Is There Religious Fundamentalism in Chinese Culture? The Case of the i-kuan Tao in Taiwan Jen-Chieh Ting


The Construction of Dispensationalism to Substantiate Cultural Fundamentalism



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4.3. The Construction of Dispensationalism to Substantiate Cultural Fundamentalism
One important element of Christian fundamentalism is the concept of “dispensationalism.” It was the fruit of renewed interest in the details of biblical prophecy, which developed after the American Civil War (Marsden 1991:39-41). Dispensationalism is a conceptual overview and interpretive framework for understanding the overall flow of the Bible. It teaches biblical history as a number of successive economies or administrations under God known as “dispensations.” In the Christian tradition, the idea of dispensationalism posits that the Bible explained all historical change through a pattern of seven dispensations, or eras. In each of these dispensations God tested humanity through a different plan of salvation. Humans failed each test, and each era ended in a catastrophic divine judgment (Marsden 1991:40).

According to the above schema, we live in the sixth era and are heading toward catastrophe and divine intervention. Finally, after a tumultuous seven years of wars and calamities, Jesus will establish a literal kingdom in Jerusalem and reign for a thousand years (Marsden 1991:40).

In Protestant fundamentalism, the construction of dispensationalism is crucial. Dispensationalists show us that historical manifestations strictly follow the Scripture, thus linking the fundamentalist attitude with actual historical development. This linkage both revitalizes the scripture and transforms people’s daily life. After inserting a dispensationalist interpretation into scriptures, fundamentalism enhances an even stronger future orientation and gets a firmer motivational base for missionary activities.

In predicting the coming of the future savior, dispensationalism implies a pessimistic attitude toward the current historical moment. Marsden (1991:41) argued that:


Dispensationalism itself was strikingly antimodernist. In many respects it looked

like the mirror image of modernism. Modernism was optimistic about modern culture; dispensationalism was pessimistic. Most importantly, each centered around an interpretation of the relation of the Bible to history. Modernism interpreted the Bible through the lens of human history. Dispensationalists interpreted history exclusively through the lens of Scripture. Where modernism stressed the naturalistic, seeing social forces as being crucial to understand religion, dispensationalists accentuated the supernatural, making divine intervention the direct solution to the modern problem of explaining historical change.


This antimodernist attitude behind dispensationalism of course means that as the chance arises it may further evolve into antimodernist acts.

Here, dispensationalism may not derive directly from the literal truth of a scripture. It needs some further interpretation of the scriptural text to manifest the evolutionary secrets and the concrete historical codes behind the text. Yet its approach, in claiming total loyalty to the instruction of scriptural revelations, and being willing to sacrifice all temporal gratification for an eternal salvation, is fundamentalism. We can say that dispensationalism is an implicit fundamentalism, in the format of staying close to the literal truth of the scripture. However, some further interpretation and constructions to accompany the scripture are necessary in order to make current history perceivable through the lens of the revealed texts.

Indeed, orthodox Confucianism has never been a prophetic tradition. Confucius and his disciples never claimed to have received a revelation from above. They did not consider themselves privy to divine secrets (Renard 2002:462).

However, Chinese sectarian groups for their own special needs may renew those Confucian classical scriptures by juxtaposing the descending spirits of the ancient saints and arranging those scriptures in newer chapter sequences, thereby revitalizing those classical scriptures in a new revelational forms, as in the case of the I-Kuan Tao.

Here again, something very close to the Christian fundamentalist idea of dispensationalism has been introduced into the I-Kuan Tao, which substantiates Chinese fundamentalism with both a definite historical time frame and a perceivable salvific schema.

Two dispensationalist constructions could be found in the I-Kuan Tao. The most salient one is the idea of the Three Eschatological Periods, which presumes that the Third Eschatological Period, the White Sun Period is coming. Another is the construction of a system of apostolic succession (Jordan & Overmyer 1986:289-292), in which the mandate of heaven is represented in a more monopolistic yet populist form. The construction of both are mutually corresponding as well as reinforcing.

The idea of the Three Eschatological Periods, of course, was already a long sectarian tradition found in Chinese lands. This idea was borrowed for the first time from the Buddhist idea of kalpas (in Chinese, jie 劫) and later was appropriated by the White Lotus Society (Bai Lian Jiao 白蓮教) in the Song dynasty. We see that the White Lotus Society had already postulated that, to save humanity, the great goddess would send buddhas down to earth to teach a salvific morality to her wayward children. Human beings being “steeped in wickedness,” however, their salvation required repeated efforts. She sent down, in succession, the Lamp-Lighting Buddha (Randengfo 燃燈佛) and Sakyamuni Buddha (Shijiamonifo 釋迦牟尼佛). Yet each could save only some of her children, leaving most of humanity still benighted. The salvation of the remainder would be undertaken by a third and final god, Buddha Maitreya (Milefo彌勒佛).(Chang, 2004:52).

