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date: 28 June 2017

Daoism and Popular Religion in Imperial China

Abstract and Keywords

Throughout the course of premodern China’s history, the planning and performance of religious ritual has been a primary concern. These 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 would, in return, imbue the sacrificed provender with blessings (fu福), which 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. It was never named, but 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 ignores the closely parallel practices directed toward the ancestors. Here we will use the term Chinese popular religion to refer to this complex of beliefs and practices.

Daoism (previously Taoism) is a vexed word that has been used to stand for several distinct terms in Chinese. Here it will refer to China’s indigenous organized religion, a faith founded upon a revelation in 142 ce to a man named 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.

Keywords: Daoism, sacrifice, popular, spirit medium, revelation


Throughout the course of premodern China’s history, the planning and performance of religious ritual has been a primary concern. These 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 would, in return, imbue the sacrificed provender with blessings (fu 福‎), which 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. It was never named, but 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‎),1 but this ignores the closely parallel practices directed toward the ancestors. Here we will use the term Chinese popular religion to refer to this complex of beliefs and practices.2

Daoism (previously Taoism) is a vexed word that has been used to stand for several distinct terms in Chinese, referring to everything from classical philosophy to Han political theories to popular techniques for self-cultivation. Here it will refer to China’s indigenous organized religion, a faith founded upon a revelation in 142 ce to a man named 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.

Chinese Popular Religion

The earliest trace of the sacrificial system in Early China is the oracle bone inscriptions and bronze vessels of the Shang dynasty (ca. 1500–1045 bce).3 The inscriptions record questions put to the spirits concerning the proper object and method of sacrifice. The subject of the divination is most commonly a royal ancestor or ancestress, with a limited number of divinations concerning offerings to nature spirits like the Hill or the River. Divinations often took place in series, testing which ancestor or deity was responsible for recent misfortune and what specific offerings and means of offering would appease the unhappy spirit. Offerings might consist of various animals, grain, war captives, or precious objects. The offerings were likely consumed by the sacrificer or others as in later classical and imperial China. There is one anomalous figure mentioned, Di, who seems to be a high god or perhaps super-ancestor. There is little to no evidence for the religion of non-elites during this period.

The following Zhou dynasty (1045–221 bce) encompassed the classical period of Chinese history. China evolved during this period from a feudal kingdom of many loosely linked nobles to a confederation of large, powerful regional states contending for dominance, eventually resulting in the Qin conquest and the establishment of the empire. The Zhou royal house sought to impose an orthodoxy on its vassals that limited their sacrificial practice in terms of both quantity and the object of worship, with the worship of certain high deities being accessible only to the Zhou king, major regional deities worshipped by feudal lords, and only a very limited range of household gods and near ancestors available to commoners, as we see in this passage from the Record of Rites:

The Son of Heaven sacrifices to Heaven and Earth; the feudal lords sacrifice to the gods of soil and grain; the Grand Ministers sacrifice to the five tutelary cults. The Son of Heaven sacrifices to the famous mountains and great rivers throughout the empire. … the feudal lords sacrifice to the famous mountains and great rivers within their domains.4

The emperor sits atop this sacrificial pyramid, making offerings to the cosmic forces of Heaven and Earth and the Five Sacred Peaks (wuyue 五嶽‎), with the aid of a cohort of officials.

In this prescriptive scheme, each family was responsible for the offerings to their ancestors, with strict regulations on the total number of preceding generations that could be venerated similar to those on sacrifices to the gods.5 Only the Zhou king could sacrifice to seven generations, feudal lords to five generations, high ministers to three, and petty nobles to one; the commoners were said in these sources to have no ancestral temple. During the offering to the deceased ancestor, a lineal descendent, usually the eldest grandson, assumed the role of shi 尸‎ (literally, “corpse”), eating and drinking on behalf of, perhaps while possessed by, his grandfather. Because the meats and other items offered to the ancestors at the temples were believed to have received the blessings of the ancestors, they were shared first with immediate family members and close allies, then more broadly with vassals in a network of redistributed sacred leftovers. Confucius famously remarked that whenever he was so lucky as to receive such a morsel from the ancestral sacrifices of the ducal family of his state, he would always consume it the same day.6 Actual practice must have differed considerably from this model, with all households making offerings to both ancestors and local deities.

Sources from the Eastern Zhou period (771–221 bce) record the two major religious professionals of the popular cult, the zhu 祝‎ or priest, who makes the sacrificial offerings and intones the prayers offered along with it, and the wu 巫‎ or spirit medium, who invites the spirits into his or her body and speaks for them, assuring that they have accepted the sacrifice.7 The “Nine Songs” collected in the Lyrics of Chu seem to be literary versions of invocations used by such spirit mediums to attract the spirits. In addition to the religious activities of nobles in courts throughout the realm, we hear of biannual festivals to the god of the soil in the second and eighth months involving a communal feast to commemorate planting and harvest.

