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Zhang Daoling 張道陵

Aug 9, 2017 © Ulrich Theobald

Zhang Daoling 張道陵 (34?-156? CE), also called Zhang Ling 張陵, was the founder of the School of the Five Pecks of Grain (wudoumi dao 五斗米道), the earliest school of religious Daoism. Zhang is also known with the epithet "Celestial Master" (tianshi 天師), and his movement is known as the School of the Celestial Masters (tianshi dao 天師道).

Zhang Daoling hailed from Feng 豐 (modern Fengxian 豐縣, Jiangsu) in the princedom of Pei 沛 and lived during the late Eastern Han period 東漢 (25-220 CE). The biographic collection Han tianshi shijia 漢天師世家 from the Ming period 明 (1368-1644) says that he was born in 34 CE and died in 156 (sic!). With the age of seven sui he began studying the teachings of the "Way" (dao 道). Yet the Song period 宋 (960-1279) encyclopaedia Taiping yulan 太平御覽 quotes from a Daoist text called Shangyuanbao jing 上元寶經 where it is said that he was a grand Confucian scholar he began engaging with Daoist teachings in 125 CE. According to the historiographical text Shuji 蜀記 he died between 172 and 178 CE.

The official dynastic histories Houhanshu 後漢書 and Sanguozhi 三國志 make only short comments about his life, and therefore, most statements about Zhang Daoling were created in a literary genre that loved to embellish historical facts with a lot of phantastic reports of supernatural events. It is for sure that he had indeed been a scholar who was educated in the traditional Confucian way, but in his older years recognized that the Confucian Classics were not of great help for one's private life.

He therefore began to care for prolonging his own life, a practice that was very common among the early Daoists. It is said that he obtained formular for the "cinnabar methods of the nine tripods of the Yellow Emperor" (Huangdi jiuding danfa 黄帝九鼎丹法), but he was too poor to practise these methods. He therefore made lis life as a cowherd or shepherd, and later on went to the province of Shu (modern Sichuan), where numerous "pure and magnanimous" (chunhou 純厚) persons lived that might teach him the mysteries of long life. Zhang Daoling went to Mt. Heming 鶴鳴山 (or Guming 鵠鳴山, near Dayi 大邑, Sichuan), where he cultivated the Dao and wrote down Daoist texts, the content of which had been tought to him by the Daoist saint Laozi 老子 himself.

Besides these studies, Zhang Daoling learned from the local population the art of healing and exorcism. Ge Hong's 葛洪 (283-343 or 363) book Shenxianzhuan 神仙傳 says that the people flocked to his dwellings and made him their master. His disciples counted more than a thousand. Zhang Daoling decided to divide his followers into twenty-four "parishes" (zhi 治) that were administered by libationers (jijiu 祭酒). The adherents had to pay taxes in the shape of grain, silk cloth and tools. The amount of grain to be paid was five pecks (dou 斗, see weights and measures) per year, and this is why his school was given this name. The local history Huayang guo zhi 華陽國志 also calls his teachings the "School of grain" (midao 米道).

In this way he had created a parallel administrative structure to the "worldy" administration of the empire and practically reigned over an independant kingdom in the region of Hanzhong, the mountain area between modern Sichuan and Shaanxi.

One of Zhang Daoling's most important teachings was the belief that illness was a punishment for sins committed at an earlier time. He therefore established rules for his adherents to live a sincere and integer life. Committed sins had to be confessed, to be written on a paper and to be thrown into a river. The sick would then swear to the deities never more to fail again or to repeat their "main faults" (shou guo 首過). In fear of illness therefore, the people in Zhang Daoling's own realm were very honest and trustworthy. Adherents of him were expected to regular assemble to meetings in their parishes where their households were registered and their conduct assessed.

