Shangqing: Individual’s Community

Community remains a central concept in religion and religious studies. Daoism is no exception to this rule. Many scholars of Daoism associate the religion’s birth with the emergence of the Celestial Masters (est. 142 C.E.), a hierarchically arranged community—or institution—that consisted of priests, libationers, and clerical members. Using the Celestial Masters as a comparative tool, one cannot ignore a conspicuous lack of community in the Shangqing (Supreme Purity) Daoist tradition. The materialism indicative of Ge Hong’s (ca. 280 – ca. 343) alchemy, adopted and internalized by the Shangqing school, renders the latter primarily individualistic and, therefore, problematically defined as an instance of a religious institution. Borrowing from Pierre Bourdieu’s sociological concept of field, I rework an emic understanding of Shangqing “communities,” one that includes an array of body gods and celestial bureaucrats. I argue that one ought to reconsider hastily classifying Shangqing merely as a “scriptural tradition,” as its members participated in very real numinous fields with complex relationships. After defining my use of the term “religion,” I explore Gil Raz’s reasons for excluding Shangqing from instantiating a religious community. Analyzing the school’s roots in Ge Hong’s alchemical practices of southern China, I trace the issue to a lack of community-orientation that reflects the practice’s individualistic tendencies. Next, I look at the ways in which Shangqing practitioners identified as members of a divine community connected by visualization techniques. Shangqing scriptures’ rich literary quality, I argue, established an inner sense of community with vivid imagery and poetic force.

An efficacious discussion of religion ought to identify the boundaries within which the author employs the term. For this task, I draw heavily from Jonathan Z. Smith and his essay, “Religion, Religions, and Religious” in Relating Religion: Essays in the Study of Religion.[1] Smith provides an historical survey of the developments in understanding and the study of “religion.” Encasing the word in scare quotes, the historian implies his treatment of the term as a second-order phenomenon, attributing the sui generis position to culture. This anthropological approach to the study of religion lends itself to viewing the latter as a comparative concept. In other words, the clearest understanding of “religion” is distilled out of inspecting it in its various specific instances, differentiating practices, traditions, and communities, and framing it within its relative cultural structure. Smith maintains that “religion” “is a term created by scholars for their intellectual purposes and therefore is theirs to define.”[2] Maintaining a similar comparative approach to the study of religion, Gil Raz provides his own polythetic definition of Daoism, which I intend to use in my analysis of Shangqing.

In Emergence of Daoism: Creation of Tradition, Gil Raz employs an inclusive five-pronged polythetic definition of Daoism. The scheme depicts the Daoist tradition as instantiated by attaining a degree of esoteric lineages of transmitted rituals that enable effective communication between humans and the Dao, rejecting those practices that fail to align with the Dao, and proposing an eschatological vision underlying the search for transcendence.[3] I argued elsewhere for integrating Stephan Bokenkamp’s definition—requiring a deified Laozi—as it correctly emphasizes “community” as a determining factor in distinguishing instances of Daoism.[4] Questions surface, however, concerning the authenticity of Shangqing’s classification as a religion if one maintains, as I do, the notion of “community” as a key criterion in the study of Daoism. Indeed, Gil Raz withholds attributing to it the status of a “social unit,” opting for the less tangible “textual corpus,”[5] or scriptural lineage. He glosses over this discrepancy by explaining that Daoist “communities of practice” and textual traditions share, among other traits, a common “continual effort at integration,”[6] as exemplified in the various attempts at canonization. In light of a community-based understanding of Daoism, however, this resolution does not hold.

Gil Raz locates the emergence of Daoism in the social developments revolving around the fangshi (“Masters of Esoterica”) and other seekers of immortality.[7] The deification of Laozi, Raz argues, ought to be understood within the context of a process that occurred during the Han (206 B.C.E – 220 C.E.), by which individual fangshi adepts and their lineages gained widespread recognition and reverence. Raz puts his finger on the budding Daoist religion by distinguish a separate program from the traditional fangshi narrative—one that sought to “pull [the adept] into a larger framework”[8] rather than focusing on the individual. The Celestial Masters (142 C.E.) systematized the practices and narratives indicative of the fangshi into “large coherent systems,”[9] thereby distinguishing themselves as the premier instantiation of a Daoist community. Indeed, the very fact that the Celestial Masters formed a tight-knit community of libationers, priests, and members renders it easily identifiable in the otherwise amorphous development of the religion. If the movement from “individual” to “communal” functions to distinguish Daoism from Chinese cultic traditions, then Shangqing, a definitively individualized tradition, appears to be working in the opposite direction.

