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Popular Science Monthly/Volume 36/January 1890/The Taouist Religion

< Popular Science Monthly‎ | Volume 36‎ | January 1890


IN an attempt to unravel the mysteries of the religions of the Chinese, one is confused at the outset by the almost obliterated lines between the three leading forms of religion existing side by side. The process of amalgamation has gone on for so many centuries that one is liable to be misled in an effort to analyze the different creeds. The fact is that Buddhism, Taouism, and Confucianism have existed in the same minds until a belief in the distinctive phases of each has become quite common. And even those who nominally accept the Christian religion, either Catholic or Protestant, really add the new to the old faiths, and believe more or less in the four religions. It is thus true that in one mind may be found a belief in four primarily distinct and separate religions—each having added its quota toward a result whose aggregate beliefs are derived from wholly dissimilar sources; and the result is, as might be looked for, a unique specimen of religionist.

In this paper I shall endeavor to indicate the particular features of Taouism.

This system of religion is pronounced indigenous to China. Its founder was one Laou-tse, who is supposed to have lived contemporary with Confucius, and to have been some years older than that celebrated philosopher. The word Taou signifies reason, and therefore a Taouist is a rationalist, in name at least; but, in fact, the Taouists are the most irrational of all the religionists of the East.

The tendency in rationalism is toward the utter destruction of belief in the existence of unseen spirits of evil. Enlightened reason dethrones devils; but Laou-tse created devils innumerable, and the chief concern of the Taouist sect has always been to manipulate these emissaries of evil. Modern rationalists deny the existence of devils, and relegate them to the category of myths and to personified ideas.

Not so the rationalist of the Orient. He finds his greatest pleasure in contemplating the very atmosphere he breathes as filled with spirits constantly seeking his injury; and to outwit his satanic majesty is the chief end of life.

The sect is founded on the monarchic plan. The chief high priest corresponds to the Pope in the Catholic religion, and all authority is vested in him. His decrees constitute the laws of the sect, and all power to perform miracles must come from him to the priesthood. He has the power to exorcise devils and to heal the sick and avert calamities, and this power he delegates to such of the priesthood as command his favor. Such delegated power, however, is held on sufferance, and not in fee-simple. It is not only necessary that a priest gain favor with his royal highness to get this power, but he must retain said favor in order to hold the power. This has created a vast army of priests, who are the willing tools of the high priest; and he is thus enabled to wield the most absolute and despotic sway over the minds of the people.

The system has the most elaborated code of demonology, and it is likewise patterned after the political constitution of the empire. The head devil lives in the sea, and has been honored by the Chinese people by being adopted as their national emblem. The dragon flag, which floats from every staff, from the dome of the royal palace at Pekin to the mast-head of the humblest Chinese boat, testifies to the high esteem in which the chief devil of Laou-tse's followers is held. Then the multitude of lesser devils is so great that no man can number them; and these are on the track of every man, woman, and child, seeking in all methods their injury. To watch the movements of this devil host, and to frustrate their designs, is the province of the Taouist priests.

Here we have a decidedly interesting state of things. The very earth teeming with malicious demons! Man everywhere exposed to their attacks, and but one avenue of escape, viz., through the interventions of the priests! Is it a matter of surprise, therefore, that this priesthood wields such absolute power over the minds of the people? They live on the fat of the land. They are consulted on all occasions, and their instructions are obeyed to the letter by their deluded followers. It is not to be wondered at that these priests look with disfavor upon the advent of Europeans; that they fill the minds of the people with such antipathy to all change from the established order. They are wise enough to forecast their own overthrow with the advent of a deeper intelligence.

The priests are celibates, perhaps with the thought that, if they were to prove unequal to the task of managing a wife, their prestige in devil manipulation might suffer. They keep aloof from the common life around them and live in mountains and unfrequented and isolated places, that they may the better impress their own superiority over their fellows.

The priests are called upon by the people when it is discovered that a home or village is infested by a devil. Devils have the power to materialize themselves into a piece of waste paper or dirt in order to get into the houses unobserved. These devils are not credited with a high order of intelligence. Chinese architecture is governed by this conception. The doors or main entrances are put in unexpected angles and niches in the walls, with the idea that they will fool the devils. They cut up the roof-lines on dwellings into fantastic shapes for the purpose of preventing devils using them for promenade purposes; and, as a matter of fact, these imps have hard work to get into the houses. But, when they once get in, no power is able to get them out except the priests.

The white horse is a common form in which devils infest a community. They appear in the form of a white horse walking upon the city walls, and over graveyards, and even stepping from one roof to another. He is thus seen by some truthful witness, and the evil omen soon gains currency.

The intervention of the nearest priest is sought, who takes a survey of the situation, and discovers the number of devils, if more than one, and calculates on the necessary steps to capture it or them.

The financial ability of the community has much to do in determining the means of safety. If the locality is wealthy, or has a few wealthy men in it, the priest generally makes out a strong case. He may require to call in other priests in consultation. All this time the people dwell in morbid fear, pending deliverance. At length the priests announce their ultimatum. It will require a fee of one hundred taels (about one hundred and thirty-three dollars, American money) to procure safety. The money is raised by public subscription and paid over to the priest in charge. Then the capture of the devils is the next step.

