The Shangqing School (Chinese:上清) or Supreme Clarity is a Daoist movement that began during the aristocracy of the Western Jin dynasty. Shangqing can be translated as either 'Supreme Clarity' or 'Highest Clarity.' The first leader of the school was a woman, Wei Huacun (251-334). According to her Shangqing hagiographers, her devotion to Daoist cultivation so impressed a number of immortals that she received revelations from them 31 volumes of Daoist scriptures which would become the foundation of Shangqing Daoism. Later, Tao Hongjing (Chinese: 陶弘景) (456－536) structured the theory and practice and compiled the canon. He greatly contributed to the development of the school that took place near the end of the 5th century. The mountain near Nanjing where Tao Hongjing had his retreat, Maoshan (茅山), today remains the principal seat of the school.
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Shangqing practice values meditation techniques of visualization and breathing, as well as physical exercises, as opposed to the use of alchemy and talismans. The recitation of the sacred canon plays an equally important role. The practice was essentially individualistic, contrary to the collective practices in the Celestial Master school or in the Lingbao School. Recruiting from high social classes, during the Tang Dynasty, Shangqing was the dominant school of Daoism, and its influence is found in literature of the time period. The importance of the school only began to diminish beginning from the second half of the Song dynasty. Under the Yuan dynasty, the movement was known by the name Maoshan and the focus changed from meditation to rituals and talismans. In the 21st century, Maoshan Daoism is still practiced but its current techniques are very different from the original techniques developed at the beginning of the school.
Lady Wei Huacun, an aristocrat from the Jin dynasty and a Celestial Master practitioner, was the first leader of the Shangqing School. Three decades after her death, from 364 to 370, Yang Xi (330-c. 386) supposedly had revelations "aided almost certainly by cannabis" (Joseph Needham 1980:213) and transcribed texts from a group of immortals and spirits that appeared to him. These texts eventually formed the basis of the school’s beliefs. The revelation began to spread in aristocratic circles of South China, and eventually Tao Hongjing, advisor to the princes of Qi, joined the group. He commented upon, and compiled the Shangqing texts, and developed a well-structured system consisting of a pantheon and new ways to reach immortality that depended upon meditation. More interested in Daoism and Buddhism than in public administration, in 492 he received authorization to leave the court. He moved to Maoshan, which had by now become the center of the school. There, with the help of the Emperor Wudi of the Liang dynasty, he built the temple of Huayang, the first Shangqing temple.
After his death, the school continued to prosper, and recruited many people from the aristocracy. From its beginning near Nanjing, the school expanded to the north after laws passed in 504 and 517 forced several masters of the school to go into exile. Ironically this expulsion helped spread the movement to the north, and did little to weaken the schools organization in the south. The Daoist encyclopedia published under the patronage of the Emperor Wu of the Northern Zhou (561-578) placed a great deal of importance on the Shangqing texts.
The Shangqing School dominated the Daoist movements under the Tang. During this period, all of its leaders received a title from the emperor. Emperor Taizong personally visited three of the temples on Maoshan, and in 731 the Xuanzong emperor put Shangqing deities in charge of China’s sacred mountains. The Daoist section of the imperial encyclopedia was composed primarily of Shangqing texts.
At the same time, the Shangqing school underwent a transformation and integrated texts from the Lingbao School as well as from the Way of the Celestial Master school. The clergy also became more important and more emphasis was put on public rituals.
During the second of half of the Northern Song dynasty, the influence of Shangqing Daoism declined at the court, but still remained, changing its focus to rituals and talismans. New buildings appeared on Maoshan that survived until the Cultural Revolution of Mao Zedong. Under the Song, some of the Shangqing leaders still benefited from imperial favour such as the 23rd leader, Zhu Ziying who received the title of ‘national master’ from the court. The 35th and 44th masters, Ren Yuanpu and Wang Daomeng, were equally distinguished for having ended a grasshopper invasion and a flood. Under the Yuan dynasty, the Shangqing school integrated itself under the Zhengyi alliance. At the end of the 20th century, the Taiping Rebellion, the Japanese army and the Cultural Revolution have resulted in the complete destruction of the temples on Maoshan. Two of the temples, Jiuxiaogong and Yuanfugong have been rebuilt more for tourists than for religious purposes.
Shangqing Daoism has borrowed many concepts and beliefs from both the Celestial Masters as well as from Ge Hong’s alchemical tradition. However, the absorption of elixirs and other potions aimed to attain immortality was largely replaced in the Song period by internal alchemy that was more linked to meditation techniques (see the Zuowanglun).
An emphasis was placed on personal meditation in the Shangqing school, unlike the ritualized system of the Celestial Masters. Shangqing meditation was largely a solitary affair, and focused on mental visualization of spirits and gods. There was also no requirement to meditate at a temple; one’s own home was fine. Deities lived inside the body and could provide good health if meditated upon. Each deity inhabited a different part of the body. Through studying the descriptions of deities in the canon, adepts would contemplate the inside of their body and maintain the deities in their proper place. This would ensure the body’s durability. While it began as a school centered on the individual, the school changed progressively until talismans and rituals became a more important aspect.
The main god of the Shangqing School is known as the Venerable Sovereign, the first of the Three Pure Ones. The pantheon included gods that could be turned to for help, ones that could be revered and others that could be commanded. As described by Tao Hongjing, the pantheon occupied twenty-eight pages in Shangqing texts, but the most important deities are scarcely mentioned. The canon mostly contains information about the gods that lived within the body.
The principal text of the Shangqing School is known as The True Text of the Great Dong (Dadong Zhenjing). Dong can be translated as cave or grotto, but also has other meanings such as ‘to communicate.’ When the texts were dictated to Yang Xi, the immortals told him that they were the condensed form of primordial qi, and existed before the world was born. Eventually the texts congealed and were sent by heaven to be dictated to Yang.
Recitation and veneration of the texts was extremely important. The transmission of texts was strictly controlled, and only a master could give a text to a disciple. The texts could never be revealed to those outside the school.
- Robinet (1997), p. 132.
- Needham, Joseph, Ho Ping-Yu, and Lu Gwei-djen. Science and Civilisation in China: Volume 5, Chemistry and Chemical Technology; Part 4, Spagyrical Discovery and Invention. Cambridge University Press, 1980.
- Robinet, Isabelle. Daoism: Growth of a Religion. Stanford: Stanford University, 1997.