Daoism (Wade-Giles: “Taoism”) is the English name for a cluster of Chinese religious and philosophical traditions that have developed over more than two thousand years in China and have influenced religio-cultural developments in Korea, Japan, and other East Asian countries. However, despite the centrality of this tradition in Chinese culture, the definition of what actually constitutes Daoism (or whether it is even a meaningful category) has perplexed scholars for centuries. Notwithstanding these concerns, “Daoism,” as the term is popularly used, refers to some combination of three interrelated streams of Chinese thought and practice:

  1. a philosophical school based on the Dao De Jing, the Zhuangzi, and, to a lesser extent, some later syncretic texts (including the Liezi and the Guanzi).
  2. a family of organized Chinese religious movements, such as the Zhengyi (“Orthodoxy”) or Quanzhen (“complete reality”) sects, which collectively trace back to Zhang Daoling and the Celestial Masters School in the late Han Dynasty. These movements occasionally incorporate an emphasis on meditative and cultivation practices inherited from the alchemical Daoists (such as Ge Hong).
  3. the Chinese folk religion.

The English word “Daoism” is used to translate the Chinese terms Daojiao (道教 “teachings/religion of the Dao”) and Daojia (道家 “school of the Dao”). In both cases, the character Dao (道) refers to a particular philosophical understanding of “the Way” (understood in the context of politics, internal cultivation, the natural world, and matter/energy (qi)) (discussed below). The compound Daojiao, then, refers to Daoism as a religion, while 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, with many scholars believing that there is no distinction between the two and that the posited distinction is created by people applying Western paradigms to the Chinese context.

Moreover, these uncertainties concerning the meaning of “Daoism” as a category are not restricted to Western scholarship. In some countries and contexts (for example, the Daoist organizations of China and Taiwan), the label is (somewhat haphazardly) applied to Chinese folk religion, which would not otherwise have a readily recognizable English name. However, many (if not most) of its practitioners would not recognize Daoism (in any language) as the name of their religion. Further, several forms of institutional Daoism, such as the Quanzhen sect) often distinguish their ritual activities from those of the folk religion, which some professional Daoist celebrants and clergy (Daoshi) tend to view as debased.

Over and above the perplexing array of traditions that could reasonably be defined as explicitly Daoist, there is also the cultural ubiquity of these beliefs within the Chinese context. Areas, as varied as alchemy, martial arts, traditional Chinese medicine (TCM), feng shui, and many styles of qigong breath training, have some practical or philosophical relationship with the tenets of Daoism.

Zen Yin Yang Spirituality Harmony yoga meditation

Zen – Yin Yang


In spite of a lack of consensus on what exactly constitutes “Daoism,” it is undeniable that each major period of Chinese history was witness to various developments and elaborations that were (either self-consciously or retrospectively) identified as Daoist. For this reason, it seems that a historical overview of the development of all three branches of the tradition (following the three-fold schema introduced above) would be a sensible way to begin exploring the nature of this multifaceted tradition.

The Hundred Schools of Thought Period (ca. 550 B.C.E. – 221 B.C.E.)

During a period of disunion that accompanied (and immediately followed) the dissolution of the once-powerful Zhou Dynasty (1027-221 C.E.), a climate of tremendous philosophical innovation emerged in China. More specifically, the collapse of the central government and the rise of feudal warlord states created an environment of anxiety and discord, within which these early thinkers had to craft a worldview that allowed them to make sense of their (often hostile) surroundings. Two such thinkers were Laozi (dates unknown) and Zhuangzi (fourth century B.C.E.). Though these two intellectual giants would not come to be identified as a school for several hundred years, their innovative and idiosyncratic approaches to language, politics, and philosophy had a profound impact on the other philosophical lineages that were developing at the time (including Confucianism, Moism, and Legalism).

