[Review] 曹新宇:《祖師的族譜—明清白蓮教社會歷史調查》 (Cao Xinyu: A genealogy of the patriarchs. A social historical investigation of the White Lotus Teachings in the Ming and Qing dynasties)

Cao Xinyu 曹新宇, Zushi de zupu—Ming Qing Bailianjiao shehui lishi diaocha 祖師的族譜—明清白蓮教社會歷史調查 (A genealogy of the patriarchs: A social historical investigation of the White Lotus Teachings in the Ming and Qing dynasties), Beijing: Shangwu Yinshuguan, 2023. ISBN: 978-7-1001-8416-8, 316 pages, 128 RMB.

Reviewed by Barend J. ter Haar (University of Hamburg)

Everybody working in the field of new religious groups in late imperial China will be familiar with Cao Xinyu’s 曹新宇 essential contributions, especially the 2012 donation of a cache of northern Chinese religious images and texts he received from an elderly lady in Wanquan 萬全 County (in the far north of Hebei Province) who wanted to ensure that her cultural inheritance ended up in the right hands. The complete find was published in Taiwan the following year and thus became generously available to international scholars (p. 1–7).[1] The present book is the mainland China reedition of the 2016 book, first published on Taiwan to accompany the seven-volume printed compendium containing the entire trove, but in simplified characters and with several sections added at the end.[2] In this review, I will take the reader briefly through the book, accompanied by some analytical or empirical comments (references given are to the book under discussion).

In the first part of this book (p. 1–161), the author takes us through his fieldwork whilst at the same time giving us a lively and very readable survey of the history of the Way of Yellow Heaven (huangtiandao 黃天道), including the major persecution of 1762/1763, and its networks in Shanxi and Hebei Provinces. Cao’s interest is primarily that of the social historian with a focus on local society, which allowed him to build the necessary local ties to access informants and collect what has remained in terms of written and oral remnants of traditional China before 1949. Although very knowledgeable, he is not primarily interested in religious culture, its doctrines, mythology, and provenance per se, and so leaves room for further research. As Cao shows, the newly found texts, along with previous and still important fieldwork published by Li Shiyu in 1948 (with an important extension in 2007),[3] and the author’s own visits to the field help us achieve a much better understanding than we had previously regarding the founders and early leaders of the Way of Yellow Heaven and its core teachings. What he could not do was interview living believers as the movement became illegal after 1949. This is an important caveat (although not a criticism) since it means we lack a reliable internal source on the relationship between the 2012 text corpus and actual believers. It is a bit like taking the holy scriptures of the Abrahamic traditions as the only witnesses to these traditions rather than their actual and extremely diverse expressions in the form of beliefs and practices. When reading this account, one is struck by the degree of cultural destruction that has taken place, leading to the disappearance of this centuries-old tradition as well as a host of other local cultural and religious practices and artefacts. Like many other places, Wanquan, which was made famous by the temple research of Willem Grootaers (1911–1999) and his collaborators (including his student Li Shiyu), as well as the accompanying work by Li Shiyu on new religious groups, is now largely devoid of its historical cultural and religious remains (p. 40 and passim).

The Way of Yellow Heaven movement was founded by Li Bin 李賓 (1513–1562) and continued by his wife, Ms. Wang 王氏 (1523–1576) (p. 128–129 and passim). Cao Xinyu devotes considerable attention to ferreting out Li Bin’s social status as someone from a household with military duties in the local border garrisons (p. 92–122), but also reveals many details about his extended family who continued to play some kind of role in the movement (p. 123–161). Indeed, he has found an amazing amount of information on the larger family background of Li Bin and the various networks centered on the central temple of the movement, the Monastery of Azure Heaven (bitian si 碧天寺) in Wanquan County. It also shows what can still be done (and increasingly should be done, as witnesses are dying out) by going into the field, even after many decades of cultural and religious destruction. Its core message of inhaling the Qi (spiritual energy) or the sun and the moon is an extremely old one, dating to early Daoist traditions, though here it was combined with a Buddhist lifestyle that included rejecting alcoholic drinks and the eating of meat. Cao makes the critical point that within their worldview, adherents had to be married to fulfill their religious obligations (p. 124ff). We learn how the movement was, first and foremost, a network for distributing religious charisma (and texts) rather than a centrally led organization. All the same, to a greater extent than Buddhist and Daoist monasteries, new religious groups like the Way of Yellow Heaven were supralocal presences that did not engage in rebellious action but created and then widely shared a socio-religious world of their own.[4]

