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The history of two Taoist temples: the Baiyunguan in Shanghai, China, and the Bok Kai in Marysville, California.

(Original Title: Two Daoist Temples: The Baiyunguan (White Cloud Temple) in Shanghai and the Bok Kai Temple in Marysville, 1880s until Present)

There is an old Chinese proverb, loosely quoted, that says: "Seeing for oneself is better than hearing it from others."

While spending a year teaching in China, I visit Taoist temple and witness a traditional Taoist ceremony where ten priests, dressed in traditional blue gowns and black flat hats take turns reading long prayers. As they finish, each one bows toward the altar as incense burns and the smoke curls up from each of the deities chosen to dispense blessings. Seven other priests play the fundamental Taoist music with their traditional musical instruments and together these sights, sounds, and smells of the temple begin to envelop my senses. I notice there are candles being lit throughout the temple as an ancient ceremony is being performed to honor the hundredth birthday of a deceased relative. I am told that this ritual is the commission for the continuation of lengthy afterlife rites and the descendants have paid for this service to ensure that the wishes for the happiness and wealth of their ancestor in the afterlife are still being carried out.

Attending rituals like this at the Baiyunguan (White Cloud) temple in Shanghai, China, was once reserved for members of the temple, or for those who lived in the surrounding neighborhood, to allow the people in the community to come face to face with their ancient rites of Taoism. However, now intruding tourists and visitors like myself are invited to visit and view these temple rites and celebrations in an effort to sustain the temple both culturally and economically

Across the Pacific Ocean in California, in a town named Marysville, another Taoist temple is holding a celebration that will bring back to the community not only its slowly vanishing members but also many visitors from the large cities in the area, such as Sacramento and San Francisco, to a Chinese community that has grown smaller and smaller throughout the years. This is the only temple in the United States that still celebrates Yee Yeut Yee, or "Bomb Day," (1) a holiday honoring the deity known as Bok Kai, the God of the North and Protector of the Floods. (2) This holiday, usually held on the second day of the second month of the Chinese lunar calendar, derives its name from the shooting off of "bombs," which contain good-fortune rings, and has been an ongoing holiday in the Marysville area for over a century. The two-day holiday begins quietly with religious observances on the first day and ends with the bombs and a parade featuring the Golden Dragon. This Golden Dragon is said to have been brought to America sometime before the turn of the century. It was exhibited at the World's Fair in New York and was last used in the 1937 parade in Marysville. (3) Now, in later years, a newer, shorter dragon is used in the parade.

Marysville, at the junction of the Feather and Yuba rivers, was once an entrance to the goldfields of the Sierras and served as a jumping-off point for both prospective miners and their goods during the days of the gold rush. The temple, located next to a levee, was prone to flooding, and Bok Kai, the principal deity of this temple, was believed to offer protection from the often occurring floods.

During the Bok Kai celebration, this local temple is filled with community members, visitors, and tourists alike who come to light incense sticks to a particular deity to express gratitude for the blessings they have been granted or the good fortune they hope to receive. There are no longer any Taoist priests at this temple to perform prayers or rituals, so usually an individual is left to worship on his or her own. If, during your visit, you ask an attendee how he or she knows which rites are being performed, you are told that any explanation of the rituals of this Bok Kai temple are only ones that have been passed down in families for many generations through oral translation and tradition.

Since my research is in the field of the religion/philosophy of Taoism and its temples, when walking in a Chinese mainland city such as Shanghai, Beijing, or Xian and looking for Taoist temple structures, I am always genuinely surprised when I see the "construction" of a Taoist temple. It would be the same when I visit the California cities of Marysville, Oroville, Weaverville, and Mendocino, several locations of the remaining semi-active Taoist temples in the United States. Here again, as in China, I would be surprised that the buildings I viewed were actually "temples." In the West, we tend to think of temples as large, ornate structures and as such, it was always unexpected, when I found a temple structure, to see that it was usually a small, nondescript building looking on the outside very much like an ordinary, small wooden house. Both the "old" Baiyunguan temple in Shanghai and the Bok Kai temple in Marysville are of this type, where one can hardly discern anything of a religious nature other than some ornate carvings around a doorway or a roof with curling eaves. I would find my most recognizable feature of both of these temples especially during temple holiday celebrations, and it would not be the physical construction but rather how each temple had reconstructed itself to be, for those few special days not only a place of worship, but also a local and visitor tourist attraction.

