views updated Jun 11 2018


Daoism (also called Taoism) developed in China, perhaps as early as the sixth century bce. It takes its name from the Chinese character dao (pronounced "dow"), which means "way" or "path." For believers, called Daoists, the Dao is the rhythmic balance and natural, flowing patterns of the universe. The Dao orders the universe, nature, and a person's life. Central to the idea of the Dao is wu wei, which is literally "inaction" or "nonaction" but is actually closer in meaning to "noninterference in the way of nature." It describes the effortless action that arises from a sense of being connected to nature and other to people.

Along with Buddhism and Confucianism, Daosim is one of the three chief belief systems of China. It once had followers numbering in the hundreds of millions. A new government took over China in 1949, however, and suppressed all religions. Thousands of Daoist and Buddhist monks were sent to labor camps. Daoist monasteries and temples were converted for other purposes or destroyed. People were strongly discouraged from practicing any religion. Religion in China at the early twenty-first century is still not openly practiced. Many people worship in private or in secret, so it is impossible to determine the number of people in mainland China who are Daoists. The religion has spread to other parts of Asia, however, including Taiwan, where between twenty and thirty million people claim to be believers. Vietnam and Korea also have large numbers of followers, and in North America, Daoists number about thirty thousand.

History and development

According to Daoist tradition, the religion was first developed by Laozi (born c. 604 bce), whose name is variously spelled Lao-tzu, Lao-tsu, Lao-tse, or Lao-tze. The name means "Old Master." According to legend Laozi was conceived by a shooting star and born as an old man with a flowing white beard, after spending eighty-three years in his mother's womb before birth. It was Laozi who authored the Dao De Jing (also spelled Tao Te Ching), often translated as "The Book of the Way and the Power (or Virtue)." This short text has been translated more than one hundred times and remains the central and most sacred Daoist writing.


Traditional Chinese medical treatment that uses needles inserted into the body at specific locations to stimulate the body's balanced flow of energy.
An ancient science that aimed to transform substances of little value into those of greater value, such as lead into gold.
Accepted group of religious texts.
The path or way; the rhythmic balance and natural, flowing patterns of the universe.
Virtue, virtuousness, and power.
The period of reign by a particular ruling family.
The achievement of spiritual understanding.
folk beliefs:
The beliefs of the common people.
Quiet reflection on spiritual matters.
philosophical Daoism:
A form of Daoism by which followers seek knowledge and wisdom about the unity of everything in existence and how to become closer to it.
Worshipping more than one god.
Prediction of future events.
Uncarved or unformed; the state of simplicity to which Daoists try to return.
The breath of life or vital energy that flows through the body and the earth.
religious Daoism:
A form of Daoism that recognizes gods, ancestor spirits, and life after death.
wu wei:
Nonaction, or deliberate and thoughtful action that follows the Dao.
yin and yang:
Literally, "shady" and "sunny"; terms referring to how the universe is composed of opposing but complementary forces.

Daoism originally began as a philosophy, or a method for seeking knowledge and wisdom. Its basic concepts and beliefs are established in the Dao De Jing, composed sometime between the sixth and third centuries bce, and in the Zhuangzi (also spelled Chuang-tzu), or the "Book of Zhuang," which was written about 350 bce. Philosophical Daoism continued as an independent belief system until the thirteenth century ce, when the various schools of philosophical Daoism were absorbed by what is called the neo-Confucian school of thought. Neo-Confucianism is a branch of Confucianism through which followers believe they can become wise through methods of both spiritual and attempts at self-improvement. Confucianism in general focuses on respect and proper behavior to form a harmonious society.

In the second century bce philosophical Daoism gave rise to religious Daoism, which also included ancient folk beliefs (beliefs held by the common people) involving the worship of dead ancestors, the belief in nature gods, and the search for immortality, or life after death. Religious Daoism is also known as Dao jiao (also spelled Tao chiao). One of the earliest religious Daoist schools was that of the Huanglao masters, who were devoted both to Laozi and to the first emperor of China.

Huangdi, the Yellow Emperor (259–210 bce), established many of the basic elements of Chinese civilization and is very respected for his support of Daoist teachings. His name may come from his presumed homeland near the Yellow River, or from the color of the earth. The Huanglao masters formed a branch of Daoism called Huanglao Dao, or "The Way of the Yellow Emperor and the Old Master." ("Old Master" refers to Laozi.) The Huanglao masters blended the ideas of wu wei, or effortless action, with spiritual techniques for achieving immortality. They became powerful advisers at the court of the Han Dynasty (c. 202 bce–c. 220 ce), despite the fact that Confucianism had been declared the state religion. (A dynasty is the period of reign by a particular ruling family; in this case, the ruling dynasty was that of the Han family.)

The next major development in religious Daoism came with the revelations, or teachings that came directly from the gods, given to the holy man Zhang Daoling (also spelled Chang Tao-ling) in 142 ce. He became the first of the great Celestial Masters, and his religious movement became known as the "Way of the Celestial Masters," Tianshi Dao. This religious movement also became known as the Way of the Five Pecks of Rice, so named because of a donation or household tax of that amount of rice given annually to the priests of the religion. When Zhang died, control of the religion passed to his family, who further developed it.

Becomes official religion

The Celestial Masters continued to grow in power and number. In 215 ce, under the administration of Zhang's grandson, Daoism found official recognition as a religion. By the end of the third century some of the most powerful families of north China had taken up Daoism. By this time the Celestial Masters had gained political power and were functioning as messengers between the ruler and the people. In some cases they also functioned between the ruler and heaven, or Tian, where the gods lived and where faithful believers in religious Daoism would go after death.

Over the next several hundred years religious Daoism continued to grow. Traditional magical practices were added, including alchemy, an ancient science that aimed to transform substances of little value into those of greater value, such as lead into gold. Religious Daoism also formed a concept of life after death (that believers ascend to heaven and become even closer to the Dao). The movement also developed an organized monastic system, where monks lived secluded from the world.

About Daoism

  • Belief. Daoists believe in the rhythmic balance and natural, flowing patterns of the universe, called the Dao, and that by living in harmony with the Dao, one gains true understanding of reality and can even achieve immortality.
  • Followers. It is difficult to calculate the true number of believers in Daoism because many Daoist followers in China practice in secret. There are between twenty and thirty million believers on Taiwan and about thirty thousand in North America.
  • Name of God. For some faithful, the abstract concept of the Dao is godlike. Tian, or heaven, is also a godlike concept. The Jade Emperor, Yu-huang, is the most powerful deity for followers of religious Daoism.
  • Symbols. The yin-yang symbol, a divided circle with equal parts of black and white, is the most important symbol in Daoism, representing the balance of opposites in the world.
  • Worship. Religious rites are held at Daoist temples, but Daoists also worship at shrines in their homes and through meditation, or quiet reflection on spiritual matters.
  • Dress. Daoists do not wear any special clothing when attending the temples, but they usually remove their shoes before entering.
  • Texts. The Dao De Jing is the main philosophical and sacred text of Daoism.
  • Sites. The Five Mountains in China are perhaps the holiest places of pilgrimage for Daoists.
  • Observances. The Chinese New Year, in January or early February, is the primary holy day for Daoists, who call it the Day for All Gods to Descend to Earth.
  • Phrases. There are no commonly used phrases that unite all Daoists.

In the fifth century reforms in the Way of the Celestial Masters led to its acceptance by even more of the higher classes of Chinese society. The reforms brought the religion more into line with the level of organization that Buddhists, with their emphasis on order in daily life, practiced. This organizational change helped make Daoism the state religion of North China for a time. Similar reforms happened in the south, with court ritual added to the religion to make it more acceptable.

The Tang Dynasty (618–907) marked a high point for religious Daoism. The founder of the dynasty, Li Yuan, claimed to be a descendant of Laozi. Daoist texts, along with those of Confucianism, were used for civil service examinations under the Tang. Monasteries multiplied, and the Dao De Jing was translated and reached India, Japan, and Tibet. In the early twelfth century the name of the Celestial Masters was changed to the Way of the Orthodox Unity.

Declines in practice

After the thirteenth century Daoism went into decline. A popular rebellion in 1849 led to the destruction of Daoist and Buddhist temples throughout the country, including the temple complex at Dragon Tiger Mountain, where the Celestial Masters had their center of power. The New Life movement, begun in the early twentieth century by the Chinese leader Chiang Kai-shek (1897–1975), also suppressed Daoist centers. The movement was intended to return China to the path of reason and Confucianism. To this end, students were recruited to go out into the countryside and destroy Daoist temples, statues, and texts wherever they could find them. The huge Daoist canon, or group of religious texts, of more than five thousand volumes was almost lost during this time.

All religious practice in China was banned in 1949, after Mao Zedong (1893–1973; also spelled Mao Tse-tung) seized power and established the communist People's Republic of China. Communism is a political theory of a classless society where all people are equal and work for the benefit of the group. It believes that religion is a way to suppress the people to comply with the will of the state. Mao particularly targeted religion during the period called the Cultural Revolution (1966–76). The communist leader called on young people to protect the communist state by violence and intimidation.

Mao's critics, including religious leaders, were targeted as enemies. Monks were taken from monasteries, and the monasteries and temples were either destroyed or used for other purposes. Most Daoist holy sites and temples were ruined in this process. Beginning in 1982, under the new leadership of Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping (1904–1997), however, more religious tolerance was introduced. Daoism, as a respected part of China's past, was once again looked upon favorably.

Daoism in the twenty-first century

Numerous Daoist religious sects survive in China and on the island of Taiwan. Both countries have national Daoist associations, and all schools and sects of Daoism regard Zhang Daoling as the First Celestial Master. In the early twenty-first century, however, all Daoists followed the words of the current Celestial Master.

Daoism has spread to other Asian countries, including Thailand, Vietnam, and Korea, and has reached Europe and North America. Here its message of contemplation has found a home with many who have become disappointed with modern life. Moreover, the Daoist ideas of creative inaction and letting nature take its course are appealing to a new generation throughout the West (the countries of Europe and the Americas).

Sects and schisms

The major schism, or division, in Daoism, occurred between philosophical Daoism and religious Daoism. Religious Daoism attempted to discover a way to immortality (eternal life). The roots and traditions of religious Daoism go deep into the Chinese past and are linked to folk religions, the traditional beliefs of the people. Such folk religions recognized the role that forces of nature played in the lives of humans. The ancient Chinese, most of whom were farmers, paid close attention to nature and searched for rhythms or unseen patterns that gave their lives meaning. They saw spirits in the mountains and trees and honored them.

Ancestor worship, or praying to the spirits of dead relatives to show respect, was also a major part of Chinese folk religion. The Chinese believed that the spirits of great leaders continued to live on after earthly death. They thought that by praying to such spirits, they could receive assistance in their daily lives. Chinese folk religions had also searched for ways to find longevity, or longer life and immortality, or eternal life. These searches took many forms, ranging from prayer and meditation (quiet reflection on spiritual matters) to taking drugs that were supposed to prolong their lives.

The Celestial Masters

Religious Daoism further divided into other sects. The first major sect in religious Daoism was the Celestial Masters (also called Heavenly Masters), founded in West China in the second century by Zhang Daoling. The Celestial Masters advocated the confession of wrongdoings or sins as a way to heal illnesses and reach immortality. Various healing spells were also central to the early form of this sect.


The central figure in Daoism is Laozi. It is not known if he ever actually existed. Daoist tradition places his birth in 604 bce, in a village in the eastern half of modern Hunan province. Laozi was supposedly the keeper of the archives, or histories, for the Zhou (also spelled Chou) Dynasty (1027–256 bce) in their capital of Luoyang. Titled a shih, or historian, Laozi may also have worked as an astrologer to the court. (An astrologer studies the movements of the stars and planets, interpreting how these movements may affect events on Earth.) As Laozi's fame as a wise man spread, he attracted visitors. One of these visitors was supposedly Confucius (551–479 bce), the founder of Confucianism, who was more than fifty years younger than Laozi. Legend has it that Laozi found the younger man's ideas about tradition and acceptance of one's proper role in society rather silly.

Later in his life Laozi planned to leave China for good. He was tired of everyday life at the royal court and saddened by the lawlessness of his times. He rode a water buffalo toward the west but was stopped by a border guard, who asked the wise man to write down his wisdom before leaving his native land forever. This he did over the course of several days. The compilation of Laozi's wisdom is usually called the Dao De Jing, although it is sometimes also called the Laozi after its author. After writing this text, Laozi reportedly left China, never to be heard of again. Later legends placed him in India.

Many believe that Laozi is actually a combination of several "old masters," or Daoist leaders. Whether or not he was an actual person, the figure of Laozi has deeply affected the philosophy and religion of China. Chinese believers have made offerings and sacrifices to Laozi for two thousand years.

The Celestial Masters sect remains the most important form of religious Daoism to this day. Followers honor the founder, Zhang Daoling, as an immortal, a spiritual being who has attained greater awareness and understanding of the Dao. An immortal is not born and does not die. He of she can travel around at will and cannot be easily harmed. Some immortals take up the role of guide to men or women and aid them until they become enlightened and reach the Dao.

