Daoism during the Wei, Jin, and Southern and Northern Dynasties (220-581)

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The Northern Celestial Masters Tradition

It refers to the Celestial Masters Tradition ( 天師道 Tianshi Dao ) in the North during the Southern and Northern dynasties (AD 420-589). The Northern Celestial Masters Tradition ( 北天師道 Bei Tianshui Dao ) was the result of Kou Jianzhi's reform. Since his early years, Kou believed in the Celestial Masters Tradition, and cultivated Zhang Lu's Dao. In a later period, he started to reform the Celestial Masters tradition. He claimed that he had met the Supreme Venerable Sovereign on Mt Song, and was conferred the title "Celestial Master" as well as the twenty-scroll Commandments of the New Ordinances from the Clouds ( 雲中音誦新科之誡 Yanzhon Jinsong Xinke Zhijie ). The Supreme Venerable Sovereign told him: "It is the right time to change. You ought to publicize my new ordinances, and eliminate the Three Zhangs' false regulations, tax rice and money, as well as the Sexual Arts of the Union of Vital Breaths ( 男女合氣之道 Nannu Heqi Zhidao ). The Great Dao is of Purity and Emptiness. So while Cultivating Dao, a man should keep to ethics first, and pay attention to Dietetics and Inner Refinement". In fact, the revelation was an outline of his religious reform: i.e. firstly, eliminating the so-called false regulations of the Five Pecks of Rice Tradition ( 五斗米道 Wudou Midao ), and establishing new ordinances in alignment with the tastes of the upper classes. Secondly, his new Daoism placed ethics in the highest place. As a result, Confucian ethics became the most important content of Daoism. Kou also claimed that the aim of his religious reform was to assist the emperor, entitled the Perfect Sovereign of Supreme Peace ( 太平真君 Taiping Zhenjun ), to realize the Supreme Peace, which implied that he was trying to maintain the social order which benefited the ruling classes. In order to realize his goal, Kou Qianzhi introduced a series of regulations and commandments which aimed at adjusting Daoist organizations, and some financial polices, which would deprive earlier Daoist organizations of the ability to contend with the government for tax money. Apart from the above, he didn't add too much to Daoist theory. Since then, the Northern Celestial Masters tradition was never as prosperous as it had been during Kou Qianzhi's era.

The Southern Celestial Masters Tradition

The Southern Celestial Masters Tradition refers to the Celestial Masters Tradition in the south, which existed during the Southern and Northern dynasties (420-589 AD). In the early period of the Southern dynasties, the organization and discipline of the Celestial Masters sect had become lax, a situation which prevented it from further development. Under these circumstances, Lu Xiujing, a famous Daoist, started to reform the Celestial Masters Tradition in the South. Firstly, he adjusted the Daoist organization structure and improved the tradition of the Three Annual Assemblies ( 三會日制度 Sanhuiri Zhidu ), a regulation which was employed to strengthen relations between Daoist officials and Daoist believers in the earlier periods. In the tradition of the Three Annual Assemblies, all Daoist believers were supposed to attend religious activities in their Dioceses, where they reported to the Daoist Master of their household. Then the Daoist Master would explain and stress Daoist regulations and commandments to them. After the Three Zhangs had passed away, the routine tradition of the Three Annual Assembles had been relaxed, and so the Daoist organization had loosened. In order to rebuild a well-organized Celestial Master Tradition, Lu Xiujing reaffirmed the importance of the tradition of the Three Annual Assemblies. In addition, he also started to improve the chaotic household and personnel system. The Household Registration system was introduced, and the unauthorized promotion of Daoist officials was forbidden, which was ultimately replaced by a step-by-step system for official promotion. In the meantime, Lu also improved Daoist Rituals and Regulations. According to the Fasting Skills of the Highest Clarity ( 靈寶齋法 Lingbao Zhaifa ) and of the Numinous Treasure ( 上清齋法 Shangqing Zhaifa ), he created his own Fasting Skills, which ultimately evolved into a basic system of Daoist Fasts and Offerings. Additionally, on the basis of the Three Grottoes ( 三洞 Sandong ), a method of classifying Daoist scriptures, Lu classified and adjusted Daoist texts. As a result, he wrote the Catalogue of Scriptures of the Three Grottoes ( 三洞經書目錄 Sandong Jingshu Mulu ), the first catalogue of Daoist texts in Chinese Daoist history. After that, the Three Grottoes, in addition to the Four Complements ( 四輔 Sifu ), became the basic principle for cataloguing and classifying Daoist scriptures. Lu's reform brought about the growth of Daoism growth in the South. Since then, Daoism in the South became known as Southern Celestial Masters Tradition ( 南天師道 Nan Tianshi Dao ).

The Splintering of Daoism in the Jin Dynasty

Basic Situation of Daoism in the Western and Eastern Jin Dynasties

Daoist organizations originated in the lower classes and, in the early stage, involved themselves in rebellions against the governments. In order to deal with the threat, starting in the Wei and Jin dynasties, the authorities employed a dual strategy: restriction and suppression, and reformation and co-optation. This policy resulted in differentiation within Daoism. In addition, the intellectual gentry joined Daoism in this period. As a result, Daoism changed in terms of its components: one part of Daoism became more close to governments and developed into Official Daoism; some remained in the lower classes and took part in rebellions against governments; and the rest, mostly intellectuals, chose to cultivate Dao in the mountains as hermits. This was the basic situation of Daoism in the Western and Eastern Jin dynasties.