The gods of nature mentioned in the oracle bone inscriptions were part of a class of gods referred to as “gods of the mountains and streams.” The ruler of each realm was supposed to retain the exclusive right to make offerings to them. In practice, they were likely always important objects of worship for local people; this is what the earliest regional gazetteers and other local records indicate. During the Han dynasty, we begin to read of temples to deities, as opposed to worship on altars open to the sky. We also read of shrines to heroes and other worthy individuals, some sanctioned by the state, and to official titles conferred upon local deities that permitted them a place in state sacrifices.8

Cults to local nature gods and heroes constitute the majority of practice in the Chinese popular religion. The gods take a wide variety of forms, some wholly or partially zoomorphic, some with detailed historical backstories, some nameless embodiments of natural forces. On the local level, most of these gods were pluripotent, answering all the needs of their local populace, but when a god came to be worshipped across one or more regions, it was usually because of a specialization, a particular strength in aiding those afflicted with a specific problem, be it health, or business success, or educational advancement, or security from danger. Some gods were adopted as patron deities of professions—of farmers, or printers, or coopers, or merchants. Some came to represent their larger native region and were brought along for protection on journeys by merchants and mendicants. Inevitably, some individuals seized upon the transactional nature of deity worship to pursue their own advantage, offering sumptuous treats to low-level deities of uncertain moral character to win their aid in improper or nefarious activities.9

The rise of major organized religions in the first centuries of our era posed a challenge to the development of deity cults. Both Buddhism and Daoism demanded that their followers eschew blood sacrifice to these gods.10 Although these faiths made inroads, popular worship of deities was never wholly eclipsed. It surged during the economic boom times of the Song dynasty (960–1279), when nationwide cults to a handful of major gods reshaped the Chinese religious world. The cult to Wenchang based in Sichuan sought success in education and the increasingly important civil service examinations. The one to Zhenwu, the Perfect Warrior later better known as Supreme Thearch of the Dark Heavens, looked to him to drive out demons and quell evil. The cult to the Bodhisattva Guanyin as a savior of women and deliverer from the Hells was centered on Hangzhou, and later on her island center of Mount Puto, off the coast of Zhejiang province. The Song instituted a government apparatus for systematically evaluating regional and local gods for official imperial recognition, typically through a new name for the temple, engraved on a plaque for display, and a new official title for the god.11 Local officials would then include the temple among their official observances, and this often resulted in funds being appropriated for its renovation. Subsequent dynasties maintained this practice of ennobling local deities as a way to win the allegiance of local society and promote obedience to governmental and imperial authority.

Based on anthropological studies and surviving texts, there are normally at least five different sorts of religious professional who aid the common people in their worship. The lowest, in terms of social regard and monetary compensation, is the “spirit lady” (wupo 巫婆‎, xianniang 仙娘‎), a typically illiterate woman who is possessed by the souls of the dead and answers questions concerning the fate of the dead and fertility. The next highest is the spirit medium (wutong 巫童‎, jitong 乩童‎, etc.), who becomes possessed, typically by a low-level martial spirit, and answers questions from clients as well as drawing simple talismans.12 The ritual master (fashi 法師‎) performs exorcistic rites in the vernacular to a variety of local popular deities, sometimes making use of spirit mediums in their rites. The Daoist priest (daoshi, see below) uses written documents in literary Chinese to summon the high gods of Daoism to reconfirm the local deities in their position and often can also perform the lesser rites of a ritual master. The temple keeper (miaogong 廟公‎, anciently called the zhu 祝‎ or invoker) looks after the temple, schedules major rituals there, aids clients seeking divination, and can perform some simple rituals. In addition, a small cohort of specialists like geomancers (fengshuishi 風水師‎), traditional healers, diviners, ritual specialists (lisheng 禮生‎), and others provide religious or quasi-religious services that involve rituals.

Annual communal rites to a local god typically occur on the god’s designated “birthday” (see Table 1). The central event is a procession of the god’s statue, typically carried on a palanquin, through the streets of the area thought to be under the deity’s protection. The procession may include possessed spirit mediums from the home temple or neighboring temples, who dance and self-mutilate to demonstrate they are indeed in trance, as well as a variety of lay groups who sing, play instruments, dance, or otherwise perform for the deity.13 The festival culminates in a major sacrifice and a communal banquet. Often the community will invite a troupe of Daoists to perform an Offering (jiao) ritual at the time of the festival.

Table 1. Birthdays of Major Popular Deities in China




The Jade Emperor, ruler of Heaven 玉皇大帝‎


The local Earth God 土地公‎


Wenchang, God of Literature and Learning 文昌‎


Guanyin, Goddess of Compassion 觀音‎


Dark Emperor of the Northern Heavens, and exorcistic god 玄天上帝‎


Mazu, Goddess of Sailors 媽祖‎


The Buddha 釋迦牟尼佛‎


Guan Yu, God of Warriors and Businessmen 關帝‎

Dates given here are according to the lunar calendar. The Chinese lunar year moves annually in relation to our calendar, with the First Month beginning sometime between late January and late February. Note that gods’ birthdays are concentrated in the first half of the year, which Chinese considered yang or masculine/active.

Other festivals of the popular religion are based on the calendar. One series consists of reduplicated, odd-numbered (yang) dates up to 9, hence 1/1, 3/3, 5/5, 7/7, and 9/9. Briefly, 1/1 is the start of the New Year; 3/3 is a spring bathing and purification rite that became especially associated with women and fertility; 5/5 is an ancient festival to ward off pestilence, which became associated with the death of the heroic poet Qu Yuan (340–278 bce); 7/7 is a holiday celebrating courtship and marriage, 9/9 a day to ascend the heights in order to revere the aged and think of one’s forebears. A distinctive food is associated with each holiday, a particular historical origin tale, and distinct rites. Many also include ancestral sacrifice. Another festival based on the lunar calendar is the Mid-Autumn festival, celebrated on the day of the full moon in the eighth month, believed to be the largest moon of the year. It is associated with family reunions and longing for loved ones far away. Finally, the solar calendar is also represented in a set of twenty-four seasonal nodes (jieqi 節氣‎) that denote major seasonal changes in a more reliable way than the ever-shifting lunar calendar. Most important is the Winter Solstice, which marks the beginning of the cycle and the lowest point of the yang force in the universe, and hence the start of its revival. Also important is the Clear and Bright festival, which occurs 105 days after the Spring Equinox. This is the most important date when people visit and tend to the graves of their ancestors.

