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Chapter 1 A Brief History of the Pantheon: Ancestors and Gods in State and Local
Religion and Politics
In my book published in 1987, Daoist Ritual in Chinese Society and History, I made the
outrageous claim that, with regard to the legitimization of dynasties, Confucianism never
held a candle to Daoism. 1 I had expected howls of protest, but to my surprise, the only
response was deafening silence. I consoled myself with the thought that historians had
better things to do than read descriptions of Daoist ritual in Tainan. I probably would
have left matters at that had I not come upon David Faure’s book on The Structure of
Chinese Rural Society. In reviewing it, 2 I focused on the fact that New Territories
lineages created in accord with Confucian ideology invited Daoists to do Jiao 醮 for
territorial gods in the lineage hall. If then on the village level there was a lineage
(xueyuan 血緣) and a territorial (diyuan 地緣) China, a China of (Confucian) time and
history and a China of (Daoist) space and cosmos, then the same Confucian misreading
of China I had denounced on the level of the state was just as patent on the level of local
society. This in turn led me to concentrate my fieldwork on local society in an attempt to
see, from a multitude of case studies, whether Faure’s observations in Hong Kong could
be extended to other parts of China.
The results of these case studies will be the subject of subsequent chapters, so I
will say no more of them here. But in this opening chapter, it seems to me crucial to
sketch the background for the chapters to follow, in order to underscore to what degree
the same questions inhabit them all: what is the place of Daoist ritual in Chinese society
and history? What does our recovery of this foreclosed chapter of Chinese history imply
for our understanding of Chinese society, whether viewed from the bottom or from the
top? If I have chosen to begin with the top-down view, it is because we know very little
of local society in early China, and the history of state religion prior to the emergence of
religious Daoism in the second century of our era is vital to our understanding of how
Daoism has interacted with state and society since.
Pre-imperial China (1250-221 BC)
I used to think there was a clear-cut case for contrasting the virtual omnipotence of an
anthropomorphic high god Di 帝 in the Shang with the lesser powers of the lineage
ancestors: that Di alone could order (ling 令) and give consent (nuo 諾), that he had a
court, and that he was in charge of success in warfare and hence the fate of the state, as
well as of the weather and hence of the harvest. Robert Eno has convinced me we must
be more prudent. In the first place, virtually everything we can say about the Shang
“pantheon” depends on oracle bones from the reign of Wuding (1250–1192 BC). Second,
Di may be understood simply as a generic term for the Powers. Nonetheless, as we shall
see, the fact Di alone does not receive sacrifice may be the best proof that he is indeed a
The exact statement is as follows (John Lagerwey, Taoist Ritual in Chinese Society and History (New
York: Macmillan, 1987), p. 274: “Chinese political history is indeed one of an unequal contest between
Confucianism and Taoism but contrary to what has always been said, it is Confucianism which never had a
prayer, not Taoism.”
John Lagerwey, review of The Structure of Chinese Rural Society: Lineage and Village in the Eastern
New Territories, by David Faure, in Cahiers d’Extrême-Asie 5, 1990), pp. 445–8.
high god. Eno also mentions the ideas of David Pankenier to the effect that “Di was
conceived as a function of astronomical aspects of Shang religion . . . [He notes] the care
with which foundations of palatial and ceremonial structures were aligned in relation to
the North Celestial Pole.” Pankenier also argues that Di dwelt at the true Pole and links
him to Taiyi 太一 of the fourth century. 3 If that could be proven, the virtually automatic
character of the ritual-calendrical cycle of the late Shang would also appear as a
harbinger of the later link between the emperor’s person and the calendar, and the
apparent contradiction between the probably anthropomorphic high god Di of Wuding’s
pantheon and his disappearance under later kings in favor of ritual automaticity would be
just that: apparent.
However we read the Shang data, everyone seems to agree that the Zhou invented
Heaven and its Mandate (tianming 天命). According to Eno, the earliest reference in the
bronzes dates to ca. 998 BC, when King Kang is described as saying to a minister: “I
have heard that the Yin lost the Mandate because the greater and lesser lords and the
many officials assisting the Yin sank into drunkenness and so were bereft of their
capital.” The concomitant term “Son of Heaven” (tianzi 天子) “becomes pervasive in the
inscriptional record from the reign of King Mu (r. ca. 976–922 BC) on.” 4 An ethical
Heaven that gives the Mandate to the worthy had clear propaganda value for the usurping
Zhou. The virtual reduction of the pantheon of the written record to Heaven and the
ancestors, together with the fact that Di would seem to be the equivalent of Tian, seems
to imply that a shift has also occurred from the anthropomorphic to the abstract and
philosophical: Tian is at once the physical heavens of the astronomers and the calendar
and a moral “being” not unlike the Hebrew God. Both Confucianism and Daoism will
exploit that ambiguity, albeit in quite different ways.
Having spoken of Heaven, we must speak of Earth, for its cult too is an integral
part of the construction and representation of power. Kominami Ichiro traces the basic
features of the earth god cult back to King Tang, founder of the Shang ca. 1600 BC and
of its first capital in Bo 亳. Kominami cites three references in the oracle bones to Botu,
“earth of Bo 亳土” and concludes from their analysis that the earth god (tu 土,
understood as she 社) “represented the earth of an area, especially an agricultural area.” 5
The degree to which this cult site was linked with human sacrifice — Kominami wonders
whether the drops around the mound on some oracle bones might represent blood — may
explain why much later texts refer to the “people-eating she.” As a site which represented
conquest, it was also inseparable from the ancestors in whose name conquest was
undertaken. So tight was the link, says Kominami, that royal armies could go into battle
without the ancestor tablets and carrying only the clods of earth taken from the Boshe 亳
社, these clods representing the ancestors and their previous conquests. The relationship
of the earth god to Heaven may be seen in the fact it was represented by an open-air tan
壇, and the Shang Boshe in the various states were converted into roofed-in wooden
Robert Eno, “Shang State Religion and the Pantheon of the Oracle Texts,” in Early Chinese Religion, Part
One: Shang through Han (1250 BC–AD 220), edited by John Lagerwey and Marc Kalinowski (Leiden:
Brill, 2009), pp. 73–4.
Ibid., p. 101.
Kominami Ichirô, “Rituals for the Earth,” in Early Chinese Religion, Part One: Shang through Han (1250
BC–AD 220), edited by John Lagerwey and Marc Kalinowski (Leiden: Brill, 2009), pp. 216–7.
enclosures when these states were conquered by the Zhou. Finally, in the myth of Yu 禹
taming the flood waters and creating the Nine Continents (jiuzhou 九州) by “spreading
out the earth” (futu 敷土) stolen from Heaven by his father Gun 鯀, the cosmic and
heavenly dimensions of the earth god cult are clear. As Kominami says, this is xirang息
壤, “living earth,” and represents the vitality of Heaven (and the ancestors) transmitted to
earth. The she, he suggests in conclusion, is a mediator between Heaven and Earth,
because the original clod comes from Heaven and represents the place where the
ancestors first “landed” on earth. 6
The next step along the way is what has come to be called, since Jessica Rawson
first introduced the notion, the “ritual revolution” (or reform) of the ninth century BC. In
Lothar von Falkenhausen’s rendition, this reform may be summarized as a transition from
shamanistic “dionysian” to formalized “apollonian” rituals. This change may be seen in
the move from the mask-like animal decorations of Shang and early Western Zhou
bronzes to the abstract, geometric designs of the late Western Zhou, the replacement of
wine by meat and grain vessels, the new prominence of chime-bells, the emergence of
“standard sets of vessels which were correlated with élite ranks according to strict
sumptuary rules,” and, finally, the appearance of new types of vessel that “seem
deliberately simple and humble . . . This suggests a desire to reform the spirit of ritual by
reducing its complexity and linking it with everyday activities.” 7
So vital were the meat vessels to the reformed Zhou order that, in later texts,
“eaters of meat” (roushizhe肉食者) referred to the nobility, defined by its right to a share
of the “leftovers” of the sacrifices to the ancestors. In the Zhou, the ultimate ancestor was
Houji 后稷, lord of grains. According to the Liji 禮記 (Book of Rites), he was sacrificed
to secondarily, after the sacrifice to Heaven. Young bulls were first selected by divination
and then fed a special diet. The first bull, for Heaven, was burned entirely, while the
second, for Houji, was offered in the first place to the grandson — referred to as a
“cadaver” (shi 尸) — who represented him in the ritual drama. 8 Thus, as Jean Levi points
out, Heaven and the Ancestor did not receive the same victim, and the sacrifice created a
radical separation between Heaven on the one hand and ancestors and humans on the
other. After the “cadaver” had tasted them, the “leftovers” were presented, first to the
king, then to his three highest officials, and so on, in ever-widening circles, until the
entire class of nobles had received its share of “blessed food.” “Heaven receives no
leftovers but also gives none. It is the source of all leftovers, but no leftovers return to
Heaven nor emanate from it. The food Heaven receives involves no leftovers and is
foreign to the law of leftovers because it is indivisible.” 9
Read in this light, the lack of sacrifice to Di in the Shang would be precisely what
implies transcendence: the origin or foundation of a system — its premise — must be
outside the system.
Ibid., pp. 233–4.
Lothar von Falkenhausen, Chinese Society in the Age of Confucius (1000–250 BC): The Archaeological
Evidence (Los Angeles: Cotsen Institute of Archaeology, UCLA, 2006), pp. 48–51.
The use of this term suggests quite clearly that the grandson had to be possessed by the ancestor in order
to represent him.
Jean Levi, “The Rite, the Norm, and the Dao: Philosophy of Sacrifice and Transcendence of Power in
Ancient China,” in Early Chinese Religion, Part One: Shang through Han (1250 BC–AD 220), edited by
John Lagerwey and Marc Kalinowski (Leiden: Brill, 2009), p. 657.
In the rest of the chapter by Jean Levi just cited, he shows how, in the late preand early imperial periods, the contending schools of thought characteristic of the
Warring States (481–221 BC) sought, each in its own way, to prepare and then justify a
unified political order. For the Confucians the key concept was li 禮, ritual, for the
Legalists fa 法, norm, and for the Daoists dao 道, way. The Dao as expression of a
transcendent Whole, prior to division into Yin and Yang and prior to analysis, becomes
the cosmic model for the Saint, that is, the emperor. As the source of all laws and norms,
which the ruler applies implacably, he is himself above the law or, rather, he is the law.
But this law is itself but the social version of natural law, of the law embodied in the
calendar and given ritual expression in the Mingtang 明堂, the Hall of Light. All of this
converges in the new myths of the Yellow Emperor 黃帝, 10 that is, the invention of the
The Yellow Emperor achieved pre-eminence in myths and, as a result, came to
serve as a federating symbol of all the diverse themes of sovereignty because he
reigned over the center, and because that position is not a priori a part of the cycle
of the seasons. If liturgical time coincides with the seasonal cycle, this also means
that social and natural norms are replicas one of the other. For the laws decreed by
Heaven have as a counterpart the laws promulgated by the sovereign. It is by
means of the rites that the laws of nature receive their necessary translation into
social action. But in becoming the model of human time, the cycle of seasons is
subverted and spatialized. This spatialization is visible in the transition from the
four natural to the five ritual seasons, obeying the law of classification by five for
the elements. But there is no fifth season. There is no middle of the year. It is but
the mark of the centrality of the royal figure par excellence, symbolized by the
Yellow Emperor, who reigns from the center of the earth over a fictive season.
Emperor of an abstract and supernumerary season, the Yellow Emperor,
exemplary image of sovereignty, rules over time. Like the Dao, and like Heaven
in the Zhou liturgy, he is at once the vacant point and the motor on which the
entire system depends and converges. That is why he has such an intimate link to
Taiyi, of whom he is the terrestrial counterpart, but also to Heaven in his role as
pivot and central point. In the imperial cult, the Yellow Emperor is constantly
assimilated to Taiyi, expression of sovereign power and compass for human
conduct, just as the sovereign carries out his civilizing work by circulating in the
Hall of Light. 11
The center of power is like the hub of Laozi’s wheel which, because it is itself empty of
all particularity and specification, holds the wheel together and enables it to turn. If we
imagine the spokes emanating from this hub as leading to the specific places of local
“Yellow Emperor” is the traditional translation, and I personally long resisted using the alternative
translation of di as “thearch” (Edward Schafer), primarily because it was a hybrid neologism combining the
Latin theos (“god”) and English “monarch.” But I have come more recently to see this alternate translation
as a stroke of genius that underscores the theological nature of Chinese political theorizing: emperors are
gods, and it is less a matter of projecting this world onto that as of retrojecting that world onto this. In what
follows, however, “thearch” will be primarily used to refer to the divine emperors of the spirit world.
