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date: 22 June 2017

Daoism and Popular Religion in Imperial China

This is an advance summary of a forthcoming article in the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Asian History. Please check back later for the full article.

Throughout the course of pre-modern China’s history, the planning and performance of religious ritual has been a primary concern. Offerings of bloody victuals, drink, and later incense, to gods and ancestors seek to ensure the ongoing vitality and prosperity of the living and the peaceful security and well-being of the ancestral dead. Sacrifices were understood as food, sustenance for the occupants of the other world, who, in return, would imbue the sacrificed provender with blessings (fu福) that the sacrificer and family could share by consuming the food. This sacrificial ritual is at the heart of a diffuse, indigenous religion that encompasses people of all social classes, from the poorest peasant to the ruler and his representatives. Although such practices were never named, scholars sometimes isolate segments and discuss them as “folk religion,” “state religion,” “Confucianism,” or “Daoism.” C. K. Yang dubbed the complex “shenism” based on the Chinese word for god (shen神), but this term ignores the closely parallel practices directed toward the ancestors. Here, the term Chinese Popular Religion is used to refer to this complex of beliefs and practices.

Daoism (previously Taoism) is a vexed word that has been used to represent several distinct terms in Chinese. In this article, it refers to China’s indigenous organized religion, a faith founded upon a revelation in 142 ce to Zhang Ling and passed down through the ages by ritual ordination and the transmission of sacred texts, talismans, and ritual regalia. This religion appropriated the ancient philosophical text Laozi老子 and reread it as theology, taking a divinized form of the legendary figure Laozi as their supreme deity, the Most High Lord Lao. Although initially a communal religion with strong millenarian beliefs, Daoism evolved into a religion of religious specialists employed ad hoc by the populace for resolving problems of birth, health, death, prosperity, and security. Similarly, Daoism was initially an evangelical faith requiring of its members a complete break with popular practice, but Daoist priests evolved into caretakers for the popular pantheon, providing the lengthiest and most complex rituals within the array of ritual interventions that might address specific problems or events.