Eminent Modern Daoists

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Reasons for the decline of Daoism in modern times

Daoism started to decline in the later years of the Qing dynasty. In the first year of Daoguang's reign (AD 1821), the emperor forbade Zhang Yu, the Celestial Master ( 天師 Tianshi ) of the 59th generation, from going to the capital and being present at court. Henceforth, Daoism lost its political support. After the Opium Wars in 1840, ancient Daoism experienced difficulties, and an unprecedented existential crisis arose because of a long period of repeated wars, social turbulence, economic decline, mass impoverishment, as well as the dissemination of modern Western scientific ideas into China and the Western attack on traditional Chinese ideas and culture. In this period, no significant innovation or theoretical contribution emerged concerning Daoist teachings, Magical Skills ( 方術 Fangshu ), or Fasts and Ritual Offerings ( 齋醮科儀 Zhaijiao Keyi ), which basically carried on as before. Having lost the strong political and economic support from the ruling class, modern Chinese Daoism had no choice but to become a popular and secular religion.

Eminent modern Daoists and their efforts to innovate Daoism

Although the abrupt turns of politics were a key factor in the decline of modern Chinese Daoism, yet we have to admit that Daoist theoretical stagnation and outmoded, numerous, and disorderly patterns of activities are inner factors that cannot be ignored. Those people eager to revitalize Daoism were thus stimulated to begin to reform and innovate Daoism. Among them Chen Yingning, Yi Xinying, Yue Chongdai and Zhang Enpu (a Zhang Celestial Master) were comparatively influential. Chen Yingning devoted himself to the study of Daoism and Nourishing Life ( 養生 Yangsheng ) for his whole life. He created Daoist theories in conformity with the trend of the times, and made remarkable achievements. Yi Xinying applied himself to the study of Daoist theory with great concentration when nobody was interested in it, and pointed out that the long-standing and well-established, rich and varied culture of philosophical and religious Daoism held an important position in the traditional culture of the Chinese nation. He made positive contributions to research on Daoist culture. Yue Chongdai's academic research of Daoism shaked off the yoke of Daoist mythology, and analyzed Daoist theories and evolution from a historical viewpoint. Complying with the demands of the times, he advocated that Daoist priests should actively take part in social activities. Zhang Enpu, the Celestial Master of the 63rd generation, made vigorous preparations for setting up a unified national Daoist organization after the Chinese victory in the War of Resistance Against Japan, which represented the aspiration of the vast numbers of Daoist priests. But to be sure, it was after the founding of the New China that Daoism was truly given a new life following its former difficult state of decline.