Among its various sources of inspiration, Shangqing draws from the southern Chinese lineages of the seekers of transcendence typified by Ge Hong and his tradition. Robert Campany explains that the notion of “staving off death indefinitely” harkens back to the fourth century B.C.E.,[10] but it took a new, central position in the work of Ge Hong. Inheriting texts from his master, a disciple of his great uncle Ge Xuan[11] (164 C.E. – 244 C.E) who had ties with the fangshi, Ge Hong amassed a library of techniques for achieving transcendence.[12] Among these were the following techniques, many of which predate Ge Hong: withdraw and purification, making the body more welcoming for the gods; nourishing the vital principle, involving the circulation of qi (breath); breathing techniques; incantations; dietetics, such as avoiding grains, which were seen as conducive to decay and death; laboratory alchemy, which enabled one to prolong her[13] life and, with the right recipe, achieve transcendence; methods of bianhua (“mutations” or “evolutions”), involving shijie (“escape by means of a simulated corpse”), a kind of this-worldly transcendence, and “rising into Heaven in broad daylight,” a purer mode of transcendence for the moral adept.[14] Adepts sought transcendence through self-cultivation practices on their own terms; there was no need for the communal practices identified with the Celestial Masters. In his Shenxian zhuan (Traditions of Divine Transcendence), Ge Hong provides hagiographical accounts of individual transcendents who achieve the Dao with different techniques and to variegated degrees. A closer look at one of these accounts sheds light on a common trope among the seekers of transcendence: the individualistic quality of the quest for transcendence.

A chapter from Traditions, entitled “Cheng Wei’s Wife,” depicts a scene in which familial obligations conflict with the quest for transcendence. The reader learns that Cheng Wei’s wife could “communicate with spirits and perform transformations,” while Cheng Wei “repeatedly failed to complete [an elixir].”[15] The account proceeds to explain that Cheng’s wife withheld secret information he needed in order to achieve transcendence on the basis that his bones and physiognomy would not allow her to do so. After pressuring her to transmit the information, she “’died,’ [and] escaped by means of a simulated corpse.”[16] This particular hagiographical account depicts the extent to which the individual quest for transcendence takes precedence over values upheld in China. It promotes a movement away from the concerns and interactions associated with the world and requires one to live a hermetic life. Ge Hong himself described his inability to neglect his family and ties to the world in favor of the search for transcendence, as he relates the following in his Autobiography:

There are times when I obtain oral instructions for an important divine process…but even then I find myself clinging to my old wife and my little children…Although knowing that Fullness of Life can be achieved, I am unable to undertake the work, for, even though I am concerned about the horrors of the popular practices about me, I cannot quit them. Why? Feelings of attachment and habit are involved, and it is never easy to realize the desire to break with common practice.[17]

The quest for transcendence was intrinsically individualistic, calling potential adepts to withdraw into nature in order to acquire the appropriate elixir ingredients and achieve a mental state of purity in the absence of human obligations. The quester must not allow worldly concerns to contaminate her fragile and long process of self-cultivation. “Preserving one’s essence” in order to ensure proper circulation of qi requires the adept to shut the world out, maintaining a body that is air-tight—an enclosed vessel that keeps beneficial gods inside, while staving off perilous demons. The responsibility lies entirely with the adept—there are no priests to which she can turn for guidance. This is the tradition that Shangqing enveloped and adapted, a thoroughly individualistic one that I will show is fully immersed in notions of community.

The image of the hermetic alchemist, seeker of transcendence, does not signify individualism with a complete lack of community. In fact, Isabelle Robinet claims, the notion of “saving up” one’s vital essence is not at all selfish. “Hoarding,” she says, “is a prerequisite of communication.”[18] In other words, in a correlative system in which the microcosm (adept’s body and its gods) directly reflects the macrocosm (Dao universe and its gods), efforts to maintain and circulate qi is a form of communication between the adept and the gods. Viewing the transcendent’s quest from the outside, it appears as nothing short of (to use modern terminology) anti-social behavior. But from within—that is, through an emic lens that grants the adept her own complex inner universe—an entire field of relationships and interactions emerges. It is in this light that I apply Pierre Bourdieu’s notion of field,[19] but first I will provide a short account of Shangqing’s historical development.

Between 364 C.E. and 370 C.E., Yang Xi experienced a divine revelation in which an entourage of zhen (“perfected”) appeared to him. The deities’ sources were of a mixed bag, as many harkened back to the Han, others were of local origin, and some were new to the scene.[20] Directing their messages at his patrons—the aristocratic Xu family, with ties to Ge Hong’s lineage—these deities informed Yang Xi of their premier heaven above that of the Celestial Masters: Jade Purity.[21] Celestial Masters’ bureaucratic gods, along with the transcendents, resided in the lower heaven, Grand Clarity. This one-upmanship—or “revenge of the south on the north”[22]—reflects a southern response to the northern Chinese aristocrats’ downward immigration and the ensuing conflict of interest. As the northern Chinese fled from “barbarians” of Xiongnu origin,[23] they encroached upon the traditions and values established in the south. The Shangqing scriptures functioned to reify southern ethical and religious capital by claiming primacy in the form of ontological superiority. Conflict over capital, one might argue, worked to shape an intellectual field—a “community” surrounding the Shangqing scriptures—indicative of Pierre Bourdieu’s use of the word. This is not, however, the argument I put forward in this paper. Instead, I adapt Bourdieu’s theory to an emic understanding of the microcosmic-/macrocosmic-field interplay within the individual Shangqing Daoist. This approach avoids the problematically etic inclination of projecting Western theory onto an exclusively Chinese system.[24]