The major ceremonies of this early Daoist sect dealt with curing believers of illnesses by ceremonial means. Illnesses were thought to be a punishment for bad deeds. Believers prayed and made appeals to various heavenly agents to cure them and forgive their sins. The teachings of Laozi, as interpreted by the Celestial Masters, were central to religious Daoism. These teachings focused on right action and good works to ensure immunity from disease. In this respect they came close to the Confucian ideal of accepted social roles and social involvement than to the withdrawal from society and rejection of roles found in philosophical Daoism.

Laozi himself began increasingly to take on divine qualities for the Daoist religion. By 165 ce official sacrifices of slaughtered animals and offerings of food and drink were being made to him. Twenty years later a temple was built in his honor. After several centuries he become a god to many Daoists.

The Way of the Great Peace

Toward the end of the second century ce a second Daoist religious movement was founded by a reformer called Zhang Zhue (died 184; also spelled Chang Chueh). This movement hoped to create a utopia, or a perfect society, in which the search for the Dao was the primary goal. Zhang Zhue used ancient tradition in his movement, recalling the glories of the rule of the Yellow Emperor. This ancient era was called Taiping, or "Great Peace," and Zhang Zhue's movement was called the Taiping Dao, or Way of the Great Peace.

Zhang Zhue told his followers that the era of the Han was almost over, and that his Daoist utopia would replace it. The symbol of this utopia was the color yellow, and Zhang Zhue's 200,000 followers wore yellow turbans, or hats made from strips of cloth, as a sign of their unity. Eventually this band of followers rose against the Han in what is called the Taiping Rebellion, burning towns and destroying property. Government troops finally stopped the rebellion after a year of fighting.

Neo-Daoism and the Mao Shan

Along with these religious sects came more reinterpretations of philosophical Daoism. The xuan xue (also spelled hsuan hsueh), or "dark learning," explored the spiritual side of the Dao De Jing and the Zhuangzi texts. It is sometimes called Neo-Daoism. The leaders of this movement, such as Wang Bi (also spelled Wang Pi; 226–249), tried to bridge the differences between Daoism and Confucianism, and stressed a form of Daoism that did not withdraw from the world but participated in an orderly society.

The fourth century saw the creation of two other powerful religious sects, which together are called the Mao Shan, or Mount Mao. These sects incorporated magical practices into religious Daoism, including alchemy and communication with the gods. The Mao Shan became very popular, lasting hundreds of years and attracting, for a time, more followers than the Celestial Masters.

Toward the end of the Song Dynasty (960–1279) numerous smaller sects formed, especially in the north. These groups included Supreme Unity, Perfect and Great Way, and Complete Perfection, or Quanzhen (also spelled Chuan Chen). Supreme Unity was a movement that emphasized magic in order to fight disease. It also promoted rules of good conduct. The Perfect and Great Way was best known for its teachings on ethics and morality.

Complete Perfection emphasized the importance of meditation and simplified many of the rituals that religious Daoism had developed. Complete Perfection became a strong monastic movement, with the White Cloud Monastery in Beijing as its center. During the Yuan Dynasty (1271–1368), Complete Perfection came to be a favorite of the ruling Mongols, and its chief priest was taken to Central Asia to preach to Genghis Khan (c. 1162–1227). This sect, and that of the Mao Shan, continued to be popular into the twentieth century. Orthodox Unity and Complete Perfection, however, were the two main strands of Daoism to survive the twentieth century.

Basic beliefs

The core of Daoism is the Dao, which maintains order and balance in the universe. There are several levels of the Dao. Among them are the Great Dao, the Dao of nature, and the Dao present in each person's life. The Great Dao is the invisible force behind all creation. This constant Dao is the beginning of everything, and everything returns to the Dao in an eternal cycle. (In Daoism, time itself is cyclical, meaning that everything always comes back to its starting point. This is different from the linear Western concept of time, with one starting point and a different ending point.) This Great Dao is also mysterious and cannot be explained in words. Rather, it can only be felt. The Dao of nature is the controlling rhythm of the natural world. A third type of Dao is the way in which each human being lives his or her life, meaning how the Great Dao affect each person.

The goal of Daoism is to become one with the Great Dao. The Dao De Jing states that humans are faced with the basic problem of knowing who they really are. By accepting that humans are all part of the Dao, they can live in unity with it. Nature, in Daoism, is not something to be conquered or controlled. Instead, people need to live in harmony with nature. By focusing on the Dao, people can awaken themselves to this eternal rhythm and reach enlightenment, or spiritual understanding.

Zhang Daoling

Zhang Daoling lived in the first and second centuries ce. He was the founder of the Celestial Masters. A student of Daoism, Zhang claimed to have received a revelation in 142 ce from Laozi that told him that the end of the world was coming soon and that he should gather the faithful together. In this same communication, he was given the title Celestial Master, or Heavenly Master (Tianshi). His movement came to be called Tianshi Dao, or the "Way of the Celestial Master."

He drew upon the tradition of the shamans, or folk healers, who had long been a part of Chinese folk religion. He taught that salvation (freedom from suffering) and the curing of illness could come only with the confession of sins and strict moral behavior. For Zhang Daoling a purified soul meant good health, and this message quickly became popular with the people of what is now Sichuan (also spelled Szechwan) province. He replaced folk belief in demons with the images of three heavens.

Zhang Daoling also established twenty-four governing areas, or parishes. His church used the Dao De Jing for religious instruction but also created its own holy texts and rules. Daoist priests, who could be men or women, were called libationers. Daoism, with its respect for the feminine, has always granted men and women equal standing. These early libationers ran inns or hotels that were open to all travelers, and they interpreted the Dao De Jing to the faithful. They also kept a list of the faithful and of their behavior, both good and bad. Zhang was able to fund his church by a religious tax of five pecks, or baskets, of rice annually, giving his sect the nickname the Way of the Five Pecks of Rice.

With Zhang Daoling's death in about 156, control of his sect passed to his son, Zhang Heng, and then to his grandson, Zhang Lu, who established a Daoist religious state in what is now Sichuan province. The sect has survived for almost two thousand years. The current Celestial Master is considered to be a direct descendent of Zhang Daoling. Dragon Tiger Mountain, home to sixty-three unbroken generations of Celestial Masters until the rise of the communist state, was destroyed during the Cultural Revolution (1966–76). Now the Celestial Master is headquartered in Taiwan.

The concept of de

Throughout Daoist texts, moving water is used to represent the flow of Dao in people's lives. The flow of water plays a key part in the concept of de, translated as "virtue," "virtuousness," and "power." De is the second element in the Dao De Jing, the Dao within people. Numerous chapters of that book are devoted solely to an explanation of how de works in people's lives. Thus, de deals with informed action (conscious and aware choices) and virtuous behavior. Virtuous behavior is when one acts morally, with respect and consideration for others.

These give rise to another concept, wu wei. This is the sort of effortless action a person achieves when he or she is in harmony with the Dao. Like water in a stream as it shifts its form to go around rocks and other objects, wu wei smoothes the edges of those hard surfaces.

The Three Jewels

Also associated with de are three types of virtue: compassion, or consideration of other people and their feelings; moderation, or self-control and restraint; and humility, or humbleness. These are called the Three Jewels. Daoists believe that people are kind and considerate by nature. If left to themselves, they will naturally develop into good human beings. By practicing the Three Jewels, a person can get closer to the Dao.

De can also mean "power." In that sense the concept of qi (also spelled ch'i) is important. Qi literally means "breath" but refers to a vital, or necessary, energy that each person has and must preserve in order to be one with the Dao. As the Dao flows through people's bodies, it is necessary to remove any blockages to that flow. One early group of Daoists developed specific techniques to accomplish this, blending meditation, a special diet including medicinal herbs, and breathing and movement techniques. The movement techniques developed into the martial art known as taijiquan (also spelled tai chi).

Unlike Confucianism, Daoism emphasizes following one's own instincts to reach a true awareness and understanding of existence. Simplicity and spontaneity, or following natural impulses, are also important. To return to the Dao, a person needs to remove the clutter from his or her life. Someone who lives by wu wei lives according to his or her true nature, a state before that person was changed by knowledge and learning. Such a state is called pu in Daoism, meaning a clean slate or an uncarved block of stone.

The Five Elements

Daoists believe that the human being is a microcosm, or a small model, of the universe. The five directions correspond to the Five Mountains (the holy mountains of China), to the sections of the sky, and the seasons. (In Daoist belief there is an extra season in addition to the usual four; this fifth season is called late summer.) These are reproduced in the human body, with its five major openings, and five major organs (liver, heart, spleen, lungs, and kidneys). For Daoists, the Five Elements of water, fire, earth, metal, and wood are all interconnected, part of the Great Dao. The Five Elements theory is vital to Chinese medicine and the development of acupuncture, a Chinese healing tradition that treats bodily disorders as blockages of energy, using needles inserted at key points in the body to free the energy. Each of the internal organs is associated with one of the Five Elements and must be kept in balance for good health and to be in harmony with the Dao.

The search for immortality also plays a part in Daoism. Alchemy and magical practices were prominent in various sects of religious Daoism, as was an emphasis on astrology (the practice of foretelling the future by the movement of the stars and planets), breath control, hygiene (any practice, such as cleanliness, that preserves health), yin-yang balance, and the Five Elements.

Gods in Daoism

Religious Daoism has its own temples, priests, sacred writings, rites, and gods. It is polytheistic, meaning it recognizes many gods, each of whom is worshipped for different functions. These include Laozi, who is considered a saint by some and a god, Lord Lao, by others. Primary among the major deities is Yuhuang, or the Jade Emperor, the ruler of Heaven and the strongest of all the gods. He monitors heavenly activity, and all the other gods must report to him. Heaven, in religious Daoism, is organized in a hierarchy, or with gods ranked one above the other.

Directly beneath Yuhuang in importance is the High God, Yuanshi Tianzong, or the First Principle. He existed before the universe and is eternal. Below the High God is San Qing (also spelled San-ching) the collective name of the Three Pure Ones (Jade Pure, Upper Pure, and Great Pure), describing the areas of Heaven where they are supposed to live. These three are usually seen as representing different aspects, or sides, of Laozi, and, as such, they are not rulers. Instead, they try to save humans with teaching and kindness.

Next in importance are the San Guan (also spelled San-kuan), the Three Officials who administer Heaven, Earth, and Water. San Yuan, the Three Primordials or Principals, created the universe, and the Eight Immortals, or Ba Xian (also spelled Pa-hsien), are popular gods modeled on historical persons who reached worldly perfection. Religious Daoists believe that after death they may become important ancestors, just like those they worshipped during their lifetimes. There is also a form of hell, with nine different stages of punishment, each of which is ruled by a different demon king. Prayers, however, can help get a person out of hell. Magic rites, exorcism (or ridding the body of evil spirits), and communication with the spirit world are all duties of the Daoist priest.

It is important to understand, however, that Daoism, as it is viewed in the West, is mainly the philosophical branch of the belief system. The major themes of that sort of Daoism include quiet action, the power of emptiness or a sense of being at one with the universe, detachment (being apart from worldly concerns), openness and spontaneity, the strength of the yin aspects of life, and the belief that human values are not absolute, that individuals in different times and societies may find different and equally valid truths.

Sacred writings

The most important text for Daoists is the Dao De Jing. This book contains the major ideas of Daoism, including the concepts of the Dao itself and the importance of living one's life in unity with the Dao. Daoist legend says that Laozi, who served a Zhou emperor, was so upset with the warfare and chaos of his time that he decided to leave China in search of a more peaceful kingdom. His writings were compiled as the Dao De Jing, a work of five thousand Chinese characters, divided into eighty-one chapters. It was originally intended as a handbook for the wise ruler but includes teachings that have also been adapted for all followers of the Dao.

Historians agree that this text was most likely written not by one person, but by several people. Until the time of the Dao De Jing, the term Dao was used for the way of thought of many schools, meaning simply their doctrine, or teachings. But with the Dao De Jing, an attempt was made to find a higher meaning for Dao, the ultimate unifying force of the universe.

Another important text is the Zhuangzi, written in part by the famous philosopher Zhuangzi (c. 369–c. 286 bce). Where the Dao De Jing is

Daoist Gods

Religious Daoism has many gods and goddesses, as well as various levels of heaven. The gods live in a complex and structured land similar to that of the Chinese imperial system. This was an elaborate system with many levels of government and workers, from the emperor to his advisers near the top to the servants at the bottom. Among the most popular Daoist gods are the Ba Xian, or the Eight Immortals, as well as Xi Wang-mu, Mu Gong, and Zao-jun.

The Eight Immortals are symbols of good fortune. They are based on actual historical persons. Only one of the Ba Xian is a woman. Each represents a different condition of life, including masculinity and femininity, wealth and poverty, youth and old age, and nobility and the common man.

Cao Guojin:
During the Song Dynasty Cao fled to live in shame as a hermit after his brother became a murderer. He then met Lu Dongbin, who taught him how to become an immortal.
Han Xianzi:
He lived during the Tang Dynasty. Han is known for his temper and for his supernatural abilities. He received immortality after falling from a peach tree.
He Xiangu:
The only female Ba Xian. He Xiangu spent her life as a hermit in the mountains. While she was dreaming she received instructions on how to obtain immortality. Afterwards she developed the ability to fly from mountain peak to mountain peak.
Lan Caihe:
He lived as a beggar, dressed in rags and wearing only one boot. Then one day Lan suddenly disappeared into the clouds as an immortal.
Li Tieguai:
He walks with an iron crutch, which was given to him by Xi Wang-mu or by Laozi after one of them healed his leg. Either Xi or Laozi then taught Li how to become an immortal.
Lu Dongbin:
He received a magical sword from a dragon on Mount Lu. He used it to conceal himself in Heaven. Lu believes that compassion is the way to achieve perfection. He uses his sword to conquer ignorance and aggression.
Zhang Guolao:
He lived during the Tang Dynasty. Zhang is a living form of ancient chaos.
Zhongli Quan:
A military leader during the Han Dynasty, Zhongli Quan fled to the mountains. Daoist saints there instructed him on how to gain immortality.

