The syncretic group has been repeatedly repressed, but never eradicated, during its almost five centuries of history. Now, it is persecuted again.
by Zhao Zhangyong
From November 2021, Zhejiang authorities are cracking down on temples of a Taoist syncretic sect that dates back to the 16th century, and goes as it is common in China under various names, including Huangtian Jiao and Huang Jijiao. Temples have been raided and closed, and devotees detained. The campaign of repression is still in progress. Media call the devotees simply “Taoist,” although theirs is an old syncretic order with Taoist, Buddhist, and Confucian elements.
Huangtian Jiao (also spelled Huangtiandao, 黃天道, Teachings of the Yellow Heaven) was originally a religious order founded in the 16th century by Puming, the religious name of Li Bin, a soldier from Hebei province. Puming died in 1562, and his order was continued by his wife Puguang. After her death in 1576, the order broke into two rival branches. One was led by Puxian, who was Puming’s and Puguang’s granddaughter and claimed to be a reincarnation of Puming, the other by Pujing, a direct disciple of the founder. Both branches survived into the Qing era.
In 1763, during one of the periodical campaigns to eradicate “heterodox” movements banned as xie jiao, a severe persecution hit the Puxian branch. The living descendants of Puming were exterminated, their main temple destroyed, and even the bodies of Puming, Puguang, and Puxian were exhumed and publicly shattered into small pieces.
As for Pujing’s branch, it went through various schisms, and in the 17th century Wang Changsheng, also known as Wang Pushan, who died in 1640, reorganized the largest of them as Changsheng Jiao and imported beliefs and practices from other Chinese new religions. In 1769, yet another anti-xie-jiao campaign led to the destruction of Wang Changsheng’s grave and the execution of the group’s main leaders. However, the movement continued underground, until in the 19th century a new significant leader emerged, Chen Zhongxi (1821–1850). With him, however, the group went through another reorganization and acquired a new sacred scripture. After Chen’s death, it also developed an interest into millenarian prophecies about the advent of Buddha Maitreya.
The Puming movement was a Taoist sect influenced by folk religion, but with Chen it came to be perceived as a syncretistic movement where the predominant influence was Confucian. With the old name of Huangtian Jiao, the movement aligned itself with Nationalist China and during the Civil War one of its branches organized an anti-Communist militia. It also maintained a presence in Taiwan, which has continued to this day.
In 1952, the CCP banned Huangtian Jiao (under any name) as a xie jiao and a huidaomen (reactionary secret society), evaluating at that time that it had some 20,000 devotees. Yet, temples dedicated to Puming and the movement survived, particularly in the area of Taizhou, Zhejiang province. They were destroyed during the Cultural Revolution, but rebuilt with the “Reform and Opening Up” policy of Deng Xiaoping.
In 1983, the same year when the label xie jiao was revived to ban the Christian group known as the Shouters, a campaign was carried out to eradicate Huangtian Jiao as well, and leaders were arrested. They were released in 1988, and promptly reconstructed the movement clandestinely, leading to new arrests in 1992.
Huangtian Jiao tried to claim that it was just a Buddhist sect and to become part of the government-controlled China Buddhist Association, but failed. However, local CCP village cadres did not regard it as a dangerous movement. In the first decade of the 21st century even supported the construction of temples in parts of Zhejiang, which were regarded as either Taoist or Buddhist. Large ceremonies honoring Puming were carried out there and more or less tolerated.
Now, the century-old story of Huangtian Jiao and its derivative groups seems to experience a new turn, again marked by repression and persecution.