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Taoism, or Daoism, is a philosophical, ethical, and religious tradition of Chinese origin that emphasizes living in harmony with the Tao (also romanized as Dao). The term Tao means "way", "path" or "principle", and can also be found in Chinese philosophies and religions other than Taoism. In Taoism, however, Tao denotes something that is both the source and the driving force behind everything that exists. It is ultimately ineffable: "The Tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao."
While Taoism drew its cosmological notions from the tenets of the School of Yin Yang, the Tao Te Ching, a compact and ambiguous book containing teachings attributed to Laozi (Chinese: 老子; pinyin: Lǎozǐ; Wade–Giles: Lao Tzu), is widely considered its keystone work. Together with the writings of Zhuangzi, these two texts build the philosophical foundation of Taoism. This philosophical Taoism, individualistic by nature, is not institutionalized.
Institutionalized forms, however, evolved over time in the shape of a number of different schools. Taoist schools traditionally feature reverence for Laozi, immortals or ancestors, along with a variety of divination and exorcism rituals, and practices for achieving ecstasy, longevity or immortality.
Taoist propriety and ethics may vary depending on the particular school, but in general tends to emphasize wu-wei (action through non-action), "naturalness", simplicity, spontaneity, and the Three Treasures: compassion, moderation, and humility.
Taoism has had profound influence on Chinese culture in the course of the centuries, and clerics of institutionalised Taoism (Chinese: 道士; pinyin: dàoshi) usually take care to note distinction between their ritual tradition and the customs and practices found in Chinese folk religion as these distinctions sometimes appear blurred. Chinese alchemy (especially neidan), Chinese astrology, Chan (Zen) Buddhism, several martial arts, Traditional Chinese medicine, feng shui, and many styles of qigong have been intertwined with Taoism throughout history. Beyond China, Taoism also had influence on surrounding societies in Asia.
After Laozi and Zhuangzi, the literature of Taoism grew steadily and was compiled in form of a canon—the Daozang—which was published at the behest of the emperor. Throughout Chinese history, Taoism was several times nominated as a state religion. After the 17th century, however, it fell from favor.
Like other religious activity, Taoism was suppressed in the first decades of the People's Republic of China (and even persecuted during the Cultural Revolution). Today, it is one of five religions recognized in the PRC, and although it does not travel readily from its Asian roots, claims adherents in a number of societies. Taoism also has sizable community in Taiwan and in Southeast Asia.
A Chinese philosopher defines Daoism as “early forms comes from understanding and experience of the dao. Experience of the dao is an irreducible element of the formation and transformation of Chinese experience of the ultimate”.
English-speakers continue to debate the preferred romanization of the words "Daoism" and "Taoism". The root Chinese word 道 "way, path" is romanized tao in the older Wade–Giles system and dào in the modern Pinyin system. In linguistic terminology, English Taoism/Daoism is formed from the Chinese loanword tao/dao 道 "way; route; principle" and the native suffix -ism. The debate over Taoism vs. Daoism involves sinology, phonemes, loanwords, and politics – not to mention whether Taoism should be pronounced // or //.
Daoism is pronounced //, but English speakers disagree whether Taoism should be // or //. In theory, both Wade–Giles tao and Pinyin dao are articulated identically, as are Taoism and Daoism. An investment book titled The Tao Jones Averages (a pun on the Dow Jones Indexes) illustrates this /daʊ/ pronunciation's widespread familiarity. In speech, Tao and Taoism are often pronounced /ˈtaʊ/ and ˈtaʊ.ɪzəm/, reading the Chinese unaspirated lenis ("weak") /t/ as the English voiceless stop consonant /t/. Lexicography shows American and British English differences in pronouncing Taoism. A study of major English dictionaries published in Great Britain and the United States found the most common Taoism glosses were /taʊ.ɪzəm/ in British sources and /daʊ.ɪzəm, taʊ.ɪzəm/ in American ones.
There is debate over how, and whether, Taoism should be categorized. Traditionally, it is divided into two categories:
However, the distinction between Daojia and Daojiao is supposedly rejected by the majority of Western and Japanese scholars. It is, among others, contested by hermeneutic (interpretive) difficulties in the categorization of the different Taoist schools, sects and movements. Taoism does not fall under an umbrella or a definition of a single organized religion like the Abrahamic traditions; nor can it be studied as the originator or a variant of Chinese folk religion, as although the two share some similar concepts, much of Chinese folk religion is outside of the tenets and core teachings of Taoism. Sinologists Isabelle Robinet and Livia Kohn agree that "Taoism has never been a unified religion, and has constantly consisted of a combination of teachings based on a variety of original revelations."
