The Rise of the Tao

Abbess Yin Xinhui in the Hall of the Jade Emperor on Mount Mao, built at a cost of $1.5 million.

YIN XINHUI reached the peak of Mount Yi and surveyed the chaos. The 47-year-old Taoist abbess was on a sacred mission: to consecrate a newly rebuilt temple to one of her religion’s most important deities, the Jade Emperor. But there were as yet no stairs, just a muddy path up to the pavilion, which sat on a rock outcropping 3,400 feet above a valley. A team of workers was busy laying stone steps, while others planted sod, trees and flowers. Inside the temple, a breeze blew through windows that were still without glass, while red paint flecked the stone floor.

The revival of ancient religious practices in China is partly about belief — and partly about money.

“Tomorrow,” she said slowly, calculating the logistics. “They don’t have much ready. . . .” Fortunately, a dozen of her nuns had followed her up the path. Dressed in white tunics and black trousers, their hair in topknots, the nuns enthusiastically began unpacking everything they would need for the next day’s ceremony: 15 sacred scriptures, three golden crowns, three bells, two cordless microphones, two lutes, a zither, a drum, a cymbal and a sword. Soon the nuns were plucking and strumming with the confidence of veteran performers. Others set up the altar and hung their temple’s banner outside, announcing that for the next few days, Abbess Yin’s exacting religious standards would hold sway on this mountain.

The temple she was to consecrate was born of more worldly concerns. Mount Yi is in a poor part of China, and Communist Party officials had hit upon tourism as a way to move forward. They fenced in the main mountain, built a road to the summit and declared it a scenic park. But few tourists were willing to pay for a chance to hike up a rocky mountain. Enter religion. China is in the midst of a religious revival, and people will pay to visit holy sites. So the local government set out to rebuild the temple, which was wrecked by Red Guards during the Cultural Revolution, modestly rebuilt then torn down when the park was first constructed. Officials commissioned a 30-foot statue of the Jade Emperor, had it hauled to the peak and encased in the brilliant red pavilion. They then built a bell and a drum tower, as well as another set of halls devoted to minor deities.

All that was missing was a soul. For that, the temple had to be properly consecrated. The officials got in touch with Abbess Yin, widely regarded as a leading expert in Taoist ritual, and soon she was driving the 350 miles from her nunnery to Mount Yi.

As her rehearsals drew to a close, the abbess went over the next day’s schedule with a local official. All was in good shape, he said, except for one detail. Government officials were due to give speeches at 10:30 a.m. She would have to be finished by then, he said.

“No,” she replied. “Then it won’t be authentic. It takes four hours.” Could she start earlier and wrap up by then? No, the sun won’t be in the right position, she replied. The official peered up from the schedule and took a good look at her — who was this?

Abbess Yin smiled good-naturedly. At a little over five feet tall, she was solidly built, with a full, smooth face tanned from spending much of her life outdoors in the mountains. Her dress was always the same plain blue robe, and she did not wear jewelry or display other signs of wealth. She shunned electronics; her temple did not have a phone or Internet access. But over the past 20 years she had accomplished a remarkable feat, rebuilding her own nunnery on one of Taoism’s most important mountains. Unlike the temple here on Mount Yi — and hundreds of others across China — she had rejected tourism as a way to pay for the reconstruction of her nunnery, relying instead on donors who were drawn to her aura of earnest religiosity. She knew the real value of an authentic consecration ceremony and wasn’t about to back down.

The official tried again, emphasizing the government’s own rituals: “But they have planned to be here at 10:30. The speeches last 45 minutes, and then they have lunch. It is a banquet. It cannot be changed.”

She smiled again and nodded her head: no. An hour later the official returned with a proposal: the four-hour ceremony was long and tiring; what if the abbess took a break at 10:30 and let the officials give their speeches? They would cut ribbons for the photographers and leave for lunch, but the real ceremony wouldn’t end until Abbess Yin said so. She thought for a moment and then nodded: yes.

RELIGION HAS LONG played a central role in Chinese life, but for much of the 20th century, reformers and revolutionaries saw it as a hindrance holding the country back and a key reason for China’s “century of humiliation.” Now, with three decades of prosperity under their belt — the first significant period of relative stability in more than a century — the Chinese are in the midst of a great awakening of religious belief. In cities, yuppies are turning to Christianity. Buddhism attracts the middle class, while Taoism has rebounded in small towns and the countryside. Islam is also on the rise, not only in troubled minority areas but also among tens of millions elsewhere in China.

