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时间:2013-11-15 16:31:00  来源:龙虎山道教协会  作者: 芭芭拉

How the Early Daoists Valued Life

Barbara Hendrischke

University of New South Wales

The history of Daoism is interwoven with philosophical theories and religious beliefs that treasure life: bringing to life, maintaining life, being alive and sharing the vitality and energy that characterise life as opposed to death.

See Yü Ying?shih, “Life and Immortality in Han China”, Harvard Journal of Asian Studies 25 (1964-1965)∶80-122∶81f.

The corpus of the Scripture on Great Peace (Taiping jing 太平经) is no exception. Respect for life is an idea that prevails in all layers and sections of this long scripture whose oldest segments reach back to the second century C.E. This respect is clearly expressed in the strict prohibition of female infanticide. The command to share provisions and knowledge with everyone, to search for medicine and rare prescriptions for parents and superiors, and to refrain from exploiting and violating any human beings also plays an important role. The wish to live long and if possible avoid death is another central concern. Also, men are said to do right when they wish to be succeeded by children and grandchildren. Human beings who do not share this wish but voluntarily refrain from having progeny are seen as deficient and untrustworthy.

On the role of the concept of life in early Daoist moral philosophy cf. Jiang Sheng, Han Wei Liang Jin Nan Bei Chao Daojiao lunli lungao, Chengdu: Sichuan daxue chubanshe 1995, chapter 3.


The texts collected in the Scripture on Great Peace convey mainly two messages. One is the urgent demand for social and even political re?structuring. Considering the people’s plight during the last decades of the Han dynasty empire such a demand makes sense. The other message concerns hopes that any individual would cherish: everyone wants to live long, have progeny, and after death live on in a new way or at least not be uncomfortable. This message of individual salvation will be the topic of this paper. However, respect for life runs like a thread through all parts of the Scripture on Great Peace.

The Scripture abounds with passages that look at life from the aspect of an individual’s desire for longevity. This paper will deal with a group of sections that concentrate on this topic.

This material is in sections 179-190 and 192-203. It belongs to what has been termed “layer B”, as opposed to “layer A” where a Celestial Master is depicted as instructing a group of disciples. The material has been dealt with in detail by Takahashi Tadahiko (“Taihei kyō no kaiwatai no seikaku ni tsuite”, Tōyō bunka kenkyūjo kiyō 105, 1988: 243-81) who carefully attempts to separate passages dealing with the ?adept’s? life story from the rest. His main criterion is coherence. Considering that even rather well composed sections of the scripture comprise almost opposing views on specific points this criterion is not always convincing. However, Takahashi’s observations are an excellent starting point for the sections in question. This paper is mainly based on sections 179-184 and 193-199.

Gregoire Espesset (“Criminalised Abnormality, Moral Etiology and Redemptive Suffering in the Secondary Strata of the Taiping jing “, Asia Major 15.2, 2002: 1-50) gives an excellent analysis of the complex doctrinal details of this material. Wang Ping (Taiping jing yanjiu, Taibei: Wenjin chubanshe 1995) deals briefly with these chapters.

The text of the Scripture on Great Peace is quoted following the edition by Yu Liming, Taiping jing zhengdu, Chengdu: Ba Shu shushe 2001. The edition by Wang Ming (Taiping jing hejiao, Beijing: Zhonghua shuju 1979) and editions, annotations and translations by Luo Chi (Taiping jing zhuyi, Chongqing: Xinan shifan daxue chubanshe 1996), Long Hui e.a. (Taiping jing quanyi, Guiyang: Guizhou renmin chubanshe 2000) and Yang Jilin (Taiping jing jinzhu jinyi, Shijiazhuang: Hebei renmin chubanshe 2002) have been considered.

