An Encyclopaedia on Chinese History, Literature and Art

Shangqing pai 上清派, the School of Highest Clarity, and Maoshan zong 茅山宗, the Line of Mt. Maoshan

Aug 29, 2011 © Ulrich Theobald

The Dao of Highest Clarity (Shangqing dao 上清道) or School of Highest Clarity (Shangqing pai 上清派), also called the school or line of of Mt. Maoshan (Maoshan pai 茅山派, Maoshan zong 茅山宗) was one of the oldest Daoist traditions. "Shangqing" is the name of a celectial palace. Mt. Maoshan was the seat of its patriarchs. It began to spread with the compilation of the Shangqingjing 上清經 "Scripture(s) of Highest Clarity" during the mid-Eastern Jin period 東晉 (317-420).

According to Li Bo's 李渤 (773-831) book Zhenxizhuan 真系傳 (quoted in the Daoist encyclopaedia Yunji qiqian 雲笈七籤) and Tao Hongjing's 陶弘景 (456-536) Zhengao 真誥, these scriptures originated in the hands of Wang Bao 王褒, called Xicheng zhenren 西城真人 "Perfect Man of the Western City". Wang Bao transmitted his teachings to Wei Huacun 魏華存 (251-334), the wife of a certain Liu Wen 劉文 from the commandery of Jijun 汲郡. Wei Huacun became an immortal and was later venerated as the Woman of the Southern Peak 南嶽夫人 (Nanyue furen), spouse to the Zixu yuanjun 紫虛元君 "Primordial Lord of the Purple Voidness".

She is said to have descended from Heaven in the year 364 and handed over the set of writings to Yang Xi 楊羲 (331-386), who was a retainer of a high official at the court of the Prince of Langya 琅瑯王. These writings consisted of 31 scrolls of scriptures on the Highest Clarity, biographies of immortals, and miscellaneous precepts for self-cultivation.

Yang Xi brought these scriptures into human wording and transmitted it to Xu Mu 許穆 or Xu Mi 許謐 (305-376) from Danyang 丹陽, and the latter to Xu Hui 許翽 (341-370). Xu Hui's son Xu Linqu 許臨沮 ordered Xu Huangmin 許黄民 (361-430) to collect ancient writings on talismans and secret commands and obtained these in 402. Ma Lang 馬朗 and Ma Han 馬罕 revised this collection. At that time, there was a Daoist practicioner called Wang Lingqi 王靈期, who, together with his collegues, asked to be granted a copy of these writings. Wang brought these scriptures into a refined language and also seemed to have increased the text corpus so that the product of his editing work was more than 50 chapters long. This corpus was the canon of a new Daoist school. Yet Yin Sheng 殷盛, a disciple of Xu Huangmin, called this product a forgery and instigated a long-lasting internal quarrel about the orthodox scriptures.

Later on, his writings were known to Lu Xiujing 陸修静 (406-477), a master of the school of the Southern Celestial Masters 南天師道, who integrated the Shangqing corpus, along with the Lingbao "Numinous treasure" writings (Lingbaojing 靈寳經) and the "Three Emperors" writings (Sanhuangwen 三皇文), to the so-called "Three Caverns" (Sandong 三洞). Lu's bibliography Sandong jingshu mulu 三洞經書目錄 was the fundament of the traditional corpus of Shangqing writings.

Lu Xiujing transmitted the writings of the "Three Caverns" to his disciple Sun Youque 孫游岳 (398-489), and the latter to the famous Daoist writer Tao Hongjing. In 488 the Shangqing scriptures were transmitted to the Daoist communities on Mt. Maoshan 茅山, where they were enlarged by more than 10 juan.

Tao Hongjing himself soon entered the community there and adopted the title of Huayang yinju 華陽隱居 "Hidden scholar of the South". Tao Hongjing expanded Gu Huan's 顧歡 (425?-488?) book Zhenji 真迹 and described in detail how the Shangqing Tradition was revelated and formed a new school of Daoism. These desriptions are to be found in a chapter of his book Zhengao. He also compiled the book Dengzhen yinjue 登真隱訣 to describe the methods of the Shangqing School. Because Tao Hongjing, being the most important master of the Shangqing School, resided on Mt. Maoshan, the Shangqing School is also called the Maoshan Line.

Another writing by Tao Hongjing is Zhenling weiye tu 真靈位業圖. In this text he describes the positions and names of Daoist deities. Because of his systematisation of the Shangqing canon, Tao Hongjing is often seen as the real founder of the school. He was venerated by Emperor Wu 梁武帝 (r. 502-549) of the Liang dynasty 梁 (502-557), who granted him the title of Shanzhong zaixiang 山中宰相 "Grand Counsellor within the Mountains". Tao's canonic title is Master Zhenbai 貞白先生.

His disciple Wang Yuanzhi 王遠知 (528-635) was a teacher to Emperor Yang 隋煬帝 (r. 604-617) of the Sui dynasty 隋 (581-618) and also enjoyed the patronage of the Tang 唐 (618-907) emperor Gaozong 唐高宗 (r. 649-683). Emperor Xuanzong 唐玄宗 (r. 712-755), who was generally inclined to Daoism, venerated the Maoshan patriarchs and the Maoshan Daoist Wu Yun 吳筠 (d. 778), who is also known as a famous poet.

