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The Recent History of the Celestial Way


The following article describes a twentieth-century religious sect as it was practicing in Táiwān in the 1970s, when Táiwān was still under martial law and the sect was officially illegal. This situation complicated field research, of course, but it was still possible to gain some insights into the world of sectarian believers, and into the complex organizational structure that underlay it. To me, one of the most important findings was the extent and complexity of factionalization, a finding in contrast to the assumption of most observers for most sects in Chinese history that they represented unified movements.

The article was published in Modern China in 1982, before the completion of a book on Táiwān writing-oracle societies, including the Celestial Way, written jointly with Daniel L. Overmyer (Jordan & Overmyer 1986). Although that work is often cited primarily for its discussion of the Celestial Way, its actual topic is considerably broader, and because other groups could operate openly, ethnographic access was better and richer portraits could be developed of their activities.

Since the end of martial law in 1987, religious activity has flourished in Taiwan, and this sect and many others contend for believers in a very crowded marketplace of religious practices and ideas. As recent reportage, the present text is obsolescent, if not obsolete. However I believe that it remains useful because it fairly compactly provides an unusual ethnographic account of sectarian factionalism, and its cautionary note about oversimple views of the sects of prior eras.

For this on-line presentation of the present article, I have returned the Chinese characters into the text where they belong, have restored the original tone marks to all Chinese names and terms, have restored consistency to the bibliography, and have put the footnotes back beside the places where they were cited rather than stranded at the end. I have also broken a few long paragraphs into shorter ones to facilitate on-screen reading and corrected one or two errors or infelicities introduced in the course of editing.


(Reprinted from MODERN CHINA Vol. 8 (4): 435-462.[October 1982])

The Recent History of the
Celestial Way

A Chinese Pietistic Association

by David K. Jordan

Page Outline
The Celestial Way
The Field Setting
Part I: The Celestial Way After World War II
The Apostolic Succession
Master Zhāng
The Celestial Way After Zhāng
Part II: A Celestial Way Leader in Táiwān
Prior Gao’S Story
References (Opens in a separate window.)

The Celestial Way

"Celestial Way" or Tiān Dào 天道 is the modern exoteric name of the Chinese religious society formerly known as the "Unity Way" or Yīguàn Dào 一貫道. The sect is one of several pietistic societies that were prominent especially in the early years of the twentieth century. Today it continues to function in Táiwān and Hong Kong and among overseas Chinese, and there is some evidence to suggest that Celestial Way groups exist on the mainland as well.*

* The most thorough English description of the Celestial Way during and after the war years is that of Deliusin (1972), who is hostile to the movement. The most thorough Chinese descriptions are those of Lǐ Shìyú (1948), who is more sympathetic, book-length works by Sū Míngdōng (1978), who is an advocate, and by Shì Huímíng (1947), Shì Hóngmiào (1975), and Shī Wéntú(1978), all three of whom are scandal-mongering opponents. A major article in Japanese (Kubo, 1953) is heavily derivative from Lǐ.

In Táiwān the Celestial Way is one of a very large number of small-scale religious societies (Hsiao, 1972). It differs from most others in its size, in the degree to which it is factionalized, and in the fact that it is technically illegal, being prohibited by name in the general legislation against secret societies enacted after World War II and again in Táiwān in 1962. Probably in part because of its illegality, the sect enjoys wide notoriety in Táiwān, where it is usually known as the "Duck Egg Religion" (Yādàn Jiào 鴨蛋教) because of its egg-tolerant vegetarianism. Popular opinion attributes to it everything from sexual orgies to communist subversion, and little is generally known of it. (The first sympathetic notices of it in the Táiwān popular press are Hé Yǐngyí & HÚ Xùn, 1980 and Hú Xùn & Hé Yǐngyí, 1981.)

The Celestial Way is worthy of our interest for two reasons.

To take one example of how the ethnographic study of this sect can help us, factionalism is a particularly striking theme in the present article. The Celestial Way appears quite unitary to most nonsectarian Chinese. Indeed the nonsectarian literature I have located on the subject usually makes no mention of sub-sects of any kind. Yet one need not talk long with members before it becomes evident that several sub-sects or branches exist and that relations among them are troubled. And one need not probe much deeper than the average sect member does before some of the sources and multifarious manifestations of this inter-branch competition begin to emerge. Recent history becomes the history of social fission. Pietistic spirit writings begin to look different when one recognizes that inter-branch claims are being rehearsed in the seemingly merely pious words that divine or deceased visitors elegantly write with the hands of putatively insensitive mediums. In examining the Celestial Way, we cannot avoid examining its internal conflicts. They do not, as yet, conform to any particular theory of "Chinese factionalism," partly, perhaps, because the data are still too few. But merely discovering them suggests that our view of sectarianism, in general, and of large-scale sectarian movements, in particular, may turn out to be simplistic. If inter-branch competition is the "name of the game" in the modern Celestial Way, it cannot be wanting throughout all the rest of Chinese sectarian history.

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The Field Setting

My study of the Celestial Way was undertaken in the course of a more general study of small-scale, divination-centered, sectarian societies in Táiwān. Some work was done on other societies in 1966-1968, but work on the Celestial Way was not undertaken until 1976. By that time it had become obvious that a proper understanding of the other societies I was studying would have to take account of the Celestial Way in some way, even if only to assure myself that they were, in fact, unrelated. Accordingly I set out to find some branches of the sect for participant observation. At that time, official pressure on the Celestial Way was at a historic low, and groups operated openly enough that they could be easily traced through connections in religious societies where I was already well known.*

* The arrest late in 1976 of Wáng Shòu 王壽, a Celestial Way leader, and his subsequent spectacular "exposé" early in 1977 drove most groups back underground, at least temporarily.

The necessary secrecy of the movement made fieldwork among Celestial Way members less efficient than among many other elements of Táiwān society, but at length a relatively open group was found that was willing to entertain a foreign observer. After I had attended a few scripture study and worship sessions. I was informed that answers to further questions would be made much easier if I would consent to initiation. This was at length arranged, and it eventually led to contacts with a larger number of informants as well as to greater candor among the informants I had already found. It also facilitated access to a small number of documents that would otherwise have been more difficult to see. A brief visit to Táiwān in 1980 helped to clarify much that was still unclear in 1976 and increased the range of accessible informants, especially outside the original sub-sect.

