Published 23 Dec 2016

Taoism and its Development through Shangqing and Lingbao Schools

Like all other religions, Taoism has organized groups or sects developed that developed through its inception many years ago. These sects employed practices such as alchemy, faith-healing, sorcery, and the use of power objects, which seem to have existed from ancient times in China, converting them into institutionalized and distinctive social movements with detailed rituals, clergy, and revealed texts. This institutionalization of ancient practices developed as the Han dynasty (206 B.C.–220 A.D.) was declining amidst famine and war.

An array of revelations and prophecies predicted the end of the age and finally led to the rise of religious/political organizations. For example, Kan Ji received a visionary revelation that yin and yang were no longer in balance in heaven or on earth, for the rulers had forgotten to follow the ways of nature, and that in 184 A.D. the blue heaven of the Han would be replaced by the yellow heaven. Thus, the Celestial Masters church, which is chronologically the first to develop a structure is treated in the outset, but continues to exist down to our day. In the Celestial Masters church, two traditions developed:

The Shangqing (Highest Clarity) tradition took shape during the fourth century A.D., but its glory years were under the Tang (618-907) and the Lingbao (Sacred Treasure) sect emerged a little later, gave birth to an immense body of ritual that incorporated part of that of the Celestial Masters, and then grew even larger under the Sung (960-1279). The movement toward consolidation that took place under the Tang and the influence from Buddhism, which came in during the same period, actually had their beginnings much earlier, in the fourth and fifth centuries (Robinet, 1997, p. 2).

Shangqing school began with a revelation from the Heaven of Highest Clarity received by the medium Yang Xi in 364-70. Yang Xi was a member of a southern aristocratic clan, and the new scriptures and insights into the realms of the otherworld transmitted to him remained at first limited to this select group. Highest Clarity in its teaching combined the new visions with the practices of the alchemy as they were continued in the south and specifically associated with a family named Ge. Shangqing practice was highly inpidual and aimed at transferring the practitioner into the realms of the immortals, first by visualizations, then by ecstatic journeys, and finally through the ingestion of a highly poisonous alchemical elixir (Seidel, 1983).

Shangqing believers looked down on the Celestial Master tradition and its sexual rituals as crude, and they avoided village rituals and commoners. Instead, they focused on personal immortality through meditations for purifying the body with pine energies so as “to rise up to heaven in broad daylight” (Lopez, 1996). Although the Highest Purity Taoism did not reach the mass of the people, its texts and influence continue to be revered today as the elite tradition of Taoism.

A few decades after the Shangqing revelations, Ge Chaofu, a member of the Ge family, proceeded to develop his own vision of the otherworld. Calling his new understanding Sacred Treasure (Lingbao), he integrated the Shangqing scriptures with Han dynasty thinking, Buddhist cosmology and doctrine, as well as the magico-technical practices transmitted within his family. The new group of scriptures, compiled from the last decade of the fourth century onward, soon became widespread and very popular.

Much simpler than the practice of Shangqing, Lingbao (Sacred Treasure) required merely the recitation of its scriptures and participation in its rites to guarantee a place among the perfected. Since only initiates were allowed to own the necessary documents and join the ceremonies, the group placed a high emphasis on secrecy and the proper transmission of the scriptures (Bokenkamp, 1989).

With the Lingbao movement spreading, Taoism emerged for the first time as an organized religion of all China, expanding vastly over the limited sphere of influence of the Celestial Masters. Copying readily from the fast-growing Buddhist community, Taoists in the fifth century built the first monasteries of their own, compiled their first catalogues and canons of scriptures, and established proper rank and file among their membership. Throughout the sixth century, scriptures continued to be received in revelation and compiled by human beings; commentaries and discourses grew. Soon also the first encyclopedias were collected, and there appeared the first statues and pictural representations of Taoist gods.

The Tang dynasty (618-906) saw the heyday of Taoist splendor and influence. The leading church of China, especially in the eighth century, Taoism with Shangqing at the top continued to produce scriptures, texts and art works and gained an ever increasing influence on the political scene of the day. The great splendor of courtly Taoists was matched by the high spiritual attainments of masters on isolated mountains. The widespread impact throughout the country was enhanced by the political support of the Tang rulers, who claimed descent from Laozi himself (Benn, 1991).

As Lingbao improved the Shangqing traditions, it assimilated many elements of Buddhism, creating a medley of new meditation practices, pine beings, rituals, scriptures, heavens, rebirth, and hells. This tradition was in turn succeeded in the twelfth century by Quanzhen (Complete Perfection), which has been the dominant monastic school ever since. It unites Taoist inner alchemy with Ch’an Buddhist meditation and Confucian social morality, harmonizing the three religions. Actively monastic, it focuses on meditation and non-attachment to the world. Today its major center is the White Cloud Monastery in Beijing, the headquarters of the government-approved Chinese Taoism Association. Quanzhen, also called as the “Modern Taoism” is also the foundation for most Hong Kong Taoist temples and martial arts groups.