It is impossible to miss the religious building boom, with churches, temples and mosques dotting areas where none existed a few years ago. How many Chinese reject the state’s official atheism is hard to quantify, but numbers suggest a return to widespread religious belief. In contrast to earlier surveys that showed just 100 million believers, or less than 10 percent of the population, a new survey shows that an estimated 300 million people claim a faith. A broader question in another poll showed that 85 percent of the population believes in religion or the supernatural.

Officially, religious life is closely regulated. The country has five recognized religions: Buddhism, Islam, Taoism and Christianity, which in China is treated as two faiths, Catholicism and Protestantism. Each of the five has a central organization headquartered in Beijing and staffed with officials loyal to the Communist Party. All report to the State Administration for Religious Affairs, which in turn is under the central government’s State Council, or cabinet. This sort of religious control has a long history in China. For hundreds of years, emperors sought to define orthodox belief and appointed many senior religious leaders.

Beneath this veneer of order lies a more freewheeling and sometimes chaotic reality. In recent months, the country has been scandalized by a Taoist priest who performed staged miracles — even though he was a top leader in the government-run China Taoist Association. His loose interpretation of the religion was hardly a secret: on his Web site he used to boast that he could stay underwater for two hours without breathing. Meanwhile, the government has made a conscious effort to open up. When technocratic Communists took control of China in the late 1970s, they allowed temples, churches and mosques to reopen after decades of forced closures, but Communist suspicion about religion persisted. That has slowly been replaced by a more laissez-faire attitude as authorities realize that most religious activity does not threaten Communist Party rule and may in fact be something of a buttress. In 2007, President Hu Jintao endorsed religious charities and their usefulness in solving social problems. The central government has also recently sponsored international conferences on Buddhism and Taoism. And local governments have welcomed temples — like the one on Mount Yi — as ways to raise money from tourism.

This does not mean that crackdowns do not take place. In 1999, the quasi-religious sect Falun Gong was banned after it staged a 10,000-person sit-down strike in front of the compound housing the government’s leadership in Beijing. That set off a year of protests that ended in scores of Falun Gong practitioners dying in police custody and the introduction of an overseas protest movement that continues today. In addition, where religion and ethnicity mix, like Tibet and Xinjiang, control is tight. Unsupervised churches continue to be closed. And for all the building and rebuilding, there are still far fewer places of worship than when the Communists took power in 1949 and the country had less than half the population, according to Yang Fenggang, a Purdue University professor who studies Chinese religion. “The ratio is still radically imbalanced,” Yang says. “But there’s now a large social space that makes it possible to believe in religion. There’s less problem believing.”

Taoism has closely reflected this history of decline and rebirth. The religion is loosely based on the writings of a mythical person named Laotzu and calls for returning to the Dao, or Tao, the mystical way that unites all of creation. Like many religions, it encompasses a broad swath of practice, from Laotzu’s high philosophy to a riotous pantheon of deities: emperors, officials, thunder gods, wealth gods and terrifying demons that punish the wicked in ways that make Dante seem unimaginative. Although scholars once distinguished between “philosophical Taoism” and “religious Taoism,” today most see the two strains as closely related. Taoist worshipers will often go to services on important holy days; they might also go to a temple, or hire a clergy member to come to their home, to find help for a specific problem: illness and death or even school exams and business meetings. Usually the supplicant will pray to a deity, and the priest or nun will stage ceremonies to summon the god’s assistance. Many Taoists also engage in physical cultivation aimed at wellness and contemplation, like qigong breathing exercises or tai chi shadowboxing.

As China’s only indigenous religion, Taoism’s influence is found in everything from calligraphy and politics to medicine and poetry. In the sixth century, for example, Abbess Yin’s temple was home to Tao Hongjing, one of the founders of traditional Chinese medicine. For much of the past two millenniums, Taoism’s opposite has been Confucianism, the ideology of China’s ruling elite and the closest China has to a second homegrown religion. Where Confucianism emphasizes moderation, harmony and social structure, Taoism offers a refuge from society and the trap of material success. Some rulers have tried to govern according to Taoism’s principle of wuwei, or nonaction, but by and large it is not strongly political and today exhibits none of the nationalism found among, say, India’s Hindu fundamentalists.

During China’s decline in the 19th and 20th centuries, Taoism also weakened. Bombarded by foreign ideas, Chinese began to look askance at Taoism’s unstructured beliefs. Unlike other major world religions, it lacks a Ten Commandments, Nicene Creed or Shahada, the Muslim statement of faith. There is no narrative comparable to Buddhism’s story of a prince who discovered that desire is suffering and sets out an eightfold path to enlightenment. And while religions like Christianity acquired cachet for their association with lands that became rich, Taoism was pegged as a relic of China’s backward past.