Daoism in the Western Jin Dynasty

Since the Yellow Turban Rebellion at the close of the Eastern Han dynasty, the Supreme Peace tradition ( 太平道 Taiping Dao ) had been severely repressed. Conversely, because Celestial Master Zhang Lu yielded to the Northern warlord Cao Cao, and then established union by marriage with him, the Five Pecks of Rice Tradition won itself better chances to develop. As a result, the Five Pecks of Rice Tradition took the place of the Supreme Peace Tradition in the North. After the Five Pecks of Rice Tradition changed its name to the Celestial Masters Tradition, it started to spread nationwide. During the Three Kingdoms period, in the state of Wei, Magicians like Gan Shi and Zhuo Si displayed their Daoist skills, which were coming increasingly in demand by people in the North. In the 20th Jianan year (217 AD), when the plague was prevailing in all of northern China, all families hung Daoist Talismans and Incantations to avoid the disaster, which showed that belief in the medical use of Talismanic Water remained influential in these areas. In the Eastern Wu, a Daoist master held religious activities under Yu Ji's name. He also used Talismanic Water to treat the sick. His reputation spread to all classes of society, from soldiers and ordinary people to imperial family members and generals. Ultimately, he was killed by Sun Ce, emperor of Eastern Wu. After that, Li Kuan, a Daoist from Shu, went to Eastern Wu, and treated locals with Invocation Water. As a result, people afflicted with the plague became his disciples. The number was almost one thousand. Li Kuan taught some talented disciples the Triple-Invocation Water Talismans ( 祝水三部符 Zhushui Sanbu Fu ), Gymnastics, and Vital Breath Dirigation, which were further taught to more people. In a short time, his disciples, numbering at least one thousand, were found in every corner of Eastern Wu. During the Western Jin dynasty, the Five Pecks of Rice Tradition started to spread in the Xu realm, a traditional sphere of influence of the Supreme Peace Tradition. Some gentry families like Wang and Shun joined Daoism. Shun Xiu, a member of the Shun family, became a confidant of Sima Lun, king of Zhao. Shun misled the Five Pecks of Rice Tradition to a revolt headed by the king. Near the end of the Western Jin dynasty, migrants in six counties of Shu (now Sichuan) started an uprising, led by Li Te. After Li Te's death, Li Xiong, his son, took over the leadership and continued the uprising. Fan Changsheng, a Daoist leader on Mt Qingcheng, provided many grains to his troops. After Li Xiong conquered Chengdu, he invited Fan there and designated him as Prime Minister. When Li Xiong declared himself emperor, he conferred titles on Fan, such as "Supreme Master of Heaven and Earth and Nobleman of the Western Mountains", and gave him privileges, freeing his subordinates of military service and allowing him to collect land tax. So we can conclude that the Five Pecks of Rice Tradition had never stopped its activities in Ba and Shu (present-day Sichuan), and its leaders in later periods even continued to keep their own subordinates and collect tax, a convention inherited from Zhang Lin and Zhang Lu.

Daoism in the Eastern Jin Dynasty

During the Sixteen Kingdoms period of the Eastern Jin dynasty, more noble families joined Daoism. As a result, there were many families of generals believing in Daoism, such as the Wang family of Nangya, the Xiao family of Nannin and the Xi family of Gaoping in the South, and the Chui family of Qinghe and the Wei family of Jingzhao in the North. In this period, Daoism integrated itself into the high classes, becoming a source of spiritual life for the ruling class. Meanwhile, uprisings under Li Hong's name emerged both in the South and North, a case which lasted until the Southern and Northern dynasties. In the North, some Han people living under ethnic minority regimes claimed that the Supreme Venerable Sovereign would descend to society. This in fact reflected a strong nationalist complex, in that they wished that all ethnic minorities would pledge allegiance and that the Han nationality could reestablish its dominance. Some expected the Supreme Venerable Sovereign, the savior, to solve all disasters. They were expecting the establishment of a society of Supreme Peace. Under these circumstances, Daoism spread among the people living in hardship, as their Noah's Ark of salvation. At the end of the Eastern Jin dynasty, Shun En, a Daoist of the Five Pecks of Rice Tradition, involved Daoism in a revolt, following a conflict between local noblemen and migrant noblemen during the Eastern Jin era. Although the revolt was a failure, the Eastern Jin regime soon came to an end. In the less than 200 years of the Western and Eastern Jin dynasties, there were so many uprisings carried out in Daoism's name, among which the Yellow Turban and the Sun En rebellion almost toppled the Eastern Han and Eastern Jin regimes respectively, so that the rulers realized that they had to find a solution.


