The Third Age Dawns in China: Zhaijiao and Hongyang

The Third Age Dawns in China: Zhaijiao and Hongyang April 30, 2024

It did not take long for the synthesis of Three-Ages, Luoist, and divine Mother beliefs represented by the Jiulian baojuan to take hold throughout the sectarian milieu. By the middle of the sixteenth century, it had become the dominant belief system among sectarian groups. Most subscribed to it outright and the few that did not still could not help being influenced by it to some degree. The curious thing is that, as these groups adopted and further expanded upon the Three Ages system as found in the Jiulian baojuan, they began to produce the same sorts of teachings and ideas that we have seen among Joachim and the Joachimites in the West. The Jiulian baojuan had already moved the Three Ages concept found in the Huangji jieguo baojuan closer to Joachim, and now the later sectarians moved it even closer still to the Calabrian’s doctrines. How this process unfolded and the possible reasons for it will be explored below as we consider three of the most important sects to arise from the new synthesis of beliefs pioneered by the Jiulian baojuan.

To begin with, we should note how Patriarch Luo’s own movement was progressing in the wake of his death. As it turned out, it was not going as he would have hoped. The movement was healthy, popular, and widespread but not in the form that Luo himself had charted. Only a few decades after his death, his own teachings were displaced by the new synthesis. The Luoist sects adopted the kinds of beliefs their founder had denounced. Soon, they looked no different than all the other sects, adhering to the doctrines of the Three Ages, the Unborn Mother, and the coming of Maitreya just as most of the non-Luoist groups did. The rapidity with which this process occurred can be seen in the case of an individual by the name of Yin Ji’nan.

Yin was born in Southern China (specifically Zhejiang) in 1527, the same year that Patriarch Luo himself died. Like Luo, he early on became an orphan. But unlike Luo, whose aunt and uncle took him in and raised him, Yin’s own uncle sent him to a monastery. Yin left the monastery when he came of age and began a spiritual quest in which he, like Patriarch Luo, tried out different spiritual groups and practices. Finally, when Yin was seventeen, he happened upon the local Luoist sect, recently established in the south and led by a man named Lu Benshi. Hubert Seiwert, in Popular Religious Movements and Heterodox Sects in Chinese History, describes what happened next: “Because Yin Ji’nan showed a complete understanding of the Wuwei [Non-Action, the name Luo gave to his doctrine] teaching, Lu Benshi recognized him as a reincarnation of Patriarch Luo. Yin Ji’nan was revered as reborn patriarch and became the leader of the local congregation of Luo followers” (Seiwert 252). He dubbed his sect the Wuwei zhengjiao (無為正教—Orthodox Teaching of Non-Action) though it would change its name many times afterward, a common practice among sects trying to stay one step ahead of authorities.

But whatever name it went by, Yin would rule his sect for nearly forty years, gaining a large following in his home province. Finally, his activities caught the attention of imperial authorities, who executed him in 1582. After his death, numerous disciples claimed leadership of the sect and took their own offshoots to new provinces. The most important of these was Yao Wenyu. Under his watch, the sect expanded throughout southern China, such that Yao had amassed considerable wealth and influence by the time he ran afoul of government authorities and was executed in 1646.

Yin’s sect thus proved to be remarkably successful. It arose a mere seventeen years after Patriarch Luo’s death, when the Luo teachings had only just made their way south of the Yangtze, and grew over the course of the succeeding decades to have branches throughout southern China. Despite the repeated executions of its leaders, the sect was still active in the eighteenth century, when it again came to the attention of authorities as the Laoguan zhaijiao (老官齋教—Vegetarian Teaching of the Venerable Officials) and continues to exist as the Longhua jiao (Dragon-Flower Teaching) in Taiwan today. Without question, Yin’s sect was largely responsible for Patriarch Luo’s teachings disseminating so widely in southern China—they were the first Luoist organization to gain a large following below the Yangtze and also sponsored the republication of Luo’s writings in the region. Indeed, it was they who published the Kaixin fayao edition of Luo’s works, which would go on to become the standard version of his writings and remains so to this day. Yet for all that they did to spread Luo’s name and some semblance of his ideas, the sect’s teachings were far different from Luo’s own. As Seiwert explains,

Although Yin Ji’nan legitimized his position as leader claiming to be a reincarnation of Patriarch Luo, and the Five Books in Six Volumes continued to be esteemed and transmitted, he added new elements that were not contained in Luo’s writings and in some way contradicted them. The most conspicuous innovation was the teaching about Wusheng Laomu, the Unborn Venerable Mother, as the creator of all beings and the sequence of three cosmic periods ruled by the three Buddhas Dīpaṃkara (Randeng fo 燃燈佛) Śākyamuni, and Maitreya. To the three period correspond three teachings called shangcheng 上乘, zhongcheng 中乘, and sancheng 三乘 (Former, Middle, and Third Vehicle). The method taught by Yin Ji’nan was viewed as representing the teaching of the Third Vehicle, or the last stage. (253)

