[Review] 王永平:《信仰與習俗—社會文化史視野下的唐代道教》(Wang Yongping: Beliefs and Customs. Tang Dynasty Daoism from the Perspective of Socio-Cultural History)

Wang Yongping 王永平, Xinyang yu xisu: shehui wenhua shi shiye xia de Tang dai daojiao 信仰與習俗—社會文化史視野下的唐代道教 (Beliefs and Customs: Tang Dynasty Daoism from the Perspective of Socio-Cultural History), Beijing: Shehui kexue wenxian chubanshe, 2023. ISBN 9787522811406, 725 pages, 128.80 RMB.

Reviewed by Franciscus Verellen (EFEO)

Wang Yongping is a Professor of History at the Capital Normal University in Beijing and a leading scholar of Daoism under the Tang Dynasty (618–907). Following in the wake of his earlier books on Tang entertainments (1995), the cultural history of the Sui, Tang and Five Dynasties period (2000), and Daoism in Tang society (2002), the present volume addresses four related subjects: (1) Daoism and the Tang social order, with special reference to the place of women; (2) the trajectories of selected Daoist priests and their networks of social relationships; (3) Daoism in daily life under the Tang, notably the Daoist imprint on seasonal festivals, folk customs, and popular practices; and (4) the interaction and different degrees of integration between the Three Teachings (Daoism, Confucianism, and Buddhism). In ten chapters, framed by an introduction and an afterword, Wang thus explores the broad impact of Daoism on the everyday life of Tang society.

The introduction locates Daoism’s roots in the religious system of the Warring States, Qin, and Han period. Like Confucianism, Tang Daoism was heir to the civilization of Chinese antiquity, but it distinctively advanced transcendence as its ultimate aspiration. After interacting with Buddhism, newly introduced into China at the beginning of the Common Era, Daoism developed into a polytheistic belief system, its pantheon expanding and revitalizing through constant exchanges with popular beliefs and the integration of folk cults into its liturgical system. The Tang Dynasty was the Golden Age of Daoism. The ruling Li family venerated Laozi as its ancestor and upheld Daoism politically, socially, and culturally. While extending its patronage to all Three Teachings, the dynasty granted Daoism privileged treatment under the rubric of “Imperial Clan Affairs.” Immortality practices flourished. Imperial princesses and consorts took vows as Daoist nuns, and government officials left office to devote themselves to the Way. In turn, Daoists supported the rise of the Li family and prognosticated that their descendants were destined to rule China.

Chapter 1, on the Daoist cult of transcendence and Tang Society, demonstrates the popularity of the immortality cult under the Tang. The quest for transcendence and the search for alchemical elixirs of immortality reached a peak. Large swaths of society from emperors to commoners enthusiastically applied themselves to Daoist cultivation and practiced longevity techniques. Quite a few died from ingesting toxic elixirs. The vogue for immortality lore became a distinctive feature of the period. This chapter is richly documented with narratives from Tang lives of immortals and stories about the feats of Daoist priests, alchemists, and other practitioners. Wang Yongping underscores two noteworthy societal features: (1) the influence of Daoism was significantly greater on the upper than on the lower classes; and (2) its influence among women was exceptionally high.

Chapter 2, on Daoism and Tang Women, notes that Daoism perceived gender roles differently from most religions. Laozi exalted femininity. From the beginning of the religious movement, women not only practiced Daoism but played leading roles in founding and developing new orders. The mother of Zhang Lu 张鲁 (d. 215), the second-generation founder of Heavenly Master Daoism, was instrumental in the spread of the early movement, and Lady Wei Huacun 魏华存 (252–334) founded the Shangqing 上清 school. At the end of the Tang dynasty, the Daoist priest and author Du Guangting 杜光庭 (850–933) wrote Yongcheng jixian lu 墉城集仙录 [Assembled Immortals of the Walled Fortress], a work dedicated to the lives and legends of female immortals. The early Song anthology Taiping guangji 太平广记 [Extensive Records for the Reign of Supreme Peace] included a section titled “Female Immortals” that records in 15 chapters stories about nearly 90 women transcendents, most of them of the Tang period.

One drawback of this remarkable work is that it does not take the growing international scholarship on Tang Daoism into account, with the exception of a small handful of mostly Japanese publications. Surprisingly, for example, Wang Yongping does not refer to Jia Jinhua’s 贾晋华 monograph Gender, Power, and Talent: The Journey of Daoist Priestesses in Tang China (Columbia University Press, 2018), nor to Jia’s publications in Chinese, which cover much the same ground as Wang’s chapter 2 and, in addition, throw significant light on the question why women played such an important role in Daoism and society at large under the Tang compared to other periods of Chinese history.

