Taoism is regarded as the oldest of China's three religion-philosophies (Confucianism and Buddhism are the other two). Like Confucianism it emerged during the Age of Philosophers (See Confucianism and Chinese Philosophy) and is said to have been founded by a humble, legendary Chinese mystic named Lao-tze and given some structure by influential Taoist scholars such as the Taoist master Zhuangzi (Chuang Tzu). Some historians have argued that Taoism it a revival of religious thought dominant in the Shang Dynasty (1558 to 1102 B.C.).

Taoism has both a philosophical and a religious tradition in China. Although philosophical Taoism flourished early in the fifth century B.C., Taoism as a religion did not develop until the first century A.D. Next to Confucianism, it ranks as the second major belief system in traditional Chinese thought. The philosophy of Taoism outlined in the Lao-tzu's Tao Te Ching offers a practical way of life.

Dr. Robert Eno of Indiana University wrote: “When we speak of “Daoism” in the Classical period, we generally mean by the term the ideas of two rather mysterious texts that date from the Warring States era. They are the “Dao de jing” (Classic of the Way and of Virtue) by Laozi, and the works of the quirky recluse Zhuangzi, which appear in a book that takes his name as its title. Daoism appears to have begun as an escapist movement during the early Warring States period, and in some ways it makes sense to see it as an outgrowth of Confucianism and its doctrine of “timeliness.” That doctrine originated with Confucius’s motto: “When the Way (dao) prevails in the world, appear; when it does not, hide!” [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University indiana.edu /+/ ]

Birgitta Augustin of New York University wrote: “Indigenous to China, Daoism arose as a secular school of thought with a strong metaphysical foundation around 500 B.C., during a time when fundamental spiritual ideas were emerging in both the East and the West. Two core texts form the basis of Daoism: the Laozi and the Zhuangzi, attributed to the two eponymous masters, whose historical identity, like the circumstances surrounding the compilation of their texts, remains uncertain. The Laozi—also called the Daodejing, or Scripture of the Way and Virtue—has been understood as a set of instructions for virtuous rulership or for self-cultivation. It stresses the concept of nonaction or noninterference with the natural order of things. Dao, usually translated as the Way, may be understood as the path to achieving a state of enlightenment resulting in longevity or even immortality. But Dao, as something ineffable, shapeless, and conceived of as an infinite void, may also be understood as the unfathomable origin of the world and as the progenitor of the dualistic forces yin and yang. Yin, associated with shade, water, west, and the tiger, and yang, associated with light, fire, east, and the dragon, are the two alternating phases of cosmic energy; their dynamic balance brings cosmic harmony. [Source: Birgitta Augustin Institute of Fine Arts, New York University, Metropolitan Museum of Art metmuseum.org \^/]

Good Websites and Sources on Taoism: Robert Eno, Indiana University indiana.edu; Religion Facts Religion Facts Religious Tolerance religioustolerance.org ; Stanford Education plato.stanford.edu ; Taoist Texts Chinese Text Project ; Taoism chebucto.ns.ca ; Chad Hansen’s Chinese Philisophy hku.hk/philodep

Good Websites and Sources on Religion in China: Chinese Government White Paper on Religion china-embassy.org ; United States Commission on International Religious Freedom uscirf.gov/countries/china; Articles on Religion in China forum18.org ; Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; Council of Foreign Relations cfr.org ; Brooklyn College brooklyn.cuny.edu ; Religion Facts religionfacts.com; Religious Tolerance religioustolerance.org ; Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy stanford.edu ; Academic Info academicinfo.net ; Internet Guide to Chinese Studies sino.uni-heidelberg.de

Early History of Confucianism and Taoism

Confucius and Laozi

Dr. Robert Eno of Indiana University wrote: “Daoism appears to have begun as an escapist movement during the chaotic late Zhou, and in some ways it makes sense to see it as an outgrowth of Confucianism, which had preached a special doctrine called “timeliness,” that rationalized the urge to withdraw from the troubled society of the age. The doctrine of “timeliness” originated with Confucius’s motto: “When the Dao prevails in the world, appear; when it does not, hide!” [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University indiana.edu /+/ ]