Thus, in this particular Luoist school, Patriarch Luo’s teachings had become completely entwined with those of the Three Ages and the Mother. The Venerable Unborn Mother rules the universe, the lifespan of this world is divided into the three periods ruled by three buddhas, and Patriarch Luo has himself become one of the divine beings sent down by the Mother to guide humanity to salvation. This is a mission that has required him, like the Maitreya of the Jiulian baojuan, to reincarnate several times, first as Patriarch Luo, then as Yin and finally as Yao. In addition, liberation from our world and return to the mother now required the use of various esoteric methods that only Yin, Yao, and their lieutenants could teach. We have come very far from Luo’s own vision of a union with primordial emptiness open to all. And yet, it took less than twenty years to go from that to this. Possibly, Yin Ji’nan heard about the Three Ages and the Mother in one of the previous sects he had belonged to and brought them with them, or perhaps the Luoists under Lu Benshi had already latched on to these ideas by the time Yin joined up. Regardless, it took a very short time indeed after Luo’s death for what would become one of the leading Luoist organizations to adopt the kind of sectarian synthesis laid out in the Jiulian baojuan.

This was a synthesis in which the system of Three Ages played a large part. Indeed, Seiwert’s description above shows us how important the idea was to Yin Ji’nan’s sect and its successors. It was so central to their doctrine that, when imperial authorities rediscovered them in the aftermath of a failed rebellion by the sect in 1748, their main scripture was a work entitled the Sanshi yinyou (三世因由—Origin of the Three Ages). They followed the Jiulian baojuan in making yellow the color of the first age. As the name of their later scripture indicates, the ages themselves had come to be known as the sanshi 三世 or sanqi 三期, which both directly translate to “three ages.” (For what it’s worth, Western scholars love to translate these and various other names for the concept under the blanket term “three kalpas.”) Yin also followed in the footsteps of the earlier baojuans by proclaiming himself the source of the final revelation. Overall, the Three Ages concept espoused by him is the same one we encountered in the Huangji jieguo baojuan and the Jiulian baojuan. Thus, Yin’s sect is the first example we have of a sectarian organization with a vast regional scale being built upon the concept of the Three Ages.

A Chinese pavilion surrounded by yellow willow trees. Yin Ji’nan referred to the First Age as “Yellow Willow” (黃楊), probably as a mistake or code for “Yellow Yang” (黃陽) as both terms are pronounced the same (as huangyang), have the same tones, and have similar characters. (Image courtesy of avada at Alamy)

However, we should highlight one very important elaboration Yin and his followers made to the Three Ages concept. They brought in the notion of the sancheng (Three Vehicles). These were three separate sets of teachings, each one appropriate to the age in which it originated. They were known, fittingly and respectively, as shangcheng (Former Vehicle), zhongcheng (Middle Vehicle), and sancheng (Third Vehicle). From this, we can see that Yin’s sect had a clear notion of not only three ages, but three separate dispensations in history, with each age having a religious teaching and set of doctrines that is suited to the time but then is expanded into a fuller teaching when the next age comes around.

Here we have a very strong echo of Joachim, in which the Three Ages each had a religion and set of teachings associated with them. For the First Age, this was Judaism and the Old Testament and for the Second Age it was the New Testament and Christianity. Joachim saw the religion of the Third Age as an improved Christianity made possible by the spiritual intelligence that revealed new dimensions to the Bible and Christian doctrine. There were thus three stages of religious development in Joachim’s thought that closely resembled the three dispensations sketched out by Yin. In addition, Joachim held that the teachings of the third stage would grow out of those of the first two, just as the second had grown from the first. There was a clear sense of both progression and continuity. Gerard of Borgio San Donnino went even further, proposing that the Third Age would have its own holy book—Joachim’s own writings, in Gerard’s estimation—such that the third stage became a third dispensation in full, taking on the characteristics of a religion as distinct, yet interconnected, with Christianity as Christianity is with Judaism.

Gerard’s idea is largely identical to what Yin Ji’nan’s sect would later espouse, with the caveat that Yin’s followers adopted the Buddhist (or at least, Buddhist-sounding) three vehicles rather than Judeo-Christian beliefs as the basis of the three dispensations. But the mere fact that the sect conceived of the progressive revelation of teachings as forming something like three separate religious dispensations is remarkable in and of itself. This is such a distinctive feature of Joachim’s own thought and one which sets his system apart from anything that came before him. And yet, here it is again, appearing in a context completely divorced from Christianity. Indeed, it is possible that this idea of three successive teachings, each one suitable to a different period in history, indicates that Yin’s sect also believed that new developments were occurring in human consciousness, just as Joachim did when he proposed his notion of a new human faculty, the “spiritual intelligence.” Regardless, this innovation shows that Yin and his followers were thinking about the Three Ages in a manner uncannily similar to how Joachim and his followers had done centuries before.

