Daoism is a religion with a many different traditions of which none occupied the position of an orthodox confession. "Daoism" (daojiao 道教) is thus a collective designation for many different religious traditions.
The earliest Daoist school emerged during the Later Han period 後漢 (25-220 CE), when the policital centre lost its grip on the provinces. It was especially the northern region of Shu 蜀, the modern province of Sichuan, where numerous religious movements blossomed. The leaders of these movements were healers that promised their followers the liberation from diseases if the believers repented their sins, underwent a series of exorcist sessions and ingested charms dissolved in water. The two earliest movements were the Way of the Five Pecks of Grain (Wudoumi dao 五斗米道), called so because their leaders, the Heavenly Masters (tianshi 天師), levied a certain tax from their believers in the shape of millet or rice, and the Way of the Great Peace (Taiping dao 太平道).
Under the Eastern Jin 東晉 (317-420) and the Southern Dynasties 南朝 (420~589), several branches of these schools emerged, as well as independent traditions. Such were the School of Highest Clarity (Shangqing pai 上清派), the School of the Numinous Treasure (Lingbao pai 靈寳派), or the School of the Watchout Tower (Louguan pai 樓觀派 or Louguandao 樓觀道).
During periods of division, different schools prevailed in southern and northern China. New schools emerged in northern China during the Jurchen-Jin period 金 (1115-1234), like the Quanzhen dao 全真道, Zhenda dao 真大道 and Taiyi dao 太一道. At the same time, the schools of Tianxin pai 天心派, Shenxiao pai 神霄派, Qingwei pai 清微派, Honghua pai 東華派 and Jingming dao 淨明道 were created in the Southern Song empire 南宋 (1127-1279).
The 12th and 13th centuries were the time during which several new schools came into being. The reason for their emergence are to be seen in changes in society, economy and politics. Under certain conditions, several small branches were united to one large school, and sometimes, side schools branched out of the greater lines of traditions. Daoism was never a unified religion, even in times when Daoism as a religion was patronized by the emperors.
All these schools and traditions stressed different core aspects of ritus, ceremonial, liturgy and individual cultivation, yet there are also many common features in belief and religious practice. It might be that religious devotion was instigated in times of economic hardship and physical suffering, like at the end of the Later Han period, when the weak central government was unable to control the administration of the provinces. Similary, political turmoils like under the Eastern Jin dynasty might have boosted the mushrooming of Daoist as well as Buddhist communities as a refuge from worldly sorrows. The three great northern schools under the Jurchen-Jin likewise arose when China was politically divided and the north also needed regular "churches" of Daoism.
The masters of the early Daoist schools derived their authority from writings that were said to have been handed down from Heaven or preached by an immortal appearing to the Daoist master. Zhang Jiao 張角, for instance, founder of the Taiping School, alleged that the large book Taiping qingling shu 太平青領書 (short Taipingjing 太平經) had been given or preached to him by a "deity" (shen 神) or "immortal" (xian 仙) on the banks of a creek near Quyang 曲陽, Sichuan. Zhang Ling 張陵, founder of the Five-Pecks-of-Grain School, reported to have been instructed by the Daoist "Saint" Laozi (Taishang laojun 太上老君) on Mt. Heming 鶴鳴山. The main writing of the Shangqing School was received by Yang Xi 楊羲 and Xu Mi 許謐 from the hands of a certain Lady Wei 魏夫人 and a group of immortals (zhuxian 諸仙). Ge Chaofu 葛巢甫 was presented the scripture Lingbaojing 靈寳經 by the deity Yuanshi tianzun 元始天尊. These writings were in many cases the origin of the schools' names.
Accidental discovery of texts remained a main feature of the foundation of Daoist schools. Rao Dongtian 饒洞天 excavated the book Tianxinjing zhengfa 天心經正法 that became the basic text of the Tianxin School 天心派. The Shenxiao School 神霄派 is based on the book Shenxiao tiantan yushu 神霄天壇玉書 that was given to is founders Wang Wenqing 王文卿 and Lin Lingsu 林靈素 by the hands of Wang Jun Shuoshi 汪君火師 and Zhao Sheng 趙升 who both descenced from Heaven. Laozi in person preached the book Daodejing 道德經 to Liu Deyu 劉德仁, founder of the Zhenda School 真大道. Four writings, namely the Feixian duren jing 飛仙度人經 (short Durenjing 度人經), Jingming zhongxiao dafa 淨明忠孝大法, Zhonghuang dadao 中黄大道 and Baji zhenquan 八極真詮, were given to He Zhengong 何真公 and Liu Yuxiang 劉玉相 by the hands of the immortal Xu Xun 許遜. The two persons founded the Jingming School 淨明道. And finally, the founders of the Quanzhen School believed that they were personally instructed in the skills of inner alchemy (neidan 内丹) by the immortal Wang Zhe 王喆.
While these schools are named according to the core writing used by them, others bear the name of their temples, like the Louguan School 樓觀道, the Longhu Church 龍虎宗, the Laoshan Church 茅山宗, the Gezao Church 閣皂宗, or the later the Longmen School 龍門派.