In addition to these festivals and rituals that have come to be observed over most or all of China, there are also a wide variety of local and regional festivals and ritual cycles across the breadth and chronological depth of China, each with its own liturgies, dances, performances, foods, and mythology. Religious life in a traditional Chinese community involved participation in a complex calendar of religious activities that included both regular, scheduled observances like those mentioned above as well as potentially disruptive new activities prompted by the ongoing presence in the community of a variety of prophets, diviners, healers, and other divinely inspired individuals. Moreover, just as lay groups might form to practice festival performances, other groups might form to practice sutra chanting learned from the local monk or to join in spirit writing sessions that reveal the moral exhortations of high Daoist deities.


Daoism emerged as an organized religion in the second half of the 2nd century, as the Han dynasty was drawing to a close. The new movement drew upon a number of disparate traditions. Central was the belief in a supernatural realm that constantly supervised human actions and recorded good and evil actions in order to reward and punish. The philosopher Mozi (470–391 bce) first argued that ghosts are the enforcers of Heaven, and this belief was considerably developed in the Scripture of Great Peace. It was linked to a further idea that the world was so corrupt that a vast apocalyptic disaster was necessary to rid the world over evildoers and usher in a new world of Great Peace. Finally, the image of Laozi had developed by this time in a deity who returned repeatedly to this world to guide humankind.

The Way of the Celestial Masters

This all culminated in the year 142, when the divinized Laozi descended from the heavens, at the head of a vast retinue of gods and divine beasts, to Cranecall Mountain (northwest of modern Chengdu, Sichuan) to meet with a man named Zhang Ling.14 This Newly-Emerged Most High Lord Lao, as this god came to be styled, bestowed upon Zhang Ling a new covenant, the Pure and Unitary Covenant with the Powers (zhengyi mengwei 正一盟威‎), establishing a new relationship between mortals and the divine. The traditional gods of China, from the lowest local protector to the high gods of the Chinese state, were revealed to be little more than bloodthirsty demons, willing to grant favor or inflict punishment in return for gifts of food and drink. The newly revealed gods of Daoism, by contrast, occupied three Pure Heavens that transcended the more mundane Six Heavens of the old gods. These new figures were not really spirits—they had never been mortal—but rather transformations of the pneumas of the Dao. As such, they were impervious to the blandishments of succulent roasted meats, responding only to virtuous conduct and the proper performance of Daoist ritual.

The religion established by Zhang Ling, the first in a line of sixty-five Celestial Masters (tianshi 天師‎) until today, was innovative organizationally. It divided its believers across the Chengdu plain into twenty-four administrative districts called parishes (zhi 治‎) and set religious officers called Libationers (jijiu 祭酒‎) to tending to their needs.15 Morality within the nascent faith was delineated in a series of codes of precepts (jie 戒‎); as one advanced within the Daoist church, one accepted progressively longer and more demanding sets of precepts. Each member of the church belonged to a certain Libationer, whom he or she saw as master. It was this master’s duty to observe the conduct of his or her parishioners, measuring them against the precepts each had undertaken and determining guilt. For a simple infraction, the member could submit a personally written confession, admitting to the transgression and pledging not to offend again. A more complex sin, or one that had resulted in significant effects on other members of the family, required the intervention of the libationer, who would write up and send off a formal petition to the Heavenly Bureaus to resolve the matter and dispel whatever misfortune was plaguing the family. All types of illness and misfortune were attributed to sin and treated through ritual.

Celestial Master Daoist communities were composed of three types of individuals. Lay members of the church, called Daoist citizens (Daomin 道民‎), passed an initiation ceremony and accepted a simple set of three precepts. They were expected to construct a ritual space for their family, called a Quiet Room (jingshi 靜室‎), where the head of household could salute the Daoist deities morning and night in an audience ritual that permitted the parishioner to make an oral plea to the Daoist heavens. Citizens seven years or older could request to be accepted as a novice in training for the priesthood as a Register Student (lusheng 籙生‎). Register Students learned how to write the complex petitions to the gods while advancing through a series of steps denoted by registers (certificates of authority) giving command over progressively larger cohorts of spirit soldiers: the One General Register, Ten Generals Register, Seventy-Five Generals Register, and finally the Hundred Fifty Generals Register that permitted one to assume the title of Libationer. Libationers first passed through a stage as an itinerant evangelist, converting the profane and gathering the names of new believers on a Fate Roster; having reached a sufficient number of adherents, the libationer was assigned to a parish. They ministered to a number of families who constituted their parish, functioning as their confessor, healer, judge, and teacher to the citizens under his or her care, while training a cohort of novices to aid in rituals.16

The parish system underwent a series of changes over time. While still centered in Sichuan, it was based upon geographical region; residence determined membership. Individuals who had attained the status of libationer and won a parish position were assigned to one of twenty-four parish offices. Meritorious activity as a libationer won promotion to a higher office within one’s parish. This congruence of parish with place of residence was disrupted when all Daoists gathered in a millennial kingdom centered in the Hanzhong region of northern Sichuan and southern Shaanxi provinces and was destroyed when the people of the Hanzhong kingdom were forcibly resettled to the far corners of the Wei kingdom by the warlord Cao in 215.

The new parish system that developed among diasporic communities of Daoists after 215 identified the parish offices with the parishes, assigning one office to each parish. Subsequently, when a libationer merited promotion because of successful evangelization or other good works, he or she would be given the title of a higher-ranking parish and a higher-ranking parish office. No one actually moved from parish to parish because they were tied to the body of believers listed on their Fate Roster. Instead, their parish assumed new and more exalted titles as it grew in size. Some libationers led parishes that numbered in the tens of thousands, but most parishes must have been relatively small, held together by personal ties between the libationer master and his or her flock. Throughout this period, both men and women were ordained. Women were required to study with female masters and men with male masters, and one had to marry an individual of equal rank within the church, so male and female libationers at each rank must have been roughly equal in number.