Yin’s sect also innovated in other important ways. For one, as Seiwert puts it, Yin “introduced the custom of giving members of his sect religious names with pu as the first character” (253). This practice of assigning religious names beginning with pu (菩) was not strictly speaking new, as it had been popular in orthodox Buddhist circles for a long time—recall Guan Yu’s Buddhist monk friend Pujing from the Romance of the Three Kingdoms—but Yin seems to have been the one to introduce it to the sectarian groups that espoused the Three Ages and Mother doctrines. The sects that came after him almost universally adopted the custom he started. Another important innovation involved how the sect was organized. As Seiwert explains, Yin introduced a new system in which “[t]he top officials were twenty-eight officials called huashi 化師 (conversion master) and seventy-two yinjin 引進 (introducer)” (252). Yao Wenyu further expanded upon this system. Seiwert notes,

The sect was organized hierarchically and on a regional basis in three main branches … The main branches were further divided into seven or five subbranches that were further split into smaller units. At least in theory the sect comprised seven levels … Every huashi (conversion master) could convert new members who became his disciples and thus belonged to his subbranch. If an ordinary member had been bestowed the title of huashi, he or she could convert disciples of their own and thus form a new subbranch on a lower level. (258)

Through Yao’s elaborations, the organization of the sect came to resemble the pyramid scheme-type structure that has brought so many other religious groups into disrepute in our day. Indeed, on some level, it served the same purpose. As Seiwert observes, “This hierarchical system regulated not only the distribution of power and prestige but also of income. The financial contribution of members and the fees paid for initiation and conferment of titles and positions were channelled through the hierarchy giving each office holder his share” (258). Thus, under Yao, the system of organizing innovated by Yin was transformed into a money-making enterprise. Quite ironically, Yao himself would become a victim of this newfound avariciousness. It was his great wealth, accumulated through the sect, that brought him to the attention of the authorities in 1646. They demanded that he turn over some of his riches to help pay for the upkeep of the local militia. Yao refused and it was for this act of miserliness, rather than any of his sectarian activities, that he was imprisoned and ultimately executed.

When we think back to the life Joachim of Fiore had proposed for his “spiritual men,” a life of poverty and service, it is hard not to feel as though, while they had a similar concept of the Three Ages, these particular Chinese sectarians took it in a rather different direction. Yet, there is a similarity between them in that, for Joachim, for Yin, and for their respective groups of followers, a belief in the coming of the Third Age inspired an interest in new forms of religious organization. After all, Joachim was nothing if not fascinated by how religious bodies are organized and the institutional principles behind the process. His devotion to the Rule of St. Benedict is strong even for a monastic and he even founded a new monastic order. Between the reformed church, the two orders of spiritual men, and the cross-like monastic structure he designed for religious life in the Third Age, Joachim’s vision for the future is replete with new forms of religious organization, all designed to make the faith more effective at its mission, more efficient at proselytizing, and more serviceable to the world at large.

We see a similar zeal for innovative religious organizing in Yin and Yao, who were trying out something new in the religious climate of Chinese sectarianism. And, at least initially, their intentions were the same, namely, to make their sect function more efficiently and spread more effectively. At this, they succeeded, even if in the process they made their sect particularly susceptible to the greed which continually tempts all religious institutions. It must be said that without the structure they developed, the sect could never have spread as far or as fast as it did. The great success of Yin’s sect at attracting new members and opening new branches was due to its form of organization. For Yin and Yao, just as in that of Joachim, the prospect of a world-reshaping Third Age further suggested that new frameworks and methods would arise for organizing religious institutions. And just as it did for him, this possibility ignited their imaginations and led to them crafting their own new institutional structure. Much like the new mendicant orders that at least initially hewed so closely to Joachim’s ideal, Yin and Yao offered a successful trial run of that structure through the religious organization that they founded.

It should be noted that Yin and Yao’s framework opened the role of leadership to women. Indeed, there are some notable examples of female leaders emerging in the sect. Seiwert notes that “[a]fter Patriarch Yin had been executed in 1582, one of the twenty-eight huashi (conversion masters), a woman with the dharma name Pufu 菩福, became leader of the sect in Zhejiang” (255). Later, after Yao’s execution, his wife succeeded him as leader. Yin’s sect was not the first in which women could reach a leadership role—recall that both Patriarch Luo’s wife and daughter became leaders in their own right—but it does seem to have institutionalized the appointment of women in a manner not done before. It was official policy that the highest ranks of this organization were open to women. This policy was also apparently uncontroversial within the sect itself, as it remained in place throughout Yin and Yao’s tenures and beyond.

