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Taoism (sometimes written as Daoism) is the English name for:

The English word "Taoism" is used to translate the Chinese terms Daojiao (道教) and Daojia (道家). The character Tao 道 (or Dao, depending on the transliteration scheme one prefers) literally means "path" or "way", but in Chinese religion and philosophy has taken on more abstract meanings. The compound Daojiao refers to Daoism as a religion (i.e., people worshipping at altars); Daojia refers to the activity of scholars in their studies. (It must be noted that this distinction is itself controversial and fraught with hermeneutic difficulty.)
Much uncertainty exists over the meaning of "Taoism". In some countries and contexts (for example, the national "Taoism" organizations of China and Taiwan), the label has come to be applied to the Chinese folk religion, which would otherwise not have a readily recognizable English name. However many, if not most, of its practitioners would not recognize "Taoism" (in any language) as the name of their religion. Moreover, the several forms of what we might call "elite" or "organized" Taoism often distinguish their ritual activities from those of the folk religion, which professional "Taoists" (Daoshi) tend to view as debased.
Chinese alchemy, astrology, cuisine, several Chinese martial arts, Chinese traditional medicine, fengshui, and many styles of qigong breath training disciplines have some relationship with Taoism.


Depending on how it is defined, Taoism's origins may be traced to the prehistoric Chinese religion; to the composition of the Dao De Jing (third or fourth century BCE); or to the activity of Zhang Daoling (second century CE). Alternatively, one could argue that "Taoism" as a religious identity only arose later, by way of contrast with the newly-arrived religion of Buddhism, or with the fourth-century codification of the Shangching and Lingbao texts.

Warring States Period (403- 222 BCE)

The texts of the Dao De Jing and the Zhuangzi date back to this period. Scholars disagree as to which is earlier (if the question has any meaning given the likelihood of each being composed by multiple authors over a gradual period). Some parts of the Zhuangzi quote some parts of the Dao De Jing. The name "Laozi" may have been assigned to the latter because of Sima Qian's assertion that a certain "Laozi" was the teacher of Confucius (thus giving Taoism seniority over its ideological rival).
Both texts are claimed by later Taoist religious movements, who variously interpret them in line with their own beliefs. To what extent such readings accurately reflect their original meaning, is a point of controversy.

Han Dynasty (206 BCE- 220 CE)

By the early Han, Laozi came to be worshipped as a god—either in association with or conflated with the Yellow Emperor. A major text from this "Huang-Lao" movement would be the Huainanzi, which interprets earlier Taoist teachings in light of the quest for immortality (including drugs, sexual practices, and breathing techniques).
Zhang Daoling claimed to have begun receiving new revelations from Laozi in 142 CE, and founded the Tianshi ("Celestial Masters") sect around them. He performed spiritual healing, and collected dues of "five pecks of rice" from his followers (thus providing an alternative name for his movement). Zhang Daoling's major message was that the world-order as his followers knew it would soon come to an end, and be succeeded by an era of "Great Peace" (Taiping). In fact their activities did hasten the downfall of the Han dynasty. The same could be said of their contemporaries and fellow Taoists, the Yellow Turban sect. Zhang's grandson set up a theocratic state in what is now Sichuan province. Today's Zhengyi sect claims continuity with Zhang Daoling.
Laozi received imperial recognition as a divinity in 166 CE. The Yin and Yang and "five elements" theories date from this time, but were not yet integrated into Taoism.
The name Daojia comes from the Han Dynasty. In Sima Qian's history (chapter 63) it refers to immortals; in Liu Xiang it refers to Laozi and Zhuangzi. Daojiao came to be applied to the religious movements mentioned above. The two terms were used interchangeably until modern times. (We owe the distinction to Confucian writers.) The earliest commentary on the Dao De Jing is actually that of Heshang Gong (the "Riverside Master"), a religious Taoist.

Three Kingdoms Period (220- 265)

The Xuanxue ("Dark Learning") school, including Wang Bi, focuses on the texts of Laozi and Zhuangzi (not the organized religion).