In the present article I shall describe some of what I learned about the recent history of the Celestial Way. Because the recent history of the Celestial Way is filled with factionalism, my theme will necessarily focus especially on sectarian in-fighting. (The organization, teachings, and activities of the Celestial Way are presented in another work: Jordan and Overmyer, forthcoming.)

Factionalism is probably endemic to pietism, where self-righteousness combines with economic resources and theological speculation in a way that often provides few rewards for unity. However, factionalism, except when it actually results in completely separate organizations willing to make a public statement of their separateness, can be very nearly invisible in the historical record of sectarianism, even though it may dominate the everyday attentions of sectarian believers, especially of leaders.

In the documents that circulate among believers in the Celestial Way, for example, there is little that would suggest factional conflict or competition. The only texts that make any reference to the factional life of the Celestial Way are revelation texts affirming the righteousness of this or that position. But even such texts (which by no means circulate freely among all believers) refer to factional issues only rarely and nearly always so obliquely that only the inner circle among the initiated are able to interpret them as social documents. Factional identity has in recent {439} decades been crucial in the life of a believer, yet even the number and names of the factions have left no written record.

This article is divided into two parts. In the first, we shall follow the vagaries of the Celestial Way in the years during and after World War II. In the second we shall follow the organizational efforts of one religious leader seeking to build a strong sectarian base among competing Celestial Way factions and sub-factions in postwar Táiwān. In combination, these two descriptions should enable us to see a variety of processes operating in sectarian factionalism (and opportunism). The article does not, unfortunately, constitute a general history of the Celestial Way, whose early history is as shrouded in uncertainty as are most of the details of its present factional differentiation.

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Part I: The Celestial Way After World War II

The Apostolic Succession

The Celestial Way is an ethical society devoted to the salvation of its members and ultimately of all humankind, in accordance with the teachings of several Daoist, Buddhist, and Confucian traditions, and centering on the doctrines of the Religion of the Unborn Mother, a "fourth" major Chinese religious tradition that is only just beginning to gain the attention of scholars (Naquin, 1976; Overmyer, 1976). Salvation is accomplished by practicing the "Way" (dào道), and the sect makes use of a series of traditional expressions to indicate progress in this task.

The use of these expressions (and of many other Celestial Way phrases) closely resembles the vocabulary of other Chinese pietistic societies (for example, see Seaman, 1978, describing a group in central Táiwān).

The Celestial Way, like American Rosicrucians, claims that its "Way" has had a continuous and esoteric transmission from earliest times. It has, indeed, a double lineage. On the one hand, the salvation of humankind from its sinful ways has been ordained by the Unborn Mother through a series of ten Buddhas, most significantly the latest three: the "Lamplighter" or Dipamkara Buddha (Rándēng fó 燃燈佛), later the Sakyamuni Buddha (Shījiā fó 施加佛), and later still the Maitreya Buddha (Mílè fó 彌勒佛). (In orthodox Buddhism the Maitreya Buddha has yet to appear, and the history of Buddhist heterodoxy is filled with millenarian sects following a leader who claims to be Maitreya or expecting his imminent arrival.) These three historical Buddhas correspond with three great ages, represented by the colors green, red, and white. It is presently maintained that the White Age began early in this century — some say at the same time as the founding of the Republic of China — and that the Maitreya has very likely already walked among us.

The second lineage is that of the esoteric teachings. Its relationship to the Buddha line is complex. It is filled with important figures of Chinese history and of Buddhism. The earliest apostolic line, the so-called Eastern Eighteen Generations, is usually described as running from Fúxī 伏羲, through the mythical kings, Lǎozǐ, and Confucius, to Mencius. (There is a small amount of variation in this, however, and both the number eighteen and the individuals included are not the same in all listings.) A second, Buddhist, apostolic line is conceived to have received the "Celestial Mandate" of apostolic succession at this point. It runs from Sakyamuni Buddha to Bodhidarma, who is both the twenty-eighth patriarch of the Western Twenty-Eight Generations and the first patriarch of the Latter Eastern Eighteen Generations.*

* The Celestial Way thus incorporates the succession of twenty-eight Indian patriarchs recognized by Chán (Zen) Buddhism, ending with Bodhidharma, who is credited with bringing Chán doctrines to China and therefore with being the founder of the Chán sect itself.

The Latter Eastern Eighteen Generations begin with Bodhidarma (thus overlapping the Western Twenty-Eight) and include the six patriarchs of Chán (Zen) Buddhism. The seventh patriarchate of the line represents the first departure from mythological and historical figures of the Chinese religious consciousness and the emergence of the first clearly sectarian leaders in the list.*

* In orthodox Chán, the patriarchate ended with Huìnéng 惠能, the sixth Chán patriarch and founder of "Southern" (modern) Chán. Although orthodox Chán, plagued by schisms, had a variety of subsequent patriarchs, they are not normally numbered after the death of Huìnéng. The concept of a "seventh" patriarch is a heterodoxy.

According to Celestial Way tradition, the mantle of the seventh Latter Eastern patriarchate fell upon the shoulders of two men bearing the common Chinese surnames Bái ("white") and Mǎ ("horse"). Known collectively as the White Horse Patriarch(s), they are regarded as joint holders both of the Seventh Patriarchate of Chán and of the first patriarchate of the Celestial Way itself. The Bái-Mǎ patriarchate is said to have been transmitted from Huìnéng 慧能 in a vision during the Sòng dynasty (hence, between 350 and 550 years after Huìnéng). Their successor, the eighth patriarch, is dated to the Yuán dynasty (1280-1367), and the ninth and tenth patriarchs are dated to the Míng (1368-1643) by most sources.

It is not until the Qīng dynasty (1644-1911) patriarchs that we seem to be on firmer historical ground, as the Celestial Way begins its descent through a series of shadowy but probably both real and sectarian figures. Whether or not the present Celestial Way organization actually derives from an apostolic line going back into early Qing times is unclear. But names and personal details are given in Celestial Way sources for each of the neo-Chán patriarchs claimed from Bái and Mǎ down to the twentieth century, and from the eleventh patriarch on the periods adjoin one another with satisfying continuity. Scant as the materials are, there is for each a traditional story of his receiving his mandate from the previous patriarch and of his being an incarnation of some Buddha or other supernatural.

