The Empire Divided
& the Proliferation of Daoism

Developments in Daoism

The historical development of Daoism in the first half of the Han dynasty was marked by its influence on political syncretism via the Huang-Lao movement, named after Laozi and the Yellow Emperor, Huangdi. At the same time, the search for immortality and the cult of the immortals spread to all levels of society. The influence of Huang-Lao teachings at court had reached a high point just before the reign of Emperor Wu (r. 141-87 B.C.E.), declining sharply as a result of his decision to confer official patronage on the teaching of the five Confucian classics, effectively installing Confucianism as the state ideology. The emperor’s personal interest in immortality and various occult arts, meanwhile, continued to be celebrated in fiction and mythology. [SCT, 392]
As a rule, what exists will perish and what ends has a beginning. This is indeed a general principle. Yet there are differences and discrepancies, and what holds true for one does not hold true for another. The categories of transformation being legion, deviations from the norm are boundless. ... It is said that what begins must end, yet Heaven and Earth are inexhaustible. It is said that what is born must die, yet tortoises and cranes enjoy longevity. ... Among the most spiritual of living creatures, none surpasses human beings. Beings of a noble nature should all be uniformly of the same kind. Yet they are sagacious and stupid, perverse and righteous, handsome and ugly, tall and short, clear and turbid, chaste and lascivious, calm and hurried, slow and quick. The differences in the outcomes of their choices and in the objects of their desires are as great as those between Heaven and Earth, as opposite as ice and glowing coals. Why marvel only at the strangeness of the transcendents who do not die like ordinary people? [SCT, 399]
The Heavenly Masters movement founded by Zhang Daoling [34-156 CE] constitutes the earliest form of Daoist liturgical organization for which a relatively detailed record is available. The authority vested in Zhang Daoling, the putative founder, and his successors by means of a covenant with the Newly Appeared Lord Lao (Laozi deified) has with few interruptions been the mainstay of the Daoist ordination system throughout China to this day. [SCT, 393]
Much in Zhang Daoling’s vision broke with earlier Daoist practices. Where earlier practitioners had taught only selected adepts breathing exercises, sexual techniques, and medical potions — all to enhance that individual’s ability to attain immortality — Zhang shifted the focus of Daoist religion away from those few individuals to a larger lay community, who did not actively seek immortality. ... Zhang Daoling grew up in Jiangsu, where he studied the traditional Daoist arts of making potions to seek immortality. Only after his move to Sichuan did he receive the revelation that allowed him to found a new Daoist church. The Chinese state often appointed local governors to serve as the hereditary rulers of such border states, and they did the same with the Five Peck Daoists [a.k.a. Heavenly Masters], so that first Zhang Daoling, then his son, and then his grandson served as the local representative of the Chinese government in a difficult-to-control border area. [OE, 134]
Regulations of the Dark Capital
Xuandu lwen
Regulation: From his meditation chamber in Loyang the Heavenly Master followed the immortals westward to Shu [i.e. Sichuan], to the Chi and Cheng mountains. Since “people were corrupt and unclean and it was a disorderly and unsettled age,” the Heavenly Master scaled the Pillar of Heaven and strode across the celestial threshold in order to produce for the first time the Way of the Authoritative Covenant of Orthodox Unity [i.e. the Way of the Heavenly Masters]. Hoping to purify and enlighten the cosmos and mankind, to punish the unrighteous, and to nurture all living things, he established twenty-four parishes. For each parish he established male and female officers, a total of twenty-four [per parish]. He made use of the grace of the Dark Origin, opening the way to reform in later generations, so that all [believers] will repent of their errors and be ranked as Realized Immortals. [SCT, 397]

With the gradual decline of the dynasty’s political fortunes, during the reign of Wang Mang and under the Latter Han, apocalyptic prophecy came to the foreground. The Great Peace Scripture (Taiping jing) is said to have been presented to the Han court amidst millenarian expectations of the imminent collapse of the world order, to be followed by the survival of an elect people under a reign of good government and great peace. The popular Yellow Turban uprising in 182 C.E. and the simultaneous establishment of an autonomous theocratic state by a group known as the Heavenly Masters in Sichuan pursued visions that may have been similar. [SCT, 392]
The minimal information known about the Yellow Turbans reflects the point of view of official historians who saw these Daoists as dangerous insurrectionists, named for the yellow cloths they tied around their heads. The Yellow Turbans shared many practices with the Five Peck Daoists. Both groups considered illness a sign of wrongdoing, and both encouraged the confession of sins. ... They claimed to inaugurate a new age, which they called the “Era of Great Peace (taiping)” ... [and] found support at different social levels, spanning the peasants in the countryside, whose crops had been damaged by recent flooding of rivers, and eunuchs within the palace. The Yellow Turbans planned their rebellion for the third month of 184, but government officials discovered their plot ahead of time. The arrest of one adept, who had been in communication with some palace eunuchs, prompted all the adherents to rebel ahead of schedule. One source reports that three hundred sixty thousand insurgents from eight provinces joined the movement. The central government dispatched its own imperial troops, and it recruited the armies of several independent generals, including a former chancellor named Cao Cao (155-220). The Daoist rebels proved no match for the combined forces, who captured and killed all the important leaders by the end of 184. ...

