The philosophical system stems largely from the Tao-te-ching, a text traditionally ascribed to Lao Tzu but probably written in the mid-3d cent. B.C. The Tao, in the broadest sense, is the way the universe functions, the path [Chin. tao=path] taken by natural events. It is characterized by spontaneous creativity and by regular alternations of phenomena (such as day following night) that proceed without effort. Effortless action may be illustrated by the conduct of water, which unresistingly accepts the lowest level and yet wears away the hardest substance. Human beings, following the Tao, must abjure all striving. The ideal state of being, fully attainable only by mystical contemplation, is simplicity and freedom from desire, comparable to that of an infant or an "uncarved block."
Taoist political doctrines reflect this quietistic philosophy: the ruler's duty is to impose a minimum of government, while protecting his people from experiencing material wants or strong passions. The social virtues expounded by Confucius were condemned as symptoms of excessive government and disregard of effortless action. Second only to Lao Tzu as an exponent of philosophical Taoism was Chuang-tzu, who wrote brilliant satirical essays. Taoist ideals greatly influenced Chinese literature, painting, and calligraphy. Later Taoism emphasized the techniques [Chin. te=power] for realizing the effects flowing from the Tao, especially long life and physical immortality.
Religious Taoism appropriated earlier interest and belief in alchemy and the search for the elixir of life and the philosopher's stone. By the 5th cent. A.D., Taoism was a fully developed religious system with many features adopted from Mahayana Buddhism, offering emotional religious satisfaction to those who found the largely ethical system of Confucianism inadequate. Taoism developed a large pantheon (probably incorporating many local gods), monastic orders, and lay masters. Heading the commonly worshiped deities is the Jade Emperor. Directly under him, ruling from Mt. Tai, is the Emperor of the Eastern Mountain, who weighs merits and faults and assigns reward and punishment in this and future existences. An ecclesiastical hierarchy was founded in the 8th cent., headed by the T'ien Shih [master of heaven]; he claimed succession from Chang Tao-lin, an alchemist of the 2d cent. who was reputed to have discovered the elixir of immortality after receiving magical power from Lao Tzu.
Throughout its history Taoism has provided the basis for many Chinese secret societies; in the 1950s, after the establishment of the Communist regime, Taoism was officially proscribed. Taoism is still practiced to some degree in modern China, as well as in Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Macao and in communities of Chinese who have emigrated.
Taoist ideas have enjoyed wide circulation in the West in the late 20th cent. and have been the basis of popular books, such as F. Capra's Tao of Physics (1983). See also A. Waley, The Way and Its Power (1935); D. C. Lau, tr., Tao Te Ching (1963); B. Watson, tr., The Complete Works of Chuang Tzu (1968); M. Kalternmark, Lao Tzu and Taoism (1969); R. M. Smullyan, Tao Is Silent (1977); C.-Y. Chang, Creativity and Taoism (1963, repr. 1982); N. J. Girardot, Myth and Meaning in Early Taoism (1983); J. Lagerway, Taoist Ritual in Chinese Society and History (1987).
Reverence for nature and ancestor spirits is common in popular Taoism. Organized Taoism distinguishes its ritual activity from that of the folk religion, which some professional Taoists (Daoshi) view as debased. Chinese alchemy, astrology, cuisine, several Chinese martial arts, Chinese traditional medicine, fengshui, and many styles of qigong breath training disciplines are intertwined with Taoism throughout history.
This distinction is complicated by hermeneutic (interpretive) difficulties in the categorization of Taoist schools, sects and movements. Many scholars believe that there is no distinction between Daojia and Daojiao. Kirkland states that most scholars have abandoned the dichotomy of "religious" and "philosophical" Taoism. Hansen states that the identification of "Taoism" as such first occurred in the early Han Dynasty when dao-jia was identified as a single school. The writings of Laozi and Zhuangzi were linked together under this single tradition during the Han Dynasty, but notably not before. It is unlikely that Zhuangzi was familiar with the text of the Daodejing. Additionally, Graham states that Zhuangzi would not have identified himself as a Taoist, a classification that did not arise until well after his death.
Taoism does not fall strictly under an umbrella or a definition of an organized religion like the Abrahamic traditions, nor can it purely be studied as the originator or a variant of Chinese folk religion, as much of the traditional religion is outside of the tenets and core teachings of Taoism. Robinet asserts that Taoism is better understood as a way of life than as a religion, and that its adherents do not approach or view Taoism the way non-Taoist historians have done. Henri Maspero stated that many scholarly works conclude Taoism is a school of thought with a quest for immortality.