Dao De Jing

Main article: Dao De Jing

Allegedly written by the enigmatic Laozi, the Dao De Jing (“Classic of the Way and (its) Virtue”) is a pithy text that uses an epigrammatic style to present seemingly paradoxical conclusions. While it does not investigate the variety of philosophical issues tackled in the Zhuangzi, the Dao De Jing instead focuses with razor-like precision upon two related themes: the development a unique cosmology (focusing on the relationship between the Dao and the world), and the explication of an ethic of virtuous, non-attached action (wu-wei) corresponding to that cosmological understanding. This division is echoed in the name of the text itself, which can be translated as “The Classic of the Way (Dao) and [its] Virtue (De).” Given the extent to which the text successfully develops these themes, it is perhaps not surprising that the Han dynasty historiographers retroactively deemed the Dao De Jing to be the quintessential Daoist document—despite the possible philosophical and historical primacy of the Zhuangzi.


Main article: Zhuangzi

Zhuangzi (ca. fourth century B.C.E.) can be described as a Warring States-era Voltaire, poking holes in the moral and philosophical complacency of his fellows, belittling them not with invective but with humor and mockery. In doing so, he explores a variety of profound intellectual vistas, from the importance of naturalness (ziran) in action, to the ultimately contingent nature of intellectual categories, to the futility of taking part in government office. In all of these cases, Zhuangzi addressed the relevant issues with probing intellectual curiosity, a profoundly non-conventional set of assumptions, and a disarming sense of humor—all of which made him one of the most influential philosophers of the Hundred Schools period.

Han Dynasty (206 B.C.E.–220 C.E.)

During the Han Dynasty, the idea of Daoism as a discrete tradition began to be defined. Sima Tan (died 110 B.C.E.), the court historian at the imperial capital, was the first to group Laozi and Zhuangzi under a particular rubric in his “classification of the Six Schools.” Over the next three hundred years, the philosophical component of the tradition would be further elaborated through the production of additional texts, including the Liezi (which provides a practical perspective on the applicability of Daoist teachings), the Heshang Gong commentary on the Dao De Jing (which explores “the immediate relation between cultivating oneself and governing the country”), and the Huainanzi (a syncretic text that interprets Daoist teachings in conjunction with the search for physical potency and immortality (a theme that eventually led to the establishment of Daoist alchemy as a discrete school of thought and practice)).

The Han dynasty also saw the emergence of Daoism as a revelatory religious movement. Specifically, Zhang Daoling (ca. second century C.E.), after receiving a revelation directly from the divinized Laozi, went on to found the Celestial Masters sect, placing himself at its head as the First (or Ancestral) Celestial Master. In this role, he performed spiritual healing, collected a tithe of five pecks of rice from the faithful, redistributed this influx of grain to the impoverished, and preached to the masses about the imminent end of the current social order (which would be succeeded by an era of “Great Peace” (Taiping)). These teachings appealed to the practitioners of traditional forms of shamanism, magic, and divination, who loosely organized themselves around this revelation, becoming known as dao shi (“Daoist experts” or “Daoist teachers”).

Though Laozi came to be recognized as a divinity by the imperial dynasty in the mid-second century C.E., this affirmation was not sufficient to blunt the reformist/anarchist elements of the new Daoist teachings. Members of the Celestial Masters (including Zhang’s grandson) established theocractic republics throughout the country, providing safety and sanctuary to the overtaxed peasants. When the Han government interceded to put down the Yellow Turban rebellion, millions of lives were lost and the country was so traumatized that the fall of the dynasty was nigh inevitable.

Three Kingdoms Period (220–265)

During the short period following the fall of the Han, the philosophical stream of Daoism continued to develop apace. Most notably, the Xuanxue (Mysterious Wisdom) school, exemplified by the erudite scholarship of Wang Bi, focused on the texts of the Laozi and Zhuangzi. Intriguingly, many of the school’s members, including Wang Bi himself, were not explicitly “religious” in their focus, instead choosing to utilize these texts to further their understanding of social and cosmic processes. For example, Wang Bi focused mainly on exploring the relationships between Confucian and Daoist thought, and on exploring the underlying metaphysical system exposited in the Dao De Jing. In addition, the ideas addressed in his commentary were compatible with themes in the Confucian and Buddhist traditions, which fortuitously insured the continued relevance of Daoism to Chinese culture. These textual/scholastic programs were also continued by Guo Xiang, whose commentary on the Zhuangzi offered a hitherto unexplored psychological interpretation of the text. For example, he argues that “Order [a term used in a predominantly social or cosmological context in the Zhuangzi] means relying on and going along with one’s inner nature, while disorder means opposing and repressing it.”