The Yellow Turban uprisings rattled the palace leadership. Emperor Huan was the last emperor to act on his own, and his decision to use eunuchs to attack the consort family of the Liangs ushered in decades of conflict between eunuchs and consort families in which the child emperors played no role at all. After Emperor Huan died in 168, three more emperors came to the throne, but each one was placed there by powerful consort families, who challenged the eunuchs at their peril. ... In 192, Cao Cao, the general who had suppressed the Yellow Turbans, became regent. General Cao Cao went on to become one of the most famous generals in Chinese history and one of the leading protagonists of the great Chinese novel, Three Kingdoms (written in the fifteenth or sixteenth century), yet he never gained control of more than one-third of the empire. When Cao Cao died in 220, the Han-dynasty puppet-emperor was still in place, but he was forced to abdicate by Cao’s son, who proclaimed himself the founder of a new dynasty. Three centuries of disunity ensued. [OE, 135-6]
... [I]f we want to understand the place of the Three Kingdoms in the Chinese sense of the past, we must focus not on the historical record but on the Romance of the Three Kingdoms, which follows a historically verifiable outline but leaves out much that can be known and adds elaborate and wonderful stories that have little or no foundation in sources available to us. As so often happens in historical fiction or drama, institutions, trends, and complexities are slighted, the focus on individual character and action becomes stronger, and there is a tendency to clearer distinctions between heroes and villains than can usually be found in political reality. But there still is plenty of room for portrayal of conflicts between private and public commitments, for heroes laid low by the faults of their virtues or by the faults of those whom they are bound by ties of sworn brotherhood. [MOF, 103-4]
The Heroes
In the long, complex development of the novel, the characters of the heroes are gradually revealed. Liu Bei, by his membership in the imperial family the “elder brother” and eventual claimant of the Han succession, is shown to be a paragon of conscientiousness, scruple, and generosity, who would have been truly sagely as the third emperor of a great dynasty but lacks the guile and ruthlessness required to rebuild the fortunes of the Han. Zhang Fei is the first of a long line in Chinese fiction of short-tempered, loud-mouthed, good-hearted warriors who will cause a great deal of trouble for their associates if not carefully watched; for the reader or hearer, he is good for a laugh, a release of fantasies of uncontrolled anger, yelling and fighting, instant and guileless redress of wrongs. Guan Yu, by far the most interesting of the three, is another warrior, fearless in battle, more controlled and a better counselor than Zhang, above all a man who will defend his own honor and will honor at all costs his obligations to others. His red-faced, beautifully bearded statue stands today in many temples and house shrines; he has become Lord Guan (Guan Di, Guan Gong), the God of War in Chinese popular religion. [MOF, 105]
Liu Bei and his sworn brothers now set out to find men who can advise them how to strengthen their position in the middle Yangzi. They are told repeatedly of a mysterious person named Zhuge Liang, whose main concern is the Daoist pursuit of immortality and the secrets of nature, but who also is wonderfully well versed in the great strategists of the Warring States period. Twice they go to the small thatched house where the great man lives, only to find that he is off in the mountains somewhere. When they come a third time, he is at home but is taking a nap. Liu Bei stands respectfully waiting for him to awaken, while Zhang Fei becomes livid with rage and suggests awakening him by setting fire to his thatched roof. When Zhuge Liang finally awakens he is all politeness and apology. He appears to be “singularly tall, with a face like gleaming jade, a plaited silken band around his head. Cloaked in crane down, he had the buoyant air of a [Daoist] spiritual transcendent.” Soon he and Liu Bei settle down to serious discussion of strategy. Zhuge Liang has a map, which shows the importance of taking Jingzhou as a strategic base and the possibility of moving from there up the river into Shu. Liu Bei is delighted, and Zhuge Liang abandons his spiritual pursuits to become Liu’s strategic adviser. Guan Yu and Zhang Fei remain suspicious, especially as it becomes clear that Zhuge Liang will devise his strategies from a tent at headquarters and will not lead troops into battle. Liu explains that “For brains I have Kongming [the courtesy name frequently used for Zhuge Liang in the Romance], for courage you two. They cannot be interchanged. ... Plans evolved within the tent decide victory a thousand leagues away.”