Chapter 3, “Roaming Between the Realm of Immortals and Secular Society” (游走于壶中天地与世俗社会之间), judiciously draws on tomb and stele inscriptions to show that Tang Daoist priests doubled their otherworldly pursuits with secular office, applying their esoteric skills on behalf of society while seeking personal transcendence. Some were summoned to court where they performed religious functions such as scriptural exegesis and liturgical celebrations. The chapter focuses on the lives of three prominent priests from the early, high, and late Tang periods and a group of Daoist officiants who were sent to Mount Tai in the early and mid-Tang reigns of Emperor Gaozong 高宗 and Empress Wu Zetian 武則天. Mount Tai, the Eastern Peak among China’s five sacred mountains, was an important site for performing imperial rituals and sacrifices. Seeking confirmation of their celestial mandate to rule, successive emperors dispatched Daoist priests as envoys to present prayers and offerings there, an endeavor that generated local records in the form of rock carvings. Wang Yongping masterfully exploits these, as well as the rare biographical information on Daoists contained in tomb inscriptions. A noteworthy insight to emerge from these sources is that in several instances the offspring of prominent scholar-officials chose Daoist vocations. After a father’s entry into religion, sons and nephews tended to follow suit. Wang is able to identify half a dozen Daoist families whose sons took religious orders in unbroken succession for up to eight generations.

Chapter 4, on Daoist esoteric arts and folk customs, argues that through related folk customs Daoism played an important part in the daily lives of the people. The list of techniques a Daoist priest had to master is long: spells and incantations, supplications, offerings, talismans, divination, laboratory and “inner” (physiological) alchemy, medicine, gymnastics, longevity methods. The chapter focuses on Daoist techniques involving talismans and incantations, citing numerous tales by Du Guangting that record miracles and manifestations showing the methods’ efficacy: talismans protected palaces and cities, granted longevity, expelled curses, cured diseases, safeguarded travelers, and caused adepts to ascend to heaven. Inversely, they brought retributions upon those who neglected or desecrated them. Dunhuang materials similarly document the popular use of talismans to expel ghosts and banish evil, seek good fortune, and avoid calamity. Specialized talismans could cure abscesses, stop children from crying at night, facilitate difficult labor, or obtain wealth and promotions. In addition, Professor Wang examines what he terms the “folklore” of Daoist methods of prayer, divination, and the Retreat-Offering 斋醮 ritual.

The second half of the book (chapters 5-10) is organized into three overarching topics: the lore of immortals, festivals, and interactions between the Three Teachings. In chapters 5-6, Professor Wang argues that there was a particularly close relationship between Daoist worship of deities / immortals and folk beliefs under the Tang. This was due to the fact that the pantheon venerated by Daoists was constantly replenished by deities derived from folk religion. Daoism being a religion native to China, its gods include folk heroes and historical personages. Max Weber proposed that the social function of Daoist priests was to systematize the gods and canonize exceptional men and women (p. 314). Among the deities Wang Yongping discusses are the Jade Emperor (玉皇大帝) at the head of the pantheon; the City God (城隍) as guardian of walls and moats, local magistrate in the Underworld, and patron of urbanism, commerce, and trade; the Stove God (灶神), master of fate and overseer of the household; Zhong Kui 钟馗 the demon catcher; Wen Chang 文昌 who combined stellar cults with the worship of a local snake and thunder god in Sichuan; and Erlang 二郎, the second son of the celebrated hydraulic engineer Li Bing 李冰, depicted as a divine general armed with a bow. Like many religious innovations under the Tang, the latter cult originated in the mid-Tang reign of Emperor Xuanzong 玄宗.

The Daoist imprint on annual festivals and customs is the subject of chapters 7-9. China’s traditional festivals have a long and multifarious history. Their evolution was influenced by a variety of secular and religious factors, rendering them apt to cater to a broad spectrum of society. The Tang dynasty represents an important stage in that development. Existing traditional festivals were supplemented and new festivals emerged. According to Wang Yongping, Daoism became “secularized” under the Tang, a factor favoring its interpenetration with popular culture. To place this in perspective, it should be noted that Daoism was also a highly literate, scribal religion which, as Wang himself points out, enjoyed particular success in the upper strata of society. In addition, the esoteric Shangqing tradition of Daoism—which falls outside of the scope of this book—flourished under the Tang. Several Tang emperors received Shangqing ordinations and the rarified poetry of Shangqing priests exercised an influence on refined arts and letters that can hardly be categorized as folkloristic.

