Ancient Taoism in modern-day China. Communist reformers have tried to snuff out country's native religion

``People come here from all over the country wanting to be monks,'' says Cao Xiang Zhen, a Taoist nun and head of the Taoist Association of Huashan. At least a dozen young men arrived at Huashan last year to work in its temples, says Sister Cao. Huashan is one of Taoism's five sacred mountains where Taoists have worshiped for 2,000 years.

Few of the new arrivals were allowed to stay, however. The natural beauty of the Shaanxi Range and the Taoist life style, which has been romanticized in Chinese literature since ancient times, attracts more recruits than the association is allowed to accept under government quotas.

Many of the young apprentices are ``naughty Taoists,'' Cao says in a gentle rebuke.

She says that many want to wear the robes and become wandering friars, only to go sightseeing across the country and travel freely from one temple to another as Taoists did for centuries until the communists came to power in 1949. But this is no longer permitted.

Except for a few Chinese youths, Taoism has lost most of its popular appeal as China's native religion.

A reform-minded Communist Party has tried to strip away mystery and myth from Chinese life, condemning most of the practices of popular Taoism and pushing it into further decline.

As the country tries to ``get rich through socialism,'' only a handful of youth, often from China's poorest regions, are attracted by an ascetic existence at the fringe of modern life. Few of China's thousands of Taoist temples have survived into the 1980s, and many lack priests.

``Tao is the original force of the universe,'' says Min Zhiting, deputy secretary-general of the official Chinese Taoist Association in Peking. ``We believe in tranquillity, modesty, kindness - that weakness will defeat strength and that softness will win over hardness.''

Taoism as a philosophy had its origins with the legendary Lao Tzu and a collection of writings known as the Tao Te Ching.

Tao means literally the ``way.'' It assumes that man is born into a world he did not make and cannot understand. Encumbered with duties and harassed by fears, man only increases his misery by trying to achieve goals which are beyond his reach. The way to minimize suffering is thus to avoid ambition and take life as it comes.

``Consciously or unconsciously, everyone is influenced by the Taoist way of thinking,'' a postgraduate student at Xiamen University says.

During 2,300 years of practice, Taoists developed an anarchistic life style, avoiding state authority and offering an escape from the demands of society and, sometimes, the arm of the law.

Taoists embellished their earthly philosophy with a complex set of beliefs and rituals that gave its practitioners claims to supernatural powers. They evolved a ``mystical skepticism'' about the world, as one scholar describes it, embracing techniques for meditation, herbal medicine, martial arts, and the quest for mortality.

In its popular forms, Taoism is represented by a pantheon of gods and demons and has absorbed almost every ancient practice known to the Chinese people.

Modern Chinese intellectuals have often been embarrassed by their country's indigenous religion. Liang Qichao, an early 20th-century reformer, once wrote that Taoism was ``a great humiliation,'' and that its activities ``have not benefited the nation at all.''

Communist reformers, too, have tried to snuff out Taoism, especially its independence of and resistance to state control.

In imperial times, Taoist texts were used to justify peasant rebellions, and the peasant rebels believed that Taoist magic made them immune to Western bullets when they attacked the foreign missions in Peking during the Boxer Rebellion at the turn of the century.

The Taoist masters claimed mystical powers through practicing secret techniques known only to the initiated.

``The Huashan Taoists believed that enlightenment, spiritual liberation, transcendence of reincarnation, and attainment of immortality were possible only through purification of the body and mind through diet, exercise, herbal regimens, qigong [breath training], and meditation,'' wrote Deng Ming-Dao in The Wandering Taoist. The book is a romantic account of the training of a Taoist master in Huashan during the 1930s, before his emigration to the United States.

The individualistic life of the Taoists was gradually reined in by the communists in the 1950s when monks were forced into collective labor and had to join a state-controlled association.

Since then the Communist Party has imposed an official version of Taoism which stresses benevolence, patriotism, and public service without the mysticism and superstitious practices.

This ``socialist'' Taoism is the creed that is being taught to new recruits, although they also keep in mind the romantic images of Kung Fu heros who, like oriental Robin Hoods, defeat legions of bandits with their martial arts skills as immortalized in movies and popular novels.

``The thing I'm most proud of is that whatever we do here as Taoists is for the public and not for the individual,'' says Lang Chao Shou, a young apprentice on Huashan, echoing the new Taoist ethic.

Mr. Lang is assigned to a temple on Huashan's highest point, the South Peak, which rises far above the Shaanxi plain to a height of 7,500 feet.

Like Taoists young and old, Lang says the spectacular mountain scenery has given him a love of nature and reverence for the natural environment, attitudes which are noticeably lacking elsewhere in China.

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