An Encyclopaedia on Chinese History, Literature and Art

Lijia dao 李家道, the Way of the Li Lineage

Jun 18, 2011 © Ulrich Theobald

The Lijiadao 李家道 "Way of the Li Lineage" was one of the oldest religious Daoist schools. It was popular during the 3rd and 4th centuries CE. The founder and "patriarch" (zushi 祖師) of the tradition was a certain Li Babai 李八百 who came from Shu 蜀 (Sichuan). According to hagiography, he was an eight-hundred years old immortal, and therefore was given the name Babai "Eight hundred". He lived as a recluse in the mountains but sometimes appeared in the cities.

Li Babai instructed Tang Gongfang 唐公房 and later handed him over a book called Danjing 丹經 "Classic of immortality pills" before retiring into Mt. Yuntai 雲臺山. In the Daoist encylopaedia Yunji qiqian 雲笈七籤, his name is called Li Babo 李八伯 (apparently the name of a mountain peak? or meaning eight pines 八柏?). Babai might also mean that he was able to cover a way of 800 miles a day.

In the books Baopuzi 抱朴子 and Shenxianzhuan 神仙傳, a certain Li A 李阿 is named as the founder of the school. He lived in a mountain cave, and when people visited him for consultation, he did not answer, but the mood of his face changed according to the nature of the events to come. He is said to have been able to ascend to Heaven. One day, he suddenly disappeared. In the Shenxianzhuan, Li Babai and Li A are two different persons.

The name Li Babai might have served for several Daoist teachers to attract more attention. A certain Li Kuan 李寬, for example, migrated from the region of Shu to that of Wu 吳 in the lower Yangtze area. He produced talismans and charms which were to be burnt and taken as a medical potation against diseases. Among the population, he was said to be no one else than the famous Li A, and the whole population flocked to his house to be treated by him. Li Kuan, incarnation of Li A, became so famous that he was served by own retainers and had access to the imperial court. Li Kuan died by the plague.

The religious practice of the Li family – if it was a family – seemed to be very similar to that of the other contemporary schools, namely the healing by talismans, incantations, gymnastics (daoyin 導引) and certain breathing techniques (xingqi 行氣). The ceremonies took place in so-called "huts" (lu 廬). For certain exorcist sessions, animals were slaughtered, but apparently not in such a primitive method as it was common in the liturgy of the school of Bo He 帛和 (the Bo Lineage, Bojia dao 帛家道). The Li lineage for their convoked up social gatherings (chuhui 廚會) with several dozen persons participating.

The school was also much more widespread than the Bo school. Even members of the aristocracy took part in the sessions. At the beginning of the Eastern Jin period 東晉 (317-420), a certain Li Tuo 李脱, who had come from Zhongzhou 中州 to the capital Jianye 建鄴 (modern Nanjing 南京, Jiangsu) took over the leadership of the school. He appointed officials under his direction to take care for the adherents of his school. This was a practice quite similar to the worldly administration which the Celestial Masters School 天師道 had made use of.

Li Tuo is said, according to the collection Jixianlu 集仙錄, to have lived since hundreds of years. He had lived on Mt. Qixuan 棲玄山 in Guanghan 廣漢 where he produced pills of immortality. Later on he traveled to the five sacred summits (wuyue 五嶽) and crossed the sea to an island, where he was instructed by the Lord of the Purple Yang (Ziyang Jun 紫陽君). On the Longqiao Peak 龍橋峰 of Mt. Jintang 金堂山 he had learnt the skill to produce the nine pills in the golden tripod (jinding lian jiudan 金鼎煉九丹). The location where he finally learnt to become an immortal was called Mt. Sanxue 三學山 or Mt. Qixian 棲賢山.

Li Tuo was able turn stones into jade and sand into peals. Where he walked, rain coloured the clouds. He was said to have mounted a dragon to ascend to Heaven at the end of the Later Han period 後漢 (25-220). The places where he lived were "still existing" in the 4th century, and the walls of the spots he had lived "shone in gold". Li Tuo had a sister called Li Zhenduo 李真多. She also knew how to brew the pills of immortality and never lost her youth.

As a conclusion of all these stories it can be said that there was a tradition of a family called Li in Sichuan which might have produced several Daoist masters in the late 2nd century CE. When the belief in their teachings spread to northern and then eastern China, many priests seem to have adopted the names of older masters in order to attract more believers. Members of the Li family even seem to have been involved in political quarrels, like Li Hong 李弘, a brother of Li Tuo, who was killed in 324 together with his brother because of "improper conduct" (bu gui 不軌). Li Hong had participated in a rebellion against the Eastern Jin dynasty. During the whole Eastern Jin period there were even several political uprisings using whose leaders used the name of Li Hong. Similar practice was found on the territory of the Sixteen States 十六國 (300~430) in the north, and then also during the Southern Dynasties period 南朝 (420~589). Members of the family Li were seen as descendants of Laozi 老子, who had the personal name Li Dan 李聃.

Qing Xitai 卿希泰, ed. (1994). Zhongguo daojiao 中國道教 (Shanghai: Zhishi chubanshe), Vol. 1, 97-101.