A daoshi (道士 "master of the Tao"), translated as Taoist priest, Taoist monk, Taoist master or Professional Taoist, is a priest in Taoism. Along with Han Chinese priests, there are also many practicing ethnic minority priests in China.[1] Some orders are monastic (Quanzhen orders), while the majority are not (Zhengyi orders).

Some of the monastic orders are hermitic, and their members practice seclusion and ascetic lifestyles in the mountains, with the aim of becoming xian, or immortal beings. Non-monastic priests live among the populace and manage and serve their own temples or popular temples.

The activities of the Taoists tend to be informed by materials which may be found in the Daozang, or Daoist Canon; however, Taoists generally choose, or inherit, specific texts which have been passed down for generations from teacher to student, rather than consulting published versions of these works.


Taoist orders are conventionally categorised into two main branches: Quanzhen and Zhengyi.

Quanzhen Taoism

Quanzhen Taoism, which is present almost exclusively in the north of China, includes all Taoist orders which have a monastic institution. Their lifestyle is comparable to that of the Buddhist monks in that they are celibate, vegetarian, and live in monasteries. The White Cloud Temple in Beijing is the main monastery of the Longmen school of Quanzhen, and is also the main headquarters of mainland China's official Taoist Church.

Zhengyi Taoism

The other main priesthood is Zhengyi Taoism, in which the priests can marry, eat meat, live in their own homes, and found and manage their own temples or serve in folk religious temples. They are mostly priests part-time and can hold other jobs. Their lineages are transmitted through training and ordination by another priest, although historically they received a formal confirmation in their role by the Celestial Master, the highest priest. Fragmentation of the lineage of the Celestial Masters has made Zhengyi priests more independent. In mainland China the Taoist Church has in theory taken over the power to regulate them (although only a minority of them are registered with the Church). Zhengyi orders are present all over China, although with different names according to the local lineages. For example, in northern China there are the yinyang masters of the Lingbao sub-tradition.[2]

By Period

Pre-Ming Period

During the Period of Division, officials were divided into nine different ranks, the lower the Grade, the higher status they were. Daoist priests were designated Grade Five status and above and were granted the ability to participate in formal rituals (keyi 科仪) since they were educated in internal cultivation or neigong (內功). Daoist priests not trained in neigong were delegated to Grade Six status or lower and were granted the title of "Three-Five Surveyor of Merit” (sanwu dugong 三五度公).[3]

Ming (1368–1644)

Classification and Outside View

During the Ming Dynasty, Taoism, along with Buddhism, was a state-sponsored religion. All others had been banned.[4] Taoist priests were often classified by two categories, zhu guan (住觀, zhù guān) priests live in designated temples, while you guan (遊觀, yóu guān) priests drift around with no fixed habitats. During the Ming, Taoist priests were largely viewed positively by the public, though some were skeptical about the credibility of their alchemy, fortune-telling, and divination.[5]

Taoist priests organized themselves using different categories and assigned themselves different jobs based on their ranking. Both Taoist priest and priestess performed Taoist rituals. Their rankings were included when Taoist priests signed records for rituals which would be burned for certain rituals such as the Yellow Register Zhai (黃籙齋) rituals, or burial rituals, and Golden Register Jiao (金籙醮), or temple renewal type rituals. Because records were being burned, some scholars tasked themselves with the responsibility of copying down the manuscripts before they were used in the ritual.[6][7]

The Taoist belief system was also seen as legitimate by many during the middle Ming period when, with the growth of commerce in the state, it became a trend for different industries to worship their own Taoist patron gods. For example, ink makers would worship Wenchang Dijun (文昌帝君, wén chāng dì jūn), ironsmiths would worship Taishang Laojun (太上老君, tài shàng lǎo jūn), and prostitutes and thieves would worship Guan Zhong (管仲, guǎn zhòng) and Shi Qian (時遷, shí qiān), in many ways to prove the legitimacy of their occupations.[4]

