Wang Chongyang Founds Quanzhen Daoism

The founding of Quanzhen (Complete Perfection) Daoism by Wang Chongyang helped revitalize Daoism and represented a major religious movement in China. Its impact on Chinese thinking and life can still be felt today.

Summary of Event

Quanzhen (Complete Perfection) Daoism was founded by Wang Chongyang (also known as Wang Zhe, or Wang Che) in northern China in the mid-twelfth century, a time characterized by political disunity and wars among the Chinese regime of the Song Dynasty (Sung; 960-1279), the Jurchen state of Jin (Chin; 1115-1234), and the Mongols, as well as ethnic tensions, especially in northern China. Wang’s time also was one of religious and intellectual changes, including the decline of Daoist outer alchemy and the growth of Daoist inner alchemy, the prospering of neo-Confucianism, and an increase in the interaction among Daoism, Buddhism, and Confucianism. Religion;China
[kw]Wang Chongyang Founds Quanzhen Daoism (12th century)
[kw]Quanzhen Daoism, Wang Chongyang Founds (12th century)
Wang Chongyang
Quanzhen Daoism
China;12th cent.: Wang Chongyang Founds Quanzhen Daoism[1800]
Religion;12th cent.: Wang Chongyang Founds Quanzhen Daoism[1800]
Philosophy;12th cent.: Wang Chongyang Founds Quanzhen Daoism[1800]
Wang Chongyang

Wang Chongyang came from a rich family in Shaanxi Province and was educated in Confucianism during his early years. After repeated failures in pursuing an official career, Wang turned to Daoism, claiming that he had been taught a secret formula by a mystic in 1159. In 1161, he left his family and began to practice Daoism in a cave located in a village on Mount Zhongnan. In 1167, Wang traveled to Shandong peninsula, where he formally started preaching Quanzhen Daoism. He conducted his preaching activities among people of various social strata and often used poetry and songs in his preaching, which proved appealing and persuasive. Wang recruited seven adepts from rich and scholarly backgrounds as disciples; they became the backbone of the Quanzhen Daoist movement. By 1169, Wang had set up five Quanzhen Daoist societies in Shandong peninsula. Wang wrote about one thousand poems and Jinguan yusuo jue (twelfth century; formula on the golden bolt and the jade chain), a text in which he enunciated the basic doctrines of Quanzhen Daoism.

After Wang’s death, his disciples extended their preaching activities beyond Shandong to the rest of northern China, particularly Hebei, Shaanxi, and Henan Provinces, and established their own schools. Quanzhen Daoism formally gained official recognition in 1187 when the Jin emperor summoned one of Wang’s disciples to the imperial court. Quanzhen Daoism reached its peak during the Mongol Yuan Dynasty Yuan Dynasty;Quanzhen Daoism in (1279-1368), when the numbers of its temples and followers increased rapidly. It remains one of the major Daoist schools in present-day China, with its headquarters in the White Cloud Temple in Beijing.

Quanzhen Daoism is generally believed to represent a synthesis of Confucianism, Buddhism, and Daoism. Wang Chongyang stressed that the three schools belonged to the same family, were like three branches of the same tree, and were equal. He made friends with Confucian scholars and Buddhist monks and advised his followers to read the scriptures of all three schools. In addition, Wang integrated some key ideas of Confucianism and the Chan school of Buddhism into Quanzhen Daoism, especially those about cultivation of the mind and one’s inner nature.

Despite the influence of Confucianism and Buddhism, Wang remained fundamentally a Daoist adept and Quanchen Daoism a Daoist school, which inherited the basic concepts and beliefs of both philosophical Daoism represented by Laozi (Lao-tzu; 604-sixth century b.c.e.) and Zhuangzi (Chuang-tzu; c. 365-290 b.c.e.)—nothingness, tranquility, abandonment of desires—and religious Daoism—immortality and golden elixir. Quanzhen Daoism evolved directly from inner alchemy (neidan), a sect of religious Daoism. Inner alchemy Alchemy;China emerged late in the Tang Dynasty (T’ang; 618-907) and matured in the Song Dynasty (Sung; 960-1279). It represented a negation of outer alchemy, another sect of religious Daoism. Outer alchemy focused on taking a specific chemical substance—a golden elixir produced from lead and mercury and other minerals—as the principal technique for achieving immortality. This caused the premature death of many practitioners, including some emperors, because the golden elixirs were often poisonous. Daoist adepts turned instead to inner alchemy, which emphasized physiological and mental training as the way to reach immortality. The materials needed for inner alchemical training do not come from outside but from inside a person’s body. Invisible and untouchable, these materials include energy (jing), breath (qi), and spirit (shen). In inner alchemical training, one maneuvers or reorganizes these ingredients through imagination or contemplation. Inner alchemy split into two groups, one giving priority to physiological training (training of the body) and the other underscoring mental training (training of the mind). Quanzhen Daoism belongs to the latter group.