In his personal postscript which has been added to the original 2016 edition, the author insists that the term White Lotus Teachings represents a historical reality, rather than a label as I have argued in my 1992 book (p. 302–304). The conventional labels are quite meaningless anyhow since, for instance, the central temple of the movement, the Monastery of Azure Heaven, was a pilgrimage center for the movement with the graves of Li Bin and his wife, run by Daoist priests from the Mount Hua lineage of the Complete Perfection teachings (quanzhen jiao 全真教) beginning in 1701 when the movement was still quite openly in existence (p. 25), and by Buddhist monks in the late Qing era (p. 28). The lady who gifted the texts to Cao Xinyu herself referred to the teachings not as the Way of Yellow Heaven but as “dharma lineage” (famen 法門) (p. 3). Since the term fa is quite a general label for effective rituals, it did not necessarily refer to a specifically Buddhist background (again, this is a Western label that would have been unknown to local people anyhow). In 1942, the temple organization participated in rituals of Praying for Rain (qiyu 祈雨), which always benefitted the entire region and people, therefore, complained about those who profited without contributing (p. 67–68). In the late nineteenth century, the same complaint led to serious conflict between local communities and Christian converts elsewhere in northern China.[5] Indeed, the author shows quite clearly how, from a voluntaristic religious society, which one joined out of choice, the movement had locally become the main form of socio-religious organization (esp. p. 65–66) similar to any other temple organization.[6] The author points out that such groups referred to their beliefs as Ru 儒or the Great Way (dadao 大道) (p. 123). When we translate Ru as “Confucianism”, as many Western authors do, this may sound odd, but when we follow Michael Nylan’s suggestion to translate this as “Classicism,” it is much less surprising.[7] Ru probably referred to a self-perception that writers were drawing on ancient textual traditions.[8] Since, like most Chinese, they would have become literate on a Ru-inspired canon, this is entirely reasonable. The term Great Way is even more general and certainly does not refer to Daoism in any sense of that term (again, a term with strong Western assumptions).

The same injunctions apply even more forcefully against modern labels stemming from the context of persecution. The label White Lotus Teachings is the contemporary application of a historical pejorative term in the same way that “secret” (mimi 秘密) (p. 10) was derived from a nineteenth-century label directed against the Free Masons and Jews. It was first adopted by Gustave Schlegel (1840–1903) for the Triads in his 1866 study of their manuals (in preparation for the suppression of local groups in the Dutch Indies—then a Dutch colony, now Indonesia). It ended up in Chinese scholarship somewhat circuitously through the 1912 translation into Chinese of the Japanese plagiarized version of an English language book on the Triads in Hong Kong from 1900.[9] Both labels are the product of state repression and persecution from imperial China and Western colonial regimes. They do not do justice to local agency and empowerment, i.e., the attempts of local people—including prominent women such as Li Bin’s wife and daughters—to give meaning to their world by using religious resources that got to be labelled in these various ways top down by total outsiders. We can dismiss this as syncretism, but that equally pejorative label applies to all religious traditions to a large degree, both consciously and unconsciously, so instead, I would see it as evidence of local creativity and agency. They decided what was important to them. Until they were persecuted for the first time in a more or less systematic way in 1762/1763, and even after that, the movement was active locally and moved around regionally without much fear of persecution (e.g. p. 42–45, 65–67 and passim). It is only modern policies in the twentieth century and the competition of newer forms of organized religion that put an end to it.

In the second part of the book, the author discusses a number of texts, specifically some of the materials in the famous list of confiscated heterodox (yao 妖) scriptures from 1475 (p. 162–166 gives the list, followed by a discussion on p. 166–199) and the dating of the Precious Scroll of the August Extreme (huangtian baojuan 皇極寳卷) (p. 190–213). It seems to me that calling the 1475 list by the label White Lotus Teachings is not justified by the historical sources, which only started using this term as a label (rather than quoting it as an autonym) from the mid-sixteenth century onwards. Neither the Way of Yellow Heaven nor this particular list are ever labelled this way, except by modern scholars and only very rarely in any primary sources. Since the list is most likely a compilation from numerous cases, many of which are no longer documented in extant sources, a single overall analytical label is inappropriate since we lack sufficient background information. It sometimes also contains the same text in different versions, at least in the case of the famous Scripture of the Five Lords (wugongjing 五公經).[10] Some of the titles read more like cosmological works from geomantic tradition, and a full analysis should probably also take Daoist scriptures into account. That this list does not necessarily reflect a single case or tradition is a problem which also extends to the original 2012 find that formed the basis of this book.

