Edward Irons



1875:  Wang Jueyi (王觉一) assumed the leadership as fifteenth patriarch of the Xiantiandao (先天道,the way of former heaven) lineage; Wang formed a sectarian group the “Final Effort” (mohou yizhu, 末后一着)

1905:  Sixteenth patriarch Liu Qingxu (刘清虚) named the group “Yiguandao” (一贯道).

1919:  Seventeenth patriarch, Lu Zhongyi (路中一), assumed leadership.

1925:  Lu Zhongyi died; leadership was held temporarily by his sister Lu Zhongjie (路中节).

1930:  Zhang Tianran (张天然) and Sun Suzhen (孙素贞) assumed leadership as joint eighteenth patriarchs.

1934:  Zhang visited Tianjin and Qingdao; he founded the Temple of Morality (daode fotang道德佛堂) in Tianjin, ushering in a period of rapid growth throughout China.

1938:  Zhang held his first “stove meeting” for training leaders held in Tianjin.

1947:  Zhang died in Nanjing.

1950:  A People’s Daily editorial advocating banning Yiguandao appeared, marking the beginning of proscription in China.

1951:  Sun Suzhen travelled to Malaysia and settled in Hong Kong.

1951-1953:  Yiguandao was officially banned and proscribed as an illegal group in the Chinese campaign against secret societies and heterodox groups.

1954:  Sun Suzhen moved to Taiwan.

1975:  Sun Suzhen died in Taiwan.

1987:  Yiguandao was declared legal by Legislative Yuan in Taiwan.

1987:  The Republic of China I-Kuan Tao Association was founded.


Yiguandao is a Chinese syncretic religion. First established in its modern form in the 1930s, it has deep roots in Chinese popular belief systems. Since the 1950s, it has been suppressed in the Chinese mainland. Nevertheless, Yiguandao continues in Taiwan and other parts of Asia.

All Yiguandao groups trace their roots back to Wang Jueyi (王觉一, 1832-1886?). Wang was a religious leader active in the late nineteenth century in Northern China. While he is best known as the fifteenth patriarch of the Way of Former Heaven, a religious tradition dating from the seventeenth century, he is also credited with founding several other groups, many of which were declared illegal or “heterodox” by the Qing imperial state. One group, “Teachings of the Final Effort (mohou yizhujiao 末后一着教), later became Yiguandao. Wang is said to have authored several foundational sectarian texts, including Investigation into the Source of Penetrating Unity (yiguan tanyuan 一貫探源) in which he added a strong neo-Confucian interpretation on top of existing teachings derived from Quanzhen Daoism (全真道) (ZhoU 2011).

But the true founder of the Yiguandao movement is Zhang Tianran (张天然, 1889-1947). [Image at right] Zhang took the small group inherited from the seventeenth patriarch, Lu Zhongyi (路中一(1849?-1925), and refashioned it into a movement well-suited to the modern era. Zhang managed to wrest control over the group by allying with another leader, Sun Suzhen (孙素贞, also known as Sun Huiming 孙慧明, 1895-1975), in 1930. Later married, Zhang and Sun are jointly referred to as the eighteenth patriarchs.

Zhang succeeded by revising the teaching and practices he inherited. His first innovation was to simplify ritual (Irons 2000). In his text, Zanding Fogui (暫定佛规, Provisional sacred regulations), he streamlined the complex ritual requirements inherited from the nineteenth century. Ritual performance still stood at the heart of group identity, but it was now simplified and shortened. He also simplified structure, moving from nine organisational layers to four.

Zhang next focused on expanding membership. He established networks of temples, called fotang (佛堂) throughout northern China. At one time, he spent six months in the modernising port city of Tianjin. He tried to convert everyone he ran across, including his hotel manager and restaurant staff. Pleading no time, they referred him to the martial arts studio across the street. There he found a receptive audience.