The last (eighteenth) of these neo-Chán masters, and the second of the White Age, was a shadowy figure named Zhāng Guāngbì 張光壁, more usually called Zhāng Tiānrán 張天然, who is said to have led the sect from 1925 (or 1928 or 1930 — sources conflict) until his death in 1947. Under his leadership the Celestial Way survived the Japanese occupation of large parts of China (despite occasional massacres of believers), and it was therefore suspected by the reestablished Chinese government of collaboration with the Japanese. The Chinese government outlawed all secret societies, political or religious, in 1946, and the Communists reenacted this abolition in 1949, the Nationalists in 1962. The legal persecution of small-scale religious societies may have limited their activities somewhat but did not stop them, and Willem Grootaers (1948-1951) describes his visit to an "interdenominational" séance of sectarians in Beiping in 1948, including a representative of the Celestial Way (at that time still called the Unity Way).

It was my happy discovery in Táiwān in 1980 that an elderly Shanghainese gentleman named Zhāng , living in a small flat in Gāoxióng 高雄, was none other than the "Celestial Talent" (tiāncái 天才) or medium, of Zhāng Tiānrán. The Celestial Way practices written divination using a stylus held by a medium in trance, who traces characters on a bed of sand or incense ash. (The divination method itself is called fújī 扶乩 in Chinese, and is described by Chao, 1942. It is the central activity of many pietist societies in modern Táiwān.) In Celestial Way parlance, the man in trance is called the "Celestial Talent"; the man who reads the characters as they are written is referred to as the "Human Talent (réncái 人才"; and the secretary who transcribes them into a notebook is termed the "Earthly Talent"(dìcái 地才). By tradition, the Celestial Talent is a boy or unmarried and celibate young man who observes a vegetarian diet and often lives near or with the head of the sect or sub-sect. In some Celestial Way sub-sects today, some local branch halls have their own celestial talents, although most do not. As the Celestial Talent of Zhāng Tiānrán, my Shanghainese informant had traveled extensively with the patriarch and knew him and his two wives intimately. The testimony of Celestial Talent Zhāng is therefore particularly useful in our attempts to understand the latter-day history of the group.*

* Because the Celestial Way is still formally illegal in Táiwān, I have adopted the convention of changing or omitting the names of living members and functioning temples and of omitting full bibliographic data on illegally published materials of the society, which are listed in the References by title-tags rather than by author.

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Master Zhāng

Zhāng Tiānrán was born in 1889 in Jǐníng 濟寧, Shāndōng 山東 Province. The "hall name" of his ancestral home was "Hall of Lofty Splendor" (Chónghuá Táng 崇華堂), a name he used throughout his life in signing writing directed to his disciples. In 1908, at the age of nineteen, he was married to a woman named Zhū 朱, who died in childbirth the following year, leaving a daughter. She is still occasionally referred to by followers by the term shīmǔ 師母, literally, "teacher’s wife," which I shall render "Mme" here. A few years later he married again, this time to a woman named Liú 劉, referred to this day by one of the Celestial Way sects as "Mme Liú" Liú shīmǔ 劉師母).

In 1914 Zhāng met representatives of the Celestial Way and "asked the Way." According to Celestial Talent Zhāng, he became an active missionary of the movement about 1917, and it was not apparently surprising when, in 1925, he received the "Celestial Mandate" as "First-Generation Bright Teacher of 18,000 Years" (Wàn Bā Nián Yīdài Míngshī 萬八年一代名師) and Eighteenth Patriarch. (Celestial Talent Zhāng recalled the date as 1930, and Lǐ Shìyú [1948] indicates 1928. The date 1925 comes from published sectarian sources). Like all Celestial Way patriarchs, he was regarded as an incarnation, in this case of the popular "Salvationist Living Buddha."*

* Deliusin (1972: 226) maintains that he claimed to be the Maitreya. The seventeenth patriarch claimed to be an incarnation of Maitreya. So did one of the joint holders of the thirteenth patriarchate in the early nineteenth century. Possibly the seventeenth patriarch’s claim lies behind the fact that the White Age is widely regarded as having dawned under his administration, but I have found no evidence that Zhāng claimed to be either the Maitreya or his incarnation.

In Xī’ān 西安 in 1936 — another informant says 1934 — purportedly on celestial orders, Zhāng took a second wife, a believer named Sūn Yuèhuì 孫月慧. This was probably a controversial act. One Celestial Way branch in Táiwān was later to be thrown into utter disarray by such an arrangement. However, Zhāng took steps to elevate Mme Sūn with high titles, and worship of "the Bodhisattva Yuèhuì" figures in Celestial Way liturgy to this day, in addition to worship of "the Teacher’s Wife." In addition, she is reputed to have possessed significant organizational skills in her own right and was apparently universally liked. In the early war years, the movement grew rapidly. Deliusin (1972: 231) writes:

Its rapid increase in influence among both the urban and the rural populace after 1937 seems to have had two causes. First, the war aggravated the already difficult situation of China’s urban and rural poor to the point where they saw no solution to their problems short of the intervention of a miraculous, supernatural force. Ready to grasp at anything that was offered, they took the dim torch of the I kuan Tao [Yīguàn Dào, Celestial Way] for a beacon of home.

Second, there was the fact of the society’s ties with the Japanese occupation forces. Its founder, Chang Tien jan [Zhāng Tiānrán], held a high post in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Wang Chingwei’s [Wāng Jīngwèi’s 汪精衛] puppet government in Nanking [Nánjīng 南京, and some of its branch leaders held positions at the provincial and hsien [xiàn ] levels.