During the Song period 宋 (960-1279), the court was more inclined to support the Zhengyi School 正一道, but the patriarchs of the Maoshan Line never wholly lost imperial patronage, and especially the 25th patriarch Liu Hunkang 劉混康 (1036-1108) enjoyed the support by the emperors Zhezong 宋哲宗 (r. 1085-1100) and Huizong 宋徽宗 (r. 1100-1125). Emperor Shizong 元世宗 (i.e. Qubilai Khan, r. 1260-1294) of the Yuan dynasty 元 (1279-1368) also supported the various Daoist schools and granted the 44th and 45th patriarch the honorific title of zhenren 真人 "perfect man". The Maoshan Daoist Du Daojian 杜道堅 (1237-1318) was granted an audience by Emperor Shizu. The Daoist writer Zhang Yu 張雨 (1277-1348), also an adherent of the Maoshan school, was the last great personality of this tradition before it lost ist preeminent position in the late 14th century.

The earliest sacred writing of the Shangqing School was the 39 chapters long Shangqing dadong zhenjing 上清大洞真經. It was postulated that reading this book ten thousand times would directly lead to immortality. In the Daoist Canon Daozang 道藏, this book is 6-juan long. This version is the product of a revision by the 38th patriarch Jiang Zongying 蔣宗瑛 (d. 1281) from the Southern Song period 南宋 (1127-1279). Jiang is said to have ascended to Heaven into the land of Highest Clarity (Shangqing), a realm with a higher position than the Heaven of Greatest Clarity (Taiqing 太清), to which the adherents of the Heavenly Masters school (Tianshidao 天師道) ascended.

The Shangqing School departed from the former practice of incantations and drinking the ashes of burnt talismans. Instead, it focused on the cultivation of the "inner landscape" (neijing 内景) of the body by concentrating on the inner spirits and the circulation of energy (xing qi 行氣). The concept of contemplation on the inner spirits (cunsi 存思 or cunxiang 存想) is a typical method of cultivation and refining (xiulianfa 修煉法). It appears first in the book Huangting neijing jing 黄庭内景經 that was compiled during the Three Empires 三國 (220-280) or the Jin 晉 (265-420) period. The Huangtingjing is a very important writing concerning the understanding of the concept of zang 臟 and fu 腑 viscera in Chinese medicine. The book says that all vessels and organs in the human body were controlled by deities or spirits (shen 神), and it was necessary to contemplate about the existence and the effects of these spirits in order to preserve and nourish them. For real practice, the Huangtingjing is far too abstract and also includes errors concerning the treatment, but it is an important collection of early knowledge about the relationship between the parts of the body and the outer world, mainly sun, moon and the 24 starry constellations. The essence of these spirits hast o be preserved inside the body, and the spirits should not spread out.

Table 1. The Seven Highest Deities of the Shangqing School
元始虛皇天尊 Yuanshi xu huang tianzun The August Heavenly Venerated One of the Voidness of the Primordial Origin
太上玉晨大道君 Taishang yuchen dadao jun Lord of the Great Way of the Grand Supreme Jade Clearness
太微天帝大道君 Taiwei tiandi dadao jun Lord of the Great Way, Celestial Emperor of the Grand Profoundness
後聖玄元上道君 Housheng xuanyuan shangdao jun Latter Saint, Lord of the Supreme Way of the Mysterious Origin
上相青童道君 Shangxiang qingtong daojun Lord of the Way, Azure Lad, Supreme Minister
上宰總真道君 Shangzai zongzhen daojun Lord of the Way of Thorough Perfectness, Supreme Counsellor
小有清虛道君 Xiaoyou qingxu daojun Lord of the Way in Decent Possession of the Clear Voidness

The Maoshan Line of patriarchs is continuing today. The book Zhu zhenzongpai zongbu 諸真宗派總簿 lists branches of the Shangqing School, named after the Three Masters of Mt. Maoshan (Sanmao 三茅), namely the Qingwei School 清微派, the School of the Second Mao 二茅派, the Jingyi School 靜一派, and the Gaoshang School 高上派. There is also a Yanzu School 閻祖派 that emerged in the late 17th century. This school was founded by Yan Xiaofeng 閻曉峰 who as actually a master of the Longmen Branch 龍門派 of the Quanzhen Church 全真宗. With his take-over of the patriarchy of the Maoshan school, the Quanzhen and the Shanging schools merged into one "modern" Daoist tradition.

The earliest teachers of the Shangqing School were all members of the gentry and had experienced a good education. They were therefore able to attract the interest of the aristocracy and found many adherents among the upper class and at the court. This tendency was supported by the discarding of "primitive" practices like the use of talismans (fulu 符 籙), fasting rituals (zhaijiao 齋醮), the consumption of "outer" alchemist materials (waidan 外丹) and the art of the bedchamber (fangzhong shu 房中術). The popular religion of early Daoism had become attractive for all parts of society. The Shangqing or Maoshan school was venerated by all emperors, but especially during the Sui and Tang periods.

Li Yangzheng 李養正, ed. (1993). Daojiao shouce 道教手冊 (Zhengzhou: Zhongzhou guji chubanshe), 100-102.
Qing Xitai 卿希泰, ed. (1994). Zhongguo daojiao 中國道教 (Shanghai: Zhishi chubanshe), Vol. 1, 102-104.