Taoism in the Press

Five people emailed me Ian Johnson's piece in the New York Times about Daoism Today in China, "The Rise of Tao." It is the best article in the popular press to date about the complex role Daoism occupies in China today.  I don't have much to say about it, other than read it, but it may inspire some interesting comments below.  Everything in the article was researched and fact checked beautifully, except this one observation from the author in the middle of the forth to last paragraph:
"It was physically grueling, requiring stamina and concentration."

Bad choice of words since she probably fasted for nine days before the ritual, has some neigong emptiness training, and was likely visualizing huge swaths of cosmology rather than "concentrating."

Since the New York Times is sometimes behind a pay wall I've included the whole article here:

The Rise of Tao


YIN XINHUI reached the peak of Mount Yi and surveyed the chaos. The
47-year-old Taoist abbess was on a sacred mission: to consecrate a newly
rebuilt temple to one of her religion¹s most important deities, the Jade
Emperor. But there were as yet no stairs, just a muddy path up to the
pavilion, which sat on a rock outcropping 3,400 feet above a valley. A team
of workers was busy laying stone steps, while others planted sod, trees and
flowers. Inside the temple, a breeze blew through windows that were still
without glass, while red paint flecked the stone floor.

³Tomorrow,² she said slowly, calculating the logistics. ³They don¹t have
much ready. . . .² Fortunately, a dozen of her nuns had followed her up the
path. Dressed in white tunics and black trousers, their hair in topknots,
the nuns enthusiastically began unpacking everything they would need for the
next day¹s ceremony: 15 sacred scriptures, three golden crowns, three bells,
two cordless microphones, two lutes, a zither, a drum, a cymbal and a sword.
Soon the nuns were plucking and strumming with the confidence of veteran
performers. Others set up the altar and hung their temple¹s banner outside,
announcing that for the next few days, Abbess Yin¹s exacting religious
standards would hold sway on this mountain.

The temple she was to consecrate was born of more worldly concerns. Mount Yi
is in a poor part of China, and Communist Party officials had hit upon
tourism as a way to move forward. They fenced in the main mountain, built a
road to the summit and declared it a scenic park. But few tourists were
willing to pay for a chance to hike up a rocky mountain. Enter religion.
China is in the midst of a religious revival, and people will pay to visit
holy sites. So the local government set out to rebuild the temple, which was
wrecked by Red Guards during the Cultural Revolution, modestly rebuilt then
torn down when the park was first constructed. Officials commissioned a
30-foot statue of the Jade Emperor, had it hauled to the peak and encased in
the brilliant red pavilion. They then built a bell and a drum tower, as well
as another set of halls devoted to minor deities.

All that was missing was a soul. For that, the temple had to be properly
consecrated. The officials got in touch with Abbess Yin, widely regarded as
a leading expert in Taoist ritual, and soon she was driving the 350 miles
from her nunnery to Mount Yi.

As her rehearsals drew to a close, the abbess went over the next day¹s
schedule with a local official. All was in good shape, he said, except for
one detail. Government officials were due to give speeches at 10:30 a.m. She
would have to be finished by then, he said.

³No,² she replied. ³Then it won¹t be authentic. It takes four hours.² Could
she start earlier and wrap up by then? No, the sun won¹t be in the right
position, she replied. The official peered up from the schedule and took a
good look at her ‹ who was this?

Abbess Yin smiled good-naturedly. At a little over five feet tall, she was
solidly built, with a full, smooth face tanned from spending much of her
life outdoors in the mountains. Her dress was always the same plain blue
robe, and she did not wear jewelry or display other signs of wealth. She
shunned electronics; her temple did not have a phone or Internet access. But
over the past 20 years she had accomplished a remarkable feat, rebuilding
her own nunnery on one of Taoism¹s most important mountains. Unlike the
temple here on Mount Yi ‹ and hundreds of others across China ‹ she had
rejected tourism as a way to pay for the reconstruction of her nunnery,
relying instead on donors who were drawn to her aura of earnest religiosity.
She knew the real value of an authentic consecration ceremony and wasn¹t
about to back down.