New festivals that derived from Daoist religious practices current in the movement’s formative (early medieval) period made their appearance under the Tang. Whether of a commemorative or celebratory nature, or linked to pilgrimage events, most of these marked days when Daoist deities descended into the world of humans. Wang focuses in particular on the Three Primordials (三元) festivals and the birthday of Laozi. The Three Primordials were the full-moon days of the lunar first, seventh, and ten months, days when the Three Officials (三官) of Heaven, Earth, and Water descended to carry out inspections and propitiatory Retreat rituals were held for repenting transgressions and obtaining health and prosperity. Laozi’s descent into the world was celebrated on the fifteenth day of the second lunar month. Instituted under the Tang, this festival was modeled on birthday celebrations for ruling emperors and their ancestors, first amongst them the sage Laozi.

Wang next treats the Daoist imprint on annual observances, entertainments, customs, and foods consumed during seasonal festivals. The author bases his findings here on a different set of contemporary sources such as the encyclopedias Yiwen leiju 藝文類聚 and Chuxue ji 初學記 for the early and high Tang, respectively, or the Suihua jili 歲華紀麗, by Han E 韓鄂 (fl. 10th cent.), for late Tang festival customs. The festivals covered include various spring observances, the early summer Dragon Boat (端午) festival honoring a banished loyal minister, the mid-summer Seventh Night (七夕) festival marking the day when the Weaving Maid and Cowherd constellations met across the Milky Way, the Mid-Autumn (中秋) festival commemorating Chang’e’s flight to become the moon goddess (嫦娥奔月) after stealing the elixir of life, the Double Ninth (重阳) festival based on a legend about the Eastern Han scholar Fei Changfang 费长房 encountering an immortal in a gourd. All of these festivals were overlaid with Daoist symbolism and legends. Several of their dates (Double Seven [七月七日], the Winter Solstice [冬至], and the lunar Year-end festival [岁末大祭]) coincided with annual observances of the five Daoist la 腊 days.

The interaction and integration of Daoism with Confucianism and Buddhism is treated in chapter 10. The rulers of the Tang dynasty for the most part adopted an even-handed policy towards the Three Teachings as a matter of cultural and ideological strategy. The three schools of thought nevertheless each pursued distinctive visions of society. Detractors regarded Buddhism with suspicion as a foreign religion that controlled great concentrations of economic resources and fervent followers. Confucian literati, who held considerable sway over the bureaucracy, tended to harbor skepticism of both Buddhism and Daoism. Daoism, though institutionally weak, enjoyed the privileges of an imperial religion and strengthened its philosophical and spiritual bases by widely assimilating Confucianism as well as Buddhism. Although frictions were inevitable, all three schools exploited inherent compatibilities between them to expand their respective spheres of influence. As a result, the mutual integration of the Three Teachings became a mainstream feature of the times.

The afterword is a personal testimonial on the book’s genesis. Wherever there was a village in China, Wang Yongping explains, temples and shrines were in public sight. The author attributes his lifelong interest in Daoism as the cultural underpinning of daily life among the people to his experience of growing up in a rural community dominated by a hilltop temple. Even after the Cultural Revolution laid waste to the sanctuary, its relics continued to cast a spell over the inhabitants. When life was difficult and medicine scarce, people went to the temple to pray for blessings and ask the old Daoist priests to expel evil spirits with incantations and talismans drawn on yellow paper. During festivals, elders would explain the origin of the cherished observances and customs to the children. It was common to see Buddhist monks and Daoist priests perform rituals together. The harmonious coexistence of multiple religious beliefs and practices had grown naturally from a long process of interaction and integration between Confucianism, Buddhism and Daoism through history.

Wang Yongping’s Beliefs and Customs is a monumental contribution to both Daoist and Tang studies. The author’s emphasis on the socio-cultural dimension of Daoism spawns a colorful panorama of Tang society. Without denying the fundamentally religious character of Daoism, Professor Wang’s approach coincidentally accords with the policy of the Chinese Communist Party, of which he is a member, to valorize Daoism as popular culture and national heritage. Skirting the pitfall of reductionism, the book presents a wealth of valuable materials, drawn from an impressive range of contemporary Tang sources. Wang Yongping’s Xinyang yu xisu will stand beside Timothy’s Barrett’s pioneering institutional history Taoism under the T’ang (Wellsweep, 1996) and Yusa Noboru’s 遊佐昇 collected essays on Tang cults and saints, Tōdai shakai to dōkyō 唐代社会と道教 (Tōhō Shoten, 2015), as the first comprehensive socio-cultural history of Tang Daoism.

Cite this blog post
Franciscus Verellen (2024, March 1). [Review] 王永平:《信仰與習俗—社會文化史視野下的唐代道教》(Wang Yongping: Beliefs and Customs. Tang Dynasty Daoism from the Perspective of Socio-Cultural History). European Research Centre for Chinese Studies. Retrieved June 22, 2024, from https://doi.org/10.58079/vxrt

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