Taoist clothing and religious ceremonial robes worn by Taoist priests are an important part of the Taoist culture. Taoism sees a great importance in its own traditions. All beliefs and systems that have been formed are transmitted from generation to generation for a long time. This is also the case with the clothing system. Taoism pays attention to the standards and colors of Taoist clothes, especially the robes.
A robe is the traditional Taoist clothing and at the same time, it is also the religious ceremonial garment worn by Taoist practitioners and believers. In Taoist temples, we can often see Taoist robes of different colors, which also have different etiquette norms and systems.
At the beginning of Taoism, the Taoist clothes were made of velvet with a cloak made of woven bird feathers (鹙鸟羽毛 Qiū niǎo yǔmáo). These robes were called crane cloak “鹤氅 Hè chǎng”.
Since the Song Dynasty there has been a custom of scholar-bureaucrats wearing Taoist robes. Taoist clothing are used as regular clothing, and can be worn by everyone from the emperor to the common people, not just Taoist priests.
In the Song Dynasty, 陆修静 Lu Xiujing’s Taoist uniforms were of two types of brown. Cloak-like clothing, such as the 霞帔 Xiápèi (a short cloak with embroidered cloud patterns, draped on the shoulders of the master) has disappeared after the Yuan Dynasty).
In ancient times Taoist garments were also called “帔 Pèi”. At present, mainly the styles of the Ming and Qing dynasties are inherited.
We must distinguish the difference between Taoist clothing and Ritual robes. Ordinary people are not allowed to wear ritual robes. The robe is equivalent to a ceremonial dress, which has religious significance.
The meaning of the colors of Taoist clothing
Colours emphasize the simplicity of nature and the connection of the five elements.
Taoist wear mainly in blue, black and white, and several ceremonial clothing of various colours. Each has a special meaning.
Taoist robes refer to the regular clothes worn by Taoists on a daily basis. Wearing a robe, wearing a 庄子巾 Zhuangzi hat or a 混元巾 Hunyuan hat, wearing 玄裤 dark pants, 云袜 cloud socks and 十方鞋 ten direction shoes. The regular clothes can provide convenience for the Taoists to go out to work on a daily basis.
Blue is the most common color of Taoist uniforms and it is also the color that Taoists wear on a daily basis.
Blue belongs to wood in the five elements. Wood is benevolent, its nature is straight, its affection is gentle, fraternity and kindness, noble and generous, simple and innocent.
The blue color symbolizes the time when all things are born and grow. Taoism believes in this life and does not believe in the afterlife. For Taoists, longevity is their ultimate goal, and vitality means longevity. Taoist priests often wear blue clothes as a regular dress because the colour symbolizes longevity.
Black is water in the five elements. Water dominates wisdom, its nature is smart, its affection is kind, its taste is salty, it is thoughtful, erudite and wise.
In Taoist culture, 玄 Xuan (black/dark) is an extremely important concept, which means far-reaching, hidden, invisible, mysterious and infinite. Lao Tzu believes that black is the symbolic color of “Tao”, and black has a lofty position in the Tao Te Ching.
道家 Dao Jia and 道教 Dao Jiao are called “玄学” and “玄教”, namely “profound/mysterious studies” and “mysterious religions”. Taoism regards Xuan as “profound and mysterious, the gate of all wonderful things”. Black, as an achromatic color, has a sense of fading to the human vision, which goes along with the Taoist idea of escaping from the human world.
White is metal in the five elements. It’s character is rigid, its affection is fierce, it is resolute and decisive, sparse wealth and righteousness.
White is one of the most commonly used clothing colors in Taoism. White is as plain as white snow and white feathers. It looks plain and pure, but the meaning behind it is very profound.
《说文》says: “白，从入合二 Bái, cóng rù hé èr” (“Bai (white), from entering into two”). The ancient character “二 èr” (two) symbolizes the space between heaven and earth, and “入Rù” (enter) means that sunlight enters between heaven and earth.
Therefore, the original meaning of the “白 Bái” character is to take the scene of the sun shining between the sky and the earth. This concept seems simple, but it is very profound, because it is necessary to stand at a certain height and overlook the “human world” from a higher perspective in order to experience “白 Bái”.There are several other colours and traditional Chinese clothing used by Taoists according to personal preferance.
What are the different Taoist clothes and ritual garments
Taoist clothes are generally divided into two categories: regular or daily clothes and ritual or ceremonial robes.
