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Daoism is China's oldest religion, with its roots in ancient Chinese philosophy. Once a natural philosophy, something like a life science, it has become a folk religion of many deities, with spinoffs and related practices ranging from fengshui to tai chi and TCM.
(Here modern Chinese spellings are used with old spellings given for completeness, e.g. "Dao" and "Daoism" are used, rather than "Tao" and "Taoism".)
[Much of the content below was submitted by Peter Fritz Walter, author of books on the Daode Jing, Yi Jing, and Fengshui.]
Ancient Scholarly Daoism
The 'Way-Virtue Book' (Daode Jing)
The No. 2 Daoist Book (Zhuangzi)
The 'Way' (Dao)
The 'Inaction' Principle (Wuwei)
The 'Changes Book' (Yi Jing)
Chinese Astrology and Fortune Telling
Fengshui (Chinese Geomancy)
Integral Way Daoism / Western Daoism
Qigong and Tai Chi
TCM and Natural Healing
Daoist Deities (Folk Religion)
China's Daoism Attractions
Temples and Monasteries
The history of Daoism dates back to around the Spring and Autumn period (770–476 BC). It was a time of many schools of thought, political turmoil, and war. Historians differ about when Laozi was born or if he even existed. He may have been a contemporary of Confucius or he may have lived about 380 BC.
During the Han Dynasty, about 2,000 years ago, the philosophy of Daoism developed with the Daode Jing and the Zhuangzi recognized as the main texts.
Towards the end of the Tang Dynasty (618-907), emperors favored Taoism and claimed that Laozi was a relative. But they were against Buddhism that had grown very powerful and also against Nestorian Christianity. They repressed what they called “foreign religions”.
Later, some Song Dynasty (960-1279) emperors promoted Daoism. Then Confucianism, Taoism and Buddhism was synthesized in what is called the Neo-Confucian school.
During the Qing Dynasty (1644-1912), the Manchus favored Tibetan Buddhism and Confucianism. Taoism was in disfavor with the ruling class, but folk religion continued until the 20th century.
Sun Yat-Sen, first president of the Republic of China (1912-49), was a Christian. He resented the influence of what he though was idolatry and superstition. When he was young, he fled to Hong Kong after damaging a Taoist idol in a temple. The fall of the Qing Dynasty in 1912 meant that a major Daoist god, the emperor, was gone. Other gods and immortals became more important.
Folk religion and Daoist philosophy was repres sed during the 1950s and 1960s and especially during the Cultural Revolution. Temples were destroyed and monks were beaten. The old ideas conflicted with Marxism.
Now, people publicly and fearlessly practice folk reli gion, such as fortune telling at temples and paying homage at ancestral tombs. Tai chi and qigong are very popular. In Hong Kong and Taiwan, there are large and well organized Taoist temples. Daoism is also a common religion among Chinese populations in other countries such as Indonesia and Singapore. It is a small religion in Korea.
To understand China's oldest religion, it is important to realize that it was not a religion but a spiritual teaching or philosophy, promoted by highly educated people called "sages". It was namely not a religious cult for the population, while it grew out of an early belief that there is a natural order or a "Way of Heaven" that one can come to know by living in harmony with nature.
Today it is sometimes called "scholarly Daoism" in order to distinguish it from the later Daoist religion which was, then, not an individual spiritual path any longer, but a mass-religion of popular practices and beliefs from fortune telling over amulet crafting to the invocation of hundreds of deities and protector spirits for one's personal fortune.
The Daode Jing (Tao Te Ching), the most important compilation of Daoist wisdom dates from around the 3rd century BCE. It consists of 81 strophes (chapters) that present an integrated and wistful take on life, relationships, leadership, ethics, and spirituality, and sometimes also poetic musings or parables that are not always easy to understand on first sight.
It is a matter of debate if the book has been authored by the Daoist sage Laozi (Lao-tzu). Legend says he was on his way to leave the country because of the growing political confusion at the onset of feudalism in China, and was stopped by a border control, asking him to write down his wisdom in a book before he passed beyond toward the mountains. Other sources emphasize that the book is more likely to be a sort of compilation of life wisdom contributed by many authors and that its creation was not a one-time event, but took considerable time to being achieved.
