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Chinese Mysticism

Chinese Mysticism

The term mysticism represents a modern approach to a cultural path rooted in antiquity, and given anthropological considerations it is timeless. Mysticism usually concerns any work, study, or praxis that aims at transcendence (the experiencing "self" moving beyond normal limits) or union with the divine. It was (is) often private or even secret, perhaps involving special teachers. To reflect on the experience requires placing it into everyday language and expression.

Mysticism in Chinese thought and society should neither be reified nor reduced to one cultural path or genre of thought. It resonates with some, if not all, ancient Mediterranean practices to which the Greek word mustikos (from the word muo, to be secret) was applied, as well as with mysticism found among thinkers from Jewish, Christian, and Muslim communities. Chinese society produced its own textual adepts and adherents, both within and outside of religious structures. And there are examples of guarded (in some sense hermetic) pursuits and transmittals of curricula and skills.

Three important aims of Chinese mysticism have been: (1) mantic knowledge and divination; (2) individual enlightenment and/or transcendence; and (3) union and cooperation with divinities. Social contexts range widely: individuals, village groups, and royal courts. A village scholar might employ an artisan-practitioner for mantic insight into his place in the cosmos, and priests might pursue hermetic texts and praxis of a rarefied nature.

China's "Mantic Way": Knowledge through Insight and Technics

The oldest, deepest element within Chinese mysticism is the society's diffuse mantic approach to both special knowledge and everyday life; one may call it the mantic wayenduring to the present. Archaeological work on ancient China has inspired deductions about the impact that mantic pursuits had upon politics, natural philosophy, religions, and technics. David Keightley has argued, via late-Shang royal divination records (around 1200 b.c.e.), that court decisions often were mantically "charged" in order to both detect and induce the influence of ancestors; thus, specialists, operating with divination materials, manipulated the rituals and linguistic processing of the charges not just to show how to act, but to verify that a ruler had acted correctly or had effective ancestral connections.

The mantic way infused all social levels and mundane contexts (court rites, tomb appurtenances and texts, household almanacs, manuals, and situational fortune-telling) and was a basic context for Chinese sciences. In this last regard, a trend developed from about 500 b.c.e. to 200 c.e. toward precision in the mantic arts (for example, numero-astral and calendric devices, and Yi jing numerate and correlative theoretics). Courts desired the best-trained and most effective practitioners with their impressive techniques. By Tang and Song times the arts were practiced widely, in urban areas and the countryside, and also became fairly regularized in state offices. Practitioners usually transmitted skills only within their own families. This alloy of intuitive, artisanal knowledge, precision technics, and protectiveness has cast an aura of "mystery" over arts that Westerners have found attractive, such as fengshui, medicine, and astrology. But it is more important to understand how arts and systems were both connected to and made sophisticated outside of the diffuse mantic way.

Self-Cultivation as a Secular Pursuit: c. 400 b.c.e.1600 c.e.

"Self-cultivation" shows how a certain praxis grew out of the substrate to become an important cultural artifact. At an early point it became entangled in the catch-all (and confusing) category "Daoism." By the late 1700s European sinologists began to examine texts haphazardly denominated "Daoist." For example, the roughly third century b.c.e. commentary to Yi jing (The book of changes) titled "Wenyan," in a passage that discusses "aesthetic grace" (mei ), reads at one point: "A man of quality: [attuned to basal] yellow [at the] center; transmitting a system-pattern. He uprightly sets [his] position; makes an abode [within his] outline-shape. With [aesthetic] grace on his inside, [he can be] at ease in [his] four limbs." Interpreters conflated ideas like this with what little they knew of "philosophic Daoism," which often was seen as a crypto-Legalist Confucianism. In the 1920s Richard Wilhelm translated the foregoing, in part, as "The superior man is yellow and moderate makes his influence felt through reason. His beauty is within" (The Yi jing, p. 395), the assumption being that "yellow" referred to moderation and a yielding nature. This relates to late-imperial Confucian ethics and eremitism, but misses important links to an ancient context.

Scholars are now able to apply finer nuances. Since about 1975, archaeology has brought to light manuals, implements, and texts from pre-and early-Han tombs (roughly 400 to 100 b.c.e.) that evidence practices of divination, siting, sexual hygiene, demon-quelling, longevity arts, and mind-evacuation. Examples are "Recipes for Nurturing Life" and "Ten Questions," texts from the Mawangdui cache. Donald Harper carefully explains that these may have been the practical bases from which later self-cultivation pursuits developed. Such tombs were constructed in an era when imperial courts devoted money and energy to complicated rites programs, which in turn found parallels in local culture. Thus the commentary passage, above, apropos of the Yi jing phrase "yellow lower garment," actually carries a mustikos objects in closed-off tombs and the secretive, frequently agonistic, court struggles over systems of music and dress. In fact, "Yellow Bell" was the name of an elusive, theoretical pitch regulation for establishing tuning "systems." Harmonics in turn were seen as "transmitting" cosmic beauty, which emanated from the "man of quality" at the "center"that is, local royalty or, later, the emperor. The "Wenyan" passage thus glides on the edges of several readings: an indirect, mostly metaphorical exhortation on centering; a paean to court music and the computations of its harmonics experts; an alchemy of nurturing the homunculus emperor (or sage) within oneself; and reconciling inner and outer commitments in one's public life. Later in the Han period, and with important revivals during Tang and Song (see below), other texts carried self-cultivation forward, with instructions in mystical practice that became more specific.

