Brock Silvers, a Chicago business consultant now based in Beijing, was shocked by what he found several years ago when he traveled through the hinterlands of China in search of Taoist temples. “Many ancient foundations, parts, pieces, wings, etc survived until the modern era,” he writes via E-mail. “Most of that was wiped out by the Red Guards.”

Taoism–founded in the second century BC–advises its adherents to lead a life unburdened by excess and tension and in harmony with nature. Yet during the heyday of communism, all forms of religion–even the benign Taoism–were banned in China, and only recently has the government relaxed the restrictions. Since then there’s been a resurgence in faith among mainland Chinese. “The people created Taoism, and the people are coming back to their roots,” says Silvers, who studied the religion at Columbia University. “Temples are jammed on holy days. There’s no shortage of young monks and nuns.”

But many temples are still in ruins, even though the government has started rebuilding some of them. “Mostly with an eye toward tourism,” says Silvers, referring to the large numbers of overseas Chinese now making pilgrimages to celebrated Taoist monasteries.

Two years ago Silvers and Elizabeth Wenscott, a longtime tai-chi instructor at the Japanese Cultural Center on Belmont, organized the Taoist Restoration Society to help rebuild the temples, and last fall they and photographer Kipling Swehla visited Taoist sites in two Chinese provinces. They were particularly captivated by the White Cloud Temple outside Beijing and the thousand-year-old Temple of the Mysterious City, which, though nestled high in the mountains in Hunan, was nearly destroyed during the Cultural Revolution. Swehla took thousands of photos for the TRS archives, and Silvers, who speaks fluent Mandarin, talked with monks and municipal officials about renovations.

“Our job is to see that the tradition isn’t preserved as a tourist game, a nonreligious shell,” says Silvers. “So we strive to assist in preserving traditional ways. And the locals love us for it. We are working with an abbot to build a new temple, and hundreds of people came out to thank us, giving us food, serenading us with local opera. What an experience!” The list of TRS projects also includes preserving the Taoism-based language of a minority tribe in Yunnan province.

Curiously, the Chinese government doesn’t seem to regard TRS’s efforts as foreign interference. “The government doesn’t care about us or our activities,” says Wenscott. “As long as we are apolitical they are happy to receive our gifts. The problem isn’t the government prohibiting us–it’s the government trying to take too much of our money. That’s the problem we had in another province a while back.”

Wenscott and Swehla will give a lecture on Taoism and show slides of Taoist sites at 7 PM Saturday at Swehla’s apartment, 2245 S. Michigan. Admission is free, though a donation is requested. For more information about TRS activities call 935-4610 or E-mail Silvers at

–Ted Shen

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Yael Routtenberg.