Among the key rituals of the Celestial Master Daoists, none was so controversial as the Rite of Merging the Pneumas (heqi 合炁‎). In this communal sex ritual, initiates (or perhaps an initiate and a master of the opposite sex) were guided through an extensive course of cosmologized sex, accompanied by visualizations intended to distribute and exchange with the partner the three basic pneumas or breaths (qi 氣‎) that constituted the universe. Participation in the ritual was thought essential to surviving the disasters and living on into the world of Great Peace. Because this esoteric ritual was later abandoned as controversial, it is difficult to reconstruct the rite in any detail.17

The kitchen banquet (chu 廚‎) was a way of giving thanks for divine protection or asking for divine aid by hosting neighbors and local churchmen in a communal vegetarian feast. It was believed that during this highly regulated meal the high lords of the Dao would descend and partake of the pure offering together with the parishioners. This communal feast, preceded by a purifying fast and followed by a ritual to thank all the Daoist spirits who made the ritual possible, provided a framework for later Daoist ritual.18

During the Three Kingdoms period (220–265), China was split into three states and travel was difficult. Daoists during this period spread across the breadth of North China but made few inroads into the South. This changed in 317, when North China was lost to foreign invasion and huge numbers fled to the region south of the Yangzi. Celestial Master Daoism was confronted there by an active religious world focused on occult techniques to transform the individual and manipulate the physical world. Daoism won converts among the Southerners and maintained its popularity among émigrés from the North. The communal Daoism of the Celestial Masters remained the mainstream throughout the Early Medieval period. Nonetheless, by the second half of the 4th century, new scriptural movements were appearing that sought to incorporate the occult lore of the South as well as some of the ideas and ritual practices of Buddhism.

Daoist Innovations in the South

Ever since the troubles at the end of the Han dynasty, refugees had been streaming into the region south of the Yangzi. The region developed into a reservoir of Han thought, preserving divinatory, alchemical, probiotic, and meditative traditions that had largely been forgotten in the tumult of warfare and dislocation in the North. Southerners sought to incorporate elements of these traditions into Daoism.

The first attempt at such a synthesis took the form of spirit revelation to a medium and Daoist priest named Yang Xi 楊羲‎ in the period 364–370.19 Yang claimed to have been visited by exalted figures from a heretofore unknown Daoist heaven, that of Supreme Purity or Shangqing 上清‎. The typical denizens of the Celestial Master heavens were transcendents (xian 仙‎), mortals who had attained immortality through moral conduct and self cultivation; this new realm was instead populated by the Perfected (zhen 真‎), a higher order of being who had never been mortal. Similarly, though most if not all of the individuals associated with this new movement had been initiated into the Way of the Celestial Masters, the revelations claimed to reveal more effective techniques that could lead the adept to far more exalted levels of spiritual attainment in newly revealed sacred spaces. These included various types of meditation upon the gods within the body, astral travel to stellar paradises, medical formulae and alchemical elixirs, and other spiritual and physical practices.

The revealed manuscripts of the Supreme Purity revelations were tightly held and little known outside a small group of adepts for over a century. At the beginning of the 6th century, Tao Hongjing 陶弘景‎ (445–536), the effective founder of the Shangqing school, produced a chronicle of the revelation. His Declarations of the Perfected (Zhengao 真誥‎) remains the key to identifying and understanding the texts produced through the revelation. These texts were extremely popular with elite Daoists. Representatives of this movement had prominent positions during the Tang dynasty (618–907), with some Tang princesses even being ordained as Daoists. In the Song, these texts inspired the Youthful Incipience (Tongchu 童初‎) rites, and individual adepts continue to use them down to today. Nonetheless, the Shangqing movement had little influence on the content or performance of Daoist ritual.

By contrast, the Numinous Jewel (Lingbao 靈寶‎) scriptures that began appearing toward the end of the 4th century had a profound influence on Daoist ritual practice. One origin of these scriptures was texts centering on southern mythology of Yu the Great, the legendary flood-queller, and the use of cosmic talismans to control and anchor the forces within the earth. Another was the incorporation of many important Buddhist concepts into Daoism for the first time. Among these was a cosmology of Indian origin involving immortal souls transmigrating and spending post-mortem time in the underworld. The focus of Daoist ritual shifted from the resolution of individual problems brought by parishioners to large-scale rites intended to effect the salvation of all sentient beings trapped in the hells or other baleful places.

It was Numinous Jewel practitioners who developed the massive, multi-day rituals called Retreats (zhai 齋‎) or Offerings (jiao 醮‎) that characterize Late Imperial and Modern Daoism. Originally Retreats focused on purification and repentance as a way of expiating sin, whereas the Offering was a way of thanking and repaying the deities involved in the primary ritual. These ritual practices fused in the Song dynasty, with the term Retreat now referring to such rituals performed for the dead, whereas the Offerings are similar rituals for the living. Both incorporate at the end a Rite of Universal Salvation (pudu 普度‎), originally borrowed from Buddhism, that grants relief to the countless souls trapped in unfortunate circumstances.

As mentioned above, the Song (960–1279) saw the rise of numerous regional cults to popular deities, encouraged by a broadened system of government ennoblements and other recognition.20 To take advantage of this popular enthusiasm, Daoists developed liturgies that could be incorporated into the large Offering ritual that confirmed the local god in his or her position and renewed the relationship between the god and inhabitants, whereby the local god protected the populace and saw to their needs in return for regular worship and sacrifice. Because of the Daoist prohibition on sacrifice, Daoist priests initially called upon local religious specialists to perform the actual sacrifice to these deities but later found ways to symbolically differentiate their roles within the ritual.

