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For other uses of the words "tao" and "dao", see Dao (disambiguation).

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Chinese: 道教, also 道家
Hanyu Pinyin: Dào jiào, Dào jia
Wade-Giles: Tao-chiao, Tao-chia
English: Taoism or Daoism


File:Yin yang.png
The Yin-Yang or Taiji diagram, often used as a symbol in Taoism. It represents two polar essences of nature and their relationship. The black spot in the white symbolizes a black "seed" that will regenerate white and transmute it into black, and the reverse, indicating the constancy of change in the Universe.


Taoism or the School of Tao refers to a set of philosophical teachings and religious practices rooted in a specific metaphysical understanding of the Chinese character Tao. For Taoists, Tao could be described as the continuity principle behind the whole process of the constantly changing Universe.

Taoism has had a deep and long-lasting influence in many domains of Chinese culture, including philosophy, the arts, literature, medicine, and cuisine. It has spread widely throughout East Asia. Taoism emphasizes freedom, nature, cosmology, self-cultivation, and even the search for immortality. Some accounts prefer to separate two Taoisms: one being mostly philosophical, metaphysical and aesthetical, the other focused on religious practices and encompassing exorcism, alchemy, and a wide set of popular beliefs. Often considered as the counterpart of mainstream Confucianism and challenged by Buddhism, Taoism is more accurately seen as an integral element of the vast and diverse Chinese experience.

Early Taoism


Rooted in the ancient Chinese systems of beliefs, perhaps influenced by prehistoric shamanistic practises and certainly by observation and contemplation of natural cycles, Taoism recognizes Laozi as its founder and Zhuangzi as one of its most brilliant representatives. Early Taoism developed as an original answer to the bitter debates during the philosophically fertile time of the Hundred Schools of Thought, corresponding to the Warring States Period. Action through inaction (wei wu wei), the power of emptiness, detachment, receptiveness, spontaneity, the strength of softness, the relativism of human values, and the search for a long life are some of its preferred themes. Elements of primitive Taoist thought include the cyclic progression of seasons, growth and death of sentient beings and their endless generation, and questions about the origins of life. Observation of natural processes led to divine practices where the operator tried to detect opportunities in natural phenomena (like crackles made in bones).

The oldest Chinese scripture is said to be the I Ching, a compilation of readings based on sixty-four hexagrams. The hexagrams are combinations of eight trigrams or gua (collectively called bagua), resulting in sixty-four possible combinations. Laozi was intimately familiar with the I Ching, and his work, the Tao Te Ching, shows that he was profoundly inspired by it.

Readings of the I Ching are based on the hexagrams, i.e., six lines that are either Yin or Yang. Each hexagram has two trigrams that provide the imagery that the reading is based on. The trigrams are "changing transitional states," generated on the simple basis of the alternation of Yin-Yang polarity. This is recognized in the saying "A (stage of) Yin, a (stage of) Yang, is what is called Tao" (一阴一阳之谓道). Tao is the underlying principle on which the I Ching is built. The cycle of Yin and Yang depicts the complements of opposite forces or qualities: creative-receptive, sunny-shady, male-female, heaven-earth, the sum total of life: the universe.

During the Han dynasty, the Taoist school of thought gained disciples and defenders. It enlarged its audience and founded many religious sects with hierarchies of divinities and ritual practices. Taoist ideas and sects have been spiritually challenged by Buddhism and socially denigrated by Confucianism. However, a typically Chinese form of syncretism has generally allowed differing belief systems to coexist within society, even within the same person. Beyond the debates and confrontations, Taoism has remained a highly influential stream of thought in East Asia, with philosophy, art, poetry, medicine, and divination as its main domains.

The Tao of Taoism

The Chinese character Tao. Tao refers to The Way of Taoism and the universe.
Main article: Tao

In Chinese thought, the word Tao often has the meaning of way — a space-time sequence. An individual walks a particular way, as does a village and even a country. Several schools of ancient Chinese philosophy used the term "Tao" 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.