Six Dynasties (316- 589)

Taoist alchemist Ge Hong, also known as Baopuzi (The "Master Embracing Simplicity") was active in the third and fourth centuries CE and had great influence on later Taoism. Major scriptures were produced during this time period, including The Shangqing ("Highest Purity") (365–370) and Lingbao ("Sacred Treasure") scriptures (397–402) received at Maoshan. The Shangqing revelations were received by Yang Xi, a relative of Ge Hong's; the revelations emphasized meditative visualization (neiguan). They spoke of the Shangqing heaven, which stood above what had been previously considered the highest heaven by Celestial Master Taoists. Yang Xi's revelations consisted of visitations from the residents of this heaven (the "Zhen Ren") many of whom were ancestors of a circle of aristocrats from southern China. These Zhen Ren spoke of an apocalypse which was to arrive in 384, and claimed that only certain people from this aristocratic circle had been chosen to be saved. For the first century of its existence, Shangqing Taoism was isolated to this aristocratic circle. However, Tao Hongjing (456–536) codified and wrote commentaries on Yang Xi's writings and allowed for the creation of Shangching Taoism as a popular religion. The Lingbao scriptures added some Buddhist elements such as chanted rituals, and an emphasis on universal salvation.
The Huahujing ("Scripture of Conversion of Barbarians") claimed that Laozi went to India, where he taught less advanced doctrines under the name of Buddha. Buddhists found this claim objectionable, and emperors regularly condemned it. A similar claim is made in the Xishengjing (the "Scripture of Western Ascension").

Tang Dynasty (618- 907)

Taoism gained official status in China during the Tang dynasty, whose emperors claimed Laozi as their relative. However, it was forced to compete with Confucianism and Buddhism, its major rivals, for patronage and rank. Emperor Xuanzong (685–762), who ruled at the height of the Tang, wrote commentaries on texts from all three of these traditions, which exemplifies the fact that in many people's lives they were not mutually exclusive. This marks the beginning of a long-lived tendency within imperial China, in which the government supported (and simultaneously regulated) all three movements.
Emperor Tang Gaozong added the Dao De Jing to the list of "classics" (jing, 經) to be studied for the imperial examinations; hence the appearance of -jing in its title.

Song Dynasty (960- 1279)

Several Song emperors, most notably Huizong, were active in promoting Taoism, collecting Taoist texts and publishing editions of the Daozang.
The Quanzhen school of Taoism was founded during this period, and together with the Zhengyi Celestial Masters is one of the two schools of Taoism that have survived to the present.
The Song Dynasty saw an increasingly complex interaction between the elite traditions of organized Taoism as practiced by ordained Taoist ministers (daoshi) and the local traditions of folk religion as practiced by spirit mediums (wu) and a new class of non-ordained ritual experts known as fashi. This interaction manifested itself in the integration of 'converted' local deities into the bureaucratically organized Taoist pantheon and the emergence of new exorcistic rituals, including the Celestial Heart Rites and the Thunder Rites.
Aspects of Confucianism, Taoism, and Buddhism were consciously synthesized in the Neo-Confucian school, which eventually became Imperial orthodoxy for state bureaucratic purposes.

Yuan Dynasty (1279- 1367)

Neidan ("Interior Alchemy") became a major emphasis of the Quanzhen sect, whose practitioners followed a monastic model inspired by Buddhism. One of its leaders, Qiu Chuji became a teacher of Genghis Khan (and uses his influence to save millions of lives). Originally from Shanxi and Shandong, the sect established its main center in Beijing's Baiyunguan ("White Cloud Monastery"). Before the end of the dynasty, the Celestial Masters sect (and Buddhism) again gained preeminence.

Nationalist Period (1912- 1949)

Guomindang (China Nationalist Party) leaders embrace science, modernity, and Western culture, including (to some extent) Christianity. Viewing the popular religion as reactionary and parasitic, they confiscated some temples for public buildings, and otherwise attempted to control traditional religious activity.