In order to help the ruling class consolidate its rule, some people of learning started to reform Daoism according to their own ideas. Ge Hong was one of them. Ge Hong grew up in a family which had upheld Daoist belief for generations. His great-uncle Ge Xuan had followed Zhuo Ci, a famous Magician, to learn Dao, and was called Immortal Elder Ge by later Daoists. Ge Hong inherited his great-uncle's Daoism and developed it into a systematic theory of immortality, which concluded the theoretical construction of Daoism. Originally, Ge Hong was politically ambitious, but he didn't succeed. Instead, he started his pursuit of personal perfection. Daoism became the best measure to realize his personal refinement and cultivation. His main works included the Inner and Outer Books of the Master Who Embraces the Simplicity ( 抱朴子 Baopu Zi ) employed by Daoists to nourish their lives and attain immortality, and by Confucian scholars to serve their nation, exemplifying the complementary roles of Daoism and Confucianism, a characteristic of the Science of Mysteres during the Wei and Jin dynasties. In that period, when the literati were eager to find a way to secure immortality and eternality, Ge Hong provided his answers, thus strengthening their belief in Daoism's theory of Immortality. In fact, among the noble, many had been practicing Dietetics of the Golden Elixir for generations. Ge Hong's theory enriched Daoism's religious doctrines, which were comparatively deficient, and started to found the tradition of theoretical study, a characteristic of Daoism in the South. In addition, Ge Hong combined Daoism's Immortalism with Confucianism's ethics by stressing Confucian ethics as a prerequisite condition for attainment of immortality. In this way, Daoism was changed into a religion more easily accepted by the ruling class.


During the Western and Eastern Jin dynasties, Daoism was progressing upward to the ruling class. Just in this period, the upper class and its intellectuals started to pay attention to and, in the later period, reform Daoism, which resulted in the differentiation of Daoism. This situation lasted until the Southern and Northern dynasties.

Reform and Improvement of Daoism during the Northern and Southern Dynasties (AD 420-581)

Daoism continued its improvement during the Northern and Southern Dynasties. It became a 'High-level' official religion with its doctrines enriched, and it had greater influence on society. During this period, more and more officials and educated people were converted to Daoism. As the number of educated Daoist disciples was on the rise, more Daoist priests were trained and able to write books on Daoism.


In order to improve Daoism and cater to the taste of the upper-class Daoist believers, several Daoist scriptures were written in order to catch up with Buddhism. According the Inner Book of the Master Who Embraces Simplicity ( 《抱朴子內篇》 Baopu Zi Neipian ), at the time of Ge Hong, there were 670 Daoist classics and over 500 books of Talismans and Registers ( 符籙 Fulu ) circulating, altogether 1200 titles. Ge Hong himself had seen over 200 such books. After Ge Hong's death, two systems of scriptures, the Numinous Treasure ( 《靈寶》 Lingbao ) and the Highest Clarity ( 《上清》 Shangqing ), came into existence one after another. As a result, the Daoist priest Lu Xiujing of the Song Dynasty could compile 1228 titles for the Contents of the Scriptures of the Three Grottoes ( 《三洞經目錄》 Sanding Jing Mulu ). Imitating the Triple Canon ( 《三藏》 Sanzang ) (Tripitaka) of Buddhism, Lu Xiujing not only classified but also evaluated the Daoist scriptures, differentiating three major schools of Daoism. Even if he himself did not mean to do so, his work had such an effect that he promoted the development of Daoism and, by classifying the different schools of thought, precipitated the development of different sects. Before him, there already existed Daoist techniques practiced in different ways, accompanied by theoretical generalizations and summations. Lu's compilation classified the Three Grottoes of Daoist Scriptures by their time of writing and quality, leading to a strong differentiation between Daoist schools. Lu had collected different Daoist techniques of practice from different schools without any personal bias, and passed them on to a broader audience through his compilation. Thus the Daoist techniques developed in different directions. Unlike Buddhism, the different Daoist schools did not have clear and strict boundaries between one another. Their own characteristics might be mingled with the ideas of other sects. This was concordant with the syncretistic tendencies of Daoism.


Generally speaking, during the Northern and Southern Dynasties, the Southern Daoists attached more importance to doctrinal development, and the disputes between Southern Daoism and Buddhism remained limited to doctinal debates. In the South, the Numinous Treasure sect and the Highest Clarity sect had very loose organizations, and the Southern Celestial Masters tradition ( 天師道 Tianshi Dao ) was not very active at the time, probably due to the failure of the Sun En rebellion.


On the other hand, Daoism in the North paid more attention to religious rites and services and it made a great effort to develop its organization. The struggle against Buddhism was mainly for political dominance. Supported by the rulers, the Northern Celestial Masters Tradition enjoyed a much higher political position than Buddhism.


Both in the South and in the North, Daoism had become the official religion, and completed its ascension from the lower class up to the upper class. Although it did not have as many followers as Buddhism, Daoism in the Northern and Southern dynasties compiled a large number of scriptures, enriched its theories on Immortality, and developed its religious rites and ceremonies as well as canons and commandments. At the same time some new sects were formed. Thus Daoism could stand side by side with Buddhism and Confucianism in the ideological and cultural world of China.