The Third Age Dawns in China: The Huangtian Jiao

The Third Age Dawns in China: The Huangtian Jiao May 2, 2024

Image courtesy of Johnny Stockshooter at Alamy.


The Huangtian dao (黄天道—Way of the Yellow Heaven) or Huangtian jiao (黄天教—Teaching of the Yellow Heaven) is probably the best-known and most studied of the Ming-era Three Ages sects, if only because it survived into the twentieth century, long enough to be discovered and studied in situ by curious sociologists. The sect was, like the Hongyang jiao, one of the most prolific producers of the baojuans that have come down to us and it too exerted a tremendous influence upon later sectarianism. Unlike the Hongyang sect, however, the Huangtian tradition did all this without official government support. It also did it roughly half a century earlier than the Hongyang school did.

The Huangtian dao dates to the year 1554, when its founder claimed to have achieved enlightenment. The founder himself had much in common with other sect-builders of the Ming era. Like Piaogao, he was a native of Zhili. Like Patriarch Luo, he was a soldier by profession, and like Lu he served on the Great Wall before growing discontented and setting out on a quest for spiritual enlightenment. Indeed, his military service cost him an eye, which would later earn him the nickname of the Tiger-Eyed Chan Master (huyan chanshi 虎眼禪師). He was born the messianic surname of Li and his given name was Bin, but like the members of Yin Ji’nan’s organization, he adopted a religious name beginning with the character “pu.” Thus, history knows Li Bin, the Tiger-Eyed Master, by the name of Puming.

Puming thus seems, in his person, to have united many of the currents of millennialist and sectarian thoughts swirling through China at the time. Hubert Seiwert notes, in Popular Religious Movements and Heterodox Sects in Chinese History, that “Puming founded the Huangtian jiao less than half a century after Luo Menghong’s death in a region not far from where Luo had been active” (Seiwert 313), and that Puming adopted the title of “Non-Action Patriarch” (wuwei zu 無為祖) in apparent reference to the official name of the Luoist movement. But curiously, “Patriarch Luo is not mentioned a single time [in Huangtian scriptures] and there are no signs that he was venerated as teacher” (313-314). In addition, Puming drew more heavily upon Taoism than many other sectarian leaders; the name of the sect itself (Huangtian or “Yellow Heaven”) harkens back to the first great Taoist millenarian rebel leader, Zhang Jiao. And yet, this source of inspiration was also little acknowledged. Whereas Piaogao would later display a conscious ecumenicalism in his writings, Puming seemed determined to forge his own path, even if that meant obscuring the influences upon which he drew.

As it stands, Puming’s religious journey led to him meeting a spiritual teacher in 1553, after which he claimed to have achieved enlightenment in 1554. As with  Piaogao almost half a century later, Puming did not let the instrumental role this teacher played in his awakening keep him from founding his own sect. Unlike Piaogao, he seems to have ignored his teacher’s contributions and claimed to present a wholly original message. Puming composed a book to convey this message, the Puming rulai wuwei liaoyi baojuan (普明如來無為了義寶卷—Precious Scroll of the Tathagata Puming on Understanding Non-Action) around 1558 and died four years later in 1562. He governed his sect for less than a decade but managed in only eight years to create a tradition that would last for centuries.

Seiwert explains what happened to the Huangtian sect after Puming’s passing: “after Li Bin (i.e., Puming) his community was first headed by his wife Puguang, but after her death it was split into two branches. One of them was headed by their two daughters Pujing and Puzhao, who were followed by Puzhao’s daughter Puxian. Leader of the other branch was Pujing [with a different second character from the female Pujing mentioned above], a disciple of Li Bin’s” (295-96). Thus, we see that in addition to following the practice introduced by Yu Ji’nan and common among popular sects of using names beginning with the “pu” character, the Huangtian dao also adopted the popular tradition of having female leaders. Once again, a patriarch is succeeded by his wife, but in this case the female succession continues for at least three generations, with his daughters and granddaughter taking over in a matriarchal lineage. This branch of the Huangtian sect lasted under the leadership of Puming’s family until 1763, when the Qing Dynasty launched a crackdown. Qing authorities executed Puming’s living heirs, destroyed his tomb, and desecrated his remains and those of his family.

The sect founded by Puming’s male disciple Pujing faired better. Like Yao Wenyu down south, Pujing was able to gain the support of the majority of the founder’s followers and as such was often regarded as the “true” representative of the Huangtian tradition by later sects and offshoots. Most later continuations of the tradition recognized Pujing as their source and predecessor and he was often considered the founder of the Huangtian sect in place of Puming. Through the efforts of his organization, the Huangtian teachings reached southern China. There, in an interesting example of sectarian cross-pollination, they caught the attention of a man named Wang Changsheng, who went by the religious name Pushan. Pushan was already a follower of Yao Wenyu but broke away from Yao with a large number of disciples to adopt the Huangtian teachings. This new sect was called the Yuandun jiao (圓頓教—Teaching of Complete and Sudden Enlightenment) or Changsheng jiao (長生教—Wang Changsheng’s Teaching or Teaching of Eternal Life) and it would become a major sectarian organization in its own right.

