Celestial Masters

History and Ritual in Early Daoist Communities

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Terry F. Kleeman
Harvard-Yenching Institute Monograph Series
  • Cambridge, MA: 
    Harvard University Asia Center
    , July
     446 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Terry Kleeman’s Celestial Masters: History and Ritual in Early Daoist Communities offers a unique glimpse into a seminal period in the formation of Daoism, China’s largest indigenous religious tradition. In this book, Kleeman provides a detailed account of the history and ritual life of the religious movement known as the Way of the Celestial Masters 天師道 from the mid-2nd century to the late-7th centuries and its transformation from a lay-oriented congregational religion to its modern form (6). Drawing on a plethora of primary sources, Kleeman situates the Celestial Masters in the broad, early Chinese social, political, and religious landscape, and outlines the various strategies they utilized to distinguish themselves from rival groups and draw potential followers. This approach allows Kleeman to identify three main features of early Daoist communities, all of which contributes to their eventual success. First, in defining themselves in opposition to the profane 俗 world, Daoists managed to offer their adherents a viable alternative to mainstream society. Second, by refusing to participate in what may be the main ritual of traditional Chinese religion, the offering of blood sacrifices to the ancestors, they were able to solidify their status as a unique religious movement. Finally, in developing a complex moral theology, ecclesiastical structure, and a distinct ritual system, the Celestial Masters managed to augment their position in the religious and sociopolitical arenas, and even achieve official recognition from the state at certain times (3-5).      

The book is divided into two parts. Part 1 (chapters 1-4) provides a detailed chronological outline of the development of Daoism as an organized religion from the late Eastern Han to the Tang dynasties. Part 2 (chapters 5-8) draws on liturgical and scriptural sources to offer a comprehensive reconstruction of the ritual life of Daoist communities in medieval China. Chapter 1 draws on external historical accounts to offer an overview of the early days of the Celestial Masters movement in West China, an account of the life of the movement’s founder, Zhang Daoling 张道陵, and the subsequent establishment of the first Daoist theocracy in Hanzhong 漢中 by the Zhang clan. Chapter 2 sheds light on the same period through an analysis of internal Daoist sources such as revealed scriptures preserved in the Daoist Canon, to stele inscriptions and recently excavated sources, in an attempt to reveal how members of the church perceived and depicted their own history. Chapter 3 outlines the spread of the Daoist movement into north China after the fall of the Hanzhong theocracy in the 3rd century, and the measures taken by the church to reach a new audience of potential adherents, namely the increased focus on millenarian rhetoric and the production of new revealed texts. Chapter 4 continues to trace the transformation of Daoism from a localized movement to a universal religion with branches across China in the 4th to 6th centuries, and analyzes the impact of southern Chinese occult traditions and Buddhism on the formation of new Daoist texts and rituals. Chapter 5 introduces the basic features of Daoist architecture and ritual garments. Chapter 6 focuses on the Daoist citizen 民, the lowest rank in the congregation, and the most common Celestial Masters rituals—from the daily household audience ritual to the periodic assemblies and communal feasts that involved the entire community. Chapters 7 and 8 shed light on the rituals that accompany the ordination and training of novice priests and describes the various roles of libationers 祭酒, the parish priests as evangelists, directors of spirit revelations, judges, and pastors. In addition, they offer an analysis of the role of written formal documents such as registries and talismans in the community’s interaction with the divine realm.

One of the most noteworthy achievements of this book is its persuasive depiction of Celestial Masters religion as an organic movement that embraced and developed certain elements of Chinese religious culture while rejecting others. Opting against the traditional narrative of presenting religious Daoism as the intellectual successor of philosophical Daoism, namely the writings of Laozi 老子and Zhuangzi 莊子, Kleeman chooses instead to depict the Celestial Masters as but one group among the many new religious movements that emerged at the end of the Han dynasty. As such, they adopted some of the key features of early Chinese religion, such as the notion of divine revelation, a bureaucratic framework, and messianic rhetoric (10-13), while simultaneously striving to construct a distinct religious identity. As Kleeman convincingly demonstrates, membership in one of the early Daoist communities involved a complete break from popular religious activities such as blood sacrifices and included a total commitment to a strict and highly demanding set of beliefs and practices (242-43). At the same time, the values promoted by the Celestial Masters were not necessarily at odds with so-called “Confucian” principles such as morality, social hierarchy, and filial piety (108). Stressing this interplay between tradition and innovation as a key component of Daoist identity allows Kleeman to produce a nuanced description of this influential living religious tradition. Additionally, one of the greatest challenges scholars of Daoist religion face is the technical and often decidedly esoteric language of its scriptures. In Celestial Masters, Kleeman offers a meticulous yet highly readable rendition of key primary sources that have never been translated before, making them accessible to non-specialist readers. Chapters 5-8 present a virtual treasure trove of comprehensive descriptions of the various rules that governed daily life in the Celestial Masters congregations, the administrative organization of these communities, and the rituals that are still practiced by Daoist priests today, such as the production of talismans and the submission of petitions. As a highly bureaucratic religion with a complex administrative structure and highly specific rules of behavior, one cannot understand Daoism as a whole without understanding its particulars. Given the quality and richness of Kleeman’s scholarship, students and scholars of Chinese religion will undoubtedly rely on this book for accurate and comprehensive information on Daoist ritual and history in years to come.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Ori Tavor is a Lecturer in Pre-modern Chinese Studies at the Uiversity of Pennsylvania.

Date of Review: 
September 30, 2016
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Terry F. Kleeman is Professor of Chinese in the Department of Asian Languages and Civilizations at the University of Colorado at Boulder.


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