So we must begin to ask ourselves why Taoism, and more importantly its representative temples, are becoming important to the occasional visitor or tourist, both Chinese and Chinese American. Is it because today's visitor is beginning to recognize that the Taoist temple of yesterday could well be the symbolic reflection of a changing society in both China and the United States? I believe we must look at the example of these two Taoist temples, their past, their present, and hopefully their future, as a blueprint to the changing Chinese and Chinese American communities that are reflected in a changing Chinese culture. The term I use here, "Chinese American," will be used in its broadest sense and is meant to include all Chinese, both citizens and noncitizens. Before 1943, Chinese immigrants were prevented by law from becoming naturalized citizens; because this law was discriminatory, my definition of Chinese Americans will include all of those permanent residents who have spent most of their lives in America. On the other hand, my definition of "Chinese" is meant to refer to those who live in mainland China.

The Taoism of Chinese culture found its way to America in the nineteenth century during the time of the California gold rush. Many Chinese had immigrated to California from the southern provinces of China where poverty, famine, and war had become the norm. Enticed by dreams of a better life, their mass immigration created the development of communities that would predominately follow the lifestyles of their hometown in China, where Chinese customs and culture were an important part of everyday life. When the Chinese who worked the mines came to America and found instead of wealth and security, mostly discrimination and oppression, the Taoist temple would be built as a place where they could once again practice harmony, balance, and a sense of order in their lives. The temple was in many ways their fortress against all that was unpleasant in the new country. It was a continuing part of their culture that gave wholeness and meaning to their existence, and it was able to generate within the heart of the worshipper the courage to return to the harsh realities of the outside world and to work patiently toward the future by following the "Tao," the path of long suffering but of eventual victory. (4)

Taoism would also remain an important staple of Chinese religion/philosophy for those who remained in mainland China. Today one still finds not only Taoism but four other active major philosophies/religions practiced in China: Buddhism, Islam, Catholicism, and Protestantism. There are also a variety of folk beliefs/religions practiced in areas that are inhabited by ethnic minority groups. All of these groups still maintain their houses of worship whether they be temples or yurts, churches or cathedrals, or once again just the small altar in their homes. Taoism, however, is the only one of these religions/philosophies that is indigenous to China as each of the other four were brought into China and had their origination in a foreign country. (5) Taoism would become the major religion/philosophy of the Chinese people during the second century AD and it is Taoism, along with Buddhism and Confucianism, that has endured in the Chinese community into this new millennium.

It is difficult to give an exact number of believers of Taoism in this twenty-first century because there are no recorded rituals for conversion to become a Taoist practitioner and thus there are no records or statistics available to give the exact number of believers. However, the Taoist Associations of both Beijing and Shanghai have reported their number of members in China to be over 100 million, and the International Taoist Association numbers its followers in the hundreds of millions. (6)

Informal interviews with members of today's mainland Chinese population about any organized religion/philosophy such as Taoism have raised some interesting points: first and foremost is that any and all Taoist beliefs stem from China's oldest historical and cultural tradition of Confucianism. It was Confucianism that would become China's official ideology far back in the second century BC, and it is Confucianism that remained the major philosophy in China for over two thousand years until the end of the Qing Dynasty in 1911. Confucianism calls for a set approach toward society known as filial piety, or honoring one's leaders and elders, with attention focused on the practical problems of morality and ethics. Because of Confucianism, ancient China was regarded as a "State of Ceremonies," (7) and its traditional culture would develop to include not only Confucianism, but also Taoism, which historians now recognize as having complemented each other for long periods of time in Chinese history. These two schools of thought are understood by the West to be similar and yet different in their common belief that by using a "natural hierarchy," harmony will come to all. It is my opinion that this is the basic tenet of the China of the past, but also an apt description of the China I visited and lived in this present year.