Some centuries later, Chen Zhongxi spread the Huangtian tradition in Jiangxi with his own baojuan in 1850 and in 1874, a monk named Zhiming returned the faith to Puming’s original stomping grounds, rebuilding the tomb and temple that Qing authorities had destroyed. There it would remain to catch the eyes of researchers in the twentieth century. All these Huangtian groups faced the recurrent threat of Qing persecution but, while the original organization founded by Puming and continued by his family succumbed to it, the wider Huangtian movement created by Pujing outlasted the Qing Dynasty itself, such that the tradition Puming created remained well-entrenched in his home region deep into the republican period and perhaps even later.

Despite its claims to uniqueness, what the Huangtian sect taught basically the same thing as the other sectarians. Indeed, like their founder, they can be seen as a place of convergence for many of the most important trends in sectarianism. One of the most prominent of these was their egalitarianism. We have seen that most of the sectarian groups had an egalitarian element that set them apart from mainstream Chinese society. This seems to have become particularly pronounced in the case of the Huangtian sect.

We have already noted how Puming was succeeded by his wife, daughters, and granddaughter in a remarkable line of female succession. And we have noted too that sectarian organizations were in general open to the prospect of female leadership. Richard Shek remarks in “Millenarianism without Rebellion: The Huangtian Dao in North China” that, “it is well known that women enjoyed higher status in the religious sects than elsewhere in Chinese society … This sectarian attractiveness to women was part of the reason for the sects’ being branded heterodox” (Shek 316). This attitude became particularly pronounced in the Huangtian sect, which placed a very high value on women and their spiritual potential.

Shek offers several examples of this particular devotion to equality and women’s spiritual agency. He quotes the baojuan written by Pujing, the Pujing rulai yaoshi tongtian baojuan (普靜如來鑰匙通天寶卷 – Precious Scroll of the Tathagata Pujing on the Key to Liberation), which states, “When men gather the five spirits of yin, they become bodhisattvas. When women collect the five pneuma of yang, they become buddhas” (qtd. in Shek 326). This indicates that the path to Buddhahood was equally open to men and women. Furthermore, because yin was traditionally associated with women and yang with men, men would be nurturing a feminine essence by taking in yin and women a masculine one by taking in yang. This suggests that rather than men being viewed as superior to women, in Huangtian thought they were both incomplete and each needed to take on the aspects of the other in order to become a fully-realized and awakened human being

Shek also notes that “the Huangtian sectarians in Zhili referred to their female members as the ‘alternative way’ (Erdao), expressing full recognition that the women believers had alternative and equal status with men” (Shek 327). Seiwert provides further evidence for this view when he quotes the Puming baojuan itself, which states, “The great and the male, the small and the female will all advance to the land of the immortals” (qtd. in Seiwert 299). This emphasizes how everyone, high and low, rich and poor, and male and female, can attain salvation. Interestingly, the Puming baojuan as we have it now was edited and expanded upon by the sage’s granddaughter Puxian, and the notice above men and women both reaching “the land of the immortals” comes just after a line praising Puxian’s own revelation of the “Way of Complete Perfection” (299), tying together both the equality of men and women and the special authority of a female leader into one single message about the value and worth of female insight in the religious sphere. In Puxian herself, we see a figure that reminds us very much of Guglielma and Maifreda in the West, a woman who not only attempted to claim the highest spiritual authority in a major religious group in herself but, as we shall see, also went so far as to proclaim herself the living embodiment of God.

The only sour note in the Huangtian movement’s general celebration of female potential is the strange suggestion in the Puming baojuan that “[t]here will also be no womanhood” (qtd. in Shek 324) in the Third Age and that everyone shall be reborn as men. On the face of it, this seems to go back to the ancient and misogynistic notion in Buddhism that it is impossible to attain enlightenment in a female body and that one must be reborn as a man to do so. However, Shek interprets the comment differently, stating, “The expectation that there will be no womanhood in the future world may, on the surface, sound male chauvinistic. But I am inclined to think that, on the contrary, it is a sympathetic recognition that womanhood in the present age is characterized by misery and humiliation, and its elimination in the next age means that everyone will be equal” (Shek 324). This is perhaps the most sensible conclusion to make given how much the Huangtian sect seemed to prize female equality otherwise and, if true, speaks to how profound their awareness was that the current world order did not reflect the ideals of equality that they cherished.