During the Song a new type of religious practitioner appears, the ritual master (fashi 法師‎). These figures were not formally ordained Daoist priests and did not address the high gods of the Daoist heavens. Rather, they used new Thunder Magic (leifa 雷法‎) and similar ritual methods to exorcise evil beings and their influence. Because of their exorcistic nature, their rituals were consistently more martial in character and relied less on formal documents to heavenly bureaucrats. Moreover, rather than just summoning and directing supernatural soldiers, these ritual masters actually transformed into the Marshals or other fearsome figures they conjured.

The Southern Song (1127–1279) was a period of religious ferment that gave rise to many new Daoist movements. One new religion made the Daoist tradition central but also incorporated Buddhist and Confucians concepts and practices. The Complete Perfection (quanzhen 全真‎) movement was founded toward the end of the twelfth century by a man named Wang Zhe 王嚞‎ (1113–1170) and his seven disciples. Their ascetic practices and inner alchemy proved popular, leading to an expansion across North China during the Yuan (1271–1368), when the group enjoyed official recognition. Their influence dwindled under the Ming (1368–1644), which formally recognized the supremacy of the Celestial Masters in Jiangxi, but grew again with the revival of the Longmen lineage by Wang Changyue 王常月‎ (?–1680), leading to formal recognition of Complete Perfection authority over North China Daoists under the Qing. Today the Complete Perfection school is dominant in North China and controls many major sites in the south as well. They are closely tied to the governmental Daoist Association (Daojiao xiehui 道教協會‎) and are responsible for all official ordinations. Countless non-monastic Daoist priests remain among the people, often with no recognition from the Daoist Association, practicing Celestial Master Daoism or one of a number of exorcistic orders like Meishan or Lüshan. Our understanding of these non-monastic Daoists—their number, distribution, ritual activities, and means of transmission—remains limited.

Modern Offering Festivals and Popular Religion

The modern Offering rite has been most thoroughly studied in the Taiwan context, where the succession of religious lineages was not disturbed by events like the Cultural Revolution (1966–1976). There we find a number of different professional and amateur groups involved in the rite. Presiding over all is the Daoist priest and his troupe of assistants and musicians, who bring with them paintings and other ritual implements needed to establish a Daoist altar, usually inside an existing popular temple, but sometimes in the open or under a tent. The beginning and end of their massive ritual complex coincide with the limits of the popular ritual as well, but it is because of the pure Daoist rites that local restaurants will switch to a vegetarian menu and local butchers cease their work.

The Daoists are invited by the temple committee, a group of local elders and notables, who will select from among their members an “incense master” (luzhu 爐主‎) responsible for organizing the festivities and, most important, assembling the funds to pay for it by soliciting donations from friends and fellow townsmen. Chinese temples, as distinct from Buddhist monasteries or Daoist abbeys, belong to the local community and represent the common popular religion rather than any of these organized religions. The temple committee, funds permitting, may choose more than one Daoist troupe to perform; it often will also invite a local ritual master and the spirit mediums associated with the deity. During the festival, the temple will be visited by groups from other important local temples. They come, led by entranced spirit mediums and bearing a statue of their deity, who then pays respect to the host god. Here we see realized the unity of Chinese religions, as religious professionals at all levels participate in the festival, along with representatives of all the other major cults within the town. All join together, led by the Daoist priest, in reproducing and revalidating the cosmic order.

Discussion of the Literature

Studies of Chinese religion have been strongly influenced by the indigenous categorization of Chinese thought into Three Teachings (sanjiao 三教‎), referring to Confucianism, Daoism, and Buddhism. For this reason, popular religion was regularly dismissed as a bundle of superstitions chaotically mixing elements of the three great faiths.21 Nevertheless, Christian missionaries and travelers did remark on the living religion around them, some quite astutely. The Dutch scholar J. J. M. de Groot, in particular, over two extended stays in Xiamen, Fujian, described the annual cycle of religious festivals in Xiamen (Amoy) in his Les Fêtes anuellment célébrées à Émoui (Amoy) and addressed both the classical and living religion in his Religious System of China (6 vol., Leiden, 1882–1910).22 There was some ethnographic work in China during the first half of the 20th century, but anthropologists working primarily in Taiwan and Hong Kong during the 1960s and 1970s pioneered the formal study of the Chinese popular religion. Many of the insights from this early research were gathered in the essay collection Gods, Ghosts, and Ancestors (1974).23 More recently, large-scale research projects on modern and contemporary Chinese local society have shed much light on the profusion and diversity of Chinese popular religion.24

Daoism gathered more scholarly attention, especially from early French Sinologists Edouard Chavannes (1865–1918) and Henri Maspero (1883–1945). Japan also saw a few early works on Daoism, but scholarship there exploded after the war with the studies of Yoshioka Yoshitoyo 吉岡義豊‎, Miyakawa Hisayuki 宮川尚志‎, and Ōfuchi Ninji 大淵忍爾‎ trying to make historical sense of the Daoist literary heritage, the Daoist canon. During the 1960s and 1970s, Rolf A. Stein and Maxime Kaltenmark offered seminars on Daoist topics in Paris, producing scholars such as Kristofer Schipper, Anna Seidel, Isabelle Robinet, and Michel Strickmann. It was also in the 1960s that specialists first made concerted efforts to understand living Daoism, with Kristofer Schipper and Michael Saso spending years working with Daoist masters in Taiwan. Schipper went on to train many eminent scholars of Daoism at the École Pratique des Hautes Études (Sorbonne), including John Lagerwey, Christine Mollier, Franciscus Verellen, and Vincent Goossaert. Michel Strickmann and Edward Schafer also trained a cohort of students at the University of California at Berkeley, including Judith M. Boltz, Stephen Bokenkamp, Terry Kleeman, and Kenneth Dean.

