By David Saechao
For many Mien-Americans raised in the “old” religion, Yao Daoism is somewhat of a mystery. Even as they participate in the sipv wuonh ritual and receive the small ball of paper or assist family members with preparations for large ceremonies, there is a sense of bewilderment that some questions have not been answered. Yes, a thorough study of Yao Daoism would require the commission of not only knowledgeable priests but also experts in Chinese Daoism. But there are a few items of information that could certainly shed light on an ancient religion that has changed little since the 12th century.
The Celestial Masters and Socio-Political Movements
The founding of the Way of the Celestial Masters in 142 CE by Zhang Daoling was a turning point in the history of Daoism in that it expanded the Dao beyond the philosophies of antiquity. Taking advantage of the social structure and cosmic role of the emperor established by the Han Dynasty (206 BCE–220 CE), Zhang and his successors led politico-religious movements in Sichuan province in the mid-second century CE that culminated in the first theocratic state based on Daoist principles and beliefs.
Such movements were replicated in the centuries that followed, and they built upon systems of governance that had already been established by the Celestial Masters. Leaders relied on “Libationers,” as they were called, to facilitate the organization of communities and to administer Daoist rituals and ceremonies. The openness of movements to incorporate local peoples as they expanded allowed for non-Sinitic (non-Han) mountain tribal groups such as the Yao (Mien) to be converted.
Of the Tianxin Zhengfa Tradition
To be specific, Daoism, as practiced by the Yao today, originated in the time of the Northern Song Dynasty (960-1127). Emperor Huizong (1100-1126) was a talented calligrapher and Daoist practitioner of the Tianxin Zhengfa tradition, otherwise known as the “True Rites of the Heart of Heaven.” His efforts to promote the tradition had a significant impact on the religious aspirations of the court. Sadly, the Northern Song fell to barbarian groups, as a Song prince was forced to flee south, settling in Hangzhou, located in today’s Guangdong province in southeastern China.
There, the Song prince gathered the remnants of the Northern Song and formed the Southern Song Dynasty (1127-1229). You might remember Netflix’s Marco Polo in which Kublai Khan was hell-bent on destroying the Southern Song—yes, it was around this time. Moreover, the Southern Song sanctioned missionaries to spread the Tianxin Zhengfa tradition to non-Sinitic ethnic groups in Southern China, teaching them the tradition’s rituals and a simplified form Daoism that revealed secrets to healings and exorcisms. The Yao were among the first Southern peoples to convert and adopt the Chinese writing system. And because the tradition was likely transmitted by Daoist masters from southeastern China, Yao ritual texts, even today, are read in the Guangxi Cantonese dialect. Furthermore, the spread of Daoism was initiated by the Song, in part, to pacify non-Sinitic tribal peoples and to bring them closer to the imperial government.
A Daoist Celestial Hierarchy
By adapting Daoism, the Yao were required to incorporate their native beliefs with the Daoist pantheon of deities and celestial hierarchy, which begins with gods that reside in heaven. One of them is Marshal Teng (Tang Yun-Suei), the God of Thunder; among the Mien group, he is referred to as Ba’Ong. Children raised in Mien households are often told that they must behave, otherwise, Ba’Ong will strike them with lightning. During large ceremonies, paintings of the highest gods are displayed. Priests and shamans call upon them by blowing into a buffalo horn.
Beneath the gods, the hierarchy extends to lower immortals, the first patriarchs, ancestral spirits, and those living solely in the earth realm: priests, shamans, and newbies ordinated through the guaax dang ceremony—usually performed during adolescence or later. Hence, in order for individuals to be admitted into the celestial hierarchy, they must first complete the guaax dang ceremony, at which point they will be registered in the family’s ancestral lineage with a spiritual name and given the protection of spirit soldiers. It must be noted that women receive the same benefits and are brought in through their husbands or other males of the family.
Two Levels of Priesthood
Within the Tianxin Zhengfa tradition, as practiced by the Yao, there are two levels of priesthood. The daogong (black-head mediums) priest performs his duties through a classical tradition, while the shigong (red-head mediums) priest conveys a more vernacular tradition. Among the Mun Yao branches, there is a stricter line between the daogong and shigong, as they practice a form of Daoism closer to the peoples of Taiwan and Fujian. The Pan Yao—includes the Mien—are closer to the Meishan and Lushan traditions of Guangdong and Hunan, in which daogong priests are able to move back and forth.
Expanding on this difference, priests and shamans are not one and the same. When rituals or ceremonies involve calling upon heaven, only priests can accomplish this task. Masters (sai chia) and High Priests (tom sai chia) are trained to not only copy ritual texts but also write petitions and memorials on their own. And those that have reached the level of postulant in the tou sai major ordination are symbolically recognized by the Burials of Exorcisms of the Northern Bourne as having achieved the status of a disciple in the three precepts of Mei and Lu doctrines, which are given by the Superior Orders. Shamans, on the other hand, are usually relegated to smaller rituals that involve chanting from texts to communicate with ancestral spirits and lower beings of the hierarchy.
To be a Daoist Society
The Yao, arguably, cultivated a Daoist society on the rugged mountains of Southern China and Southeast Asia. While they were far from promoting a theocratic form of social structure, Daoism was prevalent in many aspects of daily life.
As followers of the tradition, a great deal of money, animals, and labor was needed. First, it was ideal to have every male ordinated in the spiritual realm through the guaax dang ceremony and be admitted as lowly figures in the celestial hierarchy. Families did everything in their power to ensure that resources would be available; this is on top of regular rituals and ceremonies throughout the year to keep the ancestors happy and to maintain a proper balance between earthly and spiritual realms. Thus, the need to expend significant amounts of resources on rituals and ceremonies placed priests and shamans, as well as more affluent families, ahead in social status.
Alberts, Eli. A History of Daoism and the Yao People of South China. 2007
Hudson, Clarke. The Ancestors, Births, and Lives of Yao Daoist Manuscripts. 2006
Lemoine, Jacque. Yao Ceremonial Paintings. 1982