Bamboo groves whisper in the autumn breeze. A stream splashes down a hillside. Birds twitter. And somewhere, in the distance, the willowy sound of a flute wafts through the air - the kind of scene that artists sought to capture in traditional Chinese brush paintings.
A women burns joss sticks at Wong Tai Sin temple in Hong Kong
The cradle of Taoism, one of China's key religions, can be found 40 miles northwest of Chengdu, a city of 1 million in Sichuan province. It was Mount Qingcheng that the celestial master Zhang Daoling chose as the center of his mysterious empire.
Some 1,900 years ago, he founded the religious group that would become a central pillar of Chinese life and culture. The roots of this community have embedded themselves deeply into the Chinese mindset, shaping the thoughts and actions of hundreds of millions; even China's 57 years of communist rule could not curb its popularity. Today, non-Taoists too adopt the principles that the aged Zhang espoused in the land of the Giant Panda.
At the close of the Han Dynasty (206 B.C.E.-220 C.E.), a time of eroding central authority and civil strife, Zhang experienced an epiphany that promised a better life for the distressed people of China. He proclaimed that Lao Tzu, the legendary philosopher at least seven centuries his predecessor, had solicited him to drive out demons and evil spirits. He also charged him to lead his followers according to "the way of the orthodox oneness of the celestial masters," which ultimately translated into the name of this belief system. Anyone, Zhang added, who adhered to the teachings and led a virtuous life might be blessed with the ultimate reward: immortality.
In his new religion, Zhang interwove the teachings of Lao Tzu with ancient myths and legends, creating a pantheon of gods in the process. He set up 24 communities, each of which had its own hostels where priests offered guidance. Anyone wishing to enter the movement was required to pay a tribute: five pecks of rice.
These strange teachings exerted an even greater influence on the Chinese than Buddhism, another religion from southern Asia. "Taoism has spread its tentacles everywhere," says Professor Li Yuanguo, an expert on religion at the Academy of Social Sciences in Chengdu. "It defines the relationships between individual humans, and between humankind and nature. That's still very relevant."
Hundreds of millions of Asians - from China, Taiwan and Hong Kong to Singapore and Indonesia - worship the gods of Taoism. It is a faith that has melded the teachings of erudite philosophers with traditional fables, the rituals of secret societies, magic, alchemy, psychology, rural superstitions and even lovemaking techniques into an esoteric canon that is very much alive today.
Many of the most fascinating aspects of Asian mysticism can be traced back to Taoism. A wealth of festivals and customs in China today bear Taoist features, including the Lantern Festival held in February.
"It's in our blood," says a young clerk from the Agricultural Bank of China. It is a wintry day; she lights incense sticks in Beijing's Baiyun Temple and bows to the gods. She would never set foot in a Buddhist temple; a fortune teller had warned her against it when she was young.
During the Spring Festival, China's New Year, thousands of the capital's residents pack the Taoist Dongyue Temple, kitty-corner from the Chinese Foreign Ministry. For 10 yuan (about 1 euro), they buy tasseled red prayer tokens and hang them in front of their favorite gods. This year, a remarkable number of these offerings were dangling in front of the god charged with ensuring incorruptible, honest and humble government.
Many Chinese still passionately practice feng shui. A feng shui master is almost always consulted on building projects, above all in Hong Kong and Taiwan. The master subjects the site to a thorough spiritual examination, determining whether the house is truly in harmony with nature and the supernatural. Do dragons, for example, have direct access to the sea from the house?
And then there's the breathing technique called qigong. Millions of Chinese practice it every day. This ancient art of wellness involves a range of movement and relaxation techniques. Together with acupuncture, it is the most important therapy in traditional Chinese medicine. Its central concept is qi, life force. If a person is to remain healthy, the qi must be able to flow freely through his or her body.