Even the existence of Laozi is a matter of controversy for his name in Chinese simply means 'The Old Master'. However, for many Chinese Daoists he is considered as the founding father of Daoism, an immortal, or in modern religious jargon, a 'god'. However, it has to be seen that these beliefs are the result of Daoist folk religion, while ancient scholarly Daoism, while it recognized the existence of spirits and ghosts, and immortals, did not foster the idea of gods or godlike beings. And this for good reason for the basic idea of Daoist spirituality in its oldest vintage is that every human being can become an immortal if that person is willing to engage in consistent self-development and reaches a point of ethical stature that is unquestionable.
The second most important resource of Daoist wisdom is a book attributed to the sage Zhuangzi (Chuang-tzu), but which today is equally considered to be the fruit of wisdom of a number of people. Although Zhuangzi was published after the Daode Jing, its compilation began earlier.
What is the Dao? The opening strophe of the Daode Jing states:
The Way that can be taught
is not the eternal Way.
The name that can be voiced
is not the eternal name.
"Non-existence" is called the start of the cosmos;
"existence" is called the mother of everything.
The reason: constant "non-existence" is unfathomable;
constant "existence" is unintelligible.
These two have the same root but different names;
both are mysteries.
Mysteries of yet more mysteries,
the doors of all wonders.
This quite enigmatic strophe conveys that the Dao cannot be described in words, using verbal language, because language cannot describe a spiritual reality that is beyond verbal descriptions. In Chinese, Dao simply means 'Way'.
As a recurring theme throughout the book, here the reader is asked to realize the insufficiency of verbal language — and implicitly of conceptual reasoning — for conveying spiritual experience or deep insights into the spiritual foundation of all life.
That the Dao is a 'Way' — not a thing, object or person, or god — means that it is relevant on the spiritual plane how a person lives, not what that person is able to speculate about the spiritual realms, nor how devoted that person is for following certain religious rituals. All this is namely unimportant for the ancient Daoist view of an integrated and ethical life. What is important is that one fully lives one's truth and thus walks one's talk. Hence the importance of how a person lives their daily life, how that person relates to the world, to nature, to other humans, how that person acts in this world, or prefers to not act, i.e. practices wuwei or non-involvement (see below).
Wuwei, another important principle of Daoism, is often translated into English as 'non-action', which is misleading. Just as the I Ching, the 5000-years old Chinese wisdom book, knows three different kinds of action—going forward, standing still and going backward, wuwei is just one of these three possible actions, namely that of 'standing still'.
Its general meaning is not inactivity or, worse, passivity, but 'non-involvement' or 'non-disturbance'. In addition, as all actions, it is temporary. For example, when a person is getting into a leadership position, the best he or she can do at the starting point is to practice wuwei or non-involvement in order to observe how the group, company or nation regulates itself. Once this observation is done, and conclusions are drawn, the leader may then involve himself or herself in some or the other action that influences the way "the system" works, thereby changing it.
Thus it is important to realize that a static interpretation of wuwei as non-action leads to the — impossible — assumption that a person who follows the Dao never ever takes action, and spends his or her time in isolation and passive observation of the world. This is a gross misinterpretation of Daoism, which is not a philosophy of passive seclusion, but a school for teaching wise action, action that is properly timed, not ego-based, ethically sound, and beneficial for all people involved in it.
The Yi Jing (I Ching) or Book of Changes may well be the oldest book on the planet. The deepest ideas conveyed in the Yi Jing were handed down orally since thousands of years. The early Daoist sages were great observers of nature; they looked at the stars and tides, plants and animals, and the cycles of all natural events. They also made out the patterns of social life, government, warfare, and the rules pertaining to the welfare of the family.
Contrary to Western philosophers who thought of the cosmos as a static arrangement of atoms, ancient Chinese scholars put their focus on the organic and systemic nature of the universe; they looked at how things change in nature, and how structures organically emerge.
