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  • Taoism Under the T'ang: Religion and Empire During the Golden Age of Chinese History
  • Alan K. L. Chan (bio)
T. H. Barrett . Taoism Under the T'ang: Religion and Empire During the Golden Age of Chinese History. London: Wellsweep Press, 1996. 110 pp. Hardcover £15.00, ISBN 0-948454-98-9.

Originally intended as a chapter for the projected second part of The Cambridge History of China, volume 3, Sui and Tang China (Cambridge University Press, 1979), this work has taken a long time to see print. I wish the author had not decided to limit himself to only minor revisions, but had taken the opportunity to offer for publication an updated and expanded version of his original research. This is not to say that what we have here is not good. On the contrary, it is precisely because this is such an impressive and useful "brief outline" (p. 6) that I wish the author had filled in some of the details and shared his assessment of the more recent research in the growing field of Taoist studies.

Chronologically arranged in nine sections, the discussion centers on "the involvement of the [Tang] ruling house in Taoist religion throughout the life of the dynasty" (p. 6; see also p. 19). "Background and Early Years" (pp. 11-28) describes first the rise of religious Taoism toward the end of the Han period, with the establishment of the "Way of the Celestial Master" (Tianshidao) and the appearance of the Shangqing and Lingbao scriptures during the Six Dynasties. In a few packed pages Barrett masterfully presents the deepening political involvement of Taoism, in both North and South China, and its interaction with Buddhism. "[B]y the late fifth century Taoism . . . had developed to the point where it had achieved . . . a certain self-awareness as the Chinese alternative to Buddhism" (p. 15). This sets the stage for the spectacular growth of the Taoist religion during the Tang dynasty.

"Early Years" refers to the reigns of the founding emperor Gaozu, Li Yuan, and his successor Taizong. The story of Taoism under the Tang can hardly be told without reference to the role Taoism allegedly played in the founding of the dynasty. The Tang ruling house, as is well known, traces its "ancestry" to Laozi, whose name has been identified since the Han period as Li Er. Taoist support for Li Yuan—citing the "myth of the Li messiah" (pp. 14, 20), auspicious omens, and even direct divine intervention—in his campaign to overthrow the Sui dynasty is well attested in traditional sources. Yet, as Barrett judiciously observes, without discounting the value of such support, the reason for the Tang patronage of the Taoist religion probably runs deeper, reflecting a long tradition of making "political use" (p. 15) of Taoism that goes back to the Northern Wei and Northern Zhou dynasties. When viewed especially in the light of the claim that the Tang ruling house came into prominence in the north and was not perhaps "purely Chinese" (p. 20), this provides a rich perspective from which the history of Taoism under the Tang may be approached. [End Page 392]

There is a good indication that Taoism grew steadily during the reigns of Gaozu and Taizong. For example, Gaozu's edict ranking Taoism ahead of Confucianism and Buddhism is well known. The often-cited missions to Koguryō "to propagate the Taoist religion" (p. 22) give further indication of its standing in the Tang court, and Barrett adds other evidence. Nevertheless, it was during the reign of Gaozong (649-683)—which deservedly occupies a separate section in Barrett's account (pp. 29-45)—that Taoism flourished.

The main developments fall under three broad areas: (1) the veneration of Laozi and the Daodejing, (2) the establishment of a national network of Taoist "monasteries" (guan), and (3) the official recognition of and favors bestowed on famous Taoist masters. During this period, Laozi was officially endowed with the title of Taishang Xuanyuan Huangdi (Most High August Sovereign of the Profound Beginning). The Daodejing was made a subject of the civil service examinations. Imperial princesses were initiated into the Taoist religion. Such famous Taoist masters as Ye Fashan and Yin...


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