People's Republic of China (1949- present)

The Communist Party of China, officially atheistic, initially suppressed Taoism along with other religions. Much of the Taoist infrastructure was destroyed. Monks and priests were sent to labor camps. This practice intensified during the Cultural Revolution from 1966 to 1976, nearly eradicating most Taoist sites.
Deng Xiaoping eventually restored some religious tolerance beginning in 1982. Subsequently, communist leaders have recognized Taoism as an important traditional religion of China and also as a potential lucrative focus for tourism, so many of the more scenic temples and monasteries have been repaired and reopened.
Taoism is one of five religions recognized by the PRC, which insists on controlling its activities through a state bureaucracy (the China Taoist Association). Sensitive areas include the relationship of the Zhengyi Taoists with their sect's lineage-holder (he lives in Taiwan); and the status of various traditional temple activities (astrology, shamanism) which have been criticized as "superstitious" or "feudal".


The number of "Taoists" is difficult to estimate, partly for definitional reasons (who counts as a Taoist?), and partly for practical ones (it is illegal for private parties to conduct surveys in China). The number of people practicing some aspect of the Chinese folk religion might number in the hundreds of millions. (the website adherents.com estimates "Traditional Chinese religion" at nearly four hundred million). The number of people patronizing Daoshi (Taoist "priests" or masters) would be smaller by several orders of magnitude, while the number of literary Daojia would be smaller yet. At the same time, most Chinese people and many others have been influenced in some way by Taoist tradition.
Geographically, Taoism flourishes best in regions populated by Chinese people: inland China, Taiwan, Singapore, and various Chinese diaspora communities. Taoist literature and art has influenced the cultures of Korea, Japan, and Vietnam, and these countries' folk religions have many common elements. "Organized" Taoism seems not to have attracted a non-Chinese following until modern times.

A Taoist Temple in Taiwan. The religious practice of incense burning as well as images of the Fu Dog and Dragon guardian spirits can be seen.
Fig 1


Religious Taoism (Daojiao)

Taoism is not a belief-centered religion, and there are no known Taoist creeds. At the same time, certain characteristic beliefs or assumptions can be identified.
One of these is the existence of several classes of supernatural beings, who may enter into relations with human beings. These include gods, ghosts, and ancestral spirits. Gods are--if not invariably benevolent, generally on the side of righteousness. Ghosts are dangerous spirits of the departed who must be appeased through offerings, especially during the Chinese Ghost Festival. Ancestors are also spirits of the departed, but are distinguished from ghosts in that they boast (male-line) descendents who commemorate them through home rituals.
Another fundamental assumption is the efficacy of ritual in maintaining a positive relationship with these beings. Folk Taoism focuses on rituals of sacrifice; elite Taoism emphasizes control over spirits through talismans or "spirit-registers" (fu), on the principle that possession of a spirit's name confers power over that spirit.
Beyond the Chinese folk religion, various rituals, exercises, or substances are said to positively affect one's physical health (even to the point of immortality); align oneself spiritually with cosmic forces; or enable ecstatic spiritual journeys. These concepts seem basic to Taoism in its elite forms.

Philosophical Taoism (Daojia)

Philosophical Taoism does not refer to an actual Taoist school or group of philosophers. Rather, it is a way of reading Taoist texts and interpreting them in philosophical terms. While many find this approach to Taoism very meaningful, it is necessary to remember that the assumptions that it rests on (e.g., the difference between philosophy and religion) are foreign to classical Chinese thought, and are unlikely to have been held by individual Taoist thinkers.
Philosophical Taoism emphasizes various themes found in the Dao De Jing and Zhuangzi such as "nonaction" (wu wei), emptiness, detachment, receptiveness, spontaneity, the strength of softness (or flexibility), the relativism of human values, and the search for a long life. The spirit in which such things are discussed tends to be more playful than doctrinaire, in keeping with the tone of the texts themselves. Taoist commentators have been very impressed by the opening lines of the Dao De Jing, which can be translated:

The way which can be uttered, is not the eternal Way.
The name which can be named, is not the eternal Name.

The original characters are


In Chinese, "道" or "Dao", when used as a noun, it means "way" or "path", but when it is used as a verb, it means "to utter" or "to speak it out".