Chung-ying Cheng, a Chinese philosopher views Daoism as a religion that has been embedded into Chinese history and tradition. “Whether Confucianism, Daoism, or later Chinese Buddhism, they all fall into this pattern of thinking and organizing and in this sense remain religious, even though individually and intellectually they also assume forms of philosophy and practical wisdom”. Chung-ying Cheng also noted that through the Daoism view of heaven, their main approached of this idea mainly from “observation and meditation, the teaching of the way (dao) can also include the way of heaven independently of human nature”. In Chinese history, while all three religions from Buddhism, Daoism, and Confucianism stand their own independence views, yet they “involved in a process of attempting to find harmonization and convergence among themselves, so that we can speak of a ‘unity of three religious teaching’ (sanjiao heyi)”.
Laozi is traditionally regarded as the founder of Taoism and is closely associated in this context with "original", or "primordial", Taoism. Whether he actually existed is disputed; however, the work attributed to him – the Tao Te Ching – is dated to the late 4th century BC.
Taoism draws its cosmological foundations from the School of Naturalists (in form of its main elements – yin and yang and the Five Phases), which developed during the Warring States period (4th to 3rd centuries BC).
Robinet identifies four components in the emergence of Taoism:
Some elements of Taoism may be traced to prehistoric folk religions in China that later coalesced into a Taoist tradition. In particular, many Taoist practices drew from the Warring-States-era phenomena of the wu (connected to the "shamanism" of Southern China) and the fangshi (which probably derived from the "archivist-soothsayers of antiquity, one of whom supposedly was Laozi himself"), even though later Taoists insisted that this was not the case. Both terms were used to designate individuals dedicated to "... magic, medicine, divination,... methods of longevity and to ecstatic wanderings" as well as exorcism; in the case of the wu, "shamans" or "sorcerers" is often used as a translation. The fangshi were philosophically close to the School of Naturalists, and relied much on astrological and calendrical speculations in their divinatory activities.
The first organized form of Taoism, the Tianshi (Celestial Masters') school (later known as Zhengyi school), developed from the Five Pecks of Rice movement at the end of the 2nd century CE; the latter had been founded by Zhang Daoling, who claimed that Laozi appeared to him in the year 142. The Tianshi school was officially recognized by ruler Cao Cao in 215, legitimizing Cao Cao's rise to power in return. Laozi received imperial recognition as a divinity in the mid-2nd century BCE.
Taoism, in form of the Shangqing school, gained official status in China again during the Tang Dynasty (618–907), whose emperors claimed Laozi as their relative. The Shangqing movement, however, had developed much earlier, in the 4th century, on the basis of a series of revelations by gods and spirits to a certain Yang Xi in the years between 364 to 370.
Between 397 and 402, Ge Chaofu compiled a series of scriptures which later served as the foundation of the Lingbao school, which unfolded its greatest influence during the Song Dynasty (960–1279). Several Song emperors, most notably Huizong, were active in promoting Taoism, collecting Taoist texts and publishing editions of the Daozang.
In the 12th century, the Quanzhen School was founded in Shandong. It flourished during the 13th and 14th century and during the Yuan dynasty became the largest and most important Taoist school in Northern China. The school's most revered master, Qiu Chuji, met with Genghis Khan in 1222 and was successful in influencing the Khan towards exerting more restraint during his brutal conquests. By the Khan's decree, the school also was exempt from taxation.
Aspects of Confucianism, Taoism, and Buddhism were consciously synthesized in the Neo-Confucian school, which eventually became Imperial orthodoxy for state bureaucratic purposes under the Ming (1368–1644).
The Qing Dynasty (1644–1912), however, much favored Confucian classics over Taoist works.
During the 18th century, the imperial library was constituted, but excluded virtually all Taoist books. By the beginning of the 20th century, Taoism had fallen much from favor (for example, only one complete copy of the Daozang still remained, at the White Cloud Monastery in Beijing).
Today, Taoism is one of five religions recognized by the People's Republic of China. The government regulates its activities through the Chinese Taoist Association. Taoism is freely practiced in Taiwan, where it claims millions of adherents.
Taoism tends to emphasize various themes of the Tao Te Ching and Zhuangzi, such as naturalness, spontaneity, simplicity, detachment from desires, and most important of all, wu wei. However, the concepts of those keystone texts can not be equated with Taoism as a whole.