Those egalitarian ideals extended beyond matters of male and female. The Puming baojuan also praises the “wisdom of the bodhisattvas at home” ( Seiwert 299). The “bodhisattvas at home” is a common term in baojuans (not just of the Huangtian sect) to refer to those among the faithful who do not “leave home” to join a monastery. Instead of adopting a monk’s life of celibacy and poverty, they have jobs, make a living, own property, marry, and have children. And yet they are pious and devout and follow the teachings of their faith to the best of their ability. The pious laity were somewhat looked down upon in premodern Buddhism—as indeed they were in Catholicism prior to the Reformation—as necessary but ultimately spiritual inferior to those who gave up everything to enter the monastic life. However, it was precisely these spiritually conscious laymen and women who made up the majority of members in the Three Ages sects. Thus, sectarian texts generally reversed the equation, insisting that it was the honest and hardworking “bodhisattvas at home” who would find salvation while monks—grown lazy and indolent from a life of ease—were more in danger of falling into the hell-realms after death. We can see from the line quoted above that the Huangtian movement was of the same mindset. They did not condemn monks—some of their leaders had, in fact, taken monastic vows—but they insisted that the laity were not spiritually inferior to monastics and had as much of a chance of attaining salvation, if not more.

Thus, the Huangtian sect eliminated the moral superiority that the monks lorded over the common people and established an equal playing field between them on the spiritual plain. This is not the only kind of moral distinction that they countenanced eliminating. Let us return for a moment to the suffering sustained by the impious and immoral in the hell-realms. In the seventeenth century, sectarian baojuans developed a new interest in exploring the subject in detail, producing developed narratives of a protagonist touring the infernal landscape and observing the punishments meted out there in a manner reminiscent of Dante’s Inferno. The Huangtian sect seemed particularly enamored by the idea and produced several in which Maitreya himself entered hell.

In one of these texts, the Foshuo danglai Mile chuxi baojuan (佛説當來彌勒出細寶卷 – Precious Scroll of the Buddha’s Teaching Carefully Explaining the Coming of Maitreya), we see Maitreya—here explicitly identified with the supreme god of the universe, the Primordial Buddha— carry out his own version of the harrowing of hell at the start of the third age. In order to establish his universal reign, Maitreya enters the palace of the kings of hell. Daniel L. Overmyer, in Precious Volumes: An Introduction to Chinese Sectarian Scriptures from the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries, describes what happens next, “Maitreya began to preach the Dharma. As a result, all the souls were saved, ‘the Ten Kings and Ti-tsang returned to heaven, and purgatory was transformed into a nine[=petaled] lotus palace” (Overmyer 247). Thus, according to this text, at the coming of the Third Age, all will be saved from hell, even those who did not follow the proper path beforehand. Overmyer notes that “[t]his theme of collective liberation is the most distinctive sectarian contribution to discussions of purgatory” (246) and it takes a particularly overt and extreme form in this Huangtian text. Here, the communal outlook and the commitment to general equality leads to a universalist account of salvation in which all of humanity, irrespective of their previous actions, are finally saved by Maitreya and permitted to enjoy his paradisal rule on equal terms.

We can see from this that the Huangtian commitment to equality was particularly thoroughgoing. As Shek observes, “Indeed, the term pingdeng (equality) appears numerous times in the text in reference to the dharma that will govern the ideal world … The argument for equality is simple and straightforward: ‘As all beings on earth are children who have gone astray, from whence comes the distinction among them?’” (Shek 324). The Huangtian outlook was both egalitarian and communal, viewing all human beings as brothers and sisters of the Unborn Mother and thus having a duty to care for one another. As we have seen, this had some radical implications for how they viewed both social relations and the ultimate fate of humanity. We have consistently seen this egalitarian and communal focus in Third Age thinking in both Europe and Asia. Joachim introduced a version of it in his writings, but in the West. But it would take heterodox groups like the Apostolic Brethren, the Guglielmites, and the Brethren of the Free Spirit, on one hand, and the new spiritual path forged by St. Francis of Assisi, on the other, to work out the communal and egalitarian potential of his ideas to the fullest. Similarly, in China, we see a basic adherence to notions of greater equality and the communal life throughout the sectarian baojuans, but the Huangtian movement worked  out those concepts in a full and thoroughly radical manner.

In other matters, however, the Huangtian sect was less forward-looking. They may have been far more egalitarian than Piaogao’s sect, with its tendency to cozy up to the powers-that-be. But it was the Hongyang teaching that showed a more ecumenical spirit. The idea of a long series of collective revelations dating back to the beginning of history was apparently anathema to Puxian’s branch of the movement. The Puming baojuan, for instance, proclaims that “The tathagāta Puming offers the understanding of Non-Action (wuwei). Puxian’s teaching of the Great Way of Complete Perfection (quanzhen dadao 全真大道) has never been heard by the thousand saints, and the ten thousand patriarchs do not explain it” (qtd. in Seiwert 298). This makes the clear point that the teachings of Puming, later expanded upon by Puxian, were completely unknown before their recent revelation, and have no immediate predecessors among the many religious movements of Chinese history.

