Old answers for new ills
Dressed in their traditional dark-blue robes and square caps, hundreds of Taoist priests recently walked through the streets of Hengyang , Hunan province.
This gathering, the largest of Taoists in the world, had some specific goals. They did not, however, include calling for more religious freedoms. On the contrary, the Chinese government actually sponsored this event and welcomed Taoists from more than 20 countries and regions.
One of the main goals of this first International Taoism Forum, which took place at the massive Nanyue Temple at the foot of Heng Mountain from October 23-25 and drew about 500 attendees, was to promote Taoism internationally. But the topics discussed in the forum's meetings also included morality and issues such as the challenges and solutions to realising a harmonious China.
Therein lay the government's interest in such a religious gathering.
In front of state and provincial leaders, the master of Nanyue Temple read a prayer, and Ren Farong, president of the Chinese Taoist Association, burned the scroll afterwards for it to be received by the gods.
'May the gift of favourable weather spread afield and the misfortune of an unbalanced environment disappear. May the miraculous transformation into the true state suppress the anxiety of the mind and reveal our Taoist selves,' read the prayer.
Martin Palmer, secretary-general of the Alliance of Religions and Conservation, and a translator of many Taoist books, said: 'This is the first time the Chinese government is asking for help from a religion.'
As people have different interpretations of Taoism and its applications in the contemporary world, the ancient religion is being explored and revalued by Chinese leaders who have high hopes of raising morality, dealing with environmental problems and assembling an honest government.
Professor Xu Kangsheng, who teaches philosophy at Peking University, said: 'Taoism can indeed provide us with many valuable ideas about dealing with the problems of modern society.'
Xu Jialu, former vice-chairman of the Standing Committee of National People's Congress, also agreed that ancient wisdom can inspire the country. 'Many social problems are caused by people's insatiability. Taoist teachings of being content and knowing when to stop are especially important in modern society,' he said. Palmer said Taoism had positive aspects in terms of combating greed and indifference, societal problems that have recently been intensely debated, particularly online, after reports of corruption, food-safety scandals and especially after the recent death of Yueyue, the two-year-old girl who was run over by two vehicles in an alley and then ignored by 18 passers-by in Foshan , Guangdong province.
That incident was specifically cited at the forum as the latest example of how the national morality rate had plunged to a new low.
The forum's opening ceremony was followed by two days of intense discussions and prayers, which featured practical topics such as sustainable development, attaining happiness and achieving mutually beneficial outcomes through co-operation.
Lai Chi Tim, chairman of the department of cultural and religious studies at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, said that 'by promoting good health and a life not based on wealth or desire, [Taoism] emphasises a harmonious relationship between humans and nature and humans and society.'
Professor Xiong Tieji, who teaches history and culture at Central China Normal University, said: 'Taoism is a very important part of Chinese culture. China is seeking traditional religious support to persuade people to do good.
'If people don't believe in Marxism and Leninism, they have to have a certain faith so society can be harmonious and morality can be raised,' Xiong said
But aspirations of raising morality aside, following Taoist teachings is also regarded as an effective way to run the country, and to manage officials. 'Many thoughts of Lao Tzu are instructive towards the construction of a clean and honest administration,' Xiong said, referring to the philosopher who is traditionally considered the founder of Taoism some 2,500 years ago. Taoist teachings serve as a warning to greedy officials: 'If they become too corrupt, they will incur disasters.'
Xu Kangsheng said that 'all bad things are born out of people's greed, especially the greed of rulers.
'Lao Tzu said that if rulers adopt a simple lifestyle and set a good example, an honest society will be established naturally.'
Last month's forum was not the government's first attempt to seek inspiration from ancient sages. It has been increasingly looking to religion for help in its campaign to promote the 'soft power' of China.
A large bronze statue of Confucius was erected on Tiananmen Square in Beijing in January, an event described as a step towards the rehabilitation of Confucianism and a symbol of the importance of moral education. However, the statue was removed overnight in April.
In September, a Taoism conference was held at the Wudang Mountains in Hubei which stressed the application of thriftiness in officialdom. The conference was co-organised by city-level Communist Party officials in charge of discipline inspection.
Most recently, on October 30, the mayor and vice-mayor of Guangzhou reportedly went to Chenghuang Temple and prayed to the gods, asking them to protect the city and keep it free from corrupt officials.
Lai said he thought Beijing had started to see the importance of religion in providing people with a morality catalyst, so more and more resources were being given to support that cause.
'To a certain extent, the Communist government recognises that religion can play a role in strengthening the ethical values of common people in mainland China,' he said. 'There is no doubt they really want Taoism to be better developed and serve a specific function.'
Lai said Beijing apparently had more trust in Taoism, the essence of which was inherently Chinese, than Buddhism. 'The Chinese government promotes Taoism as the indigenous religion in order to strike a balance between the Chinese religion and the flourishing of Western Christianity in mainland China,' he said.
But while Taoism is touted by some as a cure-all, others worry about the direction in which the religion has been heading.
The country's only indigenous religion, Taoism flourished and gained official status during the Tang and Song dynasties, but it gradually lost its influence thereafter. Like other religions, Taoism was eventually banned, and Taoists were persecuted during the Cultural Revolution. In recent decades, Taoism has seen a revival, as a relative degree of religious tolerance and freedom has been restored in the country.
Lin Zhou, vice-president of the Chinese Taoist Association, said: 'There are 26 Taoism associations at the provincial level, more than 300 associations at the city level and five Taoist colleges on the Chinese mainland. Altogether, more than 30,000 Taoist priests live in temples, and 60,000 Taoist priests reside at home.'
However, some scholars say that changes made to religions in China have been closely tied to the nation's political and economical changes.
Chen Guochao, vice-chairman of the Hong Kong Taoist Association, said: 'The position of Taoism in Chinese traditional culture has been shaken. The faith that had been established by people throughout history, along with its influence, has gradually decreased.
'The restoration was from top to bottom, and it was limited to the establishment of associations.'
Palmer also conceded that Taoism has its own problems to deal with. 'Christianity is regarded as modern, and Buddhism is regarded as pan-Asian. But Taoists are thought of as recluses living in the remote mountains,?he said.
Compared to Buddhism and Christianity, Lai said, Taoism has been much slower to develop and gain followers.
'Issues remain of how to modernise the old religion and allow more people understand its core values, and of how Taoist temples can attract talented people to join,' Lai said.
But some people fear that consumerism has already spread to Taoist temples. People who live near the Nanyue Temple joke that the harmonious living together of Buddhist monks and Taoist priests is achieved because they take turns collecting the offerings and donations made to the gods. 'On good days, they take turns every half day,' said one resident who declined to give his name.
Wang Chenfa, chairman of the Malaysian Tao Academy, said Taoists should be focused more on following the teachings of their faith, while caring about issues that affect all of humanity. 'Instead of preaching to more people to believe in Taoism, we should be more involved with non-governmental activities, as other religions are,' Wang said.
But whether Taoism can actually take up such a role, Lai said, has yet to be seen.