Daoism during the Ming and Qing Dynasties (1368-1911)

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Daoism in the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644)

The Ming Dynasty can be divided into two periods separated by the reign of emperor Shizong. Before Shizong came to the throne, Daoism still had some support from the rulers and held its status in the upper classes. During emperor Shizong's reign, Daoism, primarily the Orthodox Oneness sect, even witnessed a brief period of prosperity. After his reign, however, Daoism became estranged from the ruling class. As a result, its social status began to decline. Daoism didn't react quickly to the new situation, and its organization and religious tought deteriorated.

Daoism and the Ming dynasty rulers

After he established the Ming regime, Zhu Yuanzang, the first Ming emperor, drew up regulations that treated the Three Doctrines fairly, with Confucianism as the leading school. He employed Daoism to testify that his throne was endowed by the heavenly gods, and treated the Orthodox Oneness sect favourably. Zhu Di, the Chengzu Emperor, continued policies in favor of the Orthodox Oneness Tradition. Because he worshipped the Spirit of the Perfect Warrior, he financed the construction of Daoist temples on Mt. Wudang, which led to the flourishing of Wudang Daoism.


Among the Ming emperors, the one closest to Daoism was emperor Shizong who, in terms of his worship for Daoism, could match emperor Xuanzong of the Tang dynasty and emperor Huizong of the Song Dynasty. Emperor Shizong was fascinated with Daoist Rites, particularly the "Qinci" -- poems written to certain tunes with strict tonal patterns and rhyme schemes, in fixed numbers of line and words. Talent in writing "Qinci" even became the standard for choosing and promoting his officials. In this way, posts as important as prime minister were assigned to incompetent individuals such as Lian Song, who was in charge of the cabinet just because he was good at writing Daoist "Qinci".


Emperor Shizong placed much faith in Daoists. Such was his respect for Shao Yuanjie, a Daoist monk of the Temple of Highest Clarity on Mt. Longhu, that he was given the title "Perfect Man" as well as the privilege of running Daoist affairs. The emperor also endowed Tao Zongwu, a Daoist monk recommended to the imperial court by Shao Yuanjie, with the title "State Protector and Lofty Preacher from the Divine Heaven", the privilege of controlling Daoism, and many important governmental positions. He even called Daoist monks "My Teachers". The emperor also trusted Daoist Magical Skills and Medicine for Immortality, which he relied on for longevity. So he gave money and posts to those who offered them to him.


But after emperor Muzong, his successor, came to throne, Daoism saw its setbacks. The Orthodox Oneness sect was stripped of its seal and of the title "Perfect Man of Orthodox Oneness". The privilege of controlling Daoism came to the Temple of Highest Clarity instead. Although the title "Perfect Man of Orthodox Oneness" was rehabilitated during emperor Shengzong's reign, the status of the Celestial Masters of the Orthodox Oneness Tradition was by no means as prominent as before. In general, after emperor Shizong's reign, Daoism lost support from governments.


While showing their respect to Daoism, the rulers of the Ming regime nevertheless strengthened their control over the religion. By improving its administrative structure, they put Daoism under strict control. In 1368, the Mystery School Academy was established. In 1383, the Daoist Administration Office took its place, controlling all Daoist affairs in the country. Within the Daoist Administration Office, the posts of Left and Right Orthodox Oneness, Preacher, Complete Spirit and Great Mystery were established. Among them Orthodox Oneness, ranked in the sixth class, was the highest post. This shows that the rulers of the Ming regime still held the Orthodox Oneness sect in high regard. At the lower administrative levels, posts such as the Daoist Discipline Office, the Daoist Orthodoxy Office and the Daoist Associations Office were established to control Daoism. All these posts were taken by Daoist monks who had good reputations and understood Daoist scriptures well. They were in charge of controlling Daoist monks' behavior, verifying the number of Daoist monks and temples, dealing with applicants for the status of Daoist monk, etc. The improvement of administrative structure guaranteed that the government could control Daoism effectively.


