We were approaching Shanghai’s City God Temple (Chenghuang Miao), a well-known Taoist temple. Our guide, Jay Pei, started to explain the essence of Taoism. He had done his homework before meeting us and learned of my background on climate change, so he may have weighted his description a bit to emphasize the religion’s attitude toward the physical environment. That aside, his explanation sounded to me very similar to the Gaia hypothesis (also known as the Gaia theory) that proposes:
… organisms interact with their inorganic surroundings on Earth to form a self-regulating, complex system that contributes to maintaining the conditions for life on the planet. Topics of interest include how the biosphere and the evolution of life forms affect the stability of global temperature, ocean salinity, oxygen in the atmosphere and other environmental variables that affect the habitability of Earth.
The difference of course is that Taoism had its origin 2,400 years ago, while the Gaia hypothesis has been around for less than 50 years. I immediately approached Jay and asked him to contribute a guest blog on the topic.
I thought that such a guest blog would serve well both as a conclusion to my recent set of blogs on China and as a prologue to a new series dedicated to Pope Francis’ upcoming visit to the United States. Not only will this blog fit well with other guest blogs that tried to connect Judaism (May 26), Islam (June 16) and Christianity (June 23) with global environmental concerns, but the Pope has recently raised awareness of two immensely important global topics: climate change and the massive outpouring of refugees from certain countries.
This is a bit of a premature ending to the China series; I had wanted to include two more blogs: one would describe the close interaction between Hong Kong and Shenzhen, looking into the role I think Hong Kong will play in China’s future. The other blog would be a survey of where China stands in its energy transition to more sustainable energy sources. As usual, however, global events did not follow my plans, and ultimately the Pope’s visit, the issues that he will raise, and the American public’s reactions take precedence.
I will return to my thoughts on China after the Pope’s visit. Meanwhile, here is Jay:
Guest Blog by Jay Pei: An Introduction to Taoism
Founded during China’s Zhanguo period (457-221 BC, an era known for its warfare and bloodshed), Taoism is now one of the most prevalent religions in China, Taiwan, Japan and Korea.
In Chinese, Tao is 道, and Taoism is 道教, which are pronounced Dao and Daoism respectively. But just as Beijing has often been anglicized as Peking in English, the T in Taoism has often been pronounced the Western way for convenience. The literal meaning of 道 (Tao）is way, path, or road; similarly, Taoism as a religion symbolizes a pathway or solution for dealing with life in the real world.
Unlike Buddhism, Taoism is a multi-god religion; the highest deities are Sanqing (the Three Pure Ones; Qing is pronounced Ching) – a trinity comprised of Yuqing, Shangqing, and Taiqing. Yuqing represents the status of the universe when everything was unborn and unshaped, Shangqing represents the beginning of the universe along with the formation of yin and yang (brightness and shadow), while Taiqing represents the shaping and forming procedure. Aside from Sanqing, Taoism also has a massive branch of other deities and immortals who are differentiated from each other both by duties and symbols.
The totem of Taoism is the Taiji-Bagua. The Taiji (Taichi), is the middle ring, which is a combination of yin (the black half) and yang (the white half), and shows the fusion or balance of shadow and brightness. The eight shapes surrounding the Taiji, are the Bagua – the eight elements of nature. They are: Sky, Earth, Water, Fire, Thunder, Wind, Mountain, and Marsh.
As a religion, Taoism has its own set of complicated doctrines, but the central idea is as follows: Tao guides nature, which in turn rules over everything on Earth. In Taoism, only by learning from nature, following the natural order, and not destroying or damaging Earth, can humans live a life that is harmonious with their surroundings.
Taoism believes everything has two sides which balance each other: yin and yang. For example, happiness can only be experienced because of the existence of sadness, gaining is similarly paired with losing, and failure is a good foundation for success. You may lose something at this moment, but it might bring you awareness of something else, or you may gain something right now, but have to leave something behind in doing so.
Many people who live fast-paced, work-centered lives practice Taoism to remind them that human life is fleeting and shallow. It helps them refocus on getting back to contemplating and comprehending the value of nature.
Taoism emphasizes the spontaneity and simplicity of life, through meditation, healthy diet and other good habits. The religion and its philosophy shows up in so many aspects of Chinese life, including Fengshui (the art of deciding where to place a home or furniture), Taichi and Kongfu – two types of martial arts that share a common root but differ in both speed and function.
Taoism also has a strong influence on broader Chinese culture, especially in that it values staying calm, not putting too much focus on personal emotion, and considering arguments from different perspectives.
I think that these are good principles for everyone to keep in mind, regardless of religion, especially when it comes to our treatment of the world around us.
Jay Pei has been a tour guide at A&K luxury travel in Shanghai for 5 years. He holds a Bachelor’s degree in Literature. He is a student of religious culture and incorporates ideals from both Buddhism and Taoism into his life.