Zhou Yu [minister of Wu in the south] now is committed to resistance against Cao Cao [ruler of Wei in the north] but is repeatedly astonished by Zhuge Liang’s ability to see through complicated situations, anticipate what would happen next, and stay three steps ahead of his rivals in his plans. Finding him too dangerous a rival for power in the new alliance, he seeks a way to do away with him without incurring the wrath of Sun Quan [ruler of Wu] and Liu Bei [ruler of Shu Han]. He asks him if he can provide 100,000 arrows for the coming battles. Zhuge Liang replies, astonishingly, that he can do so within three days, and would accept the death penalty if he did not fulfill his promise. Then he asks another commander to provide “twenty vessels with a crew of thirty each.
Lined up on either side of each vessel I want a thousand bales of straw wrapped in black cloth. But if you tell Zhou Yu this time my plan will fail.” On the third night there is a thick fog on the river which Zhuge Liang, master of natural lore, has anticipated. He has the ships pass Cao’s camp in single file, the crews shouting and beating the drums as loudly as they can. Cao’s archers shoot as rapidly as they can at the sources of the menacing sounds in the fog. As the fog lifts in the morning, the vessels pass again at a greater distance, their crews shouting their thanks to Cao Cao for donating such a fine supply of arrows to his enemies. [MOF, 108]
The Sun-Liu alliance, its forces inferior in numbers and arms, now prepares large numbers of ships full of wood, straw, and explosives to be sent drifting down into Cao’s anchored ships. To make sure that the Cao fleet cannot get away, they send a double agent to Cao, who advises that he can deal with the seasickness his northern soldiers are suffering on their ships by chaining the ships together so that they will not move so much in the water. The double agent, something of an artist with his three inches of limber tongue, convinces Cao. Cao knows of the fireships being prepared southeast of his base, and at that time of year the prevailing winds are from the north and west.
Now it is time for Zhuge Liang to demonstrate his mastery of the secrets of summoning the powers of nature. He has a three-tiered altar built. On the bottom tier are twenty-eight flags for the twenty-eight solar mansions, on the next sixty-four flags for the hexagrams of the Yi jing, on the top four men dressed in the colors appropriate to the four directions. In the robes of a Daoist priest, barefoot, long hair loose down his back, Zhuge Liang ascends and descends his altar, in silent prayer. Soon a wind begins to rise out of the southeast. The fire ships are lit and set adrift. They bear down on Cao’s base like flaming arrows. It is too late to try to loosen the chains that fasten all the ships. The fire spreads rapidly from one to another, and all are lost. [MOF, 110]
Liu Bei dies , and Zhuge Liang manages the peaceful succession of his son. He tries to do the best he can pursuing the Han cause in face of the isolation of the Shu Han regime and the mediocrity of the successor. He makes some progress in the Han River valley, but has to retreat to the city of Hanzhong after a serious defeat. Seeing vastly superior Wei forces approaching, he has the main gates of the city opened and twenty men placed at each to sweep the road. Zhuge Liang himself puts his white scarf around his head, his crane feather cloak around his shoulders, and sits on the city wall with two boys, playing a qin, a stringed instrument. The Wei general, convinced that Zhuge Liang never takes chances and knowing his skill in setting traps, looks at this astonishing spectacle and orders a general retreat. Zhuge Liang drives on into Wei River valley, but an attack on the enemy using burning wheels sent rolling down hillsides to block a pass fails when a sudden rainstorm puts the fires out. Heaven is turning against him.
       Zhuge Liang is exhausted from trying to make all the plans and decisions. His vitality is at low ebb. He has soldiers with black flags stand around his tent while he prays to the Northern Dipper, asking that his life be prolonged for the sake of the Han cause. If the lamp in his tent stays lit for seven days, he may have gained a year of life. But on the sixth night a soldier dashes in, accidentally kicks over the lamp, and it is extinguished. Zhuge Liang now dictates his deathbed memorial to his emperor:
“I humbly beg that Your Majesty keep an honest mind and limit your desires, disciplining yourself and caring tenderly for the people. Serve the late Emperor in a spirit of filial piety; show humane generosity throughout your kingdom. Promote those not in the public eye to advance the cause of true excellence; deny access to the vicious and depraved to strengthen the moral tone of the realm.”
He also orders that after his death there is to be no outcry of mourning, for the enemy will be watching. He has had a life-size figure of himself carved of wood; it is to be put in a chariot and sent out the next day at the head of the Shu Han army. After his death, his orders are followed. The Wei forces see his figure in the chariot, think he is still alive, and flee. [MOF, 111-2]
The novel continues to the Jin reunification of 280, ending with a repetition of its first sentence about the alternation of unity and disunity, but it seems to me that Zhuge Liang’s last trick, his cheating of death itself, is the real conclusion of the story, and one of the finest evocations in Chinese literature of the power of fame, of a great name, to outlive death and even to turn the tide of war. [MOF, 112-3]