Deliusin continues with a description of Zhāng as a strong advocate of the Greater East Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere and an enthusiastic collaborator with the Japanese. He does not make it clear how Chinese under occupation would find attractive a religious system that was closely associated with collaboration-ism, Any history of collaborationism is apparently unknown among modern believers in Táiwān (nor has it ever been raised by government officials or anti-Celestial Way Buddhists I have interviewed). When I asked Celestial Talent Zhāng about the matter, he and I seemed the only people in the room — I met with him in the company of a handful of believers from Táinán 臺南 and Gāoxióng — who were aware of Zhāng Tiānrán having had a connection with the Wāng government. Celestial Talent Zhāng had a somewhat different story from Deliusin’s, however. He explained that wartime China was divided among three warring governments: the Japanese occupation zones, the Communist zones, and the Nationalist zones. In general, a social movement that propagandized openly in one zone could operate only underground in the other two. Zhāng was a north Chinese, and the Celestial Way had its geographical base in the north, particularly in Tiānjīn. Operating as openly as possible necessitated at least minimal co-operation with the Japanese occupation.

Celestial Talent Zhāng continued the tale: In Tiānjīn there was a fújī divination hall combined with a Chinese boxing society called the "Way and Virtue Society for the Study of Martial Arts " (Dàodé Wǔxué Shè 道德武學社). The president was a man named Sūn Xīkūn 孫錫堃. Both he and the society’s vice-president "asked the Way" from Zhāng. Indeed, Sūn was later to become one of Zhāng’s ten "apostles" (dàozhǎng 道長). Sūn had many friends in the world of the martial arts. One of them, a certain Lǐ Liqiu, was reputed to be able to slay an ox barehanded. Lǐ in time "asked the Way" as well, with Sūn as his sponsor. Lǐ Lìjiǔ 李麗九 was also chief of the regiment of guards of the Governor of Húnán 湖南 Province, Hé Jiàn 何鍵. Lǐ received orders from the Nationalist government to proceed to Shànghǎi to infiltrate the Wāng govenrment. In Shànghǎi, Lǐ became an important military personage, his fifth-column status apparently undetected, and was on intimate terms with various notables of the Wāng régime.

Zhāng paid a visit to Lǐ in Shànghǎi in 1942 and was entertained at a dinner party. Celestial Talent Zhāng recounts the event (in paraphrase):

The guests were all notables of the illegal Wāng régime. Among them someone asked the Teacher what he did. Our Teacher responded simply, "I am a teacher." Other than this he "was discreet in speech and manner," as the saying has it, and looked exactly the part of a moral teacher. The guests felt our Teacher’s great moral force, which upset people, and some began to perspire and became shy and uneasy. After the party, all of the men were alarmed at the celestial power and ethereal force of our Master. All of them asked the Way, including [Wāng’s] Foreign Minister Chǔ Mínyì 褚民誼 and the chairman of Wāng’s Committee on Military Affairs Sūn Xiángfū 孫祥夫.

Because of this relationship, Chǔ Mínyì valued the Way and feared for our Master’s travels in the subjugated zones.

Zhāng was accordingly given a title that would entitle him to an internal passport to facilitate his travel at least throughout the Japanese occupied parts of the country (hardly the "high post in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs" cited by Deliusin).

All was not well in the ranks of the Celestial Way, however. According to Celestial Talent Zhāng, Zhāng Tiānrán charged Mme Sūn with a major responsibility, and she made as many missionary voyages as he did visiting the rapidly increasing numbers of local groups of believers. Mme Liú, meanwhile, was to remain at Zhāng’s family home in Jìníng. Zhāng continues his account (paraphrased):

At this time within the Way there emerged two brothers who were ambitious careerists. The elder was Gōng Péngnián 宮彭年 and the younger Gōng Pénglíng 宮彭齡. One of them was the retired chief of the Tiānjīn Social Services Committee. This man was tall and strong, capable and well-experienced, and he had many social connections; he became Mme Sūn’s secretary. But he was not content to be used, and he began to exploit his position in secret.

In 1943 the two Gōng brothers invented the "Way of the Golden Thread" (Jīnxiàn Dào 金線道). … And they spoke falsely and acted wildly and received much criticism.

Mme Sūn seems to have been intimately involved. The interpretation of her relationship both to Zhāng and to Mme Liú becomes important here. Some members of the Way of the Golden Thread maintained that Mme Liú had been pursuing an improper relationship with one of Zhāng’s "ten apostles," Sūn Xikun, the president of the martial arts association mentioned earlier, and that the Way had become corrupted by this. One can imagine a movement for internal reform in that case. Celestial Talent Zhāng, however, places blame for the division partly upon Mme Sūn herself:

[At first] Mme Sūn dared not meet our Teacher, but in the end they did meet in Tiānjīn to finish off this business. Our Teacher said he had only appointed [her] to tend the Way, and had not anticipated such erroneous opinion. So he was withdrawing her appointment. They [she and her companions] should stop for a time and rest.

By the time the war ended, Zhāng himself was in poor health, and necessarily withdrew more and more from the governance of the movement. Celestial Talent Zhāng continues:

After the war, our Teacher, because of the matter of the Foreign Ministry, suffered malicious attacks on all sides and was sick as well, and therefore wanted to retire to Táiwān (because he had a premonition that Táiwān was to be the only non-communist territory). Prior Wú and I [came ahead to Táiwān and] went to Yílán 宜蘭 to look for a house.*

* The title "prior" (literally "before person" xiānrén 先人) was used during Zhāng Tiānrán’s lifetime to refer to one’s earlier initiated co-religionists. This usage is still polite, but uncolloquial. In most Celestial Way groups today "prior" has become a title used to refer to the head of the faction.

How could he have known that Prior Wú would make a mess of it? So our Teacher went to Sìchuān 四川 … . Once, when he was traveling in the mountains, he was startled on the road by a falling stone. From this he knew he would soon return to Heaven. From that time on his illness grew worse… .

Our Master died at Chéngdū 成都. [One of the believers] was a member of the Regulations Committee of the Judicial Yuan and had the coffin flown to Hóngqiáo 虹橋 Airport in Shànghǎi. At the time Chinese civil aviation was still underdeveloped, and it was extremely difficult for ordinary people to use airplanes, so [the believer] approached [a higher official in the Judicial Yuan] who was also one of our members, and only then succeeded in getting it sent. The casket was sent to Shànghǎi, where it was met at the airport by a crowd of followers (including me [ — I had returned from Táiwān for this]). A memorial service was held in the White House mortuary in Shànghǎi, and he was buried on Nánpíng 南屏 Mountain in Mangzhou [location?].

