What is the Daoist Religion?

Taoism is the traditional religion of China. In general, it is believed that Taoist organizations were formally established 1,900 years ago by Celestial Master Zhang Daoling during the reign (AD 126-144) of Emperor Shundi of the Eastern Han Dynasty. However, the original sources of Taoist doctrines can be traced back to the Pre-Qin period (4000-221BC).

Photo Courtesy of Ken McCray


The ideological system of Taoism covers a wide range of contents. It has evolved into a religious culture based on ancient religious beliefs in China around the worship of heaven and ancestors, as well as Taoist theories and beliefs regarding immortality that arose during the Spring and Autumn, and the Warring States Periods. It has also absorbed ethical ideas from Confucianism and folk religious customs.

The core of Taoism is Tao (the Way), which is beyond description. It is said that Tao is the origin of the universe, the basis of all existing things, the law governing their development and change. The concept of Virtue (Te) is closely related to Tao. The Tao Te Ching says, “All respect Tao yet value Virtue.”

Taoists regard Tao and Virtue as the general principles of their beliefs and behavior. They should not only cultivate Tao but also accumulate Virtue. Therefore, both Tao and Virtue serve as the basis of the Taoist doctrines. Derived from the foundation of Tao and Virtue are a whole set of principles, including non-action, non-attachment from emotions, non-struggle, and the pursuit of simplicity and truth as well as the joy of living.

Taoists believe in Tao as well as in deities and immortals. “Gods” in Taoism refer to the Celestial Worthy of Primordial Beginning, the Celestial Worthy of Numinous Treasure and the Celestial Worthy of the Way and Its Virtue, the Jade Emperor and the Great Emperor of Zhen Wu, who were born before heaven and earth separated; while “immortals” refer to humans who were born after heaven and earth separated and transformed into deities, becoming immortals through cultivating Tao. From the Taoist perspective, both gods and immortals are symbols of Tao.

There exists a hierarchy of gods and immortals in Taoism. At the top of the hierarchy are the gods of the highest ranks the Celestial Worthy of Primordial Beginning, the Celestial Worthy of Numinous Treasure and the Celestial Worthy of the Way and Its Virtue, who are the embodiment of Tao or the Tao itself. Below them are the gods of the lower ranks, who are entrusted with responsibilities according to their attainments in Tao and Virtue. The highest among them is the Jade Emperor, followed by the four major deities and other celestial beings. The Jade Emperor is the highest ruler of the universe. Different deities and immortals have different responsibilities.

The highest ideal of a Taoist is to acquire immortality. To achieve this goal, one must practice Taoism both inside and outside one's physical existence. Inner practice involves physical and breathing exercises, concentrated contemplation, and refining the internal elixir (neidan). The basic principle of this practice is still to cultivate the self both spiritually and physically. External practice involves doing good deeds and helping others. If one succeeds in both aspects, one could become immortal

Taoist doctrines are referred to as Taoist scriptures. There were different kinds of Taoist scriptures compiled at different moments in history, all under the title of the Taoist Canon (Daozang). The earliest Taoist Canon appeared during the Tang Dynasty, followed by other editions compiled during the Song, Jin, Yuan and Ming dynasties. Extant today are two editions respectively compiled during the reign of Zhengtong and the reign of Wangli of the Ming Dynasty, hence the names: Zhengtong Taoist Canon and Wanli Supplementary Taoist Canon.

The Tao Te Ching by Laozi is Taoism's principal and most important canon. Other canons include Book of Secret Revelations, Book of Purity and Quietness, Book of the Lower Elixir Field, Book of Divine Deliverance and Can Tong Qi.

Many schools of Taoism were formed throughout history. During the Han Dynasty, there arose Tianshi and Taiping Taoism; during the Wei and Jin Period, there were the Shangqing, Lingbao and the Sanhuang Sects; the Song, Jin and Yuan dynasties saw different sects including Quanzhen, Taiyi, Zhenda, and Jinming. The two most prominent sects today are the Zhengyi Sect (evolved from Tianshi) and Quanzhen (founded by Wang Chongyang). Today's followers belong to either of these two sects. The Zhengyi Sect is popular mainly in Jiangxi, Jiangsu, Shanghai and Fujian provinces, while Quanzhen flourishes in other parts of China. There is no difference in basic beliefs between the two sects, with the only differences lying in their norms and regulations. Quanzhen, for example, requires its monastic followers to be vegetarian, remain celibate and live in temples, while the Zhengyi Sect has no such regulations.

Sites for Taoist activities are called Taoist temples (guan). Monastic Taoists live in temples, practicing Tao and conducting sacred rites. Ordinary believers frequent these places to burn joss sticks and worship the gods. These temples are open to visitors, too. On the birthdays of the main gods and immortals, grand services are held, attracting a steady flow of people who come to offer incense sticks and to pray for blessings. Some temples also sponsor fairs, which bring together the worshiping of gods with recreational and trading activities, to produce lively festivities.

Today, as one of the five major religions (Taoism, Buddhism, Islam, Protestantism, and Roman Catholicism) in China, Taoism has a great number of followers. There are more than 1,600 temples and more than 25,000 Taoist priests of the Quanzhen and Zhengyi Sects. The number of ordinary believers is almost impossible to assess.

Tim Bruewer