In Taoism, the Tao (or "Great Tao") is the grand cosmic harmony. It is thus obvious, as Shen Dao argued, that everyone and everything follows the Great Tao. One may also speak of the Natural (sometimes "Heavenly") Tao. This would roughly resemble any course of history that conforms to the laws of nature — with the same consequence, and the idea that one need not try to follow it — one cannot fail. Both "nature's way" and the "great way" may inspire the typical Taoist detachment from moral or normative doctrines. Since Tao is thought of as the course by which everything comes into being, it seems hard to imagine that one must select from various accounts of its normative content. It may thus be seen as an efficient principle of "emptiness" that reliably underlies the operation of the universe.

Other ways one might term "possible ways" or ways that actually serve as a guide (tao used as a verb). These, however, according to the Tao Te Ching (Daodejing) are not invariable. That is, one may choose different guiding Taos, interpret them differently and disagree about their meaning. One may attempt to follow them and fail. These are prescriptive ways, such as the moral way of Confucius or those of Laozi or of Jesus. Nevertheless, the Tao Te Ching says that the nature of all things is beholden to the Tao, suggesting that even these paths will serve this ultimate principle.

Sources of Taoism

As with most Chinese spiritual traditions, Taoism tried to find its justification in the earliest past and rooted itself in both legendary figures and ancient scriptures. It refers, mainly, to three sources:

  1. The oldest is that of the mythical "Yellow Emperor", said to be the ancestor of all Han Chinese and to have invented the principles of Traditional Chinese Medicine. In the legend, his wife Luo Zu taught the Chinese how to weave silk from silkworms, and his historian Cang Jie created the first Chinese characters.
  2. The most famous source is the book of mystical aphorisms, the Tao Te Ching, allegedly written by Laozi, whom legend depicts as an older contemporary of Confucius.
  3. The third source, the works of the philosopher Zhuangzi, is collected in the eponymous book.

Many regard the ancient I Ching (The Classic of Changes) and related cosmogonical views of prehistoric China as an original source of Taoism. Other books have developed Taoism, such as the True Classic of Perfect Emptiness, by Lie Zi; and the Huainanzi compilation. Finally, there are the myriad other books of the Taoist Canon, many of which purport to be from Laozi, the Yellow Emperor, or other originators of Taoism.

Tao Te Ching

Main article: Tao Te Ching

The Tao Te Ching (or DaodejingThe Book of the Way and its Power) emerged as a written text in a time of seemingly endless feudal warfare and constant conflict. According to tradition (largely rejected by modern scholars), the book's author, Laozi, served an emperor of the Zhou Dynasty (approximately 1122 – 256 BCE) as a minor court official. He became disgusted with the petty intrigues of court life and set off alone to travel the vast western wastelands. As he reached the point of passing through the gate at the last western outpost, a guard, having heard of his wisdom, asked Laozi to write down his philosophy, and the Tao Te Ching resulted. It should be noted that this is an allegory and that the western gate may refer to death.

Laozi reflected on a way for humanity to follow which would put an end to conflicts and strife. This became the original book of Taoism. The scholarly evidence (supported by a cluster of recent archeological finds of versions of the text) suggests that the book took shape over a long period of time in pre-Han China (before the 3rd century BCE) and circulated in many versions and edited collections until it was standardized shortly after the Han Dynasty.


Zhuangzi is often considered as one of the most brilliant and eccentric writers of classical Chinese literature. His work may be seen as a highly remarkable exception in the wide landscape of Chinese poetic essays: it may be the only one which does not focus on politics. With colorful language and imaginative illustrations, Zhuangzi used irony as a tool to undermine the rigidity of the Confucian system of values being built at his time.

The Vinegar Tasters

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 Lao Tzu 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."


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 Hanfei Zi, a prominent Legalist thinker who commented the Tao Te Ching. Hanfei Zi used some chapters of the book to justify a structured society based on law and punishment and on the undiscussed power of the Emperor.