Ibid., pp. 671–2. On Taiyi (Great One), see below, the section on Qin and Han in this chapter.
society, we must ask of what the spokes are made that they can link hub to wheel? The
answer is given by the Classic of Mountains, in which local society is represented in
terms of geographic situation, specific products, resources, and, above all, gods, together
with their iconography and preferred offerings. The spokes linking center to periphery are
thus central recognition of local cults expressed in regular dispatch of offerings to them.
The Qin and Han (221 BC-220 AD)
The stele inscriptions of the First Emperor are an excellent window on his religious
policies. The earliest, for Mount Yi, dated 219, refers in its very first line to the title the
First Emperor adopted for himself in 221, huangdi 皇帝, which Martin Kern translates as
August Thearch and says has “quasi-religious significance.” 12 The emperor goes on to
recall how he had reported his conquest of the “six cruel and violent ones” — the last
rival states — in his ancestral temple, making manifest the “way of filial piety” (xiaodao
孝道): “Now today, the August Thearch has unified all under heaven under one
lineage.” 13 If in his first proclamation in the year 221, the First Emperor ascribed his
successes “to power he had received from the ancestral temple,” 14 he also invested in a
great number of other sacrifices to the sacred mountains, main rivers, civilizing heroes,
and ancient kings. By the fall of the Qin in 207 BC, there were more than one hundred
shrines to “cosmic, mostly astral spirits in Yong alone.” 15 Among the sacrifices
performed in this ancient Qin capital there must have been one to the Five Emperors or
Thearchs (wudi 五帝), for in one of the stele inscriptions, the merits of the emperor are
said to “surpass those of the Five Thearchs.” 16
If I make special mention of this point, it is because the cult of the Five Thearchs,
reflection of the cosmo-calendrical foundations of the newly created imperial power, is
usually associated with the “Han synthesis.” Indeed, the traditional account of the origin
of the cult, found in Sima Qian’s Records of the Historian (Shiji 史記), says the Qin
worshiped only four divine emperors in Yong, and it was the Han Founding Ancestor,
Gaozu, who added the fifth, to the Thearch of the North. The importance of this cult to
the definition of imperial power may be seen from two facts: when the First Emperor
made history’s first fengshan 封禪 sacrifice on Taishan 泰山 to lay claim to the Heavenly
Mandate, he made use of the rites of Yong; the Han Martial Emperor, Wudi (r. 134–89
BC), made the Yong sacrifices no less than ten times, on occasion even going in person.
But the real religious novelty of the Former Han was the introduction of the
worship of the Great One, Taiyi 太一. In the year 135 BC one Miu Ji, a “master of
recipes” (fangshi 方士) from Shandong, 17 having explained the Great One was the master
of the Five Thearchs, persuaded the Martial Emperor to have the ritual performed on an
altar built in the southeastern suburb of the capital. In 114 BC, the discovery of a tripod
Martin Kern, The Stele Inscriptions of Ch’in Shih-huang: Text and Ritual in Early Chinese Imperial
Representation (New Haven: American Oriental Society, 2000), p. 10.
Kern, ibid., pp. 12–3.
Ibid., p. 61.
Ibid., p. 59.
Ibid., p. 33.
It has always intrigued me that he is said to have come from a place called Bo, as in Botu; cf. below, the
“birthplace” of Laozi. The literal meaning of his name, Erroneous Taboos, is also strange, to say the least.
provided an opening for one Gongsun Qing, another master of recipes from Shandong.
According to Gongsun, this discovery made the emperor, like the Yellow Thearch, a
candidate for immortality. He told the emperor to put the tripod in the ancestral temple
and to build an altar to sacrifice to the Great One in Ganquan 甘泉, 70 kilometers
northwest of the capital. The altar, based on that of Miu Ji, placed the Great One in the
center, flanked by the Five Thearchs — the Yellow Thearch was moved to the south-west,
corresponding to his position in the “center” of the year — and a vast number of other
deities was arrayed around them. The ritual used was that of Yong, as were the offerings,
with the addition of the jujubes and dried meat that immortals liked. Soon thereafter, the
Martial Emperor built a Hall of Light and made sacrifices in it to the Great One and the
Five Thearchs on the upper floor and, on the lower, to Earth. 18
According to Marianne Bujard, the sacrifice in Ganquan became the model of the
reinvented sacrifice to Heaven in the southern suburb (nanjiao 南郊) first performed by
Wang Mang (r. AD 9–23) and then by the Brilliant Martial Emperor (Guangwudi 光武帝,
r. AD 25–57), founder of the Latter Han. This became the standard sacrifice on the Altar
of Heaven (tiantan 天壇) of all successive dynasties until 1914. 19 Wang Mang set a
pattern for what were in fact parallel sacrifices to Heaven and Earth by associating the
Han founder, Gaozu, with Heaven, and his wife, the Empress Lü, with Earth. The name
Wang Mang used for Heaven, Huangtian Shangdi Taiyi 皇天上帝太一, August Heaven
Thearch on High Great One, shows it to be a synthesis of all previous high gods and
confirms the central role of the Great One, who is in the Han at once associated with the
Polestar (beiji 北極) and portrayed in anthropomorphic manner on the famous
Mawangdui document on silk. 20 The Vast Martial Emperor also followed Wang Mang in
building a Hall of Light south of the capital, where sacrifices were performed until the
building was destroyed in the year 219.
Some staggering statistics give perhaps the best measure of the Han imperial
investment in religion: in 31 BC the chief minister Kuang Heng 匡衡 reduced the number
of officially supported sites of worship from 683 to 208 and also eliminated 200 of 373
sites for Han ancestor worship. He was, however, removed from office the following year,
and by the end of Wang Mang’s reign, the number of cult sites had soared to 1700. 21 The
sites for ancestor worship are particularly interesting: when the father of the Han founder
died in 197 BC, the emperor ordered the creation of sites of worship for his father
throughout the empire, and the same was done for him when he died two years later. This
explains why, at the time of the failed reforms of Kuang Heng, there were 167 shrines in
the provinces and 176 in the capital city, plus 30 sites dedicated to the memory of various
For local cults, the Former Han had a bureau of “shamans” (wu 巫) composed of
wu from each of the formerly warring states. It also had a process involving written
Michael Loewe, Chinese Ideas of Life and Death (London: Allen & Unwin, 1962), p. 132.
Marianne Bujard, “State and Local Cults in Han religion.” In Early Chinese Religion, Part One: Shang
through Han (1250 BC–AD 220), edited by John Lagerwey and Marc Kalinowski, Leiden: Brill,
2009), pp. 777–811: 794. This tan, in turn, is the model for the Daoist altar space: see my “Taoist
Ritual Space and Dynastic Legitimacy,” (Cahiers d’Extrême-Asie 8, 1993), pp. 87–94.
Li Ling, “An archaeological study of Taiyi 太 一 (Grand One) worship,” translated by Donald Harper in
Early Medieval China 2 (1995–96), p. 35.
Loewe, pp. 138, 141.
reports and inspections to vet local gods, as can be seen in a series of six steles dating AD
117–83 from a single Hebei mountain site. One new kind of local god in the Han is the
“immortal” (xian 仙), such as Wangzi Qiao 王子僑, said in a stele to have first appeared
in Henan in AD 136. The prefect built a temple for him, and it became a center for adepts
who sang hymns to the Great One and meditated on their principal vital organs. The site
was sufficiently famous for Huandi (r. 146–68) to have sent a representative to sacrifice
to him in 165, the same year he made sacrifice to Laozi: Daoism, in both its local and
national forms, had been born. 22 The state could also intervene to repress local gods, as in
the case of Luan Ba, prefect of Yuzhang (modern Nanchang): seeing the people in his
charge ruining themselves for sacrifices to the gods of the mountains and rivers, he
destroyed all private cults (fangsi 房祀) and had the shamans executed: “Then all the
strange events ceased.” 23
When Emperor Huan came to the throne at the age of 14 in the year 146, one of
his first acts was to build a temple to Laozi in the latter’s putative birthplace (Bozhou 亳
州). The fact that the walls of the temple were adorned with the image of the meeting
between Laozi and Confucius is like a premonition of the conflicted relations with the
literati that would characterize his reign. After sending a eunuch to sacrifice at Laozi’s
birthplace in the first month of the year 165, in the fourth month he issued an edict for the
destruction of private shrines (fangsi 房祀) throughout the empire. In the eighth month,
he “meditated on the gods and nourished his nature, his aim being transcendence. His
mind focused on the Yellow Thearch, he was in mystic accord with the high ancestor and,
in a dream, saw Laozi.” He then commissioned the famous “Laozi Inscription” (“Laozi
ming” 老子銘), the preface to which is the source of the above quote. 24 The following
year, he himself made sacrifice in the palace to Huang-Lao 黃老 and the Buddha: “From
these items of evidence it appears that Emperor Huan, in the last years before his death,
was attempting to take over the patronage and the authority of the popular religion which
centered on the worship of Laozi, and re-establish its mystical alliance and approval of
the House of Han.” 25
As Anna Seidel has shown, The Book of the Transformations of Laozi (Laozi
bianhua jing 老子變化經) is perhaps the best commentary on the events of Huandi’s
reign. In it, Laozi is a cosmic god on the model of the Great One. He makes a series of
five appearances in Chengdu in the years 132–55 and says to his disciples: “If you think
of me even in your dreams, I will appear to you as proof of my confidence. In order to
shake up the Han dynasty, I have transformed my body . . . If you wish to know where I
am, recite the text of five thousand words ten thousand times.” 26
Another new form of worship which cannot go unmentioned is that of the Queen
Mother of the West 西王母. In the year 3 BC, during a drought, “people were running
around hither and thither, exchanging tokens, preparing for the royal advent and
Bujard, p. 808.
Cited from the Hou Hanshu by Lin Fu-shih, Handai de wuzhe (Taipei: Daoxiang, 1987), p. 35.
Anna Seidel, La divinisation de Lao Tseu dans le taoïsme des Han (Paris: École française d’ExtrêmeOrient, 1969), p. 124.
Rafe de Crespigny, “Politics and Philosophy under the Government of Emperor Huan, 159–168 A.D.”
(T’oung Pao 66.1-3, 1980), p. 80.
Seidel, p. 70. The “text of five thousand words” is the Daode jing or Laozi.
worshipping the Queen Mother of the West . . . They held services and set up gaming
boards for a lucky throw, and they sang and danced in worship of the Queen Mother of
the West. They also passed around a written message, saying, ‘The Mother tells the
people that those who wear this talisman will not die.’” 27
It is perhaps not mere chance that the earliest known representation of the Queen
Mother dates to the same period and shows her, on the ceiling of a tomb, welcoming a
deceased couple “shown in their ascension to the heavens, escorted by mythical
animals . . . Representing and venerating Xiwangmu in the sepulture must have helped
the deceased attain Mount Kunlun, considered as an axis mundi, and enter into the world
of the immortals.” 28
The Period of Division (220-589 AD)
The primary feature of this period is the emergence of Daoism and Buddhism as rivals of
Confucianism for state support together with the creation of a kind of united front of the
“three teachings” (sanjiao 三教) against shamanism. We know from the work of Lin Fushih that shamanism nonetheless continued to play a part in state politics, as well as in
local society, but our focus here will be on the Three Teachings and, in particular, on
their respective relationships with the state. The reason for this shift in focus is simple: all
three religions have (relatively) systematic “theologies,” that is, unifying principles which
incorporate the gods into a system. These systems either distinguish themselves from the
state, as in the case of Buddhism and, to a lesser extent, Daoism, or continue to identify
themselves entirely with the state, as in Confucianism. To put it another way, hitherto the
state was the church; henceforth, the state had rival social organizations.