The Jin and Northern/Southern Dynasties Period (265–589)

During the Six Dynasties period, both the philosophical and the institutional components of the Daoist tradition became further developed.

On the philosophical side, Daoist alchemist Ge Hong, also known as Baopuzi (抱扑子 The “Master Embracing Simplicity”) was active in the third and fourth centuries and had great influence on later Daoism. Within the text, which was divided into “Inner” and “Outer Chapters,” he explored issues of relevance to both esoteric studies and social philosophy. According to his own account, Ge Hong wrote the “Inner Chapters” to argue for the reality and attainability of divine transcendence, while the “Outer Chapters” blend Confucian and Legalist rhetoric to propose solutions for the social and political problems of his era. These interests explicitly explored the relationship between internal cultivation (neidan) and external cultivation (primarily by means of alchemical practices).

In the transmission of Buddhism to China, the Daoist philosophical traditions discussed above played a pivotal role. As Buddhist thought was rife with concepts and preconceptions that were very unfamiliar to the early Chinese audience, thus translators found it necessary to “bridge” this conceptual gap. They did so through the liberal borrowing of Daoist terminology. For example, the ancient and honored word tao, the key term of philosophic Taoism, was sometimes used to render the Buddhist term dharma, “the teaching”; in other cases, it was used to translate bodhi, “enlightenment,” or again yoga. The Taoist term for immortals, chen-jen, served as a translation of the Buddhist word Arhat, “the fully enlightened one.” Wu-wei, “non-action,” was used to render the Buddhist term for ultimate release, nirvana. The construction of these unsystematic parallels between the two traditions was rather vexing for philosophical Daoists, who responded by composing an utterly ad hominem text entitled Huahujing (化胡經 “Scripture of Conversion of Barbarians”). In it, they claimed that the divinized Laozi, after expositing the true teaching of the Dao to the Chinese, went to India, where he took the name Buddha and taught similar (though less advanced) doctrines to the moral reprobates dwelling there.

The Daoist religious tradition was also refined in this period through the production of new texts (each of which were attributed to a theophanic revelation). Some of these included the Lingbao (靈寶 “Sacred Treasure”) and (397–402)Shangqing (上清 “Supreme Clarity”) (365–370) scriptures, the latter of which was received at Maoshan. The Lingbao scriptures, influenced by Buddhist ideals (specifically the bodhisattva doctrine), stressed the attainability of universal salvation through public devotion and prayer. This tradition expounded at length upon the nature of the afterlife, positing a hierarchical pantheon with deities corresponding to every social station. The Shangqing revelations, in contrast, posited that only certain members of the aristocracy would be able to achieve highest salvation. These revelations were received by Yang Xi, a relative of Ge Hong’s, and they stressed the use of individual meditational practice to ascend to the highest heaven (a plane even more exalted than that conceived of by the Celestial Masters). In exploring the cosmological component of this vision, Yang Xi’s described 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. Thus, for the first century of its existence, Shangqing Daoism 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 Shangqing Daoism as a popular religion.

This period also saw the production of one of the oldest known volumes that explicitly details an apocalypse, entitled Taishang dongyuan shenzhou jing, or The Divine Incantations Scripture. Its novelty emerges from its lurid description of a coming reckoning, where:

Messiah Li, an incarnation of Lord Lao of the Celestial Masters, will inaugurate a great cataclysm that will destroy these sinners [who worshiped false gods], and only the devout faithful, the “elect” (zhongmin) will survive and enjoy the era of Great Peace under the rule of the Messiah.

For this reason, the text urges Daoists to “assiduously convert the unenlightened,” and demands scriptural exclusivity from those receiving the revelation.

