Huaiyu CHEN

The yin–yang symbol. Daoists, who strive to live in harmony with the way of nature, see yin and yang as complementary, not hostile, opposites.

Daoism is an important Chinese philosophical and religious tradition. Its doctrines, institutions and practices have had a profound impact on cultural, social, and religious life in China through the ages.

Daoism (Taoism) is an indigenous Chinese religion that has had a great impact on Chinese philosophy, art, literature, science, medicine, and martial arts. The word dao 道 (often tao) literally means “the road, the path,” yet it is translated as “the Way” in Western-language scholarship. Along with Confucianism and Buddhism, Daoism is often viewed as one of three institutionalized or organized religious traditions in imperial Chinese society. Contemporary scholars still debate the similarities and differences between Daoism and popular religion.

Daoism as a religion (Daojiao 道教) has its root in Daoism as a philosophical tradition (Daojia 道家). Two classics, The Book of the Way and Its Virtue (Daodejing 道德經) and Zhuangzi (莊子), serve the textual foundations for Daoist philosophy and religion. The Daoist philosophical tradition originated from The Book of the Way and Its Virtue (Daodejing), commonly dated to around 400 BCE. This book is also entitled Laozi, which indicates that it is attributed to the fourth-century BCE philosopher Laozi (Old Master). (Some scholars argue that Laozi lived as early as the sixth century BCE, while others consider him to be a fictional figure despite a record of his life written by Han dynasty [206 BCE–220 CE] court biographer Sima Qian [c. 145–86 BCE].) Nevertheless this book was compiled and revised with clarity and coherence during a long period and probably by many authors. Historically, the rise of Daoism as a religion occurred in the later Han dynasty, around the second century CE, when Laozi was deified as “Most High Old Lord” (Taishang laojun).

The Book of the Way and Its Virtue contains roughly five thousand Chinese characters and is organized into eighty-one chapters. In this work the Daoist cosmology (a branch of metaphysics that deals with the nature of the universe) is centered on the concept of chaos (hundun). According to The Book of the Way and Its Virtue, dao is not definable. It exists in all things (wanwu, ten thousand things). The Way is present in the process of the change and transformation of all things in nature and in society. The Way cannot be named, and it is also beyond human perception because it is said that, “The Tao (Way) that can be told is not the Eternal Tao; the Name that can be named is not the Eternal Name.” (Chan 1963, 139). If one comprehends the Way and acts naturally, it is wuwei, literally nonaction, nonwillful action in Daoism. Wuwei is viewed as the right way of life. The Book of the Way and Its Virtue also teaches correlatives as the expression of the movement of the Way, representing some pairs of forces such as yin and yang, male and female, active and passive, as well as excess and defect. It manifests the ideal portrait of the holy person (shengren), who empties himself, living naturally and staying with plainness. A holy person is the one who achieves harmony. Zhuangzi, on the other hand, is a book that was written by Zhuang Zhou, also known as Zhuangzi, Master Zhuang (c. 370–301 BCE). It reveals some other important concepts in Daoism, such as that of immortals. In Zhuangzi people are said to exist in the process of constant change and transformation. It also teaches some techniques, including meditating and breathing to facilitate this transformation.

Besides the intellectual resources of Daoist philosophy, in its long history the Daoist religion borrowed many elements from Chinese popular religion such as yin and yang, the Five Elements (wuxing), shamanism, and methods of esoterica (fangshu). Although Daoist philosophy appeared around the fifth century BCE, the rise of Daoist religion occurred in the later Han dynasty.

Divine Figure

In Daoist religion the Way becomes a mystical concept. Echoing The Book of the Way and Its Virtue, The Scripture of Great Peace (Taiping jing) states that the Way is the origin of all things and cannot be named, and that the Way is the root and master of the great transformation. It also claims that the Way is too profound to be perceived. By the second century CE Laozi was considered a divine figure who was believed to be the incarnation of the Way. The Way was the One, and the One could diffuse to be ether. The ether gathered to become the Most High Old Lord. This figure was the parent of the heaven and earth, the authority of the yin and yang and the ruler of all deities. In the North and South Dynasties (220–589 CE, also known as the Six Dynasties), The Way became the Celestial Venerable of the Primordial Beginning (Yuanshi tianzun), the highest god in Daoism. With Daoism’s rise as a religion during the Han dynasty it inherited some popular techniques for pursuing longevity. The Techniques for achieving longevity and nourishing life also helped practitioners escape danger when under attack by beasts and engaged in war. These techniques attracted many followers who suffered during the period when the Han dynasty nearly collapsed.

