How to become a Daoist: Transmission and Ordination in Early Medieval Daoism

Talk by Terry Kleeman, University of Colorado

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Like most new religions, the Way of the Celestial Master, founded in the mid-second century of our era, was an evangelical faith that sought to save the world by converting its profane inhabitants to the true way. For this reason, there is a strong focus in early Daoist documents on conversion of individuals and their incorporation into the membership as citizens of the Dao (Daomin 道民). In fact, the movement experienced explosive growth over the next two hundred fifty years, as it came to cover all of Sichuan, then all of North China, and finally, after 317, all of China. This talk will examine how individuals and families were recruited for membership in the Celestial Master church, how they were evaluated for promotion and progressed through the ranks, the rituals used to initiate and ordain them at various levels, and the codes of conduct that they accepted along with their ranks and statuses. In this way, we can get some sense of what it meant to turn away from popular religious practice and join into this new fellowship of the Heavenly People (tianren 天人), to live under different rules worshipping strange new gods, and to share in the hope that they would be chosen as Seed People who would repopulate the world of Great Peace that was sure to arise from the ashes of the destruction, warfare, plague, and calamity that surrounded them.

Terry Kleeman received his M.A. from the University of British Columbia in 1979 and his Ph.D. in Oriental Languages from the University of California, Berkeley, in 1988. As a graduate student, he studied at National Taiwan University (1976-77); Taishō University (Tokyo, 1979-81); and the École Pratique des Hautes-études (Sorbonne, 1986-87). He taught at the University of Pennsylvania, the University of Minnesota, and the College of William and Mary before joining the University of Colorado in 1998. His research focuses on Chinese religion and thought, especially medieval religious Daoism and popular religion, as well as Chinese ethnic history, the local history of Southwest China, East Asian new religions, and Chinese archaeology. Major publications include A God’s Own Tale (SUNY Press, 1994), Great Perfection: Religion and Ethnicity in a Chinese Millennial Kingdom (Hawaii, 1998), and Celestial Masters: History and Ritual in Early Daoist Communities (Harvard East Asia Center, 2016).

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Published: Friday, April 15, 2016