At about the same time, the old religious traditions of China were also challenged by the newly introduced Buddhist beliefs. Under attack as “depraved cults” (Yin-ssu), the Wu practitioners found some degree of protection in the ideologies developed by the newly emerging Taoist philosophers and divines: “from the fourth to the sixth centuries followers of popular religion became adepts of a Taoist church because they found elements there to which they were accustomed, but which were sublimated and enclosed in a firmer and better-organized framework” (Stein 1979:59).
However, by absorbing the techniques of spirit mediumship, the Taoist ritual repertory adapted a method of religious revelation capable of generating a corpus of spiritual literature that could compete with the sacred texts of the Buddhist tripitaka and the Confucian classics. During the period succeeding the Han, Taoist sects began to become established in isolated places in conscious imitation of the Buddhist practices of building monastic institutions. In places such as Mao Shan, the texts known as the Chen Kao recorded the organization and character of the spirit realms of the immortals as revealed to a medium who during the years 364370 under went a succession of visionary experiences, in the course of which he was visited by some dozen perfected-immortals [Chen, Chen-ren] from the heaven of Shang-ch’ing. They presented him, over those seven-odd years, with certain of the sacred texts current in their own dominions.(Strickman 1979:126)
A similar process, repeated in many locales, created a synthesis of local liturgical and thaumaturgical practices and ideology with the politically respectable Taoism of Chang Tao-ling. During the T’ang (618906), the Sung (9601279), and subsequent medieval dynasties, the revelations to Taoist spirit mediums continued to exert a formative influence on Chinese elite culture and to maintain a Taoist presence at court (cf. Strickman 1981:4245). Many of the texts produced by spirit mediums were eventually incorporated into the Tao Tsang, the so-called Taoist canon. But most emperors gave legal sanction to the powerful spirituality of the Taoist sanctuaries, such as Wu Tang Shan, allowing them not only tax exemptions and special privileges for their clergy but also according them imperial patronage and direct financial support (Strickmann 1981:49).
The practices of shamanism and spirit mediumship in the medieval period thus became firmly linked with the institutions and canonical
literature of the Taoist religious establishment. To the popular mind, the knowledge and techniques necessary to summon and control the spirits of both gods and ghosts were most effectively achieved by the adepts of the Taoist institutions located in China’s mountain monasteries, who sought direct communion with the powerful, pure spirits of the heavens. This supernatural power was then employed on behalf of common mortals by the Taoist practitioners, who functioned as did the old Wu shamanism: invoking, locating, and exorcising spirits.
These practices contrasted with the religious doctrines of Confucianist and Buddhist institutions, which generally discouraged the altered states of consciousness necessary to effective spirit mediumship. Popular cults in medieval China, whatever their philosophical or social origins, thus came to be associated with Taoism, because the Taoists’ “own practices were basically, at least in large part, the same as those of the popular specialists, the mediums or sorcerers” (Wu, Shih) (Stein 1979:80).