Living in the Chinese Cosmos | Asia for Educators

Defining "Daoism": A Complex History*

Daoism focuses on the ability of ordinary people to relate to the basic cosmic forces. The dao, or “the way,” is the spontaneous process regulating all beings and manifested at all levels -- in the human body, in society, in nature, and in the universe as a whole. To accord with “the way” is thus to achieve health and even immortality.


As with the term “Confucianism,” it is important to consider not just what the term “Daoism” covers, but also where it comes from, who uses it, and what words Daoists have used over the years to refer to themselves.

The Early Daoist Writings. The most prominent early writings associated with Daoism are two texts: The Classic on the Way and Its Power (Dao de jing), attributed to a mythological figure named Lao Dan or Laozi who is presumed to have lived during the sixth century BCE; and the Zhuangzi, named for its putative author, Zhuang Zhou or Zhuangzi (ca. 370-301 BCE).

The books are quite different in language and style. The Classic on the Way and Its Power is composed largely of short bits of aphoristic verse, leaving its interpretation and application radically indeterminate. Perhaps because of that openness of meaning, the book has been translated into Western languages more often than any other Chinese text. It has been read as a utopian tract advocating a primitive society as well as a compendium of advice for a fierce, engaged ruler. Its author has been described as a relativist, skeptic, or poet by some, and by others as a committed rationalist who believes in the ability of words to name a reality that exists independently of them.

The Zhuangzi is a much longer work composed of relatively discrete chapters written largely in prose, each of which brings sustained attention to a particular set of topics. Some portions have been compared to Ludwig Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations. Others develop a story at some length or invoke mythological figures from the past.

The Zhuangzi refers to Laozi by name and quotes some passages from the Classic on the Way and Its Power, but the text as we know it includes contributions written over a long span of time. Textual analysis reveals at least four layers, probably more, that may be attributed to different authors and different times, with interests as varied as logic, primitivism, syncretism, and egotism.

The word “Daoism” in English (corresponding to Daojia, “the School [or Philosophy] of the Dao”) is often used to refer to these and other books or to a free-floating outlook on life inspired by but in no way limited to them.

Daoist Religious Movements: The Way of the Celestial Masters. “Daoism” is also invoked as the name for religious movements that began to develop in the late second century CE; Chinese usage typically refers to their texts as Daojiao (“Teachings of the Dao” or “Religion of the Dao”). One of those movements, called the Way of the Celestial Masters (Tianshi dao), possessed mythology and rituals and established a set of social institutions that would be maintained by all later Daoist groups.

The Way of the Celestial Masters claims its origin in a revelation dispensed in the year 142 CE by the Most High Lord Lao (Taishang Laojun), a deified form of Laozi, to a man named Zhang Daoling. Laozi explained teachings to Zhang and bestowed on him the title of “Celestial Master” (Tianshi), indicating his exalted position in a system of ranking that placed those who had achieved immortality at the top and humans who were working their way toward that goal at the bottom. Zhang was active in the part of western China now corresponding to the province of Sichuan, and his descendants continued to build a local infrastructure.

The movement divided itself into a number of parishes, to which each member-household was required to pay an annual tax of five pecks of rice -- hence the other common name for the movement in its early years, the “Way of the Five Pecks of Rice” (Wudoumi dao). The administrative structure and some of the political functions of the organization are thought to have been modeled in part on secular government administration.

Several continuing traits are apparent in the first few centuries of The Way of the Celestial Masters. The movement represented itself as having begun with divine-human contact: a god reveals a teaching and bestows a rank on a person. Later Daoist groups received revelations from successively more exalted deities.

Even before receiving official recognition, the movement was never divorced from politics. Later Daoist groups too followed that general pattern, sometimes in the form of millenarian movements promising to replace the secular government, sometimes in the form of an established church providing services complementary to those of the state.

The local communities of the Way of the Celestial Masters were formed around priests who possessed secret knowledge and held rank in the divine-human bureaucracy. Knowledge and position were interdependent: knowledge of the proper ritual forms and the authority to petition the gods and spirits were guaranteed by the priest’s position in the hierarchy, while his rank was confirmed to his community by his expertise in a ritual repertoire.

Nearly all types of rituals performed by Daoist masters through the ages are evident in the early years of the Way of the Celestial Masters. Surviving sources describe the curing of illness, often through confession; the exorcism of malevolent spirits; rites of passage in the life of the individual; and the holding of regular communal feasts. 


Possessing a history of some two thousand years and appealing to people from all walks of life, Daoism appears to the modern student to be a complex and hardly unitary tradition. That diversity is important to keep in mind, especially in light of the claim made by different Daoist groups to maintain a form of the teaching that in its essence has remained the same over the millennia. The very notion of immortality is one way of grounding that claim.  

Pursuing Immortality. The greatest immortals, after all, are still alive. Having conquered death, they have achieved the original state of the uncarved block (see “The Daoist Golden Age,” above) and are believed to reside in the heavens. The highest gods are personified forms of the Dao, the unchanging Way. They are concretized in the form of stars and other heavenly bodies and can manifest themselves to advanced Daoist practitioners following proper visualization exercises. The transcendents (xianren, often translated as “immortals”) began life as humans and returned to the ideal embryonic condition through a variety of means. Some followed a regimen of gymnastics and observed a form of macrobiotic diet that simultaneously built up the pure elements and minimized the coarser ones. Others practiced the art of alchemy, assembling secret ingredients and using laboratory techniques to roll back time. Sometimes the elixir was prepared in real crucibles; sometimes the refining process was carried out eidetically [visualization in vivid, realistic detail] by imagining the interior of the body to function like the test tubes and burners of the lab. Personalized rites of curing and communal feasts alike can be seen as small steps toward recovering the state of health and wholeness that obtains at the beginning (also the infinite ending) of time.