The Han synthesis of the Classics with Yin/Yang-Wuxing cosmological theory
continued to play a major rule in court debates, and from the Wei (220–65) to the Sui
(581–617), each successive dynasty saw itself as the expression of the ascendancy of one
or another of the Five Agents (wuxing 五行). The suburban sacrifice on the round altar to
Heaven was carried out by almost every emperor in this period. The importance of this
sacrifice to the definition of legitimacy may be seen in Wang Su’s 王肅 (195–256)
challenge to the interpretation of the great Han commentator, Zheng Xuan 鄭玄 (127–
200). Whereas for Zheng the sacrifice was addressed to the Five Thearchs and the
Supreme Thearch of Bright Heaven (Haotian shangdi 昊天上帝), Wang contended the
Five Thearchs were human, not celestial, and that there was but one Heavenly Thearch.
Worship of the Five Thearchs was to be done in the Hall of Light, where they were
associated with the welcoming of the seasonal ethers. Sima Yan, the maternal grandson
of Wang Su, was the first to adopt the latter’s view, and he therefore eliminated the seats
of the Five Thearchs before sacrificing to Heaven in the year 266. Subsequent dynasties,
however, followed Zheng Xuan, and the debate was not settled until the Tang, which
opted for the views of Wang Su. As in the Han, the ancestors were associated with this
sacrifice and therefore received sacrifice secondarily, after Heaven. Most dynasties also
Loewe, p. 99.
Michele Pirazzoli-t’Serstevens, “Death and the Dead: Practices and Images in the Qin and Han,” Early
Chinese Religion, Part One: Shang through Han (1250 BC–AD 220), edited by John Lagerwey and Marc
Kalinowski (Leiden: Brill, 2009), pp. 982–3.
built a Hall of Light, as well as a square altar for worship of the earth god. In the year 325,
the descendants of Confucius were given the wherewithal to sacrifice to him four times a
year. 29
The story of the state’s relations with Daoism in this period begins with the
capitulation by Heavenly Master Zhang Lu 張魯 to Cao Cao in the year 215. Cao Cao
gave titles to Zhang and his five sons, a fief of ten thousand families to Zhang, and the
hand of his son in marriage to Zhang’s daughter. Li Fu, a close collaborator of Zhang’s,
was so intimately involved in the founding of the Wei in 220 that Howard Goodman
concludes: “This may be the first episode in a long tradition of Daoist legitimation of
emperors.” 30
But if Daoists may thus be seen to have “fired the first shot,” Erik Zürcher was
clearly right to speak of the “Buddhist conquest of China” in this period, as may be seen
from the following table, based on the early Tang polemical work, the Bianzheng lun 辯
正論 by Falin 法琳:
Eastern Jin
These statistics for the South may be juxtaposed with those given by the “Treatise on
Buddhism and Daoism” (Shi-Lao zhi 釋老志) of the Weishu 魏書: in 477, twenty-five
years after the end of the first persecution of Buddhism, there were about one hundred
monasteries in the capital and more than two thousand monks and nuns; in the Wei
empire, there were 6,478 temples and 77,258 monks and nuns. By the early sixth century,
there were 13,727 Buddhist temples, and by the end of the dynasty, 30,000 temples and
two million monks and nuns. 31
The attractiveness of Buddhism in the political realm lay in its dualistic
universalism: the Indian religion assumed a distinction between matter and spirit —
between the political and religious realms — far more radical than anything China had
known hitherto, and the emperor could appropriate the prestige of the new transcendent
principle by identifying himself, either with the Tathâgata (in Chinese, Rulai 如來)
himself or with the royal patron of the Buddhist community, King Aśoka 育王. Daoism
responded to the challenge with a form of initiation that had its roots in the Han
apocryphal texts. They transmitted to the emperor registers (shoulu 授籙) that gave him
power over the world of the gods and thereby implied the recognition of his legitimacy
For a full account of the incessant changes in all these sacrifices, see Chen Shuguo, “State Religious
Ceremonies,” in Early Chinese Religion, Part Two: The Period of Division, edited by John Lagerwey and
Lü Pengzhi (Leiden: Brill, 2010), pp. 53-142.
Howard Goodman, Ts’ao P’i Transcendent: The Political Culture of Dynasty-founding in China at the
End of the Han (Seattle: Scripta Serica, 1998), p. 86.
Leon Hurvitz, translator, Wei Shou Treatise on Buddhism and Taoism, an English translation of the
original Chinese text of Wei-shu CXIV and the Japanese annotation of Tsukamoto Zenryû, reprint of Yünkang, the Buddhist Cave-Temples of the Fifth Century A.D. in North China, vol. 16 supplement (Kyoto:
Jimbunkagaku kenkyusho, 1956), p. 103.
by Heaven and the Dao. 32 Being cut of the same cosmological cloth as state
Confucianism, the Daoists regularly presented themselves, in the imperially sponsored
debates of the period, as “natives,” by opposition with foreign Buddhism.
At the heart of the controversy launched by Yu Bing 庾冰 (296–344) in the year
340 was the question whether monks should, like officials, bow before the emperor or
whether, as representatives of the transcendent principle, they were above the emperor
and should revere only the Buddha. To upholders of the literati tradition, this amounted to
contravening the fundamental Confucian virtue of zhong 忠, loyalty, just as the Buddhist
monk’s “exit from the family” (chujia 出家) meant he was unfilial (buxiao 不孝). Yu
Bing therefore insisted on the universal nature of the state, based on the Confucian
doctrine of human relationships. According to Yu, the kings of antiquity “did not allow
foreign customs to interfere with the administration of the state . . . Let the monks
practice Buddhism in the family or as individuals, but its practice on the level of the state
and the court must be forbidden.” 33 He Chong 何充 (292–346) responded that there was
no precedent for such restrictions on monks’ liberty and affirmed that Buddhism, by
encouraging virtue, produced subjects who obeyed the laws. In addition, the monks’
prayers were beneficial to the state. Buddhist apologists such as the monk Zhi Dun 支遁
(314–66) identified Buddhist compassion (ci 慈) with the supreme Confucian value of
humanity (ren 仁) and explained the Buddhist model of holiness in Daoist terms of
eliminating desire and returning to the simple Origin. “Thus were commingled,” writes
Zürcher, “Chinese ideas of a cosmic and natural order with the Buddhists’ ‘thus-soness.’” 34
Northern Buddhists apparently had fewer reservations about bowing to the
emperor: the head of the monks at the court of the Northern Wei, Faguo 法果 (fl. 396–
409), explained that he was “paying homage, not to the emperor but to the Buddha.” 35
The “Treatise on Buddhism and Daoism” portrays the Wei state as totally invested in the
promotion of Buddhism. In 398, an edict ordered officials to build residences for the
faithful. When Taizong 太宗 (r. 409–24) came to the throne, he “erected images in the
capital and its suburbs and ordered monks to instruct the people.” 36 Of Shizu 世祖 (r.
424–52) it is said that he continued the practice of his predecessors in “inviting superior
monks in order to discuss doctrines with them. On the birthday of the Buddha, when the
statues of the buddhas were paraded in the avenues of the capital, the emperor ascended
the watchtower of his palace in order to watch and to throw flowers so as to display his
devotion.” 37 It was, nonetheless, the same emperor who led the first great repression of
Buddhism beginning in 445.
See Anna Seidel, “Imperial Treasures and Taoist Sacraments: Taoist Roots in the Apocrypha,” Tantric
and Taoist Studies in Honour of R.A. Stein, vol. 2, edited by Michel Strickmann (Brussels: Institut Belge
des Hautes Études Chinoises, 1983), pp. 291–371.
Erik Zürcher, The Buddhist Conquest of China: The Spread and Adaptation of Buddhism in Early
Medieval China (Leiden: Brill, 1959), p. 108. From present-day perspective, it is ironical that Yu Bing is in
fact proposing a “modern” definition of religion as belonging to the private sphere!
Ibid., p. 125.
Hurvitz, p. 53.
Cf. Hurvitz, p. 52.
Ibid., p. 56.
This campaign was occasioned by a memorial to the throne by the minister Cui
Hao 崔浩 (381–450), in which he claimed that books revealed by the Most High Old
Lord (Taishang laojun 太上老君) to the Daoist Kou Qianzhi 寇謙之 (d. 448) in the years
415 and 423 on the Central Peak (Songshan 嵩山) were “truly a sign your majesty, like
the Yellow Thearch, is in accord with Heaven.” The emperor Shizu invited Kou and his
numerous disciples to the capital and built for them a five-story altar for their rituals.
Monthly banquets for thousands were also provided. 38 According to Li Daoyuan 酈道元
(d. 527), the altar was modeled on the Hall of Light. In the year 431, altars were created
with Daoist priests to serve them in every provincial capital. This is the first recorded
unified system of state-supported religious institutions in Chinese history. 39 In 439,
imperial steles evoking these events were set up on Songshan 嵩山 and Huashan 華山,
the central and western of the five sacred mountains. That on Huashan refers to Kou as
the successor to the Heavenly Master 繼天師who, during his more than thirty years on
the Central Peak,
accumulated merit, accomplished the Dao, and moved the obscure Void. The gods
approached him from on high and invested him as True Master of the Nine
Continents, in charge of the governance of men and demons, to aid the state and
support the mandate, and sustain and guide the True Lord of Great Peace太平真
君. 40
It is in the revelations of 423 that Kou had been told how to reform Daoist liturgy so as to
help the True Lord of Great Peace, Shizu, who, after a victory over Liangzhou, in 440
promulgated the new reign era title of “True Lord of Great Peace.” In 442, he became the
first emperor in history to receive a Daoist initiation. In 445, after the discovery of arms
in a Chang’an monastery, Shizu ordered the execution of all the monks of Chang’an and
the destruction of all Buddhist images, and then the extension of the edict to the entire
empire. A decree of 447 threatened with extermination any household that served the
“foreign gods.” The persecution of Buddhism came to a halt after Shizu’s assassination in
452, but a number of precedents had been set: the first and perhaps most important was
the attack on Buddhism as foreign, for this argument would resurface in every BuddhoDaoist confrontation thereafter, in the Northern Zhou, the Tang, the Song, and the Yuan.
The second is that all successive emperors of the Northern Wei received a Daoist
initiation, as would the next persecutor of Buddhism, Wudi of the Northern Zhou (r. 561–
78). 41
The Wei emperor Gaozong (r. 452–65) not only halted the persecution, he
allowed the redeployment of Buddhism, albeit it under the control of a special office
James Ware, translator, “The Wei shu and the Sui shu on Taoism,” T’oung Pao (1932), pp. 215–50: p.
For references, see my “Religion et politique pendant la période de Division,” Religion et société en
Chine ancienne et médiévale (Paris: Editions du Cerf, 2009).
Cited from Lagerwey, “The Old Lord’s Scripture for the Chanting of the Commandments,” Purposes,
Means and Convictions in Taoism: A Berlin Symposium, edited by Florian Reiter (Wiesbaden:
Harrassowitz Verlag), pp. 29–56.