Tao (Chinese: 道; pinyin: dào) literally means "way", but can also be interpreted as road, channel, path, doctrine, or line. In Taoism, it is "the One, which is natural, spontaneous, eternal, nameless, and indescribable. It is at once the beginning of all things and the way in which all things pursue their course." It has variously been denoted as the "flow of the universe", a "conceptually necessary ontological ground", or a demonstration of nature. The Tao also is something that individuals can find immanent in themselves.
The active expression of Tao is called Te (also spelled – and pronounced – De, or even Teh; often translated with Virtue or Power; Chinese: 德; pinyin: dé), in a sense that Te results from an individual living and cultivating the Tao.
The ambiguous term wu-wei (simplified Chinese: 无为; traditional Chinese: 無爲; pinyin: wú wéi) constitutes the leading ethical concept in Taoism. Wei refers to any intentional or deliberated action, while wu carries the meaning of "there is no ..." or "lacking, without". Common translations are "nonaction", "effortless action" or "action without intent". The meaning is sometimes emphasized by using the paradoxical expression "wei wu wei": "action without action".
In ancient Taoist texts, wu-wei is associated with water through its yielding nature. Taoist philosophy proposes that the universe works harmoniously according to its own ways. When someone exerts their will against the world, they disrupt that harmony. Taoism does not identify one's will as the root problem. Rather, it asserts that one must place their will in harmony with the natural universe. Thus, a potentially harmful interference must be avoided, and in this way, goals can be achieved effortlessly. "By wu-wei, the sage seeks to come into harmony with the great Tao, which itself accomplishes by nonaction."
Naturalness (Chinese: 自然; pinyin: zìrán; Wade–Giles: tzu-jan; lit. "self-such") is regarded as a central value in Taoism. It describes the "primordial state" of all things as well as a basic character of the Tao, and is usually associated with spontaneity and creativity. To attain naturalness, one has to identify with the Tao; this involves freeing oneself from selfishness and desire, and appreciating simplicity.
An often cited metaphor for naturalness is pu (simplified Chinese: 朴; traditional Chinese: 樸; pinyin: pǔ, pú; Wade–Giles: p'u; lit. "uncut wood"), the "uncarved block", which represents the "original nature... prior to the imprint of culture" of an individual. It is usually referred to as a state one returns to.
The Taoist Three Treasures or Three Jewels (simplified Chinese: 三宝; traditional Chinese: 三寶; pinyin: sānbǎo) comprise the basic virtues of ci (Chinese: 慈; pinyin: cí, usually translated as compassion), jian (Chinese: 俭; pinyin: jiǎn, usually translated as moderation), and bugan wei tianxia xian (Chinese: 不敢为天下先; pinyin: bùgǎn wéi tiānxià xiān, literally "not daring to act as first under the heavens", but usually translated as humility).
As the "practical, political side" of Taoist philosophy, Arthur Waley translated them as "abstention from aggressive war and capital punishment", "absolute simplicity of living", and "refusal to assert active authority".
The Three Treasures can also refer to jing, qi and shen (Chinese: 精氣神; pinyin: jīng-qì-shén; jing is usually translated with "essence" and shen with "spirit"). These terms are elements of the traditional Chinese concept of the human body, which shares its cosmological foundation - Yinyangism - with Taoism. Within this framework, they play an important role in neidan ("Taoist yoga").
Taoist cosmology is based on the School of Yin Yang which was headed by Zou Yan (305 BC – 240 BC). The school's tenets harmonized the concepts of the Wu Xing (Five Phases) and yin and yang. In this spirit, the universe is seen as being in a constant process of re-creating itself, as everything that exists is a mere aspect of qi, which, "condensed, becomes life; diluted, it is indefinite potential". Qi is in a perpetual transformation between its condensed and diluted state. These two different states of qi, on the other hand, are embodiments of the abstract entities of yin and yang, two complementary extremes that constantly play against and with each other and cannot exist without the other.
Human beings are seen as a microcosm of the universe, and for example comprise the Wu Xing in form of the zang-fu organs. As a consequence, it is believed that deeper understanding of the universe can be achieved by understanding oneself.
A recurrent and important element of Taoism are rituals, exercises and substances aiming at aligning oneself spiritually with cosmic forces, at undertaking ecstatic spiritual journeys, or at improving physical health and thereby extending one's life, ideally to the point of immortality. Enlightened and immortal beings are referred to as xian.
A characteristic method aiming for longevity is Taoist alchemy. Already in very early Taoist scriptures - like the Taiping Jing and the Baopuzi - alchemical formulas for achieving immortality were outlined.
A number of martial arts traditions, particularly the ones falling under the category of Neijia (like T'ai Chi Ch'uan, Bagua Zhang and Xing Yi Quan) embody Taoist principles to a significant extent, and some practitioners consider their art a means of practicing Taoism.
