Taoist Priests and Hopping Vampires

Back in college, I studied Taoism for a while, and even went so far as to carry a translation of Lao Tzu's Tao Te Ching around in my pocket as if it was an ancient version of Mao's Little Red Book. A small collection of poems which instruct on the best way to lead, and the best way to live. Only a life of deep contemplation and meditation could unlock the secrets of the Tao. I was taught that this was Taoism.

Look, and it can't be seen. Listen, and it can't be heard. Reach, and it can't be grasped.

For some reason, my college course never covered using Feng Shui and chicken blood to kick ass and repel the undead. Too bad, I might have paid more attention. As it is, Lam Ching-Ying taught me everything I need to know.

Taoism is much more than this simple yet seemingly contrary and impossible philosophy. Existing alongside this philosophical form of Taoism is a much more accessible Taoism which may be termed 'Religious Taoism.' It has been the popular religion of China since antiquity. Religious Taoism is not a explicit and dogmatic religion like Islam or Christianity. Instead, it is a loose collection of rituals and beliefs. It lives alongside Buddhism and Confucianism, and the three beliefs have mixed so greatly it is difficult to say where one inspired the other. Some Taoist rituals were borrowed from Buddhism, and vice versa. Movements to combine the three religions have only served to further blend the distinctions between them. The practice of Taoism varies from province to province, even from village to village. There is no church to go to, no specific creed to follow. Because of this, Taoism encompasses a wide variety of beliefs and practices and there are many different Taoist sects. Among the varied interests encompassed by Religious Taoism are alchemy, yoga, magic, meditation, and religious ritual.

The foundation of both Religious Taoism and Philosophical Taoism is the Yin-Yang five-element (fire, water, air, wood, and metal) school of ancient Chinese philosophy. The classical texts of Chang-Tzu and Lao-Tzu explain the principles of this philosophy, while the priests of Religious Taoism act as interpreters of these principles as they relate to marriage, death, festival cycles, and so on. Through meditation on the Tao, a disciple will gain heaven's blessing, learn how to control spirits which cause sickness and suffering, and eventually become immortal. The Taoist priest seeks to share these benefits to his community through public ritual and liturgy.

Throughout history, Taoism has fallen in and out of favor with the government, who for the most part were stern Confucianists. It became a recognized religion in the second century A.D., when Buddhism arrived in China and made such a distinction necessary. In this way it is very similar to the creation of Shinto in Japan. The situation of Taoism changed with each new dynasty, being the official religion of the Song, reviled and persecuted under the Yuan, tolerated under the Ming and Ch'ing. It was not until 1949 and the Communist Revolution and the declaration that all religion was illegal that Religious Taoism was very nearly stamped out. Taoist leaders fled to Taiwan with the Nationalist Government. During the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s and '70s nearly 80% of all Taoist temples were destroyed. However, since 1980, many temples have been rebuilt, and Taoism is increasingly practiced once again.

There are three classes of Taoist: the layman, the ascetic, and the priest. The first may include not only those people who believe specifically in Taoism, but those who perform its rituals unthinkingly, because it is part of their traditon and their history. The ascetic will live in the mountains, or somewhere distant from the distractions of others, and will contemplate the Tao in caves or monasteries. It is the third class of Taoist, the priest, that concerns us here, for this kind of Taoist is the one that serves his community, and is available in times of need. If a band of hopping vampires suddenly invade your community, who are you going to call?

There are many different kinds of Taoist priests, though most scholars divide them into two general types. The first are known as 'Red-head' priests, who cure sickness, expell demons, and perform rituals for the living. The second type are known as 'Black-head' priests, who in addition to performing all of the functions of the 'Red-head' priests, also perform rites and burials for the dead. One way to think of the difference is that 'Black-head' priests may be of a higher rank, and privy to more of the esoteric secrets of Taoism. The names are not necessarily in reference to the types of headdress worn by the priests, although some of them do wear hats of these colors. Instead the colors may best describe their duties: 'Black' being synonymous with 'death.' In general, the Taoist priests called upon in Hong Kong movies would best fall into the 'Black-head' category. Both kinds of priests are also referred to as 'fire-dwelling,' in that they live among the people of the village and dispense advice. (The term comes from the idea of sitting around a campfire with other people, or being among the people, as opposed to being in a monastery meditating away from the village).