The Celestial Master's most confident disciples were Wang Chang 王長 and Zhao Sheng 趙升, to whom he provided instruction about the methods of the cinnabar (pills) of the Nine Tripods. Zhang called his teachings the "alliance for the authority of the orthodox unity" (zhengyi mengwei zhi dao 正一盟威之道). This alliance aimed at the replacement of the "ancient breath" (guqi 故氣) by a new Daoist breath (daoqi 道氣). This could be achieved by formally submitting writings to the deities in order to evoke their work and by writing talismans and charms (fuzhou 符咒) to repel ghosts. The adherents of his school were obliged not to kill or to spill blood, nor to bring offerings for improper means. A honest conduct of life was to be accompanied with cultivation of the qi 氣 ("natural breath") in one's body, physical exercises (daoyin 導引), the art of the bedchamber ( 房中術), as well as outer alchemy (jindan 金丹) for the creation of pills of immortality.

Zhang Daoling wrote a book with 24 chapters, report about which is probably to be found in the stele inscription Miwu jijiu Zhang Pu tizi bei 米巫祭酒張普題字碑, where is talk of a "secret text" (weijing 微經) of twelve fascicles of length, and in the official dynastic history Weishu 魏書, which mentions a book on the "statutes of the Heavenly Officials" (tianguan zhangben 天官章本) or "regulations for the 1,200 officials" (qian'erbai guanyi 千二百官儀). Part of these texts might also have been included in the text Zhengyi fa wen jing zhang guanpin 正一法文經章官品. The chapter on Buddhism and Daoism (Shilao zhi 釋老志) in the Weishu explains that Zhang Daoling had created 1,200 administrative posts with 120 offices in the "Three Origins" (sanyuan 三元) and the nine directorates (jiufu 九府). This structure that was believed to correspond to the number and jurisdictional competences of spirits and deities.

The Daoist Canon Zhengtong Daozang 正統道藏 includes a book called Dongzhen huangshu 洞真黄書, which might be the same text as the book Huangshu 黄書 that was attributed to Zhang Daoling. The latter belongs to the tradition of the Orthodox Unity (zhengyi dao 正一道), and not to the Dongzhen 洞真 tradition, a branch of the Shangqing School 上清派. The latter knows the text Taiwei huangshu 太微黄書, which was transmitted by Xu Yuanyou 許遠游.

Two biographies of the Celestial master, Zhang Ling biezhuan 張陵别傳 and Zhenyi zhenren santian fashi Zhang Jun neizhuan 正一真人三天法師張君内傳 are lost.

Zhang Ling was always seen as a Daoist master who had become an immortal (xian 仙). The book Shenxianzhuan, for instance, says that he was able to ascend to Heaven in bright daylight, together with Zhao Sheng and Wang Chang. After his death his descendants inherited his position as Celestial Master and perpetuated his school. As the ancestor of the Zhang family he was always venerated as one of the most important early Daoist masters.

During the Southern Dynasties period 南朝 (420-589), he was given the canonical title Zhengyi zhenren santian fashi 正一真人三天法師 "Master of the Law of the Three Heavens, Perfect Man of the Orthodox Unity". He was highly estimated by the Tang dynasty emperor Xuanzong 唐玄宗 (r. 712-755) and was in 884 given the title Santian fujiao da fashi 三天扶教大法師. Emperor Huizong 宋徽宗 (r. 1100-1125) of the Song dynasty 宋 (960-1279), also an adherent of Daoism, bestowed upon him the canonical title Zhengyi jingying zhenjun 正一靜應真君. During the early Song period he was called Siantian fujiao fuyuan da fashi 三天扶教辅元大法師, and from 1239 on his title was enlarged to Santian fujiao fuyuan da fashi zhengyi deng ying xian you zhenjun 三天扶教輔元大法師正一等應顯佑真君, yet the Yuan dynasty 元 (1279-1368) reduced this lengthy name to the official canonical title Zhengyi chongyuan shenhua jingying xianyou zhenjun 正一冲元神化靜應顯佑真君.

Qing Xitai 卿希泰, ed. (1994). Zhongguo daojiao 中國道教 (Shanghai: Zhishi chubanshe), Vol. 1, 220.