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Religion Library: Taoism

Sacred Narratives

Written by: Julia Hardy

There is no one sacred narrative that is meaningful to Taoism above all others.  There are stories about the life of Laozi and of Laozi as an immortal, but these are not foundational stories in the way that the story of Jesus is to Christianity, or those of Buddha is to Buddhism.  The legendary Laozi was initially a political philosopher, and only later conceived of as a Taoist immortal. 

Taoist religious movements began centuries later, based on purported revelations from a deified Laozi and other gods and immortals.  Among these revelations there are many sacred stories, and there are also stories that predate these organized movements but either served as thematic models, or inspired later Taoism in some way.

One such collection of early stories, in poetic form, has been translated as "The Songs of the South."  Originating from the state of Chu in around the 4th century B.C.E., these poems represent a different culture than that of northern China of the Shang and Zhou dynasties.  The degree of difference is a matter of some scholarly controversy.  Some Han texts describe Chu as a barbarian culture under the religious aegis of shamans, but this may have been based on attempts by Confucian scholars to demean a competitive cultural sphere.  The founders of the Han dynasty were from Chu, and at the time of the "Songs of the South," Chu controlled much of the territory south of the Yangzi River. 

The most striking and memorable of the "Songs of the South" is a long narrative poem the title of which, "Li sao," is usually translated as "Encountering Sorrow."  It was itself modeled after early sacred songs, and it was also a model for later accounts of ecstatic journeys.  In addition, "Li sao" provides an early example of the fascinatingly ambiguous relationship between a human and the object of his or her spiritual yearning. 

In the case of Qu Yuan, the author of "Li Sao," the object of his yearning was the ruler.  He complained that the ruler had rejected him for public office, despite his moral purity and love of righteousness.  He had been "slandered" and "cast off," as so many in early China had been due to political intrigues and machinations.  Seeking an alternative place to be useful, Qu Yuan rode a "phoenix-figured cart" yoked to "jade dragons," and traveled to many realms where spirits and gods dwell.  He spoke of wooing various spirit maidens, a sexually ambiguous metaphor for his yearning for the acceptance of the ruler.  Dancing among the splendors of these realms, he suddenly caught a glimpse of his old world, and he decided to "join Peng Xian in the place where he abides."  Ancient commentators identified Peng Xian as a minister to a Shang ruler, one who had drowned himself.  Qu Yuan's suicide by drowning is still commemorated in yearly Dragon Boat festivals.  Some modern scholars argue that Peng and Xian are two different names, both of legendary shamans who created new shamanic skills.  

 

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