Elacqua, Joseph, et. al. "Daoism Overview." Faithology.com. Faithology, 6 March 2013. Web. 30 July 2014.

Elacqua, J., et. al. (2013, Mar 6). Daoism Overview. Faithology. Retrieved from http://faithology.com/daoism/overview

Elacqua, Joseph, et. al"Daoism Overview" Faithology, LLC. Last modified March 6, 2013. http://faithology.com/daoism/overview

Elacqua, Joseph, et. alDaoism Overview. Faithology, LLC, 2012. http://faithology.com/daoism/overview (Accessed Jul 30, 2014).

    • Last Updated: March 6, 2013
    • Originally Published: July 18, 2012
    • Daoism Overview


    Daoism is one of the largest religions native to China. Daoism’s earliest roots trace to a philosophical text called the Daode Jing 道德經, composed around the 4th century BCE. This text, attributed to a man called Laozi 老子,3The name Lǎozǐ translates literally to "old master." It is thus uncertain whether the name Lǎozǐ signifies an actual name or a title. advocated following the natural order of things. A frequently used metaphor is that Daoists should act like a stream when a large rock is dropped into it. The stream will not stop flowing, but instead, it will flow around the obstacle and resumes its natural course. Similarly, Daoist philosophy generally advocates following the path of least resistance.


    A huge statue of Laozi in Fujian, China

    Daoism was not transformed into an organized religion until the establishment of a group known as Tianshi Dao 天師道 during the 2nd century CE. It is difficult to estimate how many practicing Daoists there are in the world because many do not necessarily label themselves as Daoist.5This is because many traditional Chinese arts and practices were later incorporated into Daoism. Due to the lack of exclusivity prevalent in Chinese religions, many are allowed to practice Daoist arts without belonging to any Daoist sect.

    Daoist Beliefs

    • Deities: Although the supreme deities of individual sects often differ, they are each seen as manifestations of the eternal Dao, the supreme cosmic principle of balance and unity. If not exalted as the supreme deity himself, Laozi himself often appears among the highest deities.
    • Sacred Texts: Although important scriptures vary from sect to sect, each sect of Daoism reveres the Daode Jing and understands its importance in Daoist history.
    • Ritual: Daoist ritual is often elaborate, relying on a selection of ritual implements. Often, these include a sword, talismans inscribed on paper, and other similar sacred devices.
    • Afterlife and cosmic beings: Influenced by Buddhism, Daoist sects often believe in varying numbers of heavens and hells, each containing their own hosts of deities, demons, and other spirits.
    • Immortality: Many Daoist sects place an emphasis on either becoming a divine immortal or worship of these immortals. Becoming an immortal is often achieved through Daoist practices of internal or external alchemy.

    Daoist Timeline

    • Daoism originally existed as a philosophy that advocated following the natural order of things. It began around the 4th century CE.
    • During the 2nd century CE, Zhang Daoling (34-156) systematized Daoist thought into an actual religion. His sect was called the Tianshi Dao, or the Way of the Celestial Masters.
    • As the popularity of Buddhism increased in China, it became important to separate Chinese native beliefs from Buddhist ones. Thus, Chinese folk religion and early Chinese philosophy were incorporated into Daoism.
    • From the fifth century forward, Daoist texts were occasionally systematized and collected into a scriptural compilation commonly referred to as the Daozang.

    Daoism of Taoism: Issues of Romanization

    There are two common systems for romanizing Chinese sounds. According to the older system, called Wade-Giles, the character 道 is written “tao,” even though the sound of the English “T” does not appear in this word. This system was used for scholars for many years in England and in the United States. During the 1950s, a more modern Chinese romanization system, called Hanyu Pinyin 漢語拼音 (Chinese, “Chinese Spelled Sounds”) was created. In 1982, it was designated the international standard for Chinese romanization.

    Under this system—widely acknowledged to be more phonetically accurate—the character 道 is written “dao,” just as it is spoken. Despite the international standardization of Hanyu Pinyin, older English-speaking scholars schooled under the Wade-Giles system still use it in their publications today.

    Due to the increased phonetic accuracy of the Hanyu Pinyin system, all Chinese romanizations on the Faithology website will be written in accordance with this system. Standard Mandarin tone marks have also been included for the ease of the reader.