We are introduced to the career of someone “learning the Dao of searching for life” (xue qiu sheng dao学求生道)

For this expression see Yu 2001∶417, section 185, where it is used in a slightly different context. “Searching for life” is expressed as qiu sheng, suo sheng and tan sheng. Altogether, sheng and huo occur as object of search and desire about thirty times in the material here dealt with, as opposed to about half a dozen times in the rest of the scripture.

whose many struggles, worries and sufferings are crowned by an ascent to heaven in broad daylight. In heaven this adept will, we are told, fill a responsible and leading position in the celestial bureaucracy. The adept’s characteristics and career can give us a hint as to what early Daoist believers saw as preconditions for ascending to heaven and gaining a new life among celestial spirits. Such a career was not only desirable in itself. It also enabled a person to avoid all the frightening aspects of death, in particular the corpse’s physical decay and the painful interrogations that awaited the soul in the regions down below. As the adept’s case documents one can overcome death. He is described as a person who strongly believes in heaven, performs adequate rituals and respects the rules of moral conduct. On this basis he is selected to move up to heaven.

Parts of the Scripture on Great Peace were written at a time when Daoist congregations began to assemble and certain Daoist ritual practices came to be formalised.

Espesset 2002∶5 argues that the material here dealt with is particularly close to early Daoist parish life.

Daoist communities were established according to revised rules for personal conduct and social order. The “person in search of life” is protagonist of parts of the Scripture that aim at defining the moral parameters of Daoist communal life. The argumentation centres on the need to keep good men separate from evil men. This is put forth in pointed arguments as if there were strong opposing views. The point of departure is the distinction between good and bad, which the authors of the Scripture deem necessary from a social perspective. As this proposition does not agree with all that is said in the Laozi and the Zhuangzi its defence does indeed deserve some argumentative effort. The authors of the Scripture argue that human beings are good or bad depending on their attitude to heaven. Heaven expects to be repaid for the mercy it has shown to a person by giving him or her life, and in particular life as a human being. Human beings can be called good when they believe in heaven, follow its intentions and commandments and stick to general rules for good conduct:

It was the way in early antiquity to cultivate oneself, correct one’s person and not dare oppose the reports that spirits and other numinous beings had arrived at. But men dared to search for life and claim existence (qiu sheng suo huo求生索活) from Celestial Lord (tian jun天君). They did not dare throw off self?restraint for fear of not completing their years. Day after day they pondered the meaning of life.

See Yu 2001∶389, section 179. The expression qiu sheng suo huo occurs also Yu 2001∶399, section179.

If men prove to be ungrateful they can only be called evil and heaven has no choice but to react to their conduct by punishing them in person and causing disasters for society in general.

This situation is the background for heaven’s active involvement in individual life. As men seem to be unaware of their obligation to heaven, heaven has set up the length of life as a simple reminder. Heaven makes evil men die early and good men live long:

Let us consider a man whose depravity exceeds all description. Did heaven make it so? Heaven wants to let everyone be good. It does not want to make men do evil. Were good and evil men to share bitterness and pleasure, as for instance wealth, honour, longevity and old age, heaven on high would not be able to set up a distinction between what we should love and what we should detest. This would make an ignorant man cry out with energy: “I and you are of the same rank. What in the end is the use of doing good?” Therefore heaven promotes and furthers good men and makes them live long.

See Yu 2001∶390, section 179.

The system is said to work due to men’s instinctive and overwhelming fear of death. It is implemented through an extensive process of book keeping that involves a host of spirits who report all human deeds to celestial bureaus.

The authors of the Scripture provide a bit more information on what they mean by good and evil deeds. These deeds are defined by heaven’s commandments. It is therefore reasonable that a human being’s cosmic role and his or her attitude to nature are decisive. Men must support the four seasons, transform with the five phases, and always respond actively and obediently to the forces at work in their natural environment. When the adept meets men who have lived long this is the advice they give him:

Be loyal and filial, don’t ignore the intentions of heaven and earth, assist the four seasons in bringing forth life, assist the five phases in bringing to fruition, don’t dare to destroy something that is about to be born.

See Yu 2001∶407, section 182.

This reflects an understanding of the correlation between the realms of nature and of society that was customary in Han dynasty times. The scripture also contains long passages on filial piety. They might if analysed properly, help towards refining the date and social context of this material. There are also passages that reverberate with the rebellious spirit of certain second century religious groups. A good person will not use his position for his own enrichment but will instead join in the grief and pain felt by others and attempt to alleviate their sufferings.

