Last month, Shanghai’s City God Temple played host to a solemn congregation gathered in celebration of the birth of Laozi, an ancient philosopher widely known as the founder of Chinese Taoism. The ceremony was held on the 15th day of the second month in the Chinese lunar calendar, an auspicious day that Taoists believe to be the birthday of the Highest Lord Lao, one of Taoism’s three supreme gods.
Lord Lao is the deified form of the same Laozi who ostensibly wrote the Tao Te Ching, a classic work of Chinese philosophy composed around the sixth century B.C. During the Eastern Han Dynasty, Lord Lao allegedly reappeared before the Taoist celestial master Zhang Daoling, bestowing upon him the teachings that later came to form the orthodox beliefs of the Zhengyi sect, one of the major Taoist denominations in China today.
For followers of Taoism, the Highest Lord Lao is the embodiment of the Tao, or “Way,” and the Tao Te Ching is one of the most important Taoist scriptures. During the Tang Dynasty, the emperor gave Laozi the venerable title of “Highest Emperor of Mysterious Origin,” and from 840 A.D. onward, his birthday came to be strictly observed by the imperial court, when the country’s larger Taoist temples held prayer ceremonies for followers to fast and preach scripture. Lord Lao’s birthday is, in essence, as close as Taoism gets to Christmas in the West. Yet in spite of the recent resurgence of religion in China, Lord Lao hadn’t enjoyed a birthday party on this scale for quite some time.
Last month’s celebrations in Shanghai were therefore significant for two reasons. For one, it was the first time in many years that the City God Temple hosted a large-scale Taoist festival. Though Taoism is China’s only indigenous religion, its influence today pales in comparison with its past status. Many people know the City God Temple as a tourist landmark and commercial center, but few know it as an important Taoist religious site.
Second, the ceremony itself revealed how Taoism is adapting its image to attract new converts. Over the course of the day itself, organizers deftly merged tradition, trade, and technology to create a welcoming atmosphere for new and lapsed Taoists alike.
During morning mass, the temple abbot began with a ritual preaching of the Tao. Later, he conducted the tradition of natural audiences with Laozi, a highly ritualized ceremony in which followers move in slow procession around an altar, repenting of their sins and praying for blessings from heaven. In the afternoon, two further ceremonies were held that were important for more pious followers who, after committing to long-term study and self-cultivation, wish to become “lay Taoists” — religious adepts who devote themselves to following the Tao, but are not members of the clergy.
The celebration was intended to expand the influence of Taoist culture, especially by attracting more young people to observe and participate in this traditional festival. For that reason, the meticulously planned event was full of new interpretations.
The image of the infant Laozi. Courtesy of the City God Temple of Shanghai
One of the most surprising innovations lay in the organizers’ repurposing of traditional iconography. In contrast to traditional images of Laozi — which tend to depict him as an elderly, ethereal, sage-like figure — the predominant image at the City God Temple was an anime-style illustration of Laozi as a baby, his hair drawn back into a bun, naked as the day he was born.
The icon’s artist, the Taoist priest Wang Minyuan, told me that the infant Laozi is, in fact, a very important part of Taoist iconography. It has its origins in the Eighty-One Transformations of Lord Lao — an illustrated religious text — in which it represents the beginning of the universe. In addition, the image of a child reflects the Tao Te Ching’s veneration of newborns, who symbolize the purity and sincerity of ancient times. Returning to a state of primordial communication with the Tao is the ultimate aim of those who practice Taoist self-cultivation — but that’s not to say representations of this ideal cannot also be updated for modern followers.
The event compellingly mixed modern-style iconography with much more traditional paraphernalia. Organizers erected a shrine to the Holy Infant and a further altar in honor of the Sovereign of the Void, a Taoist celestial worthy. The former harkened back to the tradition of sacrificing to Laozi during the Han Dynasty. The shrine was draped in a purple coverlet that joined together like curtains in the front, with a statue of the infant Laozi housed within.
The latter followed the ancient style of the Tang and Song dynasties, featuring outer, middle, and inner altars. Believers gathered to pay their respects at the outer alter, with a view of the religious accoutrements laid out on the middle altar. Finally, the inner altar was dedicated to spaces for the high priest, the abbot of the temple, and the other religious masters to perform Taoist rituals.
The planners’ intentions behind constructing and sacrificing to these particular altars were explained by Taoist priest Tao Guanjing. The altars’ reappearance reflected the ongoing revival of the Taoist belief in spontaneity, he said. Taoist priests and adherents were invited to interact with one another during the ceremony, as a means of restoring the long-lapsed connection between the temple clergy and the congregation. Together, they gave free reign to the concept of universal salvation through communing with the Tao.
Interestingly, the entire event was broadcast live on internet giant Tencent’s Taoism channel, an online TV station that, alongside Buddhist and Confucian sister channels, aims to popularize Chinese traditional religion via the web. This was a historic first for a Shanghai-based Taoist ceremony. On the ground, three camera operators filmed the event in real time, beaming full, detailed coverage of the ceremony to audiences at home and abroad. Statistics showed that 630,000 viewers tuned in to watch the morning mass, a number that grew to 740,000 by the end of the day.
Throughout the broadcast, a senior Taoist of the Shanghai City God Temple, Li Daqian, offered commentary on the ceremonial happenings, explaining in exhaustive detail each stage of the event as it proceeded. The effect was to give audiences at home insight into the rituals playing out on their screens, challenging the idea that Taoism is impenetrable, irrelevant, or irreconcilable with modern life.
Outside of the specialized Taoist ceremonies, pilgrims and tourists to the City God Temple could hang talismans bearing their personal wishes for the future, as well as eat local pastries purportedly infused with the energy of the Tao. These activities reflected a deep-seated commercial aspect of Taoist festivals, many of which historically developed into temple fairs with distinct regional customs. The Laozi Fair at Chengdu’s Qingyang Palace, located in southwestern China’s Sichuan province, takes place alongside a local flower market; in the same vein, the treats on offer at the Shanghai temple fair added to the sense of community participation.
Combining the traditional with the modern has long been a challenge at the heart of Chinese Taoism; indeed, it is a difficulty that confronts practitioners of all forms of Chinese traditional culture. For me, the mass was largely successful: The organizers captured much of Taoism’s basic spirit through their adaptation of ancient classics, and revitalized the ceremonies of the Tang Dynasty — a golden age of Chinese culture — for a contemporary audience. They promoted orthodox Taoist culture while utilizing modern online media, keeping their eyes trained on the preferences of today’s young people and working hard to create a “Taoist Christmas” that everyone could enjoy.
Translator: Matthew Walsh; editors: Wu Haiyun and Matthew Walsh.
(Header image: The celebration of the Highest Lord Lao’s birthday at the City God Temple of Shanghai, March 12, 2017. Courtesy of the temple)