Together, Xi Wang-mu and Mu Gong represent the balance of yin and yang. Xi Wang-mu is the goddess of immortality. She rules over the paradise of the immortals, where she keeps a nine-storied jade palace that is surrounded by a wall of gold. She is often referred to as the Royal Mother of the West. Xi Wang-mu is married to Mu Gong, the god of immortality. He is often called the Royal God of the East.

Zao-jun is more popularly known as the Kitchen God. He is protector of the family. Zao-jun's story originates in Chinese folk beliefs. A mortal named Zhang Lang was married to good woman and lived a successful life. He fell in love with another woman, however, and left his wife. When this woman left him, Zhang went blind, lost his wealth, and became a beggar. One day he received food from a kind woman. He told her his story, after which his vision returned. Zhang saw that the kind woman was his wife and felt deeply ashamed. He jumped into the hearth (fireplace). Zhang's wife tried to save him, but she was unsuccessful. She placed a plaque above the hearth and made offerings in his honor, beginning the veneration (or worship) of the Kitchen God.

compact and poetic, the Zhuangzi is rambling and often takes the form of a fable, or moral story. Less political in nature and dealing more with rules for living a private life, the book uses satire, or ridicule and humor, and nonsense to poke fun at Confucianism. It also tries to explain the Dao by using stories and poetry. Zhuangzi also introduced the concept of the fully enlightened person who lives apart from the rest of the world. These "supreme men" possess magical abilities, including the power of flight. This concept later gave rise to the principle of immortals that forms a large part of religious Daoism.

The Lie Zi is another significant text. It was written by a philosopher of the same name and is often translated as the "True Classic of Perfect Emptiness." This book extended the spiritual roots of Daoism and attempted to bridge the gap between Daoism and Confucianism. The Taiping Jing (also spelled Tai-p'ing Ching), or "Classic of the Great Peace," deals with immortality. It provides specific instructions on how to reach eternal life. The Huainanzi (also spelled Huai-nan-tzu) is a collection of essays by trained spiritual magicians, or fang-shih. The Yijing (also spelled I-Ching) is a book of hexagrams used to tell of future events. Though it was written before Daoism was established, the Yijing is employed in various Daoist rituals.

While these early texts form the core of Daoism, there are thousands of other texts that make up the sacred writings of both the philosophical and religious branches of Daoism. The entire collection of Daoist sacred, philosophical, magical and alchemical texts is called the Daozang (also spelled Tao-tsang), or the Daoist Canon. Many works of the canon, first printed in 1190, date back to the third century bce. There are more than 1,500 works, divided into two main sections: the Three Grottoes and the Four Supplements. These sections include such works as the Dao De Jing and also texts from all the major Daoist religious sects.

Sacred symbols

The most recognizable symbol of Daoism is the yin-yang, a circle divided by a curving line into equal white and black spaces. Each of these halves, in turn, has a small circle of the other color in it. This symbol speaks of the balance between opposites in the universe. The yin is the softer element, the feminine, dark, and open aspect of the universe. The yang is male, light, and controlling. For Daoists, it is best to have yin and yang as balanced as possible.

The bagua (also spelled pa kua) is a related symbol. This symbol is made up of eight trigrams, or combinations of three broken or unbroken lines, from the Yijing that represent the ever-changing nature of the universe. These eight trigrams are arranged in an octagonal, or eight-sided, pattern around the yin-yang symbol.

The Chinese character for Dao is also a typical symbol of Daoism. This character basically means "path." For Daoists, the symbolic path is the Dao, which we all come from and return to. Dao can also mean "way," or method of doing something, as in the way of the universe, or the way of life Daoists follow. The character for Dao is built from two smaller characters, that for "head" and that for "foot." The foot signifies the idea of path, while the head adds the concept of choice. Daoists also see a deeper significance in the use of these two characters, representing both a beginning and an ending, or the continuous cycle of the universe.

Among the Immortals, many of whom are depicted with symbols of their power. The hundreds of Daoist deities are the Ba Xian, or Eight Eight Immortals represented to believers eight aspects of daily life: men and women, young and old, noble and peasant, and rich and poor. Lu Dongbin (also known as Lu Yan), for example, is primary among these immortals. He is associated with medicine and also has charms that can control evil spirits. His symbol is the sword. Typical paintings portray him with a sword and flowing robes. Another Immortal, Li Tieguai (also known as Di Kuai Li), is also associated with medicine. Because he always fights for the poor and infirm, his pictures often portray him as a beggar with a crutch. Han Xiangzi, another Immortal, was a great poet and musician and is portrayed with a jade flute. These images are not very familiar to most Westerners, but they are well known to the faithful.


Daoist priests dress in colorful robes and wear rimless black caps. They conduct religious rites, which are ceremonial acts that occur according to particular instructions. Such rites include chanting, reciting of various ritual prayers, meditation, discussion of sections of the Dao De Jing, burning of incense, and issuing prayers to various gods and goddesses.

Rites often take place in Daoist temples, which can be filled with vibrant artwork depicting the various deities and immortals. In Asia such temples are often designed as pagodas. A pagoda is a building several stories tall, with roof tips that curve upwards. In Taiwan alone there are more than eight thousand such temples, with 33,850 Daoist clergy, or priests. The People's Republic of China has 1,500 Daoist temples.

The basic form of Daoist ritual is the jiao, or offering, done to pray for assistance from the gods. These offerings range from simple wine and food placed on a family altar to more complex ritual offerings that celebrate one of the many holy days of the Daoist calendar. Priests prepare for the more elaborate offerings several days in advance by purifying all the robes, musical instruments, sacred scrolls, candles, and incense over hot oil.

On the first day of such typical offering festivals, the priests form a procession through the town and call on the Three Pure Ones to attend their ritual. A yellow banner is placed outside the temple to attract the attention of the gods. Priests sing and dance at such offerings, providing gifts such as tea, candles, or fruit to summon the gods. Ceremonies may include the Division of the Lamps, in which candles are lit in a darkened temple to signify the coming of light to the world. Such rituals may last for as long as three days, accompanied by fireworks, chanting, and music.

Priests may also perform occasional rituals of exorcism, driving out evil spirits. Such exorcisms can be done in homes or even outdoor spaces where it is thought evil spirits dwell. Priests use a variety of religious tools, including flags printed with scripture, blessed water, incense, swords, and even whips made of peach wood with which to fight the demons. Ritual words are chanted as the procession of priests passes through the home or outside area.

Home shrines

Less elaborate rituals are also held throughout the year. Daoists are encouraged to worship on their own as well. Most Daoist families have a family shrine with a family tree of their ancestors and candles surrounding it. A shrine is usually a small area in or near the home where a person can worship instead of attending a larger temple. It may contain items that represent the deity or are offerings to the god. The shrine may have pictures of the worshipper's personal god or of one of the major gods in the Daoist pantheon, or group of gods.

People light candles and burn incense at a shrine to call on the souls of their departed relatives or to call on certain gods to ask for assistance. Wine may be poured and food, including meat, rice, and cookies, are placed on the home altar or shrine. There are rites for health, prosperity, and long life, among many others.

Meditation is another form of home worship. Meditating on the Dao is considered the way to reach unity with it. Special breathing techniques are used, as are exercises such as taijichuan, which ensure that the flow of the qi in the body is not blocked or restricted.

Temple services

The Daoist calendar provides many festivals throughout the year, but there are no regularly scheduled services at the temples as some other religious traditions. The shrines and temples are kept open at all hours so that the faithful may come to light candles or incense and pray. They may also receive a prediction in the form of a slip of paper taken from a bamboo tube. People with urgent needs consult priests who can perform the proper rituals. Leaving offerings at roadside shrines is also considered a form of worship for Daoists.

Daoist temples also once served as a center for communal life, providing entertainment with fairs, puppet shows, storytellers, and opera. This secondary function has been greatly reduced since public expressions of religion were suppressed in mainland China in 1949. Temples in Europe and North America usually serve other purposes, such as office space or community centers, in addition to being Daoist houses of worship. These community centers often offer classes in Daoist philosophy, martial arts such as taijichuan, Chinese herbal medicine, and the classic art of feng shui

Observances and pilgrimages

The Daoist calendar is filled with holy days honoring the birthdays or death days of various immortals or the name days of a range of deities. Many of these fall on or near the fifteenth of the month. Important among these days are the birthdays of the Eight Immortals, spread throughout the year. Offerings are made at temples on such days, and families also make offerings at home shrines to departed ancestors. The ninth day of the first lunar month is the birthday of the Jade Emperor. Usually, a grand ritual assembly, called the Jade Emperor Assembly, is held in temples to celebrate the day, while the people gather to burn incense. Some Daoists celebrate the traditional birthday of Laozi, on March 5.

Another, smaller festival is held on the fifteenth of August. This day celebrates the birth of the Earth God, Zhung Yuan. It is also a time to come to the assistance of lost souls, who are forced to wander aimlessly because they did not have a proper burial. A primary part of this festival is the ritual of the Floating of the Water Lamps. Following a summoning of the gods by priests, a member from each household accompanies the priests to a nearby river or stream. There each sets a small paper lantern with a lit candle in the water to float downstream. The candles are meant as a guide to the lost souls, liberating them and showing them the way upward to heaven. Sometimes the ritual of the Universal Salvation is also performed at this festival. In it a huge banquet is set up of cakes, bread, fruit, and any other delicacies that can be provided. The priest first blesses the food and then invites the lost souls to join in the feast. Finally, the priest tosses the food to the gathered faithful, symbolically sharing it with the lost souls.

Chinese New Year

Chinese New Year occurs in late January or early February and is one of the most important Daoist celebrations. Chinese New Year falls on the thirtieth day of the twelfth lunar month. The precise date varies from year to year because the Chinese follow a lunar calendar, which is attached to the phases of the moon instead of the 365 set days in the Western-style calendar.

The New Year is also called the Day for All Gods to Descend to Earth, and it is the primary Daoist holy day. Daoists believe that this day marks the rebirth of the positive force in the universe, yang. Before the New Year celebration takes places, however, there is a week-long period of reflection and reckoning, or assessment of deeds. Another widely celebrated day is called the Day for the Kitchen God to Ascend to Heaven and Report the Good and/or Bad Actions of People to the Jade Emperor, Yu-huang. In order to make the Kitchen God report good things to the Jade Emperor, people will smear his lips with honey.

On the first day of the New Year festival, a procession winds through the streets of towns and cities, led by a long column of people covered in a dragon costume. This dragon follows a small child carrying a red ball, symbol of the return of yang, or positive energy. At the end of the procession, the dragon swallows the ball to bring long life to people and to symbolize unity with the gods.

In temples and private homes rituals are held welcoming the Three Pure Ones. Sweets are offered because the Chinese word for sweets and for Heaven is the same, tian. Wooden blocks are tossed like dice to tell when the gods have finished their meal and have granted the wishes of the faithful. Special offerings are made in the home to ancestors. The entire family gathers to have a large meal of fish, meat, and special cakes. Gifts are exchanged and red envelopes with money are given to children.

Balance to the year

Religious Daoists divide the year into three parts. The first, the Reign of the Spirits of Heaven, follows the New Year and lasts for six months. To usher in this period, a banquet is served for the gods in the temple and then taken home by families and eaten. At the end of the Reign of the Spirits of Heaven, ceremonies are performed to give those who have not followed the Dao a second chance. The second part of the year is the Reign of the Forgiver of Sins, and the third is the Reign of the Water Spirits. Each begins on the fifteenth of the month and is welcomed by a banquet to the gods.

These three divisions provide a focus for religious Daoists. The first half of the year is a time for recommitting to one's religion and for making prayers to the heavenly gods. The second period is a time to dwell on one's sins and ask for forgiveness. And the third division of the year brings the faithful to think of water, one of the five basic elements, but also a symbol for the flow of the Dao and for the effortless action of wu wei.


Many Daoist holy places in China have been disrupted and, in many cases, destroyed in modern times. However, many sacred sites still remain, including the Five Mountains so highly praised by early Daoists. These mountains include:

  • Tai Shan, the eastern mountain, in Shandong province;
  • Heng Shan Bei, the mountain of the north, in Shanxi province;
  • Hua Shan, the western mountain, also in Shanxi province;
  • Heng Shan Nan, the southern mountain, in Hunan province;
  • Song Shan, the mountain of the center, in Henan province.

The palace of Zhang Daoling, the Celestial Master Mansion, in Yintan, Jiangxi province, China, is the classic seat of the Daoist popes, or Celestial Masters. After Mao Zedong brought communism to China in 1949, the Celestial Masters abandoned their traditional home and moved their headquarters to Taiwan, an island off the coast of mainland China. The White Cloud Daoist Monastery in Beijing is also a holy site for Daoists, as is the Eight Immortals Temple in Shanxi province and the Purple Heaven Temple on Mount Wudang in Hubei province.