It should also be noted that while the above has become a standard translation, scholars have noted it is grammatically and conceptually problematic. Grammatically, it should be read "a dao can be dao-ed, (but) this is not the constant dao-ing. A name can be named, (but) this is not the constant naming". Conceptually, the character for "constant"(常) is not referring to the "eternality of the Dao". Rather, it is referring to the constant shifting between opposites that dao undertakes, i.e.: high and low, hard and soft, etc. The Mawangdui version of the text confirms both of these points solidly, vide: ch.1, 3, 40).
Thus, whatever one may say about the Dao, cannot but fall short of reality. Other beliefs which have become integral to philosophical Taoism include the yin and yang (closely related to Dialectical monism) and five elements (五行, wuxing) theories, and the concept of qi. Originally belonging to rival philosophical schools, these motifs entered Taoism by way of Neo-Confucianism. Various cosmic cycles are recognized and studied, with which Taoists have aspired to harmonize themselves.


Religious Taoism

Traditional Chinese religion is determinedly polytheistic. Its deities arranged into a heavenly civil service that mirrors the bureaucracy of imperial China. Deities may be promoted or demoted. Many are said to have once been virtuous humans. The particular deities worshipped vary somewhat according to geography, and much more according to historical period (though the general pattern of worship is more constant).
There is also something of a disconnect between the set of gods which currently receive popular worship, and those which are the focus of elite Taoist texts and rituals. For example, the Jade Emperor is at the head of the popular pantheon, while the Celestial Masters' altar recognizes the divinized Laozi (Laojun, "Lord Lao") and the Three Pure Ones in that position. Some texts explain that Laozi has sponsored the apotheosis of various other gods.

Philosophical Taoism

While a number of immortals or other mysterious figures appear in the Zhuangzi, and to a lesser extent in the Dao De Jing (e.g., the "mysterious female" in chapter 6), these have generally not become the objects of cultic worship. Academic commentators on Taoism are rather more likely to focus on the divinity of the Dao itself, which might be fruitfully compared to (and contrasted with) Western conceptions of God. Early texts describe Tao not as equal to "the One," but as a principle underlying both the One and the Many. One revealing phrase used to describe it is huntun (roughly, "chaotic mixture"). In the wake of Wang Bi, philosophical Taoists have tended to describe it as "nothingness," which is the origin of "being." (Cf. the apophatic tendencies of theism, including negative theology.)


Religious Taoism

Taoist charm from Tien Hau Temple in San Francisco.
Fig 2

All forms of Chinese traditional religion involve baibai--bowing towards an altar, with a stick of incense in one's hand. This may be done at home, or in a temple, or outdoors; by an ordinary person, or a professional (such as a Daoshi); and the altar may feature any number of deities or ancestral tablets. Baibai is usually done in accordance with certain dates of the lunar/solar calendar (SEE Also: Chinese Lunar Calendar).
At certain dates, food may be set out as a sacrifice to the gods and/or spirits of the departed. This may include slaughtered pigs and ducks, fruit, packages of snack foods, and/or pyramids of beer cans (unopened). Another form of sacrifice involves the burning of Hell Bank Notes, on the assumption that images thus consumed by the fire will reappear--not as a mere image, but as the actual item--in the spirit world, and be available for the departed spirit to use.
Also at certain dates, street parades take place. These are lively affairs which invariably involve firecrackers and flower-covered floats broadcasting traditional music. Street parades may also include lion dances and dragon dances; human-occupied puppets (often of the "Seventh Lord" and "Eighth Lord"); jitong (male "Mediums") who mutilate their skin with knives; Bajiajiang, which are gongfu-practicing honor guards in demonic makeup; and palanquins carrying god-images. The various participants are not considered performers, but rather possessed by the god in question.
Fortune-telling--including astrology, palmistry, phrenology, and divination--has long been considered a traditional Taoist pursuit. Mediumship is also widely encountered. We may distinguish between "martial" forms of mediumship (like the aforementioned jitong) and more literary forms in which the possessed medium communicates messages from the spirit world by writing them with a special utensil.
Isabelle Robinet's book Taoist Meditation describes various practices given in the Maoshan texts. These include controlling bodily fluids such as semen, saliva, and the breath; visualization practices in which various internal organs are imaginally linked with corresponding gods and/or celestial bodies (e.g. the stars of the bei tou, the "Big Dipper"); and heavenly journeys via the Great Pole, which is reached by a limping shamanic dance called the "Step of Wu".

