Taoism/Daoism is not an easy religion for a westerner - most specifically this westerner - to get his head around. The opening words of the Tao Te Ching/Dao De Jing, Taoism/Daoism's key text are: The Tao/Dao that can be expressed is not the true Tao/Dao.
But before failing to express it, you should decide how to spell the Tao/Dao. In Chinese it is 道, which means way or path (to which English happily adds –ist or -ism), but how do you render 道 in Roman lettering?
There are two main translitertation systems. Wade-Giles, developed in the 19th century and the most widely used until the 1970s, gave us ‘Peking’ and ‘Mao Tse Tung’. Pinyin, developed in China in the 1950s prefers ‘Beijing’ and ‘Mao Zedong’. Pinyin is used throughout China (conveniently for western travellers all street names, road signs, metro stations etc., etc. display their names in pinyin as well as Chinese characters). Pinyin is a better approximation to standard mandarin pronunciation and has now been almost universally adopted. Almost, but not quite. A tourist in 北京 (Beijing) can still eat Peking duck, drink Tsingtao Beer and visit a Taoist Temple. In pinyin that would be Beijing duck, Qingdao Beer and Daoist Temple.
Once a spelling has been chosen you then have to consider the distinction between philosophical Daoism (spelling choice made!) and religious Daoism. Some argue that they are not even related, they just happen to have the same name, others that the religion grew from the philosophy.
Philosophical Daoism was developed during the Han Dynasty (206 BC - 220 AD) and is concerned with the individual’s position in the natural order. It emphasises the ‘Three Jewels’, compassion, moderation and humility. Religious Daoism arose some 700 years later probably from a melding of Chinese folk religion with Daoist philosophy. To add further complications, Daoism has no organisational hierarchy, although the same cannot be said of the gods; the Daoist pantheon mirrors the Imperial Chinese bureaucracy, with gods being promoted or demoted on the basis of performance.
Wong Tai Sin Temple, Hong Kong
Daoism is Hong Kong’s main religion. Temples to Tin Hau, the goddess of the sea, are ubiquitous, but Hong Kong’s biggest temple is dedicated to Wong Tai Sin, a mythical shepherd boy whose job it is to cure illness and bring good fortune.
|Wong Tai Sin Temple|
Built in 1973 the temple is probably the least spiritual religious building we have ever visited. Hong Kong is a relentlessly materialistic society and worshipping Wong Tai Sin is just another commercial transaction. The devotees buy some incense sticks and dutifully bow their heads, and in return Wong Tai Sin sorts out whatever needs sorting out. Frequently this involves ensuring luck for gamblers. Devotions over, temple goers scurry off to shake a pot of bamboo prediction sticks or consult the fortune tellers, whose booths - over a hundred of them - surround the temple.
|Devotees at Wong Tie Sin|
A Muslim Uighur we met in Xinjiang (China’s westernmost province and in theory the Uighurs’ Autonomous region) said, rather contemptuously of his Chinese neighbours (and rulers) ‘They have no religion, only superstition.’ While that might be unfair of the Chinese as a whole, Wong Tie Sin would seem to support his contention. On the other hand there is nothing sanctimonious about the worshippers, and there is a complete lack of hypocrisy. For that reason - and for its optimism and vivacity, I liked the place.
|Nine Dragon Wall, Wong Tai Sin|
Daoist Temple, Huizhou, Guangdong Province
Huizhou is an unremarkable city in the People’s Republic, some 100 km northeast of Hong Kong. It was here our daughter Siân spent 18 months teaching English, and it was visiting her in Huizhou that sparked our interest in China. Now, seven years later, we have visited the country five times.
I generally find Buddhist temples to have a serene and spiritual quality, but I am much less comfortable with Daoism. Siân, on the other hand, complains that, in Huizhou at least, the only contact she had with Buddhists was as persistent and even aggressive chuggers.
|Daoist Temple, West Lake, Huzhou|
To escape the crowds, which are ever-present in heavily populated Guangdong, she would retreat to the park, the small entrance fee sufficient to provide some peace. The Daoist Temple stands on the edge of the park. ‘I really liked [it]’ she said ‘because it wasn't special, or glitzy (well, enormous gilded statues not withstanding), but... like a church, it had atmosphere….. I always used it in visualisations when you have to choose a place you feel relaxed in when learning to meditate in preparation for childbirth.’ No one would say that of Wong Tie Sin.
Qingyan Daoist Temple, Guizhou Province
|Qingyan walled city|
Huizhou may be unremarkable, but the same cannot be said of Qingyan, just south of Guiyang, the capital of Guizhou province in southwest China. Since the 1970s China has become quite good at looking after (sometimes over-restoring) its ancient monuments, but there are fewer examples of preserved vernacular architecture. Qingyan is an artfully pickled Qing Dynasty (1644 – 1911) walled city.
|Qingyan Daoist Temple|
The Buddhist temple is quiet and serene, the nearby Daoist temple is bustling and busy. The many temple attendants, in all-black uniform, wandered around, always present, always doing something but not apparently interested in us – like shop assistants in Dixon’s.
|Raised stage, Qingyan Daoist Temple|
|Detail of Carvings, Qingyan Daoist Temple|