There is practically none of the "higher" religions which does not also possess a sophisticated fundament of a philosophy, covering both the universal and the social realms. Chinese scholars nevertheless, especially under the all-embracing influence of Confucianism, always discerned between the scholarly "acceptable" world of Daoist (old: Taoist) philosophy (daojia 道家 "the Daoists"), including philosophers as Laozi 老子, Zhuangzi 莊子, Liezi 列子, the books Huainanzi 淮南子, and some few others, and the "superstitious" world of Daoist religion (daojiao 道教). But even these two terms are not used consistently, as daojiao also means one of the three great traditions, the sanjiao 三教, namely Confucianism (rujiao 儒教), Daoism (old: Taoism; daojiao), and Buddhism (fojiao 佛教). Especially the latter is mostly seen as a pure religion - which does, of course, totally neglect the extremely complex Buddhist worldview - and not as a tradition of philosophers (shijia 釋家 "Buddhist masters") and the first one is interpreted as a pure philosophy with virtually no religious content at all, except probably ancestor veneration, the imperial offerings to Heaven and Earth, or Heaven's role as a supernatural judge over rulership.
It is, to sum it up, not possible to make a clear difference between Daoist philosophy, the highly institutionalized so-called church Daoism, and popular religion, as some Japanese scholars did. Philosophers had always been also practitioners of "religious" rituals, they used the same terminology as their monastic counterparts, and the oldest and mostly admired Daoist philosopher, Laozi, is also on the highest deities in the Daoist pantheon. One field of Daoism is totally neglected in this categorisation, namely the many ascetes who privately devoted themselves to Daoist studies to become immortal. In this encyclopedia I will nevertheless follow this traditional pattern to a certain extent because I tried to provide access to the field of Daoism in several ways. One, of course, is the gate of religion. The other is the traditional Chinese categorisation into "philosophical schools" or "schools of masters" (jia 家). The oldest writings of Daoism are thus seen as philosophical writings, although the term "philosophy" might not be quite adequate because agriculture and warfare are no philosophical disciplines although the writers devoting themselves to those two fields are categorized as "philosophers" (nongjia 農家, bingjia 兵家). It thus seems to be a problem of translation or categorisation, not a problem of the facts. The "philosophical" writings are so important for the later "religion" that they are hundredfold interpreted, commented and quoted and are thus also part of the canon of religious writings of Daoism. Daoism is mainly seen as a religion when it comes to organised rituals with patriarchs as head of a clergy, a liturgy, prayer, talismans, symbols and actions, and so on. Outside this "church" structure are the private Daoists who strive to obtain a longer life or even immortality through different means, firstly the so-called outer alchemy (waidan 外丹) of eating potions of pills or other materials prolonging life, and secondly, inner alchemy (neidan 内丹), by which the proband used the bodily essences and the moving qi (old: ch'i) 氣 "ether" in order to gain purity, quietness and eventually a longer life. The desire to leave worldly sorrows and ponderance XXX and to gain liberty from the pains of this-worldly being makes these practices also a kind of religion which is in some respects similar to XXX of Buddhism. Religion is, of course, also the so-called popular religion with its practice of divination, medical procedures, praying for health, longevity and fortune, and the differents arts to preserve strength of the body, from the famous taiji 太極 (old: t'ai-ch'i) and qigong 氣功 (old: ch'i-kung) to the martial arts (wushu 武術). The many deities venerated in popular religions, like the door gods (menshen 門神) or the kitchen god (zaoshen 竈神) have actually nothing to do with Daoism but are nevertheless often put into the same pot.
The scholarly distance of Confucians to Daoism has not always been as large as it seems from the modern perspective. Especially the Quanzhen school developed parallel to Chan Buddhism and was very important for the development of Neo-Confucianism under the brothers Cheng 程 and Zhu Xi 朱熹. Daoism had an extremely important function not only for the adherents of the millenarist sects of the Han period and the seekers for immortality but also for the imperial courts who sponsered not only Confucianism as the teaching providing them with the politico-religious legitimacy (the Heavenly mandate tianming 天命) or Buddhism with its impressive rituals, buildings or the massive Buddha statues personifying an incarnation of the Buddha - or the ruler - but also Daoism. Court-sponsored Daoism allowed the emperors to control the clergy, the adherents and made it possible to check the influence of the Buddhist patriarchs. For the Tang dynasty whose emperor bore the surname of Li 李 which is that of Laozi the patronage of Daoism virtually was a duty. The administration of the Daoist temples imitated the political bureaucracy and collected "taxes" from the believers. A second artificial bureaucracy was developed for the deities and immortals - the Heavenly bureaucracy.
There was always harsh competition between the three "religions" or "philosophies". Like Confucianism possessed a quasi-deified primary teacher in Confucius, Laozi became the deified ancestor of Daoism. The effective organisation of the monastic order in Buddhism caused similar developments in Daoism. The latter therefore also created "monasteries", a sangha community, "sūtras and a patriarchal hierarchy (with "popes") similar to those in Buddhism. Both religions also have common roots from which various strands or branches ("schools", "sects") were to grow. Similarly to Buddhism, the Daoist believer had also the possibility to undertake privately activities in the search for salvation, either by bodily hygiene or by meditation. While the Buddhist was seeking to enter nirvana the Daoist was looking to acheive perfect quietness in non-activity. Both are very similar concepts and were adapted by the Neo-Confucians during the Song period 宋 (960-1279). In that time the emperors took over the duty to protect all three "religions" or "philosophies". From the Ming period 明 (1368-1644) on popular beliefs were included into the vast field of Daoist religion, a tendency that surely contributed to the precarious position of Daoism which was therefore dispised as a lower religion full of superstition, by both Chinese and Western scholars, a fate partially shared by Buddhism. But the latter had the Indian tradition which was admired by orientalists and others in the search for new ways different from the "antiquated" European religion(s). Of the many Daoist schools not much seems to have survived in the 20th century, especially with the political take-over of the Communists in mainland China. Daoism was long thought to have only survived in Taiwan in shape of the Zhengyi school. Only with the appearance of a new interest in Daoism as a specifically Chinese religion in the 1960s it became clear that Daoism has survived in many facets also in Communist China and today experiences a resurgance after reform and opening. Daoism studies are still in the beginning and not a lot of scriptures from the Daoist canon is translated up to date.
