Epidemics had a significant influence on the founding and spread of China’s major religions. In the nearly five hundred years between 206 BCE and 265 CE, imperial histories record roughly one epidemic every 7.6 years. These make for some of the early empire’s highest recorded mortality rates, ranging between 45 and 85 percent (Li Wenbo 2004, 1).

The last century of the Han Dynasty (206 BCE–200 CE)—the first long-lasting unified Chinese state—saw the empire collapse as epidemics raged. A negative spiral occurred, with military conflict spurring mass migrations, famine, and epidemics, which swept through undernourished and poorly sheltered populations so quickly that they were understood as “ghost qi” (Lin Fushi 2008b, 2008c). Imperial diviners worried about the Mandate of Heaven; most of the population thought illnesses were visited on the living by the dissatisfied dead (Strickmann 2002; Li Jianmin 2009).

Daoism arose in the midst of this long moment. Millenarian cults such as the Celestial Masters (Tianshi) and Great Peace (Taiping) movements, ancestors of modern Daoism, attracted large followings, partly because they offered ritual cures (including talismans, confessions, and periods of ritual isolation) (Kleeman 2016, 28–30). This period saw an increased popularity of Transcendents (xian), figures whose cultivation of magical powers and immortality frequently involved overcoming their own disease, learning healing crafts, and transmitting medical knowledge (Lin Fushi 2008a; Campany 2009). Such self-cultivation practices “treated the ill before they became ill,” fulfilling the highest tenets of canonical medicine (Unschuld and Tessenow 2011, 57), thus aligning medical and religious goals. Buddhists, arriving in China toward the end of this cycle of epidemics, garnered influence through medicine—one of the most expedient forms for spreading the religion and practicing compassion (Salguero 2014).

There is no single “canonical” response to epidemics prescribed by either Buddhist or Daoist teachings (though there are many practices). While Buddhist charitable institutions may have produced institutional legacies (Salguero 2017), Daoist response patterns are too subtle to be detected easily, often blurring with Chinese medicine (Stanley-Baker 2020). Daoists—in China, among diasporic Chinese, and beyond—have always engaged with questions of health, healing, and disease. This legacy has manifested in various forms since the identification of Covid-19.

Take the highly publicized example of Daoist symbolism in the pandemic’s first epicenter in Wuhan. The two hospitals that served as the central spectacle of power, resource mobilization, and speed in the state’s intervention were given evocative Daoist names. Built in less than two weeks, the new hospitals were named “Fire God Mountain” (Huoshen shan) and “Thunder God Mountain” (Leishen shan). The Fire God is a later name for the chthonic deity Zhurong 祝融, whose fiery nature exerts control over the metal agent, which corresponds to the lungs. The Thunder God plays a primary role in Daoist thunder rites, but also in vignettes in the classical medical corpus as a student of the Yellow Emperor. He can be mistaken for the human author, Lei Xiao, of an early work on compound medicine, Leigong paozhi lun. The Daoist names of the hospitals reflect the long-standing heritage of religious and traditional medical responses to epidemics, symbolically placing these biomedical hospitals in a distinctly Chinese history of medical development.

The popular appeal of a tradition at once “Chinese,” “religious,” and “medical,” is visible in the groundswell of support generated by the national Daoist Association, which by late February had raised US$1.4 million, in addition to local grassroots donations gathered by temples and nunneries. These came at a time when the state exhibited a mixed response to donors: Christian donations were rejected and NGOs like International Red Cross were under investigation for corruption. Interestingly, it was in this moment of national crisis that Daoism was allowed a public role beyond that of a very restricted “religion.” For a number of years prior, social media has reported widespread closures of temples and demolition of effigies. Universities have faced restrictions on addressing “religious” Daoism outside the political and ideological buttressing of Daoist “philosophy” (personal interviews, 2018).

As polemics of China’s role in Covid-19 raged, social media channels such as the WeChat thread, Daoist Nourishing Life (Daoyi yangsheng), have taken up the defense of traditional dietary and medical culture. They publish articles like this one, which documents the early medical writer Li Shizhen (1518–1593) prohibiting wildlife consumption. In so doing they claim that traditional Chinese culture has been long aligned with modern, biomedically grounded critiques of wild meat consumption.

The potential symbolism is complex but clear: authentic Chinese medical traditions (claimed to stem from Daoism) are not scientifically backwards, and do not prescribe (or accept) dietary practices suspected of enabling the original animal–human transmission of SARS-CoV-2. The article thus “proves” that Covid is not a “Chinese” disease (see Lynteris, this series, on Sinophobia and epidemics). Authoring it under the aegis of “Daoist” knowledge makes a further tacit claim for Daoism as a legitimating voice for traditional medical knowledge in modern times. (Notably, Li Shizhen is not acknowledged by historians to have been a practicing Daoist.)

In Singapore, people observed the burgeoning of Covid-19 in Wuhan during late January while thousands were traveling between the two countries for Chinese New Year. In both countries, temples and diviners produced predictions and almanacs for the coming year. As in China, Singaporeans drew on traditional symbolic repertoires, especially those which emphasized the year’s dominant metal agent (corresponding to the lungs), and its critical role in health. The different freedoms in China of Daoist and Christian organizations to mobilize resources seem mirrored in reverse in Singapore. Daoist, Hindu, Buddhist, and Catholic centers of worship scaled down or canceled religious activities by mid-February, but some Protestant churches continued to remain open, despite three early and highly publicized clusters at Protestant megachurches (see DiMoia, this series, on Protestant churches in South Korea). Whether the religions’ different responses can be explained by perceived differences in social power, evangelical anti-scientism, or other factors, remains to be investigated.

Across the Strait in Johor, Malaysia, responses were initially less conservative than those of Chinese religious practitioners in Singapore. The one hundred and fiftieth circuit tour of Old Temple gods was still held on February 14, although the associated public Chingay parade was canceled. The gods’ sedan chairs were carried by truck (not by hand), while officials took temperatures and dispensed free hand sanitizer and face masks. Despite crushing crowds in the open-air temple grounds and streets, the rites did not produce an infection cluster.

The presence of Daoism in the United States is felt through individual practitioners, such as Josh Paynter, an ordained Daoist priest and licensed practitioner of Chinese medicine, who received his training in Qingchengshan and Wuhan years ago. Working in upstate New York, he offers wildcrafted barberry, an adaptation of varietals he learned in China. Paynter interprets the herb’s efficacy as due to both the bioactivity of berberine and the apotropaic symbolism of the plant’s appearance. Reporting consistently good results, Paynter complements herbal treatment with repetition of the Scripture of the Three Officers (Sanguan jing), which identifies epidemics as due to human foibles (see Arya and van der Valk, this series), such as adultery, greed, and deception “in broad daylight . . . with arrogant words and crooked speech . . .” (Paynter n.d.). This text is easily read as a political critique, appropriate to contemporary concerns about dishonesty and cruelty of the current U.S. administration.

Daoism’s historical emergence as a ritual composite responded to interlocking problems of the state, cosmopolitical authority, individual bodies, and personal destiny. It addressed highly transmissible disease as the convergence of these forces; “treating” disease as a single complex whole included state and individual failures. In regions where I have done fieldwork, Daoist responses to Covid-19 continue to articulate such forces, but contoured by the biopolitical. While resistance to the state is present in some quarters, none question biological definitions of the disease and their practical implications.


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