Taoism localized and integrated in East Asia

By By Sun Yiping / 08-20-2014 / (Chinese Social Sciences Today)



In October 2008, Ofuda Taoists performed Zhaijiao ritual in Yu Huang Gong—Temple of the Heavenly Jade Emperor.




Xi Jinping, General Secretary of the CPC Central Committee, said in a recent speech at the UNESCO headquarters that a civilization becomes colorful through ex­changes with other cultures and is enriched through mutual learn­ing. This process promotes the progress of human civilization and the peaceful development of the world, he said. It is through the cultural exchanges that the ancient philosophy of Taoism originating in China has made its way into the East Asian ideologies and religions.


Taoism’s early rise

Taoism is a traditional Chinese religion that holds the pursuit of immortality as its core tenet. Since ancient times, its influence has per­meated East Asian culture, and as it spread to different countries and re­gions, the practice of Taoism became increasingly diverse and localized to some extent. However, the belief in immortality is the common charac­teristic shared by sects of Taoism in all East Asian nations.


East Asian Taoism is the product of exchanges among civilizations. The Chinese concept of immortal­ity was carried beyond the nation’s borders as far back as the time of Qin Shi Huang, the first emperor of the Qin Dynasty, and Emperor Wu of the Han Dynasty, who performed ceremonies at sea which they be­lieved would bring immortality. The concepts left a lasting influence on some nations and regions across the Korean Peninsula and the Japanese archipelago in East Asia.


Shortly after it was founded at the end of the Eastern Han Dynasty, Chi­nese Taoism was introduced to East Asian nations through migration and finally brought by officials and scholars to Jiaozhi (the north-central region of present-day Vietnam, later renamed Jiaozhou), where it was gradually accepted. The belief of lon­gevity and immortality conformed to the desires of Vietnamese for a better life.


East Asian Taoism took shape dur­ing the Wei and Jin Dynasties and further flourished in the Tang and Song periods. At the beginning of the Tang Dynasty, Emperor Gaozu and Taizong dispatched envoys to dis­play the statue of Tian Zun (the most noble God) and lecture on the Tao te Ching, a central text of the religion, in order to disseminate Taoism.


From the eighth to the 15th century, with supports from each emperor in the Korean Peninsula, Taoism attracted believers from both the noble and the lower class. Local ancestor worship and religious beliefs added distinct ethnic and cul­tural elements to Taoism, giving rise to two new schools: Ofuda Taoism and Danding Taoism. Ofuda focuses on Zhaijiao, a peculiar ritual in Tao­ism that is nationally protected as an intangible cultural heritage. Its pur­pose is to avert bad outcomes while praying for the good. Popular among the common people, the Danding variety focuses on internal and ex­ternal alchemy, but it has not been established as an organized religious system. Though their aims are dif­ferent, the two schools have had a profound impact on the cultures of the peninsula that still resonates to this day.


From the Nara period (710 --794) to the Heian Period (794--1192), some Japanese students and monks came along with Chinese envoys to China, where they learned Chinese characters and cultures and expand­ed their understanding of Taoism. When they returned, they brought the Tao Te Ching to Japan.


As seen in Record of Ancient Mat­ters and The Chronicles of Japan, written in the eighth century, Taoist ideas and terms, such as deity, Zhen­ren (Taoist spiritual master), longev­ity, country for eternity, Pengxian and worship, were frequently used in stories about the Japanese Emperor. In 889--897, during the reign of Em­peror Uda, education minister Fuji­wara no Sukeyo, compiled the Catalog of Books in Japan as mandated by the Emperor. The Catalog included 1,568 documents enshrined in the royal Palace of Cold Spring among the total 17,209 volumes. According to the statistical data collected by the author of this article, more than 80 varieties of Taoist books were included in the Catalog.


Taoist concepts like longevity, immortality, Zhaijiao rituals and divination techniques were not only popular among Japanese royalty but became part of the folk culture. The renowned scholar Ōe no Masafusa wrote the Biography of Immortals after reading the Taoist classics as well as the notes and novels in Tang Dynasty introduced to Japan. The Biography told stories of 37 seekers of immortality and divided the ap­proaches to achieving this goal into nine categories, among which the two prerequisites were spirituality and breatharianism (the concept that one can live without food, sub­sisting entirely on light). The descrip­tion mirrored the Japanese people’s understanding of immortality and their practices in reality.


By the Ming and Qing Dynasty, the ancient East Asian cultural sphere had begun to be disrupted by the advent of Western learning. None­theless, Taoism, identified with East Asia in cultural value, spread from the upper class to civil society, fur­thering its integration into public life, which marked a new feature of East Asian Taoism.


Mode of transmission

East Asian Taoism has become an inseparable part of East Asian cul­ture. Though Taoism was introduced to other nations in East Asia from China, the records left by historical documents, Taoist classics, archaeo­logical data and literary works show that East Asian Taoism is by no means a copy of the Chinese version, but rather it represents a new philo­sophical form combining all Taoist cultures across the region.


For instance, Hyangdo, which originated in the Korean Peninsula, initiated Silla Tao to interpret the mysterious Tao of Laozi. During the Chosun Dynasty, the Cyan Crane School came into being along with the localization of Zhong Lu’s inter­nal alchemy. On one hand, Japanese Shintoism drew on the Taoist belief that the universe is based on the Tao, and life is created through yin and yang, while at the same time, it estab­lished a peculiar theology based on three gods of creation (Central Mas­ter, High Creator, Divine Creator) to articulate that the universe is created by gods. The traditions of placing a high value on human life and the goal of returning to the tranquility of nature advocated in Chinese Taoism have provided intellectual impetus for the formation and development of East Asian Taoism.


East Asian Taoism was also unique in terms of its mode of transmission. Unlike Confucianism and Buddhism, which were disseminated with great fanfare, Taoism spread and exerted influence quietly. As a consequence, it was endowed with indigenous characteristics through integration into various ethnic religions and cul­tures while maintaining its identity as a religion that focused on immor­tality. This reflects the great impor­tance attached by East Asian Taoism to life development and present hap­piness in pursuit of everlasting life.


East Asian Taoism includes an abundance of Chinese materials published beyond the nation’s borders. The spread of Taoism in East Asia has left a legacy of many Taoist books in ancient Chinese. For example, The Catolog of Haedong Preaching, Haedong Anecdotes and The Cyan Crane Collection, written during the Chosun Dynasty, gave an account of how internal alchemy was introduced to the Korean Penin­sula from China and endowed with cultural characteristics of the Korean ethnicity. In particular, the Biography of Immortals and the Biography of Supernaturals by Tanaka Xuanshun in the Edo period (1603–1867) are praised as two masterpieces of Japa­nese immortal biography.


In addition, among Sino-Viet­namese documents well preserved in Vietnam today, there are some Taoist scriptures mainly published by temples, Taoist abbeys and other Taoist organizations to encourage kindness. Though they represent a small portion of Taoist works, these documents are priceless in part because of the fact that they were published outside of China and act as important sources for under­standing and researching East Asian Taoism.


Sun Yiping is from the Department of Philosophy and Religious Studies at Nanjing University.

The Chinese version appeared in Chinese Social Sciences Today, No. 606, June 11, 2014     

Translated by Ren Jingyun