It is perhaps no surprise that, with their emphasis on new ways of organizing and their reverence for a female supreme deity, that the sectarians should be moved toward establishing a greater equality between men and women. But it reminds us too of how, many of Joachim’s more radical followers, from the Guglielmites to groups in the present day, have interpreted his message as calling for women to hold an equal authority in religious life to men. It seems that the world over, the promise of a new age and new forms of religious organization has led almost inevitably to revolutionary hopes for gender equality.

Like its use of pu-character names, both this sect’s pyramid structure of organization and its position on female religious authority would be adopted wholesale across the sectarian tradition. Thus, the founding of Yin Ji’nan’s sect, and its growth to maturity under Yao Wenyu, represents a watershed moment for Three Ages thought in Chinese history. The idea was no longer found only in a few texts but now had a powerful organization backing it. It also now bore the authority—however wrongly—of Patriarch Luo’s name. The success of Yin’s sect did much to legitimize the Three Ages idea and spread it across China. It gave the notion a certain level of respectability and influence. But another religious organization would soon appear to take the concept even further, breaking in, however briefly, to the higher echelons of Chinese society. The sect that succeeded at this lofty task was known as the Hongyang or Hunyang jiao.

Curiously, the Sanshi yinyou claimed that Yin Ji’nan himself was influenced by the Hunyang school. And there was a sect by that name in the general vicinity of Henan and Jiangsu led by a Master Wang at roughly the same time as Yin was teaching in nearby Zhejiang. But the Hongyang jiao proper is generally regarded to have been founded after Yin’s death by a student of Wang’s. This enterprising young man was born Han Taihu, but he is known to history by his sectarian name of Piaogao.

Piaogao, a native of southern Zhili, very much wanted to be like the great spiritual leader from just across the border in Shandong, Patriarch Luo. He wrote books of teachings modeled on Luo’s own, and carefully worked his own spiritual biography into a form that resembled Luo’s, with all the inner angst and the fruitless experimentation with various religious practices. But Piaogao differed from Patriarch Luo in one crucial respect: he was not an orphan. This crucially impacted the direction of his spiritual development.

Instead of being sent on his quest for enlightenment by a need to fill the hole left by his missing parents, he found that his desire for spiritual illumination clashed with what his parents wanted for him and what he believed his own responsibilities toward them were. Unlike Luo, Piaogao experienced the call to enlightenment not as a summons home but as a demand to leave home, flying in the face of familial love and China’s famously high standards of filial piety. Furthermore, Piaogao’s mother was suffering from a serious illness that made him afraid to leave her, and when he finally left, he also “took leave of my wife and children” (qtd. in Overmyer 181). Piaogao would end up justifying his breaking away from the family structure in terms taken up by many other would-be sages who also faced the same dilemma; he decides that leaving home is the ultimate form of filial piety because when he achieves enlightenment, he will be able to teach it to his parents and have them attain liberation with him. He sets out but vows, “When I have attained the Way, I will return home to my parents” (qtd. in Overmyer 182) in order to guide them along the path to enlightenment.

Once he left, his spiritual quest came to more closely approximated Patriarch Luo’s. Our future sage wandered around, trying different spiritual paths and practices, and finding them to be without merit. During this time, he developed a particular disdain for the greed of various teachers who claimed to know the path to enlightenment but charged money to reveal it. However, in another departure from his model Patriarch Luo, Piaogao ultimately did manage to find a genuine teacher of merit among the various fools, frauds, and shysters he encountered.

This was Master Wang, whom we met above. Master Wang led a sect with the names of Hunyuan and Hongyang, which Piaogao would later adopt for his own sect, and claimed to be the earthly incarnation of Gautama Buddha—imagined once again more as the cosmic ruler of the Second Age rather than the founder of Buddhism who had appeared on earth long ago. Piaogao was impressed by Master Wang’s refusal to accept money for his services and studied with him for three months. At the end of this relatively short interval, Master Wang declared Piaogao enlightened and commissioned him to preach and gather further disciples. Piaogao used this commission to fulfill his original vow, returning home and converting his parents and other family members to the way of enlightenment taught by Master Wang. And there, the story would seem to have its natural end.