“Confucianism ultimately became the most influential school of thought in China, and its basic ideas, much altered by the interpretations of later scholars and power holders, became the core of China’s official “state ideology.” Throughout the Imperial period of China, beginning with the second century B.C. and ending only in 1905, generation after generation of young and ambitious men competed for jobs and recognition by taking state-wide examinations that tested their grasp of Confucian principles. /+/

“Although Confucianism seemed to prevail as state ideology, its down-to-earth teachings, rather rigid ideas, and relentlessly idealistic moral goods often strained the patience of the very people who most endorsed Confucian points of view. In time, another intellectual tradition born during the chaos of the late Zhou Dynasty, Daoism, came to be highly influential as a type of counterbalance to Confucianism. The mainstream intellectual tradition of China’s educated elite may sometimes be pictured as a confluence of Confucian and Daoist tributaries. For this reason, it is important to explore the ideas of the original Daoist texts. There is another reason: they’re more fun. /+/

Hints of Taoism in the Confucian Analects

Dr. Eno wrote: “Even in the Confucian “Analects” , we see signs of a Confucian trend towards absolute withdrawal. The character and comportment of Confucius’s best disciple, Yan Yuan, who lived in obscurity in an impoverished lane yet “did not alter his joy,” suggest this early tendency towards eremitism (the “hermit” lifestyle). [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University indiana.edu /+/ ]

In Book 18 of the “Analects” , Confucius himself seems half drawn to this path of absolute social withdrawal: “In Chu there was a madman known as the Carriage Greeter who passed before the carriage of Confucius singing, “Phoenix! Phoenix! How your virtue has declined! Don’t preach about what is past; don’t race after what is yet to come. Be done! Be done! In this age, entanglements of state are perilous!”, Confucius climbed down wishing to speak with him, but the Carriage Greeter darted off. (Analects 18.5)

Chang Ju and Jie Ni were ploughing the fields in harness together. Confucius passed by and sent Zilu over to ask directions. “Who’s that holding the carriage reins?” asked Chang Ju.“That is Kong Qiu,” replied Zilu. “Kong Qiu of Lu?”, “Yes!” said Zilu. “Why, then,” said Chang Ju, “he knows where he can go!”, Zilu then asked Jie Ni. “And who are you?” asked Jie Ni. “I am Zhong You,” replied Zilu. “Are you the Zhong You who is a disciple of Kong Qiu of Lu?”, “I am,” said Zilu.

“Jie Ni said, “The world is inundated now. Who can change it? Would you not be better off joining those who have fled from the world altogether, instead of following someone who flees from this man to that one?” Then the two of them went on with their ploughing. Zilu returned to report to Confucius. The Master’s brow furrowed. “I cannot flock together with the birds and beasts!” he cried. “If I am not a fellow traveler with men such as these, then with whom? If only the Way prevailed in the world I would not have to try to change it!” (18.6)

Hermits and Early Taoism

Taoist immortal

Dr. Robert Eno of Indiana University wrote: “Righteous hermits were much admired in Classical China, and men who withdrew from society to live in poverty “in the cliffs and caves” paradoxically often enjoyed a type of celebrity status. The legend of Bo Yi and Shu Qi, the hermits who descended from their mountain retreat because of the righteousness of King Wen of Zhou, led to the popular idea of hermits as virtue-barometers – they rose to the mountains when power was in the hands of immoral rulers, but would come back down to society when a sage king finally appeared. Patrician lords very much valued visits from men with reputations as righteous hermits, and this probably created the opportunity for men to appear at court seeking patronage on the basis of their eremitic purity. [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University indiana.edu /+/ ]

“Possibly during the fourth century B.C., this eremitic tradition seems to have generated a complex of new ideas that included appreciation for the majestic rhythms of the natural world apart from human society, a celebration of the isolated individual whose lonely stance signaled a unique power of enlightenment, and a growing interest in the potential social and political leverage that such renunciation of social and political entanglements seemed to promise. The product that emerged from these trends is the “Dao de jing”, perhaps the most famous of all Chinese books.” /+/


Lao-tze (604 to 517 B.C.) is regarded by some as the founder of Taoism. It is not clear whether he was real person or not. Many think he was real. There are records of a Lao-tze who lived in central China and worked as an astrologer and librarian for a Zhou dynasty emperor at around the same time The Buddha was active. Lao-tze once reportedly met with Confucius and called him egotistical and overly proud. He is said to be the second most widely read poet in the world after Shakespeare.

