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2018-05-23 03:22:25 Commentary

Last month, contractors for the Chinese Academy of Sciences’ nuclear power station in Wuwei, northwestern China’s Gansu province, invited local Taoist monks to perform a foundation-laying ceremony at the station’s construction site. Somewhat unexpectedly, this seemingly banal event snowballed into a media furor that pit the country’s religious revivalists against those who believe in scientific progress.

Soon after the ceremony, several media outlets labeled the Taoist ritual “superstitious” and claimed that it went against the academy’s scientific values. Opponents decried Taoist practices as “backward” and “absurd” — claims that drew the ire of Taoism’s resurgent numbers of followers.

To be precise, the ritual performed that day is known as “Pacifying the Dragons and Making Offerings to the God of the Earth.” Taoism teaches us that large-scale construction unsettles local spirits and earthly deities, and contractors must both pacify them before construction begins and make offerings to the earth god once construction is complete.

But in Chinese terms, this isn’t superstition. In fact, the Chinese word for “superstition,” mixin, combines the characters for “lost, confused, or fascinated” and “belief.” It wasn’t until the 19th century that it took on the opposite meaning to kexue — “science” — and since then has referred to blind, uncomprehending, or fanatical forms of faith, not to Taoism’s systematic religious and philosophical beliefs.

After the collapse of the Qing Dynasty and the subsequent failure of an independent Chinese republic in the early 20th century, a group of thinkers allied with the New Culture Movement weaponized the term mixin as an umbrella term for purportedly irrational and unscientific beliefs. Certain influential intellectuals connected China’s weakness on the global stage to widespread support for traditional religions and customs, which would have to be eradicated if China were to become powerful again. In the febrile political atmosphere of the time, Taoism and folk religions were lambasted as barriers to social progress.

The New Culture Movement profoundly shaped Chinese politics and social customs, and Taoists experienced several waves of persecution throughout the 20th century as a result of the vilification of their beliefs. Prior to the reunification of China under Communist rule in 1949, the Kuomintang government suppressed Taoist practices. Later, during the Cultural Revolution, Taoist practitioners were targeted for upholding “feudal” beliefs that supposedly ran counter to the ideals of socialism.

I also fear that Taoist conservatives will grow tired of reacting to public suspicion with openness and warmth.

In the wake of last month’s outcry, the Taoist community has largely sought to redress the pigeonholing of their beliefs and reaffirm Taoism’s centuries-old cultural underpinnings in China. Tao Jin, a Taoist who works to build temples across China, wrote an article for The Paper, Sixth Tone’s sister publication, claiming that foundation-laying rituals are a uniquely Chinese expression of reverence for the natural world. In the same vein, a widely shared online poster written by the internet persona “Yi Yu Shi” claimed that as the only religion to have originated in China, “Taoism is a vessel for traditional national culture. Taoist theurgy is not witchcraft, nor is it superstitious.”

The above quotation was actually adapted from a 2010 academic article by Li Zhihong, a member of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. Li’s report goes to great lengths to rebut underlying suspicions that Taoism is pure superstition. He is at pains to distinguish Taoist alchemy from witchcraft — for example, claiming that Taoist techniques of maintaining longevity may be unscientific, but they are effective in limited ways. Li concludes that the revival of Taoism requires the “sympathy and understanding” of the media — something that was certainly lacking in the aftermath of last month’s ceremony.

But perhaps the most offensive response to the foundation-laying ceremony came from the commentator Jiang Meng in Party mouthpiece People’s Daily. In an eviscerating piece, Jiang dubbed the Taoist priest who led the ritual “just some local farmer,” called him and his ilk “fraudsters,” and equated their religious practices with pagan “spirit-dances.” Yet all Jiang demonstrated was his own lack of basic understanding. 

I lament the ignorance and disrespect that many of my fellow Chinese people continue to demonstrate toward Taoism. But I also fear that Taoist conservatives — the kind who head up the country’s religious associations — will grow tired of reacting to public suspicion with openness and warmth, and will instead try to defend Taoism from a purely nationalist standpoint. As China’s sole homegrown religion, Taoism is fertile ground to be claimed by hyper-patriotic revivalists of traditional Chinese culture. It is essential that Taoists remain level-headed and oppose radical and exclusionary political attitudes.

Currently, the Taoist community is broadly discussing how to adapt our beliefs to the profound changes taking place in Chinese society. The foundation-laying ceremony in Gansu reminds us that, at a time when religious affairs easily ignite controversy in the public domain, Taoists must act with caution and practice their beliefs in appropriate, transparent ways that seek to unify people, not divide them.

Translator: Lewis Wright; editors: Wu Haiyun and Matthew Walsh.

(Header image: People burn incense at a Taoist temple in Zhaotong, Yunnan province, Feb. 20, 2015. Zhang Guangyu/VCG)