Hsien-T'ien Tao (Way of Former Heaven) Sects

Doctrines China possesses a rich tradition of popular sectarianism that has produced numerous individual sects. The present article endeavours to give an overview of five contemporary representatives of the sectarian subsystem that has been most influential in the twentieth century, namely, the Way of Former Heaven (Hsien-t'ien Tao). These include
  1. the I-kuan Tao ("Way of Unity"),
  2. the T'ung-shan She ("Society of Goodness"),
  3. the Tien-te Sheng-chiao ("Sacred Religion of Celestial Virtue"),
  4. the Tao-yuan ("Sancturay of the Tao"),
  5. the Tz'u-hui Tang ("Compassion Society").
All of these sectarian societies share a number of basic doctrinal features, most importantly a belief in the existence of a cosmic creator deity above and beyond the crowded folk pantheon. This deity is most typically visualised as a cosmic Mother who has given birth to the universe and humanity and continues to be greatly concerned about the spiritual well-being of her human children. Humanity, however, has forgotten its divine origins and has become mired in the profane world of desire and material form. The Mother grieves over her children's waywardness and, out of her infinite compassion, makes a continuous effort to call them back to her primordial paradise. However, during two cosmic eras only a small number made the trip back to the Mother's side. Now the world has entered the third and last era, at the end of which it will come to a cataclysmic end. The Mother is now redoubling her efforts to remind her children of the divine spark within their natures and of the necessity to cultivate it and make it grow, so that they can escape from the doomed world of dust and return to her eternal paradise.
The individual Hsien-tien Tao sects all see themselves as carrying out the Mother's intentions by converting people and guiding them on a path of cultivation and reform that will ultimately lead them back to Heaven. The cultivation urged on members is divided into "inner" and "outer" work (nei kung, wai kung), i.e., meditation and good deeds, so as to accumulate merits and purify the mind. As the focus is on a primordial deity superior to all other gods, Hsien-t'ien Tao sects claim to represent a Way (Tao) that transcends and unites all other religions. Consequently, an explicit syncretism is a noticeable feature of these groups who claim that their teachings aim to unify the "Three Religions" (Confucianism, Taoism, Buddhism), the "Five Religions" (the former three plus Christianity and Islam), or even the "Tenthousand Religions". Most Hsien-tien Tao groups rely heavily on spirit-writing as a means of communicating with the Mother as well as lower-ranking deities.
Along with the written works of the founding patriarchs, spirit-writing provides a distinct corpus of scriptures for each individual sect, that develops the shared themes in different directions and serves to differentiate the individual group from related sects. The variations on the central theme are many: for example, different sects use different names for the supreme deity, the I-Kuan Tao and the T'ung Shan She calling her "Venerable Mother of Limitless Heaven" (Wu-chi Lao-mu), the T'zu-hui T'ang "Golden Mother of the Jasper Pool" (Yao-ch'ih Chin-mu), the T'ien-te Sheng-chiao "Unborn Sacred Mother" (Wu-sheng Sheng-mu); the Tao-yuan diverges from the common maternal pattern by describing the supreme deity as male, naming him "Most Sacred Venerable Patriarch of Former Heaven" (Chih-sheng Hsien-t'ien Lao-tsu). Despite these and many other differences in liturgy, organization, and doctrine, ultimately each Hsien-t'ien Tao sect represents a variation on a central theme, and we are thus justified in treating them together.

