For other uses of the words "tao" and "dao", see Dao (disambiguation).
Chinese:道教, also 道家
Pinyin:Dojio, Doja
Wade-Giles:Tao-chiao, Tao-chia
English:Taosm or Daosm
(see Daoism-Taoism Romanization issue)
The  or  diagram, often used as a symbol in Taoism. It represents two polar  of nature and their relationship. The black spot in the white symbolises a black "seed" that will regenerate white and transmute it into black, and the reverse, indicating the constancy of change in the .
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 symbolises 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 that are rooted in a specific and metaphysical understanding of the Chinese character Tao, here encompassing the whole processes of the Universe, considered as to be constantly changing and stemming from the diversification of a unique principle of energy, or emptiness.



There is an important distinction to make here between Taoism as a religious tradition and Taoism as a philosophical attitude. When most Westerners think of Taoism, they are probably thinking of the thought systems of Lao Zi (who allegedly wrote the Tao Te Ching) and Zhuang Zi. 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 Doja), or "Taoist Thinking" (though, more literally, as "Tao specialists").

On the other hand is Taoist religion, or 道教 (pinyin Dojio), which includes worship of Lao Zi and other divinities, magic, Taoist alchemy, qigong, perfection of immortality and many other aspects. Teaching lineages, where teachers pass on texts, rituals and beliefs to select students, are also a strong part of Taoist religion. Taoist temples and sects also belong more to the religion side of things than the philosophical.

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 Lao Zi himself, and most Taoist religious sects hold Lao Zi to be at least a god, if not the highest divinity. Taoist religious practice often includes beliefs strongly founded on the Tao Te Ching, as well. There are also hints in the Zhuang Zi that it is partially concerned with immortality, a common feature of Taoist religious practice. Further, Chinese traditional religious practices, regardless of type, are often considered "Taoist" even when there is little that specifically makes them so, all of which makes the clear distinction of what is Taoist and what is not very difficult.

Taoism, in all its forms, is considered one of the three great systems of China along with Confucianism and Buddhism.

Historical influences

Taoist thought partly inspired Legalist philosophers whose theories where used by Qin Shi Huang, founder of the Chinese Empire. Following 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 Song dynasty and until 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. From the 1940s to 1982, Taoism was suppressed along with other religions in accordance with Marxist theory. Since 1982, communist leaders have recognized Taoism as an important religion of China devoted to universal unity and peace and many temples and monasteries have been repaired and re-opened.

Taoism has had a deep and long-lasting influence in many domains of Chinese culture and has spread widely throughout Asia. Often considered as the counterpart of mainstream Confucianism, Taoism emphasizes freedom, nature, cosmology, self-cultivation, retirement from social life and even the search for immortality. Most accounts prefer to separate two Taoisms: one being mostly philosophical, metaphysical and aesthetical, the other focused on religious practices, encompassing exorcism, alchemy and a wide set of popular beliefs.

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 mystical questioning raised by Buddhism. Buddhism was seen as a kind of foreign Taoism and its scriptures were translated into Chinese with Taoist vocabulary.

The Tao of Taoism

Missing image
The Chinese character Tao. Tao refers to The Way of Taoism and the universe.

Main article: Tao

In Chinese thought, the word Tao (http://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/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. Different schools of ancient Chinese philosophy used the term "Tao" to indicate their differing views on the proper conduct of individuals, society, and their relationship with the universe as a whole.

In Taoism this grand cosmic harmony is known as the "Great Tao." It is thus obvious, as Shen Dao argued, that everyone and everything follows the Great Tao. We can also speak of the Natural (sometimes "Heavenly") Tao. That would roughly resemble any course of history that conforms to the laws of nature—with the same consequence. No one needs to try to follow it—you cannot fail. Both "nature's way" and the "great way" can inspire the stereotypical Taoist detachment from moral or normative doctrines. Since it is thought of as the course by which everything comes into being (the "Mother of everything"), it seems hard to imagine that we have to select from among 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 we can call "possible ways" or ways that actually do guide us (tao used as a verb). These, however, according to the Tao Te Ching (also Daodejing) are not constant. That is, we can choose different guiding taos and we may interpret them differently so we disagree about what they tell us to do. We can 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 makes the point that everything's nature is beholden to the Tao, suggesting that even these paths will serve this ultimate principle.

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. As humans are a natural kind, Taoism emphasises natural societies with no artificial institutions. Often skeptical and sarcastic on human values such as morality, benevolence and proper behavior, many Taoist writers do not share the Confucian belief in civilization as a way to build a better world. Rather, they share the will to live alone in the mountains or as simple peasants in small autarchic villages.

For many educated Chinese people, (the Literati), life divided into a social aspect, where Confucian doctrine prevailed, and into a private aspect, with Taoist aspirations. Home, night-time, exile or retirement provided good occasions to cultivate Taoism and, say, re-read Laozi and Zhuangzi. The Literati often dedicated this period of life to arts like calligraphy, painting, poetry or personal researches on antiquities, medicine, folklore and so on.