A bottle or jar is secured for each devil, and the priests secure a bait in the shape of imitation gold and silver tinted paper (called Joss paper). This paper is imitation money, and when it is reduced to spirit by being burned, the devils do not know it from genuine money—here again showing their low mentality—and they enter the bottle in which the Joss paper has been burned. When they are thus entrapped, the bottle is sealed and carried away by the priest. Then the people feel grateful to their deliverer, and the priest has again impressed his importance to the welfare of the community and at the same time replenished his bank account. The "Tsung li Yamen," or office of the head priest of this sect, is a curiosity. It has large halls and rooms filled with dust-covered and sealed jars, in every one of which is confined a devil, captured in the above unique plan. And were each and every jar filled with silver, I question if it would equal the sums paid for the capture of these imprisoned devils.

This demonology enters into every phase of Chinese life. The priest is the only medium between the people and their invisible foe. Not a voyage is undertaken until the devils are baited by burning bogus paper money. Not a wedding, but the priest is called in to decipher the omens for good or ill luck. And when a man is sick, he is possessed of devils. Chills are the most common form of possession. What makes a man shake if he is not in the power of a devil? So the people believe, and a priest is called instead of a doctor, and prayers take the place of pills. Epileptic fits or convulsions are the devil in a malignant form; and if a man is taken thus in a crowded building, that building is rapidly deserted.

A good doctor could go among the Chinese and, by curing the sick, attending his physic by incantations, enthrone himself as a deity in the belief of that deluded people. When a man is dying, no money would induce a Chinaman to remain near him. I first met this fact on a Pacific steamer bound from San Francisco to Hong-Kong. I was walking on the deck with the ship's surgeon, when a stream of Chinamen came rushing on deck from the lower decks like a colony of ants when disturbed. I asked what had caused such a stampede. The doctor replied that a Chinaman was dying. He hurried below, and found a man gasping his last breath, with consumption. I discovered later, when pursuing my studies of Chinese religions, the secret of this strange stampede. The devil was after the soul of that poor consumptive, and the rest were not going to take any chances by remaining near him in the final struggle.

Not every wise-looking magpie or crow, which alights upon the bough of a tree to rest, is the innocent creature it appears to be; but a devil in disguise spying out the lay of the land. Nor do the frightened people seek relief by killing the bird of evil omen, but they call a priest to look into the matter. He generally advises that the tree be cut down in the night and removed.

Thus, when the devil, alias a magpie, returns to his perch, he is fooled, and thus thrown off the track.

The ceremonies so often observed on occasions of death all have their origin in the demonology of the Taouists. Paper suits, paper palaces, paper pipes and money are burned when a man dies, to provide the soul of the dead with means of bribing its way through the devil's kingdom to its rest, and the suits burned are often patterned after high officials' gowns, in order to impress more favorably the spirits encountered on the mysterious journey.

Taouist priests are called to consult the soul of the departed to ascertain its wishes. They discover the locality for burial, and indicate all details of this last service to the dead.

The Shanghai Railroad met its doom from this source. The priests informed the people that the rumbling noise of the cars and the steam-engine were distasteful to the dead who filled the numerous mounds along its course. To appease the wrath of the dead, Chinese capitalists bought the road with its equipments, and tore up the tracks and stored the entire plant under sheds at Shanghai. Thus it is seen that this religion stands in the way of all innovations in that old country, and the first thing necessary in order to introduce railroads into China is to dethrone the priests and infuse a little common sense into the people.

Since this last paragraph was written, this point has had a characteristic demonstration. Through the influence of Li Hung Chang, the most intelligent and progressive Chinaman, and one or two other high officials, the emperor was prevailed upon to grant the construction of a railroad from Hankow to Pekin. Not many days had elapsed after the permit was given until the Temple of Heaven at Pekin was burned, and floods came in the Yellow and Yang-tse River Valleys, which were interpreted to have been indications of the disapproval of the proposed innovation on the part of spirits or the Taouist devil; and the press dispatches announce that the emperor has taken the timely warning and revoked his sanction of the proposed railroad. Any one having to make the journey between the two objective points of the proposed road will save time by starting on foot, or going around via Shanghai by water. Otherwise he is liable to have a long time to wait for the completion of the road.

During the prevalence of the great famine in northwestern China in 1874-'78 there was an unusual flood in the valley of the Yang-tse-Kiang. The priests endeavored to solve the mystery of this uneven distribution of rain. The censure fell upon the royal household at Pekin. It is the duty of the emperor to enter the Temple of Heaven twice a year and invoke the blessings of Heaven upon the people. He always asks for rain among other things, and the impression obtained that the emperor had hurriedly asked for rain, but had not taken the pains to state where he wanted it. The result was that floods came in some places, while famine from drought came in other parts of the empire. This feeling was producing a general spirit of revolt, when in 1878 the rains came to the rescue in the drought-smitten provinces.

At this time I had a conversation with a merchant at Shanghai on the subject. He exhibited an independence of thought which was exceptional. But it showed a tendency toward the inevitable break from the tyrannical rule of ignorance and superstition which must eventually come to awaken an age of reason. And when it comes, the Taouist high priest must fold his tent and silently march away.

The merchant said, "Chinaman, he all time chin, chin" (meaning that they resort to prayers and other priestly methods in time of calamity), "while Melican man, he build more stout walls to keep water back."

Thus had one man concluded that substantial sea-walls and dikes were more availing in times of flood than prayers as a protection from encroaching waters from overflowing rivers.

But the dominance of ignorance and the quackery of priests will hold China in slavery to an unreasoning fear and irrational faith for generations yet unborn. Yet the seeds of a better intelligence are being planted in this dark corner of the earth. The people observe that Europeans give no heed to imaginary devils, and still they prosper without the intervention of priests; and thus will eventually dawn upon them how grievously their forefathers have been hoodwinked, cheated, and robbed by the reign of demonology, created and perpetuated for their own gain by the army of Taouist priests.