Still, the idea of progressive revelation was not wholly absent from the Puxian branch’s teachings. Indeed, it was central to them, albeit in a truncated form. The quote cited above to demonstrate the Huangtian group’s sense of its own exclusiveness also reveals something interesting. Both Puming and his granddaughter Puxian are cited as having revealed the doctrines of the faith. Puming introduced the original saving revelation and is celebrated as an incarnate buddha (a tathagata). But Puxian’s own teachings are also celebrated as new and original, as her “Great Way of Complete Perfection has never been heard by the thousand saints, and the ten thousand patriarchs do not explain it.” Thus, Puxian offered a new truth which Puming did not, one which is just as necessary for salvation. And yet Puming is still celebrated as the founder of the current dispensation. The only conclusion that can be drawn from this is that this Huangtian organization accepted a form of progressive and continuous revelation, one that began with Puming but only reached completion with Puxian. Indeed, Puxian even claimed to be the reincarnation of her grandfather, completing the work that he himself had left unfinished. This is a much shorter lineage than that advocated by other sectarians, consisting as it does of only three generations, but it does convey the same basic idea that divine truth is revealed over time as the world is ready for it, with Puming’s revelation serving as the groundwork for the fuller and more complete one of Puxian.

The leader of the other branch of the Huangtian movement, Pujing, was far more open to the idea of continuous revelation, and had an understanding of it more reminiscent of the other sects. Like Puxian, he claimed to be the reincarnation of Puming, completing the founder’s original revelation through the teachings that he himself was revealing. However, Pujing seemed more open to the idea that there was a long lineage of revelation before him, whereas Puxian had been intent on keeping it, quite literally, in the family. Seiwert summarizes Pujing’s doctrine of continuous revelation:

Pujing likewise is the manifestation of a cosmic principle, which here is called the Yaoshi Gufo 鑰匙古佛 (lit. ‘Ancient Key-Buddha’, that is, the saviour who offers the key to the door to heaven). The Key-Buddha manifested himself numerous times in history, and his last manifestation is Pujing who came to rescue the remaining ninety-two hundred million through his scripture and to open the door to heaven. (Seiwert 300)

Thus, Pujing allowed that there were earlier teachers beside himself and Puming who had revealed parts of the divine truth and acknowledged that he was building upon their work. Indeed, he made them all manifestations of Maitreya (as the “Key-Buddha”), thus putting the ruler of the Third Age in direct charge of the history-spanning effort to bring humanity to salvation. In the end, just as Pujing’s branch of the Huangtian jiao proved the more enduring one, his relatively more inclusive and ecumenical understanding of progressive revelation prevailed over the Puming family’s exclusive one. By the nineteenth century, when Chen Zhongxi sketched out a lineage of revelation for the Huangtian patriarchs stretching all the way back to Confucius, the Huangtian understanding of progressive revelation had fallen completely into line with what was standard among Three Ages sectarian movements.

In addition, it seems that Pujing’s branch of the movement was open to using more than just the names of wise sages of old to bolster their credibility. They also looked to literary culture as well. Recall once again Guan Yu’s friend, the monk Pujing, in the Romance of the Three Kingdoms. Note that he bears the same name as our current subject, the leader of the more successful branch of the Huangtian movement. This fact was not lost on Huangtian adherents themselves. The result was the Huguo youmin fumo baojuan (護國佑民伏魔寶卷 – Precious Scroll on Guarding the Realm, Protecting the People, and Subduing Demons), a text which Overmyer identifies as being of Huangtian provenance.

The purpose of this baojuan is to establish Guan Yu as the divine protector of the sectarian cause, There are within its pages, in Overmyer’s words, “repeated references … to Lord Kuan’s having been converted by ‘Teacher Lo,’ who in one passage is called Lo P’u-ching, thus evoking the name of a patriarch of the Huang-t’ien tao tradition, P’u-ching” (Overmyer 349). Overmyer regards the “Luo Pujing”—“Pu’ching” is his romanization is rendered “Pujing” in the current standard one—here as a composite reference to Patriarch Luo and the Pujing of the Huangtian sect, despite the century of time separating them. But we can also recognize that underlying this baojuan’s account is the story from the Romance of the Three Kingdoms in which the monk Pujing converts the ghost of Guan Yu. Thus, this later Huangtian text identifies the sect’s leader with the monk of the same name who soothes Guan Yu’s vengeful spirit in Three Kingdoms tradition, despite the fact that that figure would have lived—if he ever lived at all—well over a thousand years before the Huangtian leader’s own time. If this tells us anything, other than that the Huangtian sect loved anachronism and that “Pujing” was apparently quite popular as a religious name, it is that the Huangtian movement, denied the access to the corridors of power enjoyed by the Hongyang sect, found others creative ways of bolstering its legitimacy, even if that involved shoehorning itself into the foundational moments of China’s long religious tradition, but also its literary and heroic ones as well.