Government Regulations and Examination System

As previously mentioned, in 1374, the Ming government banned all religions other than Buddhism and Taoism. This was good for Taoism as it meant that it could continue to exist above ground, but this also brought with it much government regulation. That same year, an examination system was introduced, whereby would-be priests had to sit an exam in the capital that was held once every three years, with only those with sufficient knowledge of Taoist classics and who passed being licensed by the government as official priests. Upon passing, the new official priests would qualify to receive a dudie (度牒, dù dié) clerical certificate, a sort of official state license for priests.[4]

In 1392, during the reign of Taizu, a minimum age was decreed, with only men over 40 years old and women over 50 years old being allowed to become priests.[8] These restrictions, however, changed over time, as in 1419, laws state that only those above 14 and below 20 years old, and whose parents both approved, would be allowed to study Taoist classics in temples and sit the examination after 5 years (thereby becoming a priest at a younger age than was previously required). Those who passed would be given a dudie, while the others would have to secularize. Teenagers whose parents or grandparents did not have other offspring to depend on were not allowed to become monks or priests either. Those older than 30 or younger than 40 years old, who were once monks or priests but later secularized, were not allowed to become priests again.[9]

In 1380, the government also restricted the number of priests by imposing regional quotas for both Buddhist and Taoist priests, 40 for each prefecture Fu (府, fǔ), 30 for each independent department Zhou (州, zhōu), and 20 for each county Xian (縣, xiàn).[4] These quotas were not strictly enforced in the remote provinces which had been loosely regulated until the Yongle reign (1403-1425), during which Taoist regulatory agencies were established in these provinces and quotas were enforced. During the Yingzong reign (1435-1464), the quotas as well as other regulations started to be undermined, with counts of priests far exceeding their regional quotas and dudie being sold to priests who had not qualified by passing the official examination.[8]

The Ming criminal law also had some very strict regulations for priests. Since 1398, the official criminal law of the Ming had stated that owning a dudie was the only valid proof of identity for Buddhist monks and Taoist priests. Falsely claiming to be a priest without this identification was illegal and was punishable with 80 lashings. If self-declared priests were shaven by their family members, those family members were also guilty. If a priest in charge of a temple had accepted invalid priests into their temple, they would be charged with the same crime and forced to secularize.[9]

Despite the threat of these punishments, the regulations started to degrade and enforcement became increasingly loose during the mid to late Ming. After 1435, dudie abuse became widespread and the quota system was increasingly ignored. In the mid to late Ming, more than 10,000 dudie were issued every period, compared to the mere hundreds issued in the early Ming. The three-year issuing period was also often changed depending on the will of the government.[9]

The government itself was partly to blame for the increasing abuse. For instance, after 1487, in the wake of famines or other natural disasters, the government would often issue large numbers of dudie as a way of increasing state income. Sometimes, during famine, a dudie could be acquired not only with a monetary purchase, but even by trading in grains to the state.[9]

Daily Life and Clothing

During the late Ming, morning and evening study sessions had become a daily practice in most Taoist temples, especially those of the Quanzhen (全真, quán zhēn) Taoists. These daily studies of the Taoist classics likely emerged under influence from similar Buddhist practices at the time.[10]

Taoist dress during the Ming was said to not have changed much from that of previous dynasties. In a book written by the Prince of Ning Zhu Quan (朱權, zhū quán), he states that the clothing of Taoist priests in Ming was not too different from the “ancient” style of the Northern and Southern dynasties (420-589 AD).[10]

Laws from 1382 regulated the dress of Taoist priests of different rankings. Those who worked as officials in the capital city were to wear red robes with golden embroidery, those who worked as officials elsewhere were to wear red robes without golden embroidery, and common priests were to wear teal robes.[9]

Rituals and Practices

During the Ming dynasty, some Taoist priests were hired to create and perform musical performances where they often danced or played musical instruments for their patrons.[11] Taoist priests also participated in death rituals. However, some wealthy families objected to hiring Taoist priests for their funerals due to their Confucian beliefs that argued against the lavish musical performances that usually accompanied Taoist funerals.[12] Taoist priests chose whether to marry or not. But to continue the hereditary title, the Celestial Master had to be married to pass the title to an eligible male heir.[11]