The 1475 and the 2012 lists include numerous materials referring to the Silver City (yincheng 銀城), but neither the single documented 1475 case nor the long history of the Way of Yellow Heaven actually makes any reference to this element of ancient indigenous messianic traditions. It is more commonly referred to as Cloud City (yuncheng 雲城) in late Ming and Qing new religious groups or as City of Willows (muyang cheng 木楊城) in the rituals of the Chinese Triads.[11] Therefore, the old lady may have had such texts in her possession, perhaps as the result of a long process of transmission of numinous religious texts, but they were not a part of someone’s actual practice. Cao notes that she was able to recite “all” of her texts despite her limited education (p. 3), which I find hard to believe. In practice, she was apparently taught only one text by heart as a child, called the Zengguang xianwen 增廣賢文, a collection of proverbs that goes back at least to the late sixteenth century. It would have been part of her literacy training and so has no specific religious affiliation. While I am willing to believe that she could recite a lot, I am somewhat skeptical that the author checked this for all materials or that she recited “everything” correctly. The published materials run into seven dense volumes in modern print. More likely, followers would have made a much smaller choice of directly relevant materials for their regular religious practice, much as is customary among followers of Buddhist and Daoist traditions who stick to a single sutra or even a small selection for daily recital.

In other words, the presence of messianic references in this corpus does not suffice to make the Way of Yellow Heaven a messianic group. By this line of reasoning, most students of new religious groups (and many Sinological libraries) would also be messianic, the present author included, since their own source publications include such texts. On this topic, the author tends to make assertions not backed up by empirical evidence (p. 168–179), but that will have to wait for a lengthier discussion than this review. Another example is a quote that supposedly comes from the Tuibeitu 推背圖 or the Shaobing ge 燒餅歌 (p. 161), but without a proper footnote.[12] A second example is his statement (p. 154) that the so-called “Buddha’s [name] in ten Characters” is Namo tianyuan taibao emituofo 南無天元太保阿彌陀佛, but that it “really” is Maitreya. Now, it is completely possible that a group hid the identity of its divinities behind something more acceptable, much in the way that the hidden Christians of Tokugawa Japan hid their statues of Mary with Child inside statues of the widely worshipped Buddha Amitābha or in the form of the Bodhisattva Kannon (Guanyin) in Japan.[13] However, this assumption must be explicitly proven with empirical evidence and the public nature of the movement at least until 1762, if not even later, does not suggest that the Way of Yellow Heaven felt a need to hide their practices and beliefs.[14]

The contribution to the dating of the Precious Scroll of the August Extreme (huangji baojuan 皇極寳卷) (p. 193–199) is more successful to my mind, and here I can offer a small addition that confirms his analysis. Traditionally, this scroll dates back to the early fifteenth century, which makes it one of the earliest texts in this genre. Thus, establishing a reliable date for this text is very important. Cao argues that this date is based on a small slip of paper from a Buddhist sutra which had inadvertently entered the text in the Tianjin Library (p. 198–199), causing the mistaken early date. Instead, the Precious Scroll stems from a much later period and fits into our conventional understanding of the history of this genre. Thanks to the wonders of the internet, it is possible to identify the specific edition of the Buddhist text in question. It is a reprint of the Da fangguangfo huayan jing 大方廣佛華嚴經 (Sanskrit name: Avataṃsaka-sūtra) by the “pupil who worships the Buddha” (fengfo dizi奉佛弟子) Fuxian 福賢 dated to the 13th day of the 12th Lunar Month of the 17th year of the Yongle 永樂 reign period (which corresponds to the Western date of 29 December 1419). In an internet sale of ancient books, the complete original edition turned up, and the incomplete fragment that Cao Xinyu analyzes (p. 198) fits perfectly with the complete edition, both as a text and in terms of its font and page makeup.[15]

To round off my discussion, Cao Xinyu’s study is an essential companion to the seven volumes source publication that reproduces the 2012 find of texts associated with the Way of Yellow Heaven. Based on this review, I would propose a more careful understanding of the material as a single group, hence my vaguer label “associated”. This in no way diminishes the immense importance of this find and the quality of Cao’s wonderful book. I read it with the utmost pleasure since it is also very clearly written and, unlike many mainland China publications, interacts with Western and Japanese research. Such weaknesses, as I perceive in the later chapters, stem from the weight of Chinese academic tradition that cannot see these groups without labelling them with traditional pejorative categories. Instead, I propose seeing them as local attempts by non-monastics to understand Chinese religious tradition and create something new or at least personal out of them. I see these books as testimony to their local creativity and the ongoing relevance throughout late imperial China of those traditions that we customarily, but confusingly, label as if they are separate, to wit Buddhism and Daoism.[16] In local reality, however, people picked and chose from these “traditions” and other sources what they needed (and perhaps what they understood) to create a complex of religious beliefs and practices that were relevant and interesting to them. Whether we agree with their choices in terms of much later labels and academic constructs seems to me to be quite irrelevant.


[1] Cao Xinyu 曹新宇 (ed.), Ming Qing mimi shehui shiliao明清秘密社會史料擷珍•黃天道卷 (A precious selection of Ming Qing historical materials on secret societies: scrolls from the Way of Yellow Heaven), 7 vols., (Taibei: Boyang Publishing 博揚文化事業有限公司, 2013).