In addition to this (barely veiled) critique against the Buddhist incursion into China, this text was also unique for describing the mortal world as a battle-ground, where gods and ghosts fought for the attentions of human religious adherents, which each group able to create illness and bad fortune in the lives of the individuals being tested. Within this context, the scripture affirms that its adherents will be defended in the cosmic realm by spiritual beings who will do battle on their behalves with the forces of evil.

Tang Dynasty (618–907)

During the Tang dynasty, the furious pace of religio-philosophical innovation slowed somewhat. However, this reduction in development was offset by an improvement in socio-political status. Specifically, this period saw Daoism gain official status as an imperially-sanctioned religion, to the extent that the Tang emperors claimed Laozi as their relative. However, this new-found legitimacy also meant that it was forced to compete with Confucianism and Buddhism, its major rivals, for patronage and rank. As an indication of this shared status, one need only note Emperor Xuanzong (685–762) commentaries on texts from all three of traditions, which exemplifies the fact that in many people’s lives they were not mutually exclusive. The publication of these disquisitions marked the beginning of a long-lived tendency within imperial China, in which the government supported (and simultaneously regulated) all three movements.

As an additional element of the “imperialization” of the Daoist tradition was the inclusion of the Dao De Jing on the list of classics (jing, 經) that were to be studied for the imperial examinations (examinations that determined whether one would be permitted to serve in the imperial bureaucracy). Likewise, during the reign of Emperor Xuanzong (mentioned above), the Liezi was explicitly designated a Daoist classic, completing a trilogy with the more famous Dao De Jing and Zhuangzi. To commemorate this, it was honorifically entitled the “Chongxu zhenjing” (沖虛真經; “True Classic of Simplicity and Vacuity,” a title that has also been translated “The Classic of Perfect Emptiness“).

Song Dynasty (960–1279)

Continuing the trend of imperial sanction mentioned above, several Song emperors, most notably Emperor Huizong (1082–1135), were active in promoting Daoism, by collecting Daoist texts, publishing editions of the Daozang, and occasionally writing commentaries on the texts themselves. This era also saw a rise in imperial intercession with respect to local cults, which were, to a certain extent, coming to be identified as part of the Daoist religion. In fact, this imperial jurisdiction was seen as powerful enough to justify “tear[ing down] … temples not listed in the register of sacrifices.”

In general, the Song Dynasty saw an increasingly complex interaction between the elite traditions of organized Daoism as practised by ordained Daoist ministers (daoshi), the local traditions of folk religion as practiced by spirit mediums (wu), and a class of non-ordained ritual experts known as fashi. This interaction manifested itself in the integration of ‘converted’ local deities into the bureaucratically-organized Daoist pantheon and the emergence of new exorcistic rituals, including the Celestial Heart Rites and the Thunder Rites. Describing this process, which had been ongoing since the Six Dynasties period, Richard von Glahn notes:

=No longer ordained priests ministering to a sectarian congregation, these “officers of the Way” (daoshi) were forced to compete with the gods and spirit mediums of “vulgar” religion for popular allegiance. Consequently, many priests added formerly proscribed practices like divination and spirit possession to their liturgical repertoire, while still asserting their unique access to the true gods.

Another significant development for religious Daoism was the founding of the Quanzhen school in the twelfth century C.E. Their founder, Wang Chongyang (1113-1170), an ascetic who claimed to have received his revelation from the famed immortal Lu Dongbin, created a monastic school that stressed personal cultivation and social action. Kohn notes, “the teaching of Complete Perfection [Quanzhen] is a mixture of Confucian formality, simple asceticism, Buddhist monachism, and Taoist inner alchemy. Due to ample imperial sponsorship, the school continued to flourish and, by the fourteenth century, had assimilated the numerous Taoist schools that had sprung up around the same time.” Some scholars also note that the school’s charitable involvement in public affairs (as clergy for popular worship) was key to allowing Chinese culture to survive the Mongol invasion of Northern China.

As an aside, it should be noted that the Quanzhen and Celestial Masters schools are the only two sects of religious Daoism that have survived to the present day.