The Taoist priest is a busy person. In addition to performing exorcisms, burial rituals, feast and festival rituals, and curing sickness, their chief task is performing divination. In this capacitiy they must understand Yin-Yang and the five elements and how they interact with the village, and they do this by using the now familiar idea of feng-shui. It is these cosmic forces that determines the best place to build a house or bury a relative, the best time to get married or have a child, and so on. In this way the priest acts as interpreter for the village, so that everyone may live in harmony with the Tao and avoid unwanted trouble, such as angry spirits or misfortune. In the movie Mr. Vampire, the priest meets with his client in an English Tea House to advise him on the best date to rebury his grandfather. In matters involving the dead the priest must be especially careful -- everything must be done properly and respectfully to avoid upsetting the spirits of the deceased. And even then, it's no guarantee.

Bury me Right or I'll Kill You

The Taoist priest is called upon to bury the dead properly. If something goes wrong, or if a person or village is haunted by the dead, then the priest is again called to make things right once again. Hope you've brushed up on your feng shui, or there will be hell to pay...literally!

Confucian beliefs about ancestor worship permeate every facet of Chinese philosophy. Most homes have their own family altar, at which family members can pay respects to their deceased ancestors. Paying respect to the dead is a direct carry-over from respecting your elders, and likewise Taoist funerals must be carefully conducted in order to keep the dead happy and at peace. Improper burial procedures may anger the spirit of the deceased and cause ruin or even death to one or more generations of the family.

When a person dies, it is believed that the spirit seperates from the body, but stays nearby until the body is buried. At the time of death, a Taoist priest is often summoned to the home to oversee the careful ritual preparations needed to ensure the burial is ritually correct. When the body is placed in the coffin, children of the family put the deceased's favorite things in with it. A banquet is prepared, and special charms are written on slips of paper. The charms are burned to send them to heaven and new charms replace them. The burial day is determined by a Taoist priest according to calendrical considerations. The site is also determined by the priest, using feng-shui. The priest must accompany the coffin to the cemetary, chanting and ringing bells. This is an important part of the priest's duties to the community. In Encounter of the Spooky Kind, when the Taoist priest invites 'Courageous' Cheung to work with him for a day, in the next scene we see them accompanying a coffin in this very manner.

Overseas Chinese communities would often bury the dead locally in a shallow grave, as it was believed that with the spirit nearby the deceased could still perform many favors for the living. However, within a certain timeframe, usually around seven years at most, the deceased would be reburied in a permanent grave on Chinese soil. Because of this belief, there are very few Chinese grave sites in the New World, at least until communities began to outlaw the disinterring and removal of the dead in the mid 19th century. In the movie Crazy Safari, a body must be sent from overseas back to China for a proper burial before it becomes a Vampire (of course, they do not succeed). The reburial also forms the centerpiece of the film Mr. Vampire, where poor feng-shui at the original burial site has already caused the ruin of one generation of the deceased family.

If an ancestor has plenty of family surviving him, if he died in a peaceful manner, and if he was buried properly and is sacrificed to regularly by his decendents, then all will be well and the family may well prosper. The deceased soul, upon burial, splits into Yin and Yang energies. The Yin energies, that of strong feelings, passion, sorrow, and so on, is buried with the body. The Yang energies, the pure spiritual essence of the person, survives and goes on into the underworld. If the person had performed misdeeds on earth, his spirit may be punished in the underworld. The Taoist underworld is a massive bureauocracy in which the living may bribe the various members to insure a safe trip for the spirit. Therefore the priest and family may offer food, rice, and paper money (burned to send it on its way) to the bureaucratic entities of the underworld to ensure a fair and reasonable treatment of the spirit of the departed.

If, however, a person dies without belonging to a family or with a neglectful family, they may become a ghost or vengeful spirit. Young women are not considered part of any family until they are married, therefore if they die young they become ghosts. Because of this, there have been cases of people marrying deceased women as part of settlements involving accidental death. Young female ghosts are the most common of all supernatural features of Hong Kong movies, appearing in scores of films. I have written about them at length here. Aborted children also die outside of the Confucian system. The idea of the vengeful aborted spirit is found in New Mr. Vampire 1992. Finally, people who die violently or tragically may also become vengeful spirits for a time. For example, those who die by drowning often linger in the area they drowned until they can pull someone else in, thus releasing themselves. Another example is in Ultimate Vampire, where an entire hill is covered with the graves of men who died suddenly, violently, and innocently, and now have become Vampires.

The Taoist priest is called upon to bury the dead properly. If something goes wrong, or if a person or village is haunted by the dead, then the priest is again called to make things right once again. The priest is usually quite sympathetic to the spirits, and tries to help them find peace as best as he is able. In order to do so, the priest has a variety of tools at his disposal.

Have your Chicken Ready

Chicken blood, earthenware jars, a good geomantic compass, and sticky rice -- tools no self respecting Taoist sifu would be without. In this article, we take a closer look at these tools of the trade.