Regular clothing: 大褂 Dà Guà , 中褂 Zhōng Guà , 短褂 Duǎn Guà , 得罗 Dé Luō , 衲衣 Nà Yī , 海青 Hǎi Qīng;
and ceremonial garments: 戒衣 Jiè Yī , 经衣 Jing Yi , 花衣 Huā Yī , 法衣 Fǎ Yī , 降衣 Jiàng Yī.
Taoist clothes, simply put, are the robes that Taoists wear on a daily base. Ceremorials robes are only used for rituals.
All robes have “慧剑 Huì Jiàn” attached. “慧剑 Huì Jiàn” are two longer strings of cloth with a sword like tip, so its called the “swords of wisdom”. ( 短褂 Duǎn Guà does not have the “慧剑 Huì Jiàn” attached.)
大襟 Dà Jīn or 大褂 Dà Guà
The simplest style of Taoist robes, which Taoists wear every day , representing the meaning of the religion. The placket is wide, reaching to the ankles, the sleeves are one foot four inches wide, and the sleeve length goes with you. At present, it is mostly developed into narrow sleeves for daily work. 《大明会典》 says: “Taoist priests wear Blue clothes.”
中褂 Zhōng Guà
Shorter version of the 大褂 Dà Guà. The robe`s length is between hip and knees.
短褂 Duǎn Guà
Short clothing for daily work.
得罗 Duǒ Luō
Taoist priests wear this robe, a hat and crown during the initiation ceremony. The robe is loose, reaching the ankle, and the sleeves are more than one foot eight inches wide. Taoists participating in religious activities can wear this robe.
衲衣 Nà Yī
Also known as “衲头Natou” is no longer used by many Taoist priests today. Large collar, long to the calf. Sewn in layers of sackcloth linen. It is worn by Taoist monks who are wandering outside while meditating to protect against wind and cold. A few Taoist priests still keep the robes that have been passed down from generation to generation in the past.
海青 Hǎi Qīng
For the daily wear of Taoist priests, it is simply made of blue or white cloth into a wide-sleeved Taoist robe.
戒衣 Jiè Yī
A representative of an ordained Taoist priests. The sleeve width is more than two feet four inches. Yellow belongs to earth, which can transform and educate all things. In the past, the Taoist precept system had “three clothes”, which were respectively worn by Taoists who received the first true precepts, the middle precepts and the great precepts of the gods. Now the precepts are given all at one time, so only this kind of precepts are used.
天仙洞衣 Tiān xiān dòng yī
It is a special kind of 戒衣 Jiè Yī worn only by High-Priest (Gao Gong 高功), who hold a large-scale fasting ritual. The robe is long to the calf, sleeveless drape, with various ornaments.
经衣 Jīng yī
Red or yellow robes without any patterns called “经衣 Jīng yī”. These are worn by the “经師 Jīng shī”, literally “Master of Scriptures”, during the daily ceremonies and worship repentance.
花衣 Huā Yī
Also called “班依 Ban Yi”. It has a straight front and is as long as the calf. It is sleeveless and has a long sleeve. There are also various embroidery patterns on it, but it is simpler than the “Tianxian Dongyi”. “经師 Jing Shi” during big ceremonies and large-scale rituals are required to wear 花衣 Huā Yī. 9 colours of the Ban Yi represent the 九气 nine Qi.
法衣 Fǎ Yī
法衣 Fǎ Yī is the name of the garments worn by 高功 Gāo gōng (High-Priest) and masters during the ceremony. The vestments are thick and loose, in order to imply the meaning of enclosing the universe within and separating from the mundane world. Traditionally there are seven colors and often embroidered with gold and silver threads with various auspicious Taoist patterns such as the sun, moon and stars, pagodas, dragon and phoenix, cranes, etc.
The 法衣 Fǎ Yī ceremonial robe is the special clothing for Taoist rituals. Since ancient times there are specific rules and standards for 法衣 Fǎ Yī. Different colors of robes correspond to the status of the Taoist priests and cannot be worn at will.
Yellow is one of the most common robes. Yellow vestments have the highest status in Taoism. They are generally worn by the masters on formal occasions.
The celestial master wears a special yellow robe, the “king’s dress”. It is the “highest” kind of robe.