    The Creation of "Daoism"

    Originally, religions in China were non-exclusive. This meant that one person could easily practice aspects of Chinese folk religion and aspects of Daoism with no issue.8The same holds true today with these two religions. Buddhism was the first religion in China that was originally exclusive.

    As Buddhism began to grow more and more popular in China, adherents of other Chinese folk religions were forced to define themselves as exclusively non-Buddhist. As a result, various non-Buddhist practices indigenous to China were incorporated into organized Daoism. This synthesis included mystical folk beliefs such as:

    • Early alchemical9In the west, alchemy is a pseudoscience that generally refers to two practices: the transformation base metals into gold, and the invention of a mixture that can cure all diseases and make humans immortal. The derivation of the Arabic "al-kīmīā" is contested. The majority theory is that “kīmīā” refers to the ancient Egyptian name for Egypt, khem, meaning "black earth." Thus, "alchemy" may actually mean "the Egyptian art." traditions:
      • The Chinese alchemical tradition is focused primarily on making the human body immortal. It is divided into two types: external and internal. External alchemy is practiced by the ingestion of herbs or mixtures in an attempt to become immortal Oppositely, internal alchemy focuses on the cultivation of energy without external sources. Often, this includes special breathing and meditation techniques.
    • Early philosophical beliefs, found in texts such as the Daode Jing:
      • Laozi is often cited as the founder of this ideology. However, the Daode Jing is not the only text in this group. The Zhuangzi, named for its author, Zhuangzi, was composed during the 4th century BCE in China. Its philosophy echoes that of the Daode Jing and continues the legacy began by Laozi.
    • Fangshi 方士 ideologies:
      • The fangshi were a group of magician-scientists who aided and advised early emperors in many ways. They frequently practiced divination, fortune telling, and other occult13In this context, the term “occult” is defined as “not easily apprehended or understood.” [http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/occult] techniques. They were seen as the bearers of mystical knowledge.
    • Esoteric beliefs found in Han apocryphal texts:
      • Central to early Chinese history were a group of texts called the Five Classics.15These texts are described in further detail under the section on Confucianism. Over time, an apocryphal textual tradition emerged. These apocryphal texts interpreted the contents of the Five Classics in esoteric and mystical ways.
    • Huang-Lao 黃老 ideology
      • Huang-Lao was an early religious ideology that emphasized the teachings of two major historical personages. One was Laozi, the purported author of the Daode Jing. The second was the Yellow Emperor, a legendary emperor who was believed to be the progenitor of Chinese culture and society. Both were worshipped as deities by Huang-Lao adherents.
    • Xian 仙 ideology
      • In addition to deities and demons, the Chinese also believed in a group of immortal beings called xian. These immortals were often thought to have attained mystical powers and immortality, often by living atop sacred mountains. This ideology ties in with the Chinese alchemical tradition, which provided a means by which mortals could attempt to become xian.
    • Yin-Yang 陰陽 and Five Phases philosophies:
      • Yin-Yang and the Five Phases are two major ideologies used to describe nearly any type of natural phenomena. Such phenomena are frequently classified in terms of yin and yang or in terms of the Five Phases. The correlation of natural phenomena with these ideologies helped to better explain them to the ancient Chinese.
        • Yin-Yang theory holds that many things can be divided into two complementary opposites. Like two sides of the coin, one cannot exist without the other. Anything easily divisible into two (for example, day and night, white and black, and the like) is often classified in terms of yin and yang.
        • Anything easily divisible by five is often classified in terms of the Five Phases.20The Five Phases are Earth , Fire , Water , Wood , and Metal They are called “phases” rather than “elements” because they are dynamic and were believed to transform into each other just as yīn and yáng did. For example, the five senses, the five tastes, and the five directions (including the center) are all classified in this manner.
    • Yijing 易經21Westerners often know this text as the "I Ching." This spelling is from the older Wade-Giles romanization system. and other various divination techniques
      • The Yijing, one of the "Five Classics," is a mysterious text that describes a practice of divination native to the Chinese mainland. This practice involved the casting of milfoil stalks and interpreting the result based on the text in the book. The interpretations are based on a series of sixty-four symbols called hexagrams22 Each hexagram is composed of six horizontal lines stacked upon each other. Each line can either be solid or broken The sixty-four hexagrams include every possible variation of these lines. that appear within the text.