But like other elements of traditional Chinese culture, Taoism has been making a comeback, especially in the countryside, where its roots are deepest and Western influence is weaker. The number of temples has risen significantly: there are 5,000 today, up from 1,500 in 1997, according to government officials. Beijing, which had just one functioning Taoist temple in 2000, now has 10. The revival is not entirely an expression of piety; as on Mount Yi, the government is much more likely to tolerate temples that also fulfill a commercial role. For Taoists like Abbess Yin, the temptation is to turn their temples into adjuncts of the local tourism bureau. And private donors who have helped make the revival possible may also face a difficult choice: support religion or support the state.

Zhengzhou is one of China’s grittiest cities. An urban sprawl of 4.5 million, it owes its existence to the intersection of two railway lines and is now one of the country’s most important transport hubs. The south side is given over to furniture warehouses and markets for home furnishings and construction materials. One of the biggest markets is the five-story Phoenix City, with more than four million square feet of showrooms featuring real and knockoff Italian marble countertops, German faucets and American lawn furniture. Living in splendor on the roof of this mall like a hermit atop a mountain is one of China’s most dynamic and reclusive Taoist patrons, Zhu Tieyu.

Zhu is a short, wiry man of 50 who says he once threw a man off a bridge for the equivalent of five cents. “He owed me the money,” he recalled during a nighttime walk on the roof of Phoenix City. “And I did anything for money: bought anything, sold anything, dared to do anything.” But as he got older, he began to think more about growing up in the countryside and the rules that people lived by there. His mother, he said, deeply influenced him. She was uneducated but tried to follow Taoist precepts. “Taoist culture is noncompetitive and nonhurting of other people,” he says. “It teaches following the rules of nature.”

Once he started to pattern his life on Taoism, he says, he began to rise quickly in the business world. He says that by following his instincts and not forcing things — by knowing how to be patient and bide his time — he was able to excel. Besides Phoenix City, he now owns large tracts of land where he is developing office towers and apartment blocks. Although he is reticent to discuss his wealth or business operations, local news media say his company is worth more than $100 million and have crowned him “the king of building materials.” Articles almost invariably emphasize another aspect of Zhu: his eccentric behavior.

That comes from how he chooses to spend his wealth. Instead of buying imported German luxury cars or rare French wines, he has spent a large chunk of his fortune on Taoism. The roof of Phoenix City is now a 200,000-square-foot Taoist retreat, a complex of pine wood cabins, potted fruit trees and vine-covered trellises. It boasts a library, guesthouses and offices for a dozen full-time scholars, researchers and staff. His Henan Xinshan Taoist Culture Propagation Company has organized forums to discuss Taoism and backed efforts at rebuilding the religion’s philosophical side. He says he has spent $30 million on Taoist causes, a number that is hard to verify but plausible given the scope of his projects, including an office in Beijing and sponsorship of international conferences. His goal, he says, is to bring the philosophical grounding of his rural childhood into modern-day China.

Last year, Zhu invited several dozen European and North American scholars of Chinese religion on an all-expenses-paid trip to participate in a conference in Beijing. The group stayed in the luxurious China World Hotel and were bused to Henan province to visit Taoist sites. Demonstrating his political and financial muscle, Zhu arranged for the conference’s opening session to be held in Beijing’s Great Hall of the People, the Stalinesque conference center on Tiananmen Square. It is usually reserved for state events, but with the right connections and for the right price, it can be rented for private galas. In a taped address to participants, Zhu boasted that “I’ll spend any amount of money” on Taoism.

Zhu’s chief adviser, Li Jinkang, says the goal is to keep Taoism vital in an era when indigenous Chinese ideas are on the defensive. “Churches are everywhere. But traditional things are less so. So Chairman Zhu said: ‘What about our Taoism? Our Taoism is a really deep thing. If we don’t protect it, then what?’ ”

Balancing this desire with the imperatives of China’s political system is tricky. While the Communist Party has allowed religious groups to rebuild temples and proselytize, its own members are supposed to be good Marxists and shun religion. Like many big-business people, Zhu is also a party member. Two years ago, he became one of the first private business owners to set up a party branch in his company, earning him praise in the pages of the Communist Party’s official organ, People’s Daily. He has also established a party “school” — an indoctrination center for employees. His company’s Web site has a section extolling his party-building efforts and has a meeting room with a picture of Mao Zedong looking down from the wall. Although it might seem like an odd way to mix religion and politics, Taoism often deifies famous people; at least three Taoist temples in one part of China are dedicated to Chairman Mao.