If the above interpretation of a passage of commentary to Yi jing is controversial, nevertheless, self-cultivation is read quite confidently from passages of famous works such as Laozi, Huainanzi, Guanzi, and Zhuangzi that discuss breathing, sitting still, and removal of all perception and emotion. Such readings are seen by Harold Roth to reflect a historical development whose very earliest period emphasized "cosmology and the inner transformation of the individual leading to the attainment of 'mystical gnosis'" (Roth, pp. 69). Through the textual work of Roth, Livia Kohn, and others it is better understood that early China contained a whole culture of self-cultivation, with fairly common terminologies, texts, and aims.

Ancient Mysticism Emerges Later in Daoist Texts

"[T]he five tones originate in the breath blown in and out from the mouth. Spread out energy forms the six roots of the senses." Mystical practice as described in fifth-century Daoist text "Xisheng jing." Note the reference to ritual music, similar to the deep context of the earlier, non-religious "Wenyan" commentary to Yi jing.

source: Taoist Mystical Philosophy: The Scripture of Western Ascension, translated by Livia Kohn. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1991, p. 237.

Beginning around 100 c.e., scholar-officials restored and reinterpreted ancient texts. The Yi jing, especially its anonymous commentaries (as above), was researched anew, as was the relativistic and transcendent logic of Laozi and Zhuangzi. The second to fourth century scholar-Daoists, often referred to as "neo-Daoists" or "Mystery Adepts," brought relativist logic and psychological inquiry into public discourse, and many practiced eremitic stances and withdrawals. Most did not identify the ancient traces of mystical praxis per se in their classics, but their metaphysics and ontology spurred mystical speculation later on among monk-scholars and Daoist revelators.

In this same period, anonymous writings known as "weft-texts" (wei ) and numero-calendric "charts" (tu ) were thought to augment hermetically the "warp" of the Confucian classics. Essentially, they were revelatory texts that claimed sage-authorial voice for their political predictions and comments on sociocosmic timing and justice. Beginning about 350 c.e., revealed texts of various types influenced southern Daoist scholars and scriptural communities; and they remain in use in Daoist communities of the early twenty-first century.

Around 1000 c.e. neo-Confucian discussions reclaimed ancient approaches to self-cultivation, this time fully conscious of the mystical program, unlike earlier reclaimers. Many judged Daoist practices as undesirable and the cosmologies and belief-systems of Mahayana Buddhism as anathema; but the influential Shao Yong (10111077), for example, borrowed from both, sparking interest among scholar-intellectuals in psychocosmic resonance and correlation, as well as in self-cultivation. In fact, self-cultivation became prominent in the aspirations and writings of Wang Yangming (14721529), his disciple Wang Ji (14981583), and follower Li Zhi (15271602), to name a few. Their mysticism centered around the notion (even praxis) of "innate knowledge"promoting instinctual mental (and moral) response over the machinations of academic learning. In fact, Wang Yangming wrote of practicing a Zen-like contemplation and the subsequent redirecting of it into political action. His ideas made a deep impact on elite-scholar life for over two hundred years.

The Buddho-Daoist Melange: Tantra, Zen, and Mediums, 400 c.e.Present

By about 300 c.e., northern Chinese polity had collapsed under pressure from proto-Turkic invaders. Many northern social and political elite had reestablished themselves in the south, a general area long known for expressions of ecstatic vision and song and escapist literature. When Daoism and Buddhism, as organized monastic-lay communities, flourished in the south, detailed instructions in mystical practice became more frequent, while at the same time the themes and types of practice changed. When the nation was unified under the Tang dynasty in 618, the two religions achieved widespread official sanction.

Buddhism's Hinayana roots in China (from about 100300 c.e.) had emphasized mind-body exercises (breathing, counting, and recitation). Mahayana Buddhism, a bit later, shared with Daoist scriptures the desire to impart protection for individuals and communities against demons and apocalyptic chaos. The resulting Buddho-Daoist melange reflected the entrance (and frequently the forging) of Indic Tantrist technics and scriptures from Tibet and Central Asia. The Buddhist scripture titled Book of Consecration (c. 450s) is a collection of various spells, oracles, talismans, and even instructions for re-birth into a heaven of medicinal herbs. It is a total package of Chinese mysticism. Seemingly Indic and Tantric, it is nonetheless solidly Chinese, presenting practices in the mantic way, in self-cultivation and transcendence, and finally tutelary divinities who defend against demonic forces.

The Book of Consecration provides the first example of physical implements and practices as tools for transitory union with divinities. This was a new twist, since previously divinities were mainly powerful, official-like beings to whom one petitioned. "Officials to be petitioned" and "gods with whom to gain union" continue in modern Daoist communities throughout the Chinese world. Rites and festivals require chanting for divine intercession, writing of magical calligraphic documents, and direct transmission of divine will through medium-shamans.