The names of a few schools express a central concept of their dogma, like the "thorough perfectness" (quanzhen 全真) of the Quanzhen School, or the "great unity" (taiyi 太一) of the Taiyi School. The Sanfeng School 三豐派 and the Sazu School 薩祖派 are named according to their founding patriarchs.
All of these schools have common dogmas that allow to see them as various forms of the same religion. This is foremost the concept of the universal "Way" (dao 道) as described in the book Daodejing. If the believer has found this Way, he or she will be able to become an immortal (xian), which is the highest aim of each adherent. The "Way" is often purely seen as the worldview of the philosophical "school of Daoists" (daojia 道家).
Finding the Way was a kind of liberation from the bondages of society and the self and so the expression of individualism, relativism, quietism and even agnosticism. The Daoist philosopher tried going back to the roots of nature, where the Dao was seemingly easiest to find. When Daoism became a religion during the Han period, the "Way" was given more a physical than a mental meaning, with health, longevity and even immortality as the most important aims. Immortality has was not always been a desirable aim. The philosopher Zhuangzi 莊子, for instance, in several chapters prefers death over the uncertainties and sufferings of life. In religious Daoism immortality was so popular that stories of immortals and their supernatural powers became an own genre in popular literature.
Early Daoist schools all suggested that immortality or longevity was the most important objective of redemption. Yet the ways to achieve immortality were different from school to school. Some preferred talismans (fulu 符籙) and charms (zhoushu 咒術), some favoured exorcist prayers (qirang 祈禳), some underwent large liturgies (zhaijiao 齋醮), supported by breathing exercises (xingqi 行氣), physical and breathing exercises (daoyin 導引), meditation on the inner spirits (cunshen 存神), or the preservation of physical and spritual unity (shouyi 守一).
The schools of the so-called "outer alchemy" (waidan 外丹) sought to achieve immortality by consuming various pills, that of the "inner alchemy" (neidan 内丹) were of the opinion that "pills of immortality" could be distilled within one's own body by means of meditation and the circulation of energy (qi 氣).
Practically all later Daoist schools preferred "inner alchemy" over other means of physical cultivation. The early schools, handling talismans and charms, were also called the "talisman schools" (fulu pai 符籙派), while the somewhat younger schools of the "outer alchemy" were also called the "schools of cinnabar and crucible" (danding pai 丹鼎派) or "sublimation and nourishment schools" (lianyang pai 煉養派). Yet in fact, the early talismanic schools also carried out outer alchemy, so that these designations are not exclusive.
It was only during the Tang period 唐 (618-907) that the practice of outer alchemy was gradually replaced by the more healthy and also more spiritual inner alchemy. In consequence, physical immortality (shengtian 升天 "flying up to the sky", becoming a "winged man" yuren 羽人 [which is a Daoist term for "to die"]) was replaced by a more mental concept of longevity and the strive for quietness. It was especially the Quanzhen School that openly condemned the belief in immortals during the Song period. Instead, the aim of the believer was to find his "true and perfect nature" (zhenxing 真性) that was in unison with the natural "Way" and would allow the "luminous spirit" (yangshen 陽神) to ascend to Heaven. This means that it is not the body which is immortal, but the spirit of the practicioner.
A further difference between the ancient and the younger Daoist schools is the correlation of Daoist movements with popular uprisings among the early schools and the adaption of Daoism by the the upper class in the later schools. With its simplistic doctrines, early Daoist teachings were often created for the broad mass of the population and could function as an ideology when peasants, exploited, and afflicted by famine, rose up against the government and the rich landowners. Leaders like Zhang Jiao 張角 and Zhang Xiu 張修 promised a life free of illness, hunger and sorrows, a kingdom of great peace and equal rights for all. Rebellions as that of the Yellow Turbans 黃巾起義 were inspired by Daoist leaders promising the coming of a new age.
Zhang Lu 張魯 was even able to proclaim the independance of the regions of Ba 巴 and Hanzhong 漢中 (modern Sichuan and Shaanxi) from the Han empire. The leader of the Five-Pecks-of-Grain School, Chen Rui 陳瑞, continued defending this territory against the imperial governments. In the same region, the rebel leaders Li Te 李特 and Li Xiong 李雄 established the small Cheng-Han empire 成漢 (304-347). Even smaller movements like that of the Bojia School 帛家道 and the Lijia School 李家道 resulted in the uprising of Li Hong 李弘 in the 3rd century. In southeast China, the popular uprisings of Sun En 孫恩 and Lu Xun 盧循 were likewise inspired by Daoist thought. The book Baopuzi 抱朴子 mentions a lot of further Daoist masters that headed rebels groups, like Liu Gen 柳根 (i. e. Liu Gen 劉根), Wang Xin 王歆, or Li Shen 李申.