See Seidel, “Imperial Treasures and Taoist Sacraments,” and, on Zhou Wudi’s initiation, my Wu-shang
pi-yao, somme taoïste du VIe siècle (Paris: École française d’Extrême-Orient, 1981), p. 19.
created to that effect. He ordered the sculpting of a statue of the Buddha that resembled
him and, in 454, the same year he was initiated as a Daoist, the placement of five statues
of the Buddha in a temple: one for each successive Wei emperor, himself included. He
also launched the great Yungang sculpture project. It may be in reaction to state control
of Buddhism that a critical text for the future of church-state relations was produced, the
Sutra of the Humane King (Renwang jing 仁王經). According to this text, if the humane
sovereign protects the Buddhist community and supports grandiose Buddhist rituals, he
will in turn benefit from the protection of the state by the Buddha. But “the disciple who
registers (the monks) or serves as an official is not my disciple.” 42
In 493, when the Wei decided to move its capital to Luoyang, one of the
emperor’s first acts was to build a new Daoist temple for the Veneration of Emptiness
(Chongxusi 崇虛寺) in the southern suburb. 43 The festivals of the Three Officers 三官
were celebrated there annually until 534, when the first emperor of the determinedly
Buddhist Northern Qi abolished them. In the year 500, the Longmen cave sculptures were
undertaken with imperial patronage. The emperor Shizong (r. 500–15), who “loved
profoundly the principles of the Buddha,” had a vast Buddhist temple of Light
(Jingmingsi 景明寺) constructed where every year the statues of all the Buddhist temples
in the capital were gathered in order to participate in a procession on the Buddha’s
In South China, the high point of Buddhist involvement in government came
under Wudi of the Liang (r. 502–49). He began by choosing the date of the Buddha’s
birthday for his accession to the throne in the southern suburb of the capital. In 504, he
put an end to ceremonies in honor of Laozi, publicly renounced his clan’s affiliation with
Daoism, and announced his conversion to Buddhism, urging his officials to follow his
example. In 517, Wudi decreed the abolition of blood sacrifice on the ancestral altar and
had two altars for vegetarian offerings and two Buddhist temples built for his parents,
staffed respectively with 1,000 monks and 400 nuns. (The traditional “small sacrifices” to
the rivers and mountains were, however, excluded from the abolition of blood sacrifice,
as were the people’s annual sacrifices of request and thanksgiving to the earth god.) In
519, having been ordained as a bodhisattva, Wudi tried to use this new role to acquire a
greater degree of control over the Buddhist community. In 522, he restored the monastery
dedicated to King Aśoka, presenting himself as the Indian king’s heir, even his
reincarnation. He also persecuted Daoism, with the result that many Daoists fled from
Maoshan 茅山 to the north, where they no doubt contributed to the massive use of
southern scriptures in the Northern Zhou Daoist encyclopedia, the Wushang biyao 無上
The emperor who ordered the compilation of this encyclopedia after a series of
Buddho-Daoist debates was yet another Martial Emperor. In 567, he was initiated as a
Daoist and received the memorial of a former monk, Wei Yuansong 衛元松, proposing
Charles Orzech, Politics and Transcendent Wisdom: The Scripture for Humane Kings in the Creation of
Chinese Buddhism (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1998), p. 115.
Cf. my “Religion et politique” (note 39 above), where I suggest the name chongxu, “veneration of
emptiness,” derives from the Heavenly Master movement, in which it referred to the central place of
meditation in each Daoist “diocese” (zhi 治).
the establishment of a great church which would include everyone in the
empire . . . In this universal church, there would no longer be any distinction
between monks and lay persons. Let the temples of walls and moats become the
temples and stupas, and let the lord of the Zhou be the Tathâgata. The cities will
be the monks’ quarters, and harmonious husbands and wives the holy
congregation. 44
Wei was in effect proposing that state and church once again be one, as before the arrival
of Buddhism.
From 569 to 574, Wudi organized a series of seven debates between the Three
Teachings. One of the byproducts of these debates was a book by the Buddhist monk
Dao’an 道安, called Discourse on the Two Religions (Erjiao lun 二教論). Making use
once again of the distinction between body and soul, Dao’an says that Confucianism
managed the material, Buddhism the spiritual worlds, and that Daoism was therefore
superfluous. The chief Daoist counter-argument focused on Buddhism’s foreignness.
Having opted for the Daoists, Wudi launched the second major persecution of Buddhism
and turned Daoism into the state religion. When he conquered the Northern Qi in 578, he
extended the interdiction of Buddhism to its territories: “The Buddhist books are a
foreign system, of which this land has no need. I am not one of the five barbarians who
do not know the meaning of respect. Buddhism is not an orthodox religion: that is why I
abolish it.” 45
But Wudi died soon after, and his successor, Xuandi 宣帝 (r. 578–80), legalized
Buddhism anew. “The emperor then sat with the images of the Buddha and Yuanshi
facing south.” 46 Yuanshi tianzun 元始天尊, Heavenly Worthy of the Primordial
Beginning, was the supreme Daoist god introduced in the heavily Buddhist-influenced
Lingbao scriptures 靈寶經 revealed in South China ca. 400. The end result of four
centuries of debate and jockeying for power was thus an emperor who sat facing south
flanked by the images of the high gods of the two religions no emperor could henceforth
Sui/Tang (581-907) and Song (960-1276)
While the universal cakravartin king ideal clearly played a fundamental role in Sui
ideology and practice, the first dynasty to unify all China in nearly four centuries also
continued to support Daoist institutions and even use Daoist reign titles (Kaihuang 開皇).
The Tang would continue the basic policy of equal treatment, but like all native dynasties
from the Tang on, it would also have a clear bias in favor of Daoism. In the case of the
Tang, the justification for this bias lay in a name: the House of Tang was surnamed Li 李,
like the Most High Old Lord.
This link was affirmed as early as 620, when the Louguan 樓觀 (Pavilion
Hermitage), whose abbot Ji Hui (558–630) had taken sides with the Tang already in 617,
Kenneth Chen, Buddhism in China: A Historical Survey (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1964), p.
Lagerwey, Wu-shang pi-yao, p. 17.
Anna Seidel, “Imperial Treasures and Taoist Sacraments,” p. 365.
was given the name Zongsheng guan 宗聖觀, Hermitage of the Ancestral Saint, that is,
the very Laozi who was said to have delivered himself of the Daode jing 道德經 at this
site to the Guardian of the Pass, Yin Xi (he then went west to huahu 化胡). 47 In the same
year, the Old Lord made a series of appearances to the illiterate Ji Shanxing, on one
occasion telling him: “Go tell Gaozu that I am the greatest of the immortals, Li Boyang,
the imperial ancestor, the Old Lord. Near my temple in Bozhou, an old tree will flower as
proof of what I am saying.” 48 In his final appearance in 622, the god promised he would
send ten thousand “divine soldiers” (shenbing 神兵) to help the new dynasty destroy one
Liu Heita, who had taken Luoyang.
A decree of the emperor Taizong in 637 gave formal precedence to Daoism over
Buddhism on the grounds the latter was a foreign religion, while Daoism derived from
the nameless Origin of the universe, and Laozi was the origin of the imperial clan. When
the monk Zhishi protested, he was whipped to death. In 678, Daoists were placed under
the authority of the Bureau of Clan Affairs (Zongzhengsi 宗正司), while Buddhism
remained under that of Religious Affairs (Chongxuansi 崇玄司), a part of the Foreign
Affairs Bureau (Honglusi 弘盧寺). A debate in 696 on the Scripture of Foreign
Conversion (Huahu jing 化胡經) concluded it was authentic, and that Buddhism
therefore derived from Daoism, but a new discussion in 705 came to the opposite
conclusion and an order was given to destroy the scripture and efface all paintings of this
subject in Daoist temples and all portraits of Laozi in Buddhist temples.
The height of Daoist influence was reached under Xuanzong (r. 713–56). One
factor was clearly the loss of taxes due to the creation of Buddhist chapels on the estates
of the wealthy, especially graveside chapels, called Merit Halls (gongde yuan 功德院). In
714, 30,000 monks and nuns were forcibly returned to lay status. Edicts against
proselytizing in villages and ordering the destruction of village chapels and small
Buddhist shrines followed. 49 Sima Chengzhen 司馬承貞 gave Xuanzong his first Daoist
initiation in 721, Li Hanguang 李含光 his second in 748. Like his grandfather in 666
during the fengshan sacrifices of legitimacy, Xuanzong went in person to Laozi’s temple
in Bozhou on his way back from Taishan in 725. He also created a festival for the god’s
birthday. After discussions at the court on the Laozi, the emperor’s commentary on the
text was engraved in stone in 732. 50 It contains such statements as this: “The great man is
the prince who is in possession of the Dao”; “The compassion of the saint is universal
because it is impartial.” 51 The next year, state examination questions based on the Laozi
replaced questions on the Confucian classics, and it was decreed that each house in the
realm should have a copy of the Daoist scripture (as well as of the Scripture of Filial
Piety, Xiaojing 孝經). In 738, Xuanzong ordered that every district select one Buddhist
Huahu may be translated as “conversion of/into the foreigner.” When understood in the sense of “into,” it
refers to the idea that Laozi, after revealing the Daode jing, went west and “turned into” the Buddha. For
obvious reasons, this became one of the most contentious notions in the history of Buddho-Daoist relations.
Charles David Benn, “Taoism as Ideology in the Reign of Emperor Hsüan-tsung (712–55)” (University
of Michigan microfilm, 1983), p. 30.
Stanley Weinstein, Buddhism under the T’ang (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987), pp. 51–2.
The ultimate model for this act was the engraving of the five Confucian classics on stone in the year AD
Benn, “Taoism as Ideology,” pp. 154, 174.
and one Daoist temple to be called Kaiyuan 開元 (there were 331 of each!) and transfer
the celebration of his birthday to these temples. Imperial dreams of Laozi in the years 740
and 741 led to the unearthing of a statue of Laozi near Pavilion Hermitage — imperial
confirmation that this was indeed the subject of Xuanzong’s dream — creation of a new
temple to house it, and distribution of painted copies throughout the empire. The name of
this new Daoist temple in Chang’an was Palace of Great Clarity (Taiqinggong 太清宮),
and in it the statue of the emperor was placed next to that of Laozi. By the end of his
reign, the rites in the Palace of Great Clarity were classed as superior to those of the
ancestral temple (Taimiao 太廟) and the southern suburb (nanjiao 南郊). A decree dated
743, promulgated after an imperial sacrifice to Laozi, explains Xuanzong’s vision of
Those who wish to safeguard mankind must revere the Great Way. Those who
have successfully maintained the Mandate have steadfastly relied on their
illustrious predecessors. They have venerated especially the Great Sage, Emperor
of the Mystic Origin. His Way illumines the Great Ultimate. He sprang forth
before the origin during chaos . . . From the establishment of Our dynasty to the
present time he has repeatedly conferred good fortune on us and many times
graced Us with the appearance of his true image. 52
Nor were traditional state cults to the mountains forgotten in Xuanzong’s drive to turn
Daoism into a universal state religion. Already in 725, at Sima Chengzhen’s behest, the
emperor had added to the worship of the gods of the Five Peaks 五嶽 that of Daoist
Perfected (zhenren 真人). In 732, Daoists were selected for the temples of the Five Peaks
and two other cults, notably that of the Messenger of the Nine Heavens (Jiutian shizhe 九
天使者), who had appeared to Xuanzong in a dream. Wu Daozi 吳道子 was
commissioned to paint the subject of the emperor’s dream for hanging in the Temple of
the Nine Heavens. (The same painter did murals of the conversion of the foreigners for a
Daoist temple near Luoyang.) In 748, a series of Daoist altars (tan 壇) was created on 46
mountains with caves, where the ritual “throwing the dragons and slips” (tou longjian 投
龍簡) was performed. Each cave-heaven (dongtian 洞天) was supported by the tax
payments of 30 households.
Rarely favored outright, Buddhism was nonetheless able to resist attempts to
make monks bow before their parents and the emperor. It also contributed significantly to
the legitimization of the Tang ruling house. A decree in 629 ordered all monks in
Chang’an to recite the Scripture of the Humane King fourteen days in every month. In the
same year, Taizong (r. 629–49) ordered the building of seven monasteries, each on a
battle site, so that monks could offer constant prayers for the repose of the soldiers who
had died. At the end of his life, Taizong’s admiration for Xuanzong led him even to
declare Buddhism superior to Daoism and Confucianism and to ordain 18,500 new
monks. In 659, Gaozong (r. 649–83) ordered that an image of King Aśoka “with Gaozu’s
own features” be installed in the Famensi 法門寺, a popular center of pilgrimage because
Ibid., p. 240.
it had the Buddha finger bone relic. 53 In 744, Xuanzong ordered all Kaiyuan monasteries
“to install images of the Buddha in the likeness of the emperor.” 54 Amoghavajra (Bukong
不空) used Tantric rites to consecrate Suzong (r. 756–62) Universal Monarch. 55 When
the Tibetans threatened Chang’an, Bukong asked to do a new translation of the Humane
King scripture, which promises protection from invasion to rulers who do not seek to
control monks. 56 In 772, after obtaining an order to create Wenshu 文殊 chapels in every
monastery in the empire, Bukong told Daizong (r. 762–79) he was “the fulfillment of a
prophecy by Sakyamuni that true Buddhism will ultimately flourish in China, ruled by a
sage emperor.” 57
The third state suppression of Buddhism coincided with the reign of Wuzong (r.
