The Understanding of Taoism as a Religion in Ancient China

Taoism, also called Daoism, is a Chinese philosophy that dates back to 500 BCE, and the credit goes to Lao Tzu. It grew out of the folk religion of the Chinese people, especially in the country, and became the official religion of China during the Tao Dynasty. So, Taoism is both a way of thinking and religion.

The Tao is a big part of Taoism. Most of the time, this translation is “The Way.” It’s hard to say what this means, though. The Tao is the essential thing that makes things happen in the universe. In the Tao, everything is one and linked.

Before the Communist revolution in China happened 50 years ago, Taoism was one of the most popular religions. After a campaign to eliminate non-Communist religions, however, the numbers dropped dramatically, making it hard to figure out how many Taoists there are in the world.

Origins of Taoism

Origins of Taoism
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The historian Sima Qian (145–86 BCE) tells the story of Lao-Tzu, a natural philosopher in charge of the Royal Library in Chu. Lao-Tzu thought that everything should have balance and that people could get along well if they feel about each other’s feelings once in a while and realize that what’s best for them isn’t always best for everyone else. However, Lao-Tzu got tired of the people and the corruption he saw in government, which caused so much pain and suffering for the people. He was so upset that he couldn’t change the way people behaved that he decided to leave the country.

When he tried to leave China through the western pass, the gatekeeper Yin Hsi stopped him because he knew he was a philosopher. However, before Yin Hsi allowed him to leave the civilization for good, he asked Lao-Tzu to write a book for him, and Lao-Tzu agreed, sat next to the guard, and wrote the Tao-Te-Ching on a rock (The Book of the Way). He stopped writing after finishing it, gave the book to Yin Hsi, and walked through the western pass into the mist. Sima Qian doesn’t say what happened next, but if the story is true, Yin Hsi would have made copies of the Tao-Te-Ching and passed them out.

Taoism & Confucianism

The peasant classes of the Shang Dynasty, who lived close to nature, turned Taoism into a religion. The things they saw in nature shaped their ideas about life, and one of the ideas they added was the idea of eternity. The grass grew again, and the tree that looked dead came back to life in the spring. They concluded that when people died, they didn’t just stop living. Instead, they went somewhere else where they kept living. Confucians believed that everyone’s ancestors who had died still lived on in another place and the presence of the gods. So they honored their ancestors as part of their daily lives.

Even though the Tao-Te-Ching doesn’t directly support ancestor worship, it became a part of Taoist rituals. Taoists also came to respect nature and its spirits, which is very similar to the Shintoism of Japan. Even though Taoism and Confucianism have a lot in common, they are also very different in significant ways. The biggest difference between Taoism and Confucianism is that Taoists don’t believe in strict rites and rituals.

Lao-Tzu thought that the more rules you asked for, the harder you made your own life and the lives of others. If you let go of the artificial rules and regulations that were supposed to improve life, you would find that life regulates itself naturally. You would fall in step with the Tao, which runs through everything and naturally controls, binds, and releases them.

The Book Tao-Te-Ching

Book Tao-Te-Ching
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The Tao-Te-Ching is in no way a “scripture.” Instead, it is a book of poems that shows how simple it is to follow the Tao and live in peace with yourself, other people, and the world. “Yield and overcome/Empty and become full/Bend and become straight” is a familiar verse that tells the reader how to live a simpler life. Instead of fighting against life and other people, you can give in to the way things are and let go of things that don’t matter. Instead of always being sure you’re right, you can let go of that kind of pride and be willing to learn from others. You don’t have to hold on to old beliefs and the past. Instead, you can be open to new ideas and ways of living.

Most likely, Lao-Tzu did not write the Tao-Te-Ching at the western pass, and he may not have written it at all. Most likely, Lao-Tzu didn’t exist, and the Tao-Te-Ching is a collection of sayings written down by someone we don’t know. It doesn’t matter if the book and its ideas came from a man named Lao-Tzu. What matters is what the text says and what it means to people who read it. The Tao-Te-Ching attempts to remind people that they are connected and the earth and that everyone could live together peacefully if they just paid attention to how their thoughts and actions affect themselves, others, and the world.

