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Religion Library: Taoism

Modern Age

Written by: Julia Hardy

Attempts by scholars to unify the doctrines of Taoism, Buddhism, and Confucianism began in the Song dynasty, and at the same time, efforts by religious leaders began to unite the various sects of Taoism.  These efforts continued throughout the centuries, and while Taoist sects continued to exist as independent traditions, the distinctions between these, and between the "three religions," became less and less important within the culture.  Taoism gradually absorbed many of the moral teachings of Confucianism and Buddhism. 

In the Qing dynasty there was a movement to return to the "purity" of the Han dynasty, to return to a classical age before religion had "ruined" Chinese culture.  This attitude was encouraged by Jesuit missionaries who had arrived in China in the 16th century, and soon became great admirers of the classical Confucian tradition.  Taoism, on the other hand, they found offensive and declared it to be a deviant belief.

Many Taoist temples were destroyed during the Taiping rebellion (1851-64), a civil resistance against the Qing dynasty. In the years prior to the rebellion, Protestant missionaries had been spreading a message that Taoism was a superstitious and degenerate religion. Hong Xiuquan, a tutor and aspiring government official, read some of their pamphlets about Christianity and, after a long illness, came to believe he was the younger brother of Jesus and was called by God to overthrow the Manchu rulers.

Again and again, during each new conflict as the Qing weakened and was overthrown, and later as Communism grew into power, Taoism came under attack by various forces and more of its history was obliterated.  Temples were turned into schools, hospitals, military barracks, or government offices, and all of the contents were laid to waste.  Festivals and acts of worship were forbidden.

Early in the 20th century, 2,000 years of nearly continuous imperial rule came to an end.  China endured decades of disruption and civil war, becoming first a republic and then a communist nation.  Under Mao, both Buddhism and Taoism were harshly suppressed.  Temples and art were destroyed, land confiscated, and priests and nuns were forced back into lay life.  Taoism endured particularly harsh measures as it was regarded as a deviant superstition that was harmful to the people.

In the 20th century, simplified versions of some of the techniques of the Taoist masters became everyday practices to promote good health and longevity — for example, physical exercises such as qigong or taijiquan.  Elements of Taoism remain within traditional Chinese medicine, within the arts and other sciences, and in popular entertainment, unattached to the old religion.

Recently, there have been some efforts to revive the practice of Taoist religion.  In 1956, the Chinese Taoist Association was formed, and received official approval in 1957.  It was disbanded during the Cultural Revolution under Mao, but reestablished in 1980.  The headquarters of the Association are at Baiyun guan, or White Cloud Temple, of the Longmen branch of Quanzhen.  Baiyun guan now serves as a training center for all the Taoist sects, and is able to grant ordinations in any of the traditions.


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