Ritual, rejuvenation practices, and the experience of aging in early Chinese religion


  • Ori Tavor University of Pennsylvania




ritual, longevity, Chinese Religions


Scientific advances in the field of biomedicine have fundamentally changed the ways in which we think about our bodies. Disease, aging, and even death, are no longer seen as inevitable realities but as obstacles that can be controlled, and in some cases even reversed, by technological means. The current discourse, however, can be enriched by an investigation of the various ways in which the aging process was perceived and explained throughout human history. In this article, I argue that in early China, the experience of aging and the challenges and anxieties it produced played a constitutive role in the shaping of religious culture. Drawing on a variety of medical, philosophical, and liturgical sources, I outline two models of aging: one that presented aging, and especially the loss of virility, as an undesirable but solvable condition that can be reversed with the aid of various rejuvenation techniques, and a more socially conscious model that depicted aging as a process of gradual social ascension, a natural but fundamentally unalterable condition that should be accepted, marked, and even celebrated through ritual. I conclude by demonstrating the legacy and lasting influence of these models on two of the most fundamental tenets of Chinese religion: the pursuit of longevity and the ideal of filial piety.

Author Biography

  • Ori Tavor, University of Pennsylvania

    Ori Tavor is lecturer in Chinese studies at the department of East Asian Languages and Civilizations, University of Pennsylvania (USA).


Arthur, S. (2013) Early Daoist Dietary Practices: Examining Ways of Health and Longevity. Lanham: Lexington Books.

Bengtson, V. L., Gans, D., Putney, N. and Silverstein, M. (eds) (2009) Handbook of Theories of Aging (2nd edn). New York: Springer.

Calasanti, T. M. and Selvin, K. F. (2001) Gender, Social Inequalities, and Aging. Walnut Creek: Altamira Press.

Chan, A. K. L. and Tan, S. (eds) (2004) Filial Piety in Chinese Thought and History. London: Routledge.

Dreyfus, S. A. (1998) Halakhah issues related to the ethics of aging. In W. Jacobs and M. Zemer (eds) Aging and the Aged in Jewish Law 83–100. Pittsburgh: Freehof Institute of Progressive Halakhah.

Drott, E. R. (2016) Buddhism and the Transformation of Old Age in Medieval Japan. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press. https://doi.org/10.21313/hawaii/9780824851507.001.0001

Goldin, P. R. (2006) The cultural and religious background of sexual vampirism in ancient China. Theology & Sexuality 12(3): 285–308. https://doi.org/10.1177/1355835806065383

Harper, D. (1998) Early Chinese Medical Literature: The Mawangdui Medical Manuscripts. London: Kegan Paul International.

Ing, M. D. K. (2012) The Dysfunction of Ritual in Early Confucianism. New York: Oxford University Press. https://doi.org/10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199924899.001.0001

Jacobs, A. and Century, A. (2012) As China ages, Beijing turns to morality tales to spur filial devotion. New York Times, September 5, 2012. Accessed August 16, 2016. http://www.nytimes.com/2012/09/06/world/asia/beijing-updates-parables-the-24-paragons-of-filial-piety.html

Kimble, M. L. and McFadden, S. H. (eds) (1995–2003) Aging, Spirituality, and Religion: A Handbook. Minneapolis: Fortress Press.

Legge, J. (trans.) (1885) The Sacred Books of China: The Texts of Confucianism, Parts III: The Li Ki, I–X. Oxford: The Clarendon Press.

Maspero, H. (1981) Taoism and Chinese Religion (trans. F. A. Kierman, Jr). Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press.

Palmer, D. (2007) Qigong Fever: Body, Science, and Utopia in China. New York: Columbia University Press.

Post, S. G. and Binstock, R. H. (eds) (2004) The Fountain of Youth: Cultural, Scientific, and Ethical Perspectives on a Biomedical Goal. New York: Oxford University Press.

Shilling, C. (2005) The Body in Culture, Technology and Society. London: Sage Publications.

Slingerland, E. (trans.) (2003) Analects: With Selections from Traditional Commentaries. Indianapolis: Hackett.

Tavor, O. (2013) Xunzi’s theory of ritual revisited: reading ritual as corporal technology. Dao: A Journal of Comparative Philosophy 12(3): 313–30. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11712-013-9331-4

Tavor, O. (2016) Authoring virile bodies: self-cultivation and textual production in early China. Studies in Chinese Religions 2(1): 45–65. https://doi.org/10.1080/23729988.2016.1131464

Thursby, G. R. (2000) Aging in Eastern religious traditions. In Thomas R. Cole, Ruth E. Ray, and Robert Kastenbaum (eds) Handbook of the Humanities and Aging (2nd edn) 155–180. New York: Springer.

Tilak, S. (1989) Religion and Aging in the Indian Tradition. Albany: State University of New York Press.

Turner, B. S. (2010) Biotechnology and the prolongation of life: a sociological critique. In C. E. Bird, P. Conrad, A. M. Fremont and S. Timmermans (eds) Handbook of Medical Sociology (6th edn) 435–46. Nashville: Vanderbilt University Press.

Turner, B. S. (ed.) (2012) Introduction: the turn of the body. In Routledge Handbook of Body Studies 1–17. New York: Routledge.

Unschuld, P. and Tessenow, H. (2011) An Annotated Translation of Huang Di’s Inner Classic – Basic Questions (trans. Huang Di Nei Jing Su Wen). Berkeley: University of California Press.

Van Norden, B. (2008) Mengzi: with Selections from Traditional Commentaries 165, 177. Indianapolis: Hackett.

Wiesing, U. (2008) The history of medical enhancement: from restitutio ad integrum to transformatio ad optimum? In B. Gordijn and R. Chadwick (eds) Medical Enhancement and Posthumanity 9–24. Dordrecht: Springer.

Wong, E. (2013) A Chinese virtue is now the law. New York Times, July 2, 2013. Accessed August 16, 2016. http://www.nytimes.com/2013/07/03/world/asia/filial-piety-oncea-virtue-in-china-is-now-the-law.html

Yu, Y.-S (1964–5) Life and immortality in the mind of Han China. Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies 25: 80–122.






How to Cite

Tavor, O. (2017). Ritual, rejuvenation practices, and the experience of aging in early Chinese religion. Body and Religion, 1(1), 31-47. https://doi.org/10.1558/bar.31737