Yet, Taoism - simply translated as "the teaching of the way" - is one of the world's most complex religions. It is embedded in a universe of the mystical, the magical and the paradoxical. To its followers, the Tao is more than a faith; it is also a principle that permeates everything, one that existed before the chaos from which the world emerged. As a result, the Tao suffuses every living creature.
The Tao keeps the universe in equilibrium. It embodies harmony. And it moderates the tensions between love and hate. Followers believe the Tao cannot be precisely defined because it reflects the "supreme reality and the supreme mystery." What mere mortal would presume to try and comprehend it?
Even the father of Taoism, the philosopher Lao Tzu, is an enigma. Did he really live in the sixth century B.C.E.? Or is he just a mythical, legendary figure, a figment of human fantasy? One thing is certain, though: He is revered as a god, and Taoists believe that he wrote their "bible," The Book of the Way and Its Virtue.
It is a compendium of adages, aphorisms and apparent riddles: "If you want to narrow something, you need to expand it. If you want to weaken something, you need to strengthen it. If you want to topple something, you have to raise it ..."
Tai chi: A universe of the mystical, the magical and the paradoxical
Taoism is therefore both a religion and a philosophy. According to China expert Jörg Rudolph, Taoism views following the incomprehensible ways of nature as the purpose of all human life. "As a result, Taoists have gained a reputation for being anarchic and anti-establishment," he adds.
Like Buddhism, Taoism began spreading long ago. It influenced the German authors Hermann Hesse and Bertolt Brecht, while the Expressionist Alfred Döblin explored it in his 1915 novel The Three Leaps of Wang-Lun, which summarizes Taoism's core aspirations in its final dramatic lines: "Being still, not resisting: can I attain that?"
In the religious sphere, a motley army of Taoist gods, guards and spirits brings salvation to humans - or damns sinners to one of its 36 hells (heaven, too, has 36 levels).
The deities might have been real human beings. Others are the products of pure imagination. The sage Lao Tzu was born to a woman who, legend has it, carried him in her womb for 81 years! He may also appear as one of 81 other shapes or forms. The Three Purities are more important still.
They are followed in the divine hierarchy by the gods of naturalness, the heavens and the earth, at whose center are a jade emperor - who was born before the heavens and earth divided - and his wife. This couple, in turn, oversees the guardians of water, the heavens and the earth, after which come the rulers of the mountains and the guardians of the points of the compass. They are followed by the 10 generals who protect pregnant women, and the gods of hell, the kings of the underworld and of the final judgment.
In Taoist temples, the Chinese worship more than 1,000 gods. These lord over such fateful questions in life as success in exams, fortune in love, the prevention of toothache and, of course, personal wealth.
"There are countless variants of Taoism," says Professor Li in his Chengdu office. "And new ones keep appearing all the time." The Taoists are really quite open-minded as well. In Taiwan, for instance, they venerate former Chinese leader Mao Zedong, who died in 1976, and his first wife, Yang Kaihui, as gods.
At the moment, the professor is experiencing the mysteries of Taoism every day: He is studying 18 clay figures of gods, some of them up to 300 years old, that were recently discovered by farmers. "I've been charged with identifying them. But I haven't got a clue which gods most of them could be," Li says.
Just a few hundred yards from Li's office, behind an ancient stone slab, Taoist priests and nuns are slipping on yellow robes, embroidered with ornate pictures of dragons, tigers and cranes. Underneath they are wearing blue outfits, with white gaiters and black cloth shoes. Both the men and women have tied their hair in buns that protrude through the tops of their hats.
An orchestra strikes up; the musicians are playing ancient Chinese instruments. The 11 priests and nuns make their way to the altar of the Three Purities. A family wishing to establish contact with a dead daughter kneels in their midst.
The high priest, wrapped in a magnificent yellow and blue silk cloak, theatrically splays his fingers in the manner of the gods, places incense sticks on a small cane bearing the yin-and-yang symbol and then casts them into the fire.