Yuan Dynasty (1279–1367)

While Daoism suffered a significant setback in 1281 when all copies of the Daozang (the Daoist canon) were ordered burned, this holocaust gave Daoism a chance to renew itself. For example, the traditional stress on external alchemy (using potions and elixirs to confer long life) was eschewed in favor of neidan, a form of internal alchemy, which became a major emphasis of the Quanzhen sect (described above). One of its leaders, Qiu Chuji became a teacher of Genghis Khan (and used 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”).

Despite the undeniable importance of Quanzhen at the beginning of the dynasty, the Celestial Masters sect (and Buddhism) again gained preeminence by the middle of the fourteenth century.

Ming Dynasty (1368–1644)

Following the example of the Tang and Song emperors, some leaders of the Ming also favored Daoism. Most notably, the profoundly ecumenical emperor Zhu Di, in 1406, commanded that all Daoist texts be collected and combined into a new version of the Daozang. Taking nearly 40 years to edit, recopy, and compile, the text was finally finished in 1447. This encyclopedic collection of over five thousand volumes was considered the definitive Daoist canon.

Qing Dynasty (1644–1912)

The ruin of the Ming dynasty and the subsequent establishment of the Qing dynasty by the non-Chinese Manchus was blamed by some literati (Confucians) on religion – specifically Daoism. Thus, they sought to reform the state by advocating a return to Confucian orthodoxy in a movement called Hanxue, or ‘National Studies.’ This initiative returned the Confucian classics to favor and completely rejected Daoism. This trend reached its apex during the eighteenth century, when the imperial library was expunged of virtually all Daoist books. By the beginning of the twentieth century, Daoism had fallen from favor to such an extent that the only one complete copy of the Daozang remained at the White Cloud Monastery in Beijing. However, given the rapprochement that had occurred between the Daoist clergy and folk religion (from the Han dynasty onwards), the religious components of the tradition remained a relevant component of popular worship.

The Modern Period

China under the Nationalists (1912–1949)

The leaders of the Guomindang (China Nationalist Party) embraced 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 Daoism along with other religions. During the Cultural Revolution from 1966 to 1976, many Daoist temples and sites were damaged or destroyed, and monks and priests were sent to labor camps.

Persecution of Daoists stopped in 1979, and many Daoists began reviving their traditions. Subsequently, communist leaders have recognized Daoism as an important traditional religion of China and also as a potentially lucrative focus for tourism, so many of the more scenic temples and monasteries have been repaired and reopened.

Daoism is one of five religions recognized by the PRC, which, like the imperial bureaucracy of old, insists on controlling its activities through state power (as manifested in the China Daoist Association). Sensitive areas include the relationship of the Zhengyi Daoists with their sect’s lineage-holder, who lives in Taiwan, and various traditional temple activities such as astrology and shamanism that have been criticized as “superstitious.”


The number of Daoists in the world is particularly difficult to estimate, partly for definitional reasons (determining who is a Daoist), and partly for practical ones (it is illegal for private parties to conduct surveys in China). More difficult still is the complex relationship between Chinese folk religion, whose adherents might number in the hundreds of millions, and Daoism. In comparison, the number of people who actively patronize Daoshi (Daoist priests or masters) would be smaller by several orders of magnitude, and the number of literary Daojia and Daoist clergy/monastics would be smaller yet.

Geographically, Daoism flourishes most readily in regions populated by Chinese people: inland China, Taiwan, Malaysia, Singapore, and various Chinese diaspora communities. However, as in the case of the Chinese mainland, it is extremely difficult to determine accurate numbers for these groups, as one’s reckoning will be drastically different based upon what is thought to constitute a “Daoist.”


Daoism has never been a unified religio-philosophical tradition, in that it has always been consisted of different teachings (some revealed, other developed through philosophical argumentation). Nevertheless, and in spite of the variety of different beliefs, there are certain core tenets that virtually all the schools share – particularly in terms of cosmology, metaphysics and overall ethos.