Until recently, Zhu mostly ignored the contradiction, but he has become more cautious, emphasizing how he loved Taoist philosophy and playing down the religion. Still, Zhu continues to support conventional Taoism. His staff takes courses in a Taoist form of meditation called neigong, and he has sent staff members to document religious sites, like the supposed birthplace of Laotzu, who is worshiped as a god in Taoism. He also has close relations with folk-religious figures and plans to establish a “Taoist base” in the countryside to propagate Taoism. “The ancients were amazing,” Zhu says. “Taoism can save the world.”

WHEN ABBESS YIN started to rebuild her nunnery in 1991, she faced serious challenges. Her temple was located on Mount Mao, among low mountains and hills outside the eastern metropolis of Nanjing. It had been a center of Taoism from the fourth century until 1938, when Japanese troops burned some of the temple complex. As on Mount Yi, communist zealots completed the destruction in the 1960s. Her temple was so badly damaged that the forest reclaimed the land and only a few stones from the foundation could be found in the underbrush.

Unlike Mount Yi, Mount Mao is an extensive complex: six large temples with, altogether, about 100 priests and nuns. Just a 45-minute drive from Nanjing and two hours from Shanghai, it is a popular destination for day-trippers wanting to get out of the city. Even 20 years ago, when Abbess Yin arrived, tourism-fueled reconstruction was in full swing on Mount Mao. Two temples had escaped complete destruction, and priests began repairing them in the 1980s. The local government started charging admission, taking half the gate receipts. But the Taoists still got their share and plowed money back into reconstruction. More buildings meant higher ticket prices and more construction, a cycle typical of many religious sites. Although pilgrims began to avoid the temples because of the overt commercialism, tourists started to arrive in droves, bused in by tour companies that also got a cut of gate receipts. Last year, ticket sales topped $2.7 million.

Abbess Yin opted for another model. Trained in Taoist music, she set up a Taoist music troupe that toured the Yangtze River delta in a rickety old bus, stopping at communities that hired them to perform religious rituals. When I first met her in 1998, she used the money to rebuild one prayer hall on Mount Mao but refused to charge admission. Word of her seriousness began to spread around the region and abroad. Soon, her band of nuns were performing in Singapore, Hong Kong and Taiwan.

More nuns began to join. In the Quanzhen school of Taoism, which Abbess Yi follows, Taoist clergy members live celibate lives in monasteries and nunneries, often in the mountains. (In the other school, known as Zhengyi, they may marry and tend to live at home, making house calls to perform ceremonies.) For Abbess Yin’s young nuns, her temple provided security and calm in a world that is increasingly complicated. “Here, I can participate in something profound,” said one nun who asked to be identified only as Taoist Huang. “The outside world has nothing like this.” For Abbess Yin, the young people are a chance to mold Taoists in the image of her master. “The only people who are worth having are older than 80 or younger than 20.”

Even now, Abbess Yin’s temple is low-key. There are no tourist attractions like cable cars, gift shops, teahouses or floodlit caves — and, unlike at most temples, still no admission fee. The atmosphere is also different. While in some temples, priests seem to spend most of their time hawking incense sticks or offering to tell people’s fortunes, her nuns are quiet and demure. Maybe this is why even in the 1990s, when her temple was reachable only by a dirt road, locals said it was ling — that it had spirit and was effective. In 1998, I saw a group of Taiwanese visitors abandon their bus and walk two miles to the temple so they could pray. “This is authentic,” one told me. “The nuns are real nuns, and it’s not just for show.”

With a growing reputation came donations. One reason that city people often underestimate Taoism is that its temples are mostly in the mountains, and its supporters rarely want to discuss their gifts. But one way to gauge its support is to look at the lists of benefactors, which are carved on stone tablets and set up in the back of the temple. In Abbess Yin’s temple, some tablets record 100,000 yuan ($15,000) donations, while others show 10,000 yuan gifts. But even those making just 100 yuan contributions get their names in stone. With the donations came the current plan to build the $1.5 million Jade Emperor Hall halfway up the mountain, making the Mount Mao complex visible for miles around. It is due to open on this weekend, with Taoists from Southeast Asia and across China expected to participate.

Abbess Yin’s success led the China Taoist Association to invite her to Beijing for training. She learned accounting, modern management methods and the government’s religious policy. Earlier this year she was placed on one of the association’s senior leadership councils. She has also begun speaking out on abuses on the religious scene, urging greater strictness inside Taoist temples and less emphasis on commerce. Many Taoists, she wrote in an essay reprinted in an influential volume, have become obsessed with making money and aren’t performing real religious services but just selling incense. Too many traveled around China, using temples as youth hostels instead of as places to study the Tao or to worship.