Taoist beliefs include teachings based on various sources. Therefore, different branches of Taoism often have differing beliefs, especially concerning deities and the proper composition of the pantheon. Nevertheless, there are certain core beliefs that nearly all the sects share. Traditional conceptions of Tao should not be confused with the Western concepts of theism, however. Being one with the Tao does not necessarily indicate a union with an eternal spirit in, for example, the Hindu sense.
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. The pantheon tends to mirror the bureaucracy of Imperial China; deities also may be promoted or demoted for their actions.
The Tao Te Ching or Daodejing is widely considered the most influential Taoist text. According to legend, it was written by Laozi, and often the book is simply referred to as the "Laozi." However, authorship, precise date of origin, and even unity of the text are still subject of debate, and will probably never be known with certainty. The earliest texts of the Tao Te Ching that have been excavated (written on bamboo tablets) date back to the late 4th century BC. Throughout the history of religious Taoism, the Tao Te Ching has been used as a ritual text.
The famous opening lines of the Tao Te Ching are:
道可道非常道 (pinyin: dào kĕ dào fēi cháng dào)
"The Tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao""The name that can be named is not the eternal name."
名可名非常名 (pinyin: míng kĕ míng fēi cháng míng)
There is significant, at times acrimonious debate regarding which English translation of the Tao Te Ching is preferable, and which particular translation methodology is best. 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 ineffable, and accomplishing great things through small means. Ancient commentaries on the Tao Te Ching are important texts in their own right. Perhaps the oldest one, the Heshang Gong commentary, was most likely written in the 2nd century CE. Other important commentaries include the one from Wang Bi and the Xiang'er.
The Taoist book Zhuangzi (simplified Chinese: 庄子; traditional Chinese: 莊子; pinyin: Zhuāngzǐ), named after its purported author Zhuangzi, is a composite of writings from various sources, and is considered one of the most important texts in Taoism. The commentator Guo Xiang (circa 300 AD) helped established the text as an important source for Taoist thought. The traditional view is that Zhuangzi himself wrote the first seven chapters (the "inner chapters") and his students and related thinkers were responsible for the other parts (the "outer" and "miscellaneous" chapters). The work uses anecdotes, parables and dialogues to express one of its main themes, that is aligning oneself to the laws of the natural world and "the way" of the elements.
The Daozang (道藏, Treasury of Tao) is also referred to as the Taoist canon. It was originally compiled during the Jin, Tang, and Song dynasties. The version surviving today was published during the Ming Dynasty. The Ming Daozang includes almost 1500 texts. Following the example of the Buddhist Tripiṭaka, it is divided into three dong (洞, "caves", "grottoes"). They are arranged from "highest" to "lowest":
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 by reciting certain texts often enough one will be rewarded with immortality.
While the Tao Te Ching is most famous, there are many other important texts in traditional Taoism including Mohism. Taishang Ganying Pian ("Treatise of the Exalted One on Response and Retribution") discusses sin and ethics, and has become a popular morality tract in the last few centuries. It asserts that those in harmony with Tao will live long and fruitful lives. The wicked, and their descendants, will suffer and have shortened lives.
The taijitu (simplified Chinese: 太极图; traditional Chinese: 太極圖; pinyin: tàijítú; commonly known as the "yin and yang symbol") as well as the Ba Gua 八卦 ("Eight Trigrams") are associated with Taoist symbolism. The taijitu is not an exclusive symbol of Taoism, however. While almost all Taoist organizations make use of it, one could actually also call it Confucian, Neo-Confucian or pan-Chinese. 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.
A zigzag with seven stars is sometimes displayed, 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 phoenix 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. In general though, Chinese Taoist architecture has no universal features that distinguish it from other structures.
The number of Taoists is difficult to estimate, due to a variety of factors including defining Taoism. The number of people practicing Chinese folk religion is estimated at just under four hundred million. Most Chinese people and many others have been influenced in some way by Taoist tradition. Estimates for the number of Taoists worldwide range from twenty million and possibly to as many as 400 million in China alone.
Recently, there have been some efforts to revive the practice of Taoist religion. In 1956, the Chinese Taoist Association was formed, and received official approval in 1957. It was disbanded during the Cultural Revolution under Mao, but re-established in 1980. The headquarters of the Association are at Baiyun guan, or White Cloud Temple, of the Longmen branch of Quanzhen.
