An Encyclopaedia on Chinese History and Literature

Religious Daoism

Aug 10, 2017 © Ulrich Theobald

Daoism (daojiao 道教) (traditionally written Taoism) is a native religion of China whose beliefs circulate around the "Way" (dao 道) as the natural and highest principle dominating all elements and beings in the universe.

The religion emerged from popular religions in the many regions of China and therefore includes the veneration of natural spirits, deities and "immortals" (xian 仙, shenxian 神仙), as well as a large amount of various religious practices and ritual methods.

Another result of the diversity of the many sources of Daoism can be seen in the difference between the cults of Daoism as a state religion (emerging in the 5th and 6th centuries CE) and the many aspects of individual rites and rituals. These reach from chanting certain texts, accompanied with music, to breathing techniques, meditation, the circulation of qi 氣 ("breath", "vital energy", traditionally written ch'i) and concentration of jing 精 ("essence") – inner alchemy (neidan 内丹), to fasting rituals, the consumption of certain herbs and minerals – outer alchemy (waidan 外丹), and keeping to certain moral standards (de 德).

The Daoist pantheon includes deities which were personifications of abstract principles (like the Sanqing 三清 "Three Pures"), protective deities (like Hufa sisheng 護法四聖 "Four Saints Protecting the Standards", or Wenshen 瘟神, the God of Pestilence), astral deities (like the Beidou qixing jun 北斗七星君 "Lord of the Seven Stars of the Northern Dipper", or Taisui 太歲, Planet Jupiter), immortals and saints (like the Xiwangmu 西王母, Queen Mother of the West" or Chisongzi 赤松子, Master Red Pine), but also local deities (like the chenghuang 城隍, the city gods, or the fisher goddess Mazu 媽祖 of Fujian), inventor deities (like Leizu 嫘祖, the Goddess of Silk) and patrons, or deified historical persons (like Guan Gong 關公 or Yue Fei 岳飛).

The concept of the Way goes back to a philosophical school, the Daoists (daojia 道家), represented in the books Daodejing 道德經, allegedly written by Laozi 老子, and Zhuangzi 莊子, according to legend compiled by Zhuang Zhou 莊周. According to the Daodejing, the Way was a mysterious principle secretly steering the world. Master Zhuang therefore recommended to give up active search for it, to regard things from different viewpoints, and to make oneself free from worldly desires, like fame and fortune. The book Zhuangzi also shows traces of shamanic practices popular in southern China. These would enable practitioners to ride the coulds, travel a thousand miles in one hour, and to obtain immortality. This could be achieved by self-cultivation and certain mental and physical exercises (xiulian 修煉).

During the late Warring States 戰國 (5th cent.-221 BCE) and Han 漢 (206 BCE-220 CE) periods, Daoism was prevalent in the so-called Huang-Lao Thought 黄老 popular in the levels of society. According to this belief, the ruler was so much embedded in the universe that he had to comply with the natural Way by acting in accordance with it (wuwei 無為 "non-acting"). Even if Confucianism was the state doctrine of the Han dynasty, Daoist writings occupied important positions, and the mythological figure of Laozi was gradually elevated to a kind of deity.

In the Later Han period 後漢 (25-220 CE), the Daoist practice of healing by exorcist and shamanic rituals became popular. The Celestial Masters (tianshi 天師) even created their own independent states and challenged the rule of the Han dynasty. During the age of division of the Southern and Northern dynasties 南北朝 (300~600), when Confucianism lost its preeminent position among the nobility, Buddhism and Daoism competed to win over the imperial courts and the nobility.

Daoism thus transformed from a simple belief in the power of healing into a higher religion with an intricate liturgy. Several schools emerged under the guidance of important patriarchs. Some dynasties sponsered both Buddhist monasteries (siyuan 寺院) and Daoist temples (daoguan 道觀) and instrumentalized both religions for their purposes. Nonetheless, popular Daoist movements continued to explode in rebellions against the ruling dynasty.

In order to optimize competitiveness, Daoist masters compiled a huge amount of scriptures and writings dealing with a wide range of aspects, and including treatises, biographies, legends, ritual precepts, medical repices, alchemical formulas astronomical texts and philosophical deliberations. These were later assembled in the Daoist Canon (Daozang 道藏).

This chapter of the encyclopaedia presents an overview to the history of Daoism, explains the history, teachings and beliefs of the most important Daoist schools and traditions, describes the deities in the Daoist pantheon and popular deities, presents biographies of eminent Daoist masters and teachers, gives detailed information on Daoist beliefs and concepts, the understanding of Daoist practice and Liturgy, and makes available a bibliography of selected Daoist Writings.