Yiguandao is a popular religious movement in Taiwan that originated in China in the early 20th century and includes an innovative synthesis of Confucian, Buddhist, and Taoist teachings, sectarian traditions, and popular religious influences (Jordan and Overmyer, 1986; Lu, 2008; Billioud, shortly). It means “consistent way” or “persistent way” and is a Chinese folk religious sect that emerged at the end of the 19th century from the Xiantiandao tradition (way of former heavens), which became China’s most important rehabilitation society in the 1930s and 1940s after the Japanese invasion in Shandong.
In non-core countries, Yiguandao groups are grappling with the problems common to all new immigrants religions: finding the right message to win followers. The Yiguandao transmission masters are trained to argue and discuss the Yiguandao theory, but find it difficult to adapt their message to the new culture. Since the movement is not a unified religious body, but a heterogeneous movement composed of various independent branches with contradictory goals, it is clear that missionary work is a fragmented effort.
Like many sects, Yiguandao combines elements of Buddhism, Taoism, Confucianism, and the Chinese folk religion. The eternal venerable mother (Wusheng Laomu) resides on a higher plane (Litian or Qitian) inhabited by gods and spirits (Xiangtian) above the material world of mankind. Despite the name, she is not a female deity, but the primordial force of the universe that animates all things, and the sect regards her as the equivalent of Dao.
With millions of followers on this path, Yiguandao’s pervasive unity has expanded beyond religious groups, not only in Asia but also worldwide. Yiguandao is one of Asia’s fastest-growing religious movements and has strong roots in the Chinese communities of Southeast Asia. Followers of Tian Dao claim that it is not a religion in the strict sense that it represents the Dao, the ultimate path into the cosmos. Yi Guan Dao (Path of Unity), which was increasingly used as Tian Dao’s Path to Heaven, was banned in China after World War II. By contrast, the Path of Pervasive Unity (Yiguandao) was legalized in Taiwan in 1987 and has since become one of Taiwan’s most prominent religions.
Tian Dao was first explicitly banned by the Chinese government in 1946 and has been illegal ever since. Although there has been a general softening of the Chinese government’s attitude toward religion since the 1980s, the unrecognized heterodox sects of Tian Dao have been excluded from this change, and I am not aware of any change in the government’s attitude toward this religion in recent years. An article in the Beijing publication Beijing Qiushi (16 August 1999), which deals with the Communist government’s policy on feudal superstition, summarizes various measures taken against Tian Dao and refers to articles from the Yiguandao Society in the 1940s and 1950s.
The true founder of the Yiguandao movement was Zhang Tianran (Zhang Tian), who ruled from 1889 to 1947. Political events were interpreted under his leadership as part of Buddhist eschatology, with figures such as Sun Yat-sen and Puyi displaying spiritual genealogies that linked them to China’s ancient rulers.
Yiguandao I (Kuan Tao) began in the 1930s with only a few thousand followers in Shandong, but under the leadership of the Patriarch and the Matriarch and the mission work grew in the 1940s to become the largest movement in China with millions of followers. In the 1930s, the movement spread through China under Zhang Tianran, the 18th patriarch of the latter’s Far Eastern Tao lineage, and Sun Suzhen, the first patriarch of the lineage. In 1930, Zhang succeeded in wresting control of the movement from Allied leader Sun Su Shenzhen (Sun Su Zhen, also known as Sun Huime or Sun Hui Ming).
In 1949 Yiguandao was banned as an illegal secret society and heretical cult in mainland China as part of the great anti-religious campaign. In the 1870s, during the persecution of the Qing, Xiantiandao splintered into several independent groups. One branch, led by Wang Jueyi from Shandong, developed into a modern group. As the Qing government intensified its persecution of the heterodox Xiantiandao, it split into several independent groups. One was led by Wang Jueyi of Shandong who claimed to have received a divine revelation that made him the 15th Patriarch of Xiantisandao. According to Yiguandao records, Wang Juesyi of Shandong described himself as the “15th Patriarch” in a “divine revelation.”.
When the CCP began its massive campaign against Falun Gong, the Church of Almighty God, and other groups in Xie Jiao’s list of heterodox teachings in the second half of the 1990s, scholars noted that it was the most massive suppression of a religious movement in China had experienced since the CCP’s massive persecution of the new religious movement of the Yiguandao in the 1950s. This became a model for the suppression of groups known as sects in the 1980s and 1990s.
Observers of contemporary religion in China have an interest in Yiguandao and excellent English-speaking studies, such as the Hong Kong scholar Edward Iron, but its existing theology differs from that of today’s oppressed faith groups.
Yiguandao’s leaders, activists, and missionaries have sought to translate and acculturate religious teachings, practices, and subjects in order to create a religious system that is understood and attractive in non-Chinese cultural contexts. The group now faces the challenge of a future development focused on leadership and doctrine.