Taoism has never been a unified religion, but has rather consisted of numerous teachings based on various revelations. Therefore, different branches of Taoism often have very distinct beliefs. Nevertheless, there are certain core beliefs that nearly all the schools share.
In ancient Taoist texts, wu wei is associated with water through its yielding nature. Water is soft and weak, but it can move earth and carve stone. Taoist philosophy proposes that the universe works harmoniously according to its own ways. When someone exerts his will against the world, he disrupts that harmony. Taoism does not identify man's will as the root problem. Rather, it asserts that man must place his will in harmony with the natural universe.
Pu is seen as keeping oneself in the primordial state of tao. It is believed to be the true nature of the mind, unburdened by knowledge or experiences. In the state of pu, there is no right or wrong, beautiful or ugly. There is only pure experience, or awareness, free from learned labels and definitions. It is this state of being that is the goal of following wu wei.
In Taoism, even beyond Chinese folk religion, various rituals, exercises, and substances are said to positively affect one's physical and mental health. They are also intended to align oneself spiritually with cosmic forces, or enable ecstatic spiritual journeys. These concepts seem basic to Taoism in its elite forms. Internal alchemy and various spiritual practices are used by some Taoists to improve health and extend life, theoretically even to the point of physical immortality.
The traditional Chinese religion is polytheistic. Its many deities are part of a heavenly hierarchy that mirrors the bureaucracy of Imperial China. According to their beliefs, Chinese deities may be promoted or demoted for their actions. Some deities are also simply exalted humans, such as Guan Yu, the god of honor and piety. The particular deities worshiped vary according to geographical regions and historical periods in China, though the general pattern of worship is more constant.
There are disagreements regarding the proper composition of this pantheon. Popular Taoism typically presents the Jade Emperor as the official head deity. Intellectual ("elite") Taoists, such as the Celestial Masters sect, usually present Laozi (Laojun, "Lord Lao") and the Three Pure Ones at the top of the pantheon of deities.
While a number of immortals or other mysterious figures appear in the Zhuangzi, and to a lesser extent in the Tao Te Ching, these have generally not become the objects of worship. Traditional conceptions of Tao are not to be confused with the Western concepts of theism and monotheism. Being one with the Tao does not indicate a union with an eternal spirit in the Hindu sense, but rather living in accordance with nature.
Taoist commentators have deeply considered the opening lines of the Tao Te Ching. They are widely discussed in both academic and mainstream literature. A common interpretation is similar to Korzybski's observation that "the map is not the territory". The opening lines, with literal and common translation, are:
道可道，非常道。 (Tao (way or path) can be said, not usual way)
"The Way that can be described is not the true Way."
名可名，非常名。 (names can be named, not usual names)
"The Name that can be named is not the constant Name."
Tao literally means "path" or "way"(and also means "say" or "be said"), and can figuratively mean "essential nature", "destiny", "principle", or "true path". The philosophical and religious "Tao" is infinite, without limitation. One view states that the paradoxical opening is intended to prepare the reader for teachings about the unteachable Tao. Tao is believed to be transcendent, indistinct and without form. Hence, it cannot be named or categorized. Even the word "Tao" can be considered a dangerous temptation to make Tao a limiting "name".
The Tao Te Ching is not thematically ordered. However, the main themes of the text are repeatedly expressed using variant formulations, often with only a slight difference. The leading themes revolve around the nature of Tao and how to attain it. Tao is said to be unnameable and accomplishing great things through small means. There is significant debate regarding which English translation of the Tao Te Ching is preferred, and which particular translation methodology is best. Discussions and disputes about various translations of the Tao Te Ching can become acrimonious, involving deeply entrenched views.
Ancient commentaries on the Tao Te Ching are important texts in their own right. The Heshang Gong commentary was most likely written in the second century AD, and as perhaps the oldest commentary, contains the edition of the Tao Te Ching that was transmitted to the present day. Other important commentaries include the Xiang'er, one of the most important texts from the Celestial Master movement, and Wang Bi's commentary.
Daoshi generally do not consult published versions of the Daozang, but individually choose, or inherit, texts included in the Daozang. These texts have been passed down for generations from teacher to student.
The Shangqing school has a tradition of approaching Taoism through scriptural study. It is believed that reciting certain texts often enough will be rewarded with immortality.
