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  • From Daoist Cultivation to Longevity Market?"Nourishing Life" on Mount Qingcheng
  • Hélène Bloch (bio)

In and around Chengdu today it is easy to enroll in a "training class for nourishing life" (yangsheng peixunban 养生培训班). I joined one held in a Daoist temple dedicated to Yaowang 药王, the King of Medicines, near the scenic area of Mount Qingcheng 青城山 (Sichuan) in April 2016. About fifty elderly people participated in various classes for two days, spending two nights in the temple, which often hosts these kinds of events from spring to fall—the activity is important both for income and popularity.

The classes divide between theoretical lessons about principles of Chinese medicine and outdoors training, consisting in learning taiji quan movements. There is only one teacher, a 35-year-old man generally called "master" (shifu).1 Several young employees in their twenties assist the participants. They refer to the firm hiring them as a "company for nourishing life" (yangsheng gongsi 养生公司). According to them, the company chose this temple because it is quite a famous place and also has a pleasant environment. [End Page 163]

After the course is complete, at the morning of departure, the participants receive a package of health products (baojianpin 保健品). Some employees ask the temple's superior, a Quanzhen2 nun in her forties, to recite the scriptures (nianjing 念经) for them. She accepts at first, but then reconsiders her decision, telling them she cannot do such a thing on short notice. Instead, she will talk to them about Daoism and "nourishing life" (yangsheng 养生)—a term that in Daoist cultivation and wider popular usage today designates an ensemble of techniques, especially in the area of nutrition and meditation, and indicates to their ultimate pur-pose: extending and enriching life on the path to immortality.

The nun, then, begins by presenting her view of Daoism as the indigenous religion of China and of Mount Qingcheng as one of its birthplaces. Then she explains what to her is important in nourishing life. In her opinion, the essential point is that "one must not have any desires" (buyao you yuwang 不要有欲望). She also notes that some participants complained about the conditions of temple accommodation—shared rooms, not enough hot water, lumpy mattresses, and so on. However, according to her, one does not come to a temple to "enjoy" (xiangshou 享受), but to "study"" (xuexi 学习). And if one comes to study, one should not have any expectations about material conditions. This is because nourishing life is a way of "exploring oneself" (yanjiu ziji 研究自己).

The course and the nun's comments reveal different ways of understanding the nature of nourishing life. On the one hand, a private company offers a one-time service that can be purchased within a market made to satisfy specific needs. The participants who purchase this service expect to be able to enjoy it fully in a given environment and for a particular length of time. On the other hand, the abbess associates nourishing life with a process, that is, to an overarching ascetic path. She clearly states that her vision goes far beyond issues of enjoyment and desires, relating nourishing life more to the idea of self-exploration, a common way of describing the path to Dao.

In China, most temple accommodations are known to be basic, even bad. Why, then, does this commercial company choose a small temple [End Page 164] take on the risk of having dissatisfied customers, instead of using a hotel as many of its competitors do? To answer this question, this article examines the various discussions around the notion of nourishing life in this temple and places them in the larger context of life improvement as a profitable industry. It explores how the notion of self-cultivation seems to vacillate—somehow paradoxically—between leisurely well-being and the ascetic path to long-life.

The Scenic and the Sacred

Mount Qingcheng is intimately and historically linked to Daoism, and Daoism to the practice of nourishing life. The area is famous for being the place where the first Celestial Master, Zhang Daoling 张道陵, received the revelation of Laozi in the second century CE. As some other mountains in China, especially in Shaanxi and Sichuan, it is locally considered as "Daoism's...