The History of the Huangtian Dao in North China
China’s history is full of references to secret societies and millenarian sects throughout the centuries, the White Lotus sect perhaps being the most well known. However, an important sect in the country’s history is the Huangtian Dao, the Yellow Heaven sect, whose origin can be traced back to the latter half of the 16thcentury and whose supporters were still operating in the 1940s.
The Huangtian Dao was one of the “several sectarian groups that emerged after Luo Qing, the famous Ming folk religious reformer, had left an indelible imprint on Chinese sectarianism itself”. For the government, the sect had little importance and this is why not much of it was known until recently when a scholar accidently discovered its members and their beliefs.
Li Bin, also known as Puming (Universal Brilliance) was the founder of the Huangtian Duo sect, born in the county of Wanquan, located to the west of Xuanhua in Shanxi Province. Originally he was a farmhand but was then introduced into the army as a sentry guard. He retired to village named Shanfang Bao after losing an eye. He married a woman who took the name Puguang (Universal Lumination) and had three daughters – Pujing (Universal Purity or Quietude), Puxian (Universal Worthiness), and Yuantong (Complete Nonobstruction).
It wasn’t until he died that a cult was formed around his pious life. “During natural calamities, people offered prayers to the Lis, and they proved to be efficacious. Such worship, which included temple building and statue making, must have invited the suspicion of the government, for apparently it attempted to stamp out the cult by destroying the temple that formed its centre. But miraculously the statues of the Lis were saved. After this the sect must have become dormant, for few of the local inhabitants remembered their names or their specific teachings”.
In 1874 a monk named Zhiming arrived at the village, claiming to be a believer. He stated that Li was “the incarnation of the Maitreya Buddha, dispatched by the Wusheng Laomu (Venerable Unborn Mother) to take charge of the third kalpa and to deliver the suffering masses, the “offspring of the imperial womb” (huangtai erni), from the kalpic calamities”. He told the villagers, who were suffering from a severe drought, that he would pray for rain. He also taught them Huangtian Dao teaching and the construction plans for the Puming temple.
The villagers were willing to undertake the temple but did not have the means to do so. He drew a circle on the ground and told them that the money would be found. He ordered the diggers to dig down which they did. They uncovered a stone tablet, which was the gravestone of Li Bin, the Puming Buddha. Zhiming’s prophecy was fulfilled when it turned out that the water from the well seemed to have enormous healing power. People flocked from all over to have their ailments cured here and contributed to the cost of building the temple.
There were different patriarchs throughout the centuries. The 10thwas Pushan, a slightly differ-ent rendition of Puxian, the alleged second daughter of Puming. “According to Chen Zhongxi, Pushan was actually born in 1604 as the son of Wang Zhengyi in Xian County of Quzhou prefecture in Zhejiang. His dharmic name was Changsheng (Immortality). Having preached his teaching to over 3000 followers, Wang Pushan died in 1639 at the age of 36. We can thus surmise that Pushan never met Pujing, because the latter died in 1586, even before the former’s birth. So Pushan must have received his transmission indirectly. Perhaps this lack of intimate master-disciple relationship made it possible for Pushan to branch off to found another sect”. He is recorded elsewhere as to have founded the Yuandun sect (Complete Enlightenment).
The sect continued right into the Qing Dynasty, where it faded for a while. At the turn of the century it had a revival, going straight up into the 1940s. This makes the Huangtian Dao one of the longest sects in Chinese history.
Shek, Richard (1982) Millenarianism without Rebellion: The Huangtian Dao in North China, Modern China, Sage Publications, Inc.