The official tried again, emphasizing the government¹s own rituals: ³But
they have planned to be here at 10:30. The speeches last 45 minutes, and
then they have lunch. It is a banquet. It cannot be changed.²

She smiled again and nodded her head: no. An hour later the official
returned with a proposal: the four-hour ceremony was long and tiring; what
if the abbess took a break at 10:30 and let the officials give their
speeches? They would cut ribbons for the photographers and leave for lunch,
but the real ceremony wouldn¹t end until Abbess Yin said so. She thought for
a moment and then nodded: yes.

RELIGION HAS LONG played a central role in Chinese life, but for much of the
20th century, reformers and revolutionaries saw it as a hindrance holding
the country back and a key reason for China¹s ³century of humiliation.² Now,
with three decades of prosperity under their belt ‹ the first significant
period of relative stability in more than a century ‹ the Chinese are in the
midst of a great awakening of religious belief. In cities, yuppies are
turning to Christianity. Buddhism attracts the middle class, while Taoism
has rebounded in small towns and the countryside. Islam is also on the rise,
not only in troubled minority areas but also among tens of millions
elsewhere in China.

It is impossible to miss the religious building boom, with churches, temples
and mosques dotting areas where none existed a few years ago. How many
Chinese reject the state¹s official atheism is hard to quantify, but numbers
suggest a return to widespread religious belief. In contrast to earlier
surveys that showed just 100 million believers, or less than 10 percent of
the population, a new survey shows that an estimated 300 million people
claim a faith. A broader question in another poll showed that 85 percent of
the population believes in religion or the supernatural.

Officially, religious life is closely regulated. The country has five
recognized religions: Buddhism, Islam, Taoism and Christianity, which in
China is treated as two faiths, Catholicism and Protestantism. Each of the
five has a central organization headquartered in Beijing and staffed with
officials loyal to the Communist Party. All report to the State
Administration for Religious Affairs, which in turn is under the central
government¹s State Council, or cabinet. This sort of religious control has a
long history in China. For hundreds of years, emperors sought to define
orthodox belief and appointed many senior religious leaders.

Beneath this veneer of order lies a more freewheeling and sometimes chaotic
reality. In recent months, the country has been scandalized by a Taoist
priest who performed staged miracles ‹ even though he was a top leader in
the government-run China Taoist Association. His loose interpretation of the
religion was hardly a secret: on his Web site he used to boast that he could
stay underwater for two hours without breathing. Meanwhile, the government
has made a conscious effort to open up. When technocratic Communists took
control of China in the late 1970s, they allowed temples, churches and
mosques to reopen after decades of forced closures, but Communist suspicion
about religion persisted. That has slowly been replaced by a more
laissez-faire attitude as authorities realize that most religious activity
does not threaten Communist Party rule and may in fact be something of a
buttress. In 2007, President Hu Jintao endorsed religious charities and
their usefulness in solving social problems. The central government has also
recently sponsored international conferences on Buddhism and Taoism. And
local governments have welcomed temples ‹ like the one on Mount Yi ‹ as ways
to raise money from tourism.

This does not mean that crackdowns do not take place. In 1999, the
quasi-religious sect Falun Gong was banned after it staged a 10,000-person
sit-down strike in front of the compound housing the government¹s leadership
in Beijing. That set off a year of protests that ended in scores of Falun
Gong practitioners dying in police custody and the introduction of an
overseas protest movement that continues today. In addition, where religion
and ethnicity mix, like Tibet and Xinjiang, control is tight. Unsupervised
churches continue to be closed. And for all the building and rebuilding,
there are still far fewer places of worship than when the Communists took
power in 1949 and the country had less than half the population, according
to Yang Fenggang, a Purdue University professor who studies Chinese
religion. ³The ratio is still radically imbalanced,² Yang says. ³But there¹s
now a large social space that makes it possible to believe in religion.
There¹s less problem believing.²

