The Golden Elixir Taoism Articles Quanzhen


Completion of Authenticity; Complete Reality; Complete Perfection

The Encyclopedia of Taoism

This article is reproduced from:

Vincent Goossaert, "Quanzhen"

In The Encyclopedia of Taoism, vol. 2, pp. 814-20
Edited by Fabrizio Pregadio
Routledge, 2008

Chinese characters and bibliographic references to secondary studies are omitted in this online version. Asterisks (*) indicate cross-references to other entries in the book.

The Encyclopedia of Taoism

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Sample Entries

Daode jing (Scripture of the Dao and Its Virtue)

daojia (Taoism; "Lineage[s] of the Way")

daojiao (Taoism; Taoist teaching; "Teaching[s] of the Way")

Daozang (Daoist Canon) and Subsidiary Compilations

jiao (Offering)

jindan (Golden Elixir)

Lingbao (Numinous Treasure)

Quanzhen (Completion of Authenticity)

Shangqing (Highest Clarity)

Tianshi dao (Way of the Celestial Masters)

Quanzhen is today the main official branch of Taoism in continental China. This status is not primarily due to its doctrines, for Quanzhen tenets do not radically differ from those of other Taoist schools, but rather to its celibate and communal mode of life. At least since the Tang, the Chinese state wanted Taoists to conform to Buddhist standards, but although Buddhist-style monasteries had existed since the 5th century, regulations imposing celibacy on Taoists had largely remained unheeded. The appearance around 1170 of Quanzhen, the first Taoist monastic order, whose members could more easily be registered and wore distinctive garments, apparently fit the state's religious policy of segregation between the lay and religious. Although its fortunes were not as good under the Ming dynasty as they were in the Yuan and Qing periods, Quanzhen has consistently enjoyed official protection since 1197. In this position, Quanzhen has played a major role in transmitting Taoist texts and practices, especially through the persecutions of the 20th century.

Early History: 1170 to 1368

Quanzhen was founded by a charismatic preacher, *Wang Zhe, a *Neidan practitioner who lived as a hermit in the Zhongnan mountains (Zhongnan shan, Shaanxi) and reportedly was guided by the popular immortals *Zhongli Quan, *Lü Dongbin, and *Liu Haichan. In 1167, Wang moved to Shandong and converted adepts, seven of whom were selected by later hagiography as the first generation of Quanzhen masters, the Seven Real Men (qizhen): *Ma Yu, *Sun Bu'er, *Tan Chuduan, *Liu Chuxuan, *Qiu Chuji, *Wang Chuyi, and *Hao Datong (see table 17). Although Wang had already started to teach and attract disciples in Shaanxi, the formal foundation of Quanzhen is traditionally associated with the setting up of five lay associations (hui) that were later to support the movement. Wang then took his four favorite disciples (Ma, Tan, Liu, and Qiu) back to the west, and died on the way. The four disciples carried his coffin back to the Zhongnan mountains, where they founded a community and then dispersed to practice asceticism and proselytize in various areas of northern China. Later Quanzhen hagiography relates that the four main disciples became patriarchs (zongshi) in turn after the death of the founder. Actually, the patriarchy was not created before the 1220s.


Table 17. The Five Patriarchs (wuzu) and the Seven Real Men (or Seven Perfected, qizhen) of Quanzhen.
1Donghua dijun1Laozi
2Zhongli Quan2Donghua dijun
3Lü Dongbin3Zhongli Quan
4Liu Haichan4Lü Dongbin
5Wang Zhe (1113-70)5Liu Haichan
1Ma Yu (1123-84)1Wang Zhe
2Tan Chuduan (1123-85)2Ma Yu
3Liu Chuxuan (1147-1203)3Tan Chuduan
4Qiu Chuji (1148-1227)4Liu Chuxuan
5Wang Chuyi (1142-1217)5Qiu Chuji
6Hao Datong (1140-1213)6Wang Chuyi
7Sun Bu'er (1119-83)7Hao Datong

During its first decades, Quanzhen had no official existence. The teachings halls (tang) and hermitages (an) founded then were not recognized by the state and many masters were not ordained Taoists. As the Quanzhen teachings quickly became popular, adepts were often invited into guan, the usually family-run official headquarters for Taoist communities. Quanzhen adepts, however, seem to have felt that they did not really belong to such hereditary institutions, and usually founded new institutions as open teaching centers supported by lay groups. The situation deteriorated when these foundations were forbidden by the state. Quanzhen was banned in 1190 and its main center, the community built around Wang Zhe's grave in Shaanxi, was closed in 1195.

Under the management of Qiu Chuji, however, Quanzhen had built its own network and in 1197 managed to buy official recognition on favorable terms from an already depleted Jin state. Quanzhen's autonomy grew even more during the troubled times of the early 13th century, and when the Mongol emperor Chinggis khan (Taizu, r. 1206-27) summoned Qiu, it was in his capacity as a leader of a movement exercising influence over the whole country. In the most famous episode of Quanzhen's history, Qiu travelled to see the khan in 1222 and came back with decrees conferring on him a host of fiscal and political privileges (see under *Changchun zhenren xiyou ji).