The Altar: The Altar is at the core of Taoist magic and ritual. Different sects set up the altar in different ways, but they all share some characteristics in common: They all hold a sacred lamp of some kind, usually an oil lamp, with a base in the shape of a lotus flower. This lamp is representative of the light of the Tao within, and of immortality, and should never be extinguished. (If it is accidentally extinguished, you know something bad is about to happen.) They all have two candles representing the sun and moon. Bowls of tea, rice, and water also sit on the altar, with rice in the center. Tea supposedly symbolizes Yin, water Yang, and rice the union of the two energies. Also somewhere on the crowded Altar should be five bowls of fruit, one for each of the five elements. Finally, there is an incense burner, usually front and center. Three incense sticks symbolize the three types of inner energy: generative, vital, and spiritual. The smoke rises and the ashes fall, reminiscent of the division of the spirit as it leaves the body. The altar in this configuration can be seen in nearly every film which involves Taoist ritual.

Talismans: A typical talisman is a strip of yellow paper with words written in red ink (Or blood, or black ink mixed with blood). The talisman usually contains words or symbols of power. Among the uses of a talisman is the power to open celestial gates or to block the passage of evil spirits, an application we see often in the movies when applied vigorously to the forehead of an advancing vampire. Not all talismans are written: some may be drawn in the air with smoke or with the tip of a wooden sword.

Sticky Rice: As noted above, the rice represents the power of both Yin and Yang: Yin from the earth in which it grows, Yang from the sunlight which it absorbs. Only sticky rice will do for Taoist magic, and if the movies are any indication priests must always be on the lookout for unscrupulous wholesalers who swap the good stuff with rice of a poorer quality (perhaps long grain or Uncle Ben's?).

Exorcism Tools: An essential piece of equipment for fighting with spirits is the mirror. Typically but not always the mirror is inscribed with the eight trigrams around its edge: ch'ien(sky), k'un(earth), k'an(water), li(fire), chen(thunder), sun(wind), ken(mountain), and tui(lake). The bell is another tool for controlling or subduing spirits, used in many invocation rituals, for exorcism, or for leading a wandering spirit back to its resting place. A sword made entirely from old Chinese coins is particularly effective in combating ghosts. In addition, chicken's blood, eggs, or occasionally dog's urine or blood is used to arrest the progress of a spirit so that adequate time is gained to exorcise the ghost by burning paper money and making offerings.

Mantras and Mudras: M & M's. The priest will chant scripture and hymns for most Taoist exorcism rites. These rites are always behind closed doors so it is largely unknown what is said or how it is spoken. The movie Ultimate Vampire has a humourous take of what a secret Taoist mantra might be like. Originally strictly buddhist, mudras have become a component of Taoist ritual as well. The mudras, or hand gestures, complement the casting of a spell or the performance of a ritual.

Earthenware Jars: These jars are very useful for containing spirits -- a sort of 'holding cell' where they can be indefinitely imprisoned. This sort of pot is central to the story of Vampire Buster.

Compass: Used for divination purposes. The geomantic compass enables a priest to make accurate readings about the feng-shui in a given locale. The compass can also detect the presence of spirits. The compass is usually marked with the eight trigrams, similar to the mirror above.

Chickens: The all-purpose Taoist ritual tool. Useful for mixing chicken blood with ink to write talismans, to throw the blood at ghosts, to offer en toto to ghouls or demons who may be appeased by the chicken instead of attacking humans, and more. Whenever it looks like a living sacrifice is necessary, out comes a chicken. Which is a shame, because I could think of a few of the priests sidekicks that probably could've used a ritual murder. But I digress.

There are more tools available to the Taoist priest, but the above list is representative of the ones most frequently used in the movies. Some of the more esoteric (read: silly) ones I have not found any evidence of actual use, and probably come purely from the minds of the filmmakers (In Encounter of the Spooky Kind 2, the priest uses a yin-yang yo-yo). The varieties of Taoist ritual are as varied as the films in which they are used.

Action Priest: The Movies

The heyday of the Taoist priest in Hong Kong cinema has faded long ago. That's not to say they've stopped making movies of this kind altogether, but that they aren't the feature attractions they once were. Their popularity lasted for a decade: The 80's.

The genre got its real start with Sammo Hung's Encounter of the Spooky Kind, in 1981. Sammo Hung took a lot of risks in his career, and here he once again pushed the envelope, combining horror, kung fu action, and comedy for the first time. It was a success, and soon other films emerged using the same combination of Taoist magic and action, such as Yuen Woo-Ping's Miracle Fighters and Billy Chong's Kungfu From Beyond the Grave.