Lao-tze means "grand old master" or "old philosopher" in Chinese. Many wise sayings’such as "a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step"---are attributed to him. Paintings of Lao-tze usually depict him as an old man with a long white hair and a long white beard, riding a water buffalo or ox with a scroll in his right hand.

Lao-tze was no pacifist nor some kind of ancient hippy. He was a philosopher of politics and war and like Confucius he lived at a time when war and political chaos were parts of everyday life. He argued politics is about rule, but if the social rule becomes too tyrannical, the domestic order plunges into chaos. On the other hand, order starts falling apart with minimal stress, so the wise ruler intervenes as soon as he sees the first cracks appearing - he does not wait. One warfare he argued that spirituality was more important than the strategic interpretation of yielding to greater force to find the right moment to strike or than the strategic idea that there is not one weapon - one technology, we would say now - to win all battles. One needs to adapt one's army to circumstances, the weather and the terrain. [Source: Asia Times, Francesco Sisci, Asia Editor of La Stampa, September 2, 2010]

Book: Laozi's Biography , a quasi novel by Yu Shicun

Lao-tze's Life and Death

baby Laozi

According to legend, Lao-tze was conceived by a shooting star and was born as a "Wise Old Philosopher" with white hair after being carried in his mother's womb for 81 years. During his life he fought evil, searched for the essence of life and taught a group of followers about Tao, "The Way" of the universe. . In his free time, he watched the moon, listened to water, contemplated the universe and rode a tiger. Many of the stories about him are like those told of Chinese folk deities.

In the state of Qin, where customs and manners are still not as corrupted as in the smaller and more ancient states of the central plain, the local people are struck by Laozi, a man with white hair but still with the face of a boy, untouched by the passing of time. They talk with him and then are sure that this man can help them to be great. [Source: Asia Times, Francesco Sisci, Asia Editor of La Stampa, September 2, 2010 /*\]

Laozi's influence was so strong that most officials turned to Lao-tze even without being disappointed by public politics. His Taoist ideas were the kernel of their deepest soul - a private religion and the one thing that gave them balance and connected them to nature, the cycle of life, and thus eternity. /*\

According to one rending the Lao-tze story, Lao-tze parted ways with Confucius, as they have different interests in the world and in their thinking. Lao-tze moves west from the great plains of central China to the borders of the Chinese civilization, and to the state of Qin, because “if the sun rises from the East, people came from the West”, reasons Laozi. /*\

A few years before his death Lao-tze climbed on a water buffalo and set off in the direction of what is now Tibet. On his journey he stopped at the mountain pass home of a gatekeeper, named Yin His, and in a single night wrote down De Jing ("The Way and its Power"), a short 5000-character synopsis of his beliefs.

After Lao-tze's reported death, miracles and stories of alchemy and divine healing powers were attributed to him. In one episode described in the Writings of Zhuangzi, Lao-tze went into a trance and took off on "cloud chariots...riding upon the wind" and saw "heaven and earth come into being with me together, and with me all things are one." He also saw all opposites blend, all contrasts harmonize and came to understand that "life and death are one, right and wrong are the same" and in response we can "do everything by doing nothing."

Early Taoist Thinkers and Schools of Thought

Taoism formally grew out religious ideas that were circulated at the academy of Chi-gate which was very active in the 4th century B.C. Among the thinkers that were active there were Tsou Yen, regarded as the creator of the Chinese “scientific” view of the universe based on yin and yang; Sung Hsing, Yin Wen and Yang Chu, who advocated a philosophy revolving around individual salvation; Mozi, the leader of the Mohism “universal love” school; and Yang Chu, who was so committed to living as long as possible and avoiding trouble he would not “pluck out a single hair even if it might have benefitted the whole world."

The thinking of Yang Chu was particularly influential. He drew on old physical theories, many based on idea of chi (qi, “breath”), regarded as the breath of all life. His aim was to collect “fine parts” associated with chi to prolong life and find happiness and elevated spirituality. A number of methods, including diet and consuming certain herbs, were developed to accumulate these “fine parts."