Immortals are celestial beings in Daoism. They are also called “transcendent beings” because they are physically and spiritually immortal and beyond this world. They enjoy the longevity of life and immortality. In some texts they also appear as divine immortals (shenxian), divine persons (shenren), and immortal sages (xiansheng). The idea of immortals can be found in two early Daoist texts, Zhuangzi and Liezi. However, the most famous work about immortals is a collection entitled Biographies of Divine Immortals or Traditions of Divine Transcendents, (Shenxianzhuan). This work contains more than one hundred hagiographical (relating to the biography of saints or venerated persons) stories about divine immortals. It was attributed to Ge Hong (283–343 CE); yet, most of the stories were likely to have been written after the sixth century CE. These stories teach that immortality can be achieved by bodily and spiritual cultivation. Ge Hong suggests that three forms of immortality exist: celestial, earthly, and corpse liberated. In order to achieve immortality, one should practice ether (qi 氣) techniques. Other practices, such as meditation, visualization, and rituals, are also vital in the pursuit of immortality.

Daoist Canon

The Daoist canon, like the Buddhist canon in the Mahayana tradition, is an expandable corpus of Daoist scriptural, scholastic, and historical texts. The canon also frequently appears as the Complete Scriptures of Daoism (Daojiao yiqie jing) because it includes both scriptures and other genres. The current Daoist canon commonly used in the scholarly world is called the Daoist Canon of the Zhengtong Reign Period (Zhengtong daozang), which was compiled in 1444–45. This canon has 5,485 fascicles (the divisions of a book published in parts). In the North and South Dynasties,Daoist masters Ge Hong and Lu Xiujing (406–477 CE) laid the foundation for cataloguing early Daoist texts. Later the Tang dynasty (618–907 CE) emperor, Xuanzong 玄宗, ordered compilation of the first complete set of the Daoist canon. This version was enriched during the Song dynasty (960–1279), Jurchen Jin dynasty (1125–1234), and Yuan dynasty (1279–1368). Nevertheless, the Daoist Canon of the Zhengtong Reign Period is the latest version. In the twentieth century numerous Daoist manuscripts from the city of Dunhuang in Gansu Province were compiled by scholars from all over the world.

The Daoist Canon of the Zhengtong Reign Period comprises seven sections: the Three Caverns (sandong) and the Four Supplements (sifu). The Three Caverns are three divisions of Daoist texts: the True Cavern (Dongzhen, the Superior Cavern), the Mystical Cavern (Dongxuan, the Middle Cavern), and the Spiritual Cavern (Dongshen, the Lesser Cavern). Each division has a group of original Daoist texts. The Scriptures of Upper Purity (Shangqing jing) constitutes the core of the True Cavern. The Scriptures of Numinous Treasure (Lingbao jing) constitutes the core of the Mystical Cavern. And the third division was developed based on the Scripture of Three Sovereigns (Sanhuang jing).

In Daoism the Three Caverns are linked with Three Purities and Three Vehicles. The True Cavern and the Jade Purity are the Great Vehicle, the Mystical Cavern and the Upper Purity are the Middle Vehicle, and the Spiritual Cavern and the Great Purity are the Small Vehicle. The Four Supplements are four portions of the Daoist canon with the titles of the Great Mystic (Taixuan), the Great Peace (Taiping), the Great Purity (Taiqing) and the Orthodox Unity (Zhengyi). The Great Mystic is based on Laozi. The Scripture of Great Peace is the central text in the section of the Great Peace. The Great Purity contains a group of texts on alchemy. The canonical texts of the Way of Celestial Masters constitute the core of the section of Orthodox Unity.

