Taoism: Introduction and History

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I. Introduction

Daoism, Chinese philosophical and religious system, dating from about the 4th century BC. Among native Chinese schools of thought, the influence of Daoism has been second only to that of Confucianism.

II. Basic Tenets

 The essential Daoist philosophical and mystical beliefs can be found in the Daodejing (Tao-te Ching, Classic of the Way and Its Power) attributed to the historical figure Laozi (Lao-tzu, 570?-490? BC) and possibly compiled by followers as late as the 3rd century BC. Whereas Confucianism urged the individual to conform to the standards of an ideal social system, Daoism maintained that the individual should ignore the dictates of society and seek only to conform with the underlying pattern of the universe, the Dao (or Tao, meaning “way”), which can neither be described in words nor conceived in thought. To be in accord with Dao, one has to “do nothing” (wuwei)—that is, nothing strained, artificial, or unnatural. Through spontaneous compliance with the impulses of one’s own essential nature and by emptying oneself of all doctrines and knowledge, one achieves unity with the Dao and derives from it a mystical power. This power enables one to transcend all mundane distinctions, even the distinction of life and death. At the sociopolitical level, the Daoists called for a return to primitive agrarian life.

III. History

Unsuited to the development of an explicit political theory, Daoism exerted its greatest influence on Chinese aesthetics, hygiene, and religion. Alongside the philosophical and mystical Daoism discussed above, Daoism also developed on a popular level as a cult in which immortality was sought through magic and the use of various elixirs. Experimentation in alchemy gave way to the development, between the 3rd and 6th centuries, of various hygiene cults that sought to prolong life. These developed into a general hygiene system, still practiced, that stresses regular breathing and concentration to prevent disease and promote longevity.

About the 2nd century AD, popular Daoist religious organizations concerned with faith healing began to appear. Subsequently, under the influence of Buddhism, Daoist religious groups adopted institutional monasticism and a concern for spiritual afterlife rather than bodily immortality. The basic organization of these groups was the local parish, which supported a Daoist priest with its contributions. Daoism was recognized as the official religion of China for several brief periods. Various Daoist sects eventually developed, and in 1019 the leader of one of these was given an extensive tract of land in Jiangxi (Kiangsi) Province. The successors of this patriarch maintained control over this tract and nominal supremacy over local Daoist clergy until 1927, when they were ousted by the Chinese Communists. In contemporary China, religious Daoism has tended to merge with popular Buddhism and other religions.