Around the same time the School of Lao-tze and Zhuangzi (Chuang Tzu, 369-280 B.C.) were exploring similar ideas. Scholars there developed the theory of Tao: 1) that the fundamental basis of all beings is based on a state of non-being rather than being; 2) that it was possible to avoid death through uniting oneself with the universal nothingness of Tao; and 3) the best way to do this was to empty oneself of desires and live like a hermit.



Zhuangzi (Chuang-tzu, “Master Zhuang”) was a late 4th century B.C. Daoist philosopher and is the pivotal figure in Classical Philosophical Daoism. According to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy: “The Zhuangzi is a compilation of his and others’ writings at the pinnacle of the philosophically subtle Classical period in China (5th–3rd century B.C.). The period was marked by humanist and naturalist reflections on normativity shaped by the metaphor of a dào—a social or a natural path. Traditional orthodoxy understood Zhuangzi as an anti-rational, credulous, follower of a mystical Laozi. Centuries later, elements of Zhuangzi's naturalism, helped shape Chan Buddhism (Japanese Zen)—a distinctively Chinese, naturalist blend of Daoism and Buddhism with its emphasis on focused engagement in our everyday ways of life." [Source: Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, December 17, 2014]

Christine Gross-Loh wrote in The Atlantic, Zhuangzi “taught that we should train ourselves to become “spontaneous” through daily living, rather than closing ourselves off through what we think of as rational decision-making. In the same way that one deliberately practices the piano in order to eventually play it effortlessly, through our everyday activities we train ourselves to become more open to experiences and phenomena so that eventually the right responses and decisions come spontaneously, without angst, from the heart-mind. [Source: Christine Gross-Loh, The Atlantic, October 8, 2013 /*\]

Chow Chung-yan wrote in the South China Morning Post, “While Confucius emphasises social virtues, harmonious order and hierarchy, Zhuangzi's works are far more existential and transcendental. His thinking is individual rather than collective, and his poetic writings have inspired generations of writers. In many ways, Zhuangzi is an artist philosopher in the same vein as Friedrich Nietzsche, deemed eccentric by the mainstream but loved by writers and artists. For millennia, Confucius was an honoured and revered sage, his teachings publicly embraced by emperors - who might not necessarily believe in them. Many rulers read Laozi for his ideas on the subtle interplay of opposite forces, although few would endorse his teachings in public. Zhuangzi's stress on individualism and transcendental freedom, however, made him a spiritual haven for intellectuals looking to escape omnipresent collectivism."Source: Chow Chung-yan, South China Morning Post, December 30, 2012]

Zhuangzi wrote: "Where there is impossibility, there is possibility; and where there is possibility, there is impossibility. It is because there is right, that there is wrong; it is because there is wrong, there is right. Thereupon the self is also the other; the other is also the self."

Taoism Catches on China

early 6th century relief of Laozi

Taoism caught on very quickly in China, in part because it told its followers how they could reach heaven and it explained man's place in the universe. Over time duties presided over by shaman were taken over by Taoist priests and Taoism merged with popular folk beliefs and became associated with beliefs in ghosts, demons, exorcism, faith healing, fortune telling and magic.

Taoism quickly strayed from many of the original teachings of Lao-tzu by "accumulating an elaborate array of gods and rituals." Some Taoist ideas were incorporated into Confucianism and Chinese Buddhism but at the time many Buddhists and Confucianists accused Taoists of practicing witchcraft and occultism.

During the Han dynasty (202 B.C. to A.D. 220) state sacrifices were made in Lao-tze's honor and Taoism developed on two levels: as a "philosophy of spontaneity and naturalism" and a folk religion that highlighted rituals and techniques for achieving of immortality. Taoism spread throughout China and became firmly established during the Six Dynasties Period (220-588 A.D.), when Taoist temples and abbeys dotted the Chinese countryside.

Taoism was a populist religion favored by the masses, while Confucianism was mainly popular with the upper classes. Taoism won converts away from Confucianism partly because Confucianism did not promise immortality or answer the great questions of the cosmos and Taoism did.

Taoism Verus Confucianism in Han Dynasty (221–206 B.C.)