Cosmology and Metaphysics

Main article: Dao
See alsoqi

In the cosmological sense, whether a Daoist stresses the existence or presence of deities, they tend to share a view of the universe permeated by a cohesive, unifying force – the Dao. In general, there are “two basic meanings of the Dao: the Dao is the universal necessity underlying all things and controlling their existence, and the Dao is the very beginning of all things” The depiction of Dao in this second role (as cosmologically creative force) can be seen in chapter 25 of the Dao De Jing:

There is a thing confusedly formed,
Born before heaven and earth.
Silent and void
It stands alone and does not change,
Goes round and does not weary.
It is capable of being the mother of the world.
I know not its name
So I style it ‘the way’ [Dao].

This same understanding is echoed in the Zhuangzi, which postulates that: “The Way…is its own source, its own root. Before Heaven and earth existed it was there, firm from ancient times. It gave spirituality to the spirits and to God; it gave birth to Heaven and to earth.”

More stereotypically Daoist, though, is the Way in its other form: as the mode by which the ten-thousand things operate. Such an understanding is echoed in chapter eight of the Dao De Jing, which analogizes the operation of the Dao to water, which effortlessly finds the lowest ground. In this analogy, it is implied that the Way is the path of least resistance – the mode of action that interferes as little as possible with the natural dispositions of the ten thousand things.

This notion is highly compatible with the classical Chinese conception of the cosmos as a nexus of material energy (qi), where physical entities are simply instantiations of yin and yang qi. In this view, the two modes of qi are not seen as opposites, but are instead thought to be mutually generative, such that the fruitful interaction between them is responsible for all transformations in the physical world. In such a framework, the role of the Dao becomes particularly pronounced, as it becomes the “channel” directing the flow of qi. As long as humans do not interfere in this natural flow, things are thought to be operating in a balanced and meaningful manner.

This ethos, which is exemplified by the Daoist conception of wu-wei, is discussed below.


Main article: wu-wei
See also: ziran

Given a cosmological schema centered on the Dao, an ethos of action centered on wu-wei (literally, “non-action”) is entirely apropos. The ultimate goal of action is to avoid interfering with the orderly operation of the Dao in the natural and human world, allowing oneself (and everything that one is in contact with) to transform and adapt in an appropriate manner.

The world is one interconnected whole, where every single thing and every being moves and acts in a certain way, emitting qi at a certain frequency that can either harmonize or go against the greater flow of Dao…. The goal of practicing non-action and naturalness, then, is to be as much “in tune” with Dao as possible.

This wu-wei ethos permeates the philosophical, alchemical, and institutional strands of Daoism, especially when coupled with the qi framework. In this form, it has also exerted tremendous influence on various forms of cultural expression in China, including Chinese cuisine, medicine, martial arts, and calligraphy.


Traditional Chinese religion (and the institutional Daoism that it came to be at least partially merged with) is notably polytheistic. By and large, its deities are arranged into a heavenly civil service that mirrors the bureaucracy of imperial China, a mirroring so explicit that deities may be promoted or demoted by the human emperor (or one of his underlings). Most of these divinities are understood to be apotheosized humans, who, due to their continued spiritual potency, are seen as efficacious sources of supernatural aid. Outside of the bureaucratic pantheon, there exist some additional beings that are somewhat more difficult to classify – most notably, the Eight Immortals.

There is also something of a disconnection between the set of gods that currently receive popular worship, and those that are the focus of elite Daoist texts and rituals. For example, the Jade Emperor is at the head of the popular pantheon, while the primary altar of the Celestial Masters is dedicated to the deified Laozi (Laojun, “Lord Lao”) and the Three Pure Ones. These deities are understood to reside in a Buddhist-influenced cosmos, with an afterlife that strongly mirrors embodied existence (save with the possibility of encountering unimaginable torment at the hands of one of the lords of the underworld).


What one defines as Daoist practice differs greatly depending upon which element of the Daoist tradition is being considered. In the religious context, these observances can again be subdivided between the elite and popular manifestations.

In popular Daoism, much religious observance centers around the propitiation of deities (in order to encourage positive outcomes and avoid negative ones). In this context, the laity (whether at home or in temples) will make offerings of incense and fruit before images of deities, often following a particular ritual calendar. Further, they will often make burnt offerings of spirit money to help facilitate the posthumous affairs of deceased loved ones. Finally, lay Daoists will also occasionally employ the services of a daoshi to conduct particularly important rituals.

