UBC Faculty Research and Publications

Shenxiao 神霄 ("Divine Empyrean") Daoism Edwards, Nina; Hamm, Matthew


This entry follows the approach of the scholar, David Mozina by addressing Shenxiao Daoism from two angles: a 12th century textual lineage and a contemporary practice in Hunan that identifies with that lineage. It does so in the hope of illuminating aspects of both lineages. However, it is important to emphasize that this does not imply direct historical continuity, but simply highlights apparently similar threads within Daoism’s religious history. To further clarify these two angles, each comment is contextualized with a note regarding time period and three different time ranges are used: 1117-1127 for the initial florescence of Shenxiao in the Song dynasty, 1990-2022 for contemporary ritual practices, and 1117- 2022 for answers that pertain to both time periods or to works of the textual lineage that persisted for centuries. It should be noted that the 1990-2022 time-frame corresponds to the period of ritual revival in Hunan following the Cultural Revolution, though the practices in question may date to as early as the mid18th century.// Shenxiao 神霄 ("Divine Empyrean") Daoism is a branch of Daoism that emerged suddenly in the early part of the 12th century in the Northern Song dynasty during the reign of Emperor Huizong 徽宗 (1100-1118 CE). The emperor himself is often revered as the founder of Shenxiao.// Shenxiao’s emergence was part of the rise of Thunder Rites (leifa 雷法), Daoist rituals that began to appear in the tenth century and that relied on Thunder Deities (leishen 雷神) to accomplish various goals such as rain-making and exorcism. It is these Thunder Rites that are still practiced in Hunan province.// A key feature of the Shenxiao cosmology is that, although it envisions a bureaucratic cosmos similar to other Daoist lineages, it places great emphasis on the oaths that deities make with one another and with human ritualists. This emphasis on cooperation as opposed to simply bureaucratic hierarchy suggests a greater sense of the subjective agency of both deities and humans than other branches of Daoism. This emphasis extends to the practice of Thunder Rites wherein Shenxiao practitioners make oaths with Thunder Deities and cultivate the primordial qi of their “spirits” (shen 神) through Inner Alchemy in order to establish equitable partnerships with the Thunder Deities that empower their rituals. //The court ritual master, Lin Lingsu, is credited with the innovation of synthesizing inner alchemical techniques (neidan) with the exorcistic power of Thunder Deities. In 1115, Huizong appointed the ritual master, Lin Lingsu as the court's highest-ranking Daoist. Lin Lingsu won this position by claiming that there was a 9th layer of the heavens (the Divine Empyrean) that was inhabited by deities superior to those of the other layers (which were understood as the sources of the teachings of other Daoist schools). Lin Lingsu further claimed that Huizong was the incarnation of the highest Shenxiao deity, the True King Jade Clarity, Great Emperor of Eternal Life (yuqing zhenwang changsheng dadi 神霄玉清真王長生大帝) who had taken earthly form in order to bring the Dao to all parts of the world. Lin Lingsu further claimed that a number of other court personages and intimates of Huizong were also reincarnations of Shenxiao deities and that he, Lin Lingsu, was the incarnation of a celestial officer tasked with propagating Shenxiao rituals and texts.// Although Lin Lingsu eventually fell from favour, Huizong created a network of Shenxiao temples (the Divine Empyrean Palace network) and declared himself True Lord of the Dao. He thus seems to have fully intended that Shenxiao become the imperial school of Daoism and a crucial part of his theocratic reign. This network was abolished after Huizong’s reign in 1127 but Shenxiao continued to flourish well into the Ming dynasty, particularly through the work of prominent theorists such as the patriarchs of the Southern School, Wang Wenqing 王文卿 (1093–1153) and Bai Yuchan 白玉蟾 (fl. 1194–1229?). While aspects of Shenxiao ritual continued to be patronized by imperial favour during the Ming, its identity as a distinct tradition both inside and outside the court had already combined with other lineage forms. Although Shenxiao eventually faded as a distinct school, its influence and ideas have continued to the present-day, including in exorcistic ritual traditions, as well as in the rituals of practicing Daoist ritualists in contemporary Hunan province, as documented by David Mozina and other, ongoing research in the region.

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