Daoists visit these sites for a variety of reasons. Many find a closer connection to their beliefs simply by being in one of the sacred or historic sites associated with Daoism. They go to meditate, pray, or make offerings. Some use such pilgrimages as a way to ask a favor of the gods; others use such visits to put them into closer contact with the Dao. Still others combine tourism or vacations with more religious reasons.

Everyday living

Daoists believe in selective, careful, and well-thought-out action. This concept of wu wei is applied daily in the lives of those who follow Daoism. Decisions, especially important ones such as marriage, choice of career, and family matters, are carefully considered before taking action. Often the Daoist priest is consulted before such decisions are made.

There is no special clothing particular to Daoists. Many follow a vegetarian lifestyle, resolving not to harm nature or to take the lives of animals. The Daoist interest in health and vitality, in preserving the qi, generally leads to a healthy lifestyle of moderation in all things.

Meditative exercises

Meditation is another daily practice for Daoists. It promotes a more deliberate lifestyle, thoughtful and aware, as well as less hurried. The basic rule for meditation is given in the Dao De Jing, which states, "Empty your mind of all thoughts." Such meditation is also referred to as "sitting and forgetting" in the Zhuangzi.

Daoist meditation has several levels, and only the most practiced students or masters ever reach the highest level. Breath control is part of meditation. Daoists try to guide the breath through the body, concentrating on inhaling, holding, and exhaling in rhythm. At first this is accomplished by actually counting the time for each part of the breathing process, but eventually such breathing can become second nature.

Feng Shui

One of the more well-known aspects of Daoism to those outside the religion is feng shui (pronounced FUNG shway). For many in the modern world, feng shui is simply a method for designing and decorating living or working space. But feng shui is much more than a system of interior design. It is actually a religion of its own that has been blended into Daoist practice. Feng shui means "wind and water," and archaeological evidence (physical remains of the past) indicates it may be four thousand years old.

Feng shui discovers the qi, or energy of the Dao, as it runs through the earth and affects humans. Followers of feng shui believe that it is necessary to channel the qi to keep it from disturbing the lives of humans who live in it. Those who practice feng shui attempt to ensure that the qi flows properly in one's living space and that a proper balance of yin and yang is found.

It also uses astrology, a form of telling the future from the positions of the stars and planets on one's birth date. The Yijing (also spelled I Ching, or "Book of Changes"), an ancient Chinese text for telling the future by the placement of symbolic hexagrams (patterns of six lines), is also used in some schools of feng shui to help determine the correct environment. In its earliest form feng shui was used for finding the best gravesite. Later it came to be used to determine the best place to build an imperial palace. Over the centuries it was turned into a science and art for the common people as well. Even in the early twenty-first century many Daoists would not think of buying an apartment or redesigning their homes without consulting a feng shui master.

Feng shui is applied in everyday life to design interior space that allows for the healthy circulation of qi. Feng shui rules warn against having the foot of the bed facing the door, for example, for the flow of qi will disturb sleep. Rounded corners are preferred for pools. Windows should not slide up and down, for that way they do not allow enough qi in or out. Numerology, or the study of the spiritual power of numbers, also plays a role in feng shui. One should always have an even number of dining room chairs, for example. Odd numbers represent loneliness, while even numbers represent luck.

The breath is the qi, or energy of the body. Daoists attempt to direct the flow of qi by breath control. Visualization is also used in meditation. In this process, the person focuses on a god or on one of the heavenly bodies in order to push out negative thoughts, such as anger and jealousy. Many Daoists also practice the art of taijichuan in order to help channel qi. Taijichuan uses gentle movements to promote health and long life. Its goal is to return the body and the mind to its original pure state. Daoist taijichuan uses a lot of stretching and turning in the 108 movements of the exercise.

From birth to death

Daoism figures into the major events of each person's life. Babies in the womb are protected by the guardian spirit, Tai Shen, so pregnant women make regular offerings to that deity. After birth, further offerings are made to female spirits. These offerings are usually of baby clothes, for these spirits are considered to be mothers themselves. A Daoist adult is chosen as a godparent, and more offerings are made when the infant is four months old to ensure its health and safety. The child's first birthday is celebrated with a banquet. Mother spirits are believed to protect the child as it grows, and as the children grow older they learn to chant parts of the Dao De Jing, perform the exercises of taijichuan, and practice calligraphy (beautiful handwriting). Good calligraphy requires concentration and skill, as the artist must control the amount of ink used in each brush stroke and the flexibility of the brush. It is considered by many to be a process that unites body and mind.

Weddings are also special events in the life of Daoists. Though the full rite, created over two thousand years ago, is no longer practiced, parts of that rite are still used. Often a Daoist specialist is consulted to make sure the bride and groom are compatible. The bride and her parents visit the shrines of their ancestors on the day of the wedding, and the groom performs a ritual at his ancestors' shrine to remind him of his duties as a husband. The actual ceremony is brief and simple, but this is followed by an elaborate banquet where the bride and groom sign the document of marriage. The day after the wedding, the bride goes to her in-laws bearing gifts to show that she will soon have children. Three days after the wedding ceremony she returns to her own parents, no longer a member of that family, but now a visitor.

Daoists believe that a person's body and passionate spirit are buried after death, but that the pure spirit lives on. Therefore, Daoist funerals are usually quite elaborate. The day of the funeral is determined by a Daoist calendar specialist. A Daoist priest may come to the person's home to make sure preparations for the funeral are in order. Favorite belongings, food, and white papers with prayers, charms, and spells written on them are also placed in the coffin. Later, these pieces of paper are taken from the coffin and burned in order to send them to heaven. A banquet is served once the coffin is sealed.

Daily details

Daoism affects all aspects of a believer's life. A typical day for a Daoist might begin with an offering at the family altar or shrine. This could be food for an ancestor or perhaps the burning of incense for the Earth God to bless the day's activities. The Daoist calendar might be consulted to see what is supposed to happen on that day, for Daoists are strong believers in the effects of the movements of the planets and various nature spirits on a person's life. Many buildings, including homes, schools, and offices, may have been built and furnished according to the rules of feng shui. If the family feels out of balance, a Daoist priest might be asked to perform an exorcism to rid the home of evil spirits.

On his or her way to work, a Daoist might participate in or see others practicing taijichuan in the parks. If ill, the person might visit an acupuncturist or someone who practices herbal medicine. A Daoist procession might be passing along the street where a person walks, or a ritual might be in process in a temple. Back at home at the end of the day and as the family gathers for dinner, they are watched over by the Kitchen God, for every family usually has a picture of this deity in the kitchen, ready to report on their actions at the end of the year.

Daoism's influences

Daoist thought has had a significant effect on Chinese life and culture. The basic principle of Daoism, to live in unity with the Dao, shapes the lives of millions. Practices such as breath control and taijiquan, for example, have become a part of the regular routine of millions. In any park in a major city of China or Taiwan, people can be seen practicing taijiquan, seeking the benefits of its control of qi, even if they are not aware of how the practice links them to a religious tradition. Similarly, the portrayal of nature in Chinese art evokes the Dao, with its simplicity, clean lines, and open space inspiring a feeling of calm and quiet. This is a direct result of the Daoist emphasis on living in harmony with the patterns and rhythms of nature and the Dao. The Daoist ideal of self-restraint and humbleness, parts of de (virtue) is valued by many Chinese people, whether they are practicing Daoists or not.

Influences on medicine

Chinese herbal medicine is based largely on the work of early Daoists who were searching for immortality or concerned with maintaining a positive flow of qi in the body. Over the course of centuries, Daoists have discovered and recorded the medicinal uses of thousands of plants, including trees, flowers, fruits, herbs, and fungi. Daoists have also long emphasized a balanced diet to maintain good health. Many experiments with plants and minerals are recorded in the sixteenth-century Daoist work, the Great Pharmacopoeia, or directory of drugs. Perhaps the earliest medical book is Daoist in origin, The Yellow Emperor's Classic on Medicine, more than two thousand years old and the product of a Celestial Master.

Daoist Sun Sumiao lived during the Tang Dynasty and practiced traditional Chinese medicine. He has been called the "king of medicine." Sun contributed much to Chinese traditional medicine, and he shared this knowledge in several books. Among his works are the Treatise on Alchemy and Inscription on Visualizing Spirits and Refining Vital Breath. The Inscription on Visualizing Spirits and Refining Vital Breath discusses the relationship between body, breath, and spirit. It details how breath and spirit must be maintained in order to care for the body and describes how, through practice, one can achieve long life and realize the Dao. Daoists of the Tang Dynasty who wished to study the breath often referred to this book. The Treatise on Alchemy addressed food in much the way a modern doctor might. Sun suggested that "when a person is sick, the doctor should first regulate the patient's diet and lifestyle." If that treatment failed he recommended looking at additional therapies, such as acupuncture.

The Five Elements and yin and yang principles are important to Chinese medicine. When the qi is blocked, it can create pain or other problems in the body. The elements of yin and yang are used to identify and resolve these problems. While yin and yang are two opposites, they are always shown together. Ideally, each side will be equally balanced. When they fall out of balance, a person becomes ill.

The Five Elements of fire, earth, wood, metal, and air can also become out of balance, causing sickness. Each part of the body is related to a particular element. For instance, the heart is "fire" and the kidneys are "water." If a person has a complaint about the kidneys, it is possible his or her "water" is not properly balanced. Determining which elements are imbalanced is very complicated and takes years of study.

Acupuncture and acupressure are techniques to help correct any imbalance between yin and yang or the Five Elements in the body. In acupuncture, thin needles are inserted into certain points in the body that have been determined to control the flow of qi. These points are not necessarily close to the affected part of the body, but they release energy to that point to aid in healing. The depth of the needles in the skin and the twisting of them all determine the extent of the treatment. In acupressure, a similar release and direction of qi are accomplished with manipulation and pressure put on the same points, without the use of needles. The details of acupuncture practice, including the pressure points on the body, the benefits and side effects, and the ways to apply the needles, were gathered together from 475 to 221 bce and published in the Yellow Emperor's Classic on Medicine. Knowledge of acupuncture and its techniques grew rapidly into the fourteenth century. It has been widely practiced in China since this time.

Both acupuncture and acupressure were developed by Daoist masters. Acupuncture began to be noticed in the United States in the early twentieth century, but it was rarely practiced until the 1970s. Since then it has slowly become more widely used in the West. Western medical science, however, has had difficulties understanding how the principles of yin and yang and the Five Elements, on which acupuncture and acupressure are based, fit into its very different approach to health and healing. Qi has no similar counterpart in Western medicine. Nevertheless, many Westerners increasingly seek out these Chinese therapies as an alternative to other medical treatments.

The Daoist emphasis on direct observation of nature has influenced the Chinese attitude towards science in general. For example, the Daoist herbalists made minute and detailed drawings of the plants they wished to record, and this in turn led to advancements in the science of botany, the study of plants. The herbalists helped to advance the classification and physical description of plants by their careful drawings.

Influences on the arts

This close observation of nature also made a deep impression on Chinese art. Historians point out that one of the high points of Chinese art in the seventeenth century came at a time when Daoist thought and influence were experiencing a renaissance, or rebirth and growth in popularity. Nature became the subject matter for painters; humans were included in such paintings but usually were portrayed as very small creatures against the vastness of nature. Such paintings were meditations in themselves, with each brushstroke the result of precise, planned effort. The paintings could take minutes, days, or years to complete.

Chinese calligraphy owes its development as an art in large part to Daoist monks and believers who practiced such printing as a form of meditation. As with paintings, calligraphy could take minutes or days to create. The final product reproduces Chinese characters, or written words, with ink and brush in a way of simple beauty. One of the most famous Chinese calligraphers was Wang Xianzhi (334–386 ce). Wang, a Daoist, lived during the Jin Dynasty (317–420). He worked in several government positions and eventually achieved a high rank. Wang studied calligraphy under his father, Wang Xizhi. Both were very skilled. Together they were known as Er Wang, meaning the Two Wangs. Wang Xianzhi experimented to form his own style of writing calligraphy, known for being bold and sophisticated.

Similarly Daoism has had a strong effect on Chinese literature, including the lyrical and concise verse of the Dao De Jing and the storytelling humor of the Zhuangzi. The same reverence for nature seen in the visual arts can be found throughout Chinese literature. Li Po (also spelled Li Bai; 701–761) was the author of more than one thousand poems, most of which deal with nature in the life of a Daoist. Even a war poem, such as his "Moon over Mountain Pass," which talks of the horrors of battle, begins with a lyrical vision of nature:

    A bright moon rising above T'ien Shan
    Lost in a vast ocean of clouds.
    The long wind, across thousands and thousands of miles,
    Blows past the Jade-gate Pass.

Writings of the popular Mao Shan religious sect influenced later Chinese texts, particularly in the Tang Dynasty. Li Po, one of the greatest poets in Chinese history, was a Mao Shan member. One of the central Mao Shan texts, Lives of the Perfected, inspired the Chinese classic, The Intimate Biography of Han Emperor Wu. This story relays the events that unfold when the goddess Xi Wang-mu, Royal Mother of the West, visits Emperor Wu. This, in turn, influenced Tang romantic literature.