Except that, if Piaogao simply followed Master Wang’s teachings and helped to expand his master’s ranks, he could hardly be considered the founder of his own sect, either by himself or by history after him. But, fortunately for Piaogao’s later career and reputation, this was not the end of his story. For all that he owed to Master Wang—and he clearly owed a great deal—Piaogao had apparently not gotten all the way to the other shore of enlightenment under the master’s tutelage. Instead, his true liberation would come later, as he sat meditating in a cave in northern Zhili (in what is today’s Hebei), not too far from Beijing. There, Piaogao suddenly “reached the Native Place” (qtd. in Overmyer 327)—attaining full enlightenment through an unexpected epiphany just as Patriarch Luo had. Realizing what had happened, “he bowed to thank the Eternal Venerable Mother” and “asked for long life in this world” (qtd. in Overmyer 327). Piaogao next headed to the capital of Beijing, where he began to preach and gain a following. There, he founded his own sect, which continued to use the names of Master Wang’s, Hunyuan (Primordial Chaos) and Hongyang (Vast Yang), but resolutely revered Piaogao and not Master Wang as its founder. And if Master Wang had been Gautama, then it naturally followed that Piaogao, as his successor, must be Maitreya. Thus, Piaogao was able to position himself as the final teacher of humanity and the true revealer of the complete doctrine of salvation.

However, it seems that the Venerable Unborn Mother was not inclined to grant Piaogao’s prayer for long life. He died only four years after arriving in the capital, at the young age of twenty-nine. That being said, the length of time that a ministry lasts is not always the best measure of its impact and legacy. Jesus of Nazareth taught publicly for only three years and yet founded a religion that shaped the world for two-thousand years. It would be too much to claim a similar legacy for Piaogao. But he did achieve a level of success beyond what most sect leaders could boast.

The Hongyang jiao that he founded flourished despite his early death. It enjoyed considerable power and influence. They had easy access to means of publication and distribution, which they used to their advantage; more baojuans survive from the Hongyang sect than almost any other of this period. The sect would also enjoy great longevity. The Ming avoided targeting them whenever it made one of its periodic attempts at enforcing its anti-sectarian legislation, and so they continued to thrive until the end of the dynasty. The succeeding Qing Dynasty proved much less accommodating, banning the Hongyang jiao a few years after coming to power and beginning a long-running persecution of the group in 1746, which incidentally marked the moment the Qing got serious about persecuting religious dissidents. Despite the government’s best efforts, however, the Hongyang sect proved too large and established to be destroyed. Instead, it became one of the driving forces behind the great millenarian insurrection that shook the Qing to its core, the Bagua rebellion of 1813.

How did a sect like the Hongyang jiao manage to enjoy such a level of success undreamt of by its fellow travelers in the wider sectarian movement, earning the acceptance (if not the approval) of the Ming authorities and proving a constant thorn in the side of the Qing regime? It was certainly not because Piaogao had taught a doctrine any more acceptable to the government than what the other sectarians were teaching. Seiwert observes, “Piaogao was not the founder of a new teaching but rather a teacher who continued existing traditions and condensed them in his own writings” (Seiwert 321). It is true that there were some minor differences in Piaogao’s own teachings that distinguished them from his contemporaries. He took an old title for Laozi, Hunyuan Laozu (混元老祖—Venerable Patriarch Primordial Chaos) and applied it instead to the sectarian supreme deity. His cosmic narrative also has a few unique details, even if it ultimately does follow the “reluctant messiah” model provided by the Jiulian baojuan, and the Three Ages themselves received new names. As Seiwert states, “In most sectarian writings these three periods are called Green Yang, Red Yang, and White Yang, whereas in Hongyang scriptures they are written with different though homophonous characters as Pure Yang (qingyang 清陽), Vast Yang (hongyang 弘陽), and White Yang (baiyang)” (327). Piaogao swapped out the color terms of the first two ages for words that were pronounced the same but had more profound meanings.

And yet, they were the same Three Ages believed in by most of the other sectarian groups. The core of Piaogao’s mythology and message remained the same, whatever superficial changes he made. Thus, the supreme deity was still the Venerable Unborn Mother, even when he used a new term for her—though he does at least once suggest the existence of a cosmic father-and-mother pair instead. The end goal was still the salvation promised by the mother, which was still being worked out in three stages of cosmic time ruled over by three buddhas. That the Three Ages still played a central role in Piaogao’s scheme was evident by his sect’s own name. As noted above, Hongyang (Vast Yang) refers to the Second Age of time, the era ruled over by Gautama. Furthermore, Seiwert notes that Piaogao drew heavily upon the thought of Wang Duo, an earlier sectarian leader in Shandong—again, note the oversized influence of this province on sectarian thought—known for his particular devotion to the idea of the Three Ages. In short, despite a few changes in terminology, Piaogao’s teaching, with the Eternal Mother, the Three Ages, and all the associated implications, was the one that gave the government so much unease when in manifested in other sects. And yet, the Ming allowed the existence of the Hongyang teaching and viewed it without the slightest trepidation.

An 1895 map of Zhili (top) and Shandong (bottom) produced by the Bibliographical Institute of Leipzig. Beiiing is within Zhili.