Earliest Traditions

Unlike with many of the world religions, such as Buddhism, Christianity, and Islam, with Daoism it is difficult to tell when it became a religious tradition and precisely who founded it. Generally speaking, the earliest traditions of Daoism were the Way of the Yellow Emperor and the Old Master (Huanglaodao) and the Way of Five-Pecked Rice (Wudoumidao) in the Han dynasty. In the tombs of Mawangdui 馬王堆, a site near present Changsha, Hunan Province, some silk scrolls of Daodejing were uncovered, revealing the ideas of Qixia Academy of the Ji kingdom associated with the Way of the Yellow Emperor and the Old Master. This tradition promotes the ideas of the renunciation of wealth and the pursuit of longevity.

In the later Han dynasty the Way of Celestial Masters (Tianshidao) was developed from two movements: the Yellow Turbans (Huangjin) movement in central and eastern China and the Way of Five-Pecked Rice movement in the Hanzhong area (modern southern Shaanxi Province). The first movement was also called the “Way of Great Peace” (Taipingdao), and under the leadership of Zhang Jue this movement rose up against the Han central government in 184 CE. Its followers venerated the Yellow God and believed that a new era under the reign of Yellow Heaven was coming. They sought a kingdom with harmony, peace, wisdom, and equality—a utopian reign. The Daoist text Scripture of Great Peace (Taiping jing) played a crucial role in inspiring this movement. The Scripture of Great Peace mixes Daoist cosmology and yin and yang as well as Five Elements (wuxing) theories. It teaches that divine messengers, celestial masters (iianshi), would bring revelations to this world for the sake of people who suffered under the Han regime. By movement toward a state of nonaction, the great peace would be achieved. The Way of Five-Pecked Rice was established by Zhang Ling (Zhang Daolin, the Celestial Master Zhang), who was a leader of a group of small landowners in the southern Shaanxi area. This group aimed to establish a religious ideology through which the mandate of the Han court would be removed by the god Most High Old Lord. And the celestial masters would rule the people by the will of this Most High Old Lord. The members were required to contribute five-rice to the group, which was the practice of the origin of the name of the group. After Zhang Ling died, his son Zhang Lu continued to lead the group as a local autonomous power. Yet, in 215 CE hehanded over his power to the central government but retained his tradition.

During the period of the North and South Dynasties, especially during the Eastern Jin dynasty (317–420 CE), Daoism flourished, especially in southeastern China. The aristocratic class was involved in writing and practicing Daoism, thereby contributing to the formation of the early Daoist canon and Daoist rituals. Two traditions, Upper Purity (Shangqing) and Numinous Treasure (Lingbao), appeared to be significant during this period. The Upper Purity tradition is named after the Scriptures of Upper Purity. Daoist master Yang Xi 楊曦 (330–386 CE) played a crucial role in teaching the Scriptures of Upper Purity. This tradition focuses on the cultivation of essence (jing), ether (qi), and spirit (shen)) by which one can cultivate his or her body. This practice was particularly favored by elite literati. The Numinous Treasure tradition is named after the Scriptures of Numinous Treasure. It is said that this section of Daoist scriptures was initiated by Ge Xuan (164–244). Ge Xuan then transmitted it to his disciple Zheng Yin (215–302). Zheng Yin taught it to Ge Hong (284–364), who promoted this tradition to a new stage. Liu Xiujing during the Liu Song period (420–479 CE) enriched it with many rituals and precepts. This tradition focused on rituals and precepts rather than alchemy and sexual technique. It may be closer to the former Way of Celestial Masters than to the Upper Purity tradition. Later Tao Hongjing (456–536) became another important contributor to the development of Daoism in Southern dynasties (420–589 CE). Tao Hongjing helped create a mature Daoist pantheon based on worldly hierarchical structure. He also compiled a work entitled the Perfected Declaration (Zhengao), which preserved abundant sources about the early history of Daoism. He also developed some new techniques for Daoist cultivation.

During the Northern dynasties (386–581 CE) some remarkable developments occurred into Daoism. For instance, Daoist religion as a tradition was guarded and promoted by the Kou clan. The most distinguished Daoist in this clan was Kou Qianzhi (365–448), who claimed that he received revelations from the Most High Old Lord and his offspring in the Mountain Song in 415 and 423. He reformed the old Daoist tradition inherited from the Zhang family in the later Han dynasty. His innovations enhanced aspects of the creating rites, the observing precepts, and the creating cinnabar (artificial red mercuric sulfide used especially as a pigment). He also composed scriptures. Later he served the court of the Northern Wei (386–534 CE) emperor, Taiwudi. Because of Kou Qianzhi’s influence, in 446 the emperor issued an edict ordering the suppression of Buddhism. During the later Northern dynasty, Daoism, along with Buddhism, as an important religious tradition was given a section in an official history, the History of Wei (Weishu) by Wei Shou (506–572).