Taoism has closely reflected this history of decline and rebirth. The
religion is loosely based on the writings of a mythical person named Laotzu
and calls for returning to the Dao, or Tao, the mystical way that unites all
of creation. Like many religions, it encompasses a broad swath of practice,
from Laotzu¹s high philosophy to a riotous pantheon of deities: emperors,
officials, thunder gods, wealth gods and terrifying demons that punish the
wicked in ways that make Dante seem unimaginative. Although scholars once
distinguished between ³philosophical Taoism² and ³religious Taoism,² today
most see the two strains as closely related. Taoist worshipers will often go
to services on important holy days; they might also go to a temple, or hire
a clergy member to come to their home, to find help for a specific problem:
illness and death or even school exams and business meetings. Usually the
supplicant will pray to a deity, and the priest or nun will stage ceremonies
to summon the god¹s assistance. Many Taoists also engage in physical
cultivation aimed at wellness and contemplation, like qigong breathing
exercises or tai chi shadowboxing.

As China¹s only indigenous religion, Taoism¹s influence is found in
everything from calligraphy and politics to medicine and poetry. In the
sixth century, for example, Abbess Yin¹s temple was home to Tao Hongjing,
one of the founders of traditional Chinese medicine. For much of the past
two millenniums, Taoism¹s opposite has been Confucianism, the ideology of
China¹s ruling elite and the closest China has to a second homegrown
religion. Where Confucianism emphasizes moderation, harmony and social
structure, Taoism offers a refuge from society and the trap of material
success. Some rulers have tried to govern according to Taoism¹s principle of
wuwei, or nonaction, but by and large it is not strongly political and today
exhibits none of the nationalism found among, say, India¹s Hindu

During China¹s decline in the 19th and 20th centuries, Taoism also weakened.
Bombarded by foreign ideas, Chinese began to look askance at Taoism¹s
unstructured beliefs. Unlike other major world religions, it lacks a Ten
Commandments, Nicene Creed or Shahada, the Muslim statement of faith. There
is no narrative comparable to Buddhism¹s story of a prince who discovered
that desire is suffering and sets out an eightfold path to enlightenment.
And while religions like Christianity acquired cachet for their association
with lands that became rich, Taoism was pegged as a relic of China¹s
backward past.

But like other elements of traditional Chinese culture, Taoism has been
making a comeback, especially in the countryside, where its roots are
deepest and Western influence is weaker. The number of temples has risen
significantly: there are 5,000 today, up from 1,500 in 1997, according to
government officials. Beijing, which had just one functioning Taoist temple
in 2000, now has 10. The revival is not entirely an expression of piety; as
on Mount Yi, the government is much more likely to tolerate temples that
also fulfill a commercial role. For Taoists like Abbess Yin, the temptation
is to turn their temples into adjuncts of the local tourism bureau. And
private donors who have helped make the revival possible may also face a
difficult choice: support religion or support the state.

Zhengzhou is one of China¹s grittiest cities. An urban sprawl of 4.5
million, it owes its existence to the intersection of two railway lines and
is now one of the country¹s most important transport hubs. The south side is
given over to furniture warehouses and markets for home furnishings and
construction materials. One of the biggest markets is the five-story Phoenix
City, with more than four million square feet of showrooms featuring real
and knockoff Italian marble countertops, German faucets and American lawn
furniture. Living in splendor on the roof of this mall like a hermit atop a
mountain is one of China¹s most dynamic and reclusive Taoist patrons, Zhu

Zhu is a short, wiry man of 50 who says he once threw a man off a bridge for
the equivalent of five cents. ³He owed me the money,² he recalled during a
nighttime walk on the roof of Phoenix City. ³And I did anything for money:
bought anything, sold anything, dared to do anything.² But as he got older,
he began to think more about growing up in the countryside and the rules
that people lived by there. His mother, he said, deeply influenced him. She
was uneducated but tried to follow Taoist precepts. ³Taoist culture is
noncompetitive and nonhurting of other people,² he says. ³It teaches
following the rules of nature.²

Once he started to pattern his life on Taoism, he says, he began to rise
quickly in the business world. He says that by following his instincts and
not forcing things ‹ by knowing how to be patient and bide his time ‹ he was
able to excel. Besides Phoenix City, he now owns large tracts of land where
he is developing office towers and apartment blocks. Although he is reticent
to discuss his wealth or business operations, local news media say his
company is worth more than $100 million and have crowned him ³the king of
building materials.² Articles almost invariably emphasize another aspect of
Zhu: his eccentric behavior.