Dr. Eno wrote: “The early Han emperors were careful to maintain the structure of religious symbolism that the First Emperor of the Qin had constructed to convey the exalted status of the emperor. Complex rituals of sacrifice and the maintenance of a widespread system of shrines, sustained by imperial funds, were characteristics of state religion that the Former Han emperors took most seriously. During the reign of Wen-di, considerable effort was expended on such shrines. But apart from these activities, the first Han emperors did not emulate the Qin example of designating a specific school of thought to represent state orthodoxy. [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University indiana.edu /+/ ]

“During Wen-di’s time, two sharply contrasting ideological tendencies developed at court. The first of these owed a great deal to Wen-di’s principal consort, the Empress Dou (another formidable female figure in early Han politics). Empress Dou was devoted to the texts of Daoism. We are not quite sure what the term “Daoism” denoted at this time, but it is recorded that among the texts she most treasured was the “Dao de jing”. The empress sponsored Daoism strongly at court, and insisted that her eldest son, the future emperor, study it. In the form that Daoism took at this time, the ideology was generally referred to as the “Huang-Lao School,” with the word Huang denoting the name of the Yellow Emperor, who was bracketed with Laozi. Twenty years ago, archaeologists excavated from an early Han grave a set of texts that included among them the “Dao de jing”. Others of the texts spun doctrines around the figure of the Yellow Emperor, and we now presume that the full corpus of texts such as these comprised the basis of Huang-Lao ideology. /+/

“Huang-Lao ideology seems to have advocated an extreme form of laissez-faire administration, in combination with a regular pattern of government actions or regulations that was conceived as harmonizing with the rhythms of nature. This minimalist program dominated Wen-di’s court and that of his son, Jing-di, who was under the sway of his mother. Huang-Lao combined in certain ways with Legalism, a relationship we saw earlier in the doctrines of the “Han Feizi”, and it is recorded that the ministers who rose to power during the reigns of Wen-di and Jing-di were generally Huang-Lao or Legalist adepts. /+/

“But Wen-di also was the first Han emperor to patronize Confucian studies. During the reign of Wen-di, Confucian membership among the Erudites increased, and included men selected for their mastery of certain texts that Confucianism had come to hold most sacred, known as “classics.” Some of these Confucian “classics” had become extremely difficult to obtain because of the prohibition on them that had been in force between 213 and 191 B.C. Wen-di endorsed vigorous efforts to recover these lost texts and even sent one of his highest ministers to travel to Shandong to recover the “Book of Documents” from the memory of an aged Confucian scholar. We will discuss further the rise of Confucianism during the early Han in a separate section. /+/

“In sum, during the reign of Wen-di, forms of Daoism and Confucianism both thrived at court. Between the two, Daoism was clearly in the dominant position, and would become even more so during the two decades following Wen-di’s death. However, as some thinker once said, “Reversal is the motion of the Dao” – the Dao will bring down the mighty and raise the lowly. This was to be the case with Daoism and Confucianism at the Han court.” /+/

Confucius and Laozi

Later History of Taoism

Threatened by competition from Buddhism, beginning around the A.D. 3rd century, Taoism underwent a reformist movement in which it became more organized and some of its most outlandish beliefs and rituals were toned down. Moral conduct was pushed as the primary means of obtaining immortality; people who practiced esoteric rituals and diets were encouraged to do so in secret; and Buddha was declared a Taoist saint. Crude ritual and esoteric beliefs persisted however despite the best efforts to reduce their importance.

Birgitta Augustin of New York University wrote: ““Over time, Daoism developed into an organized religion—largely in response to the institutional structure of Buddhism—with an ever-growing canon of texts and pantheon of gods, and a significant number of schools with often distinctly different ideas and approaches. At times, some of these schools were also politically active. Along with Buddhism, Daoism today is one of the two dominant religions in the Chinese-speaking world. Although the attainment of immortality appears to be a rather esoteric and challenging objective, Daoism, with its popular and cultic elements, continues to provide practical guidance through codes of behavior and physical regimens, as well as talismans and ritual services that help regulate the everyday life of its many followers. [Source: Birgitta Augustin Institute of Fine Arts, New York University, Metropolitan Museum of Art metmuseum.org \^/]

“By the twelfth century, Daoism, Confucianism, and Buddhism—known as the three doctrines—were seen as mutually complementary, although at times they competed for influence at court. Indeed, from that time forward, the pantheons of these doctrines often overlapped and their rituals, architecture, and art appeared similar, often as a consequence of commissioning the same artisans to create images and edifices." \^/

Taoism and the State

Few Chinese emperors embraced Taoism. There were few Taoists in the imperial court other than fortunetellers and astrologers who chose auspicious days. According to Taoist political theory the Emperor was to abstain from all governmental affair and devote his time to meditation and purification in order to bring about unification with Tao while the country was governed by a wise old Prime Minister well versed in the ways of Tao.

