The Taoists and the destruction of the temples of the popular religion

The Taoists and the destruction of the temples of the popular religion

Numerous authors have mentioned that, after the creation of Taoism as an indigenous religion capable of competing with Buddhism coming from India, it was accompanied by a process of integration of popular religious beliefs and at the same time the destruction of temples where nature spirits were worshipped, possibly because they were attributed a power over the control of natural forces in the region. Other cults were attacked for their bloody character.

In the Soushenji (In Search of Spirits), by Gan Bao[1], there is an account that clearly reflects this movement. It is the so-called Xie Fei and the temple visitors[2].

Xie Fei, the Taoist adept from Danyang, traveled to Shicheng to purchase an alchemical crucible. On his return he was benighted before he could reach home, but among the hills ahead he could see several buildings of a temple compound by the riverside. He entered one of these and prepared to spend the night. However, first he called out in a loud voice: “I am the envoy of the Heavenly Emperor himself spending the night here!” for he was disturbed and fearful that someone might steal his new crucible.
At second watch a visitor approached the gate of the temple and called out, “Ah-tong?”
Ah-tong responded, so the former said: “I detect a human essence in the temple. Who is it?”
“There is a man here who claims he is the envoy of the Heavenly Emperor/
After a moment that one left, but another visitor arrived, asked the same things as the first and got the same answer from Ah-tong. He also sighed and departed.
Xie Fei was so upset he could not sleep. He arose and called to Ah-tong: “Who were those visitors earlier on?”
“They were the white lizards living in the cave by waters’ edge.”
“What manner of creature are you, then?”
“The tortoise from the grotto north of the temple”
Xie Fei silently made note of this, and when dawn came he sought out a local resident: “No god resides in this temple,” said Fei, “All you have here are lizard and tortoise spirits for whom you furnish sacrificial foods and wine in vain. Get your picks and shovels—let us root them out and destroy them.”
The locals had long held suspicions about this temple’s god. They went together with Xie Fei, dug out the spirit creatures, and killed them. They then destroyed the temple, ended the sacrifices, and thereafter all was peaceful in that area.

The lizard is very popular in Chinese folk religion as it is considered one of the “Five Poisons”,  five deadly animals: the snake, centipede, scorpion, lizard, and toad. The Chinese believed that if they wore pictures of these animals, they would not be harmed by them. But lizards, though not related to water, has been considered to belong to the family of the dragon (Tian Shen 2017[3]). And among some tribes of eastern India and Southeast Asia they are sometimes substitutes for fish, other representations of the male sex, and sometimes even a symbol of death (Löffler 1968[4]).

The turtle is both an aquatic animal and a symbol of longevity. It is very possible, therefore, that the temple where this story takes place received cults from the local population, and was considered capable of providing the people with fertility, longevity and good harvests. And it would not be unusual for sacrifices to be offered to these animals. A concept already too backward for the Taoist masters, who take advantage of this knowledge to make the local population destroy them.

But these destructions were not very effective, because in the chronicles of Chinese history there are numerous accounts of the worship of animal species, especially numerous during the Song dynasty, when a whole new world of deities was created to replace the bloody cults of snakes and other beasts, whose altars were considered illicit, having reached on many occasions until the early twentieth century.

Image: A Chinese man offering a small lizard on a chopstick to an English guest who is reluctant to eat it. Coloured lithograph by Smith after himself. 3 May 1858. Part of: “Manners and customs of the Chinese”.


[1] Gan Bao. In Search of the Supernatural. The written record. Tradución de Kenneth De Woskin y J.I. Crump Jr. Stanford University Press. 1996.

[2] Gan Bao. Pag 233

[3] Tian Shen. Recognition of symbols in different cultures: Chinese culture vs. non-Chinese cultura. Iowa State University. 2017

[4] Lorenz G. Löffler. Beast, Bird, and Fish: An Essay in South-East Asian Symbolism. 1968.

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