Historians have long debated the precise extent of those privileges and whether the order abused them. What seems clear is that Quanzhen became the official form of Taoism, and that most of the independent guan converted to it. When the Mongols conquered the remnants of the Jin empire in 1234, Quanzhen leaders, who were on good terms with the local Chinese and foreign chiefs, secured the conversion of the important centers in Shanxi, Shaanxi and Henan. This rapid development was backed by an autonomous organization, at the head of which was the powerful patriarch who nominated a religious administration answering only to him. This autonomy allowed Quanzhen to thrive during a time of chaos, and to raise funds on a nationwide scale for projects of both a social nature (famine relief, ransoms, and so forth) and a religious nature, the most spectacular of which is the compilation of the largest-ever Taoist Canon between 1237 and 1244 (see *Xuandu baozang).

Controversy arose quickly, however, and some influential Buddhist hierarchs accused Quanzhen of appropriating Buddhist temples. What probably happened is that Quanzhen masters repaired and managed many abandoned religious sites, usually with the approval of local leaders. Even the Confucian school in Beijing was run by Quanzhen masters for several decades. This disruption of the religious status quo was considered dangerous, and when a doctrinal controversy arose around the old huahu ("conversions of the barbarians"; see *Huahu jing) theme, the Buddhists secured in 1255, and again in 1258, a formal disavowal in court of the Quanzhen leaders. In a largely unrelated event, the ageing emperor Khubilai (Shizu, r. 1260-1294) reacted angrily to some religious brawls in Beijing, as well as to several military defeats, and condemned the Quanzhen-compiled Taoist Canon to be burned in 1281. Quanzhen activities also were curtailed for a time.

The debates did not have the devastating effects on Quanzhen that some historians have assumed. The best measure of the order's vitality, a chart of the numbers of Quanzhen stelae erected per year (with a total of over 500 for the 1170-1368 period), shows that its peak was indeed reached in the 1260s and slightly declined after that but remained at a high level until the 1340s. The rapid development of the order was limited when most of the earlier Taoist centers had already been converted to it, and when the pace of establishing new centers had naturally slowed. The Buddhist reaction was probably no more than one of several limiting factors. It is estimated that around the year 1300, Quanzhen had some 4,000 monasteries in northern China. Its inroads into southern China after 1276 were quantitatively more modest, probably because the social conditions were different and the southern religious scene had been already transformed by other renewal movements.

In the 14th century, many Taoist schools — including the newly introduced *Xuanjiao — were competing for support at court, although they also collaborated with each other. Favors went to each of them in turn, and Quanzhen had another a glorious day in 1310, when a new canonization bestowed titles on its ancestors and past patriarchs even grander than those granted in an earlier 1269 decree. These court politics, however, meant little for the vigorous Quanzhen institutions in the provinces. The earlier independence and power of the patriarchs had mostly gone, but at the local level, Quanzhen monasteries continued until 1368 to enjoy the legal and administrative independence characteristic of the Yuan religious policy.

Six Centuries of Quanzhen Presence

During the Ming period, Quanzhen exerted far less influence than it had under the Mongols, chiefly due to the end of its state-declared autonomy. The Quanzhen clergy and institutions were integrated into the religious bureaucracy whose head was the Celestial Master (*tianshi) of the *Zhengyi order. Some of its main formation centers, such as the *Baiyun guan (Abbey of the White Clouds) in Beijing, were also directed by Zhengyi dignitaries. At the same time, Quanzhen ascetic training drew admiration from Taoists of all obediences: its status was acknowledged in such Zhengyi texts as the *Daomen shigui and the *Tianhuang zhidao Taiqing yuce. These methods were taught in the small Quanzhen communities (*daoyuan) that were attached to most major Taoist centers, regardless of their affiliation.

This lack of institutional control, however, impeded Quanzhen's vitality, and the centralizing brotherhood of the Yuan dynasty (when almost all monks and nuns, whatever their generation, had shared a few common characters in their religious names) gave way during the Ming to more and more branches or lineages (pai). At the very end of the Ming, the *Longmen lineage (the most prestigious, although apparently not a very ancient one) began to restore Quanzhen's former independence. Its actual founder, *Wang Changyue (?-1680), benefited from Manchu's support and changed the monastic ordination system, which since then was controlled by Longmen masters. In the wake of this renewal movement, coupled with political change, Longmen gained control of many monasteries and convents throughout the country. During the late Qing, most eminent Quanzhen writers came from southern China, such as *Min Yide (1748-1836) and *Chen Minggui (1824-81), and some gazetteers of Quanzhen institutions were compiled in the Jiangnan area. Archival data, however, suggest that in the mid-18 century most of the 25,000 or so officially recognized Quanzhen Taoists (according to the Taoist Association, there were 20,000 in 2002) lived in northern China, and that therefore their geographical distribution had not changed much since the Yuan.