What could possibly explain this remarkable fact? In short, it was that Piaogao made the wise decision to center his ministry on Beijing. This allowed him to walk the same streets as high officials, military commanders, and other important members of the Ming regime. Whether it was because, as Richard Shek supposed, “he probably had relatives or close friends working in imperial offices” (Seiwert 320) or simply down to a preternaturally strong charisma and way with people, Piaogao soon began to convert these important people to his sect. A number of the regime’s leading men became his followers and one of these, Duke Shi, happened to be the head of the imperial publishing bureau. He arranged to have Piaogao’s religious writings printed on the government’s own presses. As Seiwert puts it, “The result were [sic] lavishly decorated imprints that belong to the finest examples of baojuan and became items much sought after in sectarian circles” (321). For the first and only time, exquisite and beautiful works preaching the doctrine of the Unborn Mother and the Three Ages were being produced by the government publishing office and then distributed throughout the land.

It is impossible to overstate the magnitude of this development. Being printed by the imperial publishing bureau was something that all sectarian leaders sought. In addition to conferring the aura of imperial approval on a text, government publication marked the ideas found therein as orthodox and their adherents as safe from persecution. Thus, many baojuans contain false claims to have been printed by the imperial presses and fake testimonials by high officials. But Piaogao did not need to fake anything. His works were indeed products of the imperial government and came with very real testimonials from some of the dynasty’s most prominent figures. This did not mean that his sect enjoyed full imperial patronage—the Emperor probably remained unaware of it and certainly never converted—or was counted as one of the official religions of the empire. But it did mean that Piaogao had achieved a modicum of approval from the government and that his sect would be classified as orthodox, at least until the Manchu invaders swept the Ming out of power. While other sects promoting the same ideas were subject to censure and sometimes persecution, Piaogao’s followers were free from such fears. It was not a bad result for a man who only preached his doctrine for four years.

Piaogao’s infiltration of the halls of power was extraordinary and unmatched by any other sectarian leader. His success shows the extent to which the Three Ages doctrine had so thoroughly penetrated Chinese culture at large by the end of the sixteenth century, for in this one particular case, it managed to reach into the imperial government itself, leading to the government helping the promote and spread the idea further. This alone makes Piaogao and his Hongyang sect worthy of note here. But there are also aspects of Piaogao’s teachings that contain clear parallels to Joachimite thought, and it behooves us to look at those more fully before we move on from the Hongyang jiao.

As I have by now noted extensively, one of the areas that the Chinese sectarians most resembled Joachim was in the idea of progressive revelation, the belief that there was a continuous chain of prophets and new insights leading from the beginning of time into the coming Third Age. This was an idea which Piaogao and his followers took extremely seriously. Indeed, their scriptures place more emphasis on the idea than perhaps any other sect does. This was seen even in Piaogao’s own development as a religious leader. We have already seen how much Piaogao relied on Master Wang, his teacher. He never tried to hide this influence and, even as he claimed a privileged place for himself as enlightened prophet and sect founder, Piaogao never denied the fact that it was Master Wang who first set him on the right path.

The same is true for Patriarch Luo. We have seen how much Piaogao modeled himself on Luo. This too was something that he openly acknowledged, even enshrining it into his own mythical narrative. As Seiwert observes, in the Hongyang mythology, “The patriarch immediately preceding Piaogao is the Venerable Patriarch Sandalwood (zhantan laozu 旃檀老祖) who manifested himself thrice, his last appearance being Patriarch Luo” (323). The Hongyang texts make Luo a direct predecessor of Piaogao in the chain of revelation. Though Piaogao departed from Patriarch Luo as much as Yin Ji’nan had, he shared with Yin the desire to be seen as the heir to the sage of Shandong and the inheritor of his mission. He thereby suggested that his Hongyang school was as much an outgrowth of Luo’s sect as it was of Master Wang’s.

Then there is the case of Wang Duo. His fingerprints are all over the later Hongyang sect. He constructed a “Hall of the Three Yang (sanyang dian 三陽殿)” (327), reminiscent of the “Halls of the Three Teachings” later built by the Hongyang jiao and even referred to the supreme deity as the Primordial Chaos Lord (hunyuan zhu 混元主), in what seems like a direct inspiration for Piaogao’s later “Venerable Patriarch Primordial Chaos.” Wang Duo was the first known figure to call his sect Hunyuan and, though Piaogao never mentioned him, the continued use of this name suggests that he acknowledged a level of continuity with the earlier sect leader. Given that Wang Duo was executed by the government for heresy when his following grew too large, the fact that Piaogao’s efforts led to those same teachings being recognized generation later as orthodox and spread by that same government due to Piaogao’s efforts must be considered one of the most extraordinary turnarounds in Chinese history.