Because the Ming regime employed a dual standard with regards to Daoist affairs, alternatively supporting and controlling the religion, Daoism development was unstable. The Orthodox Oneness sect won the most respect and support from the rulers, which made it politically superior to the Complete Perfection sect. Zhu Yuanzhang, the first emperor of the Ming dynasty, considered that while the Complete Perfection sect focused its practice on selfish attainments, the Orthodox Oneness sect, on the contrary, encouraged good behavior and enhanced social morality, which would contribute to social stability. Accordingly, the rulers paid much more attention to the development of the Orthodox Oneness sect, enabling it to prosper. Because Zhang Zhenchang, its 42th generation Celestial Master, had foretold to Zhu Yuanzhang, the first emperor of the Ming Dynasty, that "the state will come to your control", he was given the privilege of controlling Daoist affairs in the whole country. In this way, the masters of the Orthodox Oneness sect won control over Daoism in the whole country. When Zhang Yuchu became the 43rd generation Celestial Master, he won the title "Preacher of Non-Interference and Perfect Exemplar of the Orthodox Oneness" as well as the honor of editing Daoist books for the imperial court. Zhang Yuchu had a very good educational background and special talents in writing. In fact, he wrote several Daoist books, among which was the Ten Rules for Daoist Sects, which criticized the defects existing in Daoist sects at that time, and put forward his new ideas. In the Xian Stream Essays, he discussed the relation between the Schools of Man and Heaven, Laozi, and Inner Alchemy, proposing a combination of Inner Alchemy and Talismans and Registers.


Later, the Celestial Masters of different generations were given not only the privilege of controlling Daoist affairs but also high social status. In addition, such Daoist monks from the Orthodox Oneness Sect as Lou Yuanran, Shao Yuanjie and Tao Zongwen also won themselves many respectable titles from the rulers of the Ming dynasty. After the middle of the Ming dynasty, some problems prevalent in the Orthodox Oneness sect -- poor personal quality, undeveloped religious teachings and practices, as well as its estrangement from the rulers -- shook its social status in the upper classes and ultimately weakened its influence in society. Since then, the Orthodox Oneness Tradition has never seen further development.


The Complete Perfection sect had kept good relations with the Yuan dynasty. But the rulers of the subsequent Ming regime came to power from the South, and thought highly of the social functions of the Orthodox Oneness sect. Hence, in the Ming Dynasty, the influence of Complete Perfection was limited to the lower classes of society. But there were still many stories circulating about Zhang Sanfeng, the most famous Daoist of the Complete Perfection Sect who, living in the early stage of the Ming Dynasty, declined invitations from the emperors Taizu and Chengzu. Afterwards, he was given the title "Perfect Manifestation of Pervasive Subtlety" by emperor Yingzong, "Brilliant and Lofty Perfect Immortal" by emperor Xianzong and Perfect Sovereign of Pristine Emptiness and Primordial Sublimity" by Shizong.


In the Ming Dynasty, the Complete Perfection sect on Mt. Wudang was comparatively prominent and ultimately became a base for its future development. Based on Mt. Qingcheng in Sichuan, the Azure Grotto branch of the Dragon Gate branch of the Complete Perfection sect originally came from Mt. Wudang. In contrast with the Orthodox Oneness sect, Daoists in the Complete Perfection Sect, with the exception of Zhang Sanfeng, were less influential in society. They were neither summoned to the imperial court nor given respectable titles by the government. Estrangement from the rulers, on the other hand, made Daoist monks of the Complete Perfection Sect spend more time and energy on studying Inner Alchemy, which led to the emergence of new Daoist sects such as the Eastern sect, as well to the publication of famous books dealing with Inner Alchemy, including the Pointers on Spiritual Nature and Bodily Life. Though the Complete Perfection sect was not so influential in the upper classes during the Ming Dynasty, it was active in the lower class, paving the way for the prosperity of the Dragon Gate branch in the middle of the Qing Dynasty.

Daoism in the Qing Dynasty (1644-1912)

In general, the rulers of the Qing Dynasty neither understood nor believed in Daoism. In order to win the support of the Han people, however, they sometimes turned to Daoism. Because Daoism in that period had close relations with underground religious sects and organizations - which were thought to be potentially rebellious against governments - the rulers of the Qing always remained suspicious of Daoism. Emperor Shunzi repeatedly admonished the Orthodox Oneness sect to "Never mislead the masses", even though he offered support to activities of the Complete Perfection sect in Beijing. Emperor Kangxi considered that there was no such thing as "Longevity", and that it was foolish to seek for a Medicine for Immortality. On the other hand, he continued the tradition of conferring respectable titles on the Masters of the Orthodox Oneness sect. Emperor Yongzheng suggested that the Three Doctrines (Confucianism, Daoism and Buddhism) were complementary, which showed that he thought highly of the positive role of Daoism. He also gave favored treatment to Lou Jinhuan, a Daoist monk on Mt. Longhu and a descendant of Celestial Master Zhang.