Shangqing scriptures boasted some of the most vivid imagery and literary prowess that the Daoist tradition had seen—a fact that contributed to their widespread dissemination among the southern literati.[25] This new element worked to bridge a gap between the Daoist and the gods, depicting both as simultaneously divine and human.[26] The texts provide detailed descriptions of the deities—from the color of their clothing to their names—as a means of securing and controlling them. For instance, a passage from Lingshu ziwen (The Upper Scripture of Purple Texts Inscribed by the Spirits) states, “Residing within this palace is the Grand Sovereign named ‘Peach Child,’ with the byname ‘Join and Extend.’ This spirit wears vermilion clothing and head scarf and a purple lotus cap. He sits facing the Gate of Destiny.”[27] Following this description, the adept is told to “block your breath for a space of twenty-four normal breaths and silently incant the names of the Great Sovereign three times. Then swallow saliva fifty times, knock your teeth together thrice, and softly incant,” followed by a ten-line stanza that the adept must recite. Absorbing the lunar and solar pneuma,[28] or controlling the devious whitesouls and securing one’s cloudsouls, the adept engaged with a godly community both within herself and in the higher heavens. Though two numinous fields, or communities, of interaction can be distinguished—that within the adept and that above in the heavens—the Shangqing reality conflates the two in a complex process of unification. The Shangqing texts themselves, congealed forms of primordial qi, serve to connect the ethereal universe with the human one. Merely wearing the text on one’s belt as a talisman enables the owner to reach the heavens.[29]

The various practices described by the gods in the scriptures function as a kind of capital by which the adept—she who has acquired the appropriate habitus[30]—may smoothly navigate the universe. Other than the whitesouls and “mortal knots” that reside within the body,[31] the relationship between human and gods is amicable. The “Azure Lad” of the Purple Texts, for example, quests to bring the texts to humans so they may achieve residence in the heavenly realm. Isabelle Robinet explains that the practice of “Guarding the One,” though present in most Daoist lineages, takes the form in Shangqing of “ascending to the Dipper in the company of the Three Ones.”[32] Adepts masterfully wield scriptural capital, gaining the support of godly entourages that accompany them on their journey to the stars and beyond. Summoning the gods within oneself enables the adept to unify with a macrocosm that mirrors her inner universe. This is only accomplished with the assistance and camaraderie of a godly community. A striking example of this is found in Zhoushi minting ji (Master Zhou’s Records of His Communications with the Unseen).

In Records, Tao Hongjing (456 C.E. – 563 C.E.)[33] relates the account of his disciple, Zhou Ziliang. Zhou Ziliang secluded himself from his family and the world in an effort to concoct an alchemical recipe and attain entrance into the heavens. One day, the reader learns, as Ziliang was sleeping, a man appeared with an entourage of twelve “persons in attendance upon him.”[34] The detail with which the author depicts the celestial visitor—“His mouth and nose were small and he had sternly knit eyebrows and bushy sideburns that were speckled with white”—immediately evokes the imagery of the initial Yang Xi revelations. Portrayed with human qualities, the deities become less distant and more akin to the familiar. They explain to Ziliang that his life and knowledge of the Way will permit him entrance into the celestial bureaucracy. However, they claim, “’It is not…that you have been without your minor faults. You should meditate on these and repent them, for if you do not, they may obstruct your progress.’”[35] The deities take personal investment in the salvation of the human, exemplifying the community-like aspect of this relationship. They impart knowledge—or capital—on Ziliang, hoping to guide him from the lowly earth realm into the heavens. The fact that most of this interplay takes place within the body of the adept explains how Shangqing’s movement inward exemplifies community, albeit a numinous one.

Defining community as a field of interacting forces of capital, the Shangqing universe (both bodily and celestial) is replete with the notion. Not only does a community of deities exist in the various heavenly levels, they simultaneously reside within the body of the adept. Some spirits, like the whitesouls, compete for capital with the human, striving to keep her out of registers that lead to salvation. Others, like the Peach Child or Ziliang’s visitors, take part in the process of the adept’s ascending to heaven. This interplay—at once a contest and a symbiotic relationship—forms the very basis of a community. The Shangqing scriptures sought to appease aristocratic and imperial consumers by emphasizing a movement inward. This new focus on visualization found an impetus in the strong visual imagery and literary quality of the scriptures, as southern literati quickly attached to the scriptures and their teachings. No longer did these families have to interact with the lowly communities, like that of the Celestial Masters, for they merely had to enter their own purity chambers and meditate.[36] It is here—within the adept herself—where an entire community arises.