(According to Buddhist polemicists [e.g. Shì Hóngmiào, 1975: 39], in contrast, Zhāng was executed in Chéngdū on August 13, 1947. I have been unable to find definitive confirmation of either account, although at this point the balance of evidence points to the truth of Celestial Talent Zhāng’s account.)

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The Celestial Way After Zhāng

At this death, Zhāng Tiānrán did not leave a well-ordered organization. The Way of the Golden Thread took advantage of the opportunity provided by Zhāng’s declining health and organized once more, this time more emphatically than ever around Mme Sūn. Already while he was alive, Celestial Talent Zhāng and Mme Liú, seeking to counter the Way of the Golden Thread and especially to counter rumors of an illicit relationship between Mme Liú and Prior Sūn, had founded the Right Thought Study Association (Zhèngyì Fǔdǎo Huì 正義輔導會).

These two factions represented the first institutionalization of a division that plagues the Celestial Way to this day and that has taken on theological overtones.

* The term "Celestial Mandate" (Tiān Mìng 天命) was, of course, used in imperial parlance to refer to a ruler’s right to rule. However, that is not the only kind of mandate that can be received from heaven. Celestial Way sectarians refer to their line of patriarchs as successive holders of a Celestial Mandate as teachers. The phrase is also sometimes used to refer to the charter legitimacy of a sectarian temple that does not result from fission from another temple but is independently founded. Ethnographically, it seems as though the imperial connotations are quite secondary. However it is possible that in earlier times the flavor of lèse majesté was stronger, and it is possible that some government suspicions of dynastic ambition by sectarians derived from this usage. Whether or not dynastic ambitions were intended is open to question. In the case of the twentieth-century Celestial Way, they clearly are not.

Each side holds the other’s memorials (and hence the other’s initiations) to be invalid.

Transmission of the faith to Táiwān was from the beginning a sectarian enterprise. Although Celestial Talent Zhāng and Prior Wú came to Táiwān in 1946 to prepare a house for Zhāng Tiānrán, they were not the only members of Mme Liú’s faction to make the move. The first Liú-ist to come was a Fujianese named Chén who had been a translator under the Japanese and had learned to move easily in the Hokkien-speaking, Japanized world of early postwar Táiwān. Another early migrant was the founder of the Hall of Precious Radiance in Shànghǎi, one of the movement’s major temples. Apostle Sūn was to move eventually to Gāoxióng (where, after his death, he was canonized as the "Font of Guidance True Gentleman"). Mme Liú herself apparently never made the journey, but died shortly after Zhāng himself died, apparently much grieved by the charges constantly leveled against her by the Sūn-ists.

The Sūn-ists apparently were never strongly united in their institutions. While acknowledging a certain loyalty to Mme Sūn, Sūn-ist missionaries felt free to found their own subgroups. Accordingly, their individual and somewhat chaotic moves to Táiwān brought to the island a series of disunited sub-sects without centralizing influences. In Táiwān today there are at least four of these, all of them named after major Shànghǎi temples of the sect:

* Collectively these are referred to as the Zǐxì 子系 groups, from the two halves of the surname Sūn 孫 read as individual characters. They stand in contrast to the small but more united Liú-ist faction, which is referred to as the "Elders" (Shīxiōng 師兄) or the "Right Thought" (Zhèngyì 正義) faction.

(It appears that there are also other scattered groups that claim to belong to the Celestial Way but that adhere to neither the Liú-ist nor the Sūn-ist divisions. One believer claimed to belong to something called the "Golden Radiance" sect, apparently transported from Hā’ěrbīn 哈爾濱 and Manchuria, but would say no more. One Precious Radiance believer counted this among the Sūn-ists, however. I have been unable so far to learn more of this.)

Most informants agree that the factions in Táiwān today are the results of individual and competitive missionary efforts by several of an original eighteen immediate subordinates appointed by Mme Sūn to proselytize on the mainland. Mme Sūn herself may or may not ever have come to Táiwān — different informants have different theories, but none claims certain knowledge. Some believe she lives in Hong Kong or in central Táiwān. Some apostates or outsiders maintain that she still directs the movement, which provides her with a retirement income.

It has not been possible so far to trace the history of all of the individual factions in Táiwān. They are too separate and too mutually suspicious even for members to circulate freely from one to another. One believer in a Sūn-ist branch in Jiāyì explained it this way:

If I meet a believer from another branch, I am very polite to him and very happy, but I cannot have very much to do with him or his people will think I am trying to lure him away to my branch and will be angry with me.

Táiwān press accounts are quite wrong in imagining that there is a unitary Celestial Way sect in Táiwān or that one person can be considered to be "the" head of the Unity Sect (unless, perhaps, Madame Sūn still lives). The various branches that are represented on the island are so separate that one branch often enough does not even know what tracts another branch has succeeded in maintaining in print. I was astonished to discover that I could procure early postwar revelation texts from the Foundation branch, for example, which the Precious Radiance branch leaders had themselves been unable to obtain and which were long out of print in the Táinán area. What is important is to understand that the differentiation among them is not essentially theological. Even the difference between Liú-ists and Sūn-ists, with its different interpretation of the line of apostolic succession to the Celestial Mandate, is theological only after it is political. The interpretation of Mme Sūn’s independence in terms of her share of the Celestial Mandate is a secondary thing, a rationalization of what has already occurred.

In order to reinforce their position as true bearers of the Mandate, Sūn-ists have sought legitimacy for Mme Sūn by poring over the Confucian canon to find possible prophecies of her authority, and Sūn-ist fújī mediums ("celestial talents") began almost as soon as Zhāng was dead pumping out a series of postmortal statements from him asserting her legitimate succession to his position in their affections. A tract called "Register of Discussions about Examination" (Tán kǎo lù 談考錄), edited in Shànghǎi in 1948 (TKL 1948), contains primarily séance revelations from Zhāng received in the months following his death. In an appendix, a commentator quotes, apparently in full, a 1948 revelation in which Zhāng, among other instructions, particularly urges his followers to submit themselves to the leadership of Mme Sūn.