A 1912 map by Claudius Madrolle showing Zhili at the fall of the Qing Dynasty. This was Puming’s home province and, at the time, the Huangtian sect was still extant there. (Image courtesy of Open Rivers Journal)

As for the theology of the sect, they were again a good encapsulation of the trends we have been studying thus far. They worshipped the Venerable Unborn Mother but they continued the common trend of identifying the mother with the Primordial Buddha as the true god of the universe. We noted in previous entries how the one God manifesting Himself as the three rulers of the cosmic time-periods in texts such as the Huangji and Jiulian baojuans neatly paralleled Joachim’s own understanding of the Three Ages as the expression of God’s triune nature in the fabric of time. We find that this correspondence gains a new prominence in the Huangtian sect, albeit centering upon the all-important figure of Puming.

For the Huangtian sect, Puming is an earthly manifestation of the one supreme God. This is a basic tenet of their scriptures. Seiwert notes how the Puming baojuan “declared Puming to be a manifestation of the primordial Ancient Buddha of the August Ultimate who reveals the true meaning of the wuwei teaching” (299). He also observes that the Pujing baojuan proclaims Puming the Key-Buddha and “the Ancient Key-Buddha (Yaoshi Gufo) has the same function as the Ancient Buddha of the August Ultimate (Huangji Gufo) has in the Puming baojuan” (300). He is also identified with Amitabha. Since Puxian and Pujing both claimed to be reincarnations of Puming, they were also identifying themselves with God. In Puxian’s case, we can thus see the parallel to Guglielma, but with added layers that gender theorists could write volumes on, for Puxian was a woman claiming to be the reincarnation of a male figure who himself claimed to be the incarnation of a supreme deity often though not exclusively portrayed as female (the Unborn Mother).

However, the Primordial Buddha—who manifested on earth as Puming and his various reincarnations—is not just a creator, but also a savior. As Seiwert puts it, “The Ancient Buddha of the August Ultimate refers to Puming who is here presented as the saviour and ruler of the coming cosmic period” (299). He fulfills the role not only of the Primordial Buddha but also that of Maitreya. The Huangtian texts thus emphasize the identification of Maitreya, as ruler of the coming age, with the God of all. Indeed, as Seiwert states, their names are often used interchangeably, such that “[i]n the Puming baojuan … only the Ancient Buddha of the August Ultimate occurs as the saviour who rescues the ninety-two hundred million” (301). All this emphasizes strongly that Maitreya is but a manifestation of the supreme deity, and that it is the Primordial Buddha in charge of salvation in all its stages.

In addition, we saw above that Pujing claimed that the Key-Buddha—his name for the supreme deity—manifested several times throughout history, including as the rulers of the second and third ages.  This means that the supreme God of the universe is the true identity of each of the buddhas of the three cosmic periods. For whatever original twists he gave it, Pujing got the core of this idea from Puming. The Puming baojuan explains it in some of the simplest and most striking language among the baojuans when it refers to the supreme deity as “the one Buddha who divided into three teachings. The three teachings are the bodies of the three buddhas” (qtd. in Overmyer 190). This explicitly emphasizes that the one God divided himself into three persons to rule over the three ages. Thus, the three ages themselves are fundamentally an expression in time of the triune nature of God Himself. This is quite extraordinary, as it is the most obvert statement of something resembling trinitarianism among the sectarians. What is more, it is a trinitarianism that closely matches the dynamic and uniquely temporal version espoused by Joachim and his followers. The Huangtian sect thereby brought their understanding of God into concord with Joachim’s own, in an exceptional example of a Chinese sect inexplicably taking on more of a Joachimist cast over time.

Given how the Huangtian faith managed the feat of organically reproducing something very like Joachim’s understanding of God, which is foundational to his formulation of the Three Ages, it would be natural to expect their conception of the ages themselves to align closely with his. However, this is where the Huangtian believers made a radical departure both from their fellow sectarians and from Joachimism. At first glance, their version of the Three Ages seems normal enough. Each of the three periods is ruled by a buddha, who progressively guides more people to salvation. As Shek says, “This scheme pictures the lamp-lighting Buddha to be in charge of the first age, Sakyamuni, the second, and Maitreya, the third” (Shek 323). There is the by-now usual statement of the number of individuals to be saved, which Overmyer summarizes thusly, “Of the original total of ninety-six i, the Buddha of the Past saved 2 i, and the Buddha of the Present has saved another 2 i, so there are 92 i left” (Overmyer 191). One yi (i in Overmyer), is equal a hundred million, so this gives some idea of the great amount of work that has been done and the still greater amount of work that is left to do. So far, everything seems to be the same as in the other sectarian baojuan, with each of the three ages representing a chance to bring progressively more people to salvation.

