Taoism in modern times

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Distractions

In October of 2010, I was invited to take a welcome break from my life on the hamster wheel that is Shanghai, and visit Jinhua’s famous Taoist temple and caves. I was very excited by this invitation, partly because of my interest in Taoism and its place in Chinese culture, and partly because I had been invited by my new friend Kathy; a US-educated professor of Biochemistry, Taoist, and my guide to the considerable development of Taoist activity in and around Jinhua.

Meeting a dream butterfly

“This is Meng Die,” my friend Kathy told me. Meng Die was a slight woman in her thirties, dressed in the simple robes of a daoist acolyte. She had a ready smile, and a strong Beijing lilt that to me sounded out of place on this secluded bamboo-clad mountainside in Zhejiang province.

Over the best tea I have ever tasted (Da Hong Pao, no less!), we learned that Meng Die had been a Taoist for many years, and a disciple of the renowned Master Wang Liping. Until last month, she had been working as a yoga teacher in Beijing, when she made the decision to leave it all behind, and move to a small cottage in the mountains of Jinhua to cultivate herself full-time. Now she spends her days reading Taoist books, meditating, guiding tourists, and teaching ‘Taoism classes’ once a week in the town at the bottom of the mountain.

From left to right: the author, Kathy, and Meng Die

Meng Die is not her birth name. It means ‘Dream Butterfly’, and she chose it because the famous Taoist philosopher Zhuangzi (circa 400 BC) once had a dream in which he turned into a butterfly. When he awoke he was unsure if he had been dreaming he was a butterfly, or whether he was a butterfly who had been dreaming it was Zhuangzi.

Meditation in caves

A three minute walk from Meng Die’s little abode was a cave entrance. The sign read ‘Chao Zhen Dong’ – Towards the Truth Cave. I was told that Taoists had been using the cave for thousands of years to meditate and cultivate themselves in seclusion. Apparently Taoists choose these isolated mountain locations very carefully, as the geographical location has an impact on the result of the meditation. I asked why, and my (Taoist) guide said that Taoist alchemy, or transformative self-cultivation, works in accordance with the energy meridians of the body, that are so important in TCM.

But energy meridians are not merely confined to human bodies, say the Taoists. The Earth itself has locations which are on energy meridians, and these are the best places to practice Taoist alchemy. All the self-cultivation in the world will not yield the maximum results unless you are in the right spot. Old pre-Christian belief systems in my native Britain also refer to ‘Ley Lines’ – energy meridians which are found in certain locations, and had mystic significance attached to them.

Once inside the cave, it stretched back almost a hundred meters. There were little narrow channels which could be squeezed through to get to other chambers, and a substantial population of bats, whom we smelled first, and then saw hanging upside down from the ceiling in one of the higher vaulted chambers.

Which cave contains frogs, ham, immortal curtains, and the largest cave waterfall in China?

Our next stop was the big sister of Towards the Truth Cave. Shuang Long Dong, or Double Dragon Cave, is the main attraction for tourists here. It is much larger, and more glam too, having coloured neon lights at strategic points to highlight some of the formations caused by thousands of years of mineral-saturated water dripping down through the roof of the cave. They were worth highlighting too, as the shapes they make are varied and bizarre, and have been named accordingly, such as The Frog Who Steals Heavenly Grass (naughty frog!), The Ham, and The Immortals Curtain.

We continued into the cool, dripping interior of the cave towards the sound of pounding water. The final chamber, which is called Ice Pot Cave, contains a raucous waterfall that gushes out of the rock at the top of the chamber and falls 26 metres down into a natural underground pool. This is the largest cave waterfall in China.

Priest Yu and his project

From the right: Priest Yu, Kathy, Me and Jason.

After leaving the caves, and visiting the nearby Jinhua Taoist Temple, we drove down the mountain, until we pulled up outside a small temple nestled in front of some modern single-storey housing in a pleasant rural setting. Dogs ran out to greet our car, followed by an old man in Taoist robes, and his long hair piled up in a bun, skewered by a long pin.

The old man took us to meet Priest Yu, a young man with a ready smile and a dignity that seemed beyond his years, who seemed to be in charge. If the first temple was small, the one currently under construction made up for it. The skeleton of the building was already in place, consisting of huge timbers –- the largest I have ever seen — joined at right angles. I was told the framework for the temple would be all timber — no steel or concrete.