What is most interesting in the study of Taoism and its temples is that the differences in the teachings of Confucianism, Taoism, or Buddhism are not an important component of any religion/philosophy practiced in China today. A person may be a believer of Buddhism while frequently going to the Taoist temple for worship. Yet this same person will most likely also honor the moral and ethical teaching of Confucianism. Interestingly, conflicts of a religious nature have seldom occurred in China, unlike in Europe where religious wars were constantly being fought during the Middle Ages. Thus it is sometimes difficult for those of us in the West to understand the practices of a Chinese religion/philosophy, as we who do choose to worship must choose only one religion/philosophy to believe in and one sect of that religion to follow.

Taoism is the only pure Chinese religion/philosophy among the major five in China and it has a history of over 1,800 years. Most historians agree that Taoism came into being in the second century AD and followed a unique process of development. During the Han Dynasty, from 206 BC to AD 220, it would be known as the study of Huang and Laozi. Huang is believed to have been the mythical ancestor of the Chinese Nation, and Laozi was a historiographer of the Zhou Dynasty, 1100-221 BC. Taoism was developed on the basis of two indigenous beliefs or sects, the Five Dou (measure of grain) Sect and the Taiping (peace) Sect, as the way to self-cultivation, helping one not only to concentrate the mind and act unobtrusively, but also to care for all things on earth by following the natural order of things. The former sect required only that to be a member one must donate five dou of rice for payment as admission to the sect. This sect regarded Laozi (the philosopher of the Spring and Autumn period dating back 2,500 years ago who wrote the Tao Te Ching, as its leader) and the Tao Te Ching and the Great Way as the central text of its philosophy. It taught people to purify their souls through confession, and its priests used incantations to treat diseases and ills. It is believed that the Five Dou Sect was Taoism in its embryonic form, and Taoism as it was practiced by this sect would continue to develop into the Taoist religion/ philosophy that would be practiced in the following centuries. By the third century AD, this sect had changed its name to Heavenly Teacher's Sect, and during the Tang (618-907) and following dynasties, this Heavenly Teacher's Sect was to receive many honored titles and rewards from their emperors.

As Taoism gradually developed into a full-fledged religion/ philosophy, its main claim would be to help mortals become immortal. Thus, with the support of the ruling class to whom immortality was a major goal, Taoism became attached to the imperial courts. However, Taoism also became a "popular" religion/philosophy because in many ways it was associated with sorcery and incantations that supposedly were able to ward off evil spirits, treat diseases, and usher in good luck. As such, "official" Taoism and "popular" Taoism did not compete against one another as all Chinese of both the upper class and the peasant class were interested in becoming "immortal."

What merits special attention to Taoism is that during its long, time-honored history of development, it has exerted far-reaching influences on literature, the arts, chemistry, medicine, and science. Joseph Needham, noted historian of science, wrote in his 1956 Science and Civilization of China, that many of the most attractive elements of the Chinese characters derive from Taoism. China without Taoism, Needham says, would be a tree of which some of its deepest roots have perished. (8)