The development of Daoism can be divided into several phases. The first can be called the classical phase (during the Warring States period 戰國 5th cent.-221 BCE), during which that writings were created later considered as that of the philosophical Daoism. A transition took place when Daoism moved into the focus of the emperors and won supporters among large parts of the population. This took place during the Later Han period 後漢 (25-220 CE). The traditional phase of Daoism begins in the 3rd century CE with the formation of various traditions that gradually formed organised schools supported by the various dynasties ruling over northern and southern China. This is also the period when Daoism had mostly to compete with Buddhism, namely that of the Southern and Northern Dynasties 南北朝 (300~600), and the Tang period 唐 (618-907). From the 9th century on Daoism became increasingly popularized and gained adherents among scholars traditionally regarded as Confucians. Many of its ideas became part of Neo-Confucian philosophy. This can be considered as the new period of Daoism during which it became, just as Confucianism and Buddhism, standardised and to a certain extent also sterile, without new ideas and concepts developing from the old.
Religious concepts and practice
The core concepts of Daoism centers around the term of dao 道 which means, literally translated, the "Way". This way is on the one side the way to go for salvation, but also the target to acheive, namely quietness and non-distinction. It is thirdly a kind of inborn principle that each creature, but also all objects in nature possess, that is, a kind of "nature-ness" which has to be found in oneself in order to acheive the original state of being as part of the nature. Nature is, as the Daoists put it, the opposite of culture, which the classical Confucians held in high esteem, and of the unnatural, artificial state. But the withdrawal from civilisation is a concept only possible to select for a few ascets. Most persons had to look for other ways to redetect their original nature-ness, either by meditation, bodily hygiene, reciting prayers, and others. The most average man could not but become part of an urban community with a temple in which specialists supported the believers in their search for human happiness - long life, many children and sufficient money.
The concept of the dao is not XXX for Daoism. For the classical Confucians the "Way" of social harmony were rituals and etiquette. The oldest kind of commentary on the Laozi was even written by the legalist writer Han Fei 韓非, a notorious supporter of imperial power. The legalist dao is the quietness of the ruler who is the pole star of the empire. While all his ministers around him are moving and serving he is the only one possessing the ability of doing nothing (wuwei 無爲 "non-acting").
See more about Daoist concepts and practices.
Deities, immortals and personalities
In popular belief many persons have obtained immortality and became fairies or deities. The highest deity of Daoism is, of course, the "Old Master" Laozi 老子 who is called Laojun 老君 "Old Lord" in the temples. He and the Yellow Emperor (Huangdi 黃帝) who created order in the world are the main persons of the Daoist religion that developed during the late Warring States period on and which was called Huang-Lao thought 黃老. There are many other fairies that have obtained immortality. Many of them are assembled in groups like the Eight Fairies (Baxian 八仙) that were able to cross the sea on a tree-trunk. Other fairies are able to fly on clouds or to transform into the shape of an animal or a fire. Some of them are historical persons, like Guan gong 關公 "Duke Guan" (Guan Yu 關羽), a general of the Three Kingdoms period 三國 (220-280), or Dongfang Shuo 東方朔. Many Daoist fairies and deities are heroes in popular theatre plays and novels. Most of these deities are admired and venerated all over China, like the hero Zhong Kui 鍾馗, but some are simple products of local religion, like the southern fishermen deity Mazu 媽祖, or the wise tactician of Shu (Sichuan), Zhuge Liang 諸葛亮. Some deities are no concrete person, but types of benevolent deities that bestow luck and health, like the Heavenly Officials (Tianguan 天官), the Jade Emperor (Yuhuang 玉皇), the Dragon Emperor (Huolong Dadi 火龍大帝), the God of Wealth (Caishen 財神), the Door Guardians (Menshen 門神) or the Starry Trinity of Luck (Fulushou sanxing 福祿壽三星) that bring longevity, children and prosperity, all with their fellowers attributes like the saints in Christianity. Children, peaches, balls and fish are symbols of familiar prosperity, pine and stone are symbols of longevity, crane and deer are fellowers of fairies that hold gourds in their hand containing a medicine bringing immortality. The bat is a symbol of happiness because the Chinese word for "bat" fú 蝠 sounds like the words for "luck" fú 福, althought the characters are different except their phonetical part. In this field, it can be seen that an important part of popular Daoism is the belief in deified heroes and immortals that promise luck, happiness and wealth to those praying to them. Even Buddhist deities can be seen in Daoism, like the four temple guardians or Heavenly Kings (Si da tianwang 四大天王).
See more about Daoist deities and signs and symbols.
See more about Daoist schools.
See more about Daoist writings.
January 17, 2014 © Ulrich Theobald · Mail