a story and spread it all around, saying that there in the great sea were three holy mountains respectively known as Penglai, Fangzhang and Yingzhou, where resided some immortals in possession of elixir of life. Besides, the states Yan and Qi bordered the sea on the east and, influenced by the atmospheric circulation, people there often saw mirages, which either mirrored mountains, rivers and plants, or presented citadels and human figures. The illusory and changing sights and the dim and misty scenes on the esa kept arousing people's association and reverie. Along with the hearsay of the foreign countries beyond the sea and the legendary elixir of life, a tradition was gradually formed about the existence of some fairylands and the three holy mountains. In the chapter "Sacrifices offered to Heaven and Earth at Mt. Taishan" of the Records of the Historian, it is said that, allegedly, all the three holy mountains are located in the Bohai Sea, not far from this earthly world. However, whenever ships or boats are close to these holy mountains in their search, they will be blown far away by wind and cannot even touch a grain of their soil at all. There are some people who did visit those moutains, and according to them, there are indeed quite a number of immortals who posss the elixir of life; everything in the mountains including birds and beasts is white in color, while all the palaces and halls there are built up with gold and silver.

Before arriving in the mountains, if you look in the distance, you will see a sea of clouds; but when you have arrived there, you will find that the mountains lie below the surface of the sea. If you insist going further and closer, most likely, you will be blown away by the wind. It is said that Prince Wei of Qi (378 - 324 BC) and Prince Zhao of Qi (317 - 297 Bc) did once send to find out the truth. That was why "No rulers of the world can refuse the temptations" of the three holy mountains. They not only became the inducement for the First Emperor of Qin and Emperor Wu Di of Han to dream to become immortals, but also served as one of the ideological sources of the Taoist theory of tak ing elixir and attaining immortality. Compared with theory of self-cultivation to achieve immortality as advocated by both Lao Zi and Zhuang Zi, this tradition is aimed at the same goal by different means. Both theories promoted the growth of the two chief sects of internal alchemy and external alchemy within the Taoist religion as a whole.

Religious Taoism began to be known as the Way of Occult Immortality, as it is carried in the chapter "Sacrifices Offered to Heaven and Earth at Mt. Taishan" of the Records of the Historian. The author of the work Sima Qian says that under the reigns of Prince Wei and Prince Xuan of the State of Qi, Song Muji, Theng Boqiao, Chong Shang and Xian Mengao, all from the State of Yan, believed in and practiced the Way of Occult Immortality, transformed themselves into supernatural beings and joined ghosts and spirits. It is said that Song Muji and Zheng Bo qiao were immortals of the ancient times and people of the State of Yan named thensselves after them. Hence the popular saying,

"Everyone is named after the immortals in great admiration." At the time, it was believed that occult wizardry practiced by the Way was able to make one's soul to get away from one's body and join with the spiritual beings. Besides, after taking in the elixir, one might become an immortal on earth. That was why it was known as the Way of Occult Immortality. Practitioners of the occult arts from the states Yan and Qi once agitated Prince Wei of Qi, Prince Xuan of Qi, the First Emperor of Qin and Emperor Wu Di of Han to send to call on immotals and search for elixir in all the guarters of the country.