A couple of days ago, someone asked me online: “What if everyone in China was Taoist? Would you be happy?”
Though it may sound outlandish, I gave the question some thought before answering it. Picture this: Everyone in China has converted to Taoism. They all wear long ocher robes, nobody eats beef, and state laws are replaced by Taoist scriptures. Temples where Taoist ceremonies take place line the busy streets, and the Daodejing is recited solemnly. There are no more scholars, soldiers, farmers, or any other professions at odds with Taoist philosophy. To me, it sounds like a dystopia.
Of course, my online acquaintance probably only asked because they felt affection toward Taoism as well as disappointment at the lack of influence Taoism has in China today. As the only religion native to China, Taoism has historically been incorporated into, and indeed subsumed by, Buddhist beliefs. Now, more Chinese practice Christianity and yoga than Taoism.
Currently there are about 9,000 Taoist temples across China, but only around 50,000 Taoists. For a country of this size, that is a negligible number. Part of the issue may be the negative preconceptions that many people hold toward Taoism. To some, it calls to mind superstitious practices like sorcery, fortunetelling, or voodoo.
Some religions advocate converting whole countries — even the world — through a holy crusade, but not Taoism. So when I replied to my online friend, I said, “Not everyone in China will become a Taoist. But even more importantly, I’d actually be saddened if they did.”
My reason for responding this way is that I believe our country needs to be diverse. Taoism should not be the sole influence on Chinese religion. In China, people are taught to venerate the spirits of ancestors. This has always been a tradition honored above any religion. It is precisely for this reason that Confucianism, Buddhism, and Taoism have been able to harmoniously coexist for so long.
Of course, China has seen its fair share of religious conflict over the years. For example, the Yellow Turban Rebellion of A.D. 184-205, a peasant revolt against the ruling Han dynasty, was fought by leaders affiliated with a secretive Taoist sect, the Way of Supreme Peace. Later, in 1120, the Manichaean leader Fang La led a rebellion against the Song dynasty, which reached as far as Hangzhou in eastern China’s Zhejiang province. However, we have never engaged in a religious war designed to obliterate the followers of a so-called heathen faith, such as the Crusades. Compared to most other parts of the world, China has generally served as a strong example of religious integration, acceptance, and tolerance. I am extremely proud of that.
The world should not be run by followers of Taoism or any other single religion. Instead, it should be inferred from natural laws and restricted by national legal structures and religious teachings.
In fact, any religion, if left unchecked, can have a detrimental effect on a nation, for it can bring about extremism, ignorance, and a lack of checks and balances on power. Even Taoism can be distorted to reflect extremist views, such as in 1946, when the White Cloud Temple in Beijing burned its high priest alive for allegedly breaking religious rules.
All religions are created by humans, and all conflicts arise from human selfishness and greed. Even if everyone in China converted to Taoism, there would still be conflicts. Therefore, I truly believe that state laws should be respected above religious laws. A sense of national belonging should come before any identification with a religious community. It is also the only way we can protect and balance the diversity of China’s populace.
Respecting difference is the only way that China’s Taoists, Buddhists, Catholics, Muslims, and atheists — as well as those who adhere to the many other faiths — can all pursue their beliefs without causing destruction to society. Of course, some may retort that I put so much emphasis on religious diversity because Taoism is a polytheistic religion, and many associate its pantheon of deities with an ability to accommodate ideas from outside beliefs.
However, it is wrong to categorize Taoism as polytheism. What Taoists believe in is the “Tao,” the single, eternal truth underlying the natural world. The Tao is above gods, as the only way to achieve godliness is to fully understand and embody the Tao. Whenever gods cease to represent the Tao, they are no longer considered gods.
Unlike monotheists, Taoists do not believe in a singular creator. The original gods of Taoism were mostly human historical figures chosen by followers on the basis of merit. Only later, after the Tang dynasty, did a multitude of new gods of fortune appear.
Therefore, Taoism is not expansionist in the sense of desiring to create a unified religious state. Rather, by practicing Taoism, we can enlighten others and encourage them to understand the inherent nature of things and find truth in the Tao itself.
In today’s world, microblogging is my chosen form of spreading Taoism. My role is rather far removed from the job of a missionary. For me, the number of Taoists out there is less important than whether Taoism is being taught correctly to people and whether we can form an understanding between Taoists and the general public. We have to protect the philosophical essence of Taoism, not shackle it within the confines of religious strictures. We have to spread the truth of the Tao, but not force people to assimilate.
In my view, the bottom line is this: Over its 5,000 years of history, China has been most at peace when secular laws have triumphed over religious pronouncements. The government does not protect a singular religion but rather the rights of all people regardless of their religious inclinations.
Therefore, if one day Taoism swept across China, converting all before it, I would try to resist the trend. I believe Chinese people everywhere would oppose it with me, for it runs counter to the importance we collectively place on the peace and longevity of the country. This is a view shared, I’m sure, by many the world over: A nation should be ruled in a way that serves the interests of everyone, not merely of religious institutions.
(Header image: Priests in procession at a Taoist temple in Tianshui, Gansu province, Dec. 18, 2012. Yishisan/VCG)