But then the Puming baojuan describes each of the Three Ages themselves. It is here that we learn that they are far different that the periods of increasingly greater enlightenment seen in Joachim and suggested by other sectarians. We find that in the First Age,

everyone lived long, with no [distinction between] self and other. Everyone was illuminated by a divine light. They wore grass clothing, lived in caves, and ate moving and mixed food (tung-jung chih shih). There were horns on their heads and hair grew on their bodies. [Although] they had the faces of beasts and human hearts, they were not stained with any depravity; they were enlightened as the Buddha; they didn’t distinguish between different forms and had no writing. Each of them lived long. (qtd. in Overmyer 191)

This does not seem like an early stage of growth and progressive development. Rather, it is a time of innocence that has been lost. To some extent it resembles the Garden of Eden story from Genesis but has an even closer analogue in the classical myth of the Golden Age. As in that myth, humans live simple lives, dwell in caves, and lack any sort of learning. And yet, in this ignorance and naïve innocence, their hearts are pure, they are naturally good, and as a result they all live a much longer time. But the Huangtian myth also has some unique aspects that have no analogue in our western accounts of primordial bliss. There is, for instance, the odd feature that all the humans of the first age have the physical form of animals, only differing from them by possessing a human-level consciousness. And there is the fact that time itself is structured differently in the First Age, “There were 440 days in a year, 180 days in a cycle, 6 months in a year, and 6 hours in a day and night” (qtd. in Overmyer 190). The cumulative effect of these changes is to make the glittering epoch of the First Age seem completely disconnected from the one to come after. It seems not so much a different time period as a different form of existence entirely.

This is contrasted with the Second Age, which began after the Primordial Buddha rearranged the world. In the Second Age, we find that there are “33 heavens and 18 levels of purgatory. There are 360 days in a year, 12 months in a year, 30 days in a month, and 12 [Chinese] hours in a day. People are born and die and, because of their desires and lusts, are stained with dust; in the last age they do not live long.” (qtd. in Overmyer 191) This age represents our fallen state, and it could not be more different from primordial innocence. Human beings have become sinful and as a result their lifespan has decreased dramatically. The structure of time has also changed. What we seem to be heading for here is a reprisal of the world-spanning paradise-fall-restoration narrative that I highlighted as being distinct from the Joachimist one of three progressive ages. That narrative was certainly known in the Chinese cultural sphere and it seems to have wielded a decisive influence here, moving the Huangtian sect away from anything like Joachim’s conception of time.

Next we move on to the third age. In it, the world becomes a utopian paradise:

The land is re-arranged; the stars and constellations re-established. Heaven and earth are put in order again. Oceans and mountains are relocated. After nine turns, the elixir is retrieved. Together men reach the other shore. The compass stops and the two nines meet. The earlier eighteen periods of calamity are over. It is time to change the shape and replace the form. Eighteen months will make one year, and thirty-six hours constitute a day. There will be forty-five days to a month. One day will have one hundred and fourty-for quarter hours, and altogether eight hundred and ten days form one year. Everyone renews his body at age eighteen, and each stands a full height of eighteen Chinese feet. Heaven and earth will have no waxing or waning. Human beings will have no difference in agedness or youthfulness. There will be no birth or death. There will also be no womanhood. This is the great way of immortality. This age will last for eighty-one thousand years and, when the full course is run, another new age will begin. (qtd. in Shek 323-24)

Shek remarks, “This is a breathtaking portrayal of an age without birth and death and the distinction between young and old, male and female” (Shek 324). It is certainly breathtaking but it feels, once again, like we have entered a whole new world, not simply the next age of this world. Certainly, all the sectarians were heirs of the millenarian thought of medieval China, in which Maitreya would appear to end the earth and create a new one, and this shaded into their expectations of what the Third Age would look like. But none ever took it as far as the portrait of the new world of the third age offered by the Puming baojuan.

Indeed, this is a return to a more ancient form of apocalyptic millennialism, with a new paradise being created to replace the old world. When we add to this the fact, seen in other Huangtian texts, that Maitreya would empty out hell and redeem all souls at this time, this looks even more like the end of this world and the new creation of one that is absolutely perfect and free of suffering, such that even the wicked are released from their punishments in hell. And the sense of historical progression, of the old age becoming the new through historical advance—a notion so key to Joachim and the other Ming sectarians—appears to be lost entirely.

There is the dour suggestion that this perfected world will eventually end and be replaced by another, which is perhaps a nod to the old Buddhist notion of endlessly repeating cycles of time. Hence this is not, strictly speaking, the end of history nor the final act of a historical process. But this hardly matters. The imagination is not captured by the perfunctory suggestion that other ages will come but by the image of universal salvation offered by the reign of Maitreya. This new world is so perfect that its closest Christian analogue might not be the Millennium but the New Jerusalem that comes down to earth in the new creation. Indeed, if this vision of cosmic history resembles anything in Christianity, it is not Joachim’s revolutionary system but the traditional Christian narrative, with the pristine first age of innocence, the time of sin and separation, and finally the reconciliation of God and man in the “new heavens and new earth.” It looks like a potent counterexample to my earlier claim that the Chinese Three Ages conception is quite distinct from this kind of historical narrative.

