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Religion Library: Taoism

Exploration and Conquest

Written by: Julia Hardy

A notable example of an alliance between Taoism and the government occurred as the Tang dynasty (618-907) began.  The founder of the Tang, Li Yuan, claimed to be descended from Laozi, and cast himself in the role of the Perfect Lord described in Shangqing scriptures, one who would establish an era of Great Peace.

Some Tang emperors favored Buddhism, and Buddhism also flourished in the Tang, but even the Buddhist ruler Wu Zhao (r. 684-705) employed Taoist symbolism and ritual to buttress her rule.  The greatest supporter of Taoism during the Tang was the emperor Xuanzong (r. 712-756).  An initiate of the Shangqing Taoist tradition, he sponsored Taoist rituals on behalf of the state, and also introduced the Taode jing into the examination system through which government officials were chosen, even writing a commentary on the text.

Halfway through his reign, Xuanzong had a dream visitation from his ancestor, Laozi, who revealed to him the location of a secret talisman.  Thereafter the emperor distributed images of Laozi and established institutes for Taoist study in every prefecture in China.  Graduates of these schools could participate in new examinations on Taoism that were administered in the capital and gain official appointments if successful in the examinations.  Up until this time, examinations and appointments had been based solely on the classical Confucian tradition.  This new system lasted only until Xuanzong was overthrown by the rebel An Lushan.

Rulers of the dynasty following the Tang, the Song (960-1279), cast themselves as descendants of another Taoist deity, Zhao Xuanlang.  They also appealed to Taoist warrior deities to protect them in battle, and built a temple complex in honor of Zhenwu, the Perfected Warrior.  The emperor Huizong (r. 1101-1125) claimed the identity of a Taoist deity himself, and initiated Taoist rites to celebrate his reign.  He even commanded that all Buddhists be demoted to lower ranks within the Taoist hierarchy.

The new Quanzhen sect established in the 12th century had the support of Jin dynasty (1115-1170) emperor Chinggis (Genghis) Khan, who hoped to obtain an elixir of immortality.  His grandson Khubilai (Kublai) Khan (1215-1294), founder of the Yuan dynasty (1206-1268), initially favored Quanzhen but later ordered all Taoist texts except the Taode jing destroyed after the Taoists lost a series of debates with Buddhists and an imperial fleet on its way to attack Japan was destroyed by a typhoon in 1281.  Khan then created another Taoist sect, Xuanjiao, or Mysterious Teaching, which lasted only as long as the Yuan Dynasty (1272-1368).  Quanzhen continued to grow rapidly, despite the loss of the emperor's support.

During the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1911) dynasties, certain sects were favored at times, especially Zhengyi and Quanzhen; at other times there were strict government controls over all sects.  Because these two traditions were the most accepted, the clergy of other sects began to identify themselves with one of these two orders, and eventually Zhengyi and Quanzhen became the two largest and most powerful sects.  Occasional government attempts to suppress Taoism altogether only strengthened lay support and solidified local associations.

Study Questions:
1.    What was the relationship between Taoism and governmental structures?
2.    How was Taoism used as a force of domination? How was it dominated by political rule?
3.    What were some of the factors that contributed to the rise and fall of Taoist sects?


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