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Taoism in the Tang and Song dynasties

Enlarge this imageTaoist ceremonial robe, Qing dynasty, approx. 1644–1700. China. Silk with gold thread. Asian Art Museum, Transfer from the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, Gift of Albert M. Bender, B81M29.
Taoism is an indigenous Chinese religion. Tao is often translated as “way” or “path.” The teachings of Taoism advocate following the "way" and integrating with the natural world. Its legendary founder was Laozi, who lived in the sixth century B.C.E. However, most scholars believed that the real history of Taoism is rooted in indigenous religion of the second century and that it developed rapidly along with the advancement of Buddhism. Taoism developed its own unique meditation techniques. Taoists also had a particular interest in the pursuit of immortality and alchemy. As in the West, experiments in these pursuits led to unanticipated advances in chemistry and physics.
Chinese symbols and concepts commonly encountered in the West associated with Taoism are yin and yang, representing the balance of opposites and the concept of qi as a natural energy running through all existence. The popularity and familiarity of philosophical Taoism in the West in recent decades can even be observed in the plot device of "the force" in the film Star Wars.
During the Tang Dynasty (618–906), Taoism enjoyed special patronage. Because Laozi’s surname is Li, identical to that of the Tang ruling house, the emperors revered Laozi as one of their ancestors and supported the development of Taoism. This support included building Taoist temples and establishing schools to enroll students studying Taoist canons. Under the patronage of the emperors, Taoism flourished in the Tang. Nonetheless, Taoism had to compete with Buddhism for converts. Such competition is reflected in a passage written by Han Yu entitled The Girl of Mt. Hua. It relates how a female Taoist priest, in rivalry with Buddhists, used her charm and eloquence to attract an audience:
In streets east, streets west, they expound the Buddhist canon, clanging bells, sounding conches, till the din invades the palace. The girl of Mount Hua, child of a Taoist home, longed to expel the foreign faith, win men back to the Immortals; she washed off her powder, wiped her face, put on cap and shawl. With white throat, crimson cheeks, long eyebrows of gray, she came at last to ascend the chair, unfolding the secrets of Truth.
(Translated by Burton Watson, from the Columbia Book of Chinese Poetry)
From this text, we learned that monks customarily traveled far and wide to preach their doctrines, causing unease among Taoists. In this instance, a female Taoist engaged herself among the field of proselytizers and won over the monks. However, generally speaking, during the Tang dynasty Buddhism was more influential than Taoism. In the waning years of the Tang, Taoism experienced a setback.
However, in the Song (960–1279) dynasty, Taoism recovered and reached the height of its popularity during the reign of Emperor Huizong (1100–1125). Emperor Huizong invited Taoist priests to his court to teach him Taoist alchemy. He appointed famous Taoist teachers to high positions in the government. He established Taoist temples across the empire. He also constantly performed Taoist rituals in his palace. The emperor went so far as to declare himself to be the personal protector of Taoism. To defeat Taoism's rivals, he at one point used his authority to ban Buddhism. The emperor’s zeal influenced his ministers, and many of the high officials at court likewise showed an interest in Taoism. The reign of Huizong was the heyday of Taoism in China. Taoism persists as an important religion in contemporary China.
Written by Zhaoyang Zhang.

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