道可道，非常道。A way that can be the Way, is not the usual way.
名可名，非常名。A name that can be a name, is an unusual name.
The lines above are the opening lines of the Dao De Jing (The Way of Power and Virtue Scripture, 道德经) that is the main religious text of Taoism. How to translate the words into English and what the words mean is obviously the mystery of Dao.
The word Dao means Way. The Way of Life. The Meaning of one’s life. In usual Chinese usage, the word “dao” means path or road. Nowadays, the name Taoism is used as a general name for any kind of native Chinese religion or ancient belief. The term covers anything from Qigong or Tai Chi exercise, to ancestor worship, to belief in any of hundreds of gods or reputed immortal people, to martial arts, to healthful food recipes to Taoist philosophy.
On one hand, very few modern Chinese would say that they are Taoist if they were asked what their religion is. Usually, people identify themselves as without a religion or as Buddhists, Muslims or Christians. On the other hand, the philosophies and religious ideas of the many faceted Taoism are a part of Chinese culture itself and in the personal beliefs of hundreds of millions of people even if they identify themselves as Christian or Muslim. If they believe in Chi, the balancing of Yin and Yang, or venerate their ancestors thinking that their ancestors acknowledge or somehow need their veneration (that is, that their ancestors still exist), they can be called Taoists.
Taoism is basically a term for China’s indigenous philosophies and religious beliefs, and as defined this way, it has always been China’s main religion that colors all the others.
Daoism is China’s oldest religion. At one time, the land called China was the home of numerous peoples with different racial origins. All these ethnic groups probably had their own special gods and religious beliefs. Over time, kingdoms and empires grew in various areas and started incorporating more and more people into them.
One common theme in these kingdoms and empires was a belief in life after death as can be seen in ancient tombs all over China. So people had to pay homage to and care for the dead. Some Chinese have fear of the dead, and they try to obey the dead or appease them. Another idea that is very strong in Chinese philosophy is as Chinese people say: “If you believe something, it is real.” Along with this is the idea that reality isn’t really and there is really no Truth. So it doesn’t really matter if a certain man named Laozi who wrote the Dao De Jing really existed or not. 名可名，非常名。 A nameable name usually isn’t the name.
Chinese people generally didn’t want to die. They generally wanted to live a long time. So ancient Chinese developed different methods to keep living. It is said by some Daoists that there are humans who are hundreds or thousands of years old who involve themselves in their lives and in China’s affairs, and some Daoists worship these immortals. Some immortals once died but came back to existence in another way. It is said there are both internal and external methods of prolonging life. Internal ways involve controlling and moving around the Chi or meditation or inaction. External ways involve drugs made of minerals or elements like mercury or herbal medicines.
There are various kinds of Taoism. Some Taoism is based on the study and belief of ancient scriptures like the Dao De Jing. Most “Taoists” in China who probably wouldn’t call themselves Taoists (Daojiaotu, 道教徒) practice native folk religion that varies from place to place. This folk religion is more common in the country among peasants. This includes ancestor worship and palm reading or Feng Shui (geomancy, 风水).
Many modern Chinese practice Tai Chi exercise or Qigong that is a kind of Taoism. This exercise is especially popular among older women. They can be seen practicing in groups after sunrise in public places all over China. Some Taoists believe in prolonging life or reaching immortality through internal and external techniques. Some worship native or personal gods.
At Taoist temples, people may worship Taoist idols that represent a historical figure, an immortal, or a folk god. This deistic type of Taoism is more common among Chinese in places like Hong Kong or Taiwan that are outside the former officially atheistic and materialistic Chinese mainland, and some of the temples in Hong Kong and Taiwan are popular, big and well organized.
There are Taoist pantheons with hundreds of gods and immortals. An example of Taoist 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 a very large and popular Daoist temple in Hong Kong called the 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.
The Dao De Jing (道德經) is the main text of Daoist philosophy. Dao De Jing means the Way of Virtue Scripture. It is said that Laozi wrote the Dao De Jing. But historians debate about whether he wrote the text, when Laozi lived, and whether he was a real historical person. Most people place him as a contemporary of the philosopher Confucius. They say he lived around 500 or 600 BC. Others say that he lived about 380 BC. Laozi is one of the major gods.
There is a secondary text called the Zhuangzi (莊子) that is also considered a main Taoist scripture. Some people think that the Zhuangzi became linked with the Dao De Jing as the main texts of Daoism during the Han Dynasty about 2,000 years ago. Zhuangzi is said to be the writer of the Zhuangzi scripture.
Daoist Ethics and Philosophy
Inaction (without action, wuwei, 无为) is the general goal. It involves not applying a will to a matter. A Taoist more or less believes that if one does nothing, everything will fall into place just fine naturally. Along with this general main idea is the idea that reality is subjective and is made subjectively. So there is no real reality or truth, but bits and pieces of it in individuals. Along with these general concepts are three main Virtues called the Three Treasures that color Chinese thinking. These virtues are compassion, moderation, and humility. They can also be translated into English as kindness, simplicity (without excess), and modesty. These concepts can summarize a lot about native Chinese philosophy and the Chinese way of life.
The three virtues go along with the main concept of inaction. If people are too willful, it means they are proud, not humble, and striving too much. Willfulness and too much unmoderated behavior means turmoil. People living a noble or virtuous way（道德）would appear to exert little or no effort. The appearance of too much effort means one is not virtuous. An individual’s noble way is the harmonious way with society.
Since there is no real truth, according to Daoism, telling the truth is not important. Since reality is not declared but rather lived, it doesn’t make common sense to think about ultimate Truth too much. It especially doesn’t make common sense to talk about “truth” too much.
The Western materialist way of thinking and Western atheism has colored modern Daoism in China. According to the philosophy of dialectical materialism that has been taught in China, reality is knowable through physical sensory experience and experimentation. Science is factual. Humans know what is real through scientific exploration and testing. If something is not scientific, this means that it is superstition and confusion (迷信). In modern China, most people seem to think according to both Daoist and atheistic materialist philosophy. Some people may try to scientifically explain some Daoist concepts like Chi or Yin and Yang, life after death, or immortality.
Influence on Buddhism
In China, the Taoist philosophies greatly influenced Buddhism. Chan Buddhism was once China’s major sect of Buddhism. The ideas of inaction was linked to meditation to achieve Enlightenment. In particular, Chan Buddhism had a distrust of written scriptures. Enlightenment was to be attained by meditation. In the Shaolin branch of Chan Buddhism, very hard physical exercise and martial arts were considered very important. Chan Buddhism became popular in Japan and the Ryukuu Islands where it developed as Zen Buddhism and martial arts.
The history of Daoism is as old as the history of religion in China. Much of Taoist religion comes from Chinese folk religion. Buddhist ideas were adopted, and ideas of Confucian philosophy were added. Confucius is said to have been born about the year 550 BC. It was a time of 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 Dao De Jing and the Zhuangzi recognized as the main texts.
Towards the end of the Tang Dynasty, 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 emperors promoted Daoism. Then Confucianism, Taoism and Buddhism was synthesized in what is called the Neo-Confucian school. During the Qing Dynasty, 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 was the first president of the Republic of China and 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 repressed 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 religion 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.