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Religion Library: Taoism

Exploration and Conquest

Written by: Julia Hardy

There is nothing in Taoist history comparable to Ashoka's Buddhist empire or the Christian or Islamic conquests, but Taoist religious groups have been engaged in the internal politics of China in a variety of ways throughout its history.  Taoism has often been characterized in the west as a counter-tradition that opposed the government, based on the anti-Confucian content of the Taode jing and Zhuangzi, the utopian visions of the Way of the Celestial Masters of a new Taoist government that would lead the people in a new era of Great Peace, and the biographies of literati Taoist poets and painters who expressed disillusionment with government and nostalgia for village life.  

While there is some truth to this association, it is also true that on many occasions, Taoist or Buddhist organizations were allied with a government, their leaders serving as advisors to rulers.  These rulers used their connections with religious leaders to solidify their power and lend authority to their reigns.  At times Taoist groups supported governments, which in turn sponsored Taoism as an official religion.

Early in the history of Way of the Celestial Masters, there was an alliance with the Wei dynasty (220-265 C.E.) government, which led to the diminishing of the sect's power as that government collapsed.  The influence of Way of the Celestial Masters later began to revive as the Jin dynasty (265-420) weakened.  Two hundred thousand members returned to the south, where they briefly established another Taoist theocracy in Chengdu, from 302-347. 

In northern China, a Celestial Master named Kou Qianzhi (365-448) persuaded the emperor of the Turkish Wei dynasty (386-534) to make Taoism the official religion, and a Taoist altar was built in the capital.  The emperor was invested as the Perfect Sovereign of the Great Peace.  Eventually the emperor even outlawed Buddhism in support of Taoism, but the dominance of Taoism lasted only a short time after the death of Kou.  Nevertheless, until 574 all emperors were confirmed in their mandate by Taoist authority.

In the following centuries, Buddhists and Taoists occasionally tried to abolish one another, but any success was brief.  Emperor Wu (r. 560-578) of the Liang favored Buddhism, but he was also a personal friend of Shangqing scholar Tao Hongjing, who prepared alchemical elixirs for him.  Tao Hongjing's personal hermitage was thus protected from attacks against Taoism in 504 and 517.  Others from the movement fled to the north, which resulted, ironically, in the spread of Shangqing throughout China.

A number of Chinese emperors tried to control both Taoism and Buddhism.  For example, in 574 Emperor Wu of the Zhou dynasty (r. 560-578), who had been a supporter of Taoism, ordered all Taoist and Buddhist monks to return to lay life and confiscated all temple lands.  He then built one central Taoist temple in the capital instead.  After his death, things soon returned to the way they had been prior to his intervention.


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