After the Sui dynasty (581–618 CE) Daoism was challenged, first by the flourishing of Buddhism during the Tang dynasty (618–907 CE) and then by the revival of Confucianism during the Song dynasty (960–1279). During the late Northern Song dynasty (960–1126) Daoism became a subject in the civil examination. From the Southern Song dynasty (1127–1279) to the Jurchen Jin and Yuan dynasties Daoism experienced what contemporary scholars called the “revival of new Daoism.” During this revival three new movements—Great Unity (Taiyi), True Great (Zhenda), and Complete Perfection (Quanzhen) appeared.

During the Yuan dynasty emperors particularly favored the Complete Perfection movement. One of its leaders, Qiu Chuji (1148–1227), even accompanied Mongol conqueror Chinggis Khan (often spelled Genghis Khan) in his travels to the western regions in central Asia. During the Ming (1368–1644) and Qing (1644–1912) dynasties the new trend in religious development was the unification of the three religions, Confucianism, Buddhism and Daoism. During the late Qing dynasty and the early Republican period (1912–1927) all three religions experienced a crisis with the political decline of the Chinese empire. The revival of Daoism appeared only after the 1980s, yet it remained far behind Buddhism.

Daoism, Confucianism, and Buddhism

People often view Daoism, Confucianism, and Buddhism as the three organized religions in China. However, historically Confucianism was always seen as heading the three religions during most regimes through the ages. Daoism absorbed many Confucian ethical ideas during its early development, ideas such as seeking self-cultivation in morality and serving family and country, as Ge Hong suggested. However, the interaction between Daoism and Buddhism was more interesting. The rise of Daoism cannot be separated from the spread of Buddhism into China during the Han dynasty. Daoist scriptures and rituals all benefited from the presence of Buddhism. Daoism always strived to compete with Buddhism during the North and South Dynasties. Daoism created a legendary text entitled Scripture of Laozi’s Converting the Barbarians (Laozi huahu jing) in order to make a distinction between its indigenous nature and Buddhism as a foreign religion from India and central Asia. Generally, although the emperors often held the court debates for the three organized religions, Daoism was usually listed behind Buddhism in traditional writings from medieval China. During the Southern dynasty Daoist priest Gu Huan (420–483) composed an important text entitled Treatise on Barbarians and Chinese (Yixialun) against Buddhism, which resulted in a series of apologetic essays from Buddhists. Many Daoist rituals and meditation techniques may have been borrowed from Buddhism and may have been modified to serve Daoist goals. Daoism also borrowed many doctrines from Buddhism, such as the teachings of karma and reincarnation. The complex interaction between Daoism and esoteric Buddhism has always fascinated modern scholars.

Daoist Rituals, Festivals, and Mountains

The term inner alchemy is a translation of the Daoist term neidan, referring to a series of ways in which one can achieve the transcendent state or a return to the original order of the cosmos. The practice of inner alchemy creates inner elixir and controls the motion of the mind, the breath, and the body in order to pursue longevity. In Daoist philosophy inner alchemy combines naturality (xing) and fate (ming). Xing, in Daoist terms, means the original inactive state of a being. Yet, ming refers to fate, the destiny of a being, which is the perfect nonaction. In the practice of inner alchemy three ingredients occupy the central positions: essence (jing), ether (qi), and spirit (shen). Essence might be brought up by one’s birth or might be derived from the digestion of food. Essence, ether, and spirit might appear as the forms of human bodily fluids. Two types of ether exist: primal ether and true ether. Primal ether arose from the creation of the universe; true ether arose from breath, from drinks and food. Two types of spirits exist: the original spirit and the spirit of knowing. The former is the unconscious functions of the nervous system, and the latter is the consciousness and thought in the learning process.