Their idea of nature was of a fluid, ever-evolving organism in which everything is connected: an interconnected system of relations, which is exactly what cutting-edge systems research now reveals to us, thereby falsifying hundreds of years of speculative, and largely superfluous, philosophy.
They then condensed their insights into the sixty-four hexagrams of the Yi Jing. It is quite astonishing to see that those sages had an acute awareness of the hidden parallelism between agricultural cycles, social patterns, courtly manners, warfare strategies, cosmic events, and the practice of self-cultivation.
The authorship of the Yi Jing is attributed to the legendary Fu Xi (Fu Hsi), who ruled China during the third millennium BC He is said to have created the arrangement of the initial eight trigrams that are at the basis of all the sixty-four hexagrams.
Another influential author and commentator of the Yi Jing was King Wen, the founder of the Chou Dynasty (1150-249 BC). He is said to have written his commentary on the Yi Jing during the time of his imprisonment under the tyrant Zhou Xin (Chou Hsin). The legend goes that a dream had revealed to him a hexagram displayed on the wall of his cell, upon which he began to describe his mental images in words.
After he was rescued from prison, King Wen took the throne, and his son, the Duke of Zhou, completed his father's work by writing complete commentaries on all the lines of each hexagram.
At that time, and even later in ancient China, all great scholars were devoting much time and energy to study the Yi Jing and write their own commentaries for it. Among them are Laozi, Mengzi (Mencius), Mozi (Mo-tzu), Qu Xi (Chu Hsi), and Zhuangzi. Confucius (Kongzi, 551-479 BC) made the perhaps most important contribution, known as the Ten Wings, which is a collection of philosophical essays on the Yi Jing.
The core of the Yi Jing is the principle of polarity which is an underlying reality in all of nature. The old Chinese called it the dualism of yin and yang. All the hexagrams in the Yi Jing are reflections of these polar yet complementary energies. Carl Jung, known to have studied and worked with the Yi Jing for many years, actually explained its working with synchronicity or meaningful coincidence.
When a person throws the coins with a specific question in mind, the way they fall has meaning; it's not a random event. The resulting hexagram reflects the content of the subconscious mind of the asker, which knows what the outcome of the situation will be, so the Yi Jing, as any other divination device, actually projects the content of our subconscious mind on a timeline into the future. As we often today are afraid of change, we can learn to become more change-friendly if we often consult the Yi Jing and follow its advice.
While the roots and origins of Daoism are as an ancient wisdom philosophy, modern Daoism is about groups of people who are called "Daoists". There are big differences between the ancient philosophy and the way it is applied in modern life by all those, Chinese or Westerners, who call themselves "Daoists".
There are various kinds of Daoism. Some Daoism is based on the study and belief of ancient scriptures like the Daode Jing. Most “Daoists” in China, who probably wouldn't call themselves Daoists, practice native folk religion that varies from place to place. This folk religion is more common in rural and minority areas. This includes ancestor worship, fortune telling, and Fengshui (geomancy).
In modern terms, the Dao can be a lifestyle but it is not a god, and it is not worshipped. It is followed, if ever, by being open to inner guidance and by refusing to let one's ego regulate one's spiritual life. While modern Daoism knows many deities, what is worshipped in Daoist temples are the deities, not the Dao itself. This is important to realize for otherwise Daoism, that originally is a wisdom-philosophy, is easily put on one level with religions, which would do injustice to its non-judgmental and non-doctrinaire nature!
But often, the term Daoism is used to convey China's folk religion and beliefs that go back to the time when ancient scholarly Daoism lost its non-judgmental and integral nature and become a folk religion fostering superstition, fortune telling, the belief in the spiritual power of amulets, and the like.
The oft-voiced comparison of Daoism with Buddhism, and their mutual penetration also is misleading when the Buddha is worshipped like a god. The man Siddhartha Gautama created another 'Way' or path of life, or recipe for a 'good life' and thus the point of departure of scholarly Daoism and original Buddhism are rather similar.
