Taoism originated in China with philosopher, Lao Tse in the 4th century B.C. Taoists believe everything in the universe is an interaction of opposite qualities: yin (the female principle) and yang (the male principle), positive and negative, heaven and earth each of which contains an element of the other. This awareness allows one to strive to bring his or her life into harmony with the Tao - the way of the Universe.  The symbol is often shown within a hexagram.

Religious Taoism (Daojiao)

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. 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 not invariably benevolent, but are 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 emphasises 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 distinction between religion and philosophy was not drawn in classical Chinese so the thinkers would described themselves in those terms.

Philosophical Taoism emphasises various themes found in the Dao De Jing such as "nonaction" (wu wei), emptiness, detachment, the strength of softness (or flexibility), and The Zhuangzi such as receptiveness, spontaneity, the relativism of human ways of life, ways of speaking and guiding behavior. The spirit in which such things are discussed tends to be more playful and paradoxical than dogmatic, which makes their tone strikingly different from Confucian and Mohist texts. Taoist commentators have been puzzled by the opening lines of the Dao De Jing, which has usually been 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 words are

????????(dao can-be dao, not constant dao)
????????(name can-be name, not constant name)

In Chinese, "?" or "Dao" is used both as a noun and verb. 'Way' works well for the noun, but the translation for the verb "to speak" seems unmatched in meaning, unless we think in terms of "to advocate, to preach, to formulate etc." Notice in the second line, the noun and verb use of '?' seem closer in meaning, "names" and "to name".

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 has no article so could be read "a/any 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"(?) is used philosophically to describe a dao that does not need to change in different times or societies and reliably guides behavior. Laozi later describes a dao as "reversing" and the texts emphasises opposites, i.e.: high and low, hard and soft, etc. The Mawangdui version of the text contains similar passages, vide: ch.1, 3, 40).

Thus, any terms we use to advocate a dao can be reversed and still guide behavior. The other term in the title (which, comounded with 'dao', formed the Chinese term for 'ethics') is 'de' (or 'te'). It is "the dao within" which may comprise the capacity we have to learn a way of life and the result of learning/practicing it. De should translate the learned "way of life" into a correct pattern of behavior--hence its usual translation as "virtue" or "excellence." Other terms were later integrated into philosophical Taoism including yin and yang (closely related to Dialectical monism) and five elements (??, wuxing) theories, and the concept of qi. Originally belonging to rival philosophical schools, these themes entered Taoism by way of Han Confucianism which focused on cosmic cycles and portents to guide the ruler's deportment dress, and so forth. They blend into Daoism as examples of "natural" dao with which any viable human dao must harmonise.


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 recognises the deified 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.)


Taoist charm from Tien Hau Temple in San Francisco.

Religious Taoism

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 Chinese 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; visualisation 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 (??, 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 ? ("caves," often translated "grottoes"), arranged here from highest to lowest:

(1) The Zhen ("real") grotto. Includes the Shangching texts.
(2) The Yuan ("primordial") grotto. Includes the Lingbao scriptures.
(3) The Shen ("divine") grotto. Includes texts predating the Maoshan revelations.

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 emphasise 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.

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 ??? as well as the Bagua ?? ("Eight Trigrams") with Taoist symbolism. While almost all Taoist organisations 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 organisation 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 organisation.

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 institutionalised by the time of the Song dynasty, when aspects of the three schools were consciously synthesised 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.

Taoism has also been a resource for those in environmental philosophy, who see the non-anthropocentric nature of Taoism as a guide for new ways of thinking about nature and environmental ethics. Some consider Taoism to fit naturally with the radical environmental philosophy of deep ecology. Daoism and Ecology: Ways Within A Cosmic Landscape edited by N. J. Girardot, James Miller, and Liu Xiaogan is currently the most thorough introduction to studies done on concepts of nature and ecology within Taoism.