Primitive Taoism is also partly responsible for the important resonance theory, elaborated during Han dynasty, that underlies many of the cultural productions of traditional China. If a common Tao is at the source of everything, then there must be a homothety between macrocosm and microcosm, a structural commonality between the world, the country, the family, and the individual. The commonality underscores the Five Elements theory: the five directions (including center) correspond to five seasons (including a buffer one) and to five tastes, or the five elements themselves. Because of this resonance between separate domains, an Emperor's familial disorder will result in natural disaster and political troubles. Though this theory has been questioned by Wang Hong, it displays the Chinese traditional reticence to exclusive categories.

Taoism and Confucianism

Taoism as a tradition has, along with its traditional counterpart Confucianism, shaped Chinese culture for more than 2,000 years. Taoism places emphasis upon spontaneity, and teaches that natural kinds follow ways appropriate to themselves. It emphasises looking at the world from the point of view of the individual, asking more what is good for oneself than what is good for society. Taoists are sceptical and sarcastic about what they consider to be artificial values such as benevolence, morality, and proper behaviour, because these are seen as oversimplifications of what humans would do themselves; being a natural kind. Also, Zhuangzi argues that the proponents of benevolence and morality are usually found at the gates of feudal lords who have stolen their kingdoms. Taoists emphasise societies that do not intrude into the natural workings of human relationships. Taoist writers, such as Zhuangzi, argue that Confucian belief in hierarchical social structures, courtly music, and ceremonies is not a way to reform or improve the world. They view the world from the point of view of the individual rather than what some leader values, and believe that the state should not become overly involved in the details of human lives. This belief caused some to live alone in the mountains or as simple peasants in small autarchic villages, and others to walk two paths at the same time.

Taoism in Imperial China

During the Han dynasty, Confucianism became official doctrine. Taoism was adopted as a state religion by some emperors of the Tang dynasty, while others were more inclined to Buddhism. Since the Song dynasty and until the foundation of the People's Republic of China by Mao Zedong, Neo-Confucianism was the official state doctrine; but Taoism and Buddhism existed as parallel personal religions.

Taoist religion

Main article: Taoist doctrine
File:Incense taiwan temple fu dog.jpg
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.

As the works of Laozi and Zhuangzi became widely known in China, schools formed based on their teaching. These schools eventually acquired the features of a structured religion and evolved into a religious faith by 440 CE. Laozi became a deity to many Chinese. Around 300 CE various denominations developed with distinct views. Some sought immortality, similar to the Buddhist concept of enlightenment. Others practiced alchemy and magic, using herbal potions or wearing charms. Polytheistic elements were added, worshipping many gods; some were closely identified with Buddhism, others from Chinese folklore, and still others were gods of nature, previously unknown. Especially popular were the Eight Immortals, celestial entities who were human but gained immortality through belief. In the Tang period from 600 to 900 CE many Buddhist concepts and practices such as monasteries, vegetarianism, prohibition of alcohol, and the celibacy of the clergy were incorporated into Taoism.

Taoism and Buddhism

The relationships between Taoism and Buddhism are complex, as they influenced each other in many ways while often competing for influence. The arrival of Buddhism forced Taoism to renew and restructure itself and address existential questions raised by Buddhism. Buddhism was seen as a kind of foreign Taoism and its scriptures were translated into Chinese with Taoist vocabulary. Chan Buddhism in particular holds many beliefs in common with philosophical Taoism.

Taoism and the arts

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. Home, 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.

Modern Taoism

In China

From the 1940s to 1982, Taoism was suppressed along with other religions in accordance with Communist Party policy. 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.

There are scholars who argue that Taoism is still a prevalent belief within China itself, estimating that the true number of Taoists worldwide, once Chinese believers are accounted for, may be over one billion, making it the second largest religion of the world; however, due to the intertwined nature of Chinese traditional religion and other restrictions, a census on the number of adherents in China is not possible.

File:Tien hau charm.jpg
Taoist charm from Tien Hau Temple in San Francisco.

Taoism outside China

Modern estimates put the number of Taoists outside of Mainland China at 31,000,000, located predominantly in Taiwan. Around 30,000 Taoists live in North America. The oldest Taoist temple in the United States is Tien Hau Temple in San Francisco, built in 1852. Taoism has had a significant influence worldwide: in many Western societies it can be seen in acupuncture, herbalism, holistic medicine, meditation, martial arts, Feng Shui, and Tai Chi.