840–6), who was initiated as a Daoist soon after his accession to the throne. It is worth
noting that his chief minister, Li Deyu 李德育, when he was governor of Zhexi 浙西 in
823, had closed 2000 “illegal sites of worship” (yinsi 淫祀) and “mountain cloisters”
(shanfang 山房). 58 Wuzong did not suppress just Buddhism: 2000 Nestorian and
Zoroastrian priests were also laicized. “Li Deyu responded with a memorial lauding
Wuzong for having put an end to a scourge which had wrought havoc since the Han.” 59
The Huang Chao rebellion (878–84) during Xizong’s reign (r. 873–88) is said to
have been predicted in a tale written by the Daoist Du Guangting 杜光庭 (850–933), but
so was its happy conclusion, when the child emperor Xizong would come as an
“incarnation of Laozi . . . to save the empire.” 60 As Verellen shows, Du’s book, the Lidai
chongdao ji 歷代崇道記 (Veneration of the Way through the Ages), in which Chinese
history becomes the salvation history of Laozi’s successive appearances from the Zhou
down to the reign of Xizong, was primarily designed to justify the Tang restoration that
took place after the Huang Chao revolt. Du would go on to provide similar liturgical
services for the Kingdom of Shu: the ordination of Wang Yan (r. 918–25), the second
emperor; “the institution of an official cult of Daoist saints and immortals purportedly
belonging to the ruling family’s Wang lineage”; and the compilation of “a record of the
kingdom’s ‘sacred geography’.” 61
Confucianism, likewise, continued to play its part in legitimation. Here is how
Howard Wechsler summarizes the role of Confucian rites in the Tang:
They depended less on the ancestral temple rites and on the power of lineal
ancestors to legitimate their authority, and more on the suburban altar rites and the
power of an all-embracing universal Heavenly deity, Haotian shangdi, who
Weinstein, Buddhism under the T’ang, p. 37.
Ibid., p. 54.
Ibid., p. 58
Ibid., p. 78.
Ibid., p. 82; cf. p. 178: “Your Majesty has received the mandate of the Buddha to serve as King of the
Dharma fawang; it is Your Majesty who satisfies the aspirations of the people and holds the secret seal of
Ibid., p. 118.
Ibid., p. 134.
Franciscus Verellen, “A Forgotten T’ang Restoration: The Taoist Dispensation after Huang Ch’ao,” Asia
Major Third Series 7.1 (1994), p. 114.
Franciscus Verellen, “Liturgy and Sovereignty: The Role of Taoist Ritual in the Foundation of the Shu
Kingdom (907–9–25), Asia Major Third Series 2.1 (1989), p. 74.
belonged not to one family only but to all the empire. Along with the emphasis on
tianxia weigong 天下為公 62 came a reduction in the secrecy that had formerly
characterized certain rituals, such as the Feng and Shan sacrifices, which now
became more public. New reliance on Haotian shangdi at the expense of other
deities intensified the ruler’s identification with all-powerful Heaven and
enhanced his standing as the one man and so improved cosmological grounds for
an enhanced absolutism. 63
In the Han, writes Wechsler, accession to the throne of a new emperor took place before
the interment of his predecessor, with the ceremony taking place in the temple of the
founder or, after 86 BC, in front of the deceased emperor’s coffin. Even then, a visit had
to be paid to the founding ancestor’s temple to report the accession (yemiao 謁廟). From
the Cao-Wei dynasty on, it became the rule that founding emperors sacrifice in person to
Heaven to announce their accession, in imitation of Guangwudi. The founder of the Tang
accepted the throne in the Taiji Hall 太極殿 and sent chief officials to offer the burnt
sacrifice of announcement to Heaven in the southern suburbs. Fifteen days later, he sent
the tablets of four of his ancestors to the ancestral temple, but made no announcement to
them. Wechsler concludes that,
From this it can be inferred that the power of the ancestors to legitimate political
authority, symbolized by the yeh-miao rite, had been replaced in the early T’ang
by a more direct and therefore more powerful device that did away with the need
for ancestors to serve as intermediaries between Heaven and the emperor — the
suburban altar rites. 64
During the Tang, although the systems of both Wang Su and Zheng Xuan were practiced
at one time or another, it was the unitary system of Wang that was adopted in the imperial
ritual codes of 658 and then the Kaiyuan era. Henceforth, only the “spirit throne” of
Haotian shangdi was set out on the north end of the round altar, facing south, with a seat
for Gaozu, the dynastic founder, on the east side, facing west. As Wechsler says, “The
condition of one supreme deity in Heaven was congruent with that of one supreme
autocrat on earth.” 65 The same Haotian shangdi “emerged as the dominant sacrificial
object at the altar rites and also at the Mingtang.” 66
Finally, the temples dedicated to Confucius created in every district by Taizong in
630 also contained schools.
The phrase comes from the Book of Rites (Liji): “When the Great Way was practiced the world was
shared by all alike tianxia wei gong. The worthy and the able were promoted to office and men practiced
good faith and lived in affection. Therefore they did not regard as parents only their own parents, or as sons
only their own sons . . . Now the Great Way has become hid and the world is the possession of private
families tianxia wei jia. Each regards his parents as only his own parents, as sons only his own sons; goods
and labor are employed for selfish ends”; cited in Howard Wechsler, Offerings of Jade and Silk: Ritual and
Symbol in the Legitimation of the T’ang Dynasty (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1985), p. 82.
Ibid., p. x.
Ibid., p. 101.
Ibid., p. 122.
Ibid., p. 211.
While the Song have been far less studied than the Tang with regard to religion
and politics, it seems fairly clear that, in finding for themselves a Daoist ancestor in the
person of the Yellow Thearch, the Song followed the Tang model. The pattern of
patronage is also very similar, insofar as it was in both dynasties not the founder but one
of his immediate successors and then the last emperor before the mid-dynasty disaster
who were the most ardent supporters of Daoism, Taizong and Xuanzong in the Tang,
Zhenzong (r. 998–1023) and Huizong (r. 1101–26) in the Song. Like Xuanzong, both
Song patrons of Daoism also wrote commentaries of the Laozi. Finally, an illiterate called
Zhang Shouzhen 張守真 played the same role at the very beginning of the Song that Ji
Shanxing had at the start of the Tang, serving as the conduit for the message of a god
who, after the celebration of a Jiao at the court, “confirms his role as protector of the
dynasty and announces the death of Taizu at the same time he vaunts the merits of
Taizong. The following night, Taizu died suddenly and was immediately replaced on the
throne by his younger brother.” 67
Zhang Shouzhen also became the conduit for a whole new system of Daoist
offerings and the introduction of the worship of the Four Saints 四聖, one of whom,
Zhenwu 真武, the True Warrior, was to become Daoism’s most important god. Like
Tang Xuanzong, who had changed the reign title to Tianbao 天寶, Heavenly Treasure,
after the unearthing of a legitimizing talisman, so too Zhenzong, in the year 1008, when
he discovered a “heavenly letter” tianshu 天書 suspended in the air, changed the reign
title to Dazhong xiangfu 大中祥符, Auspicious Talisman of the Great Center. The
following year, he decreed the foundation of Tianqing (Heavenly Felicity) Daoist temples
天慶觀 in every prefecture and county. In 1012 Zhenzong dreamt of a messenger from
the Jade Emperor 玉皇 who told him he had “earlier ordered your ancestor, Zhao so-andso, to give you the heavenly letter. He is about to manifest himself to you again. Honor
him as the Tang honored Xuanyuan shangdi 玄元上帝 (Laozi).” 68 A few days later, the
god appeared again in his dream and explained he was the Yellow Thearch and founder
of the Zhao (imperial) lineage in one of his incarnations. Zhenzong went on to compile a
Daoist canon and then the famous Yunji qiqian 雲笈七籤 (Seven Slips of the Cloud
Virtually from the time he ascended the throne, Huizong was in regular
correspondence with the 25th patriarch of Maoshan, Liu Hunkang 劉混康 (1035–1108).
In 1106, Huizong had a dream in which he ascended to heaven and was received by the
Jade Emperor. On his way out, he saw a man in black riding a black buffalo. This
engendered a search for Daoist masters and, in 1108, the presentation by Liu of Lin
Lingsu 林靈素 (1076?–1120), in whom Huizong recognized the buffalo-rider of his
dream. The previous year, Huizong had already decreed the ritual precedence of Daoism
over Buddhism. An edict of 1111 eliminated 1500 “illicit cult sites” (yinsi) in the capital,
and another decree in 1117 prohibited male and female “shamans” (wuxi 巫覡). After
Michel Soymié, “Recherches historiques et sociologiques sur le culte de Zhenwu,” Annuaire de l’École
Pratique des Hautes Études, IVe Section (1975), p. 962. Taizu, the founder, reigned 960-76, Taizong 97698.
Michel Soymié, “La politique religieuse des empereurs Zhenzong et Renzong des Song,” Annuaire de
l’École Pratique des Hautes Études, IVe Section (1977), p. 1030.
having learned in a séance that he was himself a divinity from Shenxiao 神霄, Divine
Empyrean, the highest of the Nine Heavens, he ordered in early 1117 the creation of a
network of Shenxiao “palaces” (gong 宮) throughout the realm. Where Daoist temples
did not yet exist, Buddhist temples were confiscated for the purpose, and so within 18
months the entire network was complete. An 1117 edict explained Huizong felt he had “a
mission of saving China from the foreign religion and returning it to the correct way.” 69
A stele of Huizong’s commentary on the Laozi was to be given to each Shenxiao
temple, all of which had central altars with images of the deity Lin Lingsu had identified
as the emperor’s divine persona: “They manifested to visitors, especially scholar-officials
who were required by imperial order to pay their respects, the divinity of their current
emperor.” 70 Each temple was also to house a Humane Aid Pavilion with Daoist masters
of “symbol-water” (fushui 符水) to engage in healing. A foundation stele explained why
Huizong wished to create this network:
By embodying the Dao, one can come close to the spirits; by employing it, one
can assist Heaven and Earth; by extending it, one can bring order to the realm and
the country . . . This Dao is something people definitely have, but they have
strayed from it for so long that they must be taught about it before it will flourish.
Thus I wish to reform the habits of this late age and return to the pure customs of
great antiquity. 71
Another vital feature of the Song is the gradual emergence of a popular pantheon
composed of gods recognized by the state. 72 According to Patricia Ebrey and Peter
Gregory, this is the result of a move away from suppression to “strategies of
appropriation.” 73 Valerie Hansen links it as well to the “the rise of organized lineages”
more invested in local society than national politics. The government responded with
“ever more comprehensive policies to recognize the achievements of local gods.” 74 The
increase in title-granting began in 1070, writes Hansen. A 1095 petition to draw up a
register of sacrifices for each prefecture was approved. Titles of two, four, and six
characters were given, and then, from 1129 on, of eight. As enshrined in the law code of
1195–1200, this is how the system worked:
The prefects should report and guarantee to the fiscal intendants the claims of all
the temples and Buddhist and Daoist practitioners of each circuit who have
Patricia Ebrey, “Huizong’s Stone Inscriptions,” in Emperor Huizong and Late Northern Song China: The
Politics of Culture and the Culture of Politics edited by Patricia Ebrey and Maggie Bickford (Cambridge:
Harvard University Press, 2006), p. 257.
Shin-yi Chao, “Huizong and the Divine Empyrean Palace Temple Network,” in Emperor Huizong and
Late Northern Song China: The Politics of Culture and the Culture of Politics, p. 349.
Ebrey, “Huizong’s Stone Inscriptions,” p. 254.
This issue being intimately linked to the history of Daoist ritual, we will treat the subject more
thoroughly in the next chapter.
Patricia Ebrey and Peter Gregory, “The Religious and Historical Landscape,” in Religion and Society in
T’ang and Sung China edited by Patricia Ebrey and Peter Gregory (Honolulu: Hawai’i University Press,
1993), p. 28.
