Zhang Daoling Founds the Celestial Masters Movement Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

Zhang Daoling received a mandate from Lord Lao and founded the Celestial Masters movement, the first organized sect of Daoism.

Summary of Event

Zhang Daoling was a fortune-teller in southwestern China’s Sichuan Province. In 142 c.e., Zhang had a vision, in which Laojun (Laozi), the deified founder of the Daoist religion, revealed that Zhang was to serve as the spiritual link between earth and heaven. As patriarch on earth of the faithful, he was to be given the title of Celestial Master and granted the authority to establish and rule a community of believers that would be saved at the end of the world because of its faith. Awakening from his vision, Zhang carried out the instructions of Laojun, and in doing so, he fundamentally changed the direction of the religion of Daoism and therefore the course of Chinese history. Zhang Daoling Laozi Cao Cao

Daoism is one of the three great religions of China, the other two being Confucianism and Buddhism. The religion venerates the thoughts and teachings of Laozi, a legendary sage who may not have really existed. Daoists believe that Laozi was a god who descended to earth to be born as a human and spent his time in the world delivering his mission of living with dao, or the Way. After several decades on earth, Laozi was said to have “ridden off to the West,” this being a metaphor for transcending the physical world and returning to the spiritual realm. After he did so, followers gave him the deified name of Laojun.

In its initial phases, the religion took as its focus two main books: the Dao De Jing (possibly sixth century b.c.e., probably compiled late third century b.c.e.; The Speculations on Metaphysics, Polity, and Morality of “the Old Philosopher, Lau-Tsze,” 1868; better known as the Dao De Jing), a complex work that uses anecdotes about Laozi to describe the dao, and the Zhuangzi (traditionally c. 300 b.c.e., probably compiled c. 285-160 b.c.e.; The Divine Classic of Nan-hua, 1881; also known as The Complete Works of Chuang Tzu, 1968; commonly known as Zhuangzi, 1991), a collection of stories about the philosopher Zhuangzi, which often evoke metaphysical descriptions of the world. Believers used meditation techniques and special diets to achieve longevity and ultimately live in peaceful harmony with the world around them.

Daoists believe in the purity of things unconstrained by human manipulation. A recurring theme in Daoism is that of the “uncarved” block, signifying the purity of things before they are manipulated. Whereas Confucianists believed that rules were necessary for order and harmony, Daoists advocated as few rules as possible to achieve precisely the same end. A common Daoist saying is that “the Dao does nothing, yet leaves nothing undone.” Adherents believed that to attempt any action without the Way was futile, but acting in accordance with the Way allowed graceful and simple solutions to problems.

Zhang Daoling’s mandate came during the end of the Han Dynasty (206 b.c.e.-220 c.e.), which many in China viewed as a millenarian event. By establishing a separate “heavenly” kingdom, it would be certain that those living with the Way would be spared in the next world. Over the next fifty years, the community established by Zhang Daoling evolved into a fully fledged state, with tax levies and an independent monetary system. Initially the religious founders accepted offerings of five pecks of rice in exchange for their instruction, leading to the name that the movement first took: Wudoumi Dao, or Five Pecks of Rice Dao. However, as the sect prospered and evolved its own bureaucracy and legal system, it took the name of Zhengyi, or True Path, before finally settling on Tianshi, Celestial Masters. At the height of the community, perhaps as many as 500,000 people lived in Sichuan as adherents to the Tianshi.

The final collapse of the Han Dynasty in 220 c.e. signaled the evolution of China into the Three Kingdoms, a period that heralded an age of chivalry and romance. The famous novel written about this period, San guo zhi yan yi (fourteenth century c.e.; San Kuo: Or, Romance of the Three Kingdoms, 1925, known as Romance of the Three Kingdoms) by Luo Guanzhong (Lo Kuan-chung), covers some of the more impressive events, but the history has remained much more complicated and interesting than the fiction. The collapse of the Han had two separate but equally important ramifications to the development of Daoism.

The first movement came from the intellectual class, who with the collapse of the Han had become disillusioned with Confucianism. The escape that was permitted them in Daoism was to concern themselves with alchemy, the search for immortality, and the ability to perfect their bodies through diets and exercise. The ability to co-opt the intellectual class was an important precursor to the religion’s gaining greater appeal.

