Taoism is one of China’s three great religions along with Buddhism and Confucianism. It has a history of around 2500 years, though it first started to emerge as an organized religion in the 2nd Century AD.
The central idea of the faith is achieving unity with Tao. Tao literally translates as ‘way’ or ‘method’. It can be roughly described as the invisible force of the universe that keeps things ordered. Taoism teaches that people should not disturb this order, but instead should always try to achieve balance, harmony and moderation. Taoism is concerned with having opposites in balance with each other. The yin and yang symbol best represents this idea. And while this balance is fluid, the equilibrium should not be disturbed.
The Three Treasures (the key virtues) of Taoism are compassion, moderation or simplicity, and humility. Essentially Taoism is about becoming a good person who lives in harmony with people and with nature. A central tenet of achieving this is Wu Wei, which can be translated as non-intervention. Taoists aim to live as a river flows. While this might sound passive, in Taoism it is seen as the only path to happiness as the only real cause of angst is disturbing the natural order of things.
If this all sounds a bit vague, it’s meant to be. Tao itself is beyond definition. Taoism aims to point people towards the truth, rather then explaining the truth to them.
History of Taoism
The idea of Tao was first outlined in the DaoDeJing (also known as the Tao Te Ching) which was written by Laozi (also known as Lao Tzu) at some time between the 6th and 3rd Century BC. This is considered the foundation and seminal text of Taoism.
However, it was not until the middle of the 2nd Century AD that Taoism became an organized religion, which drew on a number of preceding philosophical texts concerning Tao. The religion really took off in the Tang Dynasty (618-907) when the emperors claimed to be descendants of Laozi. Subsequent dynasties also promoted Taoism but it began to fall out of favor after the fall of the Ming Dynasty (1644),
Is Taoism a Philosophy or Religion?
Taoism is often considered (and practiced) in the West as a philosophy more than a religion. Therefore, it’s somewhat confusing when you go to a Taoist temple in China and see people making offerings to statues of the deities. So, what’s the deal?
Some people have tried to separate the two, saying there is a difference between Taoist philosophy and Taoist religion. But the best way to look at it is that the rituals and gods of Taoism exist to help explain the philosophy. The gods offer something more concrete than abstract ideas and the dogma provides guidance in achieving the ideal. Indeed, this is not overly dissimilar to other religions around the world.
The Taoist Deities
Often the most fascinating thing about Taoist temples is the sometimes bizarre array of deities. Taoists do not worship a God. Rather, they strive to live in harmony with Tao. The deities you see in Taoist temples are models in achieving harmony with Tao and are worshipped and venerated as such. Many of these gods were taken from other religions, especially Buddhism. The exact hierarchy and make-up of the pantheon of the gods varies slightly between different streams of belief.
The Taoist gods are arranged in a hierarchy at the top of which is the Three Pure Ones: the Jade Pure One (Yuqing), the High Pure One (Shangqing) and the Supreme Pure One (Taiqing). Laozi, author of the DaoDeJing, is said to have been an incarnation of the Supreme Purity. Beneath the Three Purities is the Jade Emperor, ruler of the universe. The Jade Emperor takes care of administrative duties while the Three Purities simply teach. The Four Heavenly Emperors, one of whom is the Earth Goddess (Houtu), assist the Jade Emperor, while the Three Officials carry out his instructions. You are also likely to hear about the Eight Immortals, who achieved immortality through Taoism. The most famous of the immortals is Lu Dongbin. Also look out for the Door Gods, who are found not only on the doors of temples but also on the doors of many Chinese homes. These are just some of the deities you will see represented in Taoist temples.
A more complete and in-depth description of the Taoist gods can be found at TaoistSecret.Com (www.taoistsecret.com).
Taoism in Modern China
Taoism was already out of favor in the late Qing Dynasty and naturally went into further decline during the Cultural Revolution. As a result, you won’t encounter anywhere near the same number of Taoist sites in China as you will Buddhist sites.
Regardless, Taoism has been an influence on Chinese society for around 2500 years and is to an extent intertwined with Chinese Buddhism and Confucianism. Therefore, an awareness of Taoist philosophy is helpful in understanding the Chinese mindset. Although there are relatively few practicing Taoists in mainland China, Taoist ideas and principles are entrenched in Chinese culture the same way that Christian values are in western culture. Taoism is now one of the five registered religions of the People’s Republic of China.
Some prominent Taoist sites you might encounter in China include White Cloud Monastery and Dongyue Temple in Beijing, Green Ram Temple in Chengdu, Xuanmiao Temple in Suzhou and the Temple of the Eight Immortals in Xian. There are also a number of mountains that are sacred to Taoists.
Note: In pinyin, Taoism is spelt as Daoism, which is more accurate in terms of pronunciation. However, Taoism is the traditional and still most common spelling.