History The differentiation of the Hsien-t'ien Tao subtradition out of the general field of Chinese popular sects is commonly attributed to the so-called ninth patriarch Huang Te-hui (1684-1750). Of the five sects listed above, the I-Kuan Tao and the T'ung Shan She legitimize themselves by tracing their patriarchal lines thorugh Huang Te-hui to the mythical patriarchs of early Chinese history. The patriarchal lines of these two sects are largely identical down to the thirteenth patriarch Yang Shou-i (1796-1828), after whom the lines split and ultimately lead to the development of the I-Kuan Tao and the T'ung-shan She as separate sects. According to the material available, the other three groups treated here do not maintain a similar model of linear patriarchal succession. The following are brief historical overviews for each sect:
1. I-Kuan Tao ("Way of Unity")
Also called T'ien-tao ("Way of Heaven"). Founded in 1930 by the "eighteenth patriarch" Chang T'ien-jan (1889-1947) in the city of Chi-nan, the capital of Shantung province, the sect in 1934 moved its centre of activity to T'ien-chin and from there spread rapidly all over mainland China. After Chang T'ien-jan's death in 1947, the sect's nominal leadership passed into the hands of Chang's second wife Madame Sun Hui-ming. Effectively, however, the sect split up into a number of separate branches (usually said to be eighteen) that continued to develop more or less independently. There thus exists today no independent leadership for the sect, which has become a family of closely related yet autonomous branch associations. This organizational format helped the sect survive under adverse political conditions: like the other Hsien-t'ien Tao sects discussed here, it was prohibited by the communist regime after 1949 and was effectively stamped out in the People's Republic of China. Unlike most of the other sects, however, the I-kuan Tao in addition suffered persecution by the Nationalist government as well. It was legalized in the Republic of China only in 1987 and eventually established a national umbrella organization, which is made up of representatives of most of the important branches. In addition, the sect maintains a strong institutional presence in Hong Kong and is proselytizing actively and successfully among overseas Chinese communities in Southeast Asia, Australia, North America, and Europe.
2. The T'ung-shan She ("Society of Goodness")
The society of Goodness was founded in 1912 by the Szechwanese P'eng Hui-lung (1873-?), who stands in the seventeenth patriarchal generation of this Hsien-t'ien Tao branch line. For the first few years the sect remained centred in the province of Szechwan, but in 1917 the sect's administrative headquarters was established in Peking and was duly registered with the city government. The sect forged close ties with the traditional elite, and branch societies quickly mushroomed all over China. In 1920 a second, a second centre, the "Unity Association" (Ho-i Hui) was established in Hankow, which was to relieve the Peking headquarters of some of its responsibilities. The T'ung-shan She's close alliance with reactionary political circles caused it to be viewed with some disfavour by the new Republican government. Soon after the latter's assumption of power, the T'ung-shan She was proscribed (1927). This only fitfully enforced prohibition did not lead to the sect's immediate demise, but it did put a stop to its previous phase of rapid expansion. It was effectively suppressed only after the Communist rise to power in 1949. Today a small number of T'ung-shan She "Buddha Halls" (fo-t'ang) remain operational in Taiwan, Hong Kong and Southeast Asia.
3. The T'ien-te Sheng-chiao ("Sacred Religion of the Celestial Virtue")
This group's history starts in the Chinese province of Szechwan in 1899 with the resurrection of a young boy named Hsiao Ch'ang-ming (c. 1896-1943) who had apparently died three days earlier. After his revival, he declared that he had received Heaven's mandate to save humanity from suffering. He embarked on a successful religious career and attracted a large following. In 1937 he established his headquarters on Mt. Huang in southern Anhwei province where he died in 1943. Like other sects treated here, Hsiao Ch'ang-ming's movement was suppressed in the People's Republic of China after 1949, but survives in Taiwan and Hong Kong. In Taiwan, one of Hsiao's disciples, Li Yu-chieh, eventually decided to walk his own path and founded a new group called "The Celestial Emperor Religion" (T'ien-ti Chiao) in 1978, which diverges doctrinally in several aspects from the mother group, yet also sees itself in the tradition of Hsiao Chang-ming's teachings.
4. The Tao-yuan ("Sanctuary of the Tao")
The Tao-yuan has its origins in a small spirit-writing cult in Pin County of Shantung province that began to hold seances in 1916. When the gods began systematically to develop a system of religious doctrine through their planchette writings, the cult group attracted more and more members and gave itself the name Morals Society (Tao-te She). Its membership was dominated by local gentry and high-ranking officials. In 1918, the Society moved to the provincial capital Chinan, and in 1921 changed its name to "Sanctuary of the Tao" (Tao-yuan). Being extremely well-connected in high government circles, the Tao-yuan quickly spread from Shantung province to Peking and to the major cities along the Yangtze river; branches were also established in Japan. The sect developed a complex internal structure divided into six "Courts" of (1) the Executive, (2) the Meditation, (3) Planchette seances, (4) Scriptures, (5) Philanthropic Works, and (6) Preaching. Of these areas of activity, the Court of Philanthropic Works is the one that has done the most to shape the public perception of the sect. Indeed, the Tao-yuan is publicly best known by the name of its philanthropic organization, the "World Red Swastika Society" (Shih-chieh Hung-wan-tzu Hui). Suppressed by the communist regime after 1949, the Tao-yuan continues to maintain sections in Hong-Kong, Taiwan, Japan, Malaysia, Singapore, Canada, and the United States of America.
5. The Tz'u-hui T'ang ("Compassion Society")
The T'zu-hui Tang differs from the other Hsien-t'ien Tao sects, which were all originally based on the Chinese mainland, in that it originated in Taiwan in post-World War II years. It was founded in 1949, when the Golden Mother of the Jasper Pool revealed herself through a medium in the northeastern Taiwanese city of Hualien. The Society's most authoritative formulation of Mother mythology was not produced by the sect itself, but is a spirit-written work that dates back to the year 1880 ("The Golden Basin of Jade Dew"). Thus, the 1949 revelations in Hualien are a revival of the traditional Hsien-t'ien Tao soteriological and eschatological theme, which proved highly successful in the unsettled social and political conditions of the post-war years of Taiwan. A small temple to the Golden Mother was erected in the same year which eventually grew into the headquartes of a religious movement with roughly 200 branch temples by the end of the 1970s and an estimated 1,000 branch temples by 1997.