In the following, we shall see that there are a number of "branches" of Daoism or "disciplines" that are, nor not, referred to as "Daoist Practices". It is difficult, today, to make out if such a claim is true for with modern Daoism we are facing a meltpot of religious and philosophical influences upon the ancient school of scholarly Daoism. We namely have strong influences from Buddhism and Confucianism, and—not to forget—the original core of folk religions that in China dates back to the Paleolithic. These folk religions were and are naturalistic beliefs, the worship of natural spirits and deities related to geographic formations such as lakes, rivers, oceans and mountains, as well as deities attributed to certain celestial formations such as the North Star or Big Dipper.
It is a complex matter and it would be an error to take a judgmental point of view and say that this or that practice in today's Daoism is more or less original or authentic, or on the other hand is to be seen as imitative or superstitious. We should not forget that almost all of Asian religions have been judged as "superstitious beliefs" by Christian missionaries. We are today beyond such a limited view and can appreciate the variety and diversity of religious practices in Asia, and especially in China.
One of the oldest known practices that are an outflow of religious feelings and piety is the loving remembrance, invocation, and worship of ancestors. Deceased family members, especially when they have enjoyed expressions of respect and devotion already at their lifetime, are invoked through prayer and ritual as "protector spirits" or asked for advice on specific projects.
This practice is based on the belief that death does not end our greater life cycles and that the spirit or soul of a person lives across many incarnations, for constant learning and self-improvement.
Typically, and depending on a family's fortune and social standing, a more or less spacious altar is made an integral part of the structure of the building, where ancestors are believed to be located through pictorial representations or objects that were dear to them at their lifetime.
At certain times of the year, typically certain recurring days in the Lunar Calendar, food and drink offerings are made to the spirits, which again depending on the family's social standing and wealth can take opulent dimensions.
The ritual of ancestor worship is socially coded in the sense that misfortune experienced by family members is generally attributed to certain defects in carrying out the ritual properly either because of ignorance or negligence.
Chinese astrology is a tradition that stretches back in time over several thousand years. Like Western astrology the Chinese system uses a zodiac (from Greek zoidiacos, cycle of figures), being divided into 12 signs, each representing a mythic animal.
Chinese astrology operates on different levels; the most basic of these is the study of the animal that rules one's year of birth. A slightly more complex feature involves the yang/yin polarity of the year and the element that rules it. Herein is the Chinese zodiac's connection with "Daoism". Apart from that, there is the question of which animal governs one's birth moon and the animal that influences one's hour of birth.
Professional astrologers in China take into account a great deal more than this, including the day of birth and the lunar cycle that one was born in. See more on The Chinese Zodiac.
Fortune Telling (算命, Suan Ming) is a millenary practice in Chinese culture. Consulting a fortune teller is very common in Mainland China, Taiwan and Hong Kong before major events, like Chinese New Year, wedding engagements, and the birth of children.
Fortune tellers are also to be found in or near Buddhist and Taoist temples in China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan. Outside of China and Taiwan, fortune tellers can also be found in Chinatowns around the world.
There are over a dozen types of Chinese fortune telling methods. Typically, all a person needs for having their fortune told is their first and last name, birth date, and age. Additional information like time of birth and a person's address are sometimes required for certain fortune telling methods.
Palm reading or hand prediction is a method used in China as long as Chinese astrology for deriving information from the lines of the palm, such as certain personality traits, one's overall health condition now and in the future, one's financial situation, one's career opportunities, marriage prospects, and many more aspects.
See more on Fortune Telling in China.
Feng Shui is a scientific system that comes to us from a time where science and religion were not yet separated and thus part of a truly holistic philosophy that grasped the complete life process.
Therefore we can say that Fengshui is a perennial science that, despite the fact that it seems occult to many who ignore it, can be considered as a source of true enlightenment for the seeker of truth. And it helps to understand the integrality of life and to value the interdependence of all living!
Fengshui has been developed through observing nature and cyclic processes in nature. The word itself means 'wind and water'.
Fengshui is a science although for many people one that is still occult. This is so because in our whole upbringing we have unlearned our original capacity for sensing the energies. Both rediscovering and recovering is facilitated through the study and the practice of Fengshui, one of the most powerful sciences about nature's energy system and our harmonious living in accordance with cosmic energies.