Taoist priests were also expected to perform various kinds of exorcisms and rituals for people who wanted to cure disease, resolve drought, etc. Such processes were detailed in Thunder Magic texts, which detailed which and when certain ritual items were needed and place such as placing a talisman on some rice.[7][13] Such rituals were performed near or at temples and other pure areas away from the public eye[14] and if the homeowners allowed it, the priests were able to enter their homes and establish a sacred place to perform the ritual.[15] It is believed that the shortage of such texts from earlier periods were due to the high standards of the officials that approved them and the biased beliefs that these rituals were related to shamanistic ideas and rituals.[13]

Qing (1644-1911)

Along with ritualistic services, Taoist priests also were visited by people for fortune-telling, explanations for events, and healing services which consisted of using medicine or acupuncture. Some Taoist priests devised new medicinal recipes to which some saw favorable outcomes.

Taoist temples were used as places people could donate to fund new communal structures like bridges or roads.[16]


  1. Kohn, Livia; Roth, Harold David (2002). Daoist identity: history, lineage, and ritual. Honolulu: University of Hawai'i Press. ISBN 9780824824297. OCLC 47893514.
  2. Jones, 2007. p. 5
  3. Saso, Michael (2015). "The Daoist Jiao Celebration". Journal of Daoist Studies. 8 (1): 204–211. doi:10.1353/dao.2015.0011. ISSN 1941-5524.
  4. 晁中辰 (2004). "明朝皇帝的崇道之风". 文史哲. 2004 (5) via China Academic Journals Full-text Database.
  5. 秦国帅 (2011). "道与庶道:蒲松龄心目中的道教形象". 蒲松龄研究. 2011 (2) via China Academic Journals Full-text Database.
  6. Saso, Michael (2002). "Review of Daoism Handbook. Handbook of Oriental Studies. Handbuch der Orientalistik. Section Four". Monumenta Serica. 50: 670–675. ISSN 0254-9948. JSTOR 40727517.
  7. Saso, Michael (2015). "The Daoist Jiao Celebration". Journal of Daoist Studies. 8 (1): 204–211. doi:10.1353/dao.2015.0011. ISSN 1941-5524.
  8. 张小平 (2002). "明代道教与政治的关系". 井冈山师范学院学报. 2002(S1) via China Academic Journals Full-text Database.
  9. 余来明 (12 November 2015). "从"方外之人"到"宇内之民"——明代国家体制中的道士". 学术交流. 2015 (9): 161–168 via Wanfang Data.
  10. 金天明 (3 September 2007). "道教宫观文化及其功能研究". Wanfang Data.
  11. TS'UN-YAN, Liu (1971-01-01). "The Penetration of Taoism Into the Ming Neo-Confucianist Elite". T'oung Pao. 57 (1): 41, 43. doi:10.1163/156853271x00066. ISSN 0082-5433.
  12. Goossaert, Vincent (2017). The Taoists of Peking, 1800–1949: A Social History of Urban Clerics. Harvard University Asia Center. pp. 240–242, 246–247.
  13. Reiter, Florian (2014). "The Taoist Canon and the Representation of Taoist Exorcist Traditions". Zeitschrift der Deutschen Morgenländischen Gesellschaft. 164 (3): 801–803. JSTOR 10.13173/zeitdeutmorggese.164.3.0789.
  14. Reiter, Florian (2017). "The Amulet in Thunder Magic Rituals as Prism of Taoist Exorcist Power. The Amulet of Comprehensive Support due to the Commands of Thunders and Thunderclaps 雷霆號令總攝符". Zeitschrift der Deutschen Morgenländischen Gesellschaft. 167 (2): 488–489. doi:10.13173/zeitdeutmorggese.167.2.0477. JSTOR 10.13173/zeitdeutmorggese.167.2.0477.
  15. Lagerwey, John (1995). "Taoist Ritual Space and Dynastic Legitimacy". Cahiers d'Extrême-Asie. 8: 87–94. doi:10.3406/asie.1995.1089.
  16. Goossaert, Vincent (2017). The Taoists of Peking, 1800–1949: A Social History of Urban Clerics. Harvard University Asia Center. pp. 240–242, 246–247.


  • Jones, Stephen. 2007. Ritual and Music of North China: Shawm Bands in Shanxi. Ashgate. ISBN 0754661636

See also

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