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What is Taoism?

Updated on August 24, 2010

Taoism is a Chinese philosophy and religion that, with Confucianism and, later, Buddhism, has had a major influence on Chinese civilization. Taoism developed along with Confucianism during the Warring States period, from the 5th to the 3d centuries B.C., one of the many times when China's usually strong central government was weak and civil wars were frequent among the feudal lords of small local states. Taoist philosophy was a reaction against the chaotic violence and the arbitrary laws and hierarchical social structure in the states. It encouraged men to seek harmony with nature and with their fellowmen through a simple individualistic life and calm meditation on the the unity underlying all things in the universe. By the 2d century A.D., Taoism had developed certain deep mystical tendencies and had begun to evolve into a popular religion partly dependent on magic. Taoism has generally supported decentralized government and has appealed to the emotion and imagination of solitary individuals, while Confucianism has supported centralized government and has supplied the intellectual code that has dominated the ethics and etiquette of Chinese society.

Philosophical Taoism

The early Taoist philosophers were a relatively small number of sages, such as Yang Chu; P'eng Meng; Lao-tzu, the legendary founder of Taoism; Chuang-tzu, Lao-tzu's disciple; and Lieh-tzu. Their philosophy is expressed chiefly in the poetic Tao The Ching, or Book of the Tao and the The (sometimes called The Way of Life), traditionally attributed to Lao-tzu, and also in Chuang-tzu's essays elaborating the Tao The Ching.

Taoist philosophy is based on the Tao, an ancient Chinese concept that means "way," "path," or "natural working of the universe." Taoists consider the Tao an original Oneness in things, an eternal underlying foundation of being out of which the many parts of the universe continuously spring and into which they continuously return. The process occurs by means of the The, or energy, of the Tao. Taoists explain the operation of the The in terms of two other ancient Chinese principles : the dark, negative, female yin and the bright, positive, male yang. They believe the two forces combine in different proportions to produce all the endlessly varied things in the universe before these things return once more into the Tao.

According to Taoist thought, man is an integral part of the universe and, by nature, is in harmony with its operations. Unfortunately, men have fallen from this condition into self-assertive, aggressive, competitive actions that lie outside the natural harmony of all things. Thus, the ills of the world are produced. Men perform inconsiderate and harmful acts toward their neighbors. As they organize into societies, through turbulent competition the few grow wealthy and the many are forced into poverty. Oppressive rulers develop, and laws seek to regulate the citizens by defining socially undesirable acts as crimes. Communities and societies located close to one another compete, causing war. Taoists believed that most of the organized efforts to correct the situation - including the codes developed by Confucius and Mo-tzu, such as the social regulation of learning or the regulation of virtuous acts - simply added to the disharmony by their aggressive striving to shape men's actions.

The only true solution, in the Taoist view, must begin with the individual's conscious refusal to participate in the turbulent, aggressive, and assertive ways of life. This refusal is called Wu-wei, or "not doing." The wise man then seeks to fulfill his potential harmony with the Tao by a quiet and sensitive contemplation of the natural tendency in things, making his life like a smooth-flowing river, clear and undisturbed in its movement. He tries always to do only as much as his natural impulse requires, never straining for further achievement. He relates to his fellow-men in a spirit of natural kindness, tolerance, and humility, always seeking his own level and never striving to dominate others. If he is a leader, he leaves his people free to fulfill their individual natures. The highest social organization desired by Taoists was a small state containing isolated and independent villages of free individuals who would not compete with other villages or states for land or trade and who would thus not feel the need for war. The Taoists felt that by being relatively inactive and humble, like the Tao, the individual will be most truly active and in control, as the Tao is. "The Tao is ever inactive, and yet there is nothing it does not do." 'The way of Heaven is not to contend and yet to be able to conquer." The calm contemplative life led by believers sometimes included meditation that led to a mystical experience of union with the Tao. Taoist sages often withdrew to lonely mountain retreats for more solitary contemplation. Throughout Chinese history, Taoists inspired gentle, mystically inclined persons, including many of China's greatest painters and poets.

Religious Taoism

From about the time of the Han dynasty (202 B.C. - 220 A.D.) to about the 14th century, Taoism gradually changed from the philosophy of a small number of sages to a widespread popular religion followed by numerous individual believers and by many groups of monks and laymen. The old established ideas of philosophical Taoism were modified, and new elements were added. At first the changes came from traditional Chinese folklore. From the 4th century A.D., as Buddhism was introduced from India and became prominent, the changes also came from Buddhism. Over the centuries these developments of religious Taoism were encouraged by Chinese emperors who wanted a strong popular Taoist religion as a check on growing Buddhist influence in the country. During many periods, Taoism enjoyed imperial favor and Buddhists were persecuted. Even in periods when Buddhism was the state religion, Taoism continued to flourish among the common people of China.