The Daoist sages of old knew to tap into this source that for many of us today is unavailable, because we are ignorant about the keys that open us the gate to our most precious resources and riches. Every one of us carries those riches inside. It is a matter of sensitivity and perhaps of purity that we can perceive them. The state of consciousness that leads to this sensitivity can be enhanced by studying Feng Shui, practicing Feng Shui, and by learning to sense the energies intuitively.
Fengshui is a body of knowledge that is rather complex in its diversity. During its existence several Fengshui schools have been established that practice quite different approaches using different techniques. There are two basic schools, the Form School, and the Compass School.
The Form School is probably the oldest and most original of both. It is the result of keen observation of nature's forms, for example landscapes, and the energetic impact of these forms on our destiny. The Form School has early identified an ideal combination of forms that should surround a residence in order to provide the utmost of positive influence and luck.
The Form School Fengshui master searches in the landscape the Dragon and the White Tiger, ideal shapes that he tries to make out in the form of the hills or mountains, rivers or lakes or the landscape as a whole.
The Compass School uses instead the directions to establish the situation of the energies in a set location or environment. Compass Feng Shui establishment is more difficult and more confusing than Form School Feng Shui since there are two different ways to interpret the directions. Some Feng Shui experts use the usual compass directions, others the exact opposite directions.
See more on Fengshui and Chinese Construction.
Daoism has come up in the West, especially the United States and Germany, from about the 1960s. One school of this new tradition that acknowledges its origins in ancient China, is represented by Daoist Master Ni Huajing (Hua-Ching Ni) who teaches the ancient scholarly Daoist tradition under the header 'The Integral Way' or 'The Universal Way'.
This tradition emphasizes the difference between religion and spirituality, pointing to the possibility of acquiring spiritual knowledge as a matter of personal scrutiny, and a path of personal perfection that requires continuous self-cultivation. By contrast, religions are described as customs that a typically setup by social leaders for the purpose of organizing society. This regulatory function of religion as a tool for bringing order to society is believed to stand in the way to the freedom needed for the personal spiritual quest and a life based on truth and knowledge.
Unique to Daoism and much contrary to the Western idea of "sport" is a set of gentle body movements and breathing techniques called qigong, which in English means something like 'energy work'. The idea is that the human body regulates itself when being kept in its original natural state, needing gentle movement that stimulates the flow condition of blood and qi (chi), the subtle vital energy, as well as correct breathing in order to properly energize all body tissues.
It is common practice in Mainland China, Taiwan and Hong Kong for people, especially elders, and predominantly women, to gather in public places during the early morning hours for performing a set of simple qigong exercises that are both standalone exercises and warm-up exercises for Tai Chi. See more on Qigong.
The ancient Daoist sages developed a system of physical movements that are based on the natural motion of animals, however being slowed down so as to not bring stress to the body while performing them. By moving the body in this fashion, it is believed to unblock and relieve energy congestion in certain parts of the body and gradually eliminate stress and tension in both the body and the mind. Through the revitalization of the energy flow in the body, all the muscles, nerves, tissues, and organs are vitalized and toned. Energy that was locked into muscular or mental tensions is released and added to the natural vitality of the mind body unit.
Tai Chi has a parallel within the Martial Arts called Taijiquan (Tai Chi Chuan). It obeys to the same principles and brings the same health benefits when performed properly and regularly, only that in addition it serves self-defense. There are recurring Taijiquan competitions in all Chinese provinces on a regular basis and even internationally, especially as a matter of cultural exchange with Japan.
See more on Tai Chi in China.
Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) is a range of traditional medical practices used in China that developed over several thousand years. These practices include herbal medicine, acupuncture, and massage.
Chinese medicine was perhaps the first really holistic medicine on the globe, and it sees processes of the human body as interrelated and constantly interacting energetically with the environment. Chinese medicine recognizes that good health is basically a state of harmony and therefore looks for the signs of disharmony in the external and internal environment of a person in order to understand, treat and prevent disease.
TCM describes the physiology and pathology of the human body, disease etiology, diagnosis, and disease prevention. In the definition of health, as defined by TCM, the concepts of yin and yang and the five elements play a role among specific methods for diagnosing disease.