The scripture refers to networks of instructions on how to learn goodness. There are writings and there is intercourse with spirits. Although detailed commandments are said to be available the Great Peace texts stick to more general advice. One point of advice is to follow the will of heaven. The other is to rely on one’s own heart. This must be done by staying away from all vulgar activities. Human beings can then consult with spirits through the mediation of their heart:

A man with heart (you xin 有心) is joined by spirits when he conducts affairs and also in conversation. He fully believes them. A man without heart and will?power keeps in mind that all mouths must eat, that one must search for profit, dress to keep warm and eat to be full, and that gifts and expenses go hand in hand. To drive poverty and emaciation away he raises himself to a high and impressive position thinking nothing of heaven’s inner heart. Although his conduct is not pure and simple he wants to search for Dao and aims to live long. This means exactly that he will not get what he is looking for. The sin is quite heavy and there is hardly a chance for forgiveness. Are you aware of this? For a man in search of life to ascend to heaven in broad daylight (白日升上之人求生) there are files in the registry and there are internal accounts with the Celestial Lord of the Northern Pole …

See Yu 2001∶404, section 180.

A man without heart will never see his name in these files since they document a person’s good deeds.

However, there are also registers of a different sort that play a role. The length of individual life is decided by several components. One is a person’s conduct. The other reaches back to the time of birth, when an entry in the celestial registers specifies how long a person will live. Through evil conduct a person may forfeit the privilege that comes with such an entry. However, to prolong life when a person’s name is not mentioned in the appropriate register is difficult. Celestial Lord and his staff are relieved to find out that the adept in search of life whom they wish to promote is actually mentioned in the register of men who will become spirits.

See Espesset 2002∶32 f. and passim.


The texts collected in the Scripture on Great Peace did not go through the lengthy processes of editing and annotating that shaped most of the material that has been transmitted from antiquity and early medieval times. For this reason the structure of sections, paragraphs and even sentences is often odd. This adds to the texts’ originality and historical importance. It does not, on the other hand, make them easier to decipher and translations can therefore only be tentative. Much of the Scripture is written in almost vernacular style. Its authors did not belong to the educated elite. What they put forth in regard to the linkage between morality, longevity and a predestined fate agrees with general ideas on this issue. However, their line of argumentation differs. They place heaven in a central and rather active position, create a world of spirit officials to assist heaven and arrive at a new understanding of goodness. They document their new “Dao of searching for life” (qiu sheng dao求生道) by telling the story of a Daoist adept (sheng生) who succeeded in ascending to heaven. This story is told in fragments spread throughout essays or sermons on moral conduct, the search for longevity and the ascent to heaven. The fragments are positioned in the surrounding material as if they were to support certain points of doctrine, although the linkage is not stringent. Also, the adept’s story is in itself not without inconsistencies if not contradictions. However, there is enough coherence between these fragments to provide the adept with personal identity.

We first meet him at the point in time when he becomes aware of his situation. Having committed sins throughout his life he realises that he will not live much longer:

I am a child that has taken ten months, as has everyone else. As my conduct does not meet with heaven’s heart and intention I am in the cohort of the dead (si wu死伍). This is where I have trespassed. In heaven, on earth, and in the realms in between everyone must live through heaven’s mercy. Opposing it is a great lack of faith and the heaviest of sins. How can there be hope?

See Yu 2001∶404, section 180.

What awaits him the authors of the scripture outline in some detail. An evil man will face the following ordeal:

He does not know that heaven sends spirits to keep track of his person and that there is no transgression, be it big or small that heaven would not know of. Spirits compile an account of good and evil deeds, collated according to year, day and month. This successively reduces the units of life and diminishes the years this person has. When he does not stop doing evil he comes to face the door that leads to the realms of demons. Terrestrial spirits summon and interrogate him [to see whether] what he says agrees with their records.

This passage has a close parallel in section 199, Yu 2001: 455 that is translated by Yü Yingshi, “‘O Soul, Come Back!’ A Study in the Changing Conceptions of the Soul and Afterlife in Pre?Buddhist China”, Harvard Journal of Asian Studies 25 (1987)∶363-395∶390.

