The Tradition of the Mighty Commonwealth of the Orthodox Oneness

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During emperor Shun's reign in the Eastern Han dynasty (AD 126-144), the "Mighty Commonwealth of the Orthodox Oneness' -- which was popularly called the "Five Pecks of Rice Tradition' -- was founded in ancient Sichuan by Zhang Ling, who had originally come from ancient Shandong. According to historical books such as the Biography of Zhang Lu in the Records of the Three Kingdoms, and the Biography of Liu Yan in the History of the Later Han, Zhang Ling came to Sichuan during Emperor Shun's reign and started to study Dao on Mt. Heming, which is located in Dayi county, Sichuan Province. He wrote Talismanic Books there and spread Daoism among the local people. Because each follower was supposed to offer him five pecks of rice, the government called them "Rice Robbers".


The founding of the Five Pecks of Rice Tradition was linked with the primitive religions of the local minority tribes of ancient Southwest China. The Five Pecks of Rice Tradition worshipped the Three Heavenly Officials, i.e. Heaven, Earth and Water, which were also worshipped by king Fu Jian of the pre-Qin Di minority state, as well as by king Yao Chang of the post-Qin Qiang state. Therefore, some modern scholars suggest that what Zhang Ling learnt on Mt. Heming was actually the ancient Di and Qiang tribal religions, which were then improved with ideas taken from Laozi. Meng Wengtong, another modern scholar, also considers that the Celestial Master sect of the Orthodox Oneness originated in the ancient religions of the minority tribes of the Southwest. Around the end of the Han dynasty, some Southwestern minority tribes began to migrate north, and the Di and other tribes arrived at the upper and middle reaches of the Han river where, just in this period, the Five Pecks of Rice Tradition was spreading. In fact, the Five Pecks of Rice Tradition absorbed not only the Immortalist culture of the ancient Yan and Qi coastal states, but also the primitive religions of the Southwestern minority nationalities. In ancient China, belief in shamanism and in spirits was very popular among tribes such as the Di, the Qiang and the Miao. Many such stories were recorded in the Book of Mountains and Seas. While learning and spreading Daoism among minorities in the Southwest, Zhang Ling was inevitably affected by and absorbed the local beliefs in shamans and spirits, in the process winning himself more support from local minority tribes.


After reforming the primitive shamanistic beliefs and combining them with the Immortalist culture of Yan and Qi, Zhang Ling founded the new Five Pecks of Rice Tradition. Leadership of the sect was passed down from Zhang Ling to his son Zhang Heng, and then to his grandson Zhang Lu. These would later be called the "Three Zhangs" or "Three Masters" - the "Celestial Master", the "Succeeding Master" and the "Lineal Master" respectively.


There is little mention in historic records of how Zhang Ling founded Daoism. Similarly, there are but scanty references to Zhang Heng. Comparatively speaking, there are more detailed records about Zhang Xiu and Zhang Lu. Zhang Lu's Biography in the Records of the Three Kingdoms quoted Yu Zhu's Brief Classic as stating that during the Guanghe reign (AD 178-184), Zhang Xiu was the master of the Five Pecks of Rice Tradition in the middle reaches of the Han River. He also cured patients by making them kneel and confess their sins, drink magic water, and repent their wickedness in meditation rooms. Some followers were designated as "Qianling Libationers", who were in charge of reciting the Book of Dao and its Virtue, which all disciples were required to study. This was called Jianling. Meanwhile, Spirit Officers prayed for patients' health by recording their names and sins, and sending (burning) written memorials to the Three Heavenly Officials of Heaven, Earth and Water. The patients offered five pecks of rice for such petitions. Hence, the Spirit Officers were also called Masters of the Five Pecks of Rice, to whom the ordinary people showed great respect.


Afterwards, when Zhang Lu came to the middle reaches of the Han River, he killed Zhang Xiu in a raid. Because the locals believed in Zhang Xiu's sect, he used its teachings as a foundation and reformed it. Zhang Lu asked his followers to set up Generosity Halls, where rice and meat were placed to feed travellers. He also admonished his followers to live in seclusion, and for each sinner to contribute his labour to build 100-step-long stretches of road in order to absolve his sins. In addition, following the lunar calendar, butchering and drinking alcohol were forbidden during spring and summer.


Zhang Lu called himself the 'Lord of Masters'. Newcomers to the sect were called Spirit Subordinates, while more senior disciples who devoted themselves piously to the sect were given the title 'Libationer', and put in charge of the basic units of the sect. Those who controlled large numbers of followers were called 'District Head Great Libationers'. By combining religion with administration, Zhang Lu controlled a large area of ancient Sichuan (Ba) and Hubei (Han) for almost 30 years. During this period, people living there enjoyed a peaceful life. After Zhang Lu surrendered in AD 215 to the northern warlord Cao Cao, the Five Pecks of Rice Tradition spread to the northern and middle parts of China. After the Jin regime united whole country, the sect continued to spread to the coastal areas in the Southeast, and then to the whole country. Even the great calligrapher Wang Xizi and his son were members of the Five Pecks of Rice Tradition.