Valerie Hansen, Changing Gods in Medieval China, 1127–1276 (Princeton: Princeton University Press,
1990), pp. 8–9.
performed miracles in response to prayers and who should be given titles and
plaques. The fiscal intendant will send an official from a neighboring prefecture
to check the claim personally. Then he will send another official who is not
involved to double check the claim. When these checks are completed, he will
report the actual situation to the emperor. 75
The fiscal intendant’s report then went to the Imperial Secretariat, who forwarded
it to the Board of Rites. If approved, it went back to the Secretariat for a provisional title,
back to the Board for approval, and then again to the Secretariat to draft the title-granting
edict and a “full documentary report.” 76 Insofar as the process cannot but remind us of
the way the medieval Catholic church vetted candidates for sainthood, it also reminds us
that, in China, the real church was the state. That is, in spite of the emergence of the
institutional religions of Buddhism and Daoism — referred to above as social
organizations that in some sense rivaled the state — the underlying and far more ancient
tradition that identified church and state, religion and politics, remained dominant.
In a context of increasing commercialization and of the development of merchant
guilds and a national market, some of the local gods emerged as regional and even
national gods. Not only do Buddhist and Daoist gods — Guanyin, Zhenwu — get taken
up into the popular pantheon, so too do deified Buddhists and Daoists such as Dingguang
定光 in Tingzhou 汀州 (Fujian) or Wen Qiong 溫瓊 in Wenzhou 溫州 (Zhejiang). 77
According to Hansen, “the dramatic increase in extra-local cults excited great controversy
throughout the Southern Song” because, to cite the Zuozhuan 左傳, “The making of
offerings should not transgress the boundaries of one’s own fief.” 78
A particularly interesting example of the process is Wenchang 文昌, who went
from local snake god in northern Sichuan to become the national god of literature and the
examinations in the Yuan. According to Terry Kleeman, “it was the power of ongoing
revelation that drove the cult’s expansion.” 79 Produced by spirit writing in 1181, 1194,
and 1267, the Book of Transformations (Huashu 化書) translated by Kleeman portrays
Wenchang “as a Daoist deity within the unitary pantheon of the Chinese religious world”;
the book’s theme is “the spiritual development of the god.” 80 Kleeman shows the book to
combine Confucian family and lineage values, Daoist cosmology and spiritual
bureaucracy, and Buddhist karma. Perhaps the most interesting moment occurs when the
Divine Lord — still one incarnation away from becoming the god of examinations —
goes to Kongdong mountain and there witnesses a procession of the gods that took three
days to go by. It was in fact Laozi, on his way west to “convert the foreigners.” When
Laozi passed,
Ibid., p. 91.
Ibid., p. 92.
On Dingguang, see my “Dingguang Gufo: Oral and Written Sources in the Study of a Saint,” Cultes des
sites, cultes des saints, Franciscus Verellen, ed., Cahiers d’Extrême-Asie 10 (1998), pp. 77–129; on Wen
Qiong, see Paul Katz, Demon Hordes and Burning Boats: the Cult of Marshal Wen in Late Imperial
Chekiang (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1995).
Hansen, Changing Gods, pp. 128, 130.
Terry Kleeman, “The Expansion of the Wen-ch’ang Cult,” in Religion and Society in T’ang and Sung
China, edited by Patricia Ebrey and Peter Gregory (Honolulu: Hawai’i University Press), p. 59.
Terry Kleeman, A God’s Own Tale: The Book of Transformations of Wenchang, the Divine Lord of
Zitong (Albany: State University Press of New York, 1994), pp. 26, 28.
I saluted him from my place among the ranks of earth spirits under the direction
of the Western Marchmount西嶽. The Western Marchmount had commanded all
the terrestrial spirits to pay obeisance to Laozi 81 and accompany him for ten days’
journey. He takes the chance to describe his time in Shu; says Laozi: “In the
functioning of the Great Way all under Heaven works for the common good” 82 . . .
(Laozi then orders his assistant Xu Jia 徐甲 to give the Divine Lord an elixir):
“From now on you will possess the five magic powers, and will be incomparably
more powerful than your former self. The Central Plain is in disorder, and I am
very weary of it. Now I am going to enter the Western Regions in order to carry
on transformation xing hua 行化. Three years later, when the religion of the
Western Regions is flourishing, it will come to China. You should believe in this
religion.” 83
Toward the end of the god’s story, he does indeed achieve Buddhist “liberation” and take
refuge in the Buddha, so Kleeman is clearly right in referring here to an “irenical attitude
toward Buddhism.” But how do we explain this? How could the once and future rival of
Buddhism envisage granting it pride of place with such equanimity? Edward Davis gives
us one possible explanation: At the same time that Buddhism had come to have a
“monopoly on death,” there was a “creative confrontation and accommodation between
Daoism and local cults or village religion . . . The new gods are martial, humanized,
historicized deities, unlike cosmology centered powers earlier.” 84 Davis goes on to
suggest that Prasenjit Duara’s “cultural nexus” is in fact “more specifically a religious
nexus,” one in which the military, exorcistic nature of the gods, rituals, and festivals “has
not been adequately recognized or explored”: 85
On the one hand there is the sage — the Daoist priest, the Gentleman of the Dao,
the incarnation of the classical ru 儒 — who concentrates in his person, through a
regimen of ritual meditation and ethical ascesis, the cosmic principle, the one. On
the other hand, there is the spirit-medium who embodies in himself, through a
demanding regime of trance and martial prowess, the magical power of a god. In
one, the quotidian is transformed into a space of the absolute that will identify the
community with the values of centrality and harmony; in the other, the quotidian
is transformed into a space of conditioned power that will identify the community
with the limits of that power, with defensible boundaries. In one we have texts
(wen 文), in the other we have weapons (wu 武). 86
The god of the western sacred mountain is here clearly seen as chief of all the gods in his territory,
exactly the role played by the god of Central Mountain in the story of Kou Qianzhi: as administered
territory, Daoist territory is conceptually identical to that of the central government.
This is a quotation from the Book of Rites.
Kleeman, A God’s Own Tale, p. 210.
Edward Davis, Society and the Supernatural in Song China (Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press,
2001), p. 239.
Ibid., pp. 285, 293.
Ibid., p. 308.
While, as we shall see, the development of Daoist domination of the martial owes much
to Tantrism, Buddhism, in part because of its virtual monopoly on rites for the dead, had
long since come to be identified with texts and the civil administration.
Song to Ming (1368-1644): Zhenwu and Wudangshan
Zhenwu, the Perfect Warrior, is in a sense the martial counterpart of Wenchang.
Curiously, he is not of local but of cosmological origin, for he emerges in the early Song
as an anthropomorphic manifestation of Xuanwu 玄武, the heraldic animal of the north
already portrayed on Han mirrors. In the early Song, he is but one of the Four Saints 四聖
and not even the most important one: it is not Zhenwu, called Yousheng 佑聖, Assistant
of the Saint, but Yisheng 翊聖, Helper of the Saint (i.e. the emperor) who is the subject
of a famous hagiography by Wang Qinruo 王欽若. 87
It was nonetheless in the course of the Song dynasty that the worship of Zhenwu
spread throughout the empire. A scripture in the Daoist canon, also known from a 1099
inscription, the Yuanshi tianzun shuo beifang Zhenwu miaojing 元始天尊說北方真武妙
經 (The Heavenly Worthy of Primordial Beginning Utters the Marvelous Scripture of the
Perfect Warrior of the North) tells how Zhenwu, after 42 years of self-cultivation on
Wudangshan 武當山 (a mountain in northwest Hubei), ascends to heaven, is enfeoffed by
the Jade Emperor, and then sent back to earth at the head of soldiers of the five thunders
to quell the demons who were wreaking havoc on earth. 88 Because of his exorcistic
powers, Zhenwu came to play a prominent role in Daoist therapeutic rites and, as such,
was regularly afforded a separate hall in Daoist abbeys. These halls, in turn, became the
“focus of large-scale community festivals according to Hong Mai.” 89 Hong Mai 洪邁
(1123–1202) includes a story of him in his Yijianzhi 夷堅志, where we see Hong’s own
father upbraiding a ghost who has possessed a concubine:
I worship Zhenwu, because he is efficacious, and also have images of Buddha, the
earth and stove gods. How dare you come here?” Ghost: “The Buddha is a
benevolent deity who does not concern himself with such trivial matters; every
night Zhenwu unbinds his hair, grasps his sword, and flies from the roof. I
carefully avoid him, that’s all. 90
Zhenwu, adds Davis, “was the god par excellence of village spirit-mediums wu and, in a
very concrete sense, he was their alter-ego.” 91 He was to become, as well, the alter ego of
the emperor.
The process begins in the Northern Song when, according to Shin-yi Chao, no
fewer than five emperors — Zhenzong, Renzong, Shenzong (r. 1067–87), Huizong, and
Qinzong (r. 1126–27) — “bestowed honorific titles on either Zhenwu himself or on a
Yisheng baode zhuan (Taoist canon no. 1285); see my Taoist Ritual, pp. 257–8.
My summary is based on a forthcoming manuscript by Shin-yi Chao, “A God in Transition: Zhenwu
Worship from Song to Ming (960–1644).”
Davis, Society and the Supernatural, p. 104.
Hansen, Changing Gods, p. 30.
Davis, Society and the Supernatural, p. 104.
temple dedicated to him or both.” The Southern Song emperor Xiaozong (r. 1162–89), in
turn, “converted his princely mansion in Hangzhou into a Zhenwu temple, the majestic
Yousheng guan 佑聖觀.” 92 The celebration in this Abbey of the Assistant of the Saint of
Zhenwu’s birthday on the third day of the third month was one of Hangzhou’s biggest
annual festivals. According to the Mengliang lu 夢梁錄 (ca. 1275) by Wu Zimu 吳自牧,
this abbey was located right in front of the imperial palace, and the emperor
commissioned a Jiao there on Zhenwu’s birthday. At noon, the temple’s Daoists would
worship Zhenwu, “performing heavenly music before his throne”:
People came in droves to burn incense in the courtyard of the temple. All Daoist
temples did Jiao to pray for the prosperity of the state and the peace of the people.
The various army forts and civil offices also engaged in worship, forming
religious societies 社會 to prepare floats 臺閣 to welcome the god on his parade
route, along which spectators thronged. While the well-to-do put on their own
Jiao in order to pray for grace, the poor offered water and presented flowers.
There is no place in the empire that worships the Saint with as much fervor as
The next step in the god’s ascension begins in the year 1269, with the appearance of a
tortoise in the river near the Upper Capital — the future Beijing — that the Yuan were in
the process of building. Interpreted as a manifestation of the god Zhenwu, several high
officials wrote celebrations of the event and the subsequent founding of a Zhenwu
temple. 93 In 1273, Khubilai Khan (r. 1260–95) ordered the fifth patriarch of the Daoist
Great One school to place a seat for Zhenwu in the new Zhaoyinggong 照應宮 (Palace of
Luminous Responses). 94 And in 1291, the Daoist Liu Daoming 劉道明 compiled the first
monograph on the Wudangshan, the Wudangshan zongzhen ji 武當山總真集 (Record of
the Perfected of Wudangshan).
Little attention has been paid to the context of these events. It is well known that
Genghis Khan had given all power over both Buddhists and Daoists to the Quanzhen 全
真 (Complete Perfection) Daoist Qiu Chuji 丘處機 (1148–1227) and that Daoist abuse of
their power had led to Buddhist counterattacks whose end result was the burning, in the
year 1281, of the Daoist canon and of all books in any way related to the conversion of
the foreigners theme. Just before that, however, in 1276, Khubilai Khan had invited the
36th Heavenly Master, Zhang Zongyan 張宗演 (1244–91), to the capital. When he
returned to Longhushan龍虎山, Zhang left his disciple, Zhang Liusun 張留孫 (1248–
1322), behind. He was named head of the Xuanjiao玄教 or Teaching of the Mysteries,
that is, Daoism, in 1278, and all subsequent heads of the Xuanjiao, including Zhang
Shin-yi Chao, “A God in Transition,” Chapter 2.
