With the fall of the Sui Empire in 618, Li Yuan, former Duke of Tang and governor of Taiyuan, proclaimed himself Emperor Gaozu, first emperor of the Tang Dynasty. Naturally, there is much more to becoming Emperor than merely declaring oneself so, and thus Gaozu, and future Emperors of the Tang Dynasty, set about making a display to prove they possessed the proverbial “mandate of heaven”—that is, a divine right to rule.
One strategy was to point to their family name—Li—which was the same as that held by Laozi, the fabled librarian turned author of the famous Daodejing and, in the eyes of many, the central figure in the Chinese Daoist religion. Accordingly, to stress the Tang Dynasty’s sagely lineage, Daoism was declared an official state religion, temples were established in the capital of every province, and Daoist monks and priests were considered to have a familial relationship with the Emperor himself. During this time the relationship between classical Chinese culture and the Daoist religion was heavily developed.
The link between the dynasty and the Daoist monastic system was strong, offering mutual gain for both parties. On the one hand, the Tang Dynasty was given the foundation for an intense propaganda campaign in favor of their dynasty’s right to rule, on the other hand Daoist Monasteries were given the resources to thrive and further develop their tradition. That said, while certain notions such as the appearance of Lord Lao to commoner Ji Shanxing in 618 expressing his support for the Tang Dynasty may seem like blatant propaganda today, the relationship was actually far deeper than a series of mindless assertions.
To grasp the relationship between the Tang Dynasty and the Taoist Monasteries of that time requires an understanding of the concept of “Great Peace”. Developed out of the Han dynasty and during the Warring States such a notion was often a prompt for rebellions. The concept pointed to an ideal point in the past when society and nature were held in perfect harmony, but contended this time had passed as people became less connected with their nature. Essentially, if a new form of government could be founded that reestablished the harmonious relationship, than an auspicious state of “Great Peace” could be achieved.
Slowly, aspects of the ideal were absorbed by the government and came to form a strong component of the relationship between the Tang Dynasty and its Taoist Monasteries. Essentially, it contended that good rule throughout the empire could establish the state of “Great Peace”, but breaches in said ambition could lead to disastrous occurrences such as floods, famines, or other destabilizing events—both of natural and human origin. For the Daoist Monasteries, their job was to live in a manner that emulated the way of the heavens—a state of perfection detached and different from the ways of the secular world—and the Tang Court attached particular importance upon the monasteries for maintenance of such a state.
Thus, the Daoist Monasteries were charged with emulating a heavenly state in accordance with the way of the Dao. Partly due to efforts to unify the religion as well as a natural result of the religions relationship with the bureaucratic nebulous of the Tang Court, a variety of manuals on monastic procedures were distributed throughout the empire noting on everything from the appropriate architecture for monasteries to fortuitous times for eating. The manuals also outlined a complex set of reward and retribution based on the actions of individuals, but for the monks and nuns the stakes were exponentially greater, and bore an effect not solely on the person but the empire they represented as well. Accordingly, a virtuous monk could have a prosperous effect on the country, but a malicious one could be a harbinger of disaster in the future. In this manner, the Tang Dynasty remained keenly interested in the oversight of its Daoist monasteries.
As noted above, some of the policies the Tang Dynasty enacted with respect towards Daoism and its temples and monasteries seem like clear instances of propaganda with the intent of legitimizing their right to rule, but other instances seem to indicate their belief in the religion goes far deeper than mere politics. The dynasty carried out large scale purges of the monasteries ranks of monks and nuns to rid them of formal criminals, draft dodgers, and other individuals felt to have an inauspicious effect upon the stated objective of the monasteries: creating a condition of harmony throughout the empire.
Furthermore, the emperors themselves seemed to display a great interest in the native religion of China. Specifically, the third emperor of the Tang Dynasty, Emperor Xuanzong, further inflated the status of the Daoist religion throughout his empire (he required every house to hold a copy of the Daodejing), surrounded himself by Daoist masters, and even personally wrote a commentary on the Daodejing.
There are other instances of interplay between the religion and secular life during the Tang Dynasty as well. For example, after a long and successful political career, He Zhizhang left the ranks of secular society in order to become a Daoist monk. In an act of support, the entire Tang Court was in attendance to watch his leave of the secular life. Furthermore, the monasteries we’re often used by scholars to prepare for the imperial examination, and lead to further exchanges of ideas between the two parties.
The Tang Dynasty constitutes an interesting time for the Daoist religion as it was able to go through a period of develop thanks to the official support it enjoyed from the government. It was during this time that the religions monastic system reached a level of maturity. Ultimately a series of rebellions destabilized the Tang Dynasty and led to its collapse, but it was still looked upon fondly in the future as cultural high point for the country and a time that solidified Daoism’s role as a key component of Chinese thought.
Cover image from UUhuaku