As he does so, he dances, taking elongated steps as he moves. Occasionally he flourishes the smoldering incense sticks or waves a flag, then bows low and sings something incomprehensible. The characteristic crown on his hat quivers, and the priests pound on drums. Outside the hall, assistants burn paper money for the family's dead ancestors.
Such elaborate ceremonies don't come cheap; the Taoists list their prices on a blue board. Contacting three previous generations costs 10,000 yuan (about 1,000 euros). Another ritual - "change your life, overcome pain and unhappiness" - runs at 60 euros.
The temple is an oasis of tranquility and a relic of bygone days in the middle of the ear-splitting city of Chengdu. Retirees play mahjong and chess in its tea houses. In the Temple of the Jade Emperor a young monk, evidently in a mischievous mood, is predicting a woman's future for a fee of 10 yuan.
Things aren't going according to plan. "You are healthy," the monk ventures. "No, I'm not," the woman retorts. "OK, then you must have kidney problems." Later, the woman confides: "I couldn't work out what he was trying to say."
The rulers of the Tang dynasty (618-907), one of the most cultivated and stable eras in Chinese history, instituted Taoism as the state religion. Like Christianity, it has split into numerous sects over the years.
Two schools remain: The school of "orthodoxy and unity" is the worldly branch of Taoism. Its priests are permitted to marry and live outside the temple. The more recent school of "perfect integrity" is stricter. Its disciples, most of whom embraced the faith after some critical occur-
rence in their lives, are vegetarians and celibate. They are the ones who administer the temples.
"Taoist medicine has its origins in the school of perfect integrity," says Canadian psychologist Brenda Hood, who is currently writing a doctoral dissertation on the Taoists' "inner alchemy" in Beijing. Taoists believe that the five elements - wood, fire, earth, metal and water - are reflected in the liver, heart, spleen, lungs and kidneys.
In their attempts to attain the ultimate goal - immortality - Taoist priests have always experimented with minerals, particularly cinnabar. It was the Taoists who gave gunpowder to the world.
They preach the purity of the body and the retention of life force, achieved - for example - by "recirculating semen essences for the good of the brain." In reality, this boils down to one thing: Males should not ejaculate during intercourse. For women, the supreme goal is the end of menstruation.
Taoists revere the immortal Peng Tzu, one of the leading practitioners of Taoist medicine, at a temple located two hours' drive from Qingcheng Mountain. On the temple steps, dealers sell DVDs detailing assorted sexual practices. For an additional 10 yuan, visitors can enter a hall bedecked with frescoes and pictures. These show bearded men with Taoist hats in steamy lovemaking scenes with young women.
Master Peng prescribes the following treatment for dry lips and stomachache: During sexual intercourse, the man should lie on the bottom and his partner sit atop him. Unlike her, he is not allowed to orgasm. To complete the therapy, he needs to perform this exercise nine times a day - for a period of 10 days.
To keep themselves fit and healthy, old Chinese men like to experience the "essences" of young lovers. Mao Zedong proved an avid disciple of this doctrine. Late in life, he surrounded himself with sweet young flesh, his personal physician reported.
Despite this, Mao himself had banned Taoism and other religions, designating them as superstitions. Priests were persecuted and maltreated. But Mao's successors are more tolerant. Like Buddhists, Christians and Muslims, Taoists are free to practice their faith.
But the tolerance of the Communist Party is not boundless. Through its United Front Department and its office of religious affairs, it has always had the final word. Whenever a new temple is built or a new priest ordained, the state's spiritual representatives are on hand.
Managing the temples is not the sole prerogative of the religious order's 25,000 members. Tourism officials have their say as well. And for good reason: Their main concern is to showcase the buildings as evidence of China's cultural heritage - rather than presenting them as religious sanctuaries. As a result, anyone wanting the inside story needs to buy a ticket.
Admission to the Qingcheng Temple in Sichuan costs a whopping 6 euros. The laborers who lug sand-filled panniers to a construction site - on a mountain top four hours away - would have to work for six days to buy one.