The martial arts hall was quickly rechristened the Temple of Morality (daode fotang 道德佛堂). The Tianjin temple turned out to be central to the rapid growth of Yiguandao. Missionaries, many hand-picked by Zhang, were sent to Shanghai, Manchuria (then under Japanese occupation), Beiping (Beijing), and Nanjing, the capital at the time. Following Zhang’s arrest and detention in 1936, Yiguandao cultivated strong ties within the national government. Growth accelerated. Not even the advent of full-fledged war with Japan from 1937 could slow the group’s rapid spread. On the contrary, Yiguandao flourished in areas controlled by the Nationalist government as well as by the Japanese (Sung 1996). This rapid growth would later lead to charges of collusion with the Japanese, but there is no proof of such collaboration (Yiguandao-History 2017). Following the war, in 1946, the Nationalist government in fact issued a decree to disband Yiguandao. In the following year, a compromise solution allowed Yiguandao to continue under a new label, the Chinese Moral Charitable Association. Regardless of the labels under which it operated, Yiguandao had become a visible presence in China.

The post-war period was one of great uncertainty. Zhang died in 1947. At this point Yiguandao membership in China was at its peak; according to one source, membership totaled more than 12,000,000 people. Factions also appeared within the movement. While some members loyal to his first wife, Liu Shuaizhen (刘率贞), most Yiguandao leaders remained loyal to Sun Suzhen, [Image at right] the eighteenth co-patriarch (Jordan 1982). In addition to leadership change came political change. In 1949, the Communist completed its victory over most of the Nationalist forces in the civil war. The Nationalist government and remnants of its army then moved to Taiwan.

The refugees included a number of Yiguandao missionaries. Most had been sent by their temples or, in some cases, by Zhang Tianran himself, with instructions to develop Yiguandao in Taiwan. In Taiwan the newcomers found a generally welcoming climate. Taiwan had developed as a Japanese agricultural colony and had escaped major damage from the Second World War. The population had some difficulty communicating with the new arrivals, since few of the locals spoke Mandarin. Nevertheless, they were open to Yiguandao’s focus on Confucian teachings, ritual worship, and vegetarianism. The movement grew rapidly, despite active persecution by the Nationalist government and pressure from established Buddhism. The first Yiguandao temple was established in 1946, in the northern county of Yilan (Yiguandao-History 2017).

In Taiwan, the movement took on some new qualities. The missionaries worked independently, which led to the development of organisationally strong vertical branches. Each lineage continued to pay obeisance to Sun Suzhen, who eventually moved to Taiwan in 1954. However, she led a reclusive life and did little to encourage the various lineages to merge. Individual qianren (前人,“elders”) in charge of branches became increasingly powerful in their own rights.

Another reason for the development of independent lineages was government suppression. The Nationalist government remained suspicious of the religion and actively suppressed Yiguandao. It thus made sense for individual temples and their leaders to keep a low profile. Leaders were often arrested, a process euphemistically referred to as “accepting an invitation to drink tea,” although few were held long. This relationship of antagonism generally improved during the 1960s, and Yiguandao gained influence within the governing KMT (Guomindang) party. This culminated in the group’s eventual legalisation in 1987. By 2005, the group numbered 810,000 followers in Taiwan, or 3.5 percent of the population (Lu 2008).

A third characteristic of Taiwan Yiguandao was its increasing focus on Confucian values. Temples offered classes in the Confucian classics. These proved popular with industrial workers, many of whom were moving from the countryside and worked in newly-established factories. Factory owners were also attracted to Yiguandao, leading to the creation of a strong alliance between Yiguandao practice and Taiwanese capitalism. This connection would continue as Taiwanese businesses moved to southeast Asia and China.

Since 1987, Yiguandao has operated openly in Taiwan. An umbrella organization, the Republic of China I-Kuan Tao Association, was formed in 1987. This organisation coordinates activities but does not exert centralised power over Yiguandao as a single religious entity. Indeed, a significant number of Yiguandao groups do not belong. Each lineage essentially goes its own way. In contrast, Yiguandao as a movement has been able to exert considerable informal political influence in Taiwanese politics, with different groups openly supporting candidates (Clart 2018).

The situation in China stands in stark contrast to Taiwan. Yiguandao was outlawed and actively suppressed as part of the Anti-Heterodox Groups and Secret Societies Movement (fandong huidaomen 反动会道门) of 1951-1953. Yiguandao leaders were thrown into prison and, frequently, killed outright. Yiguandao was effectively extinguished as a religious network, and it remained only as a faint cultural memory from the 1930s and 1940s (Dubois 2005).

In recent years Taiwanese businesses have quietly brought Yiguandao temples to their mainland factories. The I-Kuan Tao Association has also made informal contact with the Chinese authorities. As in other areas, Yiguandao has taken advantage of the gradual liberalisation of economic and social ties between Taiwan and China. Academic conferences have been held, and the association is in active communication with the religious authorities in China. In fact, Yiguandao has already returned to mainland China. The current question is how long it will take before it can be practiced openly.

