'Sign of the times'

By  Erik Nilsson and Guo Rui (China Daily)
Updated: 2009-12-14 09:06
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'Sign of the times'

Wu Chengzhen is the first principal abbess (Fang Zhang) of a Taoist temple in the religion's history.

The vigor of Wu Chengzhen's faith has made her an exception to nearly two millennia of Taoist clerical orthodoxy.

On Nov 15, her intense piety earned her an appointment as principal abbess (Fang Zhang) of Wuhan's Changchun Temple, making Wu, 52, the first woman to hold such an eminent position in China's only native archaic religion.

"I think the ordination of a woman to such a high rank is a sign of the times," she says.

"It won't change anything about my daily life, but inside, I feel happy and grateful and a little ashamed, because I should do more."

The abbess wraps her crossed legs in a peach-colored blanket as she sits on the bed of her dorm room in Renmin University of China in Beijing, where she's now studying. A brown sweater peaks out from beneath her dark blue robe and her bun pokes out of the center of a cylindrical Taoist cap.

Periodically, her eyelids droop and she retreats into da zuo (Taoist mediation) mid-conversation. Moments later, she snaps back from her trances, speaking lucidly and seeming to have heard everything said while in her daze.

Wu relates her new station to the ancient myth of the Eight Immortals, a tale revered by Taoists. One of the deities, He Xiangu (Lotus Immortal), was a woman.

"Taoism strengthens equality among all people," Wu says. "It's also more egalitarian toward women than other major religions."

Wu comes from a devout family and is the youngest of six children, named Wu Yuanzhen before she was given her religious name. During her middle school years, she immersed herself in the home libraries of her Christian, Buddhist and Taoist relatives.

'Sign of the times'

Wu, 52, was crowned Principal Abbess of Wuhan's Changchun Temple at a grand ceremony on Nov 15.

Her father was profoundly influenced by Confucian ethics, especially familial piety. When his mother fell ill at age 56, he hacked a chunk out of his humorous (the upper arm bone) with a knife for her to eat. He hoped such a grand gesture would move the gods to heal the woman.

Wu says it worked. Her grandmother immediately recovered and lived to the age of 87. The event is recorded in the Wu Family Genealogy kept by the government of Xinzhou, a county in Wuhan.

Wu followed an elder sister's example to commit herself to Taoism at age 23.

In an interview with the Wuhan-based Changjiang Times, Wu said she began her life at the Changchun Guan (guan refers to a Taoist temple), cooking, washing and planting vegetables.

She recalls that her master once told her to check if the water in a kettle had boiled. When she lifted the lid to look inside, the steam almost burned her face.

"My masters often scolded me: If I couldn't do anything, why did I leave the secular life?"

But she proved to be a persistent disciple - the only one of eight who remained after a year of training.

"Taoism focuses on optimism, cherishes life and deals directly with reality," she says.

But Wu accepts the supernatural in her conception of the corporeal. She claims to have seen dragons in Jilin province's Longtan Temple. She says the creatures swam in circles in the river while she and 25 believers stood on the banks communicating with the gods in June 2001.

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