Taoist takes down US official’s statement on South China Sea

By Zhang Yu Source:Global Times Published: 2015-6-26 5:03:01

Liang Xingyang practices with a sword in the Temple of the Golden Immortal in Xi'an. Photo: Courtesy of Liang Xingyang

The Temple of the Golden Immortal in Xi'an. Photo: Courtesy of Liang Xingyang

For centuries, Taoists were known for shunning worldly pursuits, wandering around free of care according to their own will and practicing the art of non-action. Some even lived in solitude in the mountains in a quest for inner clarity.Not so for Liang Xingyang. The 36-year-old Taoist priest, who lives in the Temple of the Golden Immortal in the Zhongnan Mountains, Shaanxi Province, is extremely active on Weibo, China's largest social media site, even though this sometimes places him at the center of controversy.

He recently became an online celebrity after he skewered a US official's statement that China's recent land reclamation efforts in the South China Sea violated the area's feng shui. That episode earned him the nickname "the patriotic Taoist" by netizens.

He has also confounded people's general impressions of Taoist priests with his wacky pictures, often featuring him holding a teddy bear and a lollipop while clad in a traditional blue robe, his hair tied up in a bun.

Feng shui debate

Last month, in an article in the Washington Post, Daniel Russel, US assistant secretary of state for East Asia, was quoted as saying, "Reclamation isn't necessarily a violation of international law, but it's certainly violating the harmony, the feng shui, of Southeast Asia, and it's certainly violating China's claim to be a good neighbor and a benign and non-threatening power."

Although just a brief reference, the American politician's mention of feng shui, an ancient Taoist tradition, in his criticism of China soon grabbed Liang's attention. "An American, and also a Christian, talking about feng shui - doesn't he fear that it violates his religion? … It's like me asking a Christian to follow God," he said in a television interview.

He soon came up with a long post on Weibo to rebut Russel's claim, using elements of yin and yang, tai chi and the earth and moon system to prove that the reclamation actually improves the feng shui not just in the South China Sea, but also in the entire solar system. Written in a sarcastic and sometimes hysterical tone full of emotion and adorned with angry memes, the post was a home run on Weibo, the crowded marketplace of opinions in China, and was reposted over 6,000 times, with most of the comments supporting Liang.

"I didn't expect the post to go viral," Liang said later, "It made me realize that patriotism is still in me, and I'm happy that it met a warm response from netizens."

Liang's interest in current affairs can be traced back to college, years before he converted to Taoism, he said. Back then, he used to be what many Chinese call an "angry youth," leftist young Chinese who are vocal with their nationalism.

In 2001, when a US reconnaissance plane collided with a Chinese fighter jet over the South China Sea, resulting in the death of a Chinese pilot, Liang, then a sophomore in Yunnan University, said he was so outraged that he made posters condemning the US and stuck them on his university's bulletin board. When international disputes involving China broke out, he would discuss politics with enthusiasts in online bulletin boards.

After he graduated with a chemistry degree in 2003, Liang engaged in the jade business at the border of Myanmar for several years, until he decided to become a Taoist in 2009. Talking about his decision, he dismissed it as a spontaneous choice, made after years of interest in Taoism.

After his conversion to Taoism, Liang thought that the "angry youth" in him had disappeared. But Russel's latest comment on the South China Sea reignited it. "It made me realize that I'm still patriotic," he said.

Spreading Taoism

Compared with Buddhism, which has devout monks spreading its creeds systematically over thousands of years and which often garners support from high government officials, Taoism lags behind, mainly due to its association with folklore traditions such as fortune-telling. It has a comparative lack of intellectual following, partly because its philosophy advocates withdrawal from worldly affairs.

Starting from 2010, Liang began to use Weibo as a way to promote Taoism. He now has over 150 disciples, most of whom got to know him online. On Weibo, he has over 110,000 followers, who subscribe to his posts with contents ranging from his understanding of Taoism, comments on current affairs, and cartoon depictions of him created by his followers. He also owns a popular Taobao shop, where he sells Taoist talismans and other souvenirs.

While Liang's patriotic statement and social media presence won him the support of online patriots and amused others, some remained skeptical. In an online Q&A with netizens held by a news website, some questioned if it was against Taoist philosophy to raise his profile so high in public. Others questioned his motives behind his patriotic remarks.

Liang said, "Every person has his own life choices. If every Taoist hides in the mountains, how can Taoism be promoted? How can people understand traditional culture?"

"Our country has flaws, but why not look on the bright side? Everyone likes positive energy, rather than making complaints all day long," he said.

While solitude has long been a characteristic of the Taoist belief, Liang said being a hermit isn't his pursuit. "Ancient sages have pointed out that great hermits enjoy their solitude in noisy places. There is no point living in seclusion if a man does it as a way to escape reality and doesn't know his life purpose," he said.

Talking about the changes brought to him by his online fame, he said, "After the incident, the biggest change is that more and more people got to know or showed their interest in Taoism. We managed to promote Taoism to more people," Liang said.

He said he now spends hours a day to chat with netizens, answering their questions about Taoism.
Newspaper headline: The Patriotic Priest

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