The historical significance of Quanzhen can be assessed from several points of view. Its role in the political and social history of the Yuan period can hardly be overestimated. Quanzhen is not a transitory phenomenon linked to the Mongol invasion, however, but needs to be explained on the basis of long-term trends. One of these is the closure of Taoist institutions that had become hereditary, each cleric adopting a disciple from his kin. The need to open Taoism to all with true vocations prompted the appearance during the twelfth century of several movements, including the *Taiyi and the *Zhen dadao, which expanded quickly by offering instruction to all. These movements rejected or modified the traditional ordination procedures, which usually limited the number of disciples of each master to one. Quanzhen amplified this renewal with the founding of lay associations for the practice of Neidan, and by admitting novices of all ages and social classes. One should also mention the important role played by women, who accounted for about one third of the Quanzhen clergy during the Yuan dynasty. In later times, Quanzhen did not play as large a role in channelling religious vocations, but managed to remain open to outsiders. Entry into the novitiate was limited to small "private" temples (zisun), while ordination was monopolized by the large "public" monasteries (shifang). In both instances, all applicants were considered, and the selection — necessitated by the economic limitations of Quanzhen institutions — was based not on financial contributions but on individual will and endurance. This entailed very harsh trials. In addition, lay Quanzhen groups developed in the early 19th century in the Jiangnan and Guangdong areas. These groups ran spirit-writing shrines devoted to Lü Dongbin, who received lay disciples as Quanzhen practitioners (see under *fuji).

Original Institutions for a Taoist Renewal

Most of Quanzhen's institutions can be explained as an opening of the Taoist tradition to society at large. The early urge to proselytism gave way to a more restrained style of predication. Yet Quanzhen's literary production of all periods is characterized by both its conservative nature (it does not attempt to reinterpret or add to previous revelations) and its self-avowed function to spread Taoist values and practices to the laity (Quanzhen texts are pedagogical rather that doctrinal). It seems, moreover, that only a small number of Quanzhen texts were added to the edition of the Canon published in 1244. The present Canon contains a large number of Quanzhen texts only because its editors compensated for the irretrievable losses suffered in 1281 with newer Song, Jin and Yuan works. It is important to consider that these texts are not canonical at all. With the possible exception of a few forged "scriptures" — especially the Taigu jing (Scripture of Great Antiquity) and the Chiwen donggu jing (Scripture of Cavernous Antiquity in Red Script) — Quanzhen did not avail itself of any written revelation. The Canon contains sixty Quanzhen works, not including those by Taoists claiming a Quanzhen descent but mainly belonging to the ☞ Southern Lineage (*Nanzong) of Neidan. Besides these, one can retrieve from various sources eighty-one titles of lost Quanzhen works of the Yuan period, apparently confirming a similar pattern: mainly poetry, gathered either in individual or collective anthologies (the *Minghe yuyin being the most famous), as well as hagiographies, commentaries and didactic works (such as rules and methods).

All these texts were in general circulation and entirely exoteric. Moreover, Quanzhen produced neither ritual nor Neidan works during the Yuan period. Modern Quanzhen ritual, with the exception of the daily morning and evening services in temples, and the monastic ordination, does not differ much from non-Quanzhen ritual. The major departure is the Quanzhen musical style, which emphasizes Buddhist-influenced choral recitations (see *songjing). This does not mean that Quanzhen masters were not interested in such topics: they were actually very active in ritual activities, and their liturgical titles show that they recited all major liturgies current during the Yuan. The same holds for Neidan: the masters read and commented on the classical works in this genre and did not deem it necessary to create new texts. They rather chose to condense their message and make it available to all, with no changes, through their poetry. Its prevalent themes are conversion and the wonders of inner transmutation through Neidan.

Whereas most believers simply took part in the rituals, the cult to the immortals, and perhaps meditation classes, others chose to join the order. An adept who converted to Quanzhen took up celibate life. After a novitiate (fixed at three years in late imperial times, but probably of variable length in the Yuan period), he or she was ordained and took the monastic precepts (chuzhen jie or "initial precepts for perfection"). A Quanzhen ordination certificate dating from 1244 found at the *Yongle gong shows that Quanzhen actually used the Tang text of these precepts without substantial changes. Only the Longmen school later slightly modified it. If one stayed in a monastery, one also had to abide by the rules (see *Monastic code), but these changed from place to place and in general were not different from those of other Taoists. Quanzhen education was standard in some respects, although emphasis on practical skills (medicine, carpentry, management, and so forth) seems to have been important, especially in Yuan times. Liturgical skills were acquired on an individual basis.

The most prestigious part of Quanzhen pedagogy, and the main reason that many Taoists of other schools came to spend time in Quanzhen communities, is self-cultivation. Quanzhen disciples were given alchemical poems to meditate on, rather in the fashion of a question to be mulled over (niantou) until enlightenment arose. The reading and discussion of Neidan treatises does not seem to have played an important role during the Yuan, but it did so from the Ming onward, when the scriptures of the more speculative Southern Lineage were adopted within Quanzhen as the ultimate reference. Quanzhen education also developed specific techniques to help its adepts concentrate on self-cultivation. One was the *huandu, which involved enclosed meditation in a cell for a long period of time, helping adepts to sever links with the mundane world. Quanzhen also developed a communal practice of alchemical meditation (see under *zuobo).