Taoism is a Chinese religion; pronounced with an initial “d,” and therefore also spelled Daoism. Taoism teaches that by living in harmony with the Tao (pronounced and sometimes spelled Dao) or the way of nature, it is possible to prolong life and even become immortal.
Scholars have often distinguished two different trends in Taoism: philosophical Taoism and religious Taoism. Philosophical Taoism refers to ideas put forth roughly from 600 to 200 B.C.E. Religious Taoism refers to movements and practices like ALCHEMY (transforming metals into medicines that were thought to grant immortality) and MEDITATION that began around the ﬁ rst century C.E. These two trends help to distinguish two major stages in the history of Taoism. But it would be incorrect to think that philosophical and religious Taoism were entirely separate movements.
The founder of Taoism is known as L AO-TZU, “Old Master.” He may have lived in the sixth century B.C.E., or he may be only legendary. It is said that Lao-tzu dictated the classic book of Taoism, the TAO TE CHING, as he was leaving China in old age. In any case, by the fourth century B.C.E. a book in 5,000 Chinese characters had come into existence that advocated yielding to the way of nature in all things. It called the prime characteristic of that way wu-wei, action that lacks deliberate intention. A later book developed these insights further. It was named CHUANG-TZU after the person who supposedly wrote it.
In the ﬁrst century C.E. several movements used these ﬁ gures and books to develop rituals and institutions. Some looked for a golden age to come in the future. This age was known as the great peace. Those who followed Taoist principles were expected to rule during that peace. Inspired by such teachings, many secret movements tried to usher in the golden age. Among them was an attempt to overthrow the Han dynasty in 184 C.E.
Another Taoist movement that began in the same period is known as “the way of the heavenly masters.” Its founder claimed to have received revelations from Lao-tzu, whom he considered to be a god. Among other things, the movement promised to heal the sick. It also provided its members with a series of books or “registers” in which to record their spiritual progress.
The ﬁrst millennium (1–1000) C.E. was the golden age of Taoism. Taoists developed elaborate RITUALS. They also perfected many techniques that were said to lead to long life and, if done just right, immortality. Occasionally Taoism became the ofﬁ cial religion. Different kingdoms required their subjects to perform Taoist practices, for example, to celebrate the birthday of Lao-tzu.
The ﬁrst millennium C.E. was also the time when BUDDHISM came to China. Taoists often opposed Buddhism, and they convinced several rulers to outlaw it. The two religions did, however, inﬂ uence one another. Taoist ideas helped transform Buddhism. This can be seen especially in the school known in China as Ch’an and in Japan as ZEN BUDDHISM. Perhaps under Buddhist inﬂ uence, Taoists developed monasteries and convents funded by the state.
Throughout most of the second millennium (1001–2000) C.E. Confucianism dominated ofﬁ cial Chinese religion. The ofﬁ cial outlook promoted the unity of the three religions, Confucianism, Taoism, and Buddhism. During this period Taoism developed forms more suited to the needs of private individuals than of the ofﬁ cial cult.
With the victory of communism in mainland China in 1949 and especially the Cultural Revolution of the late 1960s, Taoism suffered tremendously. Because the government objected to both old traditions and religion, it opposed Taoism. In the 1980s some Taoist institutions were rebuilt and Taoist WORSHIP resumed. Meanwhile, Taoist practice ﬂourished in Chinese communities elsewhere, especially on Taiwan.
The earliest Taoist texts celebrate the Tao. According to the beginning of the Tao te Ching, it is impossible really to give the Tao a name. It is simply indescribable. At the same time, the Tao is the mother of all things. It produces everything in the world, including ourselves.
The earliest texts advocate that human beings should live in harmony with the Tao. Consider, for example, water ﬂ owing in a stream. What does it do? Strictly speaking, it does nothing. It simply yields to the forces exerted on it. It falls because of the force of gravity; it moves out of the way when it hits a boulder. Yet in simply yielding, water proves to be stronger than the boulder. It wears the boulder away. Taoists ﬁ nd this example instructive. The best human action, they say, is action that is not forced by deliberate intention. The earliest Taoist texts also apply these ideas to government. That government is best whose subjects are hardly aware of the government’s activities at all.
Later Taoism develops a full range of mythological ideas. It teaches that there are many immortals. Some immortals are connected with the world at large. Others are connected with the human body. Taoism has other teachings, too: about islands of the immortals in the eastern ocean, where elixirs of immortality may be found; about the ﬁ ve sacred mountains in China, the most sacred of which is T’ai Shan in the eastern province of Shantung; and about the life-giving properties of various substances, such as gold. In addition, Taoism analyzes the human being in detail. For Taoism, the most important life-force is the original breath known as chi. Chi and other life-forces concentrate in three centers: the head, the heart, and the navel. These three “ﬁ elds” are where the three “holy ones,” the three most important immortals, dwell. They are also home to three beings known as “worms” that devour the vital energy and bring about death.
There are two main kinds of Taoist practice: exercises to prolong one’s life and large, elaborate rituals for the well-being of the community.
The exercises to prolong life try to preserve or restore the vital energy with which a person is born. Certain practices, called the “external elixir,” involve eating and drinking, especially the eating and drinking of metals. For the ancient Chinese, gold symbolized the state that all Taoists sought. It could neither be destroyed nor corrupted. The “external elixir” attempted to synthesize gold from baser substances, especially lead and mercuric sulﬁde (cinnabar). In theory one acquired long life either by using vessels made with synthesized gold or eating and drinking it. These practices are the source of what came to be known in Europe and North America as alchemy.
Around 1000 C.E. the “external elixir” was replaced by an “internal elixir.” In these practices Taoists do not eat or drink physical substances. They perform rituals instead. The rituals include meditation and breathing and gymnastic exercises.Like the two “elixirs,” the great public rituals, known as jiao, provide long life to the priests who perform them. They also give peace, health, and protection to the community as a whole. In these colorful festivals, the three “holy ones” are invited to a feast. Technically, only the Taoist priest offers the feast, but members of the community also participate with rituals of their own.
Taoism has had both MONKS AND NUNS. But the number of nuns has always been extremely small, and the majority of Taoist priests are not monks but live in families.
In Taiwan today there are two orders of priests. Those with red headbands perform only rituals of EXORCISM. Those with black headbands also perform the major public festivals.
Some Taoist communities, such as “the way of the heavenly masters,” have been carefully structured. Today the head of the community, sometimes called a pope, still claims to be a descendant of the original founder. At times Taoists have also formed secret societies dedicated to the overthrow of the Chinese government.
In addition to its immense contribution to Chinese society, Taoism attracted the attention of Europeans and North Americans in the 20th century. Ideas from the early Taoist texts became popular. So did physical exercises such as T’ai Chi and Taoist-inﬂ uenced martial arts.