The Rise of the Tao
By IAN JOHNSON
“Tomorrow,” she said slowly, calculating the logistics. “They don’t have much ready. . . .” Fortunately, a dozen of her nuns had followed her up the path. Dressed in white tunics and black trousers, their hair in topknots, the nuns enthusiastically began unpacking everything they would need for the next day’s ceremony: 15 sacred scriptures, three golden crowns, three bells, two cordless microphones, two lutes, a zither, a drum, a cymbal and a sword. Soon the nuns were plucking and strumming with the confidence of veteran performers. Others set up the altar and hung their temple’s banner outside, announcing that for the next few days, Abbess Yin’s exacting religious standards would hold sway on this mountain.
The temple she was to consecrate was born of more worldly concerns. Mount Yi is in a poor part of China, and Communist Party officials had hit upon tourism as a way to move forward. They fenced in the main mountain, built a road to the summit and declared it a scenic park. But few tourists were willing to pay for a chance to hike up a rocky mountain. Enter religion. China is in the midst of a religious revival, and people will pay to visit holy sites. So the local government set out to rebuild the temple, which was wrecked by Red Guards during the Cultural Revolution, modestly rebuilt then torn down when the park was first constructed.
Officials commissioned a 30-foot statue of the Jade Emperor, had it hauled to the peak and encased in the brilliant red pavilion. They then built a bell and a drum tower, as well as another set of halls devoted to minor deities.
All that was missing was a soul. For that, the temple had to be properly consecrated. The officials got in touch with Abbess Yin, widely regarded as a leading expert in Taoist ritual, and soon she was driving the 350 miles from her nunnery to Mount Yi.
As her rehearsals drew to a close, the abbess went over the next day’s schedule with a local official. All was in good shape, he said, except for one detail. Government officials were due to give speeches at 10:30 a.m. She would have to be finished by then, he said.
“No,” she replied. “Then it won’t be authentic. It takes four hours.” Could she start earlier and wrap up by then? No, the sun won’t be in the right position, she replied. The official peered up from the schedule and took a good look at her — who was this?
Abbess Yin smiled good-naturedly. At a little over five feet tall, she was solidly built, with a full, smooth face tanned from spending much of her life outdoors in the mountains. Her dress was always the same plain blue robe, and she did not wear jewelry or display other signs of wealth. She shunned electronics; her temple did not have a phone or Internet access. But over the past 20 years she had accomplished a remarkable feat, rebuilding her own nunnery on one of Taoism’s most important mountains. Unlike the temple here on Mount Yi — and hundreds of others across China — she had rejected tourism as a way to pay for the reconstruction of her nunnery, relying instead on donors who were drawn to her aura of earnest religiosity. She knew the real value of an authentic consecration ceremony and wasn’t about to back down.
The official tried again, emphasizing the government’s own rituals: “But they have planned to be here at 10:30. The speeches last 45 minutes, and then they have lunch. It is a banquet. It cannot be changed.”
She smiled again and nodded her head: no. An hour later the official returned with a proposal: the four-hour ceremony was long and tiring; what if the abbess took a break at 10:30 and let the officials give their speeches? They would cut ribbons for the photographers and leave for lunch, but the real ceremony wouldn’t end until Abbess Yin said so. She thought for a moment and then nodded: yes.
RELIGION HAS LONG played a central role in Chinese life, but for much of the 20th century, reformers and revolutionaries saw it as a hindrance holding the country back and a key reason for China’s “century of humiliation.” Now, with three decades of prosperity under their belt — the first significant period of relative stability in more than a century — the Chinese are in the midst of a great awakening of religious belief. In cities, yuppies are turning to Christianity. Buddhism attracts the middle class, while Taoism has rebounded in small towns and the countryside. Islam is also on the rise, not only in troubled minority areas but also among tens of millions elsewhere in China.