“Taoism is a great tradition, but our problem is we’ve had very fast growth, and the quality of priests is too low,” she told me. “Some people don’t even know the basics of Taoism but treat it like a business. This isn’t good in the long-term.”

THE DAY AFTER Abbess Yin’s standoff with the official, the big event on Mount Yi was due to start. She arrived early, making sure her nuns were ready at 7. The muddy path was now covered with stones that farmers had just hosed down, making them glisten in the early-morning sun. Workers scraped paint off the floor, inflated balloons and hung banners, while a television crew set up its equipment to film the politicians.

Inside the Jade Emperor Pavilion, the nuns milled around, checking one another’s clothes and hair. All, including the abbess, were wearing their white tunics and black knee breeches. They pulled on fresh blue robes and pink capes, while the abbess donned a brilliant red gown with a blue and white dragon embroidered on the back. She and her top two lieutenants affixed small golden crowns to their topknots. She was now transformed into a fashi, or ritual master. Something was about to happen.

Abbess Yin walked over to a drum about two feet in diameter and picked up two wooden sticks lying on top. She began pounding in alternating rhythms. The nuns knew their roles by heart and lined up in two rows, flanking the statue of the Jade Emperor, golden and beautiful, the god’s eyes beatific slits and his mouth slightly parted as if speaking to the people below. Still, for now the statue was just a block of wood. The ceremony would change that. It is called kai guang or “opening the eyes” — literally, opening brightness. Abbess Yin could open them, but it would take time.

Five minutes passed and sweat glistened on her forehead. Then, six of the nuns quietly took their places and started to play their instruments. A young woman plucked the zither, while another strummed the Chinese lute, or pipa. Another picked up small chimes that she began tinkling, while a nun next to her wielded a cymbal that she would use to punctuate the ceremony with crashes and hisses. Abbess Yin stopped drumming and began to sing in a high-pitched voice that sounded like something out of Peking Opera. Later during the ceremony she read and sang, sometimes alone and at other times with the nuns backing her. Always she was in motion: kneeling, standing, moving backward, turning and twirling, the dragon on her back seeming to come alive. It was physically grueling, requiring stamina and concentration. During the occasional lull, a young nun would hand her a cup of tea that she delicately shielded behind the sleeve of her robe and drank quickly. Gradually, people began to pay attention. The wives of several officials stood next to the altar and gawked, first in astonishment and then with growing respect for the intensity of the performance. When a police officer suggested they move back, they said: “No, no, we won’t be a bother. Please, we have to see it.” Workers, their jobs finished, sat at the back. Within an hour, about 50 onlookers had filled the prayer hall.

On cue, at 10:30, she stopped. A group of local leaders had assembled outside the hall. They announced the importance of the project and how they were promoting traditional culture. A ribbon was cut, applause sounded and television cameras whirred. Then the group piled into minibuses and rolled down to the valley for the hotel lunch.

The speeches were barely over when Abbess Yin picked up again. As the ceremony reached its climax, more and more people began to appear, seemingly out of nowhere, on the barren mountain face. Four policemen tried to keep order, linking arms to barricade the door so the nuns would have space for the ceremony. “Back, back, give the nuns room,” one officer said as the crowd pressed forward. People peered through windows or waited outside, holding cameras up high to snap pictures. “The Jade Emperor,” an old woman said, laying down a basket of apples as an offering. “Our temple is back.” Abbess Yin moved in front of the statue, praying, singing and kowtowing. This is the essence of the ritual — to create a holy space and summon the gods to the here and now, to this place at this moment.

Shortly after noon, when it seemed she had little strength left, Abbess Yin stopped singing. She held a writing brush in one hand and wrote a talismanic symbol in the air. Then she looked up: the sun was at the right point, slanting down into the prayer room. This was the time. She held out a small square mirror and deflected a sunbeam, which danced on the Jade Emperor’s forehead. The abbess adjusted the mirror slightly and the light hit the god’s eyes. Kai guang, opening brightness. The god’s eyes were open to the world below: the abbess, the worshipers and the vast expanse of the North China Plain, with its millions of people racing toward modern China’s elusive goals — prosperity, wealth, happiness.

Ian Johnson is the author of “A Mosque in Munich” and “Wild Grass: Three Stories of Change in Modern China.” He is based in Beijing.


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