Perhaps the largest controversy in Western studies of Daoism concerns the definition of the term, a dispute arising from the fact that Western languages, unlike Chinese, have only one word—Daoism (Taoism, Taoïsme, etc.)—to represent both the philosophical school of the Warring States period and the organized religion of Imperial China. Early religious Daoism revered a deified Laozi, the Divine Lord Lao, as a supreme deity in some ways synonymous with the Dao and did use the text of the Laozi as interpreted through the Xiang’er Commentary as a sacred text, but it had no use for the Zhuangzi, or Han texts of Huang-Lao political thought like the Huainanzi. Moreover, the true origin of Daoist beliefs is found, if anywhere among Warring States texts, in the stoic theism of the Mozi.

A second dispute concerns early movements that sought or talked about the Dao and had their own set of cultivation practices but were not recognized by the Celestial Master Daoists, who at the time organizationally constituted the faith. Many of these teachings were eventually incorporated into Daoism, and even some figures who consciously rejected the Daoists while alive, like the early 4th-century master Ge Hong 葛洪‎ (283–343), later came to be apotheosized as Daoist saints and founders of Daoist orders. There is still much confusion among Western scholars of Daoism despite a 1978 article by Nathan Sivin clarifying the issue.25

More recently, increased fieldwork in the People’s Republic has led scholars to raise the question of the nature and status of exorcistic ritual lineages (fapai 法派‎) within Daoism. A continuation of the ritual master tradition that originated in the Song dynasty, these local masters address a large but limited pantheon of local gods and martial deities through liturgies primarily in the vernacular. They normally do not have the ritual training to perform the grand rites of Offering that are the highest expression of Daoist ritual, but do share a number of minor rites (xiaofa 小法‎, like retrieving souls, blessing new dwellings, etc.) with the Daoists. In the field, researchers are increasingly encountering individuals with multiple ritual identities who blur these boundaries.

Primary Sources

The overwhelming majority of primary Daoist sources are found in the printed Daoist canon, usually termed the Daoist Canon of the Zhengtong Reign Period (Zhengtong Daozang 正統道藏‎), comprising some 1,431 distinct texts. It was compiled in 1445, under imperial sponsorship, and a Supplement of 56 texts was added to the collection in 1607. Only a few copies of this collection were printed at the time, and the original printing blocks were destroyed in the Boxer Rebellion. The set was reprinted for the first time by Commercial Press in 1926, 500 sets of 1,120 thread-bound volumes, and was purchased by major libraries around the world, making the study of Daoism possible for the first time. The collection was reprinted in Taiwan, first in a 1962 thread-bound edition, then in a reduced 60-volume edition in 1977.26 In 2003, a new typeset edition of the canon was published, the Zhonghua Daozang, in 49 volumes. It is newly typeset, incorporates some Dunhuang manuscripts, and rearranges the texts according to their affiliation with various historical scriptural movements. The canon is internally divided into Three Caverns and Four Supplements. The Three Caverns originally contained works from three scriptural movements, but the current canon does not follow this principle. The three caverns are further subdivided into twelve categories of document, from scriptures to precepts to biographies and memorials.27

Use of the Daoist canon was considerably facilitated by the compilation of indices. The first, by Weng Dujian, appearing in 1935 in the Harvard-Yenching Index Series, listed 1,476 titles. In 1975, Kristofer Schipper compiled a new index, which found 1,487 works. This index was subsequently reprinted in the 1988 61-volume edition of the canon by Xinwenfeng and forms the basis of tables in Schipper and Verellen’s Handbook. More recently, digital databases of the canon have become available, making a comprehensive search of the canon for specific terms possible. The Institute of History and Philology of Academia provides one such database. It is based upon the Xinwenfeng reprint and cites material by the volume and overall page number of that work. It addresses unusual or variant characters by including a graphic image, which is not, however, searchable. The second was originally a private database created by a Japanese company Kaixi Media Service, which has now been incorporated into the database at the Kanseki Repository. This source maintains the original pagination of the canon and hence is readily citable. Moreover, by incorporating images of the original, this database provides a ready check for any characters that a researcher wonders might have been mistranscribed in the OCR process. Finally, the publication of the Handbook of the Taoist Canon by Schipper and Verellen in 2004 has provided a new level of information concerning each work in the canon. The introductions were compiled over a twenty-odd-year process, so they are somewhat uneven but still to be preferred over the rather superficial accounts in successive iterations of the Daozang tiyao.28

The Collected Essentials of the Daoist Canon (Daozang jiyao 道藏輯要‎), first compiled by Jiang Yuanting 蔣元庭‎ (1755–1819), included 279 works, most more recent than the Ming Zhengtong reign period but including some Song editions. This was expanded to 319 works in a 1906 reprinting.29 These texts are also available in digital format through the Kanseki Repository. In 1994, the Extracanonical Daoist Texts (Zangwai Daoshu 藏外道書‎) collection collected 991 works not found in the Zhengtong Daozang. Many were directly copied from the Daozang jiyao, but many new texts were included.

In addition to these printed versions of the Daoist canon, Daoist scriptures have always circulated as manuscripts. The most important historical source is those texts discovered at Dunhuang around the beginning of the 20th century. Most are held in either the British Library or the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris, but there are also important collections in Beijing and in Japan. Manuscripts related to Daoism were first collected, studied, and published by Ōfuchi Ninji in 1979, followed by a five-volume collection published in Beijing in 1999.30 Almost all of these manuscripts are now available in photographic reproduction at the International Dunhuang Project. Scholars are at work collecting some of the manuscripts in current circulation among living Daoist priests, and we can look forward to publication of more of this material in the future.