But from Emperor Qianlong's reign onwards, the rulers of the Qing dynasty began to impose more strict control over Daoism, leading to its decreased social importance and stagnant sectarianism and religious theories. Emperor Qianlong limited the development of the Orthodox Oneness Sect to the Mt. Longhu area. The post of "Perfect Man of Orthodox Oneness", originally ranked second class, was reduced to fifth class. During emperor Daoguang's regine, the Celestial Masters were even deprived of the privilege to go to the imperial court in the capital. In this way, the tie between the rulers and the Orthodox Oneness sect was cut off. Nevertheless, the Orthodox Oneness sect maintained varied activities among the people and kept its influence on their daily life. It even spread to remote mountainous areas and to districts inhabited by ethnic minorities.

The Revival of the Complete Perfection Sect

Throughout the Ming dynasty, the Complete Perfection sect had remained obscure. In the Qing Dynasty, however, thanks to Wang Changyue, the seventh master of the Dragon Gate sect of the Complete Perfection Tradition, who did a lot of work to revive and strengthen his sect, the Dragon Gate sect ultimately saw its prosperity and revival. Wang Changyue's religious practice won the sect not only a large number of believers but also the protection and support of the rulers of the Qing regime, which in turn helped to spread the Complete Perfection sect to more districts. The Dragon Gate sect saw its influence grow even in the South. There were many followers of the Dragon Gate in southern districts such as Jiangsu, Zhejiang, Wudang, Sichuan, etc. Wang Changyue kept the Daoist monks within the bounds of strict discipline, satisfying the demands of the rulers. He also combined the practice of Inner Alchemy with Daoist Commandments, in order to enable the followers to realize their nature and attain to Dao. As a result, the revived Dragon Gate of the Complete Perfection sect not only satisfied the rulers, but provided a spiritual shelter for the people who were emotionally linked to the perished Ming regime. This in turn did good to social stability.


Later, the Dragon Gate developed even further, spreading from the North to the South. In Jiangsu and Zhejiang provinces, the followers of the Dragon Gate increased so quickly that subordinate sects of the branch came into being, bringing forth its further prosperity. In this period, many well-educated officials joined Daoism. Some of them became the main power in reviving the Dragon Gate. They wrote several books on Daoist Doctrines, such as the writings of Ming Yide, the 11th generation master of the Dragon Gate. Also in Jiangsu and Zhejiang, the Dragon Gate came to combine itself with the Orthodox Oneness Tradition as well as with the daily life of society. The Dragon Gate established a subordinate sect even on West Mountain (Xishan) in Nanchang, Jiangxi province, the birthplace of the Pure Brightness sect. On Mt. Wudang, the Dragon Gate was so influential that it attracted more than one hundred followers, among whom some went to areas such as Henan, Shanxi, Sichuan and Shaanxi to expand the sect. Up until today, the Dragon Gate remains one of the most important branches of Daoism.


To some degree, the Orthodox Oneness sect and the Complete Perfection sect traded roles in the Ming and Qing dynasties. In the Ming Dynasty, the Orthodox Oneness Sect was more active and obtained more support from the government. In the Qing Dynasty, the Complete Perfection sect saw its prosperity and obtained attentions from the rulers. Generally speaking, however, Daoism's social status in the upper classes continued to decline throughout that period, though it continued to develop in remote minority-inhabited areas as well as in the lower classes. Following Chinese migrations overseas, Daoism also spread to Taiwan, Hong Kong and Southeast Asia.

Daoism Penetrates Folk Culture

In general, it can be said that Daoism was at a low tide in the Ming and Qing dynasties (1368-1911). Daoism became especially weak after the middle of the Ming Dynasty. In terms of the development of religious concepts and sects, Daoism was clearly declining in this period. On the other hand, however, its impact on social life and its integration with popular culture as well as folk customs were strengthened. The influence of Daoism could be found even in Ming, Qing, and republican period novels. This shows that Daoism was returning to the lower classes of society, from which it had originally emerged. This becomes undoubtedly clear when we examine its relations with the underground sects of the Ming and Qing dynasties.