Symbols The various I-kuan Tao branches and organizations each use different emblems; a common element in the writings and buildings of all I-kuan Tao branches is, however, a special written character used to denote the Venerable Mother. The character is a highly stylized variation of the normal Chinese character for "mother", which in this particular form is found only in an I-kuan Tao context and serves here as an identifying marker.

The T'ung-shan She does not use a specific emblem.
The T'ien-te Sheng-chiao's symbol is a heart surrounded by the "Twenty Words" (i.e. the catalogue of the twenty virtues developed by Hsiao Ch'ang-ming), on a yellow background.
As the Tao-yuan interacts with society at large mainly through its philanthropic arm, the Global Red Swastika Society, this society's red swastika symbol is taken to stand for the sect as a whole.
The Tz'u-hui Tang's symbol is the Taoist T'ai-chi (yin-yang) symbol, with two circular arrows going opposite ways around it.

Adherents For none of these sects there exist reliable statistics. What is clear, however, is that of all the Hsie-tien Tao sects the I-kuan Tao has by far the most numerous membership. In Taiwan alone, the sect claims close to one million members.
Estimates for the Tz'u-hui T'ang give a membership of 10,000 to 15,000 for the late 1970s, distributed over roughly 200 branch temples.If a 1997 estimate of 1,000 branch temples is correct, we can expect that the membership has increased at least five times since the time of the earlier estimate.
The remaining three groups enjoyed their heyday in the pre-war decades and today maintain only a tenuous presence, at least in numerical terms. At their high points of development, the following membership figures were given for these three sects:
T'ung-shan She 500,000 to 1 million (early 1920s)
T'ien-te Sheng-chiao 3,670,000 (1947)
Tao-yuan 3,000,000 (1940).

Main Centre
1. I-kuan Tao
As described above the I-kuan Tao does not maintain a central leadership for the sect as a whole, each brach conducting its own affairs. Thus there are as many headquarters as there are branches. Geographically, most branch centres are located in Taiwan, with Hong Kong taken second place. Since 1988 there also exists in Taipei (Taiwan) a "General I-kuan Tao Association" (I-kuan Tao Tsung-hui) whose task it is to serve as liaison centre for the various branches and to represent the sect vis-a-vis the government.
2. T'ung-shan She
After the loss of its mainland core organization, there currently appears to be no central governing body that would embrace all surviving T'ung-shan She Buddha halls. However, the situation is far from clear, as no extended study has been made of the T'ung-shan She's present state of affairs. There do seem to exist regional hierarchies in which one Buddha hall, often the oldest, claims seniority over the others, and acts as a sort of primus inter pares. For example, the first Taiwanese Buddha hall was founded in 1947 and in 1949 established the "Chinese Confucian Studies Association" (Chung-kuo K'ung-hsueh Hui). This earliest Buddha Hall is designated as the "provincial society" (sheng-she), while its later offshoots in other parts of Taiwan are called "branch societies" (fen-she). The picture, however, is complicated by a schism that occurred in the Taiwanese section of the sect in 1978, leading to the establishment of a competing organization called "Association for National Cultivation" (Kuo-min Hsiu-shen Hsieh-hui).
In Singapore, there exists a "Southeast Asian General Association of the Sagely Religion" (Nan-yang Sheng-chiao Tsung-hui), which seems to head the T'ung-shan She Buddha Halls in Singapore and Malaysia, all of which advertise themselves under the name "Sagely Religion" (Sheng-chiao). Again, however, the picture of current conditions is far from clear.
3. T'ien-te Sheng-chiao
There exist two regional sets of organizations for this religion. Its Hong Kong headquarters is located at Castle Peak in the New Territories. In Taiwan the religion's situation is characterized by disunity, with several separate organizations claiming to continue Hsiao Ch'ang-ming's teachings.
4. Tao-yuan
Since 1950, the Hong Kong Tao-yuan has served as the world headquarters and administrative centre of the sect.
5. Tz'u-hui Tang
The headquarters and main temple of the Compassion Society are located in the city of Hualien (northeastern Taiwan). The head of this mother temple chairs two administrative bodies, the Executive Committee and the Membership Representative Assembly, which are in charge of matters pertaining to the sect as a whole. Each branch temple, however, enjoys a great degree of autonomy, taking care of its own affairs without interference from the headquarters, so that the Compassion Society is really a loosely knit network of temples that recognise the spiritual authority of the Hualien centre, but are otherwise independent.