Philosophical Taoism

The fundamental form of activity among philosophical Taoists seems to be the reading and writing of books. Taoists of this type tend to be civil servants, elderly retirees, or in modern times, university faculty. While there is considerable overlap with religious Taoism, there are often important divergences in interpretation. Wang Bi, one of the most influential philosophical commentators on the Laozi (and Yijing) was in fact a Confucian.
For many educated Chinese people (the Literati), life was divided into a social aspect, where Confucian doctrine prevailed, and a private aspect, with Taoist aspirations. Nighttime, exile, or retirement provided the opportunity to cultivate Taoism and reread Laozi and Zhuangzi. The Literati often dedicated this period of life to arts such as calligraphy, painting, and poetry, or personal researches into antiquities, medicine, folklore, and so on.
The Vinegar Tasters (sometimes called Three Vinegar Tasters) is a popular painting (usually in scroll format) that explained Taoist ideals in relation to the Neo-Confucian school which began in the 10th century and gained prominence in the 12th century. The image depicts Laozi together with The Buddha, and Confucius. In these paintings the three are gathered around a vat of vinegar and the motto associated with the grouping is "the three teachings are one."


Religious Taoism

The Daozang (道藏, Treasury of Tao) is sometimes referred to as the "Taoist canon." It was compiled during the Jin, Tang, Song, and Ming dynasties, and includes almost 1500 texts. Following the example of the Buddhist Tripitaka, it is divided into three dong 洞 ("caves," often translated "grottoes"), arranged here from highest to lowest:

The Dao De Jing constitutes an appendix (fu) to the first grotto. Other appendices include the Taipingjing ("Scripture of Great Peace") as well as various alchemical texts, and scriptures from the Celestial Masters tradition.
Taoism, however, is not a "Protestant" religion which regards the scripture as primary. Professional Taoists generally do not consult published versions of the Daozang, but use texts which have been passed down from teacher to student (who are often relatives). The receipt of permission to do the ritual is considered more important than knowledge of the texts' contents.
The Quanzhen school does have a tradition of approaching Taoism through scriptural study. In these circles, the Confucian text Yijing features more prominently than any other scripture, owing to its relevance for cosmology.
Some Chinese movements emphasize newly-revealed scriptures. In Taiwan, one often finds Buddhist texts being chanted in Taoist temples; apparently mainland China has a policy of discouraging such syncretism.

Philosophical Taoism

Philosophical Taoism has focused on the Dao De Jing and the Zhuangzi, and to a lesser extent the Liezi. This form of Taoism, more than any other, has influenced Western commentators.

Fig 3

Taoist Symbols and Images

There are many Symbols and Images that are associated with Taoism. Like in Christianity "Jesus" and the "cross", and in Buddhism the "wheel", Taoism has Laozi, actual Chinese characters, and many other symbols that are often represent or are associated with it.
Many people associate the Taijitu symbol 太極圖 as well as the Bagua 八卦 ("Eight Trigrams") with Taoist symbolism. While almost all Taoist organizations make use of it, one could also call it Confucian, Neo-Confucian or pan-Chinese. The yin and yang border should make a backwards "S" shape, with yang (white or red) on top. One is likely to see this symbol as decorations on Taoist organization flags and logos, temple floors, or stitched into clerical robes.
Taoist temples may fly square or triangular flags. These are not merely decorative but function as talismans, and typically feature mystical writing or diagrams. Often a tree branch is used as a flagpole.
One sometimes sees a zigzag with seven stars, representing the Big Dipper (or the "Bushel", the Chinese equivalent). Taoists see the North Pole (and the South too, for that matter) as divine.
Taoist temples in southern China and Taiwan may often be identified by their roofs, which feature Chinese dragons and phoenixes made from multi-colored ceramic tiles. They also stand for the harmony of yin and yang (with the phoenix being yin). A related symbol is the flaming pearl which may be seen on such roofs between two dragons, as well as on the hairpin of a Celestial Master.