That comes from how he chooses to spend his wealth. Instead of buying
imported German luxury cars or rare French wines, he has spent a large chunk
of his fortune on Taoism. The roof of Phoenix City is now a
200,000-square-foot Taoist retreat, a complex of pine wood cabins, potted
fruit trees and vine-covered trellises. It boasts a library, guesthouses and
offices for a dozen full-time scholars, researchers and staff. His Henan
Xinshan Taoist Culture Propagation Company has organized forums to discuss
Taoism and backed efforts at rebuilding the religion¹s philosophical side.
He says he has spent $30 million on Taoist causes, a number that is hard to
verify but plausible given the scope of his projects, including an office in
Beijing and sponsorship of international conferences. His goal, he says, is
to bring the philosophical grounding of his rural childhood into modern-day

Last year, Zhu invited several dozen European and North American scholars of
Chinese religion on an all-expenses-paid trip to participate in a conference
in Beijing. The group stayed in the luxurious China World Hotel and were
bused to Henan province to visit Taoist sites. Demonstrating his political
and financial muscle, Zhu arranged for the conference¹s opening session to
be held in Beijing¹s Great Hall of the People, the Stalinesque conference
center on Tiananmen Square. It is usually reserved for state events, but
with the right connections and for the right price, it can be rented for
private galas. In a taped address to participants, Zhu boasted that ³I¹ll
spend any amount of money² on Taoism.

Zhu¹s chief adviser, Li Jinkang, says the goal is to keep Taoism vital in an
era when indigenous Chinese ideas are on the defensive. ³Churches are
everywhere. But traditional things are less so. So Chairman Zhu said: ŒWhat
about our Taoism? Our Taoism is a really deep thing. If we don¹t protect it,
then what?¹ ²

Balancing this desire with the imperatives of China¹s political system is
tricky. While the Communist Party has allowed religious groups to rebuild
temples and proselytize, its own members are supposed to be good Marxists
and shun religion. Like many big-business people, Zhu is also a party
member. Two years ago, he became one of the first private business owners to
set up a party branch in his company, earning him praise in the pages of the
Communist Party¹s official organ, People¹s Daily. He has also established a
party ³school² ‹ an indoctrination center for employees. His company¹s Web
site has a section extolling his party-building efforts and has a meeting
room with a picture of Mao Zedong looking down from the wall. Although it
might seem like an odd way to mix religion and politics, Taoism often
deifies famous people; at least three Taoist temples in one part of China
are dedicated to Chairman Mao.

Until recently, Zhu mostly ignored the contradiction, but he has become more
cautious, emphasizing how he loved Taoist philosophy and playing down the
religion. Still, Zhu continues to support conventional Taoism. His staff
takes courses in a Taoist form of meditation called neigong, and he has sent
staff members to document religious sites, like the supposed birthplace of
Laotzu, who is worshiped as a god in Taoism. He also has close relations
with folk-religious figures and plans to establish a ³Taoist base² in the
countryside to propagate Taoism. ³The ancients were amazing,² Zhu says.
³Taoism can save the world.²

WHEN ABBESS YIN started to rebuild her nunnery in 1991, she faced serious
challenges. Her temple was located on Mount Mao, among low mountains and
hills outside the eastern metropolis of Nanjing. It had been a center of
Taoism from the fourth century until 1938, when Japanese troops burned some
of the temple complex. As on Mount Yi, communist zealots completed the
destruction in the 1960s. Her temple was so badly damaged that the forest
reclaimed the land and only a few stones from the foundation could be found
in the underbrush.