Taoism in early turbulent Shanghai was still a somewhat secret Chinese religion/philosophy that was very different from the simple Taoism practiced at the time by the the Chinese mining community in Marysville. Shanghai, then known as the "Whore of the Orient" or the "Paris of the East," had an open-door policy that had attracted a conglomerate of British, Russian, German, Japanese, Italian, and American people in the early part of the twentieth century. During its period of infamy, Shanghai was made up of many of these expatriate "societies," but often forgotten--yet more important--was the Chinese "secret society" with its recondite culture and customs that in reality was the exotic face of China. Hidden in the "secret societies" of the Shanghai Chinese community was the ancient religion/philosophy, with its secret elixirs and spells, known as Taoism, with its temples that served those in the faith. It was Taoism that captured the imagination of the underworld of Shanghai during that time, but it would be Taoism and its many deities that would ultimately sustain the Chinese people during the long years of both Nationalist and Communist rule when many of the temples were desecrated and destroyed. In my many interviews I was told that in place of the temples, their members would place small hidden altars in their homes during these years, where prayers could still be offered to the deities and incense was still burned to ask for protection and the promise of life after death. (9)

The Baiyunguan temple in Shanghai was rebuilt after being destroyed by both the invading Japanese army and the warring Nationalist and Communist armies. The Bok Kai temple in Marysville was rebuilt after numerous floods. Both temples date their beginnings to the 1800s, and both temples are still semi-active today. It is evident that the religious life of the people in both places is tightly woven into the history, economics, language, and cultural fabric of their neighborhoods, yet both temples are experiencing major problems as the communities, societies, and culture around them continue to change. The Baiyunguan was recently moved from the Xilain Back Road Alley outside Laoximen, back to its original site that is located at the North Gate of what is left of the original Old Shanghai Wall. This famous temple was, and still is, the headquarters of the Complete Perfection Sect. (10) The temple, as it stands now, was rebuilt in 1882 during the eighth year of the reign of Emperor Guangzu of the Qing Dynasty. It was originally founded by Complete Perfection priest Xu Zhicheng, and the temple originally worshipped the Thunder God, Lei Shen, during that period. Today the Baiyunguan has become the Temple of the Orthodox Oneness Tradition, where eight gilded bronze statues built during the Ming dynasty are enshrined. (11) The most important statues from this period that hold places of honor in the temple are the five standing statues of the Heavenly Generals (Tian Jiang), which are each approximately eight feet tall. There are also the statues of two of the Celestial Masters (Tian Shi), and these are about six feet tall. There are several lesser statues placed in alcoves throughout the temple, but unfortunately, none of these statues are original. (12) Today those who come to the Baiyunguan mainly worship the Great Jade Emperor, Yu Huang.

The Baiyuunguan slumped into a gradual decline in the early twentieth century, and during the Cultural Revolution from 1966 to 1976, nearly all of its precious paintings and books were destroyed. After 1978, both the State and local government placed greater emphasis on rebuilding and revitalizing Taoism. By 1984, the Baiyunguan was finally allowed to resume its Taoist activities. (13) Since that time, the temple has become the seat of the Shanghai Taoist Academy, where it also maintains the Institute of Shanghai Taoist Culture in Shanghai.

In comparison, Taoism found its way to Marysville in the nineteenth century during the time of the 1849 California gold rush with the many Chinese who emigrated from the southern provinces of China. Those Chinese who settled in Marysville built their first temple there in 1865, and it was located about a half mile from the site of today's temple site in the vicinity of First and B Streets. In 1866, a great flood is said to have destroyed the temple, and local legend says that one of the temple tablets was found in the mud and silt following the flood. That spot, which was a bathhouse at the time, was chosen as the site for the present-day Bok Kai temple. Although this temple is known as the Bok Kai (Water God) temple, there are several other deities that hold places of honor. Historically these gods of Taoism were once human beings who lived in a specific time and place, and who displayed exemplary qualities while living. Upon their death they have been deified as legends and the myths of their skills have been related to generation after generation. Rituals during Bomb Day and other ceremonies in the Bok Kai temple remain unchanged from times past, and the Chinese Americans who celebrate at this temple still see the deities as benevolent beings or high officials who can help mortals in exchange for food, drink, and money. (14)