And yet, we should not be so hasty to disassociate this vision of the Third Age from the conception of Joachim and his followers. The Joachimites in the West were often guilty of intermixing their progressive visions of a Third Age of spiritual illumination with the cosmic transformation promised by the Millennium and the New Jerusalem. Joachim himself sometimes fell victim to this, such that he occasionally described his Third Age in terms that harken back to the traditional expectations of Christian millennialism. Thus, for example, at one point in his treatise De Ultimis Tribulationibus, he describes the Third Age as “the future of the church in which gold, silver, bronze, and iron have worn away and a stone will be removed from the earth, but not by human hands, that will be shaped like the world itself” (De Ult. Trib. 179). Whatever this fantastical observation meant to Joachim, it demonstrates that he did not mind using language that seemed to suggest things like miraculous transformations in the natural world in order to get his message across.

That this was also the case for the Huangtian sect is suggested by some of the other facts that we have examined thus far. Thought the Puming baojuan in its current form was more influenced by Puxian, we know that Pujing’s group also circulated the same descriptions of the three ages and saw no conflict between them and their belief in the Primordial Buddha manifesting throughout history to bring more people to enlightenment. This suggests that they viewed the ages themselves as progressive. We can also see this in how the Puming baojuan itself describes the progress of salvation through the Three Ages. The innocence and blissfulness of the First Age is somewhat undercut by the fact that only two of the total ninety-six hundred-million human souls were saved during it. That state was clearly not very conducive to human salvation. And despite how bad the Second Age seems to be, the same number of souls were saved then as during the First Age, so it could not have been so much worse from a spiritual perspective. Both are ultimately simply stages that need to be passed through in order to get to the Third Age, so that the saving work begun in the First Age was furthered in the Second can be brought to completion. There is a clear sense of progression here and the ages themselves come to look much more like those of Joachim and the other Chinese sectarians.

We can note too that the Puming baojuan itself included the lines about how the Primordial Buddha manifested himself as the ruling buddhas of the Three Ages. The supreme deity thus established three ages of cosmic time—and there are here no more than three—as an outgrowth of this fundamental movement within his own being. The three buddhas are interconnected as the three primary manifestations of the Primordial Buddha, being, at their most basic level, all the same God. As the Three Ages reflect the traits of their rulers, they too must be similarly interconnected as part of one cosmic process. We can also connect this all to the obsession with detailing the particular structure of time in each of the three ages. The attention given to this by the Puming baojuan suggests that its author was well-aware of how crucial a role time and its structure plays in the deity’s plan for humanity’s salvation. And yet the only structure offered for time on a cosmic scale is that of the Three Ages, which thus must be interpreted as a unified whole for the salvation plan to make sense.

Indeed, Shek himself reads the unfolding of the three ages in Huangtian texts as progressive. He quotes a sentence from the Pujing baojuan that summarizes its predecessor’s view of the Three Ages, “The Lamp-Lighting Buddha, animal face and human heart; the Sakyamuni Buddha, human face and animal heart; the Maitreya Buddha. Buddha face and Buddha heart” (qtd. in Shek 327). Shek interprets this to mean

During the first age, when the world was under the charge of the Lamp-Lighter Buddha, human beings maintained many of their animal features, but their hearts were in a pristine, uncorrupted state of humanhood. In the age of the Sakyamuni Buddha, which is often interpreted as the second or present age, human beings had become cultured and sophisticated, thus losing their animal appearance. Yet their hearts had become contaminated, contentious, and cruelly aggressive, like the beasts in the jungle. Only in the epoch of the Maitreya Buddha would human beings behave like buddhas, look like buddhas, and empathize like buddhas. (Shek 327-28)

We see that in Shek’s interpretation, both of the first two ages lack something. The first lacks human appearances and the second lacks humane manners. Each age develops one of these two fundamental features in humanity but it is only in the Third Age that they shall be brought together when humanity achieves both human appearances and humane ways of living. In some sense, this recalls the Hegelian manner in which Joachim’s devotees of the last few centuries have tended to interpret his Three Ages. But, regardless, the basic sense of progression through historical time to the Third Age is restored, as it is necessary for humanity to go through the first two ages of development—whatever their faults—in order to reach the perfection of the Third.

But Seiwert himself offers the best rebuttal to those who would see the Puming baojuan’s depiction of the Third Age as an entirely new and unprecedented mode of existence. He states,

On first sight, this appears to be a description of a completely new world. But on a more subtle level it signifies the original state of the human mind where no distinctions exist … Against this background, “immortality” acquires a new meaning … If all distinctions are cast off, the difference between life and death, between long life and short life loses all meaning, it disappears. In this sense, returning to the original state or meeting the Mother is the great way to immortality. (Seiwert 310-311)

What Seiwert is suggesting here is that the more extreme depictions of the three ages were symbolic, describing not the actual state of the world but the characteristics of the human mind in each of the three periods. This means that, in accord with Shek, where the Puming and Pujing baojuans seem to be discussing disconnected global transformations, they are actually using highly metaphorical language to describe the evolution of the human mind through history. Each age represents a new type of human consciousness, with the Third Age seeing the development of a consciousness that is able to see past the distinctions of the mundane world and achieve enlightenment.