People in countries other than China practice the Taoist philosophy in various forms, especially in Vietnam and in Korea. Kouk Sun Do in Korea exemplifies one such variation. The Yao have a written religion based on medieval Chinese Taoism, although in recent years there have been many converts to Christianity and Buddhism. Outside China, Taoists are to be found in Vietnam, Laos and Thailand.

Taoist philosophy has found a large following throughout the world, and several traditional Taoist lineages have set up teaching centers in countries outside China.

Today, some of the vivid intuitions of Laozi and Zhuangzi, especially their focus on accordance with internal and external nature, resonate with modern inclinations towards personal development and ecology.


Abuse of "Tao"

In the West, Taoist philosophy has inspired a number of popular spiritual works ranging from Fritjof Capra's The Tao of Physics to Benjamin Hoff's The Tao of Pooh. In these cases the concept of "Tao" is generalized beyond its original cultural context.

In popular Western and especially New Age parlance, "Taoist" has come to mean generally just being "cool" or "going with the flow". It has also become common to see books and articles titled The Tao of business strategy, marketing, programming, etc. Links between these works and strict Taoism are often quite tenuous; many authors use "Taoism" as an excuse for obfuscatory speech, while many others use "Tao" to mean a way of doing something whether it is in accord with actual Taoist philosophy or not. Some authors writing The Tao of books even contradict what seems to have been the original intentions of Laozi and Zhuangzi. For example, a book on the "Tao of Marketing" would be very hard pressed to actually follow the Tao Te Ching's anti-materialistic mores without making the focus of the product something beyond the product itself.

Taoism: A philosophy or a religion?

There is some debate about a distinction between Taoism as a religious tradition and Taoism as a philosophical system. When most Westerners think of Taoism, they are often referring to the works of Laozi and Zhuangzi. These thought systems may be seen as philosophies rather than religions, as they include nothing within themselves about gods, worship or ritual. This type of Taoism is often referred to in Chinese as 道家 (pinyin Dàojïa), or "Taoist Thinking" (though, more literally, as "Tao specialists").

Another aspect of Taoism, more familiar in China or countries under Chinese cultural influence, includes worship of Laozi and other divinities, magic, alchemy, qigong, perfection of immortality, and many other practices. This aspect of Taoism encompasses teaching lineages (where teachers pass on texts, rituals and beliefs to select students), temples, and sects. It is often referred to as Taoist religion, or 道教 (pinyin Dàojiào).

The relationship between Taoist religion and Taoist philosophy is complex. One of the original founders of Taoist religious sects, Zhang Daoling, said he had received revelations from Laozi himself. Most Taoist religious sects hold Laozi to be at least a god, if not the highest divinity. Taoist religious practice often includes beliefs strongly founded on the Tao Te Ching. There are also hints in the Zhuangzi of immortality, a common feature of Taoist religious practice. Further, many Chinese traditional religious practices are considered "Taoist" even when there is little that specifically makes them so.

A clear and definitive distinction between that which is religion and that which is philosophy in Taoism is difficult. Moreover, a clear distinction between ideas and practices originating with Taoism and those from other sources in Chinese culture is also often impossible.

See also


  • Ni, Hua-Ching, Tao: The Subtle Universal Law and the Integral Way of Life (SevenStar Communications 1998). ISBN 0937064653
  • Maspero, Henri, Taoism and Chinese Religion (Amherst:University of Massachusets Press, 1981). ISBN 0870233084
  • Grigg, Ray, The Tao of Zen (Tuttle 1994). ISBN 0785811257
  • Bryce, Gavin, 100% Awareness (Epic 2005). ISBN 0392089302
  • Sommer, Deborah, Chinese Religion: An Anthology of Sources (Oxford University Press 1995). ISBN 0195088956
  • Graham, A.C., Disputers of the TAO: Philosophical Argument in Ancient China (Open Court 1993). ISBN 0812690877

External links


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