Important Events
Important Religions
Important Links Major Religions & Spiritual Beliefs
Home: Religion: Taoism: History.

History of Taoism

Originating in prehistoric China, it has exerted a powerful influence over Chinese culture throughout the ages.

The history of Taoism stretches throughout Chinese history.


More Taoism books and reviews

Chinese History of Taoism

Taoism evolved in response to changing times, its doctrine and associated practices revised and refined. The acceptance of Taoism by the ruling class has waxed and waned, alternately enjoying periods of favor and rejection. But it was always the backbone of most of Chinese society. Most recently, Taoism has emerged from a period of suppression and is undergoing a revival in China.

Early History of Taoism

Taoism's origins may be traced to prehistoric Chinese religions in China; to the composition of the Tao Te Ching (3rd or 4th century BCE); or to the activity of Zhang Daoling (2nd century AD). Alternatively, one could argue that Taoism as a religious identity only arose later, by way of contrast with the newly-arrived religion of Buddhism, or with the fourth-century codification of the Shangqing and Lingbao texts.

Other accounts credit Laozi (legendary author of the Tao Te Ching) as the teacher of both Buddha and Confucius. In some sects of religious Taoism, Laozi had thirteen incarnations, including the Three August Ones and Five Emperors, up until his last as Laozi who lived over 800 years. They correlate early Taoism with ancient picture writing, which they associate with mysticism and ancestor worship.

A Taoist Temple in Taiwan, showing elements of the Jingxiang religious practice and sculptures of Dragon and Lion guardians.

Han Dynasty (206 BCE–220 CE)

In the early Han Dynasty, the Tao came to be associated with or conflated with the Xian Di Emperor. A major text from the Huang-Lao movement would be the Huainanzi, which interprets earlier Taoist teachings in light of the quest for immortality. Zhang Daoling claimed to have begun receiving new revelations from Laozi and went on to found the Celestial Masters sect as the "First Celestial Master". He performed spiritual healing, and collected dues of five pecks of rice from his followers (thus providing an alternative name for his movement).

Zhang Daoling's major message was that the world-order would soon come to an end, and be succeeded by an era of "Great Peace" (Taiping).Their activities did hasten the downfall of the Han Dynasty, largely because Zhang's grandson set up a theocratic state into what is now Sichuan province. The same could be said of their contemporaries and fellow Taoists, the Yellow Turban sect. Laozi received imperial recognition as a divinity in the mid second century CE. The Yin and Yang and five elements theories date from this time, but were not yet integrated into Taoism.

The name Daojia comes from the Han Dynasty. In Sima Qian's history (chapter 63) it refers to immortals; in Liu Xiang it refers to Laozi and Zhuangzi. Daojiao came to be applied to the religious movements mentioned above. The two terms were used interchangeably until modern times. (We owe the distinction to Confucian writers.) The earliest commentary on the Dao De Jing is that of Heshang Gong (the "Riverside Master"), a legendary figure depicted as a teacher to the Han emperor.

Three Kingdoms Period (220–265)

During the Three Kingdoms Period, the Xuanxue (Mysterious Wisdom) school, including Wang Bi, focused on the texts of Laozi and Zhuangzi. Many of the school's members, including Wang Bi himself, were not religious in any sense.[6] Wang Bi mostly focused on reconciling Confucian thought with Taoist thought. Because the version of the Tao Te Ching that has been passed on to the present is the one that Wang Bi commented upon, his interpretations became very influential as they were passed on alongside the Tao Te Ching. In addition, his commentary was compatible with Confucian ideas and Buddhist ideas that later entered China. This compatibility ensured Taoism would remain an important aspect of Chinese culture, and made the merging of the three religions easier in later periods, such as the Tang dynasty.

Six Dynasties (316–589)

Taoist alchemist Ge Hong, also known as Baopuzi (抱扑子 The "Master Embracing Simplicity") was active in the third and fourth centuries and had great influence on later Taoism.[8] Major scriptures were produced during this time period, including The Shangqing (上清 "Supreme Clarity") (365–370) and Lingbao (靈寶 "Sacred Treasure") scriptures (397–402) received at Maoshan. The Shangqing revelations were received by Yang Xi, a relative of Ge Hong's; the revelations emphasised meditative visualisation (內觀 neiguan). They spoke of the Shangqing heaven, which stood above what had been previously considered the highest heaven by Celestial Master Taoists. Yang Xi's revelations consisted of visitations from the residents of this heaven (the "Zhenren") many of whom were ancestors of a circle of aristocrats from southern China.

These Zhenren spoke of an apocalypse which was to arrive in 384, and claimed that only certain people from this aristocratic circle had been chosen to be saved. For the first century of its existence, Shangqing Taoism was isolated to this aristocratic circle. However, Tao Hongjing (456–536) codified and wrote commentaries on Yang Xi's writings and allowed for the creation of Shangqing Taoism as a popular religion. The Lingbao scriptures added some Buddhist elements such as an emphasis on universal salvation.