Concepts of Taoism

The One

The One is the essence of the Tao, which is life’s vital energy. When things and beings have the One, they can be themselves and follow the Tao. In some Taoist texts, the Tao is called the mother, and the One is called the son.

Wu and Yu

Wu and Yu are the opposites of being and not being, or having and not having. The term Wu also means that there is no end or that there are no limits. Some writers say that people can have direct experiences with Wu.


The translation of Te is usually “virtue,” but this version uses some Confucian ideas and can be confusing. So another way to look at te is as the knowledge of the Tao and the skills that make it possible to follow it.

Tzu Jan

Most of the time, “Tzu Jan” is translated as “naturalness” or “spontaneity,” but this isn’t quite right. One writer suggests using the phrase “that which is naturally so,” which refers to how something will be if it is left alone and allowed to grow and change. The goal of Taoism is to do what is natural, and Wu Wei is the way to do this.

Wu Wei

Wu Wei is the method for following the Tao. The translation of this word can be as natural action or no action at all, but this gives the wrong impression that nothing happens. Wu Wei means living by or with the world’s true nature, or at least not getting in the way of the Tao. It means letting things happen as they should. So, Taoists try to live in harmony and balance. They go through life the way a river flows through the countryside.

This inference doesn’t mean that a person can’t be proactive, but their actions should fit into the natural pattern of the universe. It also means they should be completely detached and not driven by their egos. Pure Taoism also says people should live their lives based on the idea that the world is working well and that they shouldn’t mess with it.

The Body According to Taoism

Taoists see the body as a miniature version of the universe full of the Tao. There are things in the cosmos that may be comparable to the many organs and systems we find in the human body.


Ch’i also spelled qi, is a vital energy that permeates the cosmos and connects all living things to each other and the rest of the universe. It is said to be responsible for keeping everything alive.


Being immortal doesn’t mean you will always live in the same body. The idea is that as Taoist lives, they get closer and closer to nature, and death is just the last step to becoming one with the whole universe.

Knowledge and Relativity

Human knowledge is always limited and depends on the point of view of the person who claims it. There can never be just one true piece of knowledge; there are too many different points of view. Because the universe changes all the time, so does what we know. The only thing a person can know that comes close to this is what is consistent with the Tao. But this is a trap because the understanding of the Tao is not the Tao. Actual knowledge can’t be known, but it might be possible to understand or live it.

Thoughts of Yin-Yang

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A good reason to think that Lao-Tzu did not write the Tao-Te-Ching is that the main ideas of Taoism came from the peasant class during the Shang Dynasty (1600-1046 BCE), which was a long time before Lao-Tzu lived. During the Shang era, reading oracle bones to find out the future became a more common way to use divination. Reading oracle bones led to the creation of a written text called the I-Ching (1250–1150 BCE), also called the Book of Changes. This book is still around today and gives interpretations for certain hexagrams that are said to tell the future.

A person would ask a question, then throw a handful of yarrow sticks onto a flat surface. The I-Ching would then be in use to answer the person’s question. Six lines don’t break, called Yang lines, and six lines that do (Yin). When someone looked at the pattern the yarrow sticks made when they were thrown and then at the hexagrams in the book, they would know the answer. The broken and unbroken lines, or yin and yang, were both needed for that answer. This pattern was the principles of yin and yang that were the requirements for life.

Even though Taoism and the Tao-Te-Ching were not linked initially to the yin-yang symbol, they are now because Taoism has its basis in the yin-yang principle and the yin-yang way of thinking. The yin and yang symbol shows that the living of life should happen in balance. The yin-yang symbolizes the balance between opposites, like dark/light, passive/aggressive, female/male, etc., but not good/evil or life/death. This belief is because nature doesn’t know what is good or bad and doesn’t know the difference between life and non-life. Therefore, everything in nature is balanced, and Taoism tries to teach people the same.