Another tract, bound with the first, is called "Book of the Master, Written in Blood, for the Salvation of His Disciples" (Shīzūn jiù tú xuèshū 師尊救徒血書, SZJT 1948). This contains at least one reference to Mme Sūn (p. 7) by an honorific title, as well as a revelation from Zhāng (pp. 9-17) received in Shànghǎi in 1948 "at the Hall of Lofty Splendor" (Chónghuá Táng 崇華堂), that is, under his familial hall name. Although Zhāng’s revelation in the "Register of Discussions about Examination" mentions some difficulties experienced by Madame Sūn and the prevalence of false doctrines springing up after Zhāng’s death, it does not dwell on the subject inordinately and spends far more time on general urgings to the virtuous life. We may safely assume that Mme Liú’s faction was the less powerful and probably was not seen as a serious threat by the Sūn-ists at that time.* All believers agree that there are no significant differences in the beliefs or religious teachings of the different factions.

* The book made by binding these two tracts and certain other material together is called "The Orthodox School of Salvation of the Ancient Buddha Zhāng Tiānrán" (Tiānrán Gǔfó Pǔdù Zhèngzōng 天然古佛普渡正宗). It was still circulating in the Foundation sub-sect in Táiwān in the 1970s (TRGF n.d.).

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Part II: A Celestial Way Leader in Táiwān

At this point we turn to the consideration of a single one of the various descendant branches, one I shall call the "Lofty Splendor" (Chónghuá 崇華) branch, using Zhāng Tiānrán’s much abused hall name one more time. The branch is not entirely representative of the others — none is — but more of my informants belonged to the Lofty Splendor branch than to any other, and it has been possible to piece together a fairly full account of its founding and expansion, which I lack the materials to do for other branches. By examining one instance this closely, we can perhaps appreciate some of the mundane contingencies that have impinged on Celestial Way branches and can find ourselves in a better position to envision the general process of sectarian development.

Prior Gao’S Story

When I began this study in 1976, the head of the Lofty Splendor branch was a man we may call Prior Gāo (Gāo qiánrén 高前人 ). It is impossible to know how representative Prior Gāo is of Celestial Way leaders or how typical his story is. Our discussion of his life is based upon interviews with Gāo and his family and associates. Our discussion of his movement and of other branches of the Celestial Way can also be based on the few more responsible published materials and on observations made at various rites and meetings, as well as on interviews and conversations with members and apostates and on some of the countless sectarian tracts and books available in Táiwān before Wáng Shòu was arrested.

Prior Gāo was born of a poor family in a small coastal township in 1924, during the Japanese administration of Táiwān. His only formal education was at a privately operated village school, where he studied Japanese. Under the later years of the Japanese administration of Táiwān (1895-1945), teaching Chinese was prohibited, but young Gāo had a strong interest in traditional Chinese books, and his father encouraged him to study Chinese in secret in addition to learning Japanese in the regular school.

Gāo was twenty-one years old when the war ended. According to one of his close associates, Gāo, like other Taiwanese, was delighted at the departure of the Japanese and eager to reclaim his identity as a Chinese. He was in exactly the right frame of mind to be responsive to a Celestial Way missionary who arrived in Táiwān in 1946 to missionize. This missionary, who called herself the Prioress, was a disciple of one of several subordinates of Mme Sūn who were dispatched to all parts of China immediately after the war. Arriving in Táiwān, the Prioress was as eager to have Gāo as a disciple as he was to become one. He told me that he became convinced of the importance of the sect in restoring ancient Chinese culture and leading the masses to salvation through the application of ancient wisdom (a theme he was to reiterate quite openly during Táiwān’s "Cultural Renaissance" in the mid-1970s), and he immediately became the Prioress’s highest sub-ordinate, as he tells it. (Some of Gāo’s disciples maintain that he himself visited the mainland and became acquainted with Mme Sūn in Shànghǎi. He has specifically denied this.)

Another convert, whom we may call Liú Déjīng 劉德經, shared with Gāo the confidence and enthusiasm of the Prioress. Older than Gāo by a score of years, Liú was apparently an arch-conservative, from his dress — he always wore a long blue gown in public — to his approach to sectarian proselytizing, in which he strongly advocated maximum secrecy, both for reasons of security and out of an appreciation for the Chinese master-disciple tradition. Gāo, his appetite for organization whetted, was devoted to building a larger following and progressing as rapidly as possible in the mission of restoring adherence to ancient Chinese morality and of saving the world.

I have the impression that the conflict which arose between the two men was largely one of style and of approaches to maintaining the organization, but whether for this or other reasons, Gāo and Liú did not get on well, and after the death of the Prioress in 1961, they soon separated. It is possible that, as one of Liú’s followers would maintain, Gāo was excommunicated, for Liú took with him such possessions as the society had, and most of the believers as well, leaving Gāo with little more than a conviction of his own rightness and a taste for religious organizing.

Gāo, in view of the potential illegitimacy of his own branch after the separation from Liú and in view of his unusual goal of seeking maximum public activity in order to build the largest possible movement, was in a weak position even to continue as an effective force for Celestial Way missionary efforts, let alone to effect any unification of the Sūn-derived branches under his leadership. The latter had become his goal, a goal he treasures still. (He was unwilling to discuss the details with me, but apparently he had made occasional attempts at this at various times but had always been rebuffed.)

Gāo had a friend, whom we may call Mǎ Mǐnxióng 馬敏雄, who was, like Liú, about twenty years older than Gāo and who had had much financial success as chairman of the board of a small corporation sent up in Táinán after the war. Mǎ had a degree from a Tenri religious school in Japan and had a strong interest in religion. In about 1950 or so Mǎ had suffered a crisis both in his health and in his business affairs and had sought assistance from a certain god at a shrine near Táiběi.* The results were apparently so spectacular that Mǎ and his family felt obliged to provide some concrete sign of their gratitude, and in the mid-1950s, in their home city of Táinán, they founded a temple, which was formally dedicated in 1958 and which we shall call the Temple of the Lord Guān (Guāndì 關帝).