Yiguandao’s development has not been limited to Taiwan and mainland China. Yiguandao temples and temple networks are found in eastern Asia, especially in Hong Kong, Korea, and Japan; throughout Southeast Asia; and in most countries of Europe and North America. While expansion into areas with large ethnic Chinese communities has been organic, movement into new countries beyond Asia reflects the same urge to expand that characterized the movement from its earliest days.

Temples were established in Hong Kong and Malaysia in the 1930s. As mentioned above, Sun Suzhen, the eighteenth co-patriarch, lived in Malaysia and Hong Kong between 1951 and 1954. Today there are Yiguandao General Assemblies in Korea, Myanmar, the U.S., Thailand, Japan, Indonesia, Paraguay, the U.K., Australia, Brazil, and South Africa.

Overall the various transmission masters started their work in the local Chinese community. Many of the temples have had trouble attracting interest beyond the Chinese community, and continue to cater to a Chinese-speaking membership. This is generally true in North America, although a few temples have aggressively switched to English or Spanish in their ceremonies. In general, Yiguandao has been an immigrant religion in non-Asian contexts.

In several Asian countries, however, the movement has succeeded in moving beyond the Chinese community. In Korea and Thailand, Kampuchea, and Myanmar the majority of members are now native-born and non-Chinese. And Yiguandao thrives in Singapore and Malaysia, which have sizeable Chinese-speaking populations.


The name Yiguandao, “the way of pervading unity,” refers to a phrase from Chapter 4 of the Analects of Confucius in which the Master says “My Way is single and [all-]pervading”(wu dao yi yi guan zhi 吾道一以贯之). This idea surfaces everywhere in Yiguandao discourse: there is one Way that pervades all of Nature. The corollary is that the true version of the Way is found within Yiguandao exclusively. Although teachers go out of their way to appear open to the teachings of other traditions, Yiguandao is at heart no less exclusivist than other religions.

Yiguandao grew out of a popular religious tradition in late-Imperial China that worshiped the Ancient Mother. Many of the ideas from Ancient Mother worship are incorporated into Yiguandao core teachings. These include concepts of time and the role of humans. In the foundational soteriological scheme, there are three ages: the Green Yang, Red Yang, and White Yang. Each age is overseen by a Buddha, the Lamplighter Buddha (Dipamkara), the historical Buddha (Sakyamuni), and the Buddha of the future (Maitreya), respectively. The current, White Yang age will see a cataclysmic destruction of the world. Humans are given the Dao (道) in order to prepare them for the reunification with the Ancient Mother.

The Yiguandao soteriological vision revolves around this return to the Ancient Mother. She lives in heaven, the realm of principle (litian 理天). There she created 9,600.000,000 humans. We all contain the same divine spark given by her. However, we became entangled in materiality, in the realm of phenomena (xiangtian 象天), and forgot our divine nature.

The Ancient Mother, out of her ultimate compassion towards her children, has throughout the past sent emissaries to teach human beings: the three Buddhas (Lamplighter, Sakyamuni, Maitreya), as well as all deities and the various founders of all religions, such as Jesus and Mohammed. Their teachings are collectively called jiao (教). All religious teachings are jiao. While jiao are many, they spring without exception from the same source, the Dao itself. There is only one true Dao, the Dao of the Ancient Mother, and that is found only in Yiguandao teachings (Sung 1996).

As the chosen emissary of the Ancient Mother, it is Maitreya’s task to save as many of the remaining souls as possible before the final destruction of the world. This is a true apocalyptic vision. Yiguandao teachings, then, are millenarian. Members must work overtime to ensure they and loved ones are saved.

As Yiguandao doctrine explains, in the previous (Red Yang) period one cultivated first, over many years of religious meditation, before obtaining the Dao of true understanding. Today one “obtains first, then cultivates [the Way]” (xiande houxiu 先得后修) (Clart 2018). “Obtaining the Dao” refers to joining Yiguandao. The current method is an expediency allowed in order to save as many souls as possible. Although every individual who joins will be saved, it is still incumbent upon members to practice morality and virtue.