Among the Daoist religious elite, one of the primary responsibilities is provide various services for the laity. They include presiding at weddings, feasts, funerals, and other special occasions. In all cases, they serve an intercessory role, accessing the deities through their institutional charisma (earned through their intensive periods of apprenticeship and their possession of spirit registers (thought to give them influence over the deities described therein)). Further, they often perform services most often associated with popular religion, including fortune-telling, whether through astrology, the Yi Qing (I Ching), or other forms of divination. Spirit mediumship is also widely encountered.

In addition to their roles in the public sphere, the Daoist religious elites also participate in various cultivation practices, some of which were defined in the Maoshan texts. These include controlling bodily fluids such as urine, saliva, and the breath; visualization practices in which various internal organs are mentally linked with corresponding gods and/or celestial bodies (e.g., the stars of the bei tou, the “Big Dipper”); and participating in a limping shamanic dance called the “Step of Wu,” which is understood to allow the practitioner to make heavenly journeys.

Many individuals, whether self-identifying as Daoists or not, take part in the study of various Daoist texts. For many educated Chinese people (the Literati), life was divided into a social aspect, where Confucian doctrine prevailed, and a private aspect, where they often held Daoist aspirations. Night-time, exile, or retirement provided the opportunity to cultivate Daoism and to 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 Daozang (道藏, Treasury of Dao) is sometimes referred to as the “Daoist canon.” While versions of it were compiled during the Jin (ca. 500 C.E.), Tang (713-741 C.E.), and Song (ca. 1015 C.E.) dynasties, the only extant version is the one compiled during the Ming Dynasty (ca. 1400-1450 C.E.). This particular collection includes over 5000 scrolls. Following the example of the Buddhist Tripitaka, it is divided into three dong 洞 (“caves,” often translated “grottoes”), arranged here from the most revered to least:

  1. The Zhen (“real” or “truth”) grotto. Includes the Shangqing texts.
  2. The Xuan (“mystery”) grotto. Includes the Lingbao scriptures.
  3. The Shen (“divine”) grotto. Includes texts predating the Maoshan revelations.

The Dao De Jing, written around the fourth century B.C.E., is included as 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.

Despite this extensive (and multifaceted) textual corpus, it is notable that religious Daoism does not make particular use of it (at least not its collected form). The daoshi generally do not consult published versions of the Daozang, instead using individual texts that have been passed down to them by their masters. In contrast to this general trend, the Shangqing school does have a tradition of scriptural study, motivated by the belief that the recitation of certain texts was sufficient for an adherent to attain immortality.

Daoist symbols and images

Basic depiction of the taijitu symbol without trigrams

Taijitu symbolizes the unity of opposites between yin and yang.

There are many symbols and images that are associated with Daoism. Two of the most important, the Taijitu (“yin and yang“) symbol 太極圖 as well as the Bagua 八卦 (“Eight Trigrams” of the Yi Jing), signify various elements of the tradition’s cosmological perspective. Despite the fact that this symbol is used in a pan-Chinese context, it has particular relevance for the Daoists, as it is frequently found on flags and logos, temple floors, and stitched into clerical robes.

Another symbol occasionally used in Daoist iconography and on ritual materials is an angular, zigzagging pattern made of seven stars, representing the Bushel (the Chinese equivalent of the Big Dipper). In the Shang dynasty, the Big Dipper thought of as a deity, while during the Han dynasty, it was considered a qi path of the circumpolar god, Taiyi. In both cases, it remains a potent symbol of the inter-relationship between ritual practice and cosmic reality.

Daoist temples in southern China and Taiwan can often be identified by their roofs, which are adorned with dragons and phoenixes made from multi-colored ceramic tiles. These mythological beings, in addition to an apotropaic function (in frightening away evil spirits), are understood to represent the harmony of yin and yang (with the dragon signifying yang and the phoenix as 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. But in general, Chinese Daoist architecture has no universal features that distinguish it particularly from other structures. Daoist temples may also fly square or triangular flags, often featuring mystical writing, diagrams, or representations of gods and immortals. These religious tokens are intended to fulfill various spiritual functions, including creating good fortune for and extending the life spans of the temples supplicants, and providing guidance for the spirits of the dead.