Now, following this traditional schema, the I-Kuan Tao claims that its seventeenth patriarch Lu Zhong Yi (路中一; 1849-1925) was the incarnation of the Maitreya. So since Lu, the third and last eschatological period already has been activated.



The other dispensationalist construction in the I-Kuan Tao, is the I-Kuan Tao’s newly generated schema of apostolic succession. Although different divisions of the I-Kuan Tao provide slightly different variants for this schema, yet all of them came from the same source: the catechism book Questions and Answers on I-Kuan Tao written by the I-Kuan Tao’s eighteenth patriarch Zhang Tian Ran. In the book, one question asks about the Heritage of Tao. Within the answer all of the patriarchs of the I-Kuan Tao have been listed, starting from the beginning of the earth to now. Some of the most interesting parts (Zhang Tian Ran 1988[1937]:89-91) are cited below:
The first saint of mankind was Fu Xi Shi [伏羲氏]….This was the beginning of the descending-from-heaven Tao….From Fu Xi Shi until Duke Zhou [周公] was the Green Sun period. It was the period of the God-descended-from-heaven Tao, onto admirable rulers who governed the world with Tao according to God’s will. This Tao was manifested externally yet was transmitted continually without interruption.
After King You [幽], the Red Sun Period began and the Heritage of Tao was carried on by scholars. Unlike emperors and kings, who could rule and lead subjects to follow God’s will, scholars did not have the authority and could only use teachings based on the truth to inspire people to bring out goodness….Since teachings were carried out by religions, it was a period of spreading Tao by religions. The first three great religions appeared in the world about three thousand years ago, and they were Taoism, Buddhism, and Confucianism….
Confucius conveyed the essence of Tao to Zeng Zi [曾子]. Zheng Zi conveyed it to Zi Si [子思]. Zi Si conveyed it to Mencius…. China was in turmoil…. There wasn’t anyone who could continue to carry on the mission of spreading Tao, and the Heritage of Tao ceased to continue in China….
Later, the philosophers Zhou Dun-I, Cheng Yi, Zhang Zai, Zhu Xi, and others began to bring forth the full sense of this “doctrine of an all pervading unity”. Through them, the true teachings became prosperous and glorious. Alas! they did not meet with good luck; finally they failed to succeed and preach the Great Tao, because this Great Tao had gone over to the Western regions before the birth of Mencius. Buddhists then transmitted the Tao and began to preach the true teachings. Though the scholars of the Song dynasty appeared in succession, they could do nothing but answer their duties and chances of explaining and manifesting the principal ideas of the Great Tao….
Since Lord Buddha Shakyamuni [i.e.Gautama, the historical Buddha] converted his first disciple, Patriarch Arya Mahakasyapa, the Great and True teachings were individually imparted to the chosen until the 28th generation. Patriarch Da Mo [Arya Bodhidharma] was the sole recipient of this principle of Truth. He came over to China from the West….
Henceforth the true teachings were transmitted in ranges without any break right up

to saint Wang Jue Yi [王覺一], the fifteenth patriarch of the I-Kuan Tao. He transmitted Tao to the saint Liu Qing Xu [劉清虛]. The Red Sun period ended on Liu. Tao then turn to the White Sun period. Buddha Maitreya descended, [who is] the seventeenth patriarch Lu Zhong Yi [路中一], the incarnation of the Maitreya, also the first patriarch of the White Sun Period.


At present, Zhang [張] has succeeded. He sets about to fulfil and complete the last task that was entrusted to him….
As we can see, these saints came to this would as kings, scholars, and commoners to fulfill their missions. In the Green Sun Period [before the Zhou Dynasty B.C.1066], rulers could not lead people by God’s will, so the saints descended as kings and emperors to carried on the Tao Lineage. In the Red Sun period (beginning from Zhou Dynasty), rulers couldn’t lead people anymore, so the saints descended as scholars to carry on the Tao Lineage. As the influence of religions weakened, the saints descended as secular devotees of Tao to maintain the Tao Lineage. Now that the Last Catastrophe of the White Sun Period is near, ethics and morality have deteriorated extremely. As a result, many catastrophes have occurred. It is an emergency for saving all souls; Tao is made available to all now. After one receives the Heaven’s Tao, he or she has the chance to attain Tao and becomes a buddha after the Final Catastrophe of the White Sun Period.
The things most interesting in the above paragraphs are not the detailed dates for each patriarch; actually the gaps between any two patriarchs of this Tao Lineage are often illogical and incomprehensible. Rather, the implications manifested by the Tao Lineage above invite us to reflect on how the I-Kuan Tao successfully builds a dispensationalism for popular religion under this Chinese cultural context.

In this dispensationalism, the mandate of heaven has been transmitted from emperors, to saints, and now to commoners. The Third Eschatological Period started with the I-Kuan Tao’s seventeenth patriarch, and now it is the I-Kuan Tao’s eighteenth patriarch, Zhang Tian Ran, also the last patriarch, who transmits this mandate of heaven to the human realm.

