Taoism (modernly Daoism) is a philosophical and religious tradition that emphasizes living in harmony with the Tao (modernly romanized as “Dao”). The term Tao means “way”, “path” or “principle”, and can also be found in Chinese philosophies and religions other than Taoism.
In Taoism, however, Tao denotes something that is both the source and the driving force behind everything that exists. It is ultimately ineffable: “The Tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao.”
Taoist cosmology is based on the School of Yin Yang which was headed by Zou Yan (305 BC – 240 BC). The school’s tenets harmonized the concepts of the Wu Xing (Five Phases) and yin and yang.
In this spirit, the universe is seen as being in a constant process of re-creating itself, as everything that exists is a mere aspect of qi, which, “condensed, becomes life; diluted, it is indefinite potential”.
Qi is in a perpetual transformation between its condensed and diluted state. These two different states of qi, on the other hand, are embodiments of the abstract entities of yin and yang, two complementary extremes that constantly play against and with each other and cannot exist without the other.
Human beings are seen as a microcosm of the universe, and for example comprise the Wu Xing in form of the zang-fu organs. As a consequence, it is believed that deeper understanding of the universe can be achieved by understanding oneself.
While Taoism drew its cosmological notions from the tenets of the School of Yin Yang, its keystone work is widely regarded to be the Tao Te Ching, a compact and ambiguous book containing teachings attributed to Laozi. Together with the writings of Zhuangzi, these two texts build the philosophical foundation of Taoism. This philosophical Taoism, individualistic by nature, is not institutionalized.
Institutionalized forms, however, evolved over time in the shape of a number of different schools. Taoist schools traditionally feature reverence for Laozi, immortals or ancestors, along with a variety of divination and exorcism rituals, and practices for achieving ecstasy, longevity or immortality.
Taoist propriety and ethics may vary depending on the particular school, but in general tends to emphasize wu-wei (action through non-action), “naturalness”, simplicity, spontaneity, and the Three Treasures: compassion, moderation, and humility.
Taoism has had profound influence on Chinese culture in the course of the centuries, and clerics of institutionalised Taoism take care to note distinction between their ritual tradition and the customs and practices found in Chinese folk religion as these distinctions sometimes appear blurred. Chinese alchemy (especially neidan), Chinese astrology, Chan (Zen) Buddhism, several martial arts, Traditional Chinese medicine, feng shui, and many styles of qigong have been intertwined with Taoism throughout history. Beyond China, Taoism also had influence on surrounding societies in Asia.
Taoism draws its cosmological foundations from the School of Naturalists (in form of its main elements – yin and yang and the Five Phases), which developed during the Warring States period (4th to 3rd centuries BC).
Some elements of Taoism may be traced to prehistoric folk religions in China that later coalesced into a Taoist tradition. In particular, many Taoist practices drew from the Warring-States-era phenomena of the wu (connected to the “shamanism” of Southern China) and the fangshi (which probably derived from the “archivist-soothsayers of antiquity, one of whom supposedly was Laozi himself”), even though later Taoists insisted that this was not the case.
Both terms were used to designate individuals dedicated to “… magic, medicine, divination,… methods of longevity and to ecstatic wanderings” as well as exorcism; in the case of the wu, “shamans” or “sorcerers” is often used as a translation. The fangshi were philosophically close to the School of Naturalists, and relied much on astrological and calendrical speculations in their divinatory activities.
Laozi, traditionally regarded as the founder of Taoism and closely associated in this context with “original”, or “primordial”, Taoism, is traditionally regarded as the founder of Taoism. Whether he actually existed is disputed; however, the work attributed to him – the Tao Te Ching – is dated to the late 4th century BC.
After Laozi and Zhuangzi the literature of Taoism grew steadily and used to be compiled in form of a canon – the Daozang, which was at times published at the behest of the emperor. Throughout Chinese history, Taoism was several times nominated as state religion. After the 17th century, however, it fell much from favor.
The history of Taoism stretches throughout Chinese history. Originating in prehistoric China, it has exerted a powerful influence over Chinese culture throughout the ages. Taoism evolved in response to changing times, with its doctrine and associated practices being revised and refined.