[2] Cao Xinyu曹新宇, Zushi de zupu: Ming Qing Bailianjiao shehui lishi diaocha zhi yi 祖師的族譜: 明清白蓮教社會歷史調查之一 (A genealogy of the patriarchs: a social historical investigation of the White Lotus Teachings in the Ming and Qing dynasties I), (Taibei: Boyang Publishing, 2016).

[3] The original edition is Li Shiyu 李世瑜, Xianzai Huabei mimi zongjiao 現在華北秘密宗教 (Chengdu, 1948). It has been reprinted on the mainland with Xiandai 現代instead of Xianzai. A much enlarged version was published on Taiwan, as Xianzai huabei mimi zongjiao (zengdingban) 現在華北祕密宗教 (增訂版) (Taipei: Lantai chubanshe蘭臺出版社, 2007). Li Shiyu has also been a major positive force in the study of new religious groups and local religious culture from the 1980s onwards, for Chinese as well as Western scholars.

[4] See also my own “Giving Believers Back Their Voice: Agency and Heresy in Late Imperial China”, In Text and Context in the Modern History of Chinese Religions: Redemptive Societies and Their Sacred Texts, edited by Philip Clart and David Ownby (Brill: Leiden, 2020), pp. 16–54. Chinese version trsl. by Deng Yuqu 鄧育渠, “Xinyangzhe de shengyin: Dizhi Zhongguo wanqi de nengdongxing yu yiduan 信仰者的聲音:帝制中國晚期的能動性與異端” Hualin guiji foxue xuekan 華林國際佛學學刊, 5:2 (2022), pp. 95–137; https://dx.doi.org/10.6939/HIJBS.202210_5(2).

[5] For a summary, see Prasenjit Duara, Culture, Power, and the State: Rural North China, 19001942 (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1988), pp. 119–120.

[6] On which for instance, Duara, Culture, Power, and the State, passim.

[7] Michael Nylan, The Five “Confucian” Classics (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2001), 15 and passim.

[8] Philip Clart, “Confucius and the Mediums: Is There a ‘Popular Confucianism’?”, T’oung Pao, Vol. 89:1-3 (2003), pp. 1–38 is a good starting point here.

[9] Barend J. ter Haar, Ritual and Mythology of the Chinese Triads: Creating an Identity (Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1998), pp. 36–37.

[10] See Barend J. ter Haar, “The Sutra of the Five Lords: manuscript and oral tradition”, Studies in Chinese Religions 1:2 (2015), pp. 172–197 and Barende teru Haaru (Den Kai) ハール,バレンデ・テル(田海) (Maruyama Hiroshi trsl. 丸山 宏), “Shobutsu o yomi riyō suru rekishi” 「書物を讀み利用する歴史:新しい史料から」 (New sources on the history of reading and using texts), Tōhōgaku 東方學 120 (2010), pp. 135–152 with a long list of versions of this text on sale online in the late 2000s.

[11] I have analyzed it myself long ago in the context of the ritual lore of the Chinese Triads, see ter Haar, Ritual and Mythology, pp. 94–95, 275–278.

[12] It is not in itself incorrect, although online versions of these texts give different variants of the sentences in question.

[13] A good starting point for this topic is N.F. Hioki, “Deconstructing Maria Kannon: a new look at the Marian images for Urakami crypto-Christians, ca.1860”, Japanese Religions 40:1-2 (2015), pp. 25–43.

[14] The reference here to a much more strictly Buddhist northern new religious group (p. 155) proves nothing at this point of this discussion, unless one makes the a priori assumption that all such groups are the same anyhow.

[15] https://kandianguji.com/page/32884?page=65 (accessed 28 March 2024). Outside China, a large part of this edition is, for instance, preserved in the Princeton University rare books collection. See: https://catalog.princeton.edu/catalog/9942832993506421 (accessed 28 March 2024). Incidentally, thanks to Martin Heijdra, the librarian of the East Asian Studies library, I was able to establish that at least the Princeton copy of this sutra has an even more complicated and interesting reprinting history (exchanges in April 2024).

[16] For an overall statement, see my “Giving Believers Back Their Voice: Agency and Heresy in Late Imperial China”.


OpenEdition suggests that you cite this post as follows:
Barend J. ter Haar (June 1, 2024). [Review] 曹新宇:《祖師的族譜—明清白蓮教社會歷史調查》 (Cao Xinyu: A genealogy of the patriarchs. A social historical investigation of the White Lotus Teachings in the Ming and Qing dynasties). European Research Centre for Chinese Studies. Retrieved July 22, 2024 from https://doi.org/10.58079/11rj8


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