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Taoist Religiosity and Politics

The Taoists maintained their belief in harmony and their seeking solace in nature. And they maintained their belief in emotional austerity. A devout Taoist, for example, could still explain his not weeping for his wife who had just died by saying that if he wept for her he would be demonstrating his lack of understanding of destiny.

But Taoism was also open to a variety of new ideas, including the search for longevity or eternal life by adopting proper attitude and physical techniques. Some Taoists tried to extend the search for salvation in nature by focusing on the bliss of sexual intercourse, and some Taoist holy men searched for everlasting life through ritual exercises or dietary regimes.

Taoism absorbed practices of magic that had existed in some of China's rural communities. Some Taoists adopted gods that had been ridiculed by the upper classes. And contrary to Taoism's original belief in inaction, some Taoists had become movement oriented. They sought converts. Some became activists for social change and initiated political programs. Here and there organizations led by those who can be called priests were developing. Taoist priests gathered around them people who believed they had joined an exclusive group that was concerned with their well-being. This annoyed China's authorities – Confucianists and gentry-bureaucrats – who feared that unapproved religious cults might develop into a focal point of opposition to their authority.

Among the Taoist cults was one led by Zhang Daoling, in the province of Sichuan. Zhang Daoling wandered through the countryside promising those who would publicly confess their sins that he would deliver them from illness and misfortune. He claimed that illness was the product of sinful thoughts. Using charms and spells, he acquired a reputation as a healer, and the public confessions that he offered gave peasants the feeling that they were cleansing themselves of sin and joining a community.

In the year 142, Zhang Daoling founded a Taoist church, called "The Way of the Great Masters," moving his Taoism from a prescribed way of life to an organized religion. His church also became known as "The Way of the Five Pecks of Rice," five pecks of rice being the annual dues that church members had to pay. Zhang Daoling promised his followers a long life and immortality, and he earned the gratitude of local common folk by getting done what the emperor's authorities had failed to do: repair roads and bridges, store grain and distribute bread to the starving. Zhang Daoling had created a local government that rivaled the authority of the emperor. Without acknowledging it, Taoists were rejoining the world of power politics.

A Taoist named Zhang Jue, who called himself "The Good Doctor of Great Wisdom," had been moving about in the countryside as had Zhang Daoling. He offered magical healing, treated all ailments with water and words and called his method of healing the "Way of the Highest Peace." Zhang Jue also spoke of the Han rulers as having lost the Mandate of Heaven, and he proclaimed their imminent fall. Within ten years, his movement grew to hundreds of thousands. His movement was divided into districts, with each district led by a "deputy doctor."

Zhang Jue's movement brought religion to the uprising of 184 CE – the Yellow Turban rebellion. Militarily the Yellow Turbans were disorganized. Like others they believed that the gods were on their side. The mysticism that had been a part of the movement's creation had become a part of its destruction: they believed that their gods had elected them as a force for good and that they were invulnerable and didn't need weapons.

In the first year of the rebellion, Zhang Jue died, and within a year the rebellion was defeated. The sporadic fighting continued for another decade, while peasant supporters of the Yellow Turbans returned to the business of surviving through work and to hope of a coming paradise in the world beyond.

Meanwhile, along the Yangzi River near Sichuan, a surviving Taoist cult with its own army had established a theocratic state. Another Taoist, Zhang Xiu set up an independent state nearby. Despite their mutual devotion to Taoism, the communities of Zhang Lu and Zhang Xiu warred against each other – much as would Christians. After Zhang Lu died it became legend that he was seen by many witnesses ascending to heaven. The legend held that when his grave was opened his body was found wholly intact, meaning that he had died only in the sense that he had detached from his corpse and had entered paradise.

Copyright © 1998-2018 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.