Writing in 1312, Zhao Mengfu (1254–1352) explicitly linked these events to the Heavenly Mandate:
“The rise of the Yuan began in the north. The energy of the north being in the ascendance, the god of the
north sent down prophetic signs: thus did Heaven announce (the dynastic change).” See John Lagerwey,
“The Pilgrimage to Wu-tang Shan,” in Pilgrims and Sacred Sites in China, edited by Susan Naquin and
Chün-fang Yü (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992), p. 298.
Curiously, this is the same name as that given by Zhenzong to the Daoist temple built in 1017 to house
the “celestial document” discovered in 1008; cf. Davis, Society and the Supernatural, p. 95.
Liusun’s disciple, the famous Wu Quanjie 吳全節 (1269–1346), who celebrated a Jiao 醮
for Chengzu’s (r. 1295–1307) accession to the throne, were also linked to the Heavenly
Masters. The head of the Xuanjiao was in effect an ambassador “of the Celestial Masters
at the Mongol court.” 95 In other words, when the famous book burning took place, the
Mongols had in fact already shifted their allegiance to Heavenly Master Daoism.
Here we must backtrack a moment: although there are episodic references to
Heavenly Masters after Zhang Lu, Huizong was the first emperor after Cao Pi to have
shown any interest in them (he gave titles to the 29th and 30th Heavenly Masters). 96 The
Emperor Lizong (r. 1225–64) gave control of the three core Daoist mountains (Maoshan,
Longhushan, and Gezaoshan 葛皂山) to the 35th Heavenly Master, and “this control was
enhanced in the Yuan when the 36th Celestial Master and his descendants were
recognized as the ‘masters of Daoism south of the Yangzi’.” 97 In the Southern Song
capital of Hangzhou according to the entry in the Mengliang lu on the Duanwu festival,
people hung up the image of the Heavenly Master over their doors, meaning he had come
to be a signifier of exorcism. It is in this context we must understand the 1276 visit and
subsequent closeness of ties between the Mongols, the Heavenly Masters, and
Wudangshan. Liu Daoming’s work is one instance of those ties. A second is the visit by
Zhang Liusun to Wudangshan in 1280 and of Wu Quanjie in 1304, the same year
Chengzu canonized the Perfect Warrior as Xuantian shangdi 玄天上帝 (Supreme
Thearch of Dark Heaven). A third is the invitation in 1312 of Zhang Shouqing 張守清, a
Daoist who had been engaged in major building projects on Wudangshan since 1284, to
the capital, where he successfully prayed for rain to end a drought. 98 Finally, there is the
annual Offering celebrated on Wudangshan at Renzong’s (r. 1312–20) behest on the
god’s birthday — which was also his own — and the same emperor’s gift of titles to
Zhenwu’s parents and master in 1314.
It was this god, in whom the Yuan were so heavily invested, who was now
destined to become the divine guarantor of the Ming Heavenly Mandate. The founder,
Taizu 太祖 (r. 1368–99), as soon as he arrived in Nanjing, had a temple built to
Zhenwu. 99 In 1390, when the 43rd Heavenly Master requested the restoration of
Longhushan, Zhenwu was given special honors. Above all, Taizu’s usurping son, the
third emperor, Chengzu 成祖 (r. 1403–24), attributed his victory over Huidi 惠帝 (r.
1399–1403) to the Perfect Warrior’s help and, as an expression of his gratitude, covered
Wudangshan with Daoist abbeys marking the sites of Zhenwu’s path to transcendence.
He also built a temple for Zhenwu in the extreme north of the Forbidden City in the new
capital of Beijing — the only original building still standing in the City. As late as 1600,
Pierre-Henry de Bruyn, “Wudang shan: The Origins of a Major Center of Modern Taoism,” in Religion
and Society in Chinese History, vol. 2, Taoism and Local Religion in Modern China, edited by John
Lagerwey (Hong Kong: École française d’Extrême-Orient, Chinese University Press, 2004), p. 564.
Chao, “Huizong and the Divine Empyrean Palace,” p. 327.
Davis, p. 45.
This paragraph is derived from de Bruyn, “Wu-dang Shan: The Origins of a Major Center,” pp. 563–7.
In the list of official temples in the Ming capitals of Beijing and Nanjing in the Da Ming huidian
(Collected Statutes of the Great Ming), 93.1a–3a, the temple to Zhenwu is listed first in both cases, and it is
stated explicitly for the Beijing temple that, “whenever a major event occurs, he must be informed” 國有大
a Hanlin academician, Liu Chenglian, in his inscription for a shrine on Wudangshan,
continued to recall these foundational events:
The Dark Emperor’s cult is spread throughout the empire, but Wudang is its
center. There can be no question but that the Emperor invisibly aided the Ming in
securing the empire in the Yongle period, and it is therefore appropriate that his
ritual rank be superior to that of all other gods . . . Each of the five elements has
its virtue, but the greatest of the imperial virtues is that of water. In our times cult
officials are most careful in their worship of the Dark Emperor. That is why
Wudang is called the Great Peak: it soars high above the Five Peaks. Surely this is
no accident! Surely this is no accident! 100
After Chengzu, each successive emperor, upon ascending the throne, sent a “sacrificial
writ” (jiwen祭文) to announce his accession to the Perfect Warrior. 101 Clearly, the
Heavenly Mandate of the Ming depended on this alter ego of the emperor, the Supreme
Thearch of Dark Heaven.
Late Imperial China
If Chengzu and his god occupy a special place in the history of Chinese religion in the
Ming, it seems to me fair to say his ultimate influence is comparable to that of neither the
Ming founder nor Shizu (r. 1522–67). Taizu may be said to have created modern Chinese
religion by decreeing the creation of earth god altars 社壇 in every li 里 and of city god
temples 城隍廟 in every county and prefecture. Henceforth, the bureaucratic outlines of
the empires in this world and the underworld were identical. Already in the Song,
according to Davis, earth gods had begun to be transferred into city god temples. 102
Modern Daoist ritual manuscripts that invite the gods in descending order invariably
invite, at the end of the list, after the Daoist high gods and the stellar gods of the Han, the
city god and then the earth gods. Occasionally, they will insert named local gods at the
end of these lists, and even, at the very end, their host’s ancestors. Daoist ritual, in other
words, at least as far as local society is concerned, simply espoused the hierarchy of the
gods decreed by Taizu — unless it be the other way round: that Taizu espoused that of
the Daoists. Probably the most accurate way of saying it would be that Taizu gave
imperial system and recognition to the divine hierarchy Daoism had practiced at least
since Kou Qianzhi, who in his “revealed” text simply assumed what had always been the
case, namely, the centrality of the various “provincial, prefectural, and county true
officials of the earth.” 103 Likewise, the fact that villagers in Fujian today still readily
explain that the earth god is the equivalent of the local Party Secretary and the countylevel city god of the Secretary of the county, suggests Taizu was simply turning longstanding sociological reality into policy.
To put it another way, Taizu enshrined in his religious policy a hierarchical and
territorial definition of China and, in so doing, made administrative and religious China
Lagerwey, “The Pilgrimage to Wu-tang Shan,” p. 302.
On this little known but absolutely critical detail, see my “The Pilgrimage,” p. 326, n. 2.
Davis, Society and the Supernatural, p. 82.
For details, see Chapter 2.
once again identical; state = church. In this state-church, church officials were subject to
state officials, but the latter were subject to the church’s gods, as can be seen by the fact
that, just as the emperor on ascending the throne had to send a sacrificial writ to his alter
ego Zhenwu, so did each county magistrate have to report to duty to the city god. Indeed,
according to the Veritable Records of Taizu (Taizu shilu 太祖實錄), when the magistrate
came to take up office, he was to fast outside the city for three days while “the shrines
and temples of all the gods and spirits to whom he was obliged to sacrifice were being
cleaned and the offerings prepared for the ritual of announcement . . . At dawn on the
fourth day, the local elders led him into the city to pay a visit to all shrines.” 104 Here we
see how little the religious ideology and practice of government had changed since the
compilation of the Classic of Mountains.
If I speak of Shizu in the same breath as Taizu, it is because this “most Daoist of
the Ming emperors” 105 is the emperor who finally gave to the commoners the right to
have ancestors. He, that is, completed the “ritual revolution” for which neo-Confucians
had been clamoring since Cheng Yi 程頤 (1033–1107), that the rites might, henceforth
and in contravention of the famous proscription of the Book of Rites, “go down to the
commoners.” As Chang Jianhua has most ably shown, the extension of the right to found
lineage halls to commoners is linked to the Great Rites Controversy大禮議 and, in
particular, to the 1536 memorial of Xia Yan 夏言, urging the emperor to “extend the
favor” (tui en 推恩) by allowing commoners to worship their “founding ancestors” (shizu
始祖). 106 Here is how David Faure describes the implications of this sea change:
First, it has been possible to pinpoint quite precisely the period in which
transformation took place to the Jiajing period, say from the 1520s to the 1550s.
Second, this argument makes the role of ritual in linking local society and the
state central in this transformation. Third, it relates this transformation also to
monetization in the market, especially insofar as taxation changed from corvée
service and collection in kind to standardized rates and collection in money.
Fourth, incorporation via the ritual process tied the lineage closely with the
growth of business and the pooling of capital for investment purposes. Fifth,
implied in all this, despite the central role of the city in imperial administration,
imperial ideology sought to relate the state to rural society and peripheralized the
cities. 107
Mark Meulenbeld, “Civilized Demons: Ming Thunder Gods from Ritual to Literature (PhD thesis,
Princeton University, 2007), p. 185, citing the Taizu shilu 170.2586. Meulenbeld goes on to quote a local
monograph that says the magistrate would read a “sacrificial writ” in each of these temples.
De Bruyn, “Wu-dang Shan: The Origins of a Major Center of Modern Taoism,” (above, n. 95), p. 573.
Chang Jianhua, Mingdai zongzu yanjiu (Shanghai: Shanghai renmin, 2005), p. 14. The Great Rites
Controversy refers to Shizu’s adamant refusal to consider himself as the adopted son of the previous
emperor and make his ancestral sacrifice as Son of Heaven to this emperor rather than to his biological
father. “Extending the favor” means, then, that like the emperor, commoners would have the right to
worship their forebears.
David Faure, Emperor and Ancestor: State and Lineage in South China (Stanford: Stanford University
Press, 2007), pp. 13–4.
This change also explains why Westerners and Chinese alike misconstrued Chinese
society for centuries:
The lineage villages built around their ancestral halls that Maurice Freedman
wrote about were few and far between in the early Ming era. Had Freedman
visited the Pearl River Delta in that period, he would have seen the remnants of
the Buddhist monasteries that had served as focal points of local organization in
an earlier age . . . The administrative transformation of county government and the
ritual reforms that ushered in the family temple together promoted the lineage
society that lasted from the sixteenth century until the nineteenth. 108
For a Chinese version of Freedman’s misunderstanding we may simply refer to the title
of the book by Francis Hsü, Under the Ancestor’s Shadow: Hsü, like many Confucians
before him, thought worship of the ancestors was the defining feature of Chinese religion
and society, a kind of Chinese “essence.”
The reality, Faure is saying, is that ancestor worship was central to all classes of
Chinese society only for the last four centuries of the empire. In the context of lineages
which functioned increasingly like corporations, especially in the south, Confucian
retooling of Chinese society achieved a real measure of success and, in so doing,
contributed mightily to the impression received by Westerners — who were active in
China in precisely this period — that Buddhism and Daoism were degenerate, and that
China was “Confucian,” on the levels of both the state and local society. My own studies
of locally collected “lineage registers” (zupu 族譜) in Fujian confirms that it is in the
Ming, especially the mid-Ming, that this mode of lineage construction and organization
of ancestor worship came into its own. 109 To come back to Shizu, if Pierre-Henry de
Bruyn refers to him as “the most Daoist of emperors,” it is because he was second only to
Chengzu in the construction projects he undertook on Wudangshan. De Bruyn links this,
astutely, to the threat posed by the Mongol Altan-qayan, “who promoted a renewal of the
Buddhist sect of the yellow caps whose principal god was . . . Mahâkâla.” 110 One of
Shizu’s most remarkable constructions on Wudangshan was the entry gate (shanmen 山
門) at the foot of the mountain, marking the entry into sacred territory. On it he had
inscribed the phrase zhi shi Xuanyue 治世玄嶽, “Dark Peak which governs the world” —
confirmation of the intimate relationship between the Mountain, its Warrior, and the
Like the Mongols before them, the Manchus subscribed, as a matter of dynastic
policy, to a Tibetan form of Tantric Buddhism. Their investment in this religion is still
visible in Beijing today in the Yonghe Palace 雍和宮 and, above all, in the extraordinary
buildings on Wutaishan 五台山. But no more than the Yuan did the Qing emperors
Ibid., p. 14.