The timber frame of a new Taoist centre under construction near Jinhua

I asked what the plan was that required such a impressive feat of engineering with timber only. Apparently it will become a Taoist centre to help bring Taoism to the local, and wider, community. Activities, and workshops in meditation, would be made available to residents and visitors, thus bringing Taoism into the lives of non-taoists. Funding for the project was coming largely from donations, which are evidently pretty substantial. It seems the land is being donated by the local government.

The re-emergence of Taoism?

Taoism certainly seems to be experiencing a renaissance in the scope of it’s activities. In Hubei Province, Zhong Yun Long heads up the Wudang Taoist Association which has hundreds of registered priests and nuns, and a college for teaching Taoist arts like Qi Gong, Taiji, and traditional Taoist music. Through tourism, Taoist culture in Wudang Mountain has become one of the main sources of income for the town of Shiyan, Hubei Province.

In Zhejiang, Jinhua Temple is frequented by both tourists, and young Taoists seeking ‘The Way’, as is it’s sister temple in Hong Kong. Based in Shandong Province, Master Wang Liping, author of “Opening The Dragon Gate: The Making of a modern Taoist“, publicly teaches the ‘internal alchemy’ techniques he apparently learned over many years of study under three Taoist hermits. Master Wang’s students are numerous and come from many countries, including: the US, Germany, and Russia.

Both in Jinhua and Wudang, the promotion of Taoist culture is aimed at local and international audiences, is well funded, and has the support of local government. It appears to be engaging people at the  grass roots level, while clearly being in contact with the upper echelons (our guide in Double Dragon Cave was both a Taoist, and a PLA general). Is this more marketing of packaged ‘Ancient Chinese Culture’ a la Shaolin Temple? Or are we seeing a renaissance of Chinas oldest organized belief system, which has in the past exerted enormous influence over both Chinese society and its rulers?

A quick guide to Taoism:

What is Taoism?

As the pre-eminent, and as far as I know only, meta-physical religion to originate in China, Taoism by its nature tends to defy definition in conventional terms. This is made clear in the opening sentence of the Daode Jing, the most influential Taoist text, which says: “Dao can be spoken of, but it is not the constant Dao.”

Accepting the short-comings of any definition I might offer, I will venture to say that Taoism is a belief system that directs its followers to seek an understanding of their place in the harmony of nature. It advocates a path of self cultivation and transformation to a higher state of understanding.

The development of Taoism in ancient China

The Daode Jing was written around the 4th century BC, at a time when there was not any formal Taoist organization or institutions, as far as is known. It wasn’t until the 2nd century AD that Zhang Daoling established ‘The Way of The Celestial Masters’ – a lineage of Taoist teachings and practice which Taoist priests today claim as their heritage.

From the 2nd to the 7th centuries AD, Taoist rituals and literature developed and became known as an institutionalized belief system, which exerted considerable influence. The high political profile of Taoism in this period meant it held precedence over Buddhism, which had been brought to China by missionaries from India and Tibet; although Buddhist ideas and practices were absorbed into Taoism.

During this period royal advisors would often be respected Taoist adepts, and government ministers were known to retire into contemplative seclusion in Taoist monasteries. According to legend, one such seeker of ‘Dao’, or ‘The Way’ was Xuan Wu, a prince, who retreated to the holy Wudang Mountains in Hubei Province. After 42 years of self-cultivation he became an ‘immortal’, and today is one of the principle deities in Taoist lore, also known as Zhenwu Da Di (True Warrior Grand Emperor).

Around 600 years ago, after claiming Zhenwu’s help in winning out over his rivals to ascend the throne, the third Ming Emperor Zhu Li actively encouraged recognition and development of Taoism in his Kingdom. The magnificent and unique temples and architecture at Wudang Mountain perhaps best represent Zhu Li’s efforts.

Taoism in the modern era

The period 1949 to 1980 was not kind to the institutions of Taoism that had developed over the millennia. The overt practice of Taoism was banned outright, and many temples were destroyed. However, in 1980 Taoism ceased to be an illegal practice, and since then Taoists in and outside of China have been working to re-establish their traditions.

Talk on Taoism in modern times


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