If not, he will suffer more. Demons chastise him. Chastised he gives in and they submit his name to the Bureau of Fate (ming cao命曹). When the Bureau agrees this person’s units of life are spent he enters earth. His depravity is passed on to posterity. Isn’t this what evil conduct amounts to? How could a man not wish to live? …Born after the same ten months as is everyone else, why should he be the only person not to be good? Doing evil without end, how can he last?

See Yu 2001: 390, section 179. Cf. Tsuchiya Masaaki, “Confession of Sins and Awareness of Self in the Taiping jing”, in L. Kohn and H. D. Roth, Daoist identity: history, lineage and ritual, Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press 2002∶39-57∶52 for this passage and passim for the topic of repentance.

Horrified by this scenario the man becomes a convert. He now begins to place repentance and the confession of sins at the centre of his existence:

He abruptly became considerate and proper, changed what was evil in him, took hold of all that was good, placed it deep inside himself and set it up in his heart…

He did not dare to give rise to any intention unless it was good: “I beg the host of spirits to be lenient. Let me reproach myself. Should I not make use of your warnings I would not oppose being punished.” Celestial Lord sent Great Spirit (da shen 大神) to the region down below and had him say: “This man reproaches himself and repents his transgressions. He does not act against the prohibitions. Better to be lenient. Should he later on act in a way that is not good it would not be too late to lay hold of him.” On listening to the spirit’s words the man day and night uttered long sighs, in fear that his personal transgressions were not yet completely done away with and that for a long time he would not join qi of Great Yang but be placed in the realms of the cohorts of the dead. Whenever he was at leisure he investigated himself and renounced the transgressions he had committed. He made confessions to the spirits of heaven, earth, the four seasons and the five phases. Celestial Lord made the spirits listen and think for themselves.

See Yu 2001∶392, section 179. Cf. Espesset 2002∶41 on this and similar passages.

The man’s new conduct includes familiar elements of Daoist religiosity. The authors of the scripture stress the adept’s self?criticism, repentance and confessions and how they impress Celestial Lord and some of his staff. As these spirits put it:

“This man accuses himself and repents. He does not cease doing so, neither day nor night. It has been a number of years now. This man can be forgiven.” After Celestial Lord had heard their report, he said: “Once a man is able to reproach himself and repent transgressions the spirits who keep the accounts of life transfer him to the Bureau of Longevity (shou cao寿曹). He will live one hundred and twenty years and have progeny.”

See Yu 2001∶404, section 180.

The adept’s conversion from faithless sinner to Daoist believer is the high point of his life story. This event is important enough to be told in several versions. The following one is rather detailed:

It is destined for him to be in luck. He meets with the warnings which Celestial Great Spirit has put in writing. He turns back to ponder over them. His transgressions are many and there is no way to overcome them. Prostrating himself and striking himself with his fists he takes to moaning. As he is he can’t correct himself and becomes ever more resentful [against heaven]. The commandments are extremely severe. He offends against them and this will make his life not last long. Day and night he repents hoping for another brief spell [of life]. He does not dare to spread evil but remembers that through his conduct mercy and virtue must be spread as he has become aware of their principle. There are no more utterings of hatred but when he sees men shed tears he feels it deep in his heart. A celestial spirit hears about it and descends, saying: “Who is this man?” … After he has seen the man filled with self?accusations and repentance the spirit messenger returns to heaven on high and says: “There is a man who repents his transgressions. All he does is to moan and to cry. But his transgressions have not yet stopped. As he is afraid that he won’t exist any further he continues to accuse himself.”

See Yu 2001∶408, section 182.

Great Spirit, a spirit of highest rank and direct assistant to Celestial Lord is sent down to undertake further inquiries. As he finds proof of the adept’s intense belief and deep repentance he is delegated to act as the adept’s constant advisor if not friend. The adept receives lessons, is taken on journeys and keeps company with the section heads and other eminent representatives of the spiritual bureaucracy to make sure that he does not err.