Daoist thought influenced the Chinese language itself, with concepts of the Dao, de, and qi, assuming new and more complex meanings. Dao, for instance, came to mean a path to universal harmony and internal balance. De, which had originally meant raw power, came to represent power and strength through virtue. Qi now refers to the vital energy brought by breath.

Influences in and outside China

Daoism influenced other religions, including Confucianism and Buddhism. While Confucianism defines social conduct, Daoism describes conduct that goes beyond society. For example, the sense of detachment Daoism teaches often leads to rejection of society and its influences. Daoism is about finding individual balance apart from the world, while Confucianism teaches that such balance is found only in society, by following the rules and rituals of society. Thus, the two systems are themselves representative of the idea of yin and yang. Daoist thought also has its social aspects, however, while Confucianism, with its regard for the mysticism of the Yijing, also has some occult features. In some respects, then, each religion borrowed from the other.

Daoist terms were used to interpret Buddhist principles, especially those regarding meditation. For example, after achieving enlightenment, the Buddha was described as having reached the Dao. Also, the Buddhist idea of nirvana (the end of suffering) was equated with wu wei.

Daoism has also had influence in the West. Daoist techniques of meditation have been incorporated into many forms of religion and into therapeutic (healing) schools. Daoist practices, including feng shui and taijichuan, have found a welcome home in the West, and the Daoist respect for nature has found its way into Western environmental movements. The concept of Dao has been adopted for use in book titles, from business management guides to cookbooks to the interpretation of quantum physics, as in The Tao of Physics: An Exploration of the Parallels Between Modern Physics and Eastern Mysticism, by Fritjof Capra. All these influences of Daoism indicate how strong the concept of the religion is in the world.

For More Information


Bodenkamp, Stephen R. "Daoism: An Overview." In Encyclopedia of Religion, 2nd ed. Edited by Lindsay Jones. Detroit, MI: Macmillan Reference USA, 2005, pp. 2176-2192.

Clayre, Alasdair. The Heart of the Dragon. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin, 1984.

Hartz, Paula R. Taoism: World Religions. New York: Facts On File, Inc., 1993.

Lao Tzu. Tao Te Ching. Translated by Gia-Fu Feng and Jane English. Introduction by Jacob Needleman. New York: Vintage Books, 1989.

Miller, James. Daoism: A Short Introduction. Oxford, England: Oneworld Publications, 2003.

Oldstone-Moore, Jennifer. Taoism: Origins, Beliefs, Practices, Holy Texts, Sacred Places. New York: Oxford University Press, 2003.

Smith, Huston. The Religions of Man. New York: Perennial Library, 1989.


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views updated May 29 2018


Defining the features of Daoism (or Taoism) as one of the predominant trends in the history of Chinese thought involves accounting for its religious traits. As often happens outside the Western hemisphereBuddhism may be the best-known example, but the same is true of Islamthe boundary between thought and religion in China is tenuous, unstable, and sometimes simply impossible to identify. Daoism, Buddhism, Confucianism, and other legacies have defined themselves as "teachings" (jiao ) or "lineages" (jia, a word that primarily means "house" or "family"). The terms for "philosophy" and "religion" (zhexue and zongjiao ) have become part of the standard Chinese vocabulary through late-nineteenthand early-twentieth-century translations of Western books.

In the most general way, Daoism may be defined as a traditional form of thought and religion, based on some central notions, cults, and practices but never subject to systematization as a whole, and syncretic but at the same time self-containedin the sense that it integrates many elements from other traditions, but frequently emphasizes its distinction from them. These basic features underlie different formulations of doctrinal notions and a large variety of practices, ranging from self-cultivation to communal rituals.

Daoism and Chinese Thought and Religion

Historically, the Daoist tradition has consisted of several schools, or rather lineages, usually based on one or more primary texts and associated with one or more divine or semi-divine beings. As a whole, these lineages and corpora have represented the higher but "unofficial" form of native religion in China. This definition points to the complexity of questions that surround the status of Daoism and its relation to Chinese religion; it is also relevant to its relation to Chinese thought, for the status of Daoism as a religion was often defined with reference to ideas and notions formulated in its early doctrinal texts.

In relation to the different forms of common religion in China, the stated purpose of Daoism is "transforming" (hua ) people, in the sense of educating them to venerate pure deities that impersonate the Dao, instead of joining other cultsthose defined as "vulgar" (su ) or "illicit" (yin ), which often included sacrifice and involved the assistance of spirit-mediums. The continuous incorporation of new deities and ritual forms, resulting from the interaction of Daoism with local communities and cults, upgraded these deities by admitting them into the "correct" (zheng ) hierarchy of gods and amended the ritual forms by integrating them into the proper way of communicating with the divine world. As has often been noted, the spirit-medium, and not the Confucian officer or the Buddhist monk, was the first competitor of the Daoist priest within local communities.

The relation between Daoism and Buddhism has been fertile, with reciprocal borrowings of doctrinal formulations, theological elements, technical terminology, and forms of practice. Even though Buddhist polemical authors have often accused Daoists of appropriating Buddhist notions and topoi and even of plagiarizing their scriptures, these disputes have usually occurred in the surroundings of the imperial court. In that milieu, providing evidence of doctrinal preeminence in order to obtain official patronage was more important than highlighting any shared ground. Daoism provided Chinese Buddhism with some of that ground in the early stages of its development and, in turn, drew from it in later times. For the average faithful, anyway, subtle doctrinal distinctions surely were not the main concern, and Daoist or Buddhist deities could equally be addressed as suitable and practicable.

Daoism's relation to Confucianismthe dominating influence behind the system of social norms, upheld by the central government, maintained by the local officers, supported by the literati, and transmitted through educationhas been complex. Classical Confucianism focuses on the social aspects of human life. Daoism is by no means uninterested in these issues, but its views are based on different doctrinal grounds. Despite this, and with exceptions with respect to Neo-Confucianism, the contrast between Daoism and Confucianism has not primarily involved their philosophical views (the respective claims in this respect were known and quietly acknowledged by both), but their religious aspects. As Anna Seidel has noted (1997, pp. 3941), although Daoism is the higher form of Chinese native religion, it has always occupied a position subordinate to the imperialthat is, officialcults. For the Confucian officers, the Daoist priests represented spiritual powers over which they had no control. Replacing the state ceremonies to Heaven and Earth, or to paragons of Confucian virtue, with rituals performed by Daoist priests and addressed to the divine personifications of the Dao, would be equivalent to granting Daoism an official role in the administration of the empire. For this reason, the Confucian officer and literatus did not hesitate to acknowledge Daoism only in its philosophical, mystical, or literary aspects, and even to regard it as equal to common religion.

The Roots of Daoism

The main early Daoist text is the Daode jing (Scripture of the way and its virtue), a short work consisting of aphorisms attributed to Laozi (the Old Master, or Old Child). Although some scholars have suggested that other sources might be slightly earlier, virtually all movements and lineages within Daoism consider this as the founding scripture of the entire tradition, even though they may venerate their own texts and their own founders. Another early work, the Zhuangzi (Book of Master Zhuang), has provided Daoism with doctrines, notions, and technical vocabulary throughout its history.

The present general consensus among scholars is that the Daode jing was not written by a single author, and that Laozi is the appellation of the symbolic Daoist sage whose doctrines are reflected there. The text appears to have existed in a form close to the present one between 350 and 300 b.c.e., but many of its statements likely derive from oral traditions whose dates are impossible to determine. The Zhuangzi, which is deemed to be one of the masterpieces of Chinese literature, is different from the Daode jing from the point of view of its formal features and consists mainly of stories, anecdotes, and reflections. Zhuangzi himself probably authored the seven so-called Inner Chapters in the late fourth century b.c.e., with the other portions dating from one or two centuries later. Despite differences in emphasis, the two texts present the same view of the Dao and its relation to the world, outlined below on the basis of the Daode jing (references in parentheses are to the number of sections in this text).

The Dao.

The word dao has two main meanings, "way" and "method." These two meanings refer, respectively, to the way in which something is or the way it functions, and to the way of doing something (including the extended meaning of "practice" in a religious sense). The early Daoist texts are the first ones to use this word to mean the Absolute (Robinet, p. 26). For the Daode jing, the Dao has no name and is beyond any description or definition; the word dao itself is used only because one "is forced" to refer to it (25). The Dao is unknowable, has no form, and therefore does not undergo change (41), is "constant" (1), and is "invisible, inaudible, and imperceptible" (14). The two principles of Non-being (wu ) and Being (you ) are contained within it. Yet the Dao, in spite of its being "indistinct and vague" (huanghu ), contains an "essence" (jing ) that is the seed of the world of multiplicity (21). Under this second aspectwhich can be distinguished from the previous one only within the domain of relativitythe Dao is the "origin" of the world and its "mother" (1).

The faculty that the Dao has to give life to the particular objects is its de, or "virtue," and is described as "a mystery within a mystery" (1). The Daode jing outlines this process, which happens spontaneously and has no cause or purpose, in a famous statement: "The Dao generates the One, the One generates the Two, the Two generate the Three, the Three generate the ten thousand things" (42). According to this formulation, which like all similar outlines found in Daoist texts is meaningful only from a relative point of view, the Dao first generates the One (yi ), the principle of the unity of existence in which the individual entities defined by forms and names are included, but have not yet emerged. The One differentiates itself into the two polar and complementary principles, Yin and Yang. The Three is the product of the joining of Yin and Yang; it represents the One reestablished at the level of each individual entity. The "ten thousand things" (wanwu ) are the sum of entities generated by the joining of Yin and Yang. The sentence of the Daode jing quoted above therefore formulates both a metaphysics, by arranging the single items in a hierarchical sequence designed to show their ultimate origin in the Dao, and a cosmogony, which does not take place once and for all in illo tempore but is continuously reiterated within each of the cosmic cycles that the Dao brings into existence.

Both the Dao and the manifested world model themselves on ziran (25), a term that literally means "to be so of its own." In reference to the Dao, the principle of ziran means that the Dao only regulates itself upon itself; in reference to the world generated by the Dao, ziran means that there is no ultimate reason for things being as they are: the Dao generates the "ten thousand things," but while for the relative the Absolute is its "mother," for the Absolute the relative does not even exist. Aside from generating the world, therefore, the Dao does nothing else: it does not act in it, it is not affected by the transformation, decay, and disappearance of the forms it generates, and it neither rejoices in nor is hurt by what is, in a relative sense, good or bad.

The saintly person.

Just as the Dao does nothing, so is "non-doing" or "non-action" (wuwei ) the way to attain to it. Non-action is the practice of ziran in the human world: one fully responds to circumstances and events, doing no more and no less than what is required, without taking the initiative unless there is an immediate need to do so, and without being moved by personal desire, interest, or advantage (3, 19, 34, 37, 57). In particular, there is no need of striving to perform what is "good," and even less so of attempting to impose it on others, for "when everyone knows the good as good, evil is already there" (2).

The person who has "returned to the Dao" (28, 40, 52) is called in the Daode jing the shengren, a term that in a Daoist context may be translated as "saint" to distinguish him from the Confucian "sage." As the highest realized human being who has achieved liberation in life, the Daoist saint has transcended the limitations of individuality and form; he continues to remain in the world of multiplicity until he has completely fulfilled his function in it, but from an absolute point of view, which is the one in which he constantly dwells, his self-identity is already null, for he is identified with absolute principle. Death for him, therefore, is not even a change of state, for he has attained the state in which no change can occur. In the human world, he "practices the teaching without words" and "makes it possible for the ten thousand things to function, but does not start them" (2). He does not take an active leading role in society but benefits his fellow human beings by his mere presence. This is so even when the saint is the ruler, a figure to whom the Daode jing devotes much attention. In that position, the saint governs according to the principle of non-action, and that is how he ensures the well-being of his country and his subjects. In the ideal description given by the Daode jing, no one even needs to know who the ruler is. "Therefore the saint in his government empties their heart [i.e., their mind], fills their belly, weakens their will, and strengthens their bones. He always wants people to be without knowledge and without desires." He does so because "not exalting the worthy prevents people from competing, not valuing goods hard to obtain prevents people from becoming thieves, and not seeing desirable things prevents the people's heart from becoming confused" (3).

Revelations and Textual Corpora

To a significant extent, the history of Daoism may be seen as a continuous restatement of the principles enunciated in the early founding texts. To an equally significant extent, its development has been marked by the adaptation to varying historical circumstances, the response to the needs and demands of different social groups, and the incorporation of notions, beliefs, cults, and practices derived from other trends of thought and religion. These multiple factors gave rise to the idea, apparently unknown to the early Daoist thinkers, that the Dao may appear under the guise of gods or other divine beings, and may through them take an active role in the world, in particular by granting revelations to some adepts.

The first Daoist revelation.

The process that led, in the second half of the second century c.e., to the formation of the first major Daoist religious movement can only be understood in the light of the politico-religious ideals of ancient China, synthesized in the notion of Great Peace (taiping ) and shared by different traditions including Confucianism. At the center of that process was the deification of Laozi, now represented not only as the sage who expounds the metaphysical doctrines of the Daode jing, but also as a messiah who embodies the Dao and reappears at different times either as a sage counselor of political rulers, or as the inspirer of religious leaders (Seidel, 1969). Scholars have pointed out the association among the spread of beliefs concerning Lord Lao (Laojun, i.e., Laozi in his divine aspect), the cults offered to him outside and even within the imperial court in the second century, and the political decline of the Han dynasty (202 b.c.e.220 c.e.). Based on the notion that the emperor symbolized and guaranteed the balance between Heaven and Earth, the weakening of political power at the end of the Han, and the concurrent natural disasters and social unrest were deemed to reflect a rupture between the supernatural and the human world. Hence the millenarian beliefs and the messianic wait for a Saviora new incarnation of Lord Lao who would restore Great Peace and confer the Celestial Mandate (tianming ) to a new ruler.