From Medieval Tantra to Modern Times

The following snippet of recitation (from a 600-year-old text) was performed in the 1990s in Fukien, China, for local Daoist rites: " with complete obedience [to] Perfected Lord Wu/ Wrote talismans, let fall seal-scripts that his Sacred Spell would have awesome power."

source: Taoist Ritual, translated by Kenneth Dean, p. 93.

In Tang times, "Double Mystery" (chengxuan) Daoist priests such as Liu Jinxi (d. c. 640), who resided at a Daoist monastery in Changan and defended Daoism at court debates in the 620s, exhibited Buddho-Daoist blending. Liu's Benji jing uses a Buddhist debate style as well as notions of the Dao as cosmic deity. Tang Daoists developed the older strains of "self-cultivation" more systematically. Instructions were set out to effect the discarding of all desires, then even the discarding of the state of no-desires, a logical ploy borrowed from Mahayana Buddhism. Chan (Zen) Buddhism matured as a sect from the 700s to 900s, transmitting texts, oral teaching, and even implements in guarded fashion, through disciple-master lineages. Chan rules for meditation were codified, for example, the "Regulations of the Chan School" (1004), and Zongze's "Principles of Seated Meditation" (1103), which prescribe how to enter the practice room, how to sit, the placing of the limbs, and the positioning of tongue and mouth for breathing practice.


Chinese mysticism was, and is, a vibrant phenomenon with ancient, secular roots that over time, and via religious enterprises, developed new forms. Not only did Chinese mysticism mix the secular and religious, but also the social range was total. To see this better, one must not think of Chinese mystical practice as simply its tools, for example, alchemically larded manuals of healing and longevity, or fengshui (mantic siting). Such arts often draw on China's mantic way by employing instinctivenontextual, nonmechanisticskills. The artisan becomes a psychopomp, a shaman leading a client to special knowledge, clarity, or health. And arts were guarded within family groups, which made them in some sense mustikos. But they could also be entirely mechanical. One cannot describe as mystical the act of looking up an interpretive symbol inscribed on a calibrated siting compass. Chinese mysticism is best seen in the long arc of textual guides to, and metaphysical supports for, self-cultivation. All three paths interlaced, eventually in the practices of cult communities, and eventually as techniques for establishing relations with divinities.

See also Buddhism ; Confucianism ; Daoism ; Religion: East and Southeast Asia ; Zen .


Chang, K. C. Art, Myth, and Ritual: The Path to Political Authority in Ancient China. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1983. An eloquent exploration of the role of ancient shaman-priests in asserting text and symbol as political tools.

Csikszentmihàlyi, Mark. "Traditional Taxonomies and Revealed Texts in the Han." In Daoist Identity: History, Lineage, and Ritual, edited by Livia Kohn and Harold D. Roth, 81101. Honolulu: University of Hawai'i Press, 2002.

Dean, Kenneth. Taoist Ritual and Popular Cults of Southeastern China. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press 1993.

DeWoskin, Kenneth J. Doctors, Diviners, and Magicians in Ancient China: Biographies of Fang-shih. New York: Columbia University Press, 1983.

Harper, Donald. "Warring States Natural Philosophy and Occult Thought." Chapter 12 in The Cambridge History of Ancient China: From the Origins of Civilization to 221 B.C, edited by Michael Loewe and Edward L. Shaughnessy. Cambridge, U.K., and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1999.

Harper, Donald. "Warring States, Qin, and Han Manuscripts Related to Natural Philosophy and the Occult." In New Sources of Early Chinese History: An Introduction to the Reading of Inscriptions and Manuscripts, edited by Edward L. Shaughnessy, 223252. Berkeley: The Society for the Study of Early China and The Institute of East Asian Studies, University of California, 1997.

Keightley, David N. "Shang Divination and Metaphysics." Philosophy East & West 38, no. 4 (1988): 367395.

Kohn, Livia. Early Chinese Mysticism: Philosophy and Soteriology in the Taoist Tradition. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1992. The first chapter gives a useful anthropological summary of recent discussions on the nature of mysticism.

Roth, Harold. Original Tao: Inward Training and the Foundations of Taoist Mysticism. New York: Columbia University Press, 1999.

. "Psychology and Self-Cultivation in Early Taoistic Thought." Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies 51 (1991): 599650.

Sivin, Nathan. "State, Cosmos, and Body in the Last Three Centuries B.C." Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies 55, no. 1 (1995): 537.

Strickmann, Michel. Mantras et mandarins: Le bouddhisme tantrique en Chine. Paris: Gallimard, 1996. Groundbreaking insights into the way Tantric-seeming tools of individual transcendence, demonifugic protection, and salvation wove through Daoism and Buddhism.

. "The Mao Shan Revelations: Taoism and the Aristocracy." T'oung Pao 63 (1978): 164.

Wilhelm, Richard. The I Ching, or Book of Changes. 3rd ed. Translated by Cary F. Baynes. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1967.

Howard L. Goodman

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