Unlike Mount Yi, Mount Mao is an extensive complex: six large temples with,
altogether, about 100 priests and nuns. Just a 45-minute drive from Nanjing
and two hours from Shanghai, it is a popular destination for day-trippers
wanting to get out of the city. Even 20 years ago, when Abbess Yin arrived,
tourism-fueled reconstruction was in full swing on Mount Mao. Two temples
had escaped complete destruction, and priests began repairing them in the
1980s. The local government started charging admission, taking half the gate
receipts. But the Taoists still got their share and plowed money back into
reconstruction. More buildings meant higher ticket prices and more
construction, a cycle typical of many religious sites. Although pilgrims
began to avoid the temples because of the overt commercialism, tourists
started to arrive in droves, bused in by tour companies that also got a cut
of gate receipts. Last year, ticket sales topped $2.7 million.

Abbess Yin opted for another model. Trained in Taoist music, she set up a
Taoist music troupe that toured the Yangtze River delta in a rickety old
bus, stopping at communities that hired them to perform religious rituals.
When I first met her in 1998, she used the money to rebuild one prayer hall
on Mount Mao but refused to charge admission. Word of her seriousness began
to spread around the region and abroad. Soon, her band of nuns were
performing in Singapore, Hong Kong and Taiwan.

More nuns began to join. In the Quanzhen school of Taoism, which Abbess Yi
follows, Taoist clergy members live celibate lives in monasteries and
nunneries, often in the mountains. (In the other school, known as Zhengyi,
they may marry and tend to live at home, making house calls to perform
ceremonies.) For Abbess Yin¹s young nuns, her temple provided security and
calm in a world that is increasingly complicated. ³Here, I can participate
in something profound,² said one nun who asked to be identified only as
Taoist Huang. ³The outside world has nothing like this.² For Abbess Yin, the
young people are a chance to mold Taoists in the image of her master. ³The
only people who are worth having are older than 80 or younger than 20.²

Even now, Abbess Yin¹s temple is low-key. There are no tourist attractions
like cable cars, gift shops, teahouses or floodlit caves ‹ and, unlike at
most temples, still no admission fee. The atmosphere is also different.
While in some temples, priests seem to spend most of their time hawking
incense sticks or offering to tell people¹s fortunes, her nuns are quiet and
demure. Maybe this is why even in the 1990s, when her temple was reachable
only by a dirt road, locals said it was ling ‹ that it had spirit and was
effective. In 1998, I saw a group of Taiwanese visitors abandon their bus
and walk two miles to the temple so they could pray. ³This is authentic,²
one told me. ³The nuns are real nuns, and it¹s not just for show.²

With a growing reputation came donations. One reason that city people often
underestimate Taoism is that its temples are mostly in the mountains, and
its supporters rarely want to discuss their gifts. But one way to gauge its
support is to look at the lists of benefactors, which are carved on stone
tablets and set up in the back of the temple. In Abbess Yin¹s temple, some
tablets record 100,000 yuan ($15,000) donations, while others show 10,000
yuan gifts. But even those making just 100 yuan contributions get their
names in stone. With the donations came the current plan to build the $1.5
million Jade Emperor Hall halfway up the mountain, making the Mount Mao
complex visible for miles around. It is due to open on this weekend, with
Taoists from Southeast Asia and across China expected to participate.

Abbess Yin¹s success led the China Taoist Association to invite her to
Beijing for training. She learned accounting, modern management methods and
the government¹s religious policy. Earlier this year she was placed on one
of the association¹s senior leadership councils. She has also begun speaking
out on abuses on the religious scene, urging greater strictness inside
Taoist temples and less emphasis on commerce. Many Taoists, she wrote in an
essay reprinted in an influential volume, have become obsessed with making
money and aren¹t performing real religious services but just selling
incense. Too many traveled around China, using temples as youth hostels
instead of as places to study the Tao or to worship.

³Taoism is a great tradition, but our problem is we¹ve had very fast growth,
and the quality of priests is too low,² she told me. ³Some people don¹t even
know the basics of Taoism but treat it like a business. This isn¹t good in
the long-term.²

THE DAY AFTER Abbess Yin¹s standoff with the official, the big event on
Mount Yi was due to start. She arrived early, making sure her nuns were
ready at 7. The muddy path was now covered with stones that farmers had just
hosed down, making them glisten in the early-morning sun. Workers scraped
paint off the floor, inflated balloons and hung banners, while a television
crew set up its equipment to film the politicians.