Natural Healing, especially herbal medicine, is widespread in China and is applied to various disease conditions alongside other treatment methods such as TCM diagnosis and acupuncture. This ancient healing tradition is based on the concept of self-healing, the idea that the body heals itself. The Daoist sages of old emphasized not the treatment of disease, but rather the prevention of its occurrence.
The central idea to the Chinese system of healthcare is the idea of qi, a primordial subtle energy that permeates the universe, influences the weather and the seasons, and flows in regulated channels called 'meridians' through the human body. Disease is regularly attributed to a blockage of the flow of qi in certain parts of the body and their corresponding meridians, and healing consists in stimulating the flow of qi with the help of acupuncture and acupressure.
Acupuncture works through inserting fine and pliable needles into certain "acupuncture points" — also called acupoints— which are important sensible access points within the meridians, thereby invigorating the flow of chi, bringing it back into proper balance. Acupressure works on the same principles, only that it achieves the same effect by pressing those energy points without the need of needles.
At Daoist temples, people may worship Taoist idols that represent a historical figure, an immortal, or a folk god. This deistic type of Daoism is more common among Chinese in places like Hong Kong or Taiwan that are outside the former officially atheistic and materialistic Mainland China, and some of the temples in Hong Kong and Taiwan are popular, big and well organized.
There are Daoist pantheons with hundreds of gods and immortals. An example of Daoist deities are Man and Mo. These are two popular deities in southern China. These deities were two men who are said to be real historical figures, and they are often worshipped together in "Man Mo" temples. There is an old Man Mo Temple in Central in Hong Kong, for example, that was built in 1847.
Man is the god of literature (文帝). He was named Man Cheong and was born in China in AD 287. Mo is the god of war (武帝). He is said to have been born in AD 160. He fought against oppression and injustice and was killed in 219 at the hands of his enemies. Perhaps Chinese place these two deities together because one sort of represents a peaceful and prosperous future and one represents war. People go to the Man Mo temples in China to pray for success in examinations or in their academic or literary endeavors. They also go to Man Mo temples to settle disputes, to get justice against an enemy, or for war.
There is a ceremony at the Man Mo Temple for settling disputes between people that originated during the Qing Dynasty (1644-1912). It involves cutting off a chicken's head and burning yellow paper. In this ceremony, in order to avoid going to court, people invoke the gods to punish people who don't perform the vows that they publicly make in the ceremony.
An example of worship of immortal human deities is at Hong Kong's' Wong Tai Sin Temple.
According to their literature, where the immortal's autobiography is presented, he says that he was a poor boy named Wong Cho Ping who lived in Zhejiang Province around the year 330 AD. He experienced hunger and poverty when he was very small.
At the age of 8, he became a shepherd boy. Wong Cho Ping said that when he was 15, he was visited by a fairy who showed him how to refine the mineral cinnabar that is the ore of mercury to make a drug that made him immortal. He lived in a cave. He transformed white rocks into sheep when his brother came to visit him when he was 55. He said his brother also reached enlightenment and became an immortal.
The founder of the temple named Leung Renyan (梁仁庵) came to Hong Kong and set up a Chinese medicine shop in 1915 just after the fall of the Qing Dynasty. In 1921, Leung said that Wong Tai Sin told him to build a new shrine at the present temple site in Kowloon. Wong Tai Sin told him where to build structures and what to name them. He began to build the temple complex in 1921.
When the Qing Dynasty fell in 1912, Taoists lost their main god because they worshipped the emperors as deities. They needed a religion to replace the old one of emperor worship. Now, there are sometimes hundreds of fortune tellers practicing at the temple site. People go there to get a prediction of their future, pray for happiness and worship the gods. It is a popular temple for Taoists in Hong Kong and Asia.
For anybody interested in Daoism, there are many interesting places to visit and activities to see in Mainland China, Taiwan, and Hong Kong.
Our expert guides will help you get a deeper understanding of Daoism and other aspects of China's rich culture. Contact us for a uniquely tailored tour.