Tianshi dao

Way of the Celestial Masters

The Encyclopedia of Taoism

Reproduced from:

Terry Kleeman, "Tianshi dao"

In The Encyclopedia of Taoism, vol. 2, pp. 981-86
Edited by Fabrizio Pregadio
Routledge, 2008

The Encyclopedia of Taoism

Table of Contents and List of Contributors


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)

The founding of the Way of the Celestial Masters or Tianshi dao in modern Sichuan province during the 2nd century CE marks the formal establishment of the Taoist religion. The movement traces its origins to a dramatic revelation to Zhang Daoling in 142 CE, when Laozi descended to him atop Mount Heming (Heming shan) in order to establish a new covenant between the true gods of Taoism and the people. The central feature of its teaching was a rejection of the blood sacrifice offered to the traditional gods of the community and the state in favor of a new relationship between humankind and a newly revealed transcendent pantheon of Taoist deities. The movement was originally theocratic in concept, seeking to create a utopian state that would replace the Chinese imperial institution and looking forward to a world of Great Peace (taiping) that would take shape after a series of apocalyptic disasters and travails (see Apocalyptic eschatology). Although these millenarian beliefs faded, the Taoist community structure that had been developed by this time survived in local communities across China for centuries and the community libationers (jijiu) evolved into a sacerdotal lineage of priests that have married, lived in the community, and passed on their office hereditarily for nearly two millennia (see table 23). Today, there is still a Celestial Master who claims direct descent from Zhang Daoling, and the overwhelming majority of non-monastic Taoist priests both within China and in the Chinese diaspora have identified themselves as part of this tradition.


Table 23. The sixty-four Celestial Masters (liushisi dai tianshi).
1Zhang Daoling (second c.)33Zhang Jingyuan
2Zhang Heng (?-179)34Zhang Qingxian
3Zhang Lu (?-215 or 216)35Zhang Keda (1218-63)
4Zhang Sheng36Zhang Zongyan (1244-91)
5Zhang Zhaocheng37Zhang Yudi (?-1294)
6Zhang Jiao38Zhang Yucai (?-1316)
7Zhang Hui39Zhang Sicheng (?-1344?)
8Zhang Jiong40Zhang Side (?-1353)
9Zhang Fu41Zhang Zhengyan (?-1359)
10Zhang Zixiang (fl. ca. 600?)42Zhang Zhengchang (1335-78)
11Zhang Tongxuan43Zhang Yuchu (1361-1410)
12Zhang Heng44Zhang Yuqing (1364-1427)
13Zhang Guang45Zhang Maocheng
14Zhang Cizheng46Zhang Yuanji
15Zhang Gao (fl. ca. 735?)47Zhang Xuanqing
16Zhang Yingshao48Zhang Yanpian (1480-1550)
17Zhang Yi49Zhang Yongxu (?-1566)
18Zhang Shiyuan50Zhang Guoxiang (?-1611)
19Zhang Xiu51Zhang Xianyong
20Zhang Chen52Zhang Yingjing
21Zhang Bingyi53Zhang Hongreng
22Zhang Shan54Zhang Jizong (?-1716)
23Zhang Jiwen55Zhang Xilin (?-1727)
24Zhang Zhengsui (fl. 1015)56Zhang Yulong (?-1752)
25Zhang Qianyao57Zhang Cunyi (?-1779)
26Zhang Sizong58Zhang Qilong (?-1798)
27Zhang Xiangzhong59Zhang Yu
28Zhang Dunfu (fl. 1077)60Zhang Peiyuan (?-1859)
29Zhang Jingrui61Zhang Renzheng (1841-1903)
30Zhang Jixian (1092-1126)62Zhang Yuanxu (1862-1924)
31Zhang Shixiu63Zhang Enpu (1904-69)
32Zhang Shouzhen (?-1176)64Zhang Yuanxian