Also during the Six Dynasties period, the Celestial Master movement re-emerged in two distinct forms. The Northern Celestial Masters were founded in 424 century by Kou Qianzhi, and a Taoist theocracy was established that lasted until 450 CE. After this time, the Northern Celestial Masters were expelled from the Wei court and re-established themselves at Louguan where they survived into the Tang Dynasty. The Southern Celestial Masters were centered at Jiankang (modern-day Nanjing, and were likely made of those adherents who fled Sichuan and others who fled from Luoyang after its fall in 311 CE. These various followers of The Way of the Celestial Master coalesced to form a distinct form of Taoism known as the Southern Celestial Masters, who lasted as a distinct movement into the fifth century.

Tang Dynasty (618–907)

Taoism gained official status in China during the Tang Dynasty, whose emperors claimed Laozi as their relative. However, it was forced to compete with Confucianism and Buddhism, its major rivals, for patronage and rank. Emperor Xuanzong (685–762), who ruled at the height of the Tang, wrote commentaries on texts from all three of these traditions, which exemplifies the fact that in many people's lives they were not mutually exclusive. This marks the beginning of a long-lived tendency within imperial China, in which the government supported (and simultaneously regulated) all three movements. The Gaozong Emperor added the Tao Te Ching to the list of classics (jing, 經) to be studied for the imperial examinations.

Song Dynasty (960–1279)

Several Song emperors, most notably Huizong, were active in promoting Taoism, collecting Taoist texts and publishing editions of the Daozang.

The Quanzhen school of Taoism was founded during this period, and together with the resurgent Celestial Masters called the Zhengyi is one of the two schools of Taoism that have survived to the present.

The Song Dynasty saw an increasingly complex interaction between the elite traditions of organised Taoism as practised by ordained Taoist ministers (daoshi) and the local traditions of folk religion as practised by spirit mediums (wu) and a new class of non-ordained ritual experts known as fashi. This interaction manifested itself in the integration of 'converted' local deities into the bureaucratically organised Taoist pantheon and the emergence of new exorcistic rituals, including the Celestial Heart Rites and the Thunder Rites.

Aspects of Confucianism, Taoism, and Buddhism were consciously synthesised in the Neo-Confucian school, which eventually became Imperial orthodoxy for state bureaucratic purposes.

Yuan Dynasty (1279–1367)

While Taoism suffered a significant setback in 1281 when all copies of the Daozang were ordered burned, this holocaust gave Taoism a chance to renew itself. Neidan, a form of internal alchemy, became a major emphasis of the Quanzhen sect, whose practitioners followed a monastic model inspired by Buddhism. One of its leaders, Qiu Chuji became a teacher of Genghis Khan before the establishment of the Yuan Dynasty. (and used his influence to save millions of lives). Originally from Shanxi and Shandong, the sect established its main center in Beijing's Baiyunguan ("White Cloud Monastery"). Before the end of the dynasty, the Celestial Masters sect (and Buddhism) again gained preeminence.

Ming Dynasty (1368–1644)

In 1406, Ming emperor Zhu Di commanded that all Taoist texts be collected and combined into a new version of the Daozang. The text was finally finished in 1447, and took nearly forty years to complete.

Qing Dynasty (1644–1912)

The fall of the Ming Dynasty and the subsequent establishment of the Qing Dynasty by the Manchus was blamed by some literati on religion, specifically Taoism. They sought to regain power by advocating a return to Confucian orthodoxy in a movement called Hanxue, or 'National Studies.' This movement returned the Confucian classics to favor and completely rejected Taoism.

During the eighteenth century, the imperial library was constituted, but excluded virtually all Taoist books. By the beginning of the twentieth century, Taoism had fallen so much from favor that only one complete copy of the Daozang still remained, at the White Cloud Monastery in Beijing.

Nationalist Period (1912–1949)

Guomindang (Chinese Nationalist Party) leaders embraced science, modernity, and Western culture, including (to some extent) Christianity. Viewing the popular religion as reactionary and parasitic, they confiscated some temples for public buildings, and otherwise attempted to control traditional religious activity.

People's Republic of China (1949–present)

The Communist Party of China, officially atheistic, initially suppressed Taoism along with other religions. During the Cultural Revolution from 1966 to 1976, many Taoist temples and sites were damaged and Monks and priests were sent to labor camps.

Persecution of Taoists stopped in 1979, and many Taoists began reviving their traditions. Subsequently, many of the more scenic temples and monasteries have been repaired and reopened.

Taoism is one of five religions recognised by the PRC, which insists on controlling its activities through a state bureaucracy (the China Taoist Association). Sensitive areas include the relationship of the Zhengyi Taoists with their sect's lineage-holder, who lives in Taiwan, and various traditional temple activities such as astrology and shamanism, which have been criticised as "superstitious".

Taoism in the Occident

In the 1927-1944 the chief propounder of Taoism for the Western World was Prof. Henri Maspero in Paris. Michael Saso was the first occidental to be initiated as Taoist priest; he subsequently served also as co-editor of TAOIST RESOURCES, the only English-language academic journal to be devoted entirely to Taoism.

Today, many Taoist organizations have been established in the Occident.

Parts of the above article are licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License. It uses material from Wikipedia. Images courtesy FCIT

Copyright ©. All rights reserved.