Purple has always been the most legendary color in Taoism, since Lao Zi, the ancestor of Taoism, rode an ox leaving the country at the Hangu Pass towards west. Yin Xi, the guardian of the city, saw the “紫气东来 purple Qi comes from the east” three thousand Li away.Therefore, purple is a symbol of nobility and auspiciousness in Taoism, and the emperors of all dynasties also liked to use purple Taoist uniforms to reward Taoists. The purple robe represents the high-level priest, and it is the dress of the master of the scriptures. The abbot of a temple wears this robe when holding a grand ceremony.
Red is relatively rare compared to yellow and purple uniforms. This color is generally used in Taoism when doing rituals that pray for blessings.
In Taoism, blue symbolizes wood in the five elements, and wood represents vitality. The cyan robe are commonly worn by priests who worship and celebrate birthdays of deities.
This kind of color is relatively rare in Taoism. Because of its low status, and because green is worn by the scattered celestials. Only few priests choose to wear green vestments. The green robe is mostly worn by Taoist during ceremonies for immortals or ancestors.
Black is the color of clothing worn by one specific department called “斗部 Dòu bù”. In Taoist culture, Doubu mainly enshrines “斗姆元君 Dòu mǔ yuán jūn” , the “二十八宿 Èrshí bā xiù” and “二十四元辰 Èrshí sì yuán chén”.
White can be said to be a strange color in Taoism, and it is also a special color in Chinese traditional culture. In Taoism, this color is worn by the underworld. We know that religious people believe that there will be ghosts after death, and the underworld is the place where ghosts live. The Taoist Underworld Division, “冥司 Míng sī”, is a department that transcends ghosts, worships, and does underworld services.
降衣 Jiàng Yī
In the large-scale fasting ceremony, this a kind ceremonial robe is worn by Master Gao Gong. It is lined with an inlayer called “海清 Hǎi Qīng”. Its two sleeves are wide and hanging down. When the arms are spread, the two sleeves and the body form a quadrangle. All embroidered with golden dragon pattern.
In the “正一派 Zhèng yī pài”, the orthodox oneness school of Taoism, there are two kinds of robes worn by Gao Gong masters:
The small-sleeved 法衣 Fǎ Yī and sleeveless 罡衣 Gāng Yī, which are used to issue talismans to summon generals.
Further there are several robes used for ritual service: 堂衣 Táng Yī, 行衣 Háng Yī , and 班衣 Bān Yī (also known as 忏衣 Chàn Yī).
堂衣 Táng Yī and 行衣 Háng Yī are collectively referred to as “道衣 Dào yī”.
The general summoner wears red, element fire, but if hold a fire ceremony, wearing a black garment with the element belonging to water.
法衣 Fǎ Yī
罡衣 Gāng Yī
Mainly used for “灵宝朝仪” ceremonies of the Lingbao series, such as when “建坛Jiàn tán”、”安五灵ān wǔ líng”、”进表 jìn biǎo”. In some places, it is specially used for walking, so it is called “罡衣 Gāng Yī”.
堂衣 Táng Yī
Has a straight front, and is used for offering holy registers “拜表 Bai Biao”, during ceremonies and worship.
行衣 Háng Yī
With a right slanted front, is mostly used for Gao Gong during fasting rituals and ceremonies.
The 班衣 Bān Yī or 忏衣 Chàn Yī repentance robe is straight in the front and has auspicious patches on the back.
All types of vestments have various patterns, some of which can be divided into the three realms of heaven, earth and water, mainly reflecting the Taoist cosmology: “海水江崖 Hǎishuǐ jiāng yá”, also known as “大水脚 dà shuǐ jiǎo”, represents the water realm; the true shape map of the five mountains “五岳真形图 wǔyuè zhēn xíng tú” represents the earth realm; the sun, moon and the stars “日月星辰 rì yuè xīngchén” and the “二十八宿 èrshí bā xiù” twenty-eight constellations represent the heaven; the “郁罗箫台 yù luō xiāo tái” in the middle represents the “无上大罗天 wú shàng dài luō tiān”.
This article gives an overview of the commonly used Taoist closing and ritual robes of Quan Zhen and Zheng Yi traditions, based on my personal knowledge and experience. If there are any mistakes, I would appreciate any corrections and critics. There are many Taoist schools and traditions with their own specific uniform and clothing standards. I would like to cover more in a future article.
Written by XuanMenJun玄門君