At its birth, Daoism was a popular religion which later divided into different sects. The mainstream of Daoism became an official religion, even though some Daoists and Daoist sects remained in the lower society, which had always been the soil out of which popular religions emerged. Some rebellions, such as the so-called "Lihong" uprising of the Northern and Southern Dynasties period (420-581), were related to popular religions. Even in the Song and Yuan Dynasties, Daoism remained in close relations with underground sects in the lower society, among which was the Doctrine of Light, a combination of Daoism and Manichaeism, which worshipped Zhang Jiao of the Supreme Peace Tradition as its master and supported the rebellion led by Fang Na in the Song dynasty. In the Ming and Qing dynasties, because Daoist organizations and religious thought were declining, popular religions, which came into being in this period, absorbed Daoist ideas and forms to improve themselves. In this way, Daoism became popularized.


Daoism was also linked to the Red Yang Doctrine, which was very popular in the North during the Ming and Qing Dynasties. In fact, many scriptures of the Red Yang Doctrine were printed by Daoist temples and taken good care of by Daoist monks who even transferred the scriptures to secret places when governments tried to confiscate them. The full name of the Red Yang Doctrine was "Red Yang Doctrine of the Original Chaos", in which "Original Chaos" was a concept borrowed from Daoism. For instance, Laozi, the forefather of Daoism, had been given the title Emperor of Original Chaos and Higher Virtues". The highest god of the Red Yang Doctrine, called "Venerable Ancestor of Original Chaos", was also linked to Daoism. Other Daoist Immortals such as the "Three Pristine Ones", the "Jade Emperor", the "Perfect Warrior", the "Complete Perfection" and the "Pristine Subtlety" were also counted among the divinities of the Red Yang Doctrine. Daoist scriptures were an important source of the sect's religious texts.


During the Ming and Qing dynasties, Daoism also had a deep impact on the Yellow Heaven Doctrine, a popular cult which was characterized by a combination of Daoism and Buddhism. In its early scriptures, the Yellow Heaven Doctrine focused on practicing Inner Alchemy to obtain longevity, showing that it was continuing the Inner Alchemy tradition of the Song and Yuan Dynasties. Since the rulers of the Ming Dynasty preferred the Orthodox Oneness sect to the Complete Perfection sect, some followers of the latter turned to the lower classes of society and involved themselves in popular religious sects. Religious ideas of the Complete Perfection sect were incorporated in the Yellow Heaven Doctrine, which also emphasized the Integrated Cultivation of Spiritual Nature and Bodily Life, by regarding it as a prerequisite to attaining oneness with Spirit. The concept of the Integration of the Three Doctrines" promoted by the Complete Perfection sect, also had a great influence on the Yellow Heaven Doctrine. It is thus obvious that during the Ming and Qing dynasties, Daoism was closely linked to the underground popular sects in the lower class of society. On the other hand, Daoism's lower class and some Daoist sects were, to some degree, integrating into the popular religions.


Daoism's decline was characterized by that of the upper class of Daoism. Daoist followers from intellectual circles, as well as Daoist monks of high quality and social reputations were rarely found; and the cultural quality of the average Daoist was declining. In this way, Daoism came to be passed on among people in the lower classes, integrating into folk custom and popular convention. Daoism seemed to be gradually declining.


On the other hand, after returning to its popular origins, Daoism became more tightly tied to ordinary people's daily life. Particularly in the rural areas, Daoism was integrated into popular customs. In the Ming and Qing Dynasties, Daoism became a significant source for popular festivals. From such books as the Records of Festivals in the Imperial Capital and the Records of Festivals in Beijing, one could find that many popular festivals and local conventions in Beijing were related to Daoist beliefs. The Yanjiu Festival, on the 19th day of the first lunar month, for instance, commemorated the Immortal Qiu Chuji, also known as Master Chang Chun. During the festival, the inhabitants of Beijing thronged the White Cloud Temple, hoping to encounter the Immortal Master Qiu. Another festival was on the 15th day of the second lunar month, which was said to be the birthday of Laozi, the Supreme Venerable Sovereign. During the festival, butchery was banned. Daoist temples held various religious rites and explained the Book of Dao and its Virtue to the public. This shows that during this period, Daoism was remained influential among the common people. Daoist rites came into ordinary people's daily life.


In terms of Daoism's large-scale involvement in popular religious sects and its integration into popular festivals and customs, one may question the conclusion that Daoism was declining. Only conclusions on basis of concrete analysis are reliable. It is appropriate to notice and analyze Daoism's different tendencies existing simultaneously in the upper and lower classes of society.