There was a Taoist state between the Chinese provinces of Shaanxi and Sichuan that lasted from A.D. 188 to 215. Among its features were free hostelries, where travelers could eat for free, and mild punishments for crimes (in some cases a crime could be repeated three times before any action was taken, and often then the only punishment was to repair a 100-meter-long section of road).

After the state collapsed a tradition of hereditary leaders carried on and founded a refuge in A.D. 1016 on Dragon and Tiger Mountains in Jiangsu, where followers performed crude rituals such as rolling in the mud, smearing their faces with dirt and having group sex. The refuge carried on until 1930 when the Red Army broke all of the hats the “Celestial Master” used to imprison evil spirits.

Three Brothers during the Yellow Turban Rebellion

Taoist Rebellions

Within Taoism a number of cults arose. Some of these were linked to political insurrections such as the Yellow Turban rebellion of the A.D. 2nd century and Taping rebellion of the 18th century. The fall of the first Sung dynasty was precipitated by a rebellion of Taoists responding to a crackdown on some of their esoteric rituals.

The Yellow Turban rebellion occurred at time when there was a great deal of discontent and economic hardship. The movement was led one Chang Chio, who encouraged his followers to wear yellow robes and yellow turbans and told them if the current government was overthrown the present “Blue Heaven” period would be replaced by a “Yellow Heaven” period beginning in A.D. 184.

Yellow Turban followers were given a kind of baptism in which they confessed their sins and consumed a drink of water blessed with ashes from a charm, after which they were told they were protected from any kind of harm. Provided with information from a traitor, the movement was brutally put down by the government in A.D. 183, Chang Chio died before 184 but the rebellion carried on for another 20 years.

In the 20th century many of the influential secret societies that were active in the period of warlordism were Taoist in origin. Some were quite corrupt and were linked with brutal warlords and gangsters. Chiang Ka shek was associated with some of them. One of the first things that Mao did when he came to power was exterminate these groups the best he could. The remnants of some of them made their way to Taiwan.

Rebirth of Taoism in Recent Times

Taoism was banned by the Communists in 1949. Under Communist rule, Taoist temples were viciously ransacked and persecution reduced the number of practicing Taoists to virtually zero. Temples were used as government offices, schools and dormitories.

It is hard to gauge the number of practicing Taoist today because Taoism is a personalized religion and philosophy that does not require attendance at formalized meetings or temples. At Taoist temples, tourists and seekers of fortunes and good luck often outnumber true Taoists by a large margin.

Ian Johnson wrote in the New York Review of Books, “During the Mao years many of Daoism's traditions, such as fortune telling, geomancy, possession by spirits, and popular rituals, were banned as superstitious. But it's been making a limited comeback. Although still dwarfed by Buddhism, as well as newer religions, like Christianity, the number of Daoist temples has at least tripled over the past fifteen years, according to official figures. Priests and nuns who run the temples provide services to pilgrims and go out into the community to consecrate homes or businesses, and perform funerals. Others spread Daoist ideas through martial arts, such as Tai Chi, or medicine---two disciplines rooted in Daoism. [Source: Ian Johnson, New York Review of Books, November 10 2011]

20080221-1009_hongmensecretsocieity columb.jpg
19th century Taoist secret society

One reason authorities are now embracing Daoism as a source of moral guidance is that, in contrast to Christianity---which sometimes runs afoul of authorities “Daoism is widely seen as an unthreatening, indigenous religion. That's true of Buddhism as well, which was founded in today's India but took root in China 2,000 years ago. But Buddhism has long had a cadre of devoted, missionizing monks and nuns who try to spread the word, whereas Daoism is sometimes hard to crack---you often have to earn a Daoist master's trust and respect before he or she will take you on as a disciple. Moreover there's no Daoist Gideons International, dropping the Daodejing in Chinese hotels. And then, of course, Daoism can be seen as the original tune-in-turn-on-drop-out religion; many Daoist luminaries have preferred a life of contemplation to pursuit of earthly power.