Relation with other religions and philosophies

As mentioned above, the Hundred Schools of Philosophy period saw the advent of numerous religious and philosophical traditions, each attempting to interpret the uncertain social environment in a way that created meaning for their adherents. One such attempt was spearheaded by Confucius, who argued that social, moral, and spiritual goods could be achieved through the study of classical texts and the application of ritual propriety in one’s human interactions. The Daoists texts that followed (namely the Dao De Jing and the Zhuangzi) were substantially more pessimistic, dismissing the Confucian faith in the possibility of good governance. Instead, they embraced values based on nature, perspectivalism, and spontaneity. Likewise, they heaped scorn upon both the conventional morality of the day, and the Moist and Mencian attempts to modify it. Their disjunction with Confucianism was also manifested in their rejection of all human leadership as coercive and damaging, which prompted their argument that the only worthwhile ruler would be one who practiced wu-wei and avoided interfering in the lives of his subjects. As stated in the Dao De Jing,

The best of all rulers is but a shadowy presence to his subjects
Hesitant, he does not utter words lightly.
When his task is accomplished and his work done
The people all say, “It happened to us naturally [ziran].”

Likewise, the Zhuangzi avers:

So if the gentleman is left with no choice but to preside over the world, his best policy is doing nothing. Only by doing nothing will people rest in the essentials of their nature and destiny [ziran]. … He will have an unforced air and do nothing, and the myriad things will be smoke piling higher and higher.

Despite this anti-authoritarian stance, Daoist thought was one of the inspirations for Legalist philosophers, whose theories were used by Qin Shi Huang, founder of the Chinese Empire. The junction point can be found in the work of Han Fei Zi, a prominent Legalist thinker who commented on the Dao De Jing. In particular, Han Fei reinterpreted the doctrine of wu-wei in the context of coercive leadership (where it could be used to accurately judge and criticize one’s underlings). This re-application of Daoist thought provided the metaphysical underpinning for Han Fei’s vision of a structured society centered on the untrammeled power of the emperor.

The next major interaction for the Daoist tradition was with the imported Buddhist religion, which spawned a fruitful period of synthesis and doctrinal growth (as described above). During this period, Chan Buddhism in particular is inspired by crucial elements of philosophical Daoism, ranging from distrust of scripture, text and language to its more positive view of “this life,” practice, skill and the absorption in “every-moment.” However, this type of synthesis was a mutual process, with Daoism incorporating 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 during the Tang period.

Ideological and political rivals in ancient times, Daoism, Confucianism, and Buddhism have inevitably deeply influenced one another, and eventually achieved a kind of modus vivendi where 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 unconscious synthesis became institutionalized during the Song Dynasty, when aspects of the three schools were consciously recombined in the Neo-Confucian school, which eventually became Imperial orthodoxy for state bureaucratic purposes. This three-fold religious fusion came to be visually represented through an iconic Song dynasty image entitled the “Vinegar Tasters.” In the image, which purports to represent Laozi, Confucius and the Buddha sampling vinegar from a large vat, each figure reacts differently to the taste of the substance. However, all three are, in fact, dipping into the same receptacle. The moral of this image is often explicitly telegraphed by a legend reading “the three teachings are one.”

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 neither Confucianism nor Daoism was regarded as such). Until well into the twentieth century, Christians have tended to view religious Daoism as a hodgepodge of primitive superstitions, or even as a form of demonolatry due to insufficient understanding.

In the twentieth century, some Daoist concepts have been adopted by Western practitioners of New Age spirituality, who have incorporated many elements of the qi framework into their general theory (/theories) of “life energy.” Naturalistic Daoist thought has also been a resource for those in environmental philosophy, as they see the non-anthropocentric nature of Daoism as a guide for developing new ways of thinking about the myriad interactions between human beings and the natural world. Indeed, some consider Daoism to be a natural fit with the radical environmental philosophy of deep ecology.

Adapted from New World Encyclopedia

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