Wang Chongyang and his followers believed in immortality and regarded its achievement as their ultimate goal. They believed that people suffered in life and in hell after death. To avoid suffering, people should try to become immortals through training in Daoism. Every person has the potential to be an immortal, because everyone is endowed with the true inner nature (zhenxing), which is associated with the mind. To discover (or illuminate) and maintain this true inner nature is the key to becoming immortal. Training of the mind requires a person to keep his or her mind absolutely “pure and tranquil” (qing jing), free from all kinds of defilement and worldly attachments. Eventually, the trainee will reach a point at which his or her true inner nature is illuminated or revealed. This true inner nature was identified by Wang as the golden elixir needed for immortality. Wang insisted that some people got sick and died while still young because they were obsessed with worldly concerns or desires, causing their minds to be impure and not still, and destroying their energy.

Although primarily concerned with training of the mind, Wang also acknowledged the necessity of training the body because he felt it to be closely linked to the training of the mind. The techniques, which include quiet sitting and guiding the movement of breath (yunqi) along certain imagined channels within the body, are supposed to strengthen one’s internal energy or prevent it from leaking, thus maintaining health and achieving longevity.

Wang and his followers regarded passion and family life as major obstacles to achieving the illumination of one’s true inner nature and hence immortality. They viewed the family to be a jail and the husband-wife relationship as chains, and they compared children to wolves, tigers, and leopards. They encouraged people to abandon their families and to pursue and concentrate on Daoism. However, Quanzhen Daoists did not utterly negate ethics related to family and other worldly matters nor did they insist on an absolutely seclusive life. For instance, Wang advised people to observe such Confucian values as loyalty to rulers, obedience to laws, benevolence, filial piety to parents, respect for teachers, and altruism. In Wang’s opinion, doing good deeds by following these values is an integral component of the training aimed at achieving immortality. In addition, Wang also asked his followers to study medicine to save people’s lives. Many Quanzhen Daoist adepts indeed followed his teachings and worked among lower-class people.


The new school of Quanzhen Daoism contributed significantly to the revitalization of Daoism by integrating Buddhist and Confucian beliefs into Daoism, stressing inner alchemical cultivation, and publicizing Daoism among the common people. Since its founding, Quanzhen Daoism has influenced Chinese thought and life. People, particularly scholars and scholar-officials, adopted Quanzhen Daoism’s physiological and mental training as a way to improve their health and prevent diseases. Generally, intellectuals proved more interested in mental training, while working people were more fond of physiological training. Quanzhen Daoism probably also affected traditional Chinese medicine, given that they share some basic beliefs, for example, that health depends, among other things, on peace of mind and nourishment of one’s internal energy.

Further Reading

  • Kohn, Livia, ed. Taoist Meditation and Longevity Techniques. Ann Arbor: Center for Chinese Studies, University of Michigan Press, 1989. Includes some chapters on Daoist techniques for physiological and mental training. Mentions Quanzhen Daoism.
  • Kuang, Guoqiang. “Quanzhen Daoism’s Doctrine on Mind and Inner Nature.” In Study of Daoist Culture, edited by Chen Guying. Shanghai: Shanghai Ancient Works Press, 1996. Examines Wang’s views on inner alchemical cultivation, particularly on training of the mind.
  • Ren, Jiyu, ed. A History of Chinese Daoism. Beijing: Chinese Social Sciences Press, 2001. Contains a chapter about the origins and doctrines of Quanzhen Daoism.
  • Zhang, Guangbao. Inner Alchemical Daoism During Tang and Song Dynasties. Shanghai: Shanghai Cultural Press, 2001. Examines the origins, evolution, and doctrines of inner alchemy, providing valuable information about the background of the rise of Quanzhen Daoism.