Taoism is, along with Confucianism, the most important strain of Chinese thought through the ages. It is almost entirely different from Confucianism, but not contradictory. It ranges over entirely different concerns, so that it is common for individuals, philosophers, Chinese novels or films, etc., to be both Confucianist and Taoist. The Taoist has no concern for affairs of the state, for mundane matters of administration, or for elaborate ritual; rather Taoism encourages avoiding public duty in order to search internally for a vision of the transcendental world of the spirit. Remember, Confucius felt the educated had a duty to serve (see Confucius), while Taoists cultivate the inner spirit.

Taoism is a Chinese religion. Its main goal is for all beings to live in accordance with the Tao/Dao -- "The Way" -- or the source of all creation. Tao is a force that keeps the world in motion, and the power behind all changes that happen in nature or the universe. Living with the way gives great peace.


"Humane men are concerned about providing benefits to the world and eliminating its calamities. . . . When we come to ask about the causes of the calamities (war, poverty, etc.) that people suffer from what do these calamities arise? Do they arise from people loving others and benefiting others? Certainly not. We should say that they arise from people hating and injuring others. If we should classify one by one all those who hate and injure others, will we find that they are partial or universal in their love? Certainly, we'll find them partial in their love. Therefore, partial love is the cause of all the human calamities in the world. Partial love is wrong." writings attributed to Lao Zu

image source: http://home.debitel.net/user/wulf.dieterich/laozi.jpg


Religion & Philosophy?

We need to begin with the following warning: as all the Taoist writers tell us, it is in the nature of the tao that it cannot be spoken of. Talking about Taoism in a clear and rational way is, in fact, not to talk about Taoism.



History of Lao Zu

Laozi (604 BCE?), meaning wise teacher, was allegedly a contemporary of Confucius, but he provided little evidence to historians of his life and some believe he never really existed. For example, one story regarding his birth states that his mother was pregnant with him for decades and when he was finally born he was old and wise with a long white beard.

The basic text for Taoism, Daodejing (Book of the Way and its Power) is shrouded in legend as well. Some say that because of the tumult in the Zhou dynasty (see page on Confucius), Laozi left China and went to Central Asia. At the border, a guard asked him to write down his teachings creating the Daodejing. Most believe, however, that several authors contributed to the book. While Confucianism went into decline at the fall of the Han dynasty, Taoism gained popularity as it was a comfort during the chaos and tumult reaching its peak in 618-907 CE.

Taoism as Philosophy

Thought attributed to Laozi suggests that a government could also exist in accordance with the tao. What would such a government look like? It would not wage war, it would not be complex, it would not interfere in people's lives, it would not wallow in luxury and wealth, and, ideally, it would be inactive, serving mainly as a guide rather than as a governor - thus keeping the focus on the internal spiritual world. There were people who tried to translate Laozi into real political action during the Han dynasty; these were, as you might imagine, spectacular failures. According to the writings of Daodejing, "governing a large state is like boiling small fish."

image source:http://home.debitel.net/user/wulf.dieterich/laozi.jpg


According to Daodejing, there is a basic structure to all existence based on three key concepts:

yin and yang

  • Qi - energy
  • Yin and Yang - yin = moon, water, north, feminine, dark soft, passive earth and the limit to expansion; yang = sun, fire, south, masculine, bright, hard, active, heaven, movement, expansion. Neither is good or bad
  • Five Elements (see below) = wood (vegetation), fire, earth, metal and water

Taoist poetry speaks to these issues of substance and permanence:

Substance, Shadow and Spirit excerpted from T'ao Ch'ien

High and low, wise and simple, all busily hoard up the moments of life.

How Greatly they err!

Therefore, I have to the uttermost exposed the the bitterness both of substance and Shadow, and have made Spirit show how, by following Nature, we may dissolve this bitterness.

Unlike Confucius, Taoism avoids social precepts for how to live and argues that standards, definitions, distinctions and classifications are devices destructive to the healthy state of nature. For example, death is natural and therefore not to be feared. Taoism became linked to a mysticism within Chinese culture and a belief in longevity. Certainly most of the Chinese healing arts are based in Taoism.

image sources: acupuncturebyaudra.com www.opencenter.org


Taoist healing arts include:


  • taijiquan (tai chi)
  • acupuncture and acupressure
  • feng shui (science of placement to maximize qi and energy)

Taoism as Spiritual Religion

Taoism believed in spirits, and with the arrival of Buddhism adopted many Buddhist characteristics such as an established priesthood, monasteries, and temples. Taoist Gods were also adopted. They include: the Jade Emperor, the Queen Mother of the West and the Eight Immortals.