The acceptance of Taoism by the ruling class has waxed and waned, alternately enjoying periods of favor and rejection. Most recently, Taoism has emerged from a period of suppression and is undergoing a revival in China.
The first organized form of Taoism, the Tianshi (Celestial Masters’) school (later known as Zhengyi school), developed from the Five Pecks of Rice movement at the end of the 2nd century CE; the latter had been founded by Zhang Daoling, who claimed that Laozi appeared to him in the year 142. The Tianshi school was officially recognized by ruler Cao Cao in 215, legitimizing Cao Cao’s rise to power in return. Laozi received imperial recognition as a divinity in the mid-2nd century BCE.
Taoism, in form of the Shangqing school, gained official status in China again during the Tang Dynasty (618–907), whose emperors claimed Laozi as their relative. The Shangqing movement, however, had developed much earlier, in the 4th century, on the basis of a series of revelations by gods and spirits to a certain Yang Xi in the years between 364 to 370.
Between 397 and 402, Ge Chaofu compiled a series of scriptures which later served as the foundation of the Lingbao school, which unfolded its greatest influence during the Song Dynasty (960–1279). Several Song emperors, most notably Huizong, were active in promoting Taoism, collecting Taoist texts and publishing editions of the Daozang.
In the 12th century, the Quanzhen School was founded in Shandong, a coastal province of the People’s Republic of China, and a part of the East China region, which has played a major role in Chinese history from the beginning of Chinese civilization along the lower reaches of the Yellow River and served as a pivotal cultural and religious site for Taoism, Chinese Buddhism, and Confucianism.
Shandong’s Mount Tai is the most revered mountain of Taoism and one of the world’s sites with the longest history of continuous religious worship. The Buddhist temples in the mountains to the south of the provincial capital of Jinan were once among the foremost Buddhist sites in China. The city of Qufu is the birthplace of Confucius, and was later established as the center of Confucianism.
Shandong’s location at the intersection of ancient as well as modern north-south and east-west trading routes have helped to establish it as an economic center. It flourished during the 13th and 14th century and during the Yuan dynasty became the largest and most important Taoist school in Northern China. The school’s most revered master, Qiu Chuji, met with Genghis Khan in 1222 and was successful in influencing the Khan towards exerting more restraint during his brutal conquests. By the Khan’s decree, the school also was exempt from taxation.
Aspects of Confucianism, Taoism, and Buddhism were consciously synthesized in the Neo-Confucian school, which eventually became Imperial orthodoxy for state bureaucratic purposes under the Ming (1368–1644).
The Qing Dynasty (1644–1912), however, much favored Confucian classics over Taoist works. During the 18th century, the imperial library was constituted, but excluded virtually all Taoist books. By the beginning of the 20th century, Taoism had fallen much from favor (for example, only one complete copy of the Daozang still remained, at the White Cloud Monastery in Beijing).
Like all other religious activity, Taoism was suppressed in the first decades of the People’s Republic of China (and even persecuted during the Cultural Revolution), but continued to be practised in Taiwan. Today, it is one of five religions recognized in the PRC, and although it does not travel readily from its Asian roots, claims adherents in a number of societies.
Today, Taoism is one of five religions recognized by the People’s Republic of China. The government regulates its activities through the Chinese Taoist Association. Taoism is freely practiced in Taiwan, where it claims millions of adherents.
The ambiguous term wu-wei constitutes the leading ethical concept in Taoism. Wei refers to any intentional or deliberated action, while wu carries the meaning of “there is no …” or “lacking, without”. Common translations are “nonaction”, “effortless action” or “action without intent”. The meaning is sometimes emphasized by using the paradox expression “wei wu wei”: “action without action”.
In ancient Taoist texts, wu-wei is associated with water through its yielding nature. Taoist philosophy proposes that the universe works harmoniously according to its own ways. When someone exerts their will against the world, they disrupt that harmony.
Taoism does not identify one’s will as the root problem. Rather, it asserts that one must place their will in harmony with the natural universe. Thus, a potentially harmful interference is to be avoided, and in this way, goals can be achieved effortlessly. “By wu-wei, the sage seeks to come into harmony with the great Tao, which itself accomplishes by nonaction.”