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  • Chinese/Japanese: 道教 (dào jiào / dou kyou)

Taoism or Daoism is a major ancient Chinese philosophy that advocates following the natural order of things, known as the Tao (lit. "The Way"). The chief ancient text describing the beliefs of Taoism is the Tao Te Ching (道德經, pinyin: dào dé jīng), also known as the Laozi after its supposed author, Lao Tzu (pinyin: Lǎozǐ).

Taoism has been interpreted and applied in many ways over the centuries, as political philosophy, as personal philosophy, and as a set of spiritual beliefs and practices involving meditation & self-cultivation. It has also come to be a catch-all category for anything in Chinese tradition (especially religion) that is neither Confucianist or Buddhist, leading many folk deities such as Mazu and Guan Yu to be identified as "Taoist" deities. This has begun to fall out of favor with scholars, however, who emphasize the distinction and separation between folk religion, and the specific philosophies and worldviews that come out of the teachings of Laozi and Zhuangzi.

Philosophical Daoism

The text is believed to have first appeared in the 3rd century BCE, though the term "Taoism" did not become common until the 2nd century BCE. Prior to that time, Daoist beliefs were known as "the teachings of the Yellow Emperor and Lao Tzu" or as "the teachings of Lao Tzu and Zhuangzi." As the name Lao Tzu, or Laozi, is not in fact a name but simply means "the old master," it remains unclear as to whether this old master was a specific individual historical figure, or if so, who he was.

The oldest copies of the text are two copies found in a 1973 archaeological excavation at Mawangdui in Hunan province, dating to the Former Han Dynasty (c. 206 BCE to 8 CE). The contents of these copies of the text are arranged in a different order from what has traditionally become standard, and so to distinguish these texts from the standard traditional version, these Mawangdui copies are known as the Dédàojīng instead of the Dàodéjīng.

Taoism was the chief official political philosophy of the Qin Dynasty. It became overshadowed in later eras by Confucianism, but remained quite influential, with Confucianism coming to absorb many aspects of Taoist attitudes. Furthermore, while Confucianism became dominant in official political and bureaucratic contexts, scholar-officials embraced Taoism (or at least paid lip service to the notion of such belief) in their private lives. The imagined ideal literatus was in tune with nature, and with the Tao, even as he followed the teachings of Confucianism in his official duties.

Religious Daoism

Daoism as a religion, drawing upon the older Daoist philosophy and upon both Han and non-Han folk religions, may have emerged out of the faith healing cult promoted by the Celestial Masters Rebellion in 2nd-3rd century Sichuan province. Emerging out of this tradition, Daoist masters used a variety of seals and spells to combat illness and promote long life, and employed a variety of methods to trace the causes of illness to a person's misdeeds, or those of his parents or ancestors, or to evil spirits or demons. Meditation, breathing, and sexual exercises, as well as alchemy, were incorporated into the tradition as well.[1]

By the mid-5th century, Daoism was strong enough as a religion that Emperor Taiwu of the Northern Wei Dynasty could be invested as emperor through Daoist rituals of cosmic legitimacy. Drawing upon beliefs of the Celestial Masters, religious Daoism at this time purported a cosmic government and bureaucracy which mirrored that on earth. Some states of this period declared Daoism their state religion, and under some regimes, such as that of Emperor Taiwu, Buddhism was powerfully persecuted.[1]

A variety of sects appeared in the 5th to 8th centuries, some of which attempted to reconcile Buddhist practices with Daoist belief by asserting that Laozi had traveled to India and become the Buddha. Buddhism fought back by asserting that Laozi and Confucius were both disciples of the Buddha.[2] Over the centuries, Daoism continued to absorb variant sects and beliefs, accumulating saints, sages, and myths, such that today a wide range of folk deities, stories, figures, and beliefs are said to be Daoist, though more strict definitions may exclude them entirely.


  • "The Way of Laozi and Zhuangzi," Sources of Chinese Tradition, 77-79.
  1. 1.0 1.1 Conrad Schirokauer, et al, A Brief History of Chinese and Japanese Civilizations, Fourth Edition, Cengage Learning (2012), 89-90.
  2. Cite error: Invalid <ref> tag; no text was provided for refs named schiro98