In this new phase of life the adept takes meticulous care with attitudes and conduct. They stem from feelings that are uttered freely:

Truly in my heart I try to get on with searching for life. If Great Spirit would only in his forgiveness examine my words and let me see how the four seasons and five phases come to perfection and again let me see how difficult it is to repay [the great service done by] sun and moon. To give up is unthinkable. Being a man stricken with panic I don’t dare remove myself or be content lying on my pillow.

See Yu 2001∶392, section 179.

Such considerations are praiseworthy and Celestial Lord commissions Great Spirit to find an opening in the celestial bureaucracy that would suit the adept. Before this can take place years of instructions follow. As the adept reflects:

When I was among common people in my heart I kept thinking about the great transformation. I have great desire for the Dao of life, keep away from the region of death, and intend to secure the brilliance of vital essence (jing guang 精光). …If this cannot be done I am afraid I will not exist in the realms where existence is constant. If the host of celestial spirits would only pardon my shortcomings and instruct me when to move forward and when to retire. I must carry out heaven’s intention. There should be no error. No report of the slightest misconduct must reach the highest Lord. …All I wish for is not to give offence and not to be seen as raising doubts. In accepting the lot of a student one must make sure not to dare forget even the slightest detail.

See Yu 2001∶451, section 198.

The next hurdle to be overcome is the physical transformation of a person who is used to living by eating regular food to a person living by qi. The technical term for this is “celestial transformation” (tian hua 天化)

See Yu 2001∶411, section 182.

. The adept cannot imagine how a human being can actually rise to heaven. Men eat and drink stuff. How could they ever be light enough to move upwards? His spirit mentor demands belief and assures him that details will be managed by spirits:

A man like you enjoys life as such. Heaven makes you enjoy it. This is the way it repays faith. A man like you is certainly transformed into a spirit and will [rise up] in broad daylight, without any doubt. Daily you become lighter and eat less, certainly. Daily there is more of the brilliance of vital essence right next to you. Have faith. This is as clear as clear can be. It must no longer be doubted.

See Yu 2001∶450, section 197.

This documents the full weight of the promise of salvation from death. It was achievable, at least for a few select individuals who put all their energy into this aim. All the adept can do is to remain faithful. However, this transformation takes energy and the adept is not able to earn his livelihood while thus engaged. His extreme poverty worries his spiritual mentors as the adept will have to be able to sustain himself until the transformation has taken place and at present his means are exhausted. Celestial Lord instructs the offices of heaven to look after the adept’s food and abode.

See Yu 2001∶396, section 179.


Despite having hopes and fears that are, as he himself puts, quite common, the Daoist adept is a new type person. He is depicted as being independent of family and social background. The political government of the day is as if non?existent. Men around him don’t provide help. They admire and acknowledge him after he has gained some ground in the realms of spirits but he does not owe anything to their support. His main aim in life, as he puts it is to repay the debt he owes to heaven. He wants to live longer in order to have more of a chance to do so. Repayment takes place through service and obedience. The adept’s crucial activity is repentance. He needs to know right from wrong in order to do so. He has studied the writings that are available, has had private instructions from spirit mentors, and has learnt deep in his heart to do the right thing. The monologues he utters depict him as a person regretting sins he has committed, in permanent fear of sins he might commit and continuously suffering from his own imperfection. This attitude is appreciated by the spirits who watch him. The fact that the adept’s approach to his own career is, in traditional fashion, modest and sceptical is an essential element of his success.

We may conclude that the early Daoists hoped to gain more life by taking Daoist rules of conduct as their guideline. This hope was a central element in the creation and growth of early Daoist communities. To some extent conduct called “good” according to Daoist principles was identical with good conduct in general. In large parts of the Scripture on Great Peace the authors did not presume to overturn the practical rules that were the result of a long tradition of social order and moral philosophy. Instead, they empowered these rules by linking their implementation to salvation from death, be it temporary, for a long time or perhaps for ever. This point is important for providing Daoism with a position in ideological history. In a period of general breakdown an ideology that based the maintenance of social order and harmony on nothing but men’s instinctive desire for life was an interesting alternative.

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