A great change of this pattern occurred under the Southern Dynasties, where Daoist leaders like Kou Qianzhi 寇謙之 or Lu Xiujing 陸修靜 attracted countless followers from among the landowners, the nobility and even at the imperial court. The integration of the upper level of society made it necessary that Daoism was no longer a religion of the poor and of the peasants but was integrated into the dense network of government, administration, scholarship, literary life and social relations of the rich and influential families. Daoism was to be adapted to the more sophisticated worldview of the Confucian-educated social elite, and new schools had to be created to meet the spiritual and religious demands of the higher levels of society. Such were the Shangqing School, the Lingbao School, or the Louguan School.
Daoism, in spite of its function as a religion, has barely a kind of theology and practically no theoretical fundaments. The difference between the various schools are therefore of a more practical nature and visible in different methods to attain health, longevity, or salvation. Yet even in this respect, the various schools borrowed from each other and can only be told apart with great difficulties. Under the influence of and as a result of the competition with Buddhism and Confucianism, a lot of concepts of these religions or philosophies were intregrated into Daoist thought, for example, the practice of meditation and of chanting scriptures, the concept of inheritance of good and evil deeds, or the adhortation to moral behaviour. This tendency of the "mergence of the three teachings" (san jiao he yi 三教合一) is most clearly visible in younger Daoist schools like the Quanzhen School and the Jingming School.
From the earlier schools to the later ones, the administrative and educational systems also made proges. In the earliest religious movement of Daoism, for instance, Zhang Ling's Five-Pecks-of-Grain School, twenty-four "regulators" (zhi 治) functioned as religious instructors, but also as political heads of the Daoist communities. Later on, when Zhang Lu founded his independent state in the region of Hanzhong, he created the office of libationer (jijiu 祭酒) whose occupants were military, civilian, and religious leaders of their communities. When the Daoist state in Hanzhong was destroyed and the adherents of this Daoist school moved to the north, the "parochial" system of the libationers dissolved. At the end of the Eastern Jin period, the Shangqing and Lingbao schools created the office of overseer of Daoist Temples (daoguan 道館, later written 道觀, guan 觀 meaning "to supervise") to organise the religious communities, but there were no superior clerics like the libationers had been. From the Tang period on larger temples were called "palaces" (gong 宮). Under the Southern Dynasties, when Daoist "churches" were more and more officially recognized by the government, Greater and Lesser Correctors 大、小道正 were appointed to oversee the Daoist communities. Under the Northern Qi dynasty the Chongxu buhan 崇虛部函 library was created in the Court of Imperial Sacrifices (taichangsi 太常寺) where Daoist scriptures were preserved. The Northern Zhou government created the offices of 司玄中士、下士 for the control of Daoist communities. These official posts were regularized between the Tang and the Song periods. In the capitals and each prefecture, 司，正曰道錄，副曰道正，择其法籙精專者授之. The holders of these posts were exchanged all three years, just like all other local officials. The Yuan dynasty made this system even more coherent. The highest state institution for the supervision of all Daoist schools was 集賢院. In all routes (lu 路) of the empire 道錄司，掌其事者为道錄、道判. In the prefectures 道正司，掌其事者为道正、道判, and on the district level 威儀司，掌其事者为威儀. The empire-wide regulations even included individual temples with 住持、提舉、提點. This regularized system was cemented during the Ming period. In the capital, the 道錄司 was responsible for all Daoists in the empire, on the first-class prefectural level (fu), 道紀司 were appointed, on the second-class prefectural level (zhou) 道正司, and on the district level, 道會司.
It is hard to tell the exact number of Daoist schools. There were greater, famous and more influential schools like the Quanzhen or Zhenyi Schools, and also some less known ones like the Bojia School 帛家道 or the Lijia School 李家道, and others are actually only side-branches of one tradition, like the Xuanjiao School 玄教, the Longmen School 龍門派 or the Tianxin School 天心派. In some instances, it can be said that some schools were later stages of earlier schools and had developed out of them, like the Five-Pecks-of-Grain School, the Longhu Church 龍虎宗 or the Zhenyi School 正一道, or the Shangqing School and the the Maoshan Church 茅山宗, the Lingbao School and the Gezao Church 閣皂宗. Depending on the grade of difference in their teachings and practice, they are described here as different schools. Concerning some of the Daoist schools, there is not a sufficient amount of historiographical material to provide a deeper insight into their teachings and history, like the Wudang School 武當道, the Laoshan School 嶗山派, the Sanfeng School, the Sazu School, or the many branches of the Quanzhen School, like the Longmen 龍門, Suishan 隨山, Nanwu (or Namo) 南無, Yuxian 遇仙, Huashan 華山, Yushan 嵛山 or Qingjing 清靜 schools. For some younger schools, doctrinal differences are so small that they can barely be called separate schools, like Lu Xixing's 陸西星 Eastern School of the Inner Alchemy (Neidan dongpai 内丹東派( and Li Xiyue's 李西月 Western School of the Inner Alchemy (Neidan xipai 内丹西派) which are both currents in the Quanzhen tradition.