However, the religious vision of the Hongyang sect went beyond the teachers who had personally influenced Piaogao’s own spiritual development. Rather, they took a broad view that encompassed the whole scope of human history in one continuous process of revelation. Seiwert notes that “[t]he Hongyang scriptures make it clear that the teaching they proclaim are [sic] not new but part of a long tradition” (325), one that reaches back to the foundations of Chinese religious and philosophical thought. As Seiwert further observes, “Piaogao presented his own teachings as a continuation and reaffirmation of the three traditions founded by Śākyamuni, Laozi, and Confucius. It is he who reveals the eternal truth in the present age, but like the earlier sages and patriarchs he only acts as agent of the ultimate deity Hunyuan Laozu (Venerable Patriarch Chaos Origin) who has sent down his messenger to rescue mankind from the sea of sorrow” (324). Piaogao was very certain that he was not an unpresented figure unveiling a previously unknown message to mankind. Instead, he was conveying the last in a series of increasingly more comprehensive revelations of cosmic truth to humanity. Previous messengers of these revelations had included the founders of China’s three major faiths, and so Piaogao suggests that his own message is the culmination and fulfillment of the major religions of the Chinese cultural sphere, the final development that the long span of Chinese religious history has been leading to.

This very much recalls Joachim and his positioning of his teachings which the wider scope of Christian history. He, of course, did not claim that his ideas were radically new. Rather, the things he taught and those he expected to be taught by others were simply the culmination of what had been taught by the Jewish prophets, Christ and the apostles, and the doctors of the Church. And, even if his more modern admirers cannot help but see the faith of his Third Status as a new religion entirely distinct from Judaism and Christianity, he never would have seen it that way. After all, for him as for all medieval Christians, Christianity was an outgrowth and maturation of the faith of the Old Testament, and thus he naturally saw the revelations of the Third Age as a further outgrowth and maturation of a faith that had been passed down since Abraham. This sense of continuity that unites Joachim’s own ideas with the long lineage of Jewish and Christian thought in an ongoing process of revelation is exactly the type of thing which Piaogao proposes with regard to the Hongyang beliefs and the other forms of Chinese religious thought. In Piaogao, we have a thinker whose understanding of continuous revelation comes very near to what Joachim had imagined.

It comes so near indeed that it even includes the distinctive feature of revelation stopping in the Second Age but then starting up again at the approach of the Third Age. Seiwert observes that in the Hongyang scriptures, “It is said that since the beginning of the Ming dynasty succeeding patriarchs of this school have written scriptures to transmit the three teachings [of Buddhism, Taoism, and Confucianism]. While there were numerous teachers, only a few were enlightened and left scriptures” (326). We see a clear pattern emerging in how the Hongyang school understood progressive revelation. There were periods of revelation in the past, leading to the founding of the three great faiths known in China. Then revelation stopped—according to one text around the end of the Southern Dynasties—only to begin again at the start of the Ming Dynasty as the imminent advent of the Third Age necessitated a new lineage of teachers who could bring the truth to humanity once again. Piaogao saw himself as the last of these prophets, bringing together all their doctrines into one complete teaching for humanity.

Joachim saw himself as being at the beginning, rather than the end, of the new process of revelation—though certainly he had later followers who were more willing to make themselves the final link in the chain. But he accepted the traditional Catholic claim that revelation had ended with the apostles. Thus, he argued, revelation would have a new beginning around his own time. Furthermore, this followed a pattern in which prophecy had ended with the Jewish prophets only to begin again with Christ and the apostles. For him, revelation was continuous but periodic, occurring in three movements that matched up with and ministered to the Three Ages. This accords very well with the view Piaogao would later express in China as his own elaboration of the Three Ages scheme. Thus, in the works of the Hongyang jiao, the Chinese Three Ages system converged heavily with Joachim’s not only with regards to the concept of progressive revelation but also to the form it took in the unfolding of history.

The notion of progressive and continuous revelation, beginning again at certain times in history, is so central to Hongyang thought that it even finds expression in their salvation narrative. This story is another of the reluctant messiah type and tells how Piaogao was sent from heaven as the last prophet to save mankind. However, the heavenly savior does not want to descend to earth. He tries to get out of his mission but, as Daniel L. Overmyer explains in Precious Volumes, he soon finds that this is impossible: “All his fourteen brothers have already been sent anyway … By this time he is the only eligible messenger left in the palace!” (Overmyer 330). The fourteen brothers represent the prophets and religious leaders of China’s other major religious movements. Gautama has already been sent down and even the Unborn Mother herself has taken human form to try and guide the world to salvation. All the schools and teachings down below are the result of these heavenly beings descending and bringing pieces of the cosmic truth to the world.

Thus, Piaogao becomes the final prophet not because of any intrinsic merit but because he is so tardy that everyone else has already completed their mission by the time he arrives. It is a surprisingly embarrassing light to show the sect-founder and supposed world-savior in. Regardless, this narrative does show how Piaogao and his followers situated their teaching with regard to the others swirling around China. Piaogao’s revelation was not meant to replace or invalidate the already-existing religions but show them in a fuller and truer light. This, again, is exactly the sort of thing Joachim had argued for; spiritual intelligent would not invalidate Christianity—or, for that matter, Judaism before it—but allow a fuller and deeper understanding of its crucial insights. We see here that the Chinese Three Ages conception, whether it originated as a borrowing from Joachimism or not, certainly tended to run along the trails that the abbot had blazed in its most important particulars.