One of the new elements was the suggestion that a man in harmony with the Tao was safe from wild beasts, human violence, disease, and even natural death. Another was the idea that a man can become immortal by replacing the destructible elements in his body with indestructible ones. Many Taoists, such as the great 4th-century-A.D. alchemist Ko Hung, tried to find the magic elixir, or drink, of long life by boiling concoctions of gold, cinnabar, and other chemicals. Many persons performed special breathing exercises devised to take in the finer or more durable parts of the universe. A few more eccentric Taoists are reported to have tried to achieve immortality by living on a diet of spring-morning mists or dew; others are said to have thrown themselves into fires, hoping to become flames. Many Taoists during this period used magic charms and amulets to ward off evil spirits.

Another major element of religious Taoism was belief in gods. The abstract concept of the Tao was developed into a trinity of three personal gods. These gods varied in different schools of Taoism but usually included Lao-tzu and also Yu-huang Shang-ti, originally an ancient Chinese god who ruled the universe. Often the Taoist gods were identified with various Buddhist gods. In addition, there were such figures from Chinese folklore as the pair of guardian gods of all house gates and city gates, the god of kitchens, and many other gods of nature. Especially popular were the Eight Immortals, celestial beings who were believed to have been human but to have gained immortality.

Religious Taoism also took over the Buddhist idea of karma, or law of automatic reward or punishment for human acts. Periodic reports to Heaven on the activities of each person were believed to be provided by his kitchen god and other spirits. Lu Tung-pin in the 8th century A.D. set up a system of merits and demerits for specific acts that later developed into the Book of Rewards and Punishments. The reward for a good life was bliss in a physical paradise, such as those described in Chinese folklore: the Isles of the Blessed in the Eastern Sea or the mountains of the West, presided over by the Western Royal Mother, Hsi-wang-mu.

In the T'ang period, from the 7th to the 10th centuries A.D., Taoism borrowed the Buddhist idea of isolated life in a monastery. Monastery monks and nuns, including many of the Chinese nobility, took vows to avoid meat, alcohol, killing, lying, and stealing and to live in celibacy. They sacrificed to Taoist gods in monastery temples. Later some monks in northern China formed the Chuan-chen school of Taoism, which stressed meditation and was closely related to the meditative school of Chan (Zen) Buddhism. In the Sung period, from the 10th to the 13th centuries, Taoism followed Buddhist example by collecting the Tao-tsang, or canon of works believed to be divinely inspired.


Religious and magical elements were combined in the many Taoist sects that developed among the peasants in various regions of China. Religious leaders were believed to have magical powers to protect members from harm. Often, members lived on communal property. Because the sects at times rebelled against the central government, they were outlawed and met in secret.

The Cheng-i sect was ruled by a high priest in the West believed to be descended from Chang Tao-ling, who traditionally founded the group in the 2nd century A.D. with the sanction of Lao-tzu. The sect was especially concerned with magic. The high priest collected membership dues, conducted rites, and gave diplomas to Taoist practitioners of magic, who lived as laymen in villages and families, chiefly in southern China. The last Cheng-i high priest was driven out of his headquarters by Chinese Communists in about 1930. After the Communists took over mainland China, he fled to Nationalist China on Taiwan.

The T'ai-p'ing sect, also called the Yellow Turbans, is traditionally considered to have been organized by Chang Chio in the 2d century A.D. Members believed that the Tao operated in the world in cycles of prosperity and universal peace (t'ai-p'ing) followed by decline and violence. In periods of decline marked by floods, famine, invasion, bad government, and other ills, believers considered that they were cooperating with the Tao, or the will of Heaven, when they tried to overthrow the government and start a new cycle with a rise of social harmony. The great T'ai-p'ing rebellion that started in 184 A.D. lasted 20 years. Another major T'ai-p'ing rebellion ravaged China from 1850 to 1865, during the European colonial period.

There were many other Taoist secret sects, especially in the period of uncertainty following the collapse of the Manchu dynasty in 1911. Some sects worshipped the gods of all major religions, some allied themselves with the Nationalist government of Chiang Kai-shek against the Communists, and some degenerated into lawless bands.

The Chinese Communist government has suppressed individual Taoist sects. However, it recognizes Taoism as a Chinese religion devoted to universal unity and peace, and it has repaired some Taoist temples and monasteries. Many Western scholars believe that Taoism is still a strong force among the Chinese common people, especially in rural areas.


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    • The Rope profile image

      The Rope 7 years ago from SE US

      Excellent info and well laid out hub. Glad to have you aboard! (It's going to be fun watching your posts in the religious forum - if you chose to jump into the fray :) )

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