Popular religious cults did not produce their own sacred texts unless they aspired to a place in the Daoist or state pantheons. Local religion is therefore recorded primarily by outsiders, in geographic and historical works, in medieval tales of anomalies, in notebooks and similar informal genres, as well as in plays, short stories, and novels. A primary source is stelae recording the construction or renovation of temples, as well as local gazeteers that often preserve a wide variety of material related to local religion. Much material related to popular deities has been collected by Li Fengmao and Qiu Xigui.31

Further Reading

Bokenkamp, Stephen R.Early Daoist Scriptures. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997.Find this resource:

Bodenkamp, Stephen R.Ancestors and Anxiety: Daoism and the Birth of Rebirth in China. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007.Find this resource:

Boltz, Judy. A Survey of Taoist Literature: Tenth to Seventeenth Centuries. Berkeley: Institute of East Asian Studies, University of California, 1987.Find this resource:

Campany, Robert Ford. To Live as Long as Heaven and Earth: A Translation and Study of Ge Hong’s Traditions of Divine Transcendents. Daoist Classics 2. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002.Find this resource:

Campany, Robert Ford. “On the Very Idea of Religions (in the Modern West and in Early Medieval China).” History of Religions 42.4 (May 2003): 287–319.Find this resource:

Campany, Robert Ford. Making Transcendents: Ascetics and Social Memory in Early Medieval China. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2009.Find this resource:

Chau, Adam Yuet. Miraculous Response: Doing Popular Religion in Contemporary China. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2006.Find this resource:

Davis, Edward. Society and the Supernatural in Song China. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2001.Find this resource:

Elliot, Alan J. A.Chinese Spirit-Medium Cults in Singapore. London: Department of Anthropology, London School of Economics and Political Science, 1955.Find this resource:

Goossaert, Vincent. “The Invention of an Order: Collective Identity in Thirteenth-Century Quanzhen.” Journal of Chinese Religions 29 (2001): 111–138.Find this resource:

Goossaert, Vincent. The Taoists of Peking, 1800–1949: A Social History of Urban Clerics. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Asia Center, 2007.Find this resource:

Jordan, David K.Gods, Ghosts & Ancestors: Folk Religion in a Taiwanese Village. 3d ed. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999. Available online at this resource:

Kang, Xiaofei. The Cult of the Fox: Power, Gender, and Popular Religion in Late Imperial and Modern China. New York: Columbia University Press, 2006.Find this resource:

Kleeman, Terry. A God’s Own Tale: The Book of Transformations of Wenchang. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1994.Find this resource:

Kleeman, Terry. “Licentious Cults and Bloody Victuals: Sacrifice, Reciprocity and Violence in Traditional China.” Asia Major 7.1 (1994): 185–211.Find this resource:

Kleeman, Terry. Celestial Masters: History and Ritual in Early Daoist Communities. Cambridge, MA: Harvard East Asia Center, 2016.Find this resource:

Kohn, Livia, ed. Daoism Handbook. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2000.Find this resource:

Lagerwey, John. Taoist Ritual in Chinese Society and History. New York: Macmillan, 1987.Find this resource:

Naquin, Susan. Peking: Temples and City Life, 1400–1900. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000.Find this resource:

Pregadio, Fabrizio. Encyclopedia of Taoism. 2 vols. London: RoutledgeCurzon, 2008.Find this resource:

Schafer, Edward H.Pacing the Void: T’ang Approaches to the Stars. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1977.Find this resource:

Schipper, Kristofer M. “Vernacular and Classical Ritual in Taoism.” Journal of Asian Studies 45 (1985): 21–57.Find this resource:

Schipper, Kristofer, and Franciscus Verellen, eds. The Taoist Canon: A Historical Guide. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004.Find this resource:

Shahar, Meir, and Robert P. Weller, eds. Unruly Gods: Divinity and Society in China. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 1996.Find this resource:

Sivin, Nathan. Chinese Alchemy: Preliminary Studies. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1968.Find this resource:

Sivin, Nathan. “On the Word ‘Taoist’ as a Source of Perplexity (with Special Reference to the Relation of Science and Religion in Traditional China).” History of Religions 17 (1978): 303–330.Find this resource:

Strickmann, Michel. “The Mao Shan Revelations: Taoist and the Aristocracy.” T’oung-pao 63 (1977): 1–64.Find this resource:

Strickmann, Michel. Chinese Magical Medicine. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2002.Find this resource:

Verellen, Franciscus. “Chinese Religions—The State of the Field: Taoism.” Journal of Asian Studies 54 (1995): 322–346.Find this resource:

Verellen, Franciscus. “The Twenty-Four Dioceses and Zhang Daoling: The Spatio-Liturgical Organization of Early Heavenly Master Taoism.” In Pilgrims, Patrons, and Place: Localizing Sanctity in Asian Religions. Edited by Phyllis Granoff and Koichi Shinohara, 15–67. Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 2003.Find this resource:

Verellen Franciscus. “The Heavenly Master Liturgical Agenda according to Chisong Zi’s Petition Almanac.” Cahiers d’Extreme-Asie 14 (2004): 291–343.Find this resource:


(1.) C. K. Yang, Religion in Chinese Society: A Study of Contemporary Social Functions of Religion and Some of Their Historical Factors (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1961).

(2.) On the history of Western understandings of Chinese religion, see Timothy H. Barrett, “Chinese Religion in English Guise: The History of an Illusion,” Modern Asian Studies 39.3 (2005): 509–533.