Examples of this kind of testimony can be found in reading the local Marysville newspaper, the Appeal-Democrat, when reporters conducted interviews with visitors during the Bok Kai Bomb Day festivities. Below are several excerpts from a recent Bomb Day celebration:
 [O]ur family has gotten continuous good luck over the years,
 said Eric Young of San Francisco, who counted among the recent
 blessings, graduations, promotions, job offers, and his
 two-year-old daughter.... [A] lot of people get their wishes and
 they come back to thank the gods" said Kathy Ng from Oakland....
 [Y]ou don't ask for anything unreasonable.... I asked that
 everybody be safe and healthy ... if someone in the family is sick,
 you can ask that they be healed.... (15)

The Bok Kai temple still works in the old style of "caretaker," says Daniel Barth, current president of the Marysville Historical Society. "A visitor decides they have a request for Bok Kai because they have heard that the Bok Kai temple has a very good track-record for granting requests. However, once they arrive at the temple they find it closed. They see a phone number posted on the side wall of the temple and they make a call. If good fortune is on their side, a caretaker will answer, and after a wait the caretaker arrives to open up the temple. He lights the incense, and the lucky visitors make their prayers and requests. They may also ask to toss the divinations blocks if they are looking for answers to a specific question, or they can use oracle sticks to consult for answers from the Oracle Book." (16) Visitors are usually cautioned not to take photographs, and after the visit to the temple is over, the caretaker expects to be paid. The author notes here that I did as was expected of me, as this is the Taoist "Way."

Does this intrusion by visitors, tourists, and even historians such as myself represent for many Chinese Americans a way back to the temple for the generations who have grown away from their religious/philosophical roots? Or has time changed not only the Taoist "temple," but more importantly how both today's Chinese and Chinese Americans view themselves, the temples, and their heritage? These are some of the questions that must be addressed before we can arrive at a viable definition of what it means to be Chinese or a Chinese American living in the twenty-first century.

Those Chinese Americans living on the West Coast of the United States who, over the years, have adapted to the values and cultures of American life with very little knowledge of the religious philosophy of Taoism are the ones who will one day be heir to any Taoist temple legacy such as that found at the Bok Kai in Marysville. Will any proposed restoration of the temple also restore some Chinese religion/philosophy and its basic teachings to any of the people? Or even more importantly, is it important for Chinese Americans as a way to retain or regain their "Chineseness"?

For the Chinese who live in mainland China and have been subjected to the fluctuations of acceptance of their religion/philosophy by government changes, there have also been dramatic differences in their experiences both within and without their Taoist temple and its culture. The Shanghai city government's moving of the "old" Baiyunguan temple to make way for roads and buildings to accommodate the World Exposition in Shanghai in 2010 meant that the "old" temple structure would be moved from a Chinese neighborhood to a tourist neighborhood. It would be located closer to well-known venues visited by tourists, like Nanjing Road and Yu Yuan Market, both on the Shanghai visitor circuit. This also meant that the "old" Baiyunguan would receive some much needed repairs that in reality would ultimately lead to a virtually "new" temple.

The "old" Baiyunguan temple was located down an alley from a small side street in the Huangpu District of Shanghai called "Nanshi" or Old Town, and was far away from any tourist venue or activity. As one of the oldest temples in Shanghai it was smaller in size than either the Confucian temple or the Buddhist temples located in the same general area of Old Town, and it sat for over one hundred years under the protection of the branches of a huge old tree. This same "old" Baiyunguan temple, also known at one time in the nineteenth century as the "Temple of the White Clouds," owes its name to the 8,000 scrolls it received from the temple of the same name in Beijing. (17) The "old" Baiyunguan still had its terracotta soldiers on the roof to keep watch, I was told by temple members, to ensure that nothing disrupted the serene atmosphere that surrounded the temple. This "old" temple, which I was privileged to visit in the Fall of 2004, was still an active and busy temple at the time, with many of its local congregation also still active and busy in attendance at all hours of the day, either folding the small yellow triangles used to hold the ashes from the incense burner (and considered to have special powers) or preparing the vegetables that had been brought to the temple for the meals cooked for the priests. However, just as I had started my exploration of every nook and cranny of the "old" Baiyunguan's proud history, I saw this very special Taoist temple suffer the indignities of relocation and separation from its community at the end of 2004, and its new congregation and new neighborhood take on modern and more Western characteristics, very much like the Chinese American population in the United States.