[1] Jonathan Z. Smith, “Religion, Religions, and Religious,” in Relating Religion: Essays in the Study of Religion (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004), 179-196. I also extend acknowledgment and thanks to my professor of Daoism, Dr. Stephan Kory, for guiding me towards this understanding of “religion.”
[2] Ibid., 193-194.
[3] Gil Raz, The Emergence of Daoism: Creation of Tradition (Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge, 2012), 18.
[4] Stephan Bokenkamp, Early Daoist Scriptures (Berkley: University of California Press, 1997), 12. Gil Raz’s “primary criterion” is a conception of the Dao as an overarching and effective force, but one that is not necessarily personified. I diverge from Gil Raz on this point, and opt for a stronger criterion that requires a personified Dao—particularly the figure of Laozi—in the spirit of Stephan Bokenkamp’s work. This modification promotes a narrower, yet efficaciously inclusive understanding of Daoism.
[5] Raz, The Emergence of Daoism: Creation of Tradition, 3.
[6] Ibid., 6.
[7] Ibid., 90.
[8] Ibid., 89.
[9] Ibid.
[10] Robert Ford Campany, To Live as Long as Heaven and Earth: A Translation and Study of Ge Hong’s Traditions of Divine Transcendents (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002), 4.
[11] Lingbao (Numinous Treasure) later adopts the figure of Ge Xuan to legitimate its lineage.
[12] Isabelle Robinet, Taoism: Growth of a Religion (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1997), 80-81.
[13] Some adepts were, in fact, women. See hagiographical account, “Cheng Wei’s Wife,” below.
[14] Ibid., 89-110.
[15] Campany, To Live as Long as Heaven and Earthy, 139.
[16] Ibid., 140.
[17] James R. Ware, Alchemy, Medicine, Religion in the China of A.D. 320: The Nei p’ien of Ko Hung (Cambridge, MA: M.I.T. Press, 1967), 45-46 (Genii).
[18] Robinet, Taoism, 112.
[19] Pierre Bourdieu, The Field of Cultural Production: Essays on Art and Literature (New York: Columbia University Press, 1993), 1-322.
[20] Examples of local deities that appeared before Yang Xi are the Mao brothers, after whom Mount Mao, another name for Shangqing, was named. Lady Wei Huacun (251 C.E. – 334 C.E.) was a new spirit among the Daoist pantheon. Robinet, Taoism, 115.
[21] Bokenkamp, Early Daoist Scriptures, 190.
[22] Robinet, Taoism, 116.
[23] Isabelle Robinet, “Shangqing—Highest Clarity,” in Daoism Handbook, ed. Livia Kohn (Leiden: Koninklijke Brill, 2000), 196-224.
[24] The argument can be made either way (or so I attempt to show), and perhaps most scholars would opt out of the route I take here, but I find focusing on the individual as a community in herself is a fruitful approach that clearly connects Shangqing with the “individualistic” southern tradition of transcendence.
[25] Robinet, Taoism, 116-117.
[26] Though this is also indicative of most Daoist lineages, it gained new prominence in the Shangqing corpus.
[27] Bokenkamp, Early Daoist Scriptures, 327.
[28] Ibid., 314-321. This practice involved the notion of a yang (masculine) sun and yin (feminine) moon that were to be visualized and conjoined, along with the performing of incantations and ingesting of talismans, to form a new embryo (“Ruddy Infant”) by which the adept is born and can reach the Shangqing heavens. This process replaces the sexual practices of the Celestial Masters, opting for a more “individualized” practice of visualization and meditation.
[29] Robinet, Taoism, 125.
[30] Bourdieu explains “habitus” as an amalgamation of cultural capital by which a person wields power over others within a given field. Bourdieu, The Field of Cultural Production, 24.
[31] Robinet, “Shangqing—Highest Clarity,” 218.
[32] Ibid., 217.
[33] Tao was a key figure in the formative period of Shangqing. He was acquaintances with Emperor Wu of Liang (464 C.E. – 549 C.E.), to whom the Records text was directed. Tao’s relationship with the emperor, who was markedly aligned with Buddhism, helped Shangqing gain prominence in the face of the “barbarian” religion. Stephan Bokenkamp, “Answering a Summons,” in Religions of China in Practice, ed. Donald S. Lopez (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1996), 188.
[34] Ibid., 196, From Zhou’s Records, Annotated by Tao Hongjing.
[35] Ibid., 198.
[36] Robinet, Taoism, 121.

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