The word "Taoism," or rather "Tauism," first appeared in the English language in about 1839. The term is, in Nathan Sivin's words, a "source of perplexity," partly due to problems shared with other "-ism" words and partly due to the Western categorization of Chinese religion. Like "Zen," the word "Taoism" and the term "Tao" have taken on a life of their own in the West, divorced from their contexts in China. This article briefly overviews the Chinese contexts of Taoism, the major shifts in Western understandings of Taoism, the pervasive appropriation of certain elements of Taoism by non-Chinese-American culture, and finally the Taoist religious life of Chinese immigrants.
As Sivin remarks, in contemporary usage, Taoist can refer to a certain frame of mind (carefree, spontaneous, "going with the flow"), but also to a religion, a political philosophy, a bibliographical classification, or a means of gaining immortality. Indeed, there is no precise Chinese term for Taoism. The nearest one comes is the two terms tao-chia and tao-chiao. These are sometimes translated as "philosophical Taoism" and "religious Taoism," respectively, but one can accept these translations only very loosely. Generally, tao-chia refers to expertise in an elite literary/philosophical tradition focused on a small number of classical texts from the late Zhou and early Han dynasties (ca. third century b.c.e. to first century c.e.), principally the Tao Te Ching by the rather shadowy figure Lao Tzu, the Chuang Tzu by an author of the same name, and subsequent traditions of commentary. In the early Han dynasty, the term tao-chia also implied a miscellaneous bibliographical classification that included many topics apparently unrelated to "Taoism"—treatises on agriculture and hydrology, for example. The term tao-chiao refers to a series of religious movements and traditions beginning in the late Han dynasty (second century c.e.) with divine revelations of the cosmic body of Lao Tzu to a certain Chang Tao-ling. We need not go into the details of the various religious movements over the centuries—T'ai-p'ing, T'ien-shih, Shang-ch'ing, etc. These religious traditions included such features as scripture, liturgy, ecclesiastical hierarchy, meditation, worship, and even monasticism. More important for now is to note the history of Western attitudes toward these two meanings of Taoism. In Hastings's Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics (1916), for example, most of the article on Taoism concerns the ideas of the Tao Te Ching, and only as an afterthought is there a mention of "popular Taoism," "which is not unfairly described as a mass of superstitious magic . . . [which has] yielded to the love of the marvelous" (p. 201). In this view, the Taoism of the majority of Chinese resulted from an "inrush of superstition," a "deterioration." It has taken many years for Western scholars to decisively repudiate this judgmental stereotype, and it may take many more for popular books on Taoism to go beyond the Tao Te Ching. The dominance of that one text in the American image of Taoism is almost without precedent. It is said that the Tao Te Ching has been translated into English more than any other text except the Bible. "Translations" have been made by people who do not actually know Chinese. For example, Stephen Mitchell's best-selling translation begins with this admission.
One reason for this Rorschach-picture quality of the ongoing rephrasing of the Tao Te Ching is that the traditional text is itself highly ambiguous and probably corrupt. Even a very responsible translation steeped in Chinese commentarial tradition, such as that of D. C. Lau, must include many arbitrary resolutions of irresolvably ambiguous prose. Among the many ideas articulated in this rather rambling collection of poetic aphorisms is a polarity (though not a dualism) of yin and yang motifs, such as male/female, powerful/powerless, famous/unknown, and mountain/valley. The epistemology here is relativist, with a sense that no value is absolute; every value changes according to the context. Given the danger of taking rigid positions or going to extremes, the practical advice for survival in the violent late Zhou period is to yield, take the lower position, and be obscure. Some of the appeal for American readers, especially those in "countercultures," lies in the rejection of egotistical self-promotion or the aggressive domination of others.
This philosophical/literary Taoism is also appealing to Western environmentalists. Many of the metaphors in classical texts are from natural cycles: People are basically like plants—they start out as seed; they germinate inside the feminine (Earth); they are vulnerable when young but survive by being supple and yielding; they grow stronger but also stiffer; when they get too brittle they snap easily; they have a core of sap that must be guarded even at the expense of losing leaves, twigs, and branches; their death contributes directly to an ongoing fertility; and so on.
Elements of Taoism—symbols, practices, textual fragments—have been appropriated by non-Chinese Americans and have entered into popular commercial culture. The "yin-yang" symbol (more correctly the t'ai chi symbol) may be seen on surfboards, T-shirts, and product packaging. The rhetoric and practices of various martial arts such as t'ai chi and aikido include Taoist motifs: an alternation of yin and yang, an emphasis on gaining power through yielding or absorbing the opponent's blows, and an avoidance of postural extremes.
Perhaps the best-known example of appropriation of Taoism is the best-selling book The Tao of Pooh by Benjamin Hoff. He explains the ideas of the Tao Te Ching through A. A. Milne's character Winnie-the-Pooh. While this is charming in its way, Hoff makes Taoism and Chinese culture as a whole into an enchanted fantasy, a child's world. Taoism is paraphrased as a story of "a dumpy little bear that wanders around asking silly questions, making up songs, and going through all kinds of adventures, without ever accumulating any amount of intellectual knowledge or losing his simpleminded sort of happiness" (p. xii). Such playful figures are certainly in evidence in Taoist texts, in the Chuang Tzu, and throughout Chinese literature, but again Taoism is reduced to only a happy attitude. Certainly this description has little to do with the Taoism (tao-chiao) of most Chinese.
We turn now to "religious Taoism." Chinese immigrants came to America especially during the mid-nineteenth century prior to the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 and again since the 1950s. They brought religious practices and built temples that can in many cases be identified as Taoist. However, in popular religious practice the strict sectarian classification becomes untenable due to the tendency to worship Taoist, Buddhist, and Confucian deities at the same site. Every major settlement of Chinese immigrants in North America supports at least one Taoist temple. The earliest Taoist temples in America are in San Francisco. The Kong Chow Temple, for example, was founded in 1857 and relocated in the 1960s to Stockton Street. The principle deity there is Kuan Ti, who embodies both martial and literati virtues. Founded in 1852, the Tin How Temple, on Waverly Place, commemorates T'ien Hou (a female "Celestial Consort" or "Empress of Heaven"). In addition to temple-based Taoism, there is frequent worship of tutelary deities (t'u-ti-kung) and Taoist ritual at funerals. There are also many T'ai chi clubs and traditional medical practices that may be considered more or less explicitly Taoist.
Kohn, Livia. The Taoist Experience: An Anthology. 1993.
Pas, Julian. A Select Bibliography on Taoism. 1997.
Schipper, Kristofer. The Taoist Body. 1993.
Sivin, Nathan. "On the Word 'Taoist' as a Source of Perplexity, with Special Reference to the Relations of Science and Religion in Traditional China." History of Religions 17 (February–May 1978): 303–330.