This means that one of the Chinese sectarian groups happened upon what was arguably Joachim’s most distinctive and remarkable claim, that the Third Age would represent a leap forward in human consciousness. Joachim stated that the new revelations discovered in the Third Age would come about as the result of a new development in the human mind. A new faculty of human perception, the “spiritual intelligence” would manifest and it would allow humanity to attain the highest levels of spiritual illumination possible in this life. Humanity’s moral character, mental processes, and relationship with the divine would be utterly transformed. If Seiwert’s interpretation is correct, the Huangtian jiao was arguing for much the same thing in China three centuries after Joachim. Add to this their remarkably similar conception of the Godhead and it seems that, rather than being radically different, the Huangtian conception of the Third Age actually approximates Joachim’s own surprisingly well.

As is now abundantly clear, the Huangtian were far from alone in their tendency to mirror Joachimite thought. From what is only a representative sample of the many, many such groups in Ming and Qing China, we can see that when it came to issues of equality, the role of women, communalism, progressive revelation, the evolution of human consciousness, and even the nature of the Godhead itself, the sectarians managed to reproduce Joachimite ideas in a distinctively Chinese form time and again. They took the system found in the Huangji and Jiulian baojuans, already quite reminiscent of Joachimism, and expanded it until the resemblance became uncanny.

Once again, this raises the question of influence. If it was all coincidence that the Ming sectarians developed a system so like Joachim’s own, then it is—as I have said before—one of the greatest coincidences in human history. Some level of influence seems more likely, and I have already laid out how it was possible in the case of the Huangji jieguo baojuan. As I mentioned previously, the later developments in Chinese sectarianism that so eerily resemble similar developments in Joachimism may simply be cases of parallel evolution from a common source. This likely explains at least some of the echoes discussed above. It is also possible that if the Huangji jieguo baojuan was drawing upon a folk remembering of the Joachimism brought by Franciscan missionaries, then even more Joachimist concepts could have sunk into the common cultural memory, ready to be used again by the later sects. After all, things take a long time to be forgotten in China, doubly so apocalyptic ideas are involved. Concepts such as the “seed people” and the floating city managed to endure for nearly a thousand years outside the written record before appearing in the baojuans. Vestiges of Joachimite thought would only have to survive for less than two-hundred.

But there was also perhaps a more direct path of transmission, at least for some of the developments chronicled above. For Christianity was back in China by the latter part of the 1500s, imported back into the country by Catholic missionaries. These missionaries were mendicants, Jesuits at first but then also Franciscans and others. Given Joachim’s importance to the mendicant orders in general and the Franciscans in particular, some of these newcomers must have carried his ideas with them. Interestingly, the missionaries tended to establish themselves in the capital region and the surrounding provinces, places like Shandong and Zhili. These were, of course, precisely the areas where many of the major Three Ages sects got their start. It would not be impossible for the Chinese sectarians to come across Christian and Joachimist ideas, recognize the similarity with their own doctrines, and incorporate some of what they discovered back into their own faith. The sectarian outlook was nothing if not spiritually adaptive, as their many borrowings from Buddhism, Taoism, and folk religion demonstrate.

That being said, the Catholic missionaries only really began to establish a presence in China from the 1580s onward, too late—and in the wrong part of China—to have influenced someone like Yin Ji’nan. But Piaogao’s ministry in Beijing coincided exactly with the Christians establishing their first missions in the area. And if Puming died before the missionaries arrived, Puxian and Pujing were expanding upon his teachings at about the same time as the missionaries were getting themselves established. Perhaps this is the source of those developments, such as the trinitarian understanding of the Godhead espoused by the Puming baojuan, that seem so eerily close to Catholic and Joachimist thought. Direct Joachimist influence, through the medium of missionary Catholicism, thus becomes a possible source for sectarian beliefs by the very end of the sixteenth century.

Nor is this all mere conjecture. Records of interactions between the Catholic missionaries and Chinese sectarians survive. Not only did the Ming heterodox sects take notice of the arrival of Catholicism in their country but that they were perhaps the only segment of Chinese society to take an active interest in the new teachings. These interactions provide further evidence for the Joachimist character of the Chinese Three Ages sects and strengthen the case that Joachim was ultimately the source of their ideas. We shall turn our attention to them in a later entry but first we must look at one more baojuan, the Longhua jing.

Works Cited

Joachim of Fiore. De Ultimis Tribulationibus. Edited by E. Randolph Daniel. Prophecy and Millenarianism:Essays in Honour of Marjorie Reeves. Edited by Marjorie Reeves and Ann Williams. Essex: Longman, 1980: 175-189. Translation mine.

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.

Shek, Richard. “Millenarianism without Rebellion: The Huangtian Dao in North China.Modern China, vol. 8, no. 3 (July 1982); pp. 305-336. [This remains probably the best available resource on the Huangtian jiao but must be used with caution. Writing before the discovery of the earliest baojuans, Shek wrongly credits the Huangtian sect with originating the Three Ages concept. And despite praising the high status of women in the sect, he advances the bizarre theory—ignored by later scholars—that female leaders like Puxian were actually men.]

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