Nor should one forget the claim to continuity implied by the institution of priestly investiture. By possessing revealed texts and the secret registers listing the members of the divine hierarchy, the Daoist priest took his place in a structure that appeared to be unchanging. 


The history of Daoism can be read, in part, as a succession of revelations, each of which includes but remains superior to the earlier ones.

In South China, around the year 320, the author Ge Hong wrote He Who Embraces Simplicity (Baopuzi), which outlines different methods for achieving elevation to that realm of the immortals known as “Great Purity” (Taiqing). Most methods explain how, after the observance of moral codes and rules of abstinence, one needs to gather precious substances for use in complex chemical experiments. Followed properly, the experiments succeed in producing a sacred substance, “gold elixir” (jindan), the eating of which leads to immortality.

In the second half of the fourth century new scriptures were revealed to a man named Yang Xi, who shared them with a family named Xu. Those texts give their possessors access to an even higher realm of Heaven, that of “Highest Clarity” (Shangqing). The scriptures contain legends about the level of gods residing in the Heaven of Highest Clarity. Imbued with a messianic spirit, the books foretell an apocalypse for which the wise should begin to prepare now. By gaining initiation into the textual tradition of Highest Clarity and following its program for cultivating immortality, adepts are assured of a high rank in the divine bureaucracy and can survive into the new age.

The fifth century saw the canonization of a new set of texts, titled “Numinous Treasure” (Lingbao). Most of them are presented as sermons of a still higher level of deities, the Celestial Worthies (Tianzun), who are the most immediate personified manifestations of the Dao. The books instruct followers how to worship the gods supplicated in a wide variety of rituals. Called “retreats” (zhai, a word connoting both “fast” and “feast”), those rites are performed for the salvation of the dead, the bestowal of boons on the living, and the repentance of sins.

Many accounts portray the twelfth century as a particularly innovative period: it saw the development of sects named “Supreme Unity” (Taiyi), “Perfect and Great Dao” (Zhenda dao), and “Complete Perfection” (Quanzhen). In the early part of the fifteenth century, the forty-third Celestial Master took charge of compiling and editing Daoist ritual texts, resulting in the promulgation of a Daoist canon that contemporary Daoists still consider authoritative. 


Another way that Daoists have represented their tradition is by asserting that their activities are different from other religious practices. Daoism is constructed, in part, by projecting a non-Daoist tradition, picking out ideas and actions and assigning them a name that symbolizes “the other.”(1) The most common others in the history of Daoism have been the rituals practiced by the less institutionalized, more poorly educated religious specialists at the local level and any phenomenon connected with China’s other organized church, Buddhism.

Whatever the very real congruences in belief and practice among Daoism, Buddhism, and popular practice, it has been essential to Daoists to assert a fundamental difference. In this perspective the Daoist gods differ in kind from the profane spirits of the popular tradition: the former partake of the pure and impersonal Dao, while the latter demand the sacrifice of meat and threaten their benighted worshippers with illness and other curses.

With their hereditary office, complex rituals, and use of the classical Chinese language, modern Daoist masters view themselves as utterly distinct from exorcists and mediums, who utilize only the language of everyday speech and whose possession by spirits appears uncontrolled. Similarly, anti-Buddhist rhetoric (as well as anti-Daoist rhetoric from the Buddhist side) has been severe over the centuries, often resulting in the temporary suppression of books and statues and the purging of the priesthood.

All of those attempts to enforce difference, however, must be viewed alongside the equally real overlap, sometimes identity, between Daoism and other traditions. Records compiled by the state detailing the official titles bestowed on gods prove that the gods of the popular tradition and the gods of Daoism often supported each other and coalesced or, at other times, competed in ways that the Daoist church could not control. Ethnographies about modern village life show how all the various religious personnel cooperate to allow for coexistence; in some celebrations they forge an arrangement that allows Daoist priests to officiate at the esoteric rituals performed in the interior of the temple, while mediums enter into trance among the crowds in the outer courtyard.

In imperial times the highest echelons of the Daoist and Buddhist priesthoods were capable of viewing their roles as complementary to each other and as necessarily subservient to the state. The government mandated the establishment in each province of temples belonging to both religions; it exercised the right to accept or reject the definition of each religion’s canon of sacred books; and it sponsored ceremonial debates between leading exponents of the two churches in which victory most often led to coexistence with, rather than the destruction of, the losing party.


Notes and References

(1) For three views on the subject, see Kristofer Schipper, “Purity and Strangers: Shifting Boundaries in Medieval Taoism,” T’oung Pao 80 (1994): 61-81; Rolf A. Stein, “Religious Taoism and Popular Religion from the Second to Seventh Centuries,” in Facets of Taoism, ed. Holmes Welch and Anna Seidel (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1979), pp. 53- 81; and Michel Strickmann, “History, Anthropology, and Chinese Religion,” Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies 40.1 (June 1980): 201-48.