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  • Heavenly Masters: Two Thousand Years of the Daoist State by Vincent Goossaert
  • Jan De Meyer (bio)
Vincent Goossaert. Heavenly Masters: Two Thousand Years of the Daoist State. Hong Kong: The Chinese University of Hong Kong Press, 2022. XIV+ 418 pp. $68.00, isbn 978-988-237-202-3.

To an already astonishing list of publications, Vincent Goossaert has added a book that will forever change the way we look at Daoism as an organized religion. In Heavenly Masters: Two Thousand Years of the Daoist State, Goossaert tells the story of the Zhangs of Longhushan 龍虎山, and their Heavenly Master institution, that considered itself the heir to the original Heavenly Master church (Tianshidao 天師道). As in many of his earlier books and articles, Goossaert, a leading scholar in the field of the social history of Chinese religion, has expertly analyzed an enormous amount of primary source material (works in the Daoist canon, gazetteers, collections of anecdotes, archives, manuscripts, literary collections, and newspapers) to provide us with an account of two millennia of what the author provocatively calls "the Daoist State." By "state" Goossaert means "an institution that proclaims and enforces norms and laws that apply to the whole population, that taxes its registered subjects in order to support itself and its officers, and that wields violence against its enemies" (p. 5). As the Heavenly Master institution attempted to do that "within and as part of the imperial state" (ibid.), Goossaert also uses the term "deep state."

As is well known, the true origins of the Zhangs of Longhushan are shrouded in mystery, and their claim to constitute an unbroken tradition going back to Zhang Ling 張陵 (later Zhang Daoling 張道陵), the first Heavenly Master, rests on very little. As Goossaert explains (p. 42), the earliest trustworthy date for the presence of a Heavenly Master named Zhang at Longhushan is 828.1 Among the many historical Zhangs who claimed descent from Zhang Daoling before the ninth century, Goossaert (p. 26) mentions Zhang Daoyu 張道裕, described as a "twelfth generation descendant of Ling, Heavenly Master of the Han" (漢朝天師陵十二代孫) in an early sixth-century [End Page 186] stela inscription.2 A stela inscription dated 677, not mentioned by Goossaert, refers to Zhang Wenli 張文禮, fifteenth generation descendant of the Heavenly Master (see Chen Yuan, Daojia jinshi lüe, p. 67). That, one and a half centuries after the 677 inscription, Zhang Shaoren or Zhang Shiyuan should only have been eighteenth generation descendants, suggests the simultaneous presence of different patriarchal lines, or the extraordinary longevity of a number of Medieval Longhushan Heavenly Masters. However, the "exceptional longevity" for which the Zhangs were praised (p. 268) is not confirmed by the historical record. Longhushan Heavenly Masters died relatively young: the average age of the twenty-eight Heavenly Masters for whom we possess reliable dates of both birth and death was forty-nine.

In light of the paucity of trustworthy historical documents relating to Zhang Daoling, Goossaert, in his chapter 1 ("Inventing the Founding Ancestor"), focuses on the history of the myth that grew around the first Heavenly Master. Chapters 2 and 3 discuss the success of the Longhushan Zhangs in utilizing the wealth and power concentrated in their region during the latter half of the Tang, and in obtaining what Goossaert describes as the "ultimate grail" (p. 74): the empire-wide, state-sanctioned monopoly on ordinations. Chapters 4 and 5 analyze how the Heavenly Master institution grew to maturity during the early modern period (tenth to fourteenth centuries), against a background of thorough changes in Daoist ritual (the rise and integration of new exorcistic traditions). During the Ming and Qing dynasties, the Longhushan Zhangs continued to be active throughout the entire empire, cooperating with the imperial bureaucracy, and shaping local society by licensing all sorts of religious specialists, and local gods as well. They were major landowners, living on the rent from their landed estates, they received donations from the court, and they charged fees (at times very substantial ones) for their ritual services (ordinations, canonizing local gods and "recycling demons," sale of talismans). The organization also functioned as a court of law, and taxed local communities so as to be able to maintain their status of elite Daoists, who...