Believers whose Taoism is a profession of faith
It is usually taboo to ask a Taoist priest's age, but Master Gao Mingjian says without hesitation that he is 40.
'I became a monk 10 years ago because I was fascinated with Taoism,' he said, explaining that he abandoned his secular farmer's life and went to Lao Mountain in Qingdao, Shandong province, where he met his future master.
'Not everyone can be a Taoist monk,' he said. 'You must have a [Chinese] identification card, no criminal record, get permission from your parents regardless of age and graduate from high school.'
He said the high school diploma is required because priests are required to read a lot of ancient books. Like all Taoists priests, Gao kept only his surname and received his Tao name, Mingjian, from his master. The name means 'clear seeing'.
'I was a very quiet person. My mum was a very emotional woman. As a result, I was very shy and afraid to deal with other people, not to mention girls,' Gao said, explaining his desire to lead a life of celibacy, a decision that he hoped would carry over into a quiet life as a monk.
That did not exactly pan out, however. His master placed him in charge of reception at Taiqing Temple.
'Many state, provincial and city-level leaders visit our temple,' he said. 'We have to receive such guests dozens of times each year.'
Gao was speaking on the sidelines of the recent International Taoism Forum, which was held in Hengyang, Hunan, late last month.
He said being forced to greet people allowed him to overcome his shyness, and it also made him more articulate in his Taoism teachings. He works for half a day, every day, and he receives around 1,000 yuan (HK$1,220) each month as a stipend.
When he is not working, Gao settles into his quiet life of 'reading and meditating'. He attends Taoism classes every day, at 6am and 6pm, an old tradition for the priests.
It comes as a surprise to some people, but most Tao masters have mobile phones. Some even have blogs and use QQ, an online instant-messaging tool popular among Chinese. Zeng Chongzhen has all of them.
Asked why he became a monk five years ago, Zeng compared it to playing chess. 'You have professional chess players and amateurs. I enjoyed Taoism so much that I decided to become a professional,' he said.
Zeng says he spends the first six months of every year in his temple in the Wuyi Mountains of Nanping , Fujian province, and the remainder of each year he spends touring mountains and rivers.
Beautiful young girls often ask to take photos with him, and he happily agrees. When asked whether liking women could be a problem for a monk, he said: 'You can appreciate all people as long as your heart is not aroused. Once your heart is disturbed, it means you aren't concentrating on your practice.'
It is not always easy, but Zeng said he has not yet considered giving up.
Asked what he thought about Li Yi, a Chongqing Taoist master who deceived more than 30,000 of his followers and conned them out of money while he was the abbot at Shaolong Temple, Zeng said he suspected it was because 'he was too powerful'.
Among the women who have taken up places at Taoist temples is Wang Xinhan, who resides as a nun at Changchun Temple in Wuhan , Hubei province. Now in her 20s, her first and only job was as a secretary, and it lasted for just a year before she decided to wander down the path of Taoism.
'I loved to read stories about gods and fairies, and I admired the immortal life at very young age,' she said.
Wang said she was born into a religious family: her parents and grandparents believed both in Buddhism and Taoism. 'They didn't know the difference,' she said.
Though they were not surprised by her faith, Wang's parents were initially strongly opposed to her becoming a nun in her early 20s. But her insistence prevailed. She also lives just a two-hour drive from her parents.
'My parents compromised, and asked only that I live in a temple near home. To be filial is very important. So I agreed with them,' she said.
After two years studying at Hengyang Taoist College, Wang now practices at the Wuhan temple, located on a busy street. She enjoys singing Taoist songs during daytime ceremonies.
This summer, Wang attended a Taoism culture and management seminar held by the Chinese University of Hong Kong, with more than 20 Taoist nuns from all over China.
Wang attended courses about religious theory and about the management of Taoist temples. She also visited Catholic convents, Christian churches and Buddhist temples.
'Hong Kong Taoist priests and other religious people often reach out to do charity, which is so different from on the mainland,' she said.
Asked whether she lonely living in the temple, Wang said: 'It is just the way I like it. When the day is finished, we have a walk after supper. I then practice calligraphy and guqin [a plucked seven-string Chinese musical instrument of the zither family].'
Though Wang visits her parents regularly, she does not stay long in the secular home. 'I am no longer used to it,' she said. But the people in her village still show her respect whenever she returns. She declined to name the village, but said it is in Xishui county. 'This is a place of faith,' she said of the village.