Taoism's origins may be traced to prehistoric Chinese religions in China. They are found in the composition of the Tao Te Ching (3rd or 4th century BC). Laozi received imperial recognition as a divinity in the mid second century AD. Taoism gained official status in China during the Tang Dynasty, whose emperors claimed Laozi as their relative. Several Song emperors, most notably Huizong, were active in promoting Taoism, collecting Taoist texts and publishing editions of the Daozang. Aspects of Confucianism, Taoism, and Buddhism were consciously synthesized in the Neo-Confucian school, which eventually became Imperial orthodoxy for state bureaucratic purposes. The Qing Dynasty, however, much favored Confucian classics and rejected Taoist works. During the eighteenth century, the imperial library was constituted, but excluded virtually all Taoist books. By the beginning of the twentieth century, Taoism had fallen so much from favor, that only one complete copy of the Daozang still remained, at the White Cloud Monastery in Beijing. Taoism is one of five religions recognised by the PRC, which insists on controlling its activities through a state bureaucracy (the China Taoist Association).
Geographically, Taoism flourishes best in regions populated by Chinese people: mainland China, Taiwan, Malaysia, Singapore, and various Chinese diaspora communities. Taoist literature and art has influenced the cultures of Korea, Japan, and Vietnam. Organized Taoism seems not to have attracted a non-Chinese following until modern times. In Taiwan 7.5 million people (33% of the population) are Taoists. In Singapore, 8.5% of the population is Taoist. There are also small numbers of Taoists in the Western world.
At certain dates, food may be set out as a sacrifice to the gods and/or spirits of the departed, such as during the Qingming Festival. This may include slaughtered pigs and ducks or fruit. Another form of sacrifice involves the burning of Joss paper or 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.
Fortune-telling—including astrology, I Ching, and other forms of 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 X spirit-writing, typically through the practice of fuji (planchette writing).
Many Taoists also participated in 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.
A number of martial arts traditions, particularly T'ai Chi Ch'uan, Bagua Zhang, Won Yuen Yat Hey Jueng, Bak Mei Pai, Bok Fou Pai, Yaw Gong Moon and Xing Yi Quan, embody Taoist principles to a greater or lesser extent, and some practitioners consider their art to be a means of practicing Taoism.
The Taijitu ("yin and yang") symbol 太極圖 as well as the Bagua 八卦 ("Eight Trigrams") are associated with Taoist symbolism. While almost all Taoist organizations make use of the yin and yang symbol, one could also call it Confucian, Neo-Confucian or pan-Chinese. The yin and yang make a backwards "S" shape, with yin (black or red) on bottom. One is likely to see this symbol as decorations on Taoist organization flags and logos, temple floors, or stitched into clerical robes. According to Song Dynasty sources, it originated around the 10th century. Previously, yin and yang were symbolized by a tiger and dragon.
Taoist temples may fly square or triangular flags. They typically feature mystical writing or diagrams and are intended to fulfill various functions including providing guidance for the spirits of the dead, to bring good fortune, increase life span, etc. Other flags and banners may be those of the gods or immortals themselves.
One sometimes sees a zigzag with seven stars, representing the Big Dipper (or the "Bushel", the Chinese equivalent). In the Shang dynasty the Big Dipper was considered a deity, while during the Han dynasty, it was considered a qi path of the circumpolar god, Taiyi.
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. But in general, Chinese Taoist architecture has no universal features that distinguish it particularly from other structures.
The terms Tao and De are religious and philosophical terms shared between Taoism and Confucianism. The authorship of the Tao Te Ching is assigned to Laozi, who is traditionally held to have been a teacher of Confucius. However, some scholars believe the Tao Te Ching arose as a reaction to Confucianism. Zhuangzi, reacting to the Confucian-Mohist ethical disputes in his "history of thought", casts Laozi as a prior step to the Mohists by name and the Confucians by implication.
Early Taoist texts reject the basic assumptions of Confucianism which relied on rituals and order, in favour of the examples of "wild" nature and individualism. Historical Taoists challenged conventional morality, while Confucians considered society debased and in need of strong ethical guidance.
The entry of Buddhism into China was marked by interaction and syncretism with Taoism in particular. Originally seen as a kind of "foreign Taoism", Buddhism's scriptures were translated into Chinese using the Taoist vocabulary. Chan Buddhism was particularly modified by Taoism, integrating distrust of scripture, text and even language, as well as the Taoist views of embracing "this life", dedicated practice and the "every-moment". In the Tang period Taoism incorporated such Buddhist elements as monasteries, vegetarianism, prohibition of alcohol, the doctrine of emptiness, and collecting scripture into tripartite organisation. During the same time, Chan Buddhism grew to become the largest sect in Chinese Buddhism.
Ideological and political rivals for centuries, Taoism, Confucianism, and Buddhism deeply influenced one another. They did share some similar values. All three embraced a humanist philosophy emphasizing moral behavior and human perfection. In time, most Chinese people identified to some extent with all three traditions simultaneously. This became institutionalised when aspects of the three schools were synthesised in the Neo-Confucian school.