In one of his transformations, Lord Lao appeared (in 142 c.e., according to the traditional date) to a healer, Zhang Daoling, in the southwestern region of Sichuan. Lord Lao established a covenant (meng ) with Zhang Daoling, revealing to him the teaching of Orthodox Unity (zhengyi ) and bestowing upon him the title of Celestial Master (tianshi ). This revelation, which has been dubbed "the New Testament of the Dao" to distinguish it from the teaching of the Daode jing, is at the origin of the Way of the Celestial Masters (Tianshi dao ), a priestly lineage that continues to exist in the present day (the current Celestial Master resides in Taiwan). The early Celestial Masters established a theocratically based enclave in Sichuan that maintained its political semi-independence for several decades, until the end of the Han period. Its purpose was not to terminate and replace the imperial power; rather, the intent of Zhang Daoling and his successors was to realize the kingdom of the Great Peace on earth until a new sovereign would receive the mandate to rule from Heaven.

The administrative structure of the early Way of the Celestial Masters was based on that of the Han empire; both in turn reproduced on earth the bureaucratic ordering of Heaven. Since that time, Daoist texts have often represented Heaven as an administration divided into ministries and offices, with a hierarchical classification of primary deities (often called "emperor," di ) and a host of ancillary gods. The same bureaucratic features are displayed in Daoist ritual, which is based in part on the forms established by the early Way of the Celestial Masters: requests of audiences in the courtly halls of celestial palaces, arrangement of the deities on seats arrayed according to their rank, and written petitions delivered to the gods.

The Three Caverns.

The diaspora of the Celestial Masters' communities after the end of the Han resulted in the expansion of the new religion to other parts of China. Its spread in Jiangnan, the region south of the lower Yangzi River, was one of the prerequisites for the formation of two other major corpora of Daoist doctrines, texts, and practices in the second half of the fourth century. The representatives of the religious legacies of Jiangnan responded to the newly imported cults by reformulating and codifying some aspects of their own traditions in ways that admitted elements of the practices of the Celestial Masters, but were mainly based on the local traditions, which included meditation, alchemy, self-cultivation practices, and various methods for communicating with the gods and expelling demons. The first corpus, known as Shangqing (Highest Clarity), derived from revelations that occurred from 364 to 370 c.e. and was centered on meditation practices; the second, known and Lingbao (Numinous Treasure), derived from revelations that occurred between circa 395 and 405 c.e. and was based on communal ritual. These two codifications clearly define, for the first time, the two main poles of the Daoist religious experience, namely inner, individual practices on the one hand, and collective practices for the community of the faithful on the other.

The relations among these traditions were formally codified in the early fifth century in the system of the Three Caverns (sandong ). Its main purpose was to hierarchically arrange the different legacies of Jiangnan, assigning the higher rank to Shangqing, the intermediate one to Lingbao, and the lower one to other earlier and contemporary traditions. Around 500 c.e., the corpora associated with the Daode jing, the Taiping jing (Scripture of Great Peace), alchemy, and the Way of the Celestial Masters were assigned to the so-called Four Supplements (sifu ). The Three Caverns also provided the formal schema for other important aspects of Daoist doctrine and practice, including the ordination stages of the Daoist priest (daoshi ) and the arrangement of scriptural and other writings in the collections of Daoist texts (Daozang ) that began to take shape from the early fifth century.

This model continued to perform this function even after the contours of Daoist religion were reshaped by various new revelations and codifications during the Song period (9601279) and later, and by the creation in the early thirteenth century of Quanzhen (Complete Reality, or Complete Perfection), a monastic order that is, along with the Way of the Celestial Masters, the main branch of present-day Daoism.

Cosmos and Gods

The cosmos generated by the Dao and the heavens inhabited by deities that personify the Dao are intermediaries between the Absolute and the human world. These two domains overlap to a significant extent, for certain deities and certain features of the cosmos correspond to each other. Both of them play an essential role in the various ways that Daoism provides for "returning to the Dao" (fandao ), which are addressed either to the single individual or to the community as a whole.

Correlative cosmology.

The features and workings of the cosmic domain are explicated in Daoism largely by means of the language and images of the standard Chinese cosmological system. This system, often referred to as "correlative cosmology" by scholars, is based on several patterns of emblems (xiang ) such as Yin and Yang, the five agents (wuxing ), and the eight trigrams and sixty-four hexagrams of the Book of Changes (Yijing ). These emblems function as categories to which the single entities or phenomena can be assigned. The five agents, for instance, emblematize the modes or states in which the one Original Pneuma (yuanqi ) appears in the cosmos, represented by Wood, Fire, Soil, Metal, and Water. Directions of space, segments of time cycles, numbers, colors, planets, viscera of the human body, musical notes, and so forth can be assigned to one of these emblematic categories in order to define not only the relations that occur among the elements of a series, but also those that occur among the different domains. Wood, for instance, is associated with the east, spring, the numbers 3 and 8, the color green (or blue), Jupiter, the liver, and the note jiao. The purpose of correlative cosmology, therefore, is not so much to explain what causes an entity to exist or a phenomenon to occur as it is to define its relation to other entities and phenomena. An important corollary to this view is that an event or action happening or performed in one domain may affect the corresponding components in another domain according to the principle of "stimulus and response" (ganying ), by which things of the same "category" (lei ) influence each other.

Correlative cosmology, which took shape as a comprehensive system between the third and the second centuries b.c.e., is not tied to any specific intellectual or religious legacy and is the result of an effort to create a comprehensive analytic and synthetic system with contributions both by thinkers and by specialists of various traditional sciences, including diviners, astronomers, and physicians. Daoism is one of several traditions that have drawn upon correlative cosmology to formulate its views and to frame its techniques or practices. In Daoism, correlative cosmology serves not only to explicate the functioning of the cosmos, but also to illustrate the notion that single entities and phenomena ultimately originate from the Dao and that the different forms in the world of multiplicity are governed by the One, the principle of the unity of the cosmos. At the same time, the emblems of correlative cosmology serve to regulate the process of "returning to the Dao" through the support of a microcosmic frameworkthe ritual area, the alchemical laboratory, or the human being itself. The ritual area, for instance, is arranged so as to correspond to the cosmos and its temporal and spatial configurations (Lagerwey, 1987, pp. 348). In alchemy, the stages of the compounding of the elixir reproduces in a reverse sequence the cosmological configurations that intervene between the absolute Dao and the domain of relativity.

Communicating with the gods.

The supreme Daoist deities are the Three Clarities (sanqing ), each of whom rules over one of the many heavens distinguished in Daoist cosmography. They are associated with different precosmic eras and are at the origin of the textual corpora associated with the Three Caverns. Above them some traditions place the Celestial Worthy of Original Commencement (Yuanshi tianzun ), who dwells in the supreme Great Canopy Heaven (Daluo tian ). The unity of the cosmos is represented in a deified form by the Great One (or Great Unity, Taiyi ); he resides at the symbolic center of the cosmos in the Northern Dipper (beidou ), whose apparent rotation distributes Original Pneuma to the regions of space and sustains the cycles of time. Several other gods, such as the "emperors" of the five directions (north, south, east, west, and center), also represent cosmological principles. In addition, a multitude of deities, most of whom are the expression of local cults, contribute to form a pantheon with indefinite boundaries that takes different forms according to place and time.

The highest gods, or their representatives, reveal texts, teachings, and practices. The scriptures belonging to the Shangqing and Lingbao corpora are deemed to have taken shape from graphs coagulated from Original Pneuma, or from sounds generated by its vibration, in the early stages of the formation of the cosmos. Those graphs constitute the prototypes of the revealed scriptures, which at first are transmitted from one god to another, undergoing various stages of materialization until they are delivered to humans by a divine being. Just as the gods grant revelations mostly in the form of scriptures, and consistently with the bureaucratic metaphor mentioned above, the typically Daoist form of communicating with the gods is by writing. In Daoist ritual, the priest delivers a "memorial" (or "statement," shu ) to the deities to announce that a ceremony will be performed in their honor, declare its purpose, specify its program, and list the names of those who sponsor it. The so-called talismans (fu, a word that corresponds almost exactly to Greek symbolon ) are traced on paper or other supports, including air, in graphs intelligible to the gods. Like the revealed scripturessome of which, in fact, are deemed to have evolved from themthe talismans have a counterpart in Heaven, and thus serve to identify and authenticate their possessor. Talismans confer power to summon certain deities and to control demons, but they also protect space and heal illnesses; they are worn on one's body, affixed at the four directions, placed along the path that leads to one's dwelling, or made into ashes and drunk with water. Another important ritual object that has a written form is the "register" (lu ), a formal document of investiture that the Daoist priest receives at various stages of his ordination and that defines his rank, the rites that he may perform, and the deities and spirits over which he has control.

The Human Being

Despite significant variations among the different traditions, the basic view of the human being and its potentialities in Daoism reflects its doctrinal principles. Many texts devoted to this subject state that full comprehension of their teachings grants the status of Real Man, or Perfected (zhenren ). The related practices do not consist in a process of "increase" or "becoming perfect" but vice versa in reducing what obstructs one's potential for realization, according to the principle of the Daode jing that "practising the Dao is called reducing; reduce and then again reduce and thereby attain to non-doing" (sec. 48). Some authors of texts of inner alchemy were aware of the ambiguity involved in the very notion of "doing" a practice in order to attain the state of "non-doing" and emphasized that the practice operates within the domain that the adept is called to transcend; its final purpose is to reveal the limitations of that domain.

The heart (xin ) is the symbolic center of the human being. It is the residence of spirit (shen ) and corresponds to the Northern Dipper in heaven. Just as Oneness takes multiple forms in the cosmos, so the center of the human being reappears in multiple locations. The most important are the three Cinnabar Fields (dantian, immaterial loci in the regions of the brain, the heart, and the abdomen) and the five viscera (wuzang, namely liver, heart, spleen, lungs, and kidneys). The three Cinnabar Fields and the five viscera represent, respectively, the vertical and horizontal dimensions of the cosmos within the human being.

According to some traditions within Daoism, these and many other loci of the body are also residences of an inner pantheon of major and minor gods. The most important among them correspond to those that dwell in Heaven and perform multiple related roles: they personify the formless Dao or impersonal notions such as Yin and Yang, allow the human being to communicate with the gods of the outer pantheon, and administer the body and its functions. Several texts describe meditation practices in which the visualization of inner deities is combined with channeling essences and pneumas to the residences of the inner gods in order to provide them with nourishment. From the Tang period, these practices were largely replaced by other methods of contemplation and introspection influenced by Buddhism, but the inner gods have continued to perform an important function in ritual when they are summoned forth by the priest in order to submit the memorial to the gods in Heaven.

Alchemy, in its "inner" form (neidan ), framed its practices in part by drawing from meditation methods and from techniques for "nourishing life" (yangsheng ). The latter term refers to a large variety of methods that share a physiological foundation, including daoyin (a form of gymnastics that is one of the precursors of modern taiji quan ), breathing, and sexual practices. Using the same word that other sources apply to the cults of common religion, several alchemical texts qualify those techniques as "secular" or "vulgar" (su ); as other traditions within Daoism do with deities and rites, alchemy incorporates elements of those techniques but grafts them onto its own doctrinal background.

In alchemy and several other traditions, the purpose of the practice is to acquire transcendence or "immortality." In religious imagery, in both its mystical and popular aspects, "immortality" is a state attained by superior beings, often entirely legendary, through their practices. For others, "immortality" consists in undergoing transformation, in the literal sense of "going beyond the form" and returning to the unconditioned state.

See also Buddhism ; Chinese Thought ; Confucianism ; Humanism: Chinese Conception of ; Legalism, Ancient China ; Religion: East and Southeast Asia .


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Fabrizio Pregadio

Chinese Religions, Daoism and Science in China

views updated Jun 11 2018

Chinese Religions, Daoism and Science in China

As the native religion of China, Daoism (also spelled Taoism), together with Confucianism and Buddhism, comprises the main body of traditional Chinese culture. Daoists, in pursuit of the ideal of becoming immortals by practicing Dao, made great efforts to transcend conventional wisdom about life and knowledge and so helped both to define ancient science in China and to advance it through a great number of inventions.

Relationship between Daoism and science

For a long time, many Western translators, writers, and scholars misunderstood Daoist thought, largely overlooking its scientific and protoscientific aspects. Moreover, different understandings of what constitutes science have rendered the issue more confusing. While some scholars denied any link between Daoism and science, many studies have confirmed an important relationship between them.

Daoist thought is basic to Chinese science and technology. Daoism provided a philosophical foundation for the development of science; its love for nature, its conception of change, its unique mastery of the relationship between human beings and nature, and its pursuit of freedom are based on the exploration of nature. Daoist admiration for ancient scientific inventors, and their absorption of science and technology in history, show that Daoism tried to reach its religious ideal by means of science. In addition, Daoism's cultural structure is favorable for science. The unique Daoist ideal of material immortality is invaluable in stimulating the observation and exploration of nature and life, and the development of techniques of alchemy, medicine, and related fields.

