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Religion Library: Taoism

Modern Age

Written by: Julia Hardy

Scholarship on the Taoist religion in the west has lagged far behind that of studies of Buddhism and other non-western religions, but has flourished in the last thirty years.  Western scholars, along with scholars from Japan and China, have done a great deal to add to the body of knowledge about the Taoist religion.

As China was reopened to the west in the latter part of the 20th century, the interest of tourists, scholars, and overseas Chinese in traditional religion motivated the Chinese government to allow the rebuilding or restoration of a number of Taoist temples and monasteries, and thousands have now been reopened, most of them Zhengyi or Quanzhen.  Regional Taoist Associations are in charge of administering these structures, under the aegis of the Religious Affairs Bureau.  Much of the funding for these projects has come from Chinese in Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Singapore.  Tourism also brings a significant amount of income, not only to the temples and monasteries, but also to their local communities.

The new temples and monasteries train new students, and the practice of ordination in the Zhengyi and Quanzhen sects has been restored.  The Chinese government prefers the celibate model of Buddhism for Taoist clergy; Quanzhen clergy take vows of celibacy, but Zhengyi clergy are often married, and often reside at home.  They are called sanju Taoshi, or "Taoist priests who live at home."  Numbering in the tens of thousands, the sanju Taoshi perform rituals for their local communities.  Their activities are in some cases difficult to distinguish from those of local shamans, whose actions are still looked down upon.  For this reason, the process of ordination for the Zhengyi has been more difficult to administer, rules are more stringent, and their activities are more carefully restricted.

In some regions, there is a strong interrelationship between Taoism and local popular religions, and not all Taoist clergy belong to an official order.  These Taoists have managed to continue their activities for centuries, and because they have been independent of the sects, they are less easily brought under the umbrella of religious and governmental authority.  The link between Taoism and popular religion remains controversial; some claim that the Taoism of the sects is the only true Taoism, while others argue for a more liberal definition.

Study Questions:
     1.    What were the major forces of oppression to Taoism?
     2.    Why was Taoism seen as harmful?
     3.    Has globalism hindered or helped Taoism's popularity?


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