Sources of Taoism

Tradition attributes Taoism to three sources:

  1. The oldest, the mythical "Yellow Emperor"
  2. the most famous, the book of mystical aphorisms, the Tao Te Ching (or Dao De Jing), allegedly written by Lao Zi (Lao Tse), whom legend depicts as an older contemporary of Confucius
  3. the third, the works of the philosopher Zhuang Zi (Chuang Tse)
  • Other books have developed Taoism, such as the True Classic of Perfect Emptiness, by Lie Zi; and the Huainanzi compilation
  • Additionally, many regard the ancient I Ching (The Book Of Changes) and related cosmogonical views of prehistoric China as an original source of Taoism

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 (1122 BCE - 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 (buttressed 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 standardized shortly after the Han Dynasty.

Zhuang Zi

Zhuang Zi is often considered as one of the most brillant and eccentric writer of Chinese longlasting literature. His work may be seen as an highly remarkable exception in the wide landscape of Chinese poetic essays: it could be the only one which don't focus on politics. With colorful language and imaginative illustrations, he used irony as a tool to undermine the rigidity of the Confucian system of values being built at his time.


Missing image
A Taoist Temple in Taiwan. The religious practice of incense burning as well as the Fu Dog and Dragon deities can be seen.

Taoism is itself rooted in the oldest belief systems of China, when shamanism and pantheism where prevalent. Cyclic succession of seasons, growth and death of beings with their endless generation, seek for long life and questionnings on the origin of vitality, along with the importance of the landlord and its power are elements of primitive Taoist thought.

After Lao Zi and Zhuang Zi wrote their books, schools formed upon their teaching and eventually agregated in structured religion and evolved into a religious faith by 440 CE. At that time Laozi became a deity to many Chinese. Around 300 CE various denominations developed with distinct views. Some sought to achieve immortality, similar to the Buddhist concept of enlightenment. Others practiced alchemy and magic consisting of herbal potions or wearing charms. Polytheistic elements were added, worshipping many gods, many closely identified with Buddhism while others from Chinese folklore and many 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 were incorporated such as monasteries and vegetarianism, prohibition of alcohol and celibacy for the clergy. For over one thousand years Taoism was the official state-religion of China until the end of the Qing Dynasty in 1911 when state support ended.

Taoism in communist China

Most of the Taoist infrastructure was destroyed in following periods of modern warfare and communism in China. Monks and priests were sent to labor camps and temples destroyed, this intensified during the Cultural Revolution from 1966 to 1976, nearly eradicating most Taoist sites. Deng Xiaoping restored some religious tolerance beginning in 1982 to the present time. This trend has been continued with many Taoist temples being re-built and repaired.

Taoism today

Modern estimates put the number of Taoists outside of China at 31,000,000, located predominantly in Taiwan. Around 30,000 Taoists live in North America. Taoism has had a significant influence world-wide: in many Western societies it can be seen in acupuncture, herbalism, holistic medicine, meditation, martial arts, Feng Shui and Tai Chi.

Many scholars 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.

Elements of Taoist doctrine

A monument of Laozi at a Taoist Temple at  Mountain in  province, China.
A monument of Laozi at a Taoist Temple at Wu Yi Mountain in Fujian province, China.

Main article: Taoist Doctrine


  • The Tao caused the creation of the universe.
  • The Tao is the energy that flows through all life.
  • The Tao surrounds everyone in the form of nature.
  • Everyone must observe and reflect on nature to find enlightenment.
  • An adherents goal is to become one with the Tao.
  • Everything in the universe is the Tao.
  • The many gods are manifestations of the one Tao.
  • Everything is cyclical.
  • Each person must nurture the Tao or 3 bodily energies (Jing, Chi, Shen) through activities such as exercise and meditation.
  • One should be prudent and think before acting.
  • People are inherently good.
  • Follow the art of wu wei: let nature take its course.
  • Practice detachment.

The Three Jewels

Main article: The Three Jewels

All followers are called upon to develop these three characteristics:

  • Compassion
  • Simplicity
  • Patience


Taoist philosophy teaches the following central precepts:

  • From the Tao arises (one unified force or path from where all things in the universe arise), yin and yang-the dual nature of all manifestations of the Tao.
  • Act in accordance with one's nature.
  • One should find the correct perspective for one's mental activities until one finds a deeper source for guiding one's interaction with the universe (see 'wu wei' below). Desire created through the influence of society's artificial values hinders one's ability to understand The Way (see also karma). In essence, most Taoists feel that humans should appreciate life as it is according to each individual's capabilities, rather than desire a life predicated by the demands of society, that is beyond their reach. Desires are the source of expectations and the disconnect betweens one's expectations and the reality of one's life is a source of suffering.
  • Oneness: By realizing that all things (including ourselves) have their origin in the Tao, we come to see all things as they are, and ourselves as a simple part of the current moment. This understanding of oneness leads us to an appreciation of life's events and our place within them as simple miraculous moments which "simply are" in the present.
  • Dualism, the opposition and combination of the Universe's two basic principles of Yin and Yang (Simplified Chinese) forms a large part of the basic philosophy. Some common associations with Yang and Yin, respectively, include: male and female; light and dark; active and passive and motion and stillness.