Since 1980, many Taoist monasteries and temples have been reopened or rebuilt, most of them belonging to the Zhengyi or Quanzhen school. For these two schools, ordination has been officially allowed again. However, "the Chinese government prefers the celibate model of ... Quanzhen clergy", while "Zhengyi clergy are often married, and often reside at home."
Geographically, Taoism flourishes best in regions populated by Chinese people: mainland China, Taiwan, Malaysia, Philippines, 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 large non-Chinese following, except in Korea and Vietnam, until modern times. In Taiwan 7.5 million people (33% of the population) identify themselves as Taoists. In Singapore, 8.5% of the population identify themselves as 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 spirits of the deceased or the gods, such as during the Qingming Festival. This may include slaughtered animals, such as 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, making them available for revered ancestors and departed loved ones. At other points, a vegan diet or full fast may be observed.
Also on particular holidays, street parades take place. These are lively affairs which invariably involve firecrackers and flower-covered floats broadcasting traditional music. They also variously include lion dances and dragon dances; human-occupied puppets (often of the "Seventh Lord" and "Eighth Lord"); tongji (童乩 "spirit-medium; shaman") who cut their skin with knives; Bajiajiang, which are Kungfu-practicing honor guards in demonic makeup; and palanquins carrying god-images. The various participants are not considered performers, but rather possessed by the gods and spirits in question.
Fortune-telling—including astrology, I Ching, and other forms of divination—has long been considered a traditional Taoist pursuit. Mediumship is also widely encountered in some sects. There is an academic and social distinction between martial forms of mediumship (such as tongji) and the spirit-writing that is typically practiced through planchette writing.
Throughout Chinese history there have been many examples of art being influenced by Taoist thought. Notable painters influenced by Taosim include Wu Wei, Huang Gongwang, Mi Fu, Muqi Fachang, Shitao, Ni Zan, T'ang Mi, and Wang Tseng-tsu. Taoist arts represents the diverse regions, dialects, and time spans that are commonly associated with Taoism. Ancient Taoist art was commissioned by the aristocracy, however scholars masters and adepts also directly engaged in the art themselves.
Unlike Confucianism, Taoism favors philosophical anarchism, pluralism and laissez-faire-government. Laozi has been cited as an early example of a proponent of liberalism. On the other hand, politics never have been a main issue in Taoism.
Many scholars believe Taoism arose as a countermovement to Confucianism. The philosophical terms Tao and De are indeed shared by both Taoism and Confucianism, and Laozi is traditionally held to have been a teacher of Confucius. Zhuangzi explicitly criticized Confucianist and Mohist tenets in his work. In general, Taoism rejects the Confucianist emphasis on rituals, hierarchical social order, and conventional morality, and favors naturalness, spontaneity, and individualism instead.
The entry of Buddhism into China was marked by significant interaction and syncretism with Taoism. Originally seen as a kind of "foreign Taoism", Buddhism's scriptures were translated into Chinese using the Taoist vocabulary. Representatives of early Chinese Buddhism, like Sengzhao and Tao Sheng, knew and were deeply influenced by the Taoist keystone texts.
Taoism especially shaped the development of Chan (Zen) Buddhism, introducing elements like the concept of naturalness, distrust of scripture and text, and emphasis on embracing "this life" and living in the "every-moment".
Taoism on the other hand also incorporated Buddhist elements during the Tang period, such as monasteries, vegetarianism, prohibition of alcohol, the doctrine of emptiness, and collecting scripture in tripartite organisation.
Ideological and political rivals for centuries, Taoism, Confucianism, and Buddhism deeply influenced one another. For example, Wang Bi, one of the most influential philosophical commentators on Laozi (and Yijing), was a Confucian. The three rivals also share some similar values, with all three embracing 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.
Some authors have dealt with comparative studies between Taoism and Christianity. This has been of interest for students of history of religion such as J.J.M. de Groot, among others. The comparison of the teachings of Laozi and Jesus of Nazareth has been done by several authors such as Martin Aronson, and Toropov & Hansen (2002), who believe that they have pararells that should not to be ignored. In the opinion of J. Isamu Yamamoto  the main difference is that Christianity preaches a personal God while Theist Taoism does not. Yet, a number of authors, including Lin Yutang, have argued that some moral and ethical tenets of these religions are similar.
Until recently, the Mawangdui manuscripts have held the pride of place as the oldest extant manuscripts of the Laozi. In late 1993, the excavation of a tomb (identified as M1) in Guodian, Jingmen city, Hubei province, has yielded among other things some 800 bamboo slips, of which 730 are inscribed, containing over 13,000 Chinese characters. Some of these, amounting to about 2,000 characters, match the Laozi. The tomb...is dated around 300 B.C."
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