* It is characteristic of Chinese popular religion that simultaneous difficulties in several areas — in the present case simultaneous bad health and bad business — may be construed as symptoms of a single "disharmony" and treated together by religious means.

The Temple of the Lord Guān differed from many Táiwān temples in lacking any natural, local constituency. Built at the (then) rustic periphery of the city as the project of a single family, it was nevertheless not intended as a strictly familial shrine. Nor was it intended to imply any particular obligation on the part of families living in the vicinity, as neighborhood temples do. Indeed even the aspect of a commemoration of the favor of Lord Guān to the Mǎ family was not stressed: It seems not to have been intended as a miracle site. The goals were set forth in an article printed in one survey of temples as follows:

After this temple was dedicated, its aim was to introduce true beliefs, to overcome superstition, to improve worship, to urge men in the ways of virtue, and to offer instruction about wrong paths. Therefore [the enshrined gods] obtain universal veneration; their responsive fulfillment [of petitions] moves good and benevolent persons of society and thus by each class they are called "most holy, most venerated" [Reference suppressed to protect the anonymity of the temple].

This statement of purpose, vaguely sectarian and certainly reformist, can be understood in light of Mǎ’s other religious interests. When the survey of temples was compiled, Mǎ listed himself as a member of the board of directors of the "Chinese Association for the Sacred Way" (Zhōnghuá Shèngdào Huì 中華聖道會) and as the chairman of the board of something I shall call the "Sanctuary of Mercy." I have been unable to locate contemporary information about either of these institutions, In 1967 the name "Sanctuary of Mercy" was already in standard use in place of "Temple of Lord Guān," and as the "Sanctuary," the institution cosponsored the publication of a religious tract published by the Chinese Association for the Sacred Way: "Researches into the Confucian Creed" (Kǒngzǐ Jiàoyì Yánjiù 孔子教義研究) (KZJY 1967).

Although it is possible that the Chinese Association for the Sacred Way and with it the Sanctuary of Mercy were related in some manner to the Celestial Way, it is improbable. The 1967 tract is a commentary on Confucian writings from a strongly ethical and religious viewpoint — it even speaks occasionally of the Chinese Religion of the Sacred Way (Zhōnghuá Shèngdào Jiào 中華聖道教) — but it does not resemble Celestial Way writings in detail.

Prior Gāo, abandoned by Liú and the other Celestial Way members after the death of the Prioress, attached himself to his friend Mǎ. Gāo seems to have felt much affinity with Mǎ’s enterprise of "introducing true belief, overcoming superstition, improving worship," and he was interested by Mǎ’s neo-Confucian ethical movement. On Mǎ’s death, Gāo succeeded to control of the Sanctuary of Mercy. One story circulating among Gāo’s present followers has it that on his deathbed Mǎ bequeathed management of the Sanctuary of Mercy to Gāo, not ever realizing that Gāo was in fact a member of the Celestial Way. Gāo assured me that Mǎ knew of the affiliation, though Mǎ himself apparently never joined the celestial Way.

Under Gāo’s administration, the Sanctuary of Mercy became more overtly Celestial Way in its purposes. (In appearance it remains to this day a spare, if large, temple to Lord Guān, and it is, of course, registered under the name of a different association from the Celestial Way itself.) Gāo was now finally in a position to compete with Liú for the loyalty of Celestial Way believers. He was, of course, also in competition for believers both with other ethical societies (such as the Chinese Association for the Sacred Way) and with other branches of the Celestial Way itself. But provided with a temple and being both a competent administrator and dynamic personality, Gāo soon had a core of believers, many won back from Liú, and his movement began to grown rapidly. He was now, finally and firmly, "Prior" Gāo (Gāo qiánrén 高前人), and the Lofty Splendor branch of the Celestial Way was firmly established at last.

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Inter-branch competition, however destructive in some respects, could be turned to advantage in building Gāo’s branch. For example, according to journalistic accounts, there was in 1967 a scandal in the Foundation branch, whose believers seem to be concentrated to the north of Táinán city and in Jiāyì and hence not far from Gāo’s headquarters. The "prior" of the Foundation branch, a man named Xú Chāngdá 徐昌達, apparently married one of his parishioners under somewhat suspect circumstances, and there was massive discontent, followed by widespread defection to other Celestial Way branches including Gāo’s (see Guāng Tài, 1977: 157).

The necessity of underground organization means that the history of most such sectarian organizational in-fighting is necessarily forever lost to us unless some of the central figures write memoirs. Further, Celestial Way members follow a rule of sectarian etiquette prohibiting the believer from maligning others. This, too, makes accurate history difficult. What seems clear is that directing a Celestial Way branch is not easy. Success, at least as measured in number of followers, depends on one’s ability to attract followers from other sects or other Celestial Way sub-sects, and the gradual growth of one’s branch produces envy and suspicion both in sectarian and in government quarters. Priors have enemies, even if they do not like to speak of them.

On one occasion Gāo did concede to me that there had been problems of inter-group competition along the way. He said that a man — we may call him Shī — who may have been a relative of the author of the pamphlet about the Confucian "religion" — was proselytizing for the Association of the Sacred Way under another name, but he was not very successful and had few converts. When Gāo transformed the Sanctuary of Mercy into a Celestial Way center, minimizing its ties to the Association of the Sacred Way, he won converts quite quickly. He won more converts in a few weeks, he boasted, than Shī had made in total. Shī was a well-placed government official. When he described the situation in 1976, Gāo maintained that Shī , motivated both by envy of Gāo’s success and by annoyance at Gāo’s using a temple that was formally associated with the Association of the Sacred Way, began a campaign of well-directed rumor mongering to have Gāo suppressed. (In a brief follow-up interview in 1981, Gāo maintained that he could not recall conflict with Shī. Gāo, normally a careful man, may have told me more in 1976 than he had intended to. His story at that time, anyway, continued as follows.)

The government duly launched an investigation to see whether Prior Gāo’s branch might be an actual or potential Communist cell. Gāo was called to Táiběi for questioning, but there was no evidence against him, he told me, and he was eventually released with the instruction that the movement (which presumably was not identified as a branch of the Celestial Way) should not be allowed to grow too big or too fast, and that the least trace of Communist influence in it would be reason for suppression. Prior Gāo stressed several times to me that if it were not for this need for moderation (a need he understood and to which he appeared sympathetic or at least resigned) and even secrecy in the transmission of the religion, he could win all Táiwān in two or three years.