Spells and talismans are also commonly used in Daoist practice. They might have been derived from the influence of Buddhism and traditional Chinese religion, but later Daoism certainly revised them. Clearly spells might have been borrowed from esoteric Buddhism; however, talismans were borrowed from shamanism. The adaptation of Daoist talismans was also inspired by the Book of Changes (Zhouyi). It used modified Chinese characters and consecrated them with divine powers based on Daoist precepts. In Daoist practice talismans authorized the actions of the deities and the demons, healed illness, and bestowed the good sign to believers. Yin Yang and Five Elements also played important roles in the application of talismans and spells. The four cardinal directions in Daoism are represented by four symbolic animals and figures: Blue Dragon of the East (Qinglong), Red Phoenix of the South (Zhuque), White Tiger of the West (Baihu), and Dark Warrior of the North (Xuanwu).

Daoism observes many celebrations and festivals. The ninth day of the first month in the lunar calendar is the birthday of the Jade Emperor, with prescribed rituals and offerings. Three important festivals in Daoism are the Three Primes (Sanyuan). The Upper Prime Festival (Shangyuan Festival, now Yuanxiao Festival or Lantern Festival) is held on the fifteenth day of the first month in the lunar calendar. On the night of this festival lanterns are displayed, and people come out to watch the lantern show. The Middle Prime Festival (Zhongyuan Festival) is held on the fifteenth day of the seventh month in the lunar calendar. On this day people feed the spirits of deceased ones. The Lower Prime Festival (Xiayuan Festival) is held on the fifteenth day of the tenth month.

As do other religions, Daoism views some mountains as sacred. The most famous four sacred mountains for Daoists are Mount Wudang in Hubei Province, Mount Longhu in Jiangxi Province, Mount Qiyun in Anhui Province, and Mount Qingcheng in Sichuan Province. Mount Wudang is famous in recent years for its long tradition in Chinese martial arts. It has appeared in action movies, for instance, in the Oscar-winning film Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Mount Longhu(Mount Dragon and Tiger) is the seat of the Way of Celestial Masters.

Further Reading

Bokenkamp, S. (1997). Early Taoist scriptures. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press.

Bokenkamp, S. (2007). Ancestors and anxiety: Daoism and the birth of rebirth in China. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press.

Campany, R. (2002). To lve as long as Heaven and Earth: Ge Hong’s traditions of divine transcendents. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press.

Chan, W. (Trans. Ed.). (1963). A sourcebook in Chinese philosophy. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Eskildsen, S. (1998). Asceticism in early Taoist religion. Albany: State University of New York Press.

Hendrischke, B. (2007). The scripture on Great Peace: The Taiping jing and the beginnings of Daoism. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press.

Kaltenmark, M. (1969). Lao Tzu and Taoism (R. Greaves, Trans.). Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Kohn, L. (Ed.). (1989). Taoist meditation and longevity techniques. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

Kohn, L. (1995). Laughing at the Tao: Debates among Buddhists and Taoists in medieval China. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Kohn, L. (Ed.). (2000). Daoism handbook. Leiden, The Netherlands: E. J. Brill.

Lagerwey, J. (1987). Taoist ritual in Chinese society and history. New York: Macmillan.

Little, S. (2000). Taoism and the arts of China. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press.

Pregadio, F. (2006). Great clarity Daoism and alchemy in early medieval China. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Robinet, I. (1997). Taoism: Growth of a religion (P. Brooks, Trans.). Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Schipper, K. (1993). The Taoist body (K. C. Duval, Trans.). Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press.

Welch, H., & Seidel, A. (Eds.). (1979). Facets of Taoism. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Zürcher, E. (1980). Buddhist influence on early Taoism. T’oung Pao, 66(1–3), 84–147.

Source: Chen, Huaiyu. (2009). Daoism—Religion. In Linsun Cheng, et al. (Eds.), Berkshire Encyclopedia of China, pp. 571–576. Great Barrington, MA: Berkshire Publishing.

An offering ceremony at Dai Miao (the Temple of the God of Mount Tai). A man portraying the Jade Emperor leads a procession. PHOTO BY JOAN LEBOLD COHEN.

Daoism—Religion (Dàojiào 道教)|Dàojiào 道教 (Daoism—Religion)

Download the PDF of this article