All the excerpts and images from the Taoist Culture and Information website:http://www.eng.taoism.org.hk


Jade Emperor (head of Spirit World) - The Jade Emperor is the emperor of all heavens, king of all Immortals, lord of saints, the highest divinity of the ten thousand spirits in the three realms and of all Immortals of the Three Grottoes. He has the power to order the Immortals of the Nine Heavens and to invoke the spirits of the four seas and five sacred mountains. All the spirits follow and attend to him.


image source: http://www.eng.taoism.org.hk/daoist-beliefs/immortals&immortalism/pg2-4-2-4.asp

Here's how sources describe him: "At birth, the precious light of his glorious flames filled the country. He was smart and wise when young, and kind and benevolent when grown up. He devoted the entire state treasury to all sentient beings, the poor and suffering, the deserted and single, the hungry and disabled. After the death of the King of Pure Bliss, he ruled ably as crown prince and told his ministers that, feeling merciful for all sentient beings, he would abandon the throne and cultivate Dao on the Mountain of Universal Light and Fragrant Rocks. After 3200 eons, he attained to the station of Golden Immortality and was called Emperor of Spontaneous Enlightenment. After another billion eons, he ascended to the station of Jade Emperor."

Queen Mother of the West

Sometimes known as Auntie Queen Mother, Golden Mother, or Granny of the West.


image source: http://www.eng.taoism.org.hk/daoist-beliefs/immortals&immortalism/pg2-4-2-9.asp

The Intimate Biography of the Wu Emperor of the Han Dynasty says that "when she entered a hall, the Queen Mother of the West wore bright gold ornaments, numinous cloud ribbons, a shadow-cutting sword, a supreme flower hair bun, a hat of supreme perfection, and black-brimmed phoenix-patterned shoes. She looked about thirty and was extremely beautiful." The Wu Emperor of Han accepted her instruction and orders with great respect. The figure of a human boy with tiger teeth and a cat's tail, mentioned in the Book of Mountains and Seas, was an envoy of the Queen Mother of the West and of the White Tiger spirit of the West, but was not the Queen Mother of the West herself.

The Eight Immortals referred to eight Taoist Immortals who were popularly worshiped by Taoist sects as well as ordinary people. They were Zhong Liquan, Zhang Guolao, Dongbin, Li Tieguai, He Xiangu, Nan Caihe, Han Xiangzi and Chao Guojiu.

The following is a depiction and description of the first of the immortals.

For more on all eight check out the Daoist Culture and Information Center website.


image source: http://www.eng.taoism.org.hk/daoist-beliefs/immortals&immortalism/pg2-4-8-3.asp

His surname was Zhongli and his personal name Quan, which, in later times, was changed to Jue. He came from Yantai, and styled himself Jidao. Known as Heguzi or Zhenyangzi, he was worshiped as Patriarch Zhenyang, and was counted among the Five Northern Patriarchs. It is said that he was born on the fifteenth of the fourth month, when brilliant rays rose just like flames. In the first days after his birth, he neither cried nor ate. On the seventh day, he suddenly jumped up and said: "I am going to ascend to the heavenly world someday." As a grown-up, he was designated as Imperial Counselor. Receiving the emperor's order, he commanded troops to attack enemies in the North. However, he lost the war as well as his troops. He fled the battlefield alone and came to Gumi Path where he met Wang Xuanpu who taught him a formula for longevity, knowledge of divine elixirs and Green Dragon Swordsmanship. After that, he went to Mt. Hua, then to Mt. Kongtong where he met the Venerable Ruler of the Supreme Concourse and was granted the title Yunfang. In the Tang dynasty, after saving Lu Chunyang, he received an order from the Jade Emperor and ascended to heaven where he was designated as 'Perfect Man of the Left Chamber of the Supreme Ultimate

As these entries suggest Taoist writings celebrate the spiritual and fantastical. How do you see this poem fitting in with that tradition?

The Valley Wind by Lu Yun (4th century CE)

Living in retirement beyond the World,

Silently enjoying isolation,

I pull the rope of my door tighter

And stuff my window with roots and ferns.

My spirit is tuned to the spring Season

At the fall of the year there is autumn in my heart.

Thus imitating cosmic changes

My cottage becomes the Universe.

Taoist Rituals and Beliefs:

image source:www.daoism.cn



The Chinese people had lots of regulations about the possibility or impossibility of social life and for interpersonal relationships. The formal orthodox articles of Taoist commandments did not come into being in the early period of Taoism at the end of the Han Dynasty. Overtime, Nevertheless, commandments were adopted. For example, in the Book of Supreme Peace, one can find the commandments that "one cannot achieve longevity without filial piety;" or "It is forbidden to hanker after fortune or sexual pleasure that might affect one's family," etc. Despite these "regulations" or commandments, following the Tao is a simple process.

What does the following poem suggest about the path of Dao?

After Lunch by Po Chui (810 CE)

After lunch - one short nap:

On waking up - two cups of tea.

Raising my head, I see the sun's light

Once again slanting to the south-west.

Those who are happy regret the shortness of the day;

Those who are sad tire of the year's sloth.

But those whose hearts are devoid of joy or sadness

Just go on living, regardless of "short or long."


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Waka Takahashi Brown, "Religions and Philosophies in China: Confucianism, Daoism and Buddhism," SPICE (Stanford: 2002)

Chen Yaoting, Ginny Yue trans., "Daoism: Traditions and Beliefs", Taoist Culture and Information Center.