An Encyclopaedia on Chinese History, Literature and Art

Bei tianshi dao 北天師道, the Northern Way of the Celestial Masters

Jun 18, 2011 © Ulrich Theobald

Bei tianshi dao 北天師道, the Northern Way of the Celestial Masters, was a school of religious Daoism which flourished between the fourth and the sixth centuries in northern China. Like its counterpart in southern China, Nan tianshi dao 南天師道, it originated in the School of the Celestial Masters (Tianshi dao 天師道), which can be called the first state-protected movement of religious Daoism in China.

The Northern Way was founded by Kou Qianzhi 寇謙之 (365-447), who adopted the title of Celestial Master and preached Daoism in the Northern Wei empire 北魏 (386-534). He ascertained to have encountered Laozi 老子, whose title as a deity was Taishang Laojun 太上老君. The deity gave him a voluminous book called Yunzhong yinsong xinke zhi jie 雲中音誦新科之誡 "Adhortations for new precepts chanted inmidst the coulds". This scripture gave instructions for reforming the old teachings.

In 423 Kou is said to have been visited by Li Pu 李譜, a descendant of Laozi who instructed him with the scripture Lingtu zhenjing 靈圖真經 "Perfect book of the numinous charts". Kou Qianzhi presented this book to the imperial court. By this means he prevented that anyone might see his school as a movement with a potential for rebellion, as might be assumed from the history of the early Daoist movements like the Five-Pecks-of-Grain School (Wudoumi dao 五斗米道), or the rebellious leaders Sun En 孫恩 (d. 402) and Lu Xun 盧循 (d. 411) in southern China. Kou Qianzhi therefore planned to cooperate with the government. Former rebellions of Daoist groups were declared as having been without proper social conduct in the Confucian as well as in the Daoist sense.

For ceremonial purposes, Kou borrowed Confucian terms like filial piety (xiao 孝), loyalty (zhong 忠) or righteousness (ren 仁) in order to comply with the common state doctrine. He also renounced the old method of the school to tax its own population in kind (five pecks of grain), as well as the "obscene" practice that men and women "joined their breath" (nannü heqi 男女合氣). Adherents of the school were expected to obey worldly laws, which were transferred into the religious sphere. Ritual session during which the Daoist writings were chanted, accompanied with ritual music, the preparation of talismans and exorcist potions, medical treatment, divination and meditation about prolonging the life became common rituals of the Northern Celestial Masters school.

This transformation of the "wild" Celestial Masters tradition of earlier times was called the Northern Celestial Masters Tradition (Bei tianshi dao 北天師道) or "New Way" (Xin tianshi dao 新天師道). In the new shape, the school was protected by the dynasty. A large, five-storey altar was erected outside the capital, and the government supported a large number of clerical personnel to perform the necessary rituals and sessions. In 440, Emperor Taiwu 太武帝 (r. 423-451) even changed, upon suggestion of Kou Qianzhi, the reign motto to Taiping zhenjun 太平真君 "Perfect Lord of the Great Peace". Under Emperor Xiaowen 孝文帝 (r. 471-499). The Daoist state altar was transferred to the southern periphery, where usually Heaven was venerated. This was done in order to give it an extraordinary status as state religion.

When the empire of the Northern Wei was divided, both the Eastern Wei 東魏 (534-550) and the Western Wei 西魏 (535-556) established their own altars for the Celestial Masters school. The heritage of the Northern Masters School was taken over by the Shangqing "School of Supreme Purity" 上清派 and Lingbao "Numinous Treasure School" 靈寳派.

Li Yangzheng 李養正, ed. (1993). Daojiao shouce 道教手冊 (Zhengzhou: Zhongzhou guji chubanshe), 92-93, 94-96.
Qing Xitai 卿希泰, ed. (1994). Zhongguo daojiao 中國道教 (Shanghai: Zhishi chubanshe), Vol. 1, 84-91.