(3.) See David N. Keightley, The Ancestral Landscape: Time, Space, and Community in Late Shang China (ca. 1200–1045 B.C.), China Research Monograph 53 (Berkeley, CA: Institute of East Asian Studies, 2000).

(4.) Liji zhengyi, Shisanjing zhushu edn., 12/16a–b.

(5.) For an overview of classical religion, see J. J. M. de Groot, The Religious System of China, 6 vols. (Leiden, The Netherlands: E. J. Brill), 1892–1910. On the system of orthodoxy based on limitations on sacrifice, see Terry F. Kleeman, “Licentious Cults and Bloody Victuals: Sacrifice, Reciprocity and Violence in Traditional China,” Asia Major 7.1 (1994): 185–211.

(6.) Analects 10.8.

(7.) Lothar von Falkenhausen, “Reflections on the Political Role of Spirit Mediums in Early China: The wu Officials in the Zhou li,” Early China 20 (1995): 279–300.

(8.) Marianne Bujard, “Célébration et promotion des cultes locaux: Six stèles des Han occidentaux,” Bulletin de l’Ecole Française d’Extrême-Orient 87.1 (2000): 247–266.

(9.) See Richard von Glahn, The Sinister Way: The Divine and the Demonic in Chinese Religious Culture (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004); and Meir Shahar and Robert Weller, Unruly Gods: Divinity and Society in China (Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 1996).

(10.) Terry Kleeman, “Licentious Cults and Bloody Victuals: Sacrifice, Reciprocity and Violence in Traditional China,” Asia Major 7.1 (1994): 185–211.

(11.) Valerie Hansen, Changing Gods in Medieval China, 1127–1276 (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1990).

(12.) David Jordan, Gods, Ghosts, and Ancestors (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1972).

(13.) Donald S. Sutton, Steps of Perfection: Exorcistic Performers and Chinese Religion in Twentieth-Century Taiwan (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Asia Center, 2003).

(14.) Terry F. Kleeman, Celestial Masters: History and Ritual in Early Daoist Communities (Cambridge, MA: Harvard East Asia Institute, 2016).

(15.) On the parish system, see Franciscus Verellen. “The Twenty-Four Dioceses and Zhang Daoling: The Spatio-Liturgical Organization of Early Heavenly Master Taoism,” in Pilgrims, Patrons, and Place: Localizing Sanctity in Asian Religions, eds. Phyllis Granoff and Koichi Shinohara (Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 2003), 15–67.

(16.) See Terry Kleeman, “ ‘Take Charge of Households and Convert the Citizenry’: The Parish Priest in Celestial Master Transmission,” Abhandlungen für die Kunde des Morgenlandes 78 (2012): 19–39.

(17.) See Gil Raz, “The Way of the Yellow and the Red: Re-examining the Sexual Initiation Rite of Celestial Master Daoism,” Nannü 10.1 (2008): 86–120; and Terry Kleeman, “The Performance and Significance of the Merging the Pneumas (Heqi) Rite in Early Daoism,” Daoism: Religion, History, and Society 6 (2014): 85–112.

(18.) Terry Kleeman, “Feasting Without the Victuals: The Evolution of the Daoist Communal Kitchen,” in Of Tripod and Palate: Food, Politics, and Religion in Traditional China, ed. Roel Sterckx (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005), 140–162.

(19.) Michel Strickmann, “The Mao Shan Revelations: Taoist and the Aristocracy,” T’oung-pao 63 (1977): 1–64.

(20.) Valerie Hansen, Changing Gods in Medieval China, 1127–1276 (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1990).

(21.) Eloquently explained in Barrett, “Chinese Religion.”

(22.) This translation of his dissertation was originally published in the Annals du Musée Guimet, issues 11 and 12.

(23.) Arthus P. Wolf, ed., Religion and Ritual in Chinese Society (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1974).

(24.) A good example is the Traditional Hakka Society Series edited by John Lagerwey (Ecole Française d’extreme-Orient, Overseas Chinese Archives of the Chinese University of Hong Kong, 1996–).

(25.) Nathan Sivin, “On the Word ‘Taoist’ as a Source of Perplexity,” History of Religions 17 (1978): 303–331.

(26.) Both editions were published by Yiwen Publishing 藝文出版社‎; in 1988, Xinwenfeng Publishing put out a 61-volume edition that forms the basis for the Academia Sinica database.

(27.) On the formation of the canon, see Chen Guofu陳國符‎, Daozang yuanliu kao道藏源流考‎(Studies on the evolution of the Taoist Canon). 2 vols. (Beijing: Zhonghua Shuju, 1963), 1–100; and Judith M. Boltz, A Survey of Taoist Literature. Tenth to Seventeenth Centuries (Berkeley: Institute of East Asian Studies, University of California, 1987).

(28.) Ren Jiyu任繼愈‎, ed. Daozang tiyao道藏提要‎. 3d ed. (Beijing: Zhongguo shehui kexue chubanshe, 2007).

(29.) He Longxiang賀龍驤‎ and Peng Hanran彭翰然‎, Chongkan Daozang jiyao重刊道藏輯要‎ (Chengdu: Erxian’an, 1906).

(30.) Ōfuchi Ninji, Tonkō Dōkyō, 2 vols. (Tokyo: Fukutake, 1978–79); Li Defan李德范‎, ed., Dunhuang daozang 敦煌道藏‎ (Taoist Canon of Dunhuang), 5 vols. (Beijing: Quanguo tushuguan wenxian suowei fuzhi zhongxin, 1999).

(31.) Li Fengmao李豐楙‎ and Wang Qiugui王秋桂‎, Zhongguo minjiang xinyang ziliao huibian中國民間信仰資料彙編‎ (Taipei: Xueshen shuju, 1989).