Chinese and Chinese American history is a living, continuous history that has weathered many changes in its long and unique past. Chinese Americans in particular have taken a number of paths to identify their ethnicity. According to historian Barbara Fields, (18) race is either an illusion that does ideological work or an objective biological fact. In the case of Chinese or Chinese Americans, race is a biological fact, but any "Chineseness" seems to have become an illusion seen only by non-Chinese. Has the exotic face of the "Orientalism" that Edward Said (19) wrote about some years ago been systematically deconstructed by those effected? I would hope not. That luminaries of Chinese American society, such as Him Mark Lai and Albert Cheng have chosen to develop the "In Search of Roots" Program for constructing identity through family history research tells me that through organizations like the Chinese Culture Foundation of San Francisco, "Chineseness" will remain an important part of the discovery of Chinese American identity. In China, where the government is now openly supportive of restoring historic buildings, although not necessarily their functions, I hope that the recognition of all Taoist temples will be included as the component complementary to the reidentification of one's cultural history


This document uses a mixture of pinyin, romanization, and commonly accepted transliterations. Interviews cited in this paper were conducted by the author in Shanghai, China. Specific names have not been used so as to protect the privacy of both the priests and the members of the Baiyunguan temple.


(1.) National Register of Historic Places, A History of Chinese Americans in California (2002), red.pdf.

(2.) Paul G. Chace, Returning Thanks: Chinese Rites in an American Community (PhD diss., University of California, Riverside; Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999), 75.

(3.) Chace, Returning Thanks, 416.

(4.) Daniel Wong, Doris Wong, and George Williams, "Chinese Temples of Northern California," in The Life, Influence, and the Role of the Chinese in the United States, 1776-1960: Proceedings, Papers of the National Conference held at the University of San Francisco, July 10-12, 1975 (San Francisco: Chinese Historical Society of America, 1976).

(5.) Cheng Manchao, The Origin of Chinese Deities (Beijing: Foreign Language Press of Beijing, 1995).

(6.) Ibid.

(7.) James Legge, Confucian Analects, The Great Learning and the Doctrine of the Mean, vol. 1 (London: Dover Publications, 1971).

(8.) Joseph Needham, History of Scientific Thought, vol. 2, Science and Civilisation in China (London: Cambridge University Press, 1956), 164.

(9.) Hong Yi Huang, interview by author, Shanghai, China, November 8, 2004.

(10.) Yie Wang, Daoism in China (Beijing: China Intercontinental Press, 2001).

(11.) Wang Lixian, Chair Master, Baiyungun Temple, Shanghai, China, interview by author, Shanghai, China, December 2, 2004.

(12.) Ibid.

(13.) "Temple Is Witness to Taoism's Ups and Downs," China Daily Shanghai Star, September 26, 2002.

(14.) Guang Yun and Yi Cheng, (Bejing: Foreign Language Press, 1999).

(15.) "Annual Bomb Day Celebration at Bok Kai Chinese Temple," Marysville Appeal-Democrat, February 2004.

(16.) Barth, Daniel, "Notes on the Bok Kai," e-mail to author, January 6, 2003.

(17.) Guang Yun and Yi Cheng, A Taoist Miscellany.

(18.) Barbara Fields, "Slavery, Race and Ideology in the United States of America," New Left Review 181 (May/June 1990): 95-118.

(19.) Edward W Said, Orientalism (New York: Random House, 1979).
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Title Annotation:7E Paper
Author:Mann, Joan
Publication:Chinese America: History and Perspectives
Geographic Code:9CHIN
Date:Jan 1, 2007
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