Origins and Early History

The term Celestial Master (tianshi) occurs first in Zhuangzi 24 (trans. Watson, The Complete Works of Chuang Tzu, 266), where the Yellow Emperor (Huangdi) uses the term to praise a sagacious young boy herding horses whom he meets while on a journey in search of the "great clod" (dakuai). There is also a Celestial Master in the Taiping jing (Scripture of Great Peace, parts of which may date to the Han), but there he is a wholly divine figure who instructs the Perfected (zhenren) and responds to their questions. The Celestial Master who founded the Taoist religion is a mortal, Zhang Daoling, who is selected by the divine Laozi (Laojun) to create a new covenant between humanity and the awesome powers of the true Taoist heavens. He transmitted leadership of the group to his son Zhang Heng, known as the "inheriting master" (sishi), who passed it on to his son, Zhang Lu, known as the "continuing master" (xishi). Zhang Lu should be considered the substantive organizer, if not the actual founder of the group, and he is the likely author of the only work we can associate with the early Celestial Master movement, the Xiang'er commentary to the Daode jing, so his importance is not solely organizational.

The origins of the Way of the Celestial Masters are to be found in a variety of beliefs and practices of the Warring States and Han periods. The most significant of these were:

1. The Han Confucian understanding of an active Heaven and Earth that respond to human action (ganying) through natural occurrences that reflect their approbation or condemnation.

2. The prophecies and apocryphal texts (chenwei) that, appearing near the end of the Former Han, fed beliefs in esoteric meanings to traditional texts and encouraged the linking of signs or portents with dramatic political changes.

3. A widespread faith, evident first in Mozi (ca. 470-ca. 400 BCE), that Heaven has impartial, unwavering moral standards for humanity and that its representatives will reward and punish individuals for their adherence to or transgression of these precepts.

4. The growing popular belief that divine teachers like Laozi have played a significant, recurring role in Chinese political history, appearing age after age under different names and guises to act as advisors to emperors, and that these sacred sages continue to appear today in human form to guide the people and the government onto the right path.

5. A conviction among many that current natural and human disasters reflected divine disapproval of an increasingly evil world, that conditions would only worsen as disorder and civil war left commoners unprotected against both human and demonic malefactors, and that supernatural aid was essential for survival against the increasing threat.

6. A belief among some that this situation would worsen until a crisis was reached, when many would die, after which a realm of Great Peace would be established, where all members of society would be cared for and their basic needs met.

The central teaching of the early movement, the Covenant with the Powers of Orthodox Unity (zhengyi mengwei), was encapsulated in the Pure Bond (qingyue): "The gods do not eat or drink, the master does not accept money." This stricture demanded the rejection of blood sacrifice, central to popular and state cult, and the traditional gods that accepted it, in favor of transcendent Taoist deities who did not rely upon, and hence could not be swayed by, their worshippers, and Taoist priests who offered their services as appropriate, without the prompting of material payment. Some scholars attribute the "Outer" version of the Huangting jing (Scripture of the Yellow Court) to the early Celestial Masters on the basis of two references in the "Dadao jia lingjie" (Commands and Admonitions for the Families of the Great Dao; trans. Bokenkamp, Early Daoist Scriptures, 172 and 175); they argue that meditation on gods of the body was an important part of Celestial Master practice (Ōfuchi Ninji 1991, 263-272). We also know that they chanted the text of the Daode jing chorally, interpreting it according to the Xiang'er commentary. The histories record a great concern with sin, which was observed and recorded by the Three Offices (sanguan, of Heaven, Earth, and Water), and could only be expiated through written confessions submitted to each office. These may be related to early codes like the Xiang'er jie (Xiang'er Precepts) and the Laojun shuo yibai bashi jie (The Hundred and Eighty Precepts Spoken by Lord Lao). The characterization of the movement's teachings in historical sources as focusing on the guidao or "demonic way" probably reflects the widespread concern about demonic attacks and the specific ritual methods promoted by the Celestial Masters to counter them. The Xiang'er commentary makes clear that members of the early movement saw themselves threatened not only by demons but also by demonically-inspired heretical movements.