If, indeed, Mǎ Mǐnxióng had not known of Prior Gāo’s association with the Celestial Way and if Gāo gradually used the temple he "inherited" from Mǎ to found a latter-day Celestial Way branch of his own, it is not surprising that others in the Chinese Association for the Sacred Way might feel resentment toward him and seek ways to alienate the temple from him or preferably to destroy him and his Celestial Way branch altogether. He had, from their perspective, stolen a temple. The political climate being as it was (and is), charges of Communist associations were the best political resources at their command. We might expect resentment and possible subversion of a successful Celestial Way branch also from other Celestial Way branches, although I have no testimony to that effect.

This excursion into the organizational history of the Lofty Splendor branch stresses, on a local southern Taiwanese landscape, the same general point made with respect to the Celestial Way as a whole: Reciprocal charges of heresy, interpersonal conflict and competition, and a good deal of Realpolitik seem to be central facts in the daily life of Chinese sectarian societies, facts which are sometimes concealed even from most believers and which are nearly always successfully concealed from outsiders. (No newspaper in Táiwān displayed any consciousness of factionalism in the Celestial Way in their "exposés" of Wáng Shòu, for example.) A participant observer, even one so well placed as a foreigner, must seek long and hard to reconstruct such histories even partially, and yet when he succeeds he discovers the basis of much liturgical detail, revelation content, and even doctrine that was previously obscure, for such are the exigencies of inter-branch competition that these things may change in response to it. An example in the present article is the entry of either Mme Sūn’s name or Zhāng Tiānrán’s in initiation memorials, which is a crude reflection of the contrast between Liú-ists and Sūn-ists and their much broader claims to the Celestial Mandate. There are other examples, most of which are unintelligible without a fuller description of Celestial Way liturgy or revelation structure (see Jordan and Overmyer, forthcoming).

Our view of sectarian religiosity must include the understanding that its liturgical forms and pious utterances are as responsive to local-level considerations as to broader cultural themes. Even a long ethnographic study will probably never produce a full exegesis. But having glimpsed such possibilities, the understanding that emerges can place the motivations both of leaders and of ordinary believers in quite a different light.


CHAO, Wei-pang
1942 "The origin and growth of fu chi." Folklore Studies 1: 9-17.
1972 "The I-kuan Tao society," in Jean Chesneaux (ed.) Popular Movements and Secret Societies in China, 1840-1950. Stanford: Stanford Univ. Press.
1948-1951 "Une séance de spiritisme dans une religion secrète a Pékin en 1948." Mélange Chinois et Bouddhiques 9: 92-98.
GUĀNG Tài 光泰
1977 Cóng diàochájú chūfā pò xié 從調查局出發破邪 (Setting out from the investigation office to smash heterodoxy). Yǔzhòu Guāng 宇宙光 (Cosmic Light Monthly) 39. Táiběi.
HÉ Yǐngyí 何穎怡 & HÚ Xùn 胡遜
1980 Xìshuō Yīguàn Dào 細說一貫道 (A close look at the Unity Way). Zōnghé 綜合月刋 145: 198-210. Táiběi.
HSIAO, Ching-fen
1972 "The current situation of new religions in Táiwān." Theology and the Church 10, 2: 1-24.
HÚ Xùn 胡遜 & HÉ Yǐngyí 何穎怡
1981 Yīguàn Dào jiūjìng shì zěnyàngde jiāo? 一貫道究竟是怎樣的教? (Exactly what sort of religion is the Unity Way?). Shíbào 時報週刊 153: 95-98.
JORDAN, David K. and Daniel L. OVERMYER
forthcoming [1986] The Flying Phoenix: aspects of Chinese sectarianism in Táiwān. Princeton, NJ: Princeton U. Press.
KUBO Noritada 洼德忠
1953 Ichi-kan-dō ni tsuite. 一貫道について (On the Unity Way). Tōyō bunka kinkyūsho 東洋文化研究所 4: 173-249. Tokyo.
1967 Kǒngzǐ jiàoyì yánjiù 孔子教義研究究 (Researches into the Confucian Creed). Táiběi. (underground sectarian tract).
LǏ Shìyú 李世瑜
1948 Xiànzài Huáběi mìmì zōngjiào 現在華北秘密宗教 (Contemporary secret religions of North China). Studia Serica Monographs Series B, No. 14. Chengdu.
1976 The Eight Trigrams Uprising of 1813. New Haven: Yale Univ. Press.
1981 "Alternatives: popular religious sects in Chinese society." Modern China 7 (April): 153-190.
1976 Folk Buddhist Religion: Dissenting Sects in Late Traditional China. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Univ. Press.
1978 "Temple organization in a Chinese village." Asian Folklore and Social Life Monographs No. 101. Táiběi: The Orient Cultural Service.
SHÌ Hóngmiào 釋宏妙
1975 Tiān Dào zhēnzhuàn 天道真傳 (The True History of the Celestial Way). Táiběi: Buddhist Publishing Society.
SHÌ Huímíng 釋回明
1947 Àn lù míng dēng 暗路明登 (Bright Light on a Dark Path). Taizhong: Ruìchéng 瑞成書局. (reprinted 1972)
SHĪ Wéntú 施文塗
1978 Wǒ zěnyàng tuōlí Yīguàn Dào 我怎樣脫離一貫道 (How I Escaped from the Unity Way). Táiběi: Buddhist Publishing Society.
SŪ Míngdōng 蘇鳴東
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1948? Shīzūn jiù tú xuèshū 師尊救徒血書 (Book of the Master, Written in Blood, for the Salvation of His Disciples.) Shànghǎi? (underground sectarian tract)
1948 Tán kǎo lù 談考錄 (Register of Discussions about Examination). Shànghǎi. (underground sectarian tract).
n.d. Tiānrán gǔfó pǔdù zhèngzōng 天然古佛普渡正宗 (Orthodox School of Salvation of the Ancient Buddha). (underground sectarian tract).

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