Relations With Other Religions and Philosophies

The origins of Taoism and Confucianism are intimately related. The authorship of the Dao De Jing is traditionally assigned to Laozi, a teacher of Confucius, yet appears to be reacting against Confucian doctrine (suggesting a younger date). The term Dao is by no means exclusively Taoist, but was used in several schools of ancient Chinese philosophy--including Confucianism--to indicate their views on the proper conduct of individuals, the nature of human society, and the relationship of humans with the universe as a whole.
These early Taoist texts reject numerous basic assumptions of Confucianism, embracing instead values based on nature, individualism, and spontaneity. They express great skepticism toward morality, benevolence, and other Confucian virtues; and are similarly mistrustful of hierarchical social structures and indeed, governments. (Zhuangzi argues that the proponents of benevolence and morality are usually found at the gates of feudal lords who have stolen their kingdoms.)
Buddhism similarly found itself transformed from a competitor of Taoism, to a fellow inhabitant of the Chinese cultural ecosystem. Originally seen as a kind of foreign Taoism, its scriptures were translated into Chinese with Taoist vocabulary. Chan Buddhism in particular holds many beliefs in common with philosophical Taoism. In the Tang period Taoism incorporated such Buddhist elements as monasteries, vegetarianism, prohibition of alcohol, the celibacy of the clergy, the doctrine of emptiness, and the amassing of a vast collection of scripture into tripartite organization.
Ideological and political rivals in ancient times, Taoism, Confucianism, and Buddhism have nevertheless deeply influenced one another, and eventually achieved a kind of modus vivendi in which each has its own particular ecological niche within Chinese society. With time, most Chinese people likewise came to identify to some extent with all three traditions simultaneously. This became institutionalized by the time of the Song dynasty, when aspects of the three schools were consciously synthesized in the Neo-Confucian school, which eventually became Imperial orthodoxy for state bureaucratic purposes.
Taoist thought partly inspired Legalist philosophers, whose theories where used by Qin Shi Huang, founder of the Chinese Empire. The junction point can be found in the work of Hanfeizi, a prominent Legalist thinker who commented on the Tao Te Ching. Hanfeizi used some chapters of the book to justify a structured society based on law and punishment and on the undiscussed power of the Emperor.
Taoism may have inherited some shamanic practices from ancient Chinese traditions. At the same time, Taoist leaders have sometimes viewed Central Asian shamans as rivals.
In spreading Catholic Christianity to China, Jesuit Matteo Ricci sought to ally the Church with Confucianism. In so doing the Jesuits encouraged the view that China lacked a high religion of its own (since Confucianism was not regarded as such). Until well into the twentieth century, Christians have tended to view religious Taoism as a hodgepodge of primitive superstitions, or even as a form of demonolatry.
In the last century or so, Taoism (along with Confucianism and Buddhism) has become incorporated into the theology of the Way of Former Heaven sects, notably Yiguandao. The same could be said with respect to Vietnam's religion of Caodaism.
Western New Agers have embraced some aspects of Taoism: the name and concept of "Tao", the names and concepts of yin and yang; an appreciation for Laozi and Zhuangzi, and a respect for other aspects of Chinese tradition such as qigong. At the same time, Western appropriations differ in subtle (or not so subtle) ways from their Asian sources. For example, the word "Tao" is used in numerous book titles which are connected to Chinese culture only tangentially. Examples would include Fritjof Capra's The Tao of Physics, or Benjamin Hoff's The Tao of Pooh.

Western Interpretations of Taoism

"Western" is here interpreted very broadly so as to include books marketed to, as well as written by, Westerners.

Academic Interpretations

Works which would be normal to cite as authorities in referred journal articles and books from university presses.

Popular Interpretations

Works which are read by the mainstream of the western populace, outside of academia.

Daoist Figures





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