Daoists regard Dao as the origin of all things, including human beings, and they believe that people can return to Dao and thus attain immortality. Because immortality can be acquired through learning, one's life rests with oneself rather than heaven. Daoist scriptures include such sayings as "Probe into the mystery of heaven and earth and understand the root of creation" (The Taoist Canon, Vol. 18, p. 671). In fact, such explorations serve the goal of achieving oneness with the Dao, which leads to becoming an omniscient and almighty immortal, a True Human of True Knowledge.

Unrealistic as immortality is, many Daoist ideas, techniques, and practices for longevity are reasonable and scientific. They constituted the most important part of Daoist spiritual heritage in the Middle Ages. Thus, Joseph Needham argues in Science and Civilization in China (1956) that Daoism "developed many of the most important features of the scientific attitude, and is therefore of cardinal importance for the history of science in China" (vol. 2, p.161). Similarly, Welch Holmes writes in Taoism: The Parting of the Way (1957) that "the Daoist movement has sometimes been called the Chinese counterpart of Western science To a large extent the Daoists practiced experimental science" (p.134).

Daoist contributions to science

Hua Tuo, a famous Daoist doctor in the third century c.e., was the first to use a type of anesthesia called ma fei san. He also formulated the gymnastic techniques called wu qin xi (imitation of five-animal playing) for nourishing vitality of life. A text of Daoist prescription Zhou Hou Bai Yi Fang (Collection of prescriptions for hundred-and-one diseases fourth century c.e.), written by Ge Hong and enlarged by Tao Hongjing, contains the first known record of the disease of smallpox. It also records therapeutic techniques for dealing with a variety of acute medical conditions, including artificial respiration, bleeding stoppage, abdominocentesis, catheterization, clyster, intestinal anastomosis, débridement (sore cleaning), drainage, fracture treatment with superficial fixture, and disjointed articulation restituting. Remarkably, this work recorded an anti-malaria treatment using southernwood (Artemisia annua L.). In the 1970s, scientists extracted artemisinin from southernwood, which is a significant discovery in the history of antimalaria treatments from medicines of the quinoline category. Sun Simiao, a great Daoist doctor, summed up in the seventh century c.e. the prevention of struma by using animal thyroid and the prevention of nyctalopia by using animal livers. And the treatment of restituting mandible disjointing that Sun Simiao put forward is still in use in modern medicine. Jin Si Xuan Xuan (The incredible mysteries in the golden box), a Daoist text of parasitology written sometime between the fourteenth and seventeenth centuries c.e., enumerated a "Catalogue of Nine Parasite Species" with illustrations of various kinds of parasites, as well as figures depicting their life cycles.

In seeking elixirs from the bodies of human beings themselves, Daoists made great strides in the field of biochemistry. Both Joseph Needham and Lu Gwei-Djen hold that the medicine named qiushi, which was made by medieval Daoists, is a relatively pure preparation of urinary steroid hormones. A similar medicine was made in the West by a German biochemist in the early twentieth century.

Daoists also acquired solid knowledge of certain chemical reaction processes. They accurately described the reversible reactions between mercury and thiosugar. Long Hu Huan Dan Jue (The oral formula for cyclically transformed elixir of dragon and tiger), written by Jin Ling Zi, an expert in alchemy in the Tang Dynasty (618907), recorded precise methods of making arsenic-copper alloy and of extracting pure copper, methods developed by Daoists over many generations. Instead of conforming to an older Daoist tradition of keeping key links secret or of using obscure terminology, this text clearly and definitely states strict rules of operation that are similar to those of modern chemistry.

As the basic components of gunpowder in ancient China were niter, sulfur, and carbonaceous substances, all frequently used in Daoist alchemical experiments, the invention of gunpowder can be traced back to Daoist writings in the Han Dynasty (206 b.c.e.220 c.e.). The formula included in Bao Pu Zi Nei Pian (The inner chapters of the Philosopher Master-Who-Embraces-Simplicity), written by Ge Hong in the fourth century c.e., already covered the basic composition of gunpowder. In the middle of the ninth century c.e., the Daoist scripture Zhen Yuan Miao Dao Yao Lue (Classified essentials of the mysterious Tao of the true origin of things) clearly recorded the precise composition of gunpowder. Obviously, the time of its invention was much earlier.

Many Daoists were also metallurgists. The hydrometallurgical technique of smelting copper from cupric sulfate liquor was first used in China in Daoist alchemic practices. It can be traced back to Huai Nan Zi (The book of Master Huainan), a Daoist text written in the early years of the first century c.e., it formally appeared in Daoist texts of the Tang Dynasty, and it became the prevailing technique of copper production during the Song Dynasty (9601279). It was no later than the Song Dynasty that Daoists had identified the element arsenic and extracted pure samples of it. Around the year 550 c.e., a Daoist practitioner invented a technique of steel production called guan gang fa, by which pig iron and wrought iron were heated together to a certain temperature for higher quality steel. With its moderate carbon content, this kind of steel was ideal for making high-quality tools. This technique was widely used and refined in China during the succeeding one thousand years.

With seven kinds of materials, Daoist alchemists created the earliest fireproof sealing material called six-one mud. They made glass and preserved valuable technical data in their writings. They wrote works on casting techniques such as Shen Xian Lian Dan Dian Zhu San Yuan Bao Zhao Fa (Spot casting methods of bronze mirror of the three origins of things by the immortals), in which they recorded in detail the techniques of quality control in casting. Ever since Huai Nan Zi in the Han Dynasty, Daoists used mercury-tin alloy and later added lead amalgam to create an ideal media for bronze mirror polishing.

A technique involving the suspending of magnetized needles was used by Daoists to test the quality of lodestone, which was a major healing object in alchemy. Eventually, this technique led to the invention of the magnetic needle compass. In addition, modern scientists found that Wu Yue Zhen Xing Tu (Maps of the true topography of the five sacred mountains), drawn in the third or fourth centuries c.e. and treasured by Daoists over the last eighteen centuries, contains the earliest type of contour map. The maps roughly reflect the local terrain and routes of the mountains.

Precise clock devices are of great importance in Daoist practices. Throughout Chinese history, many Daoists participated in the invention and improvement of the water clock. The famous cheng lou, a scale-controlled water clock invented by a Daoist named Li Lan, was widely used in the 400 years between the fifth and eighth centuries c.e., and served as an important component of various types of compounded clock devices in China. It was also used in the medieval Islamic world; studies show that Muslims probably learned about such clocks from the Chinese. Daoists of the Quanzhen Sect even invented portable water clock devices. A scripture called Quanzhen Zuo Bo Jie Fa (Quanzhen Sect easy preparation for sitting quiet in meditation), written between the tenth and fourteenth centuries c.e., recorded the technical details of making, debugging, and controlling the clocks.

Zhang Zhihe, a Daoist who lived during the Tang Dynasty, expounded the phenomenon of duration of vision, as it was called in modern optics. Later, another Daoist, Tan Qiao, who lived during the Five Dynasties (907960), discussed the phenomenon of reflection of plane mirrors. Zhao Youqin, a Daoist of the Quanzhen sect who wrote the famous scientific work Ge Xiang Xin Shu (New Book on the Investigation of Astronomical Phenomena ) in the Yuan Dynasty (12601368), conducted a series of large-scale experiments on geometric optical problems, such as rectilinear propagation of light, hole imaging, and intensity of illumination. He came to correct conclusions in these fields two centuries earlier than Galileo Galilei (15641642). His rough conclusion that "illumination intensifies as the intensity of light source enhances, but decreases as the image distance increases" appeared four hundred years earlier than Lambert's formula of qualitative illumination published in 1760, according to which "illumination is in reverse proportion to distance squared." In the early years of the nineteenth century, there were still Daoist believers in Guangzhou who studied with an open mind both the traditional Daoist theory of sphere-heavens and modern European astronomy.

In order to avoid losses in their alchemical experiments and for many other religious purposes, Daoists conducted weather observation and forecast. Their scripture Yu Yang Qi Hou Qin Ji (The near forcasting of the weather of rain or fine) analyzed scientifically the causes of wind and rain and recorded in terse but vivid verses their observations, which conform with modern meteorological science. They even provided various types of "cloud pictures" in the text.

Daoists not only explored but also wanted to navigate the heavens. The "flying vehicle made of jujube heart timber," recorded by Ge Hong in his Bao Pu Zi Nei Pian and regarded as the earliest design for a propeller aircraft, reveals the Daoist knowledge of the aerodynamic principles of flight. Modern scientists have recreated the vehicle according to Ge Hong's records and testified it to be technically reasonable. Ge Hong added that when rising to a height of forty li (about 12.44 miles) into the heavens, one can reach the outer space of taiqing (super clarity), where the air is powerful enough to support flying objects, helping them to fly naturally by inertia instead of motive forces. This is close to the law of First Cosmic Velocity in the modern science of astronautics. In the fourth century c.e., a hermit Daoist named Wang Jia wrote Shi Yi Ji (Record of gleaning), in which he claimed that once there had been a huge space aircraft named Cha ridden by the immortals. This aircraft used the sea as its base for launching and landing, and it continually navigated around the four seas, making a circuit every twelve years.

With the invention of gunpowder and the subsequent emergence of applied techniques for the control of its explosive power, the idea arose of using it as a rocket propellant. In the fifteenth century, an official of the Ming Dynasty named Wan Hoo conducted and died in the first attempt at manned rocket flight in human historypropelled by forty-seven gunpowder rockets. A Daoist biographical text formally printed in 1909 includes a description of a Daoist beauty who launched her aircraft into the heavens from a silo by means of a propellant compounded from cyprinoid fat.

Daoists were responsible for rich scientific achievements in many other fields, including cosmology, uranography, calendar making, geography, geology, mineralogy, botany, zoology, pharmaceutics, architecture, porcelain production, dye making, wine making, zymurgy, cerebral science, acoustics, wushu, sex hygiene, strategics, and psychology. Because the impetus for scientific exploration comes for Daoists from their religious belief in immortality, their science was inevitably bound by the ideas, purposes, and the historical development of Daoism. Therefore, it was impossible for science to gain an independent and deep development within the Daoist framework. Yet the remarkable achievements of Chinese science were also enabled and inspired by the Daoist interpretation of reality.

See also Dao


dao zang (the taoist canon). beijing: wenwu press, 1988.

holmes, welch. taoism: the parting of the way, rev. edition. boston: beacon press, 1957.

hua, tong-xu. zhong guo lou ke (water clock in china). hefei, china: anhui science and technology press, 1991.

jiang, sheng, and tong, waihop, eds. zhong guo dao jiao ke xue ji shu shi: han wei liang jin juan (a history of science and technology in taoism), vol. 1. beijing: science press, 2002.

jin, zheng-yao. taoism and science, trans. joe smith. new york: macmillan, 1991.

needham, joseph. science and civilization in china, vol. 2: history of scientific thought. cambridge, uk: cambridge university press, 1956.

needham, joseph. gunpowder as the fourth power, east and west. hong kong: hong kong university press, 1985.

sivin, nathan. medicine, philosophy, and religion in ancient china: researches and reflections. aldershot, uk, and brookfield, vt.: variorum, 1995.

sleewyk, andre wegener. "the celestial river: a reconstruction." technology and culture 19 (3) (1978): 423449.

volkov, alexei. "science and daoism: an introduction." taiwanese journal for philosophy and history of science 5, no. 1 (1996): 158.

yoshinobu, sakade. chukoku shisou kenkyu: iyaku you- jou, kagaku shisou hen (a study of chinese thought: essays on traditional medicine, pharmacy, nourishing vitality, and science). osaka, japan: kansai university press, 1999.

zhao, kuanghua, and zhou, jiahua. a history of science and technology in china, vol.: chemistry. beijing: science press, 1999.

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zim, herbert s. rockets and jets. new york: harcourt, 1945.

jiang sheng


views updated May 17 2018

Taoism or Daoism. Chinese religious and philosophical system, taking many different forms, and influencing other religions greatly, especially Buddhism. The two major forms of Taoism are philosophical, tao-chia (daojia), and religious, tao-chiao (daojiao); but both are intertwined (and not, as was once thought, incompatible alternatives).

Tao-chia goes back traditionally to Lao-tzu and Tao-te ching (Daode jing). Tao-te ching proposes a transformation of character within, from which good society and behaviour will flow. Where a Confucian asks, ‘What should I do?’, a Taoist asks, ‘What kind of person should I be?’ This involves discerning the Tao, the primordial source of order and the guarantor of the stability of all appearance. Tao is the unproduced Producer of all that is. Through the energetic initiative of creativity, i.e. through Te, the inner and inexpressible nature of Tao nevertheless appears in manifest forms. To live in accord with Tao is to realize this order and nature and stability in one's own life and society. Te is then the virtue of the person who achieves that goal, especially through wuwei.

