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Religion Library: Taoism


Written by: Julia Hardy

The embroidered robes worn by Taoist priests as they officiate at rituals incorporate many symbols, which might include dragons, cranes, clouds, trigrams, the lunar mansions, the five sacred mountains, the twelve animal signs of the Chinese zodiac, images of divinities, or the eight immortals.

The most important constellation of symbols in Taoism revolves around the written word.  Writing was used in China to communicate with the gods from the beginning, even before it was used to communicate among humans.  During the Shang dynasty, questions were addressed to the gods on bones or tortoise shells, which were then heated until they cracked, and the cracks were interpreted as responses from the gods and "read" by ritual specialists. 

In Taoism, writing plays many essential roles.  Its sacred texts were first given by the gods to human recipients, and the primary signifier of transmission of knowledge from Taoshi to apprentice is the passing of sacred texts.  The Taoshi-to-be must copy by hand all of the texts belonging to his teacher or the local organization, and keep them safe to be passed on in turn to the next generation. 

Talismans are elaborate designs that resemble calligraphy, but can also include images, geometrical patterns, and other symbols.  They are typically written on paper or wood, in black or red ink.  To draw a talisman, the Taoshi must purify and concentrate his energies, as this is an act of communication with the gods.  Talismans may serve as a kind of medicine to ward off demonic forces, or to attract good fortune.  Written and then burned, the ashes are dissolved into drinking water, or rolled into a ball and taken as a pill. Talismans can also be used by the Taoshi to provide the ability to wander in celestial realms and as protection during these journeys.

The ritual space created by Taoist priests contains a multitude of sacred writing, from banners or signs indicating the names of deities, to talismans, to documents to be transmitted to the deities. The Five Writs, which are placed at strategic locations, are essential.  The Writ of the Celestial Sovereign is necessary for the Great Master to "enter the mountain," the climax of the ritual.  At the end of the ritual, all of these writings are burned.  This "sacrifice" of the writings transforms them from earthly symbol to cosmic reality.

Registers are another type of written document important to Taoism, often written in a script similar to talismanic writing.  Registers are given to apprentices at different stages of their development; they consist of the names of the celestial generals upon whom the recipient is authorized to call for help.  A register is to be kept on one's person, and also serves as protection against any threat, natural or supernatural, and conveys the blessings of the celestial realms. 

Registers are prepared sometimes for funerals; these will include the name of the deceased, and indicate his or her place in the divine hierarchy.  The register indicates that the deceased has been pardoned for his or her errors and has sufficient merit to attain the rank designated for him or her on the register.  The deceased is thus effectively added to the ranks of the divine powers.

Study Questions:
1.    How is immortality symbolized within Taoism?
2.    What is the role of writing in the formation of Talismans?
3.    Why is astronomy important to Taoism?


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