The second development was that Zhang Daoling’s creation of a Daoist state in Sichuan became politically important to the new would-be dynasts. The warlords of the Three Kingdoms were each attempting to prove that they had inherited the mandate of heaven, which had been lost by the Han, and were therefore the rightful rulers of China. Zhang Daoling’s Daoist state, which had by this time come into the control of his grandson, Zhang Lu, allied itself to the warlord of the Wei state, Cao Cao. Grasping this opportunity to receive a heavenly mandate, Cao Cao took control of the state, moving some of the population to his capital but leaving others in place. Daoism received imperial investiture and many of the Celestial Masters were enfeoffed.

With resources and time, the religious elite were able to establish and collate a canon for the religion that would allow its faithful to be able to discuss doctrine with Buddhism, a creed that entered China with a full and rich body of religious literature. The ability to set down and design its canon was a significant outcome for the Tianshi. In China, where the written text is all but revered, a canon was important to the intellectual classes.

One key difference between the Daoist canon and the Buddhist canon was the number and type of texts. In the Buddhist canon, numerous sutras, or parables about the Buddha, could be added as later patriarchs of the faith composed new prayers; however, the Daoist canon had only two main texts: the Dao De Jing and the Zhuangzi.

In addition to allowing stronger interaction with the Buddhist community, the written Daoist canon paved the way for the future growth of the religion. The Tianshi movement eventually gave way to the Shangqing (Highest Clarity) school, and finally the Lingbao (Numinous Treasure or Sacred Jewel) school. Today, Daoism draws from all three traditions, but has again melded with numerous animist traditions from both Buddhism and other Chinese folk traditions. Although Daoism survives in a distinct organized form in Taiwan, in mainland China, the religion’s mixing with Buddhism—which produced the Chan, or Zen, school of Buddhism—has obscured the distinct thought process and value system that coalesced under Zhang Daoling’s Celestial Masters.


The revelation of Zhang Daoling inspired him to lay the foundation for one of the most deep-rooted and spiritual of Chinese religions. The revelation of Laozi to Zhang Daoling occupies in the history of Daoism a similar position to that of the visions of Paul on the road to Tarsus in Christianity or that of the revelation granted to the Prophet Muḥammad in Islam. Each event was characterized by a sudden awakening of the individual with regard to his religion; and the subsequent actions of each individual forever changed the direction of his faith.

In the case of Daoism, the establishment of an organized religious state served two main purposes. First, it permitted a loose affiliation of practitioners to become a nationally recognized religion with great political control. The need for national communication led to the creation of a codified Daoist canon, which enabled the religion to begin comparing its beliefs to that of Buddhism. Second, Daoism came to be placed in a position nearly equal to Confucianism, which ensured the religion’s long-term success. Although Buddhism would briefly become the dominant faith in China, it was continually criticized as an “alien” religion, whereas Confucianism and Daoism could point to their Chinese heritage as irrefutable proof of their pedigree.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bokenkamp, Stephen R. Early Daoist Scriptures. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997. An introduction to and translation of many of the most famous texts from the three traditions included in the Daoist canon.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Graham, A. C. Disputers of the Tao. Chicago: Open Court Publishing, 1989. Graham’s book is subtitled “philosophical argument in ancient China” and includes many sections on the debates between Confucianists and Daoists as well as an excellent bibliography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Henricks, Robert G. Lao Tzu’s “Tao Te Ching.” New York: Columbia University Press, 2000. A translation of a version of the Dao De Jing discovered in a tomb in Guodian in 1993. The bamboo-slip copy of the Guodian Dao De Jing is the earliest version known, interred in the third century b.c.e.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Lynn, Richard John. A New Translation of the “Tao-te Ching” of Laozi as Interpreted by Wang Bi. New York: Columbia University Press, 1999. Lynn translates and offers a new interpretation of the Wang Bi version of the Dao De Jing, which is today the most predominantly studied version of the text.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Robinet, Isabelle. Taoism: Growth of a Religion. Translated by Phyllis Brooks. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1997. A masterful survey of the history of Daoism, from c. 300 b.c.e. to c. 1400 c.e.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Schipper, Kristofer. The Taoist Body. Translated by Karen C. Duval. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993. An insight into the thought systems and popular values of the Daoist religion in everyday life in China.
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Cao Cao; Laozi; Wang Bi; Zhuangzi. Celestial Masters movement

Categories: History