Taoism Rituals

Harmony and order

At the core of Taoist ritual is the idea of bringing order and harmony to many levels of the universe, including the universe as a whole, the world of human society, and each person’s inner world.

In Taoist rituals, people clean themselves, meditate, and give gifts to gods. The details of Taoist practices are often very complicated and technical, so the priests handle most of them, and the people in the congregation don’t do much. During the rituals, the priest and his helpers chant, play instruments, especially wind and percussion instruments, and dance. A fundamental part of Taoist practice is the chiao (jiao), or rite of cosmic rejuvenation. It comprises several other rituals.

In a shortened version of the chiao, every house in a village brings an offering for the local gods. Then, a Taoist priest performs a ritual to restore order to the cosmos and requests the gods to provide peace and prosperity to the community during the event.

Temple rituals

Individuals and the whole community can use Temple rituals to control ch’i and balance the flow of yin and yang. Other practices include praying to different Taoist gods, meditating on talismans, and reciting and chanting prayers and texts.

Taoism Beliefs

Other Taoist books include the Chaung-Tzu (also known as the Zhuangzi, composed by Zhuang Zhou, 369-286 BCE) and the Daozang from the Tang Dynasty (618-907 CE) and Sung Dynasty (960-1234 CE), the compilation of which happened in the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644 CE). The foundation of these works is on natural world observation and the concept that humans are naturally good and require a reminder to prefer virtue over vice. Taoists believe there are no “evil individuals,” only terrible actors. With proper knowledge and leadership, everyone can live in harmony with the world and people.

According to this idea, the Tao is inherent, and resisting it generates friction. Taoism says the most incredible way to live is to be flexible and surrender to life. A happy person easily adjusts to life’s changes; a sad person fights them. One’s ultimate objective is to live at peace with the Tao and embrace everything as part of the everlasting force that binds and moves through all things.

This philosophy aligns with Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius’ Logos. They said the Logos was a force of reason and that nothing that happened according to the Logos could be harmful; only people’s interpretations did. So likewise, Taoism says nothing is terrible in itself; our self-interest makes us think otherwise. Since the Tao is natural, so are all things.

Taoism originated in China, unlike Buddhism, which came from India. Taoism influenced Chinese culture because it came from the people and reflected how they viewed the cosmos. The importance of harmony and balance blended nicely with China’s Confucianism worldview. Taoism and Confucianism agreed on the intrinsic goodness of humans, but they disagreed on how to bring it out and teach individuals to behave selflessly.

Gods of Taoism

Gods of Taoism
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Westerners who study Taoism are frequently startled to learn that Taoists respect gods, as Taoist philosophy doesn’t appear to include deities.

Taoism has no God like Abrahamic religions. No omnipotent deity created and oversees the universe beyond the cosmos. Instead, the Tao impersonally controls the cosmos in Taoism. Tao is not God, a god, or worshipped by Taoists. Instead, Taoists employ ‘God-talk’ to allude to the Tao.

Lao Tsu is given reverence as the original deity of Taoism and the Tao. Taoism has several borrowed gods. This universe’s deities are subservient to the Tao. Many Creators are role-based and have titles rather than names.


Shang Dynasty forward, Taoism affected Chinese culture. Arts represent people’s ideas of their place in the cosmos and their responsibilities to each other. During the Tang Dynasty, Emperor Xuanzong made Taoism the state religion because he felt it would establish harmony among his subjects. Xuanzong’s reign was one of the most affluent and stable in Chinese history and the peak of the Tang Dynasty. Throughout China’s history, Taoism has the nomination as a state religion, but the majority favored Confucius or Buddhism because of their rites, which Taoism lacks. Nevertheless, Taoism is a universal religion followed in China and worldwide.

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