The political philosophy of Taoism requires the ruler to be equally ‘invisible’. But since the ideal is never realized, the ruler has responsibility to enforce virtue; and this (especially Taote ching 6, 36, 65) has been criticized as encouraging despotism. This was reinforced indirectly by the second major figure/text of tao-chia, Chuang-tzu, where the pursuit of absolute self-command and of the ‘usefulness of the useless’ is taken even further. In contrast, neo-Taoism, e.g. Hsüan-hsüeh, rehabilitated Confucianism as an illustration of what wu-wei, properly understood, would mean in practice. By a different sort of contrast, the Seven Sages of the Bamboo Grove maintained that being in command of oneself and going with the grain of Tao allowed one to eat, drink, and be merry. The Seven Sages belonged to that part of the neo-Taoist revival known as Chʾing Tʾan, ‘The School of Pure Conversations’.

Tao-chiao has had a far more diverse history, with many schools and teachings, and constant interaction with popular Chinese religion. The unifying thread is the search for the Way (Tao) of Great Equilibrium and the quest for immortality, though this may be understood literally, metaphorically, or as a temporary (quest for longevity) postponement of death. Because all nature is united in Tao, immortality cannot be achieved by emancipating some aspect of nature (e.g. a soul or spirit) in order to escape from nature; rather, it must be sought in the proper directing of the forces of nature within one's own body. The major areas of concern, emphasized in different ways in the different schools, are (i) inner hygiene, attention, especially through diet and gymnastic exercises, to the conditions of life; in the Inner Deity Hygiene School, the endeavour is to visualize and work with the deities who control the functions of the body, by making offerings to them of appropriate food and behaviour; (ii) breathing, attention to ch'i (breath); (iii) circulation of the breath within the body, bringing its power deliberately to every part; (iv) sexuality, attention to the techniques leading to the retention of energy by retaining semen or controlling orgasm, and by sending this retained power through the body; (v) alchemy, see especially KO HUNG; (vi) behaviour, attention to the kinds of moral behaviour which will be in harmony with the Tao; (vii) the search for the Isles of the Blessed where the immortals (hsien) might be found who would reveal the secrets of their immortality.

While Tao-chiao rests on the same basic texts as Tao-chia, it rapidly produced many more (for the canon, see TAO-TSANG), and began to produce a proliferation of different schools. The first of these (in the sense that it produced deliberate organization and continuity) was Wu-tou-mi tao, of Chang Tao-ling and Chang Lu. A different note was introduced by Wei Hua-tsʾun (251–334): she had risen in the Celestial Master hierarchy, but then married and raised a family. After her family was grown up, she returned to her studies and received visions of the Immortals who entrusted to her the first sections of Shang chʾing, writings which were to become the scripture of the new movement. From the connection with Mount Mao, the movement is known as Mao-shan. Religious Taoism is made up of many schools or sects: at least eighty-six major movements have been listed. Among these many schools, of early importance were Ling-pao and Tʾai-ping Tao (an early example of the revolutionary and somewhat millennarian strand in religious Taoism, familiar in the Boxer rebellion). Later schools of importance include Cheng-i Tao and Chʾüan-chen Tao.


views updated Jun 08 2018


One of the three major religious systems of ancient China, together with Confucianism and Buddhism. Early Taoism derives from the Tao ("the road" or "the way") teachings of Lao Tzu. The origins and background of Lao Tzu is uncertain; in fact, most details of his life are legendary. Some sources claim Lao Tzu was said born of poor parents in Tau (Honan) under the Emperor Ting of the Kau dynasty (ca. 605 B.C.E.). Others believe he was a philosopher who became disgusted with the world and became a pessimist, later resigning his position in the Record Department and retiring to a monastery. He also allegedly met and was taught by Gautama Buddha, and held discussions with Confucius. The name, Lao Tzu (meaning "Old Master"), may not be an actual persons name but a pseudonym for the philosophers and teachers who developed Taoism as it is known today.

Lao Tzu's book Tao-te-Ching was regarded as a sacred work in North and Central China, but was burned with other writings in 220 B.C.E. It reappeared under the Han dynasty and was reinforced by the teachings of Chuang Tzu, another Taoist classic. It is believed to have been the work of a philosopher of the same name. Lao Tzu was the first to formalize Taoism while Chuang-Tzu developed a more philosophical system, metaphysics, and epistemology. Chuang Tzu's teachings of the Tao is considered to be transcendental, while Lao-Tzu's is considered to be a natural form.

Taoism was originally an esoteric philosophy, concerned with the unity underlying the opposites and diversity of the phenomenal world. Taoism taught union with the law of the universe through wisdom and detached action. The union of cosmic and individual energies is reminiscent of the Vedanta teachings of India.

As central to the Taoist tradition as the concepts of yin and yang are the ideas of Tao and Te ("the power"). Like yin, Tao is often identified with the passive (or wu wei ); because the way is often given preeminence over the power. It is said a real seeker of wisdom knows the power (Te) but seeks the way (Tao). One should not strive for wealth or prestige and that aggression is to be avoided.

As part of the Taoists' practice, followers have incorporated lifestyle rituals, such as vegetarianism, herbal and tactile medicinal approaches, good moral conduct, and the use of appropriate incantations, amulets, and charms. T'ai Chi Ch'uan, with its fusion of energetic and relaxed exercise, has provided a means of increasing and enhancing ch'i (or Qi), the vital force of life. The overall goal of Taoists' life is to attain harmony with the Tao. This means one must desire nothing, live simply, and act by not acting. It is a practice where solitude and individualism is cherished and where the "upper classes" of social standing are rejected.

Taoism has also developed its own yoga techniques, which parallel the ancient Hindu system of kundalini yoga. These involved control of ch'i, the force believed to stand behind sexual activity, but which could also be diverted into different channels in the body for blissful expansion of consciousness. The circulation of this generative force in the body, aided by breathing techniques, corresponds with Indian yoga techniques involving pranayama breathing, and the ascent of kundalini energy through the chakras or vital centers of the body. This individual alchemy was variously known as k'ai men (open door), ho ping (unity), or ho hsieh (harmony).

The extraordinary parallels between ancient Indian and Chinese Taoism in its various forms and Hinduism (Vedanta and yoga) do not appear to have been documented by historians. The yoga teachings of China descended from teacher to pupil; it is only in recent times that basic texts have been translated into English. There are now teachers of Chinese yoga in Western countries and centers for instruction. There are also many translations with commentaries of the earlier Tao teachings in the Tao-te-Ching.


Bishop, Peter and Darton, Michael. The Encyclopedia of World Faiths: An Illustrated Survey of the World's Living Religions. London: MacDonald and Co., Inc., 1987.

Bynner, Witter, trans. The Way of Life According to Lao Tzu. New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1944.

Chang, Chung-Yuan. Tao: A New Way of Thinking. New York: Harper & Row, 1975.

Feng, Gia-Fu and English, Jane. Lao Tsu: Tao Te Ching. New York: Vintage Books, 1972.

Hendricks, Robert G. Lao-Tzu: Te-Tao Ching. New York: The Modern Library, 1993.

Hughes, E. R., ed. and trans. Chinese Philosophy in Classical Times. London: J. M. Dent; New York: E. P. Dutton, 1942.

Lu Kuan Yü. Taoist Yoga: Alchemy and Immortality. London: Rider & Co., 1970.

Soo, Chee. The Chinese Art of K'ai Men. London: Gordon & Cremonesi, 1977.

Taoism Information Page. http://www.clas.ufl.cdu/users/gthursby/taoism/ . April 4, 2000.

Watson, Burton, trans. Chuang Tzu, Basic Writings. New York: Columbia University Press, 1964.

Weaverville Joss House Temple. http://cal-parks-ca.gov/DISTRICTS/nobuttes/wjhsp/wjhshp127.htm. March 31, 2000.


views updated May 14 2018


In Chinese, the term Tao, or Dao, which means "way," can refer to phenomena as disparate as the proper mode of conduct in society to an abstract, transcendent order to the universe. Similarly, the Western term Taoism (or Daoism ) refers to a number of distinct phenomena in China, all related in some sense to this concept of Tao. One of the more popular usages is as a reference to several philosophical works of the Warring States and early Han periods, especially the Zhuangzi (Chuang-tzu ) and Laozi (Lao-tzu, also known as the Daodejing (Tao-te ching ), or Classic of the Way and Its Power ). The Chuang-tzu welcomes death as merely one more stage in a process of ongoing transformation that affects all and is directed by the Tao. It speaks of death as a returning home that humankind resists out of ignorance and sees the individual living on after death dissolved in the many creatures of the earth. The famous parable of the author dreaming that he was a butterfly, then waking to wonder if he were now a butterfly dreaming of being a human, is a metaphor for this sense that temporal life is but an illusion and death an awakening.

The Laozi, on the other hand, speaks of death as an inauspicious event to be avoided and mentions self-cultivation techniques intended to prolong physical life. This viewpoint is much closer than the Zhuangzi (Chuang-tzu) to mainstream ancient Chinese thought on death. Life does go on in a shadowy, subterranean realm, but it is not joyful, and much effort was expended from an early period to forestall its arrival. By the third century b.c.e., there were programs of exercise, diet, sexual practices, and meditation intended to nourish the life force while alive as well as jade burial suits and tomb guardians intended to preserve the deceased in the other realm. Alchemy, the belief that the human form could be made eternal through the ingestion of various mineral-based elixirs, developed through the Warring States era, Han Dynasty, and about fifth century b.c.e. to sixth century c.e. Practitioners were initially adepts of the occult arts without a clear sectarian identity, but eventually these practices would make their way into the ritual canon of religious Daoism.

The Confucian view of death, by contrast, forsakes all hope for extraordinary longevity and focuses on the secure installation of the dead in the other world, where they would be administered by a bureaucracy that mirrored that of the living and supplied with the necessities of continued life through ancestral sacrifice. The dead were recalled and, some argue, kept alive by meditative visualizations in which the dead person was called into the consciousness as if still alive. The Confucians also promoted a metaphorical interpretation of sacrifice that elided the question of personal survival and the ethical implications of a transactional relationship with the sacred.

Religious Taoism arose in the second century c.e., proclaiming a new pantheon of pure deities and a new, morality-based set of practices. The early Taoist church foresaw an imminent apocalypse in which the evil would perish and the faithful "seed people" would survive to repopulate a utopian world of Great Peace. Until then, ordained Taoists received celestial ranks that carried over into the world of the dead, assuring them a favored position of power and responsibility in the other world. Their offices might be in the cavern-heavens hidden within the world's sacred mountains or in one of the many celestial heavens. Nonbelievers went to a profane world of the dead, where they were subject to a variety of dangers, including lawsuits from those they had wronged in either realm. Living Taoist priests could intervene on their behalf, using their authority as celestial officials to have suits dismissed and punishments curtailed.

Popular conceptions of the afterlife came to focus on existence in hells where retribution was exacted for sins during life. Taoists, like Buddhists, developed ritual methods to save the deceased from these torments, submitting written petitions to celestial officials but also employing ritualized violence to force their way into the hells in order to lead the deceased out. Major Taoist rituals of renewal (jiao ) typically end with a Rite of Universal Salvation intended to save the dispossessed souls.

Twenty-first-century priests of the Taoist church survive in Taiwan, Hong Kong, and diasporic Chinese communities and have been reestablished in China. There are some movements in the West that claim this mantle as well, but most do not maintain traditional ritual practice. The philosophical works of the Warring States era, on the other hand, enjoy a wide following in the West, though the disparity in the teachings of the Laozi and the Zhuangzi are seldom appreciated. The dominant Chinese approach to death remains that of Chinese popular religion, which eclectically mixes the beliefs of Buddhism and religious Taoism with traditional Chinese views of death, the afterlife, and the soul.

See also: Chinese Beliefs; Shinto


Kohn, Livia, ed. The Taoist Handbook. Leiden, Netherlands: Brill, 2000.

Robinet, Isabelle. Taoism: Growth of a Religion. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1997.



views updated May 14 2018

Taoism Chinese philosophy and religion considered as being next to Confucianism in importance. Taoist philosophy is traced to a 6th-century bc classic of Lao Tzu, the Tao Te Ching. The recurrent theme of this work is the Tao (way or path). To follow the Tao is to follow the path leading to self-realization. Te (virtue) and ch'i (energy) represent the goal of effortless action. Taoist ethics emphasize patience, simplicity, and the harmony of nature, achieved through the proper balance of yin and yang (male and female principles). As a religion, Taoism dates from the time of Chang Tao-ling, who organized a group of followers in ad 142. See also Book of Changes; Tai Chi


views updated May 17 2018

Tao·ism / ˈdouˌizəm; ˈtou-/ • n. a Chinese philosophy based on the writings of Lao-tzu (fl. 6th century bc), advocating humility and religious piety.DERIVATIVES: Tao·ist n. & adj.Tao·is·tic / touˈistik/ adj.


views updated May 23 2018

Taoism a Chinese philosophy based on the writings of Lao-tzu, advocating humility and religious piety. The central concept and goal is the Tao, and its most important text is the Tao-te-Ching. Taoism has both a philosophical and a religious aspect. Philosophical Taoism emphasizes inner contemplation and mystical union with nature; wisdom, learning, and purposive action should be abandoned in favour of simplicity and wu-wei (non-action, or letting things take their natural course). The religious aspect of Taoism developed later, c.3rd century ad, incorporating certain Buddhist features and developing a monastic system.


views updated May 11 2018


This entry consists of the following articles:

an overview
the daoist religious community
daoist literature
history of study