Taoists believe that neither side out-ranks or surpasses the other; indeed, neither can exist without the other, as they form equal aspects of the whole. They ultimately provide an artificial distinction based on our perceptions, so only our perception of them really changes. See taiji.

  • Taoism sees existence as an interplay between three elements: the individual; society and its artificial values; the principles of Nature. In order to lead a contented life, the individual must understand the principles of Nature, the values of the social structure in which he must forge a life, and his own internal wants and needs. According to Taoism, what is good and bad varies over time and between societal groups, therefore, unlike the principles that guide Nature, the values of a given society are arbitrary and artificial.

Wu Wei

Main article: Wu wei

Much of the essence of Tao lies in the art of wu wei (action through inaction: taking no-action is, in itself, an action). However, this does not mean "sit doing nothing and wait for everything to fall into your lap". It describes a practice of accomplishing things through proper action by knowing when to and when not to act according to an individual's personal capabilities/limitations and desires, as well as knowing your place in the overall scheme of things (Tao).

Wu Wei works once we understand our true desires and capabilities as opposed to those we adopt for various reasons, and our place in nature. In other words, by trusting our nature rather than our mental contrivances, we can find contentment without a life of constant striving against forces real and imagined.

Wu Wei has been metaphorically described as flowing down the river of Tao, while maintaining your ability to steer correctly.

However, one of the least addressed principles of Wu Wei in western descriptions of Taoist philosophy is that of "non-interference." The Taoist strives not to interfere in the paths of others nor to allow others to interfere in his. Therefore, he does not take a course of action that is not aligned with Tao.


Missing image
A Taoist priest at the Azure Clouds Temple on Mount Taishan in China's Shandong province.

Though the Tao Te Ching or Zhuang Zi do not mention specific religious aspects, as Taoism spread through the population of China it became mixed with other, pre-existing beliefs, such as the Five Elements theory, alchemy, ancestor worship, and magic spells. Taoist philosophies also directly influenced Chinese Chan Buddhism. Eventually elements of Taoism combined with elements of Buddhism and Confucianism in the form of Neo-Confucianism. Attempts to procure greater longevity formed a frequent theme in Taoist alchemy and magic, with many extant spells and potions for that purpose. Many early versions of Chinese medicine had roots in Taoist thought, and modern Chinese medicine as well as Chinese martial arts still in many ways deal with Taoist concepts such as Tao, Qi, and the balance of Yin and Yang. Many of these spells and alchemic formulas can be found in the later Taoist text known as the Daozang (Taoist Cannon). This was produced many years after the original core texts of Tao Te Ching and Zhuang Zi and was more of a collection of many commentaries and elaborations by numerous masters over the years.

In addition, an organized Taoist community formed, originally established in the Eastern Han dynasty by Zhang Daoling. Many sects evolved over the years, but most trace their authority to Zhang Daoling in one way or another. For example, the original followers of the Shangqing school in the 4th century were ordained priests in Zhang Daoling's tradition. The Taoist churches incorporated entire pantheons of deities, including Lao Zi, Zhang Daoling, the Yellow Emperor, the Jade Emperor, Lei Gong (the God of Thunder) and others. Two major Taoist churches function today: the Zhengyi Sect (evolved from a sect founded by Zhang Daoling) and Quanzhen Taoism (founded by Wang Chongyang).

Today, many people whom researchers (and sometimes government bodies) label as "Taoists" do not recognize themselves as such. One problem is that Taoism is often difficult to distinguish from the Chinese folk religion in general. To the extent that these are different, an ordinary Chinese person might assume "Taoist" to refer to a Taoist priest. This folk religion has no particular name and includes Buddhist as well as Taoist elements, often without differentiation.

Taoism outside China

People in countries other than China practise 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, they 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.

In the West, Taoist philosophy has allegedly 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.

See also


External links


da:Taoisme de:Daoismus et:Taoism es:Taosmo eo:Taoismo fr:Taosme ko:도교 id:Taoisme ia:Taoismo it:Taoismo ms:Taoisme zh-min-nan:Tō-kàu nl:Taosme nds:Taoismus ja:道教 no:Taoisme pl:Taoizm pt:Taosmo ro:Taoism ru:Даосизм fi:Taolaisuus sv:Taoism tr:Taoizm zh:道教


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