Ritual practice is an essential part of Yiguandao identity. Yiguandao ritual serves to unite congregations in common acts of respectful obeisance to the divine structure of the universe. To see the neat, evenly-spaced rows of members, all dressed in long white or grey gowns, as they kneel and rise in unison before the altar in long, complex ceremonies of worship is always an impressive sight.

The key rituals involve invocation, presentation of offerings, and initiation. All rituals take place facing the altar. The altar may house different deities or no deity figures at all. But the single essential element is the mudeng (母灯), the lamp signifying the Ancient Mother, along with two flanking flames. [Image at right] These are normally oil lamps lit and extinguished during the ceremonies.

In practice, the composition of altars is eclectic and flexible. One altar may feature a Maitreya Buddha as the central figure. Another may place a Sakyamuni Buddha image in the center. Guan Gong 关公, the Chinese deity of war and business, Guanyin (观音), the bodhisattva of compassion, Confucius, or any number of other deity figures are commonly found on Yiguandao altars. Most temples continue to place images or photo graphs of the eighteenth patriarchs. Zhang Tianran and Sun Suzhen, at either end of the main altar. And in some, branches, all images are replaced by written plaques on the wall. However, all Yiguandao temples will have a sacred altar with some symbolic representation of the Ancient Mother.

The initiation ritual is centred around transmission of the three treasures. While this label suggests the Buddhist three treasures (Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha), in Yiguandao it refers to something altogether different. The first Yiguandao treasure is the opening of the “mysterious pass” (xuanguanqiao 玄关窍), the spot between the eyebrows. The second is a secret mantra, the five-word vow (wuzikoujue 五字口诀). And the third is a hand symbol, or mudra (hetongyin 合同印), to be used in all ritual performance. After the transmission master explains the three treasures to the initiate, the registrant’s full name and merit and virtue fee (gongdefei 功德费) are carefully copied on a paper form and then sent heavenward by burning. In this way, the initiate not only obtains the Dao but will have his or her registered in Heaven. Proper registration ensures subsequent entry. Yiguandao initiation is at heart a process of registration (Irons 2000).

Yiguandao promotes a relatively strict moral vision. Members are strongly urged to be vegetarian. In the temples, most dress in uniforms. The men sport close-cropped hair; the women wear their hair in short cuts of buns and use hair nets. In addition, Yiguandao promotes a very Confucian vision of the proper life. One is humble and self-effacing. Hierarchy is respected, with seniority afforded many rights and deferences. One is expected to be filial. One way to express strong filial piety is by converting departed family members to Yiguandao. The departed can also be helped through the process of chaoba (超拔), a ritual of salvation for ancestors in which they are “pulled up” from the lower realms of hell.

According to Yiguandao thinking, obtaining the Dao is a privilege that must not be taken lightly. Thus, all members are expected to propagate the Yiguandao teachings and contribute somehow to the group’s growth. Ideally this will include setting up a home altar and working to spread the Dao into new growth areas.

One practice critical to the movement has been fuji (扶乩) revelation. The fuji is an oracular message sent from a deity to the congregation through a medium. The medium may be a local person able to move into trance. But more typically, it is a team of three people who receive the transmission and write it down using a planchette. One of the team will hold the planchette, often a wooden stick held vertically on a frame, and write the message in sand. A second member will read out the message, and immediately erase it by smoothing out the sand. This allows the first person to continue writing without break. The third member of the team will write down the message. This team was often consisted of young, pre-pubescent girls. Because of the use of sand to write the message, this form of transmission is often referred to as kaisha (开沙), “opening the sand.”

Fuji is a traditional method of lending a sacred imprimatur to decisions taken within the organization. As a result it has been subject to abuse and influence. Inevitably, some Yiguandao groups have discarded fuji as an outdated method of legitimizing practice (Clart 2018). Other groups continue to use it. As a collection of religious pronouncements, Yiguandao’s large body of fuji revelations is an invaluable source for understanding the group’s thought.


All Yiguandao groups are extremely hierarchical. At the heart of Yiguandao organisation is the temple (fotang), also called the daochang (道场, “Dao field”). Key positions within the temple are the altar keeper (tanzhu 坛主), religious helpers (foyuan 佛员, “Buddha” member), and believers (“Dao intimates,” daoqin 道亲). For the core believers the temple serves as a space of social gathering as well as ritual practice.