Furthermore, some most important implications behind this constructed dispensationalism can be pointed out:


  1. The contents of Tao are inclusive, available to everyone, yet the Tao Lineage is exclusive. This Tao Lineage never breaks. Before the I-Kuan Tao’s eighteenth patriarch Zhang Tian Ran, the Tao Lineage always was singular. That is, at one time, only one line could monopolize the legitimacy of the Tao Lineage. We often refer to the “three teachings in one” (san jiao he yi三教合一), which implies that Chinese local sectarian groups treat Confucianism, Buddhism, and Taoism equally. However, this constructed dispensationalism clearly shows that at one time, only one patriarch bears the Tao Lineage. This Tao Lineage, being descended from the Taoist Laozi, and later given to Confucius and during the middle age to Buddhists patriarchs, now is exclusively borne by the I-Kuan Tao. Therefore, the umbrella of this “three-in-one” does not mean that all three shared equal legitimacy; rather, at one historical moment, the real truth still exclusively comes from only one bearing Tao Lineage.




  1. However, in China, the Tao Lineage did break between Mencius and Da Mo (達磨). This clearly shows that simply being a Confucian is not enough to be saved. For example, even the Confucian philosophers Zhou Dun-I, Cheng Yi, Zhang Zai, and Zhu Xi had great contributions to maintaining Tao, yet they still were alienated from the true Tao. It certainly proves that the Tao Lineage is not equal to Confucian knowledge. The Second Epoch of this Confucian anthropocosmic transformation was still not enough to make Confucian intellectuals bear the Tao Lineage. Most Confucian intellectuals in history actually were departed from Tao. Now the Tao Lineage has already descended to commoners. It retains Tao’s revelational attributes and popular bent, which are both different from a solely Confucian stance. At last, commoners win the orthodoxy, intellectuals lose. The grace would be open to everybody, however, only through the Tao Lineage of the I-Kuan Tao.

One thing as yet unmentioned is that if dispensationalism usually is constructed from a special way of literal interpretation of the scripture, then from what is the I-Kuan Tao’s dispensationalism constructed? Definitely it is not from Chinese classical scriptures, since they are not the prophetic type of books. Rather, we can say that they come from the common tradition in the sectarian milieus since the Ming dynasty.

The so-called baojuan (寶卷, “precious scrolls”) since the Song dynasty have been produced by sectarian leaders or collective spirit writing, and many of them were printed, thus making sectarian teachings available to a wide readership (Seiwert 2003:228). Among those volumes, the most conspicuous one is Luo Menghong’s (羅夢鴻; 1442-1527) Five Books in Six Volumes, published around 1480. The book borrow Buddhist ideas and then documents clearly the ideas of the Three Eschatological Periods and the Eternal Primordial Mother in a recitable form. Although Luo Menghong himself is the patriarch of a specific sectarian group, the ideas in his books soon became the common teaching sources for most sectarian groups in the Ming (A.D. 1368-1644) and Qing (A.D. 1644-1911) dynasties.

Given this background, to construct the dispensationalism for any later sectarian groups then does not involve reinterpretations of the classical scriptures, since: (1) at least there are no commonly recognized classical scriptures documenting this mythology, and (2) baojuan can be seen as a scriptural kind of book, yet baojuan come from other groups and cannot be considered our own group’s scripture.


Instead, then, we found that for any newly established sectarian groups, with regard to this issue of dispensationalist construction, the main task is to generate new texts to monopolize the mandate of heaven. In the I-Kuan Tao, two main texts are relevant here: The True Scripture of Maitreya’s Relieving the Distressed already mentioned above, and another scripture called the Ten Admonishments from the Eternal Primordial Mother to Children (Huang mu xun zi shi jie皇母訓子十誡), a spirit-writing book generated by the I-Kuan Tao in 1941, in which a total of 10 chapters represent the myth of the Three Eschatological Periods in the language of the heavenly mother’s earnest yearning for children.

As the newly generated texts have represented the popular eschatological myth in the monopolistic form, that is, making the Tao Lineage or mandate of heaven specifically belong to “our sectarian group,” then we can say that this construction of dispensationalism has been accomplished. After this, any further elaboration could be more freely delivered by the patriarch of the sectarian group, since the mandate of heaven has been given to the Tao Lineage he represents. In the I-Kuan Tao, we see that Eighteenth Patriarch Zhang Tian Ran’s description of the Tao Lineage, as cited above, thus could be an authoritative source accepted by all I-Kuan Tao followers.

Here we see clearly that the construction of dispensationalism in the Chinese cultural tradition is not by exegetists’ endeavors to literally interpret the classical scriptures; rather, it is through generating a newly monopolistic version of texts documenting the commonly accepted mythology. A substantially historical understanding and interpretation thus is replaced by a sectarian vision of empowerment, in which through the confirmation of the Tao Lineage, both the feeling of cultural orthodoxy and one’s hope for future salvation have been enhanced.




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