Inside the Jade Emperor Pavilion, the nuns milled around, checking one
another¹s clothes and hair. All, including the abbess, were wearing their
white tunics and black knee breeches. They pulled on fresh blue robes and
pink capes, while the abbess donned a brilliant red gown with a blue and
white dragon embroidered on the back. She and her top two lieutenants
affixed small golden crowns to their topknots. She was now transformed into
a fashi, or ritual master. Something was about to happen.

Abbess Yin walked over to a drum about two feet in diameter and picked up
two wooden sticks lying on top. She began pounding in alternating rhythms.
The nuns knew their roles by heart and lined up in two rows, flanking the
statue of the Jade Emperor, golden and beautiful, the god¹s eyes beatific
slits and his mouth slightly parted as if speaking to the people below.
Still, for now the statue was just a block of wood. The ceremony would
change that. It is called kai guang or ³opening the eyes² ‹ literally,
opening brightness. Abbess Yin could open them, but it would take time.

Five minutes passed and sweat glistened on her forehead. Then, six of the
nuns quietly took their places and started to play their instruments. A
young woman plucked the zither, while another strummed the Chinese lute, or
pipa. Another picked up small chimes that she began tinkling, while a nun
next to her wielded a cymbal that she would use to punctuate the ceremony
with crashes and hisses. Abbess Yin stopped drumming and began to sing in a
high-pitched voice that sounded like something out of Peking Opera. Later
during the ceremony she read and sang, sometimes alone and at other times
with the nuns backing her. Always she was in motion: kneeling, standing,
moving backward, turning and twirling, the dragon on her back seeming to
come alive. It was physically grueling, requiring stamina and concentration.
During the occasional lull, a young nun would hand her a cup of tea that she
delicately shielded behind the sleeve of her robe and drank quickly.
Gradually, people began to pay attention. The wives of several officials
stood next to the altar and gawked, first in astonishment and then with
growing respect for the intensity of the performance. When a police officer
suggested they move back, they said: ³No, no, we won¹t be a bother. Please,
we have to see it.² Workers, their jobs finished, sat at the back. Within an
hour, about 50 onlookers had filled the prayer hall.

On cue, at 10:30, she stopped. A group of local leaders had assembled
outside the hall. They announced the importance of the project and how they
were promoting traditional culture. A ribbon was cut, applause sounded and
television cameras whirred. Then the group piled into minibuses and rolled
down to the valley for the hotel lunch.

The speeches were barely over when Abbess Yin picked up again. As the
ceremony reached its climax, more and more people began to appear, seemingly
out of nowhere, on the barren mountain face. Four policemen tried to keep
order, linking arms to barricade the door so the nuns would have space for
the ceremony. ³Back, back, give the nuns room,² one officer said as the
crowd pressed forward. People peered through windows or waited outside,
holding cameras up high to snap pictures. ³The Jade Emperor,² an old woman
said, laying down a basket of apples as an offering. ³Our temple is back.²
Abbess Yin moved in front of the statue, praying, singing and kowtowing.
This is the essence of the ritual ‹ to create a holy space and summon the
gods to the here and now, to this place at this moment.

Shortly after noon, when it seemed she had little strength left, Abbess Yin
stopped singing. She held a writing brush in one hand and wrote a talismanic
symbol in the air. Then she looked up: the sun was at the right point,
slanting down into the prayer room. This was the time. She held out a small
square mirror and deflected a sunbeam, which danced on the Jade Emperor¹s
forehead. The abbess adjusted the mirror slightly and the light hit the
god¹s eyes. Kai guang, opening brightness. The god¹s eyes were open to the
world below: the abbess, the worshipers and the vast expanse of the North
China Plain, with its millions of people racing toward modern China¹s
elusive goals ‹ prosperity, wealth, happiness.

Ian Johnson is the author of ³A Mosque in Munich² and ³Wild Grass: Three
Stories of Change in Modern China.² He is based in Beijing.
November 5, 2010
Copyright 2010 The New York Times