The many revealed scriptures of Taoist movements were occasionally compiled and canonized by the court. The present Taoist canon was compiled in 1445. Containing about 1,500 sophisticated scriptures, it has only recently begun to be studied by non-Taoist scholars. It includes a wealth of firsthand accounts by mystical practitioners—poems of their visionary shamanistic journeys, encounters with deities, advanced meditation practices, descriptions of the perfected human being, methods and elixirs for ascending to heavenly realms and achieving immortality, and descriptions of the Immortals and the heavenly bureaucracies (Lopez, 1996).

The rituals and inner cultivation practices of the canon are in use today, typically in one of two modes: rites of cosmic renewal for the living, and rituals to be employed after death. At death either Taoist or Buddhist priests may be hired by private families to perform rituals to help the deceased appear before the Ten Hell Judges, as well as to join in communal rituals of grave-cleaning in April and of universal liberation and feeding of hungry ghosts in August. Every temple has a side shrine to T’u-ti Kung, Lord of the Earth, who can transport offerings to deceased loved ones.

All forms of Taoist practice are still actively undertaken today, both in communist mainland China and Chinese communities elsewhere, and also increasingly in the West. They tend to merge with popular religion, New Age philosophies, and health culture. In China, they form part of domestic and family religion. To the present day, there are numerous rituals in the home, such as the farewell party to the stove god on the lunar New Year’s Eve (late January or February). Also, both Taoist and Buddhist groups continue to be recipients of new revelations and scriptures. These texts, which are known as “precious scrolls,” emanate from deities such as the Golden Mother of the Celestial Pool. It is believed that in the past the pine Mother sent Buddha and Lao-tzu as her messengers but that now the crisis of the present world requires her direct intervention (Kohn, 2001).

In an article, Oldstone-Moore (27 September 2003) analyzed that the impact of Taoism on Chinese culture has been profound. As seen in the art of calligraphy, the most highly valued Chinese art form; it shows the balance between mastery of pattern and artless spontaneity. Landscape paintings reflect Taoist ideas of the human relationship to nature, where humans are a small part of a landscape.

Also, Oldstone-Moore said that the Taoist sensibility is reflected in associated practices, such as feng shui or geomancy, in which graves, buildings and interiors are arranged to absorb auspicious forces and to repel the malignant – thus improving one’s fortune. It is reflected in the balance of yin and yang in Chinese cooking. Taoist principles mirror the techniques of traditional Chinese medicine, as well as practices such as t’ai-chi ch’uan and the martial arts (Oldstone-Moore, 27 September 2003).

Historically, whenever the central Chinese government has been strong, it has tended to demand total allegiance to itself as a pine authority and to challenge or suppress competing religious groups. The emperors of ancient China either claimed pine origin or referred to themselves as the Sons of Heaven appointed from on high. Confucian scholars were suppressed and their books were burned by the Ch’in dynasty (221–206 B.C.), shamans were forbidden during the Han dynasty, Buddhists were persecuted during the T’ang dynasty, the T’ai-p’ing rebellion of the nineteenth century attempted to purge China of Taoism and Buddhism, and during the Cultural Revolution of 1966 to 1976, zealous young Red Guards destroyed Taoist, Buddhist, and Confucian temples and books (Kohn, 2001).

With the economic liberalization of the late twentieth century in mainland China, in spite of an atheistic communist ideology, temples maintained as historic sites, pilgrimages to temples in natural sites and religious tourism were encouraged, and an explosion of temple building occurred. Indeed, the Chinese have learned to co-exist with their persity of religions, as their ancient religious traditions, like Shangqing and Lingbao, have evolved into an important social force that is vital in China’s modernization drive today.


  • Benn, C.D. 1991. The Cavern Mystery Transmission: A Taoist Ordination Rite of A.D. 711. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press.
  • Bokenkamp S. R. 1989. Death and Ascent in Lingbao Taoism. Taoist Resources, 1(2):1-21.
  • Kohn, L. 2001. Daoism and Chinese Culture, Cambridge, Massachusetts: Three Pines Press.
  • Lopez, D.S. 1996. Religions of China in Practice, Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press.
  • Oldstone-Moore, J. 2003, September 27. Eastern path to western harmony. The Guardian. Retrieved 17 October 2006, from The Guardian Unlimited Website,3604,1050715,00.html
  • Robinet, I. (1997). Taoism: Growth of a Religion (Brooks, P., Trans.). Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.
  • Seidel, A. 1983. Imperial Treasures and Taoist Sacraments: Taoist Roots in the Apocrypha, in M. Strickmann, ed., Tantric and Taoist Studies, Brussels: Institut Beige des Hautes études Chinoises: 291-371.
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