Functioning at a level above the individual temple organisation are the key positions of transmission master (also referred to as “initiators,” (dianchuanshi 点传师), leader transmission masters (lingdao dianchuanshi 领导点传师), and seniors (qianren, also referred to by the title daozhang (道长), “elders of the way”). The seniors are widely revered. But the transmission masters are key. In addition to key religious staff, they constitute a middle management through which most events are managed. Yiguandao’s success as an organisation has been due to this active, motivated body of middle management.

The temple does not exist in isolation; each is linked to a parent temple. The parent temples are in turn linked to large, established home temples. These will normally be where senior leadership is based. In some cases, the home temple will serve as a lineage head temple.

It is likely that Yiguandao branches were centrally controlled during the 1930s and 1940s in China, when Zhang Tianran exercised control. (Further scholarship may amend this picture in the future.). At least since the Taiwan period (post-1949), Yiguandao has been characterised by extreme splintering (Lu 2008). There are commonly said to be eighteen separate lineages operating in Taiwan. Although all of these paid homage to Sun Suzhen, who lived in Taiwan until her death in 1975, in practice she was reclusive and each lineage acted independently. In addition, the 1949-1987 period in Taiwan was one of government oppression, to greater or lesser degrees, and it made sense for each lineage to work independently. The result today is that Yiguando does not speak with one voice, and certain of the wealthier and larger lineages are essentially separate religions in their own right.


Yiguandao today faces challenges in future development that center on leadership and doctrine. The movement has always been a religion centered on rapid growth. Today that growth is moderated and in some places stalled. The movement thus operates in two major modes. In Taiwan and in many Asian countries it is an established religion. In Europe, North America, Australia, Africa, and mainland China, Yiguandao operates on the fringes of society, as an immigrant or missionary religious group.

In the core countries (Taiwan, Hong Kong, Japan, Korea, Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia) Yiguandao groups are fully-established religions. This means they have become concerned with a host of issues that were less important during the missionary stage of development. For instance, the transmission masters find their roles focus increasingly on pastoral care rather than a sole preoccupation with proselytization. Temple leadership becomes concerned with how their congregations interact with society. A slew of social issues come to the fore: drug use, infant care for working mothers, unemployment, and ageing. Interaction with other religious groups in the community become common. And the leadership becomes attuned to local regulations and political issues. Temples may experience gradual decline in membership numbers as the initial period of rapid recruitment falters. The makeup of congregations inevitably change as second and third generation members take over. And care for ageing members becomes a paramount issue. Many Yiguandao temples struggle to adjust their traditional self-image and focus to keep up with rapid societal changes in the host countries.

In non-core countries, Yiguandao groups grapple with an issue common to all new immigrant religions, finding the right message to attract followers. Internally, the leaders show a strong spirit of commitment to their cause. On visits to temples, which are often in nondescript flats or business buildings in the suburbs, one finds the same spirit of kaihuang (开荒), “developing the wild,” that motivated the early transmission masters to move into new villages and territories in China and Taiwan. Yet many of the cultures Yiguandao encounter today are not east Asian. Motifs and terms do not resonate the same way they do in east Asian contexts. The immediate recognition of Maitreya Buddha is an example: he is not widely recognised in European or American contexts. Yiguandao transmission masters are well trained to argue and discuss Yiguandao theory, but struggle to adjust their message to fit the new cultures.

To manage these challenges requires a renewed emphasis on leadership. The various lineages and larger temples have always excelled at training transmission masters and religious assistants. The practice of holding formal training was initiated by Zhang Tianran, who held the first “stove meeting” (lu hui 芦荟) for this purpose in Tianjin in 1938. He realised that only a thorough grounding in doctrine and argumentation would allow leaders to succeed in new environments. This model is today beginning to evolve. Several of the wealthier sub-lineages in Taiwan, such as Fayi Chongde (发一崇德) and Baoguang Jiande (宝光建德), have established university-level education. Education beyond the traditional training regimes is beginning to result in new efforts to interpret doctrine. It is likely that the movement will require reinterpretation of established doctrine and ritual to ensure its future survival.

Image #1: Photograph of Zhang Tianran, founder of the Yiguandao movement.
Image #2: Photograph of Sun Suzhen, successor to Zhang Tianran.
Image #3: Photograph of a Yiguandao ceremony with members standing in front of an altar displaying statues of the pantheon.
Image #4: Photograph of the mudeng (母灯), the lamp signifying the Ancient Mother, along with two flanking flames.


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Post Date:
2 December 2017