The next breakthrough film (and, it seems, the last) came in 1985 with Mr. Vampire, which re-introduced the Taoist priest as a likeable, approachable ally instead of an all powerful mystic. The man who gave a human face to the character was Lam Ching-Ying. Although there has been numerous actors to play the role of the Taoist priest he is the one actor who became synonymous with the part. The quality and success of Mr. Vampire is a double-edged sword; it launched a dozen sequels, but it also locked in a formula which it seemed could not be broken. Lam Ching-Ying was the sifu (master, teacher), usually accompanied by his students. Two in each film, usually one a somewhat handsome young man, the other a somewhat homely goof-off. If they are indeed to become the next generation of Taoist priests, then the religion is in more desperate trouble than I ever imagined.

Listed below is a cross section of movies which feature the Taoist priest. I make no claims that these are "the best" nor "the worst," they were chosen simply for their subject matter. If I was cornered in a dark alley and forced to say which I thought was the best and which the worst (which happens all the time), then I suppose I would choose Mr. Vampire and Mr. Vampire 2 respectively.

And now, onto the movies: Taoism vs. the Undead.


HARTZ, Paula R. Taoism. Facts On File, Inc. New York, 1993
A very concise, neat introduction to Taoism for all ages, with emphasis on the living religion.

WONG, Eva. The Shambhala Guide to Taoism. Shambhala Publications, Inc. Boston, 1997
Contains a lot of good, specific information about Religious Taoism and Divinational Taoism and their tools. However, comments such as, "Powers such as these are not to be trifled with" and "I have intentionally left out information in this presentation so no one will attempt to use it as a guide" make it a shamelessly uncritical text written by somebody who apparently believes in the magical power of chicken blood.

SASO, Michael R. Taoism and the Rite of Cosmic Renewal. Washington State University Press, 1972.
Very detailed look at the Chiao ritual. Also has good information about the different kinds of priests. No index.

DEAN, Kenneth. Taoist Ritual and Popular Cults of South-East China. Princeton University Press, New Jersey, 1993.
"The purpose of this study is to move beyond the widely available documentary sources (the Taoist canon, etc.) to explore new sources (temple records, observances, etc.) on the interaction of Taoism and local cults in the context of local history and contemporary society." He does.


If you're interested in getting more information about Taoism, here are a few sites you can try to get you started. I found that most sites concern themselves specifically with Philosophical Taoism. The sites below offer at least some content in reference to Religious Taoism.

The Taoism Information Page has an excellent collection of links to further information, including full texts of the classic Taoist texts. Part of the World Wide Web Virtual Library.

The Taoist Restoration Society(TRS) is one of the better small resources on the web for information about religious Taoism. Includes Q&A from several professors, a bulletin board, and information about ongoing projects designed to help in the restoration of Taoism in China.

Posted by Peter Nepstad on March 01, 2000.


Interesting article - enjoyed it :)
like this site

Posted by: HKcinema.net at March 29, 2006 01:03 PM

Great article bruv, very complete, very illuminating. From your tools section though, what about the ritual wooden sword? It appears in both the spooky encounter movies and mr Vampire.

Posted by: Ru at July 27, 2006 09:04 AM

Nice :), enjoyed this very much . Taoist ghost busters :)

Posted by: Casey Kochmer at September 8, 2006 12:38 AM

The red ink used for yellow paper tailsman and for sealing doors are made from vermillion (zhu sha in mandarin) which is very useful for blocking or subjugating spirits. Blood from a black dog is also useful.

In worse case scenarios, taking rice and mixing ith with an equal amount of salt. Putting it in the right palm and stamping with the left foot while throwing the rice/salt mixture in the house, particularly at corners is also useful. Also, the jian zhi (in mandarin) or "sword fingers", made by using the index and middle finger to point is another useful tool, whether for exorcism or for protecting oneself.

Biting the tip of the middle finger and using this "sword fingers" to hit the ghoul/ghost is also another direct melee method to dispel them. This attack is very powerful and may destroy the spirit totally. The only thing is this can be used only once a day.

Of course, the peach sword or the ancient coins swords are the best and the most handy to have in a pinch. Take care that the sword is made of real peach wood and the coins are genuine old ones, not those fake gilded types.

Mop the floors with water that has salt added in it, put a glass of salt water beside your bed especially if you or your spouse often has bad dreams or is "disturbed"

Put dry salt in a small saucer or container and put it at the toilet window's ledge to dispel negative energies. Replace it when it gets wet.

Posted by: Ricky Sng at August 12, 2007 09:46 AM
Add a comment
Note: Posts are moderated to eliminate comment spam. There will be some delay before your comment appears.

Remember me?