But there is another interesting parallel between the Hongyang teachings and Joachimist thought. Both show a remarkable new degree of social consciousness. We have already discussed at length how Joachim called for a more egalitarian church, pushed for society to be organized on a more communal basis, and called for a new order of monks that would go out in the world to minister to the poor and needy—this latter idea laying the ideological groundwork for the rise of the Mendicant Orders. The Hongyang texts are not nearly as broadminded or forward-thinking. But they do show a fairly unique ability to analyze the prevailing conditions of Ming society with a withering and unstinting gaze.

Overmyer in particular draws attention to a remarkable text known as the Hongyang tanshi jing (弘陽嘆世經 – Vast Yang Scripture of Sighing for the World). As he describes it,

The content of the book is distinguished by its sustained call for moral reform, which is directed first to the self, then to people in general, and finally to the wealth and powerful, the evil and violent, the young, adults, those who revile the religion, and those entangled by wine, illicit sex, wealth, and anger. Corrupt Buddhist monks and Taoist priests are also criticized, as are disloyal and arrogant officials. All are called upon to repent and change their ways. The Hung-yuan t’an-shih ching devotes more attention to socially differentiated moral criticism than any other sixteenth-century “precious volume” I have read, and hence is of great value for our understanding of the social perspectives of these books. (331)

The Hongyang taishi jing, a book modeled partially on one of Patriarch Luo’s texts, takes a broad view of society, looking at how individuals in each level of the social hierarchy should behave. Along the way, it castigates all those who fail to act in the proper manner. No one is safe from criticism, as the wealthy and powerful, along with Buddhist monks and Taoist priests, come in for their share of derision. The book advocates for everyone to behave morally in order to increase social cohesion and even advises children to do good immediately because the threat of dying young is very real. This text reveals that the Hongyang sect was very aware of the avarice, selfishness, and cruelty of the privileged few, and how their wickedness threatened the well-being of all.

Despite this, however, both Overmyer and Seiwert caution that the book should not be seen as more radical than it is. Overmyer notes, “strictly speaking, this is not social criticism but an evangelistic message on behalf of sect teachings, made urgent by the decline of values at the end of the age” (331). Seiwert is even more blunt, “Moral condemnation concerns only individual behaviour but not the general conditions of society or even the state. There is no criticism of social inequality” (Seiwert 324). The main point these scholars raise is that while the Hongyang tanshi jing offers a stinging rebuke of the selfishness of elites, it only calls for them to better their behavior rather than offering any suggestions for real social change.

It is not surprising that the Hongyang school, enjoying more prestige and protection by the elites than any other sectarian group, should be so hesitant to call for an end to the social hierarchy that was benefiting them. But that they went as far in criticizing that hierarchy as they did is still impressive; they were certainly aware of how venial and corrupt that hierarchy was. As with many of Joachim’s more respectable later followers, and to an extent the Calabrian himself, an inherent conservatism and desire to trust the system clashed with the very real evidence that the system had grown corrupt and vicious. Still, the mere fact that the Hongyang sect became aware of the problems at all shows that the Three Ages idea had at least somewhat of a broadening effect on their social thought, just as it had for even the most conservative Joachimites in the West. Indeed, there is an emphasis in both Joachim and the Hongyang texts on social cohesion and communal unity, with a decidedly utopian ring.

Thus, we see that in the Hongyang sect, as with that of Yin Ji’nan, the adoption of the Three Ages doctrine tended to lead to the same concerns and developments that marked Joachimism in the West. In some cases, it even led to a similar tension between the radical implications of the idea and the establishment sensibilities of those who espoused it. Still, Piaogao’s movement was the exception, not the rule. Joachim’s teachings were much more successful at infiltrating the established hierarchy of his time than the Three Ages doctrines of the Ming sectarians were. The “radical fringe” was much larger and, indeed, made up the majority of sectarians. Despite the disparity, in both Joachimism and Ming sectarianism, the most extreme, and arguably most interesting, developments took place among the most heterodox and radical of the sects. The Chinese Three Ages idea itself found its fullest and possibly most eccentric development amongst the sect known as the Huangtian jiao.

Works Cited

Overmyer, Daniel L. Precious Volumes: An Introduction to Chinese Sectarian Scriptures from the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1999. All bracketed text is original to Overmyer.

Seiwert, Hubert. Popular Religious Movements and Heterodox Sects in Chinese History. Leiden: Brill, 2003.

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