Kou Qianzhi

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KOU QIANZHI (373448), Celestial Master (tianshi) at the Northern (Tuoba) Wei court between the years 425 and 448, an office that marked a unique era of Daoist ascendancy in Chinese political history. A member of a traditionally Daoist gentry family of Fengyi (Shaanxi), Kou at an early age developed an intense interest in such occult sciences as astrology, alchemy, and knowledge of transcendental herbs. At about the age of thirty (c. 403) he went into reclusion on the western sacred peak of Mount Hua (Shaanxi) with his master the Daoist adept Chenggong Xing (d. 412?), a student of the Buddhist monk and mathematician Shi Tanying (d. before 418), who had been a colleague of the great Central Asian translator Kumarajiva while the latter was in Chang'an (modern Xi'an) between 402 and 413. After a brief sojourn on Mount Hua the two traveled to the central sacred peak, Mount Song (in Henan). Chenggong died after seven years, and Kou continued his cultivation of Daoist arts alone on the mountain. In 415 he was rewarded with a visitation from the deified Laozi (Taishang Laojun), who delivered to him a document labeled Yunzhong yinsong xinke zhi jie (Articles of a new code to be chanted to Yün-chung musical notation), which corresponds to the Laojun yinsong jiejing of the present Daoist canon (Harvard-Yenching Index No. 784). At the same time the god revealed to him certain secret breathing and calisthenic techniques, and soon he began to attract disciples. Eight years later, in 423, when he was fifty, he was visited again by a divine being, this one a Li Puwen, who identified himself as Laozi's great-great grandson (xuansun ). Li Puwen presented Kou with a second document, Lutu zhenjing (The true scripture of talismanic designs). It has not survived, but was probably similar to other collections of talismanic designs (fantastic characters) that can be found in the canon.

The Yunzhong yinsong appears to have been influenced indirectly by translations of the Buddhist Vinaya that had recently appeared in China. It set forth rules for the selection and ceremonial roles of religious officers and the conduct of ceremonies, confessionals, and charitable feasts (chuhui ), and laid down principles for moral behavior among the "chosen people" (zhongmin ), that is, among the adherents of the Celestial Masters Sect (Tianshi Dao). The code seems to have been directed specifically at reforming certain practices that had emerged since the founding of the sect by Zhang Daoling in the late second century and that were now felt to pose a threat to civic order in the Northern Wei state. These included the apocalyptic expectation of messianic deliverers (who often turned out to be fomenters of rebellion), the hereditary transmission of religious offices within particular families, and the extragovernmental levies of grain or silk (zumi ) to support them, which tended to create subgovernmental enclaves within the state. The code was also directed against the sexual ritual known as the "union of vital forces" (heqi ), which was seen as a threat to public morals. It is for these reasons that when in 424 Kou Qianzhi arrived in the Northern Wei capital of Pingcheng (in Shanxi), he was eagerly welcomed by such diverse constituencies as the non-Chinese Tuoba rulers and the Confucian-oriented minister Cui Hao (381450). It was Cui Hao who sponsored Kou's induction into the Northern Wei administrative hierarchy as Celestial Master in 425.

In his alliance with Kou Qianzhi, Cui Hao had his own agenda. He was the scion of an old Chinese gentry family that looked forward to the restoration of a unified Han rule over the fragmented non-Chinese kingdoms of the north and the weakened Chinese exilic regimes of the south. Cui utilized Kou's essentially conservative Yunzhong yinsong as a spiritual base from which he could promote his own goals. He saw to it that the Yunzhong yinsong was promulgated to every corner of the Tuoba Empire, which at its peak included nearly all of China north of the Yangtze River and by 439 appeared ready to incorporate the south as well. He also took advantage of the confidence placed in him by Emperor Taiwu (r. 424452) to institute some reforms of his own. These culminated in the devastating purge of the Buddhist clergy and the proscription of the Buddhist religion and confiscation of its monasteries between the years 444 and 446. Kou Qianzhi has been accused of instigating the attacks in an attempt to eliminate a rival faith, but this is unlikely, although his acquiescence is probable. His own master, Chenggong Xing, had studied with Buddhist teachers and had inculcated in his disciple a high regard for the foreign faith. Kou seems to have acquiesced in Cui Hao's purges primarily because they were also aimed at local heterodox cults (yinsi ). It was these pockets of popular religion where blood sacrifices and other unacceptable forms of worship were still practiced which Kou, as head of an established Daoist orthodoxy, could not tolerate.

Kou Qianzhi's term as Celestial Master is sometimes compared to a theocracy because of the unique establishment of religion in the Northern Wei state, in which the Celestial Master as pontifex maximus mediated between the celestial divinities and the earthly ruler. The climax of Kou's career was the inauguration of the reign period "Perfect Ruler of Grand Peace" (Taiping Zhenjun), which lasted from 440 to 451. The title was unmistakably Daoist, recalling the ideal of universal peace proclaimed by the Yellow Turban leader Zhang Jue in 184. His movement, known as the Way of Grand Peace (Taiping Dao), was presumably based in turn on teachings found in the Scripture of Grand Peace (Taiping jing ). In a magnificent public ceremony conducted on a newly constructed Daoist platform (tan ) south of the capital, on New Year's Day of the year 442 Kou Qianzhi, splendidly arrayed in Daoist robes, personally presented to Emperor Taiwu certain sacred talismans (fulu ) in recognition of the emperor's sage virtue as "Perfect Ruler." The ceremony instituted a tradition of Daoist investiture that was continued by the Tuoba states well into the next century. The "theocracy," however, ended with Kou's death in 448. Four years later Taiwu was murdered by a palace eunuch. His successor, Wencheng (r. 452465), was an ardent Buddhist and in an orgy of penitential restitution reestablished Buddhism as the state religion. Under him began the construction of the monumental cave-temples of Yungang that have come down to the present day.

See Also

Daoism, overview article, article on the Daoist Religious Community.


The primary source for Kou Qianzhi is the "Monograph on Buddhism and Daoism" (Shi Lao zhi ) in fascicle 114 of the Wei shu (Beijing, 1974), pp. 30483055. The Daoist portion has been translated by James R. Ware in "The Wei Shu and the Sui Shu on Taoism," Journal of the American Oriental Society 53 (1933): 215250. The most complete study of this text is found in Tsukamoto Zenryū's Gisho Shakurōshi no kenkyū (Kyoto, 1961), pp. 313356. An annotated text of the "Articles of a New Code" attributed to Kou Qianzhi may be found in Yang Liansheng's "Laojun yinsong jiejing jiaoshi," Bulletin of the Institute of History and Philology, Academia Sinica 28 (1956): 1753. Two secondary studies are my own "K'ou Ch'en-chih and the Taoist Theocracy at the Northern Wei Court, 425451," in Facets of Taoism, edited by Holmes Welch and Anna Seidel (New Haven, 1979), and Anna Seidel's "The Image of the Perfect Ruler in Early Taoist Messianism: Lao-tzu and Li Hung," History of Religions 9 (19691970): 216247.

Richard B. Mather (1987)