See my “Notes on the Symbolic Life of a Hakka Village,” Minjian xinyang yu Zhongguo wenhua guoji
yantao hui lunwen ji (Taipei: Hanxue yanjiu zhongxin, 1994), vol. 2, pp. 733–62, and “The Li Lineage of
Hukeng,” Di’er jie kejia xue guoji yantao hui lunwen ji, edited by Lau Yee Cheung (Hong Kong: Institute
of Asia-Pacific Studies, the Chinese University of Hong Kong, 1995), pp. 101–68.
De Bruyn, “Wu-dang Shan,” p. 573. Earlier, p. 568, de Bruyn had suggested that, during the Yuan,
“behind their gods Mahâkâla and Zhenwu the Buddhist and Taoist religious communities were engaged in
a major struggle for influence and power in the north of China.”
ignore the “indigenous higher religion.” If, today, throughout China, the vast majority of
Quanzhen 全真 monks claim affiliation with the Longmen school龍門派, it is, as Monica
Esposito has shown, because of Qing policy. Her deconstruction of the Longmen lineage
reveals that the claim took root in the late Ming, when anti-Manchu literati joined the
Quanzhen school just as their predecessors had done at the end of the Song. Then, no
doubt because the Ming had preferred the Zhengyi school associated with mounts
Longhu and Wudang, the early Qing emperors turned instead to the Quanzhen “for
conveying public ordinations. The motor of the court-approved reorganization of Daoist
discipline was a Longmen master, Wang Changyue” 王常月 (d. 1680), who was
appointed abbot of the White Cloud Abbey (Baiyun guan 白雲觀) in Beijing in the year
1656. 111 By means of an invented lineage tracing the Longmen school back to Qiu Chuji,
the Quanzhen patriarch whose tomb is inside the Baiyun guan, the new group linked
itself directly to “the prestigious position which the Quanzhen school had enjoyed at the
beginning of the Yuan dynasty”: the Ming and its policies favorable to the Zhengyi 正一
school became an historical parenthesis. What is perhaps most intriguing about this
newly invented Daoist lineage is that it was built on the Chan model, showing once again
how improbable it is to talk about one of China’s “higher religions” without talking about
the other — or rather, others, for the very notion of patriarchal lineage, of course, derives
from the third of China’s higher religions, Confucianism.
I will conclude by citing in extenso a previously published summary of an article by
Richard von Glahn 112:
Von Glahn’s article on the Taihu basin confirms the importance of the role played
by Buddhist monks in local society. Already in the Northern Song, there was a
Buddhist monastery in the local market town. Under the Yuan, a new marketplace
was created by the newly dominant Pu family, “which set up four brokerage
houses to conduct trade in silk goods. Pu Jian (1262–1312) donated his own home
to establish the Fushan Monastery in 1309 . . . Many of the great landowning
families in the region during this time were devoted patrons of lay Buddhist
movements . . . [The Pu) were conspicuously favorable toward the Buddhist
faith.” At the beginning of the Ming, the Pu clan “became a principle target of
Zhu Yuanzhang’s campaign to uproot and dispossess the delta’s great families . . .
The Fushan Monastery lost its official recognition and tax exemption privileges.”
When the town of Puyuan’s fortunes finally recovered in the second half of the
sixteenth century, the local elite had turned to ancestor hall building. “These same
families also founded small Guanyin chapels, primarily for devotional use by
kinswomen. In the town of Puyuan there were numerous ‘family convents’ jia’an
Monica Esposito, “The Longmen School and its Controversial History during the Qing Dynasty,” in
Religion and Society in Chinese History, vol. 2, Taoism and Local Religion in Modern China edited by
John Lagerwey (Hong Kong: Ecole française d’Extrême-Orient, Chinese University Press, 2004), p. 622.
According to Esposito, the Ming steles that she has consulted depict a Baiyun guan linked not to the
Quanzhen but to the Zhengyi school.
From my “Introduction” to Religion and Society in Chinese History, pp. xxiv–xxv, presentation of
Richard von Glahn, “The Sociology of Religion in the Lake T’ai-hu Basin,” in vol. 2, Taoism and Local
Religion in Modern China, pp. 773–815.
家庵 established by rich families [who] endowed the convents with lands, and the
nuns tended mulberry orchards and silkworms to provide for their living
expenses.” Insofar as this, in a nutshell, was typical of the trends throughout westcentral Fujian as well, one suspects it was empire-wide. 113
But these are not the only long-term trends von Glahn discusses. The same Pu
Jian who had founded the Fushan si also founded a Daoist abbey dedicated to Zhenwu
and a Temple of the Eastern Peak 東嶽廟. 114 It was these temples that were at the heart
of the major local festivals that, by the late Ming, “had come to define the social identity
of Puyuan’s townfolk.” The most popular gods, however, were none of the above. That
role devolved on a series of intensely local “sovereign and tutelary” deities called
Zongguan 總管 (commandant), Wusheng 五聖 (Five Saints), and Fierce General Liu 劉
猛將軍, as well as a goddess called Taijun, “who gave aid in childbirth and the nurturing
of children.” 115 The Wusheng were “a subset of the Wutong 五通,” whose “malevolent
nature inspired fear more than adoration.” 116 Nearly every village in the Taihu basin had
a small shrine for the Wusheng at the village entrance, and “peasants hung images of
Wusheng in many places — in the home, in the still, and in the pens where cattle, pigs,
and chickens were kept — to ward off ghosts and demons.” 117
See my “Patterns of Religion in West-Central Fujian: The Local Monograph Record,” Minsu quyi 129
(2001), pp. 43–236.
Again this corresponds to patterns in west-central Fujian, where the earliest recorded Zhenwu temple
dates to 1177 and the earliest Dongyue miao to ca. 1127: see the article cited in the previous note, pp. 57
and 59. Von Glahn recalls that Song Zhenzong ordered a Dongyue Temple be built in every administrative
capital throughout the empire; “The inhabitants of many of the Yangzi Delta’s market towns sought to
embellish their town’s stature by building ‘detached palaces’ (xinggong 行宮) dedicated to Dongyue.” In
the Da Ming huidian list of Beijing’s imperially-sponsored temples, that of the Eastern Peak comes right
after that of Zhenwu and before that of the Capital City God Temple 都城隍廟 (93.1a–b). On the usually
Daoist character of this temple, see my Taoist Ritual, p. 72.
In much of southeastern China, this position is occupied by Chen Jinggu, in much of north China by
Bixia yuanjun. Cf. my “Patterns of Religion,” especially the table of gods (pp. 104–6) and the commentary
(p. 107): “These tables show once again just how local local religion is.”
Von Glahn adds that “the capricious character of the god evoked popular anxieties about the
evanescence of wealth . . . The abiding idea that the accumulation of wealth invites eventual disaster
because it depletes the individual’s balance of merit in the Celestial Treasury necessitated the expenditure
of spirit money to replenish this spent balance.” The “balance of merit,” as well as its acquisition and ritual
transfer, are all to be understood in the context of fundamental notions of justice such as those explored by
Paul Katz: see his Divine Justice: Religion and the Development of Chinese Legal Culture (London & New
York, 2009). On the Wutong in western Fujian, see Zhang Hongxiang’s article (in Chinese), “A Survey of
Temple Festivals in Tingzhou,” in Temple Festivals and Village Culture in Minxi, volume 4 of the
“Traditional Hakka Society Series,” ed. Yang Yanjie, pp. 80–113, especially pp. 110–3, where we learn
that the Seven Maidens and Wutong having been sculpted from the same camphor tree, Wutong must
“return to his wives’ home” for a twelve-day visit during his festival.
Again, this is standard practice in western Fujian as well, where it is not images so much as “symbols”
(fu 符) dedicated by Daoists during annual rites addressed to the local earth god which are placed in the
animal pens. See my “Culte et lignage dans la Chine rurale,” in La société civile face à l’État dans les
traditions chinoise, japonaise, coréenne et vietnamienne, edited by Léon Vandermeersch (Paris: École
française d’Extrême-Orient, 1994), pp. 293–300. On the role of the shrine at the village entrance, no doubt
its shuikou 水口 or “water exit,” see below, Chapter 4.
Concluding Remarks
At the end of the Chinese imperial period, thus, we have a highly complex, articulated
society, in which the state continues to play the role of referee and local society remains
obdurately local, at least in terms of the identity of its gods and the organization of its
religious life around the gods and, now, the ancestors. The importance of the ancestors
should, it seems to me, be played down: not only were they more or less important in
different parts of China, depending on the size and function of local lineages, but they
were never prayed to for anything important. 118 Ancestors may indeed have cast a long
shadow over families and individuals, but no one feared them anymore as they had in the
Six Dynasties, 119 and certainly no one prayed to them anymore as the Shang emperors
once had. This decline in the power of the ancestors is perhaps most palpable on the
imperial level, when the Ming, unlike the Tang and the Song, chose a supreme deity to
which it had no family relationship. And then Shizu made imperial ancestor sacrifices as
much a personal matter as a matter of state.
From first to last, what really counts in the definition of Chinese society, whether
at the top or at the bottom, are the gods and the ghosts, the forces of order and disorder.
In politics as in religion, the roles of these two basic categories of being are not
infrequently inverted, and the ghost becomes a god, or the bandit an emperor, or vice
versa. The ultimate decision was made by the Son of Heaven, a part of whose definition it
had always been to separate the wheat from the chaff, the useful from the dangerous. To
take up our refrain once again: the state was the church in China, and no other church
ever succeeded in supplanting this church-state.
But that is perhaps, by now, a rather banal conclusion. Let us say things
differently: there were two religions in China, that of the state-church and that of local
society. And, to make a slightly jocular paraphrase, “local society proposes, the state
disposes.” The state plays God, but it can do so only because local society is a godproducing machine whose prodigious inventiveness still today keeps the state hopping:
政府有政策,地方有對策 (“For every government policy there is a local riposte”). This
is not to say the state has no impact on the final product. It very emphatically does, for no
religious movement in China becomes major without government recognition and
support. From the Shang ancestors to the Longmen sect, this is a constant feature of
Chinese religious history: it is dominated by political decisions. 120 Insofar as these
decisions, in turn, are determined by strategic choices related to a need for legitimacy,
and insofar as legitimacy, under the empire, was immediately related to a claim to
universality, the pressure on religious movements to certify their own legitimacy and
demonstrate their own universality was intense if they wished so much as to survive.
Whether it be invented lineages, claims of divine revelation, complex patterns of mimesis
(such as the Daoist bureaucracy), or vast syntheses of the sanjiao heyi 三教合一 or
See the citation of Arthur Wolf, “Gods, Ghosts, and Ancestors,” in the Introduction, note 20.
See Stephen Bokenkamp, Ancestors and Anxiety: Daoism and the Birth of Rebirth in China (Berkeley:
University of California Press, 2007). It should also be underscored here that, as in the Shang, it was
usually the recently dead who were feared. Moreover, the anxiety about the dead, especially the unfortunate
dead — and the rituals this anxiety engendered — hardly fit the standard notion of “ancestor worship.”
Cf. de Bruyn’s conclusion, p. 574: “The study of the evolution of Zhenwu’s worship through three
dynasties shows clearly how much political authority in China can influence the theological understanding
and position of a god in the Chinese pantheon.”
symbolic alchemy neidan 內丹 variety — these may all, at one time or another, be used
by religious movements in order to attract or keep imperial favor.
But, in the end, the responses of local societies throughout China to changing
political, economic, and intellectual circumstances strike me as more creative and more
logically coherent than those of the state. That is, we get a more accurate picture of
Chinese history and “mentalities” from the study of local religion than from the study of
national political history. And we cannot make sense of the latter without understanding
the former.