Taoism's Uneasy Existence with the Chinese Communist Government

Ian Johnson wrote in the New York Review of Books, “Back in the 1980s and 1990s, government officials widely saw Daoism as the most “backward religion” practices like palm reading or fengshui were routinely condemned as “feudal superstition." But faced with the rising popularity of foreign religions, especially Christianity, the government is beginning to endorse Daoism , too." [Source: Ian Johnson, NY Review of Books, January 13, 2012]

Ian Johnson wrote in the New York Review of Books, “The Daodejing, says a lot about ruling, and one translation of that work's title is “The Way and its Power." Certainly, the text can be read profitably by authoritarians; (translations from Lao-tzu's Taoteching, Copper Canyon Press, 2009): the rule of the sage empties the mind but fills the belly/ Then again there are other verses that might well trouble a government trying to fight a perception that it is corrupt:/ The reason people are hungry is that those above levy so many taxes / or: the reason people are hard to rule is that those above are so forceful. [Source: Ian Johnson, New York Review of Books, November 10 2011]

Another part of Daoism that isn't so easy for the government to swallow is that it has become a world religion, one that a government can't easily control. Four months ago, for example, a very different international conference on Daoism had been held at exactly the same location---a conference that the government was far from excited about. Organized by Chinese and international scholars and practitioners, the conference did not have as much high-level support but it reflects something potentially more powerful: an explosion of popular interest into Daoism and Chinese religion. The authorities not only shunned it but put up roadblocks. It was almost canceled at the last moment and was eventually curtailed from five to three days, with many panels cut or abbreviated.

I attended that conference, which focused on the role of women in Daoism, commercialism of its temples and other issues facing the religion, and observed the discomfort of Chinese officials as the organizers announced that next year's conference was going to be held at a German lakeside resort. One official later said to me that it should be up to the Chinese government, not a non-government organization of scholars, to determine when an important Daoist conference should be held. He was also skeptical of many of those who came, some of whom were practicing Daoists or martial artists---who were these people? Many weren't even Chinese!

Tellingly, none of the participants from June---and very few foreign scholars save Mr. Palmer---took part in the recent government-sponsored conference. It wasn't posted on scholarly websites and was treated by Beijing as something that didn't really concern the outside world.

But the more China's leaders try to use religion for their own purposes, the more difficult it may be to have an actual effect on perceived problems like society's moral decline. Despite the rebuilding of temples, religious life is still tightly limited. Many practitioners do find a deeper moral answer in the teachings of Daoism and other religions. I have seen volunteers at Daoist temples provide food for the poor or engage in disaster relief. The teachings of compassion and unity with nature also make sense in a country that has pursued economic gain at the expense of charity and concern for the environment.

Taoist ceremony in Guangdong

But religion is still fighting an uphill battle. The recent conference gave Daoism an unprecedented amount of media attention, but most of the time religious life is completely absent from Chinese television or other media outlets. Then again, as the Daodejing makes clear, human endeavors often miss the point: Thirty spokes converge on a hub but it's the emptiness that makes a wheel work

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons,

Text Sources: Robert Eno, Indiana University indiana.edu /+/ ; Asia for Educators, Columbia University afe.easia.columbia.edu <|>; University of Washington’s Visual Sourcebook of Chinese Civilization, depts.washington.edu/chinaciv /=\; National Palace Museum, Taipei npm.gov.tw \=/; Library of Congress; New York Times; Washington Post; Los Angeles Times; China National Tourist Office (CNTO); Xinhua; China.org; China Daily; Japan News; Times of London; National Geographic; The New Yorker; Time; Newsweek; Reuters; Associated Press; Lonely Planet Guides; Compton’s Encyclopedia; Smithsonian magazine; The Guardian; Yomiuri Shimbun; AFP; Wikipedia; BBC. Many sources are cited at the end of the facts for which they are used.

Last updated September 2016

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