The earliest hard evidence for the movement is a stele dated to 173 CE, which records the initiation of a group of new libationers or Taoist priests. The stele clearly names the group as the Way of the Celestial Master (Tianshi daofa) and confirms that there were already rituals of initiation and a body of sacred, esoteric texts conferred on initiates. Historical accounts of the movement in the official histories of Later Han and Three Kingdoms periods were written by outsiders, but probably based on near contemporary documents. They record numerous aspects of the administration of the early movement. They note that the territory under the Celestial Master sway was divided into twenty-four parishes (zhi), each headed by a Parish-heading Great Libationer, that there were "charity lodges" (yishi) where the indigent and hungry could always find food, and that the parishes organized communal works projects to repair roads and bridges. The best known feature of the group was an annual tithe of five pecks (dou, approximately 9 liters) of rice, which presumably supported the charitable operations and high officers of the movement. The institution of three annual Assemblies (sanhui), held initially on seventh day of the first lunar month, the seventh day of the seventh lunar month, and the fifth day of the tenth lunar month, then moving to the fifteenth of each lunar month, seems to date back to this early stage of the movement, as do the "cuisines" (chu) or non-sacrificial feasts hosted by the faithful on these occasions.

Zhang Lu was able to establish an independent base of power in Hanzhong and northern Sichuan region during the 180s and although he never formally declared independence from the central government, he ruled over a theocratic state where church functionaries replaced government officials and the Celestial Master church assumed all the local functions traditionally filled by the government until 215. Historical sources record the defeat of another local Sichuanese religious leader, Zhang Xiu, during this period, but Xiu is sometimes identified as a Yellow Turban and sometimes as a follower of the Celestial Masters, and fragmentary surviving sources do not permit us to resolve the question. In any case, the nascent state fell before the armies of Cao Cao in 215, but Zhang Lu was treated well and his offspring intermarried with the Caos. The followers of the religion were subject to a massive relocation that moved some of them northwest into the Gansu corridor and other east to the capital region in central North China. Around 300 a large group of those Taoists transported to the northwest, many of them non-Chinese minorities, came back to the Sichuan region and established the state of Great Perfection (Dacheng, 306-47), with a Taoist master, Fan Changsheng, as Preceptor of State.

Six Dynasties and Tang

It would seem that Cao Cao's resettlements transmitted Celestial Master Taoism together with its distinctive community structure across North China, and that the mass migrations following the fall of North China in 317 carried this movement to South China. In the fifth-century Daomen kelüe (Abridged Codes for the Taoist Community), Lu Xiujing laments that in his day institutions like the Assemblies were not being observed according to proper rules and libationer positions were becoming hereditary. Similar complaints were first voiced by Zhang Lu through a spirit medium in 255, as recorded in the "Dadao jia lingjie" (Commands and Admonitions for the Families of the Great Dao; trans. Bokenkamp, Early Daoist Scriptures, 148-85), and were the subject of Kou Qianzhi's reform in North China as well. We should perhaps understand these as reflecting conflicts inherent in the Taoist community structure rather than a serious transformation in Taoist practice. The date at which these Celestial Master communities disappeared remains one of the great mysteries of Chinese social history.

Celestial Master priests do not figure prominently in late medieval sources and the term Celestial Master had by the Tang been debased to the point that it could be used for any prominent Taoist, but this does not mean that the Celestial Master lineage and its scriptural heritage were insignificant. On the contrary, by the Tang, the Celestial Master scriptural corpus was ensconced at the base of the ordination hierarchy. The graded series of ordinations by which children grew into full members of the church were Celestial Master ordinations and the foundational set of precepts that linked all Taoists in a common ethical stance were Celestial Master precepts. Their scriptural legacy centered on a large number of model petitions (zhang) that working Taoists might use in responding to the varied supernatural threats their parishioners might face. The more exalted ordinations and their elegant revealed texts might have been more effective in garnering imperial favor and attracting clients, but it is doubtful anyone ever went long without recourse to the basic petitions or considered their own conduct without reference to the precepts that they learned as a Celestial Master Taoist. (For the later history of the Way of the Celestial Masters, see the entry Zhengyi.)