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The conception of 'Taoism' refers both to a Chinese system of thought and to one of the four major religions of China. Taoism, like Confucianism is a native Chinese religion. Its root's go back to the earliest history of China. However Taoism did not begin to develop as an organized religion until 100 B.C.

Taoism teaches that everyone should try to achieve two goals, happiness and immortality. The religion has many practices and ceremonies, intended to help people. They include prayer, magic, special diets, breath-control, meditation, and recitation of scriptures. Taoists also believe in astrology, fortune telling, witchcraft and communication with the spirits of the dead. Taoists worship more deities than do the followers of almost any other religion. Some deities are ancestors and others are the spirits of famous people.


Taoism borrowed heavily from Buddhism. Many Taoist deities, temples and ceremonies show the influence of Buddhism. By A.D.1000, Taoism had divided into many sects. Some of the sects withdrew from daily routine to meditate and study in Monasteries. Other sects were based in temples. The temple priests passed on their position to their children. They gained a reputation as highly skilled magicians, who could predict the future, protect believers from illness, accidents and other misfortunes.

In mid 1900's, the Chinese government opposed Taoism, claiming it was based on superstition. Today, the Chinese Government permits the practice of the religion and the followers are gradually increasing in number. Taoists remain active in Chinese societies outside China. Their deities include Jade emperor who rules the Earth, Empress of Heaven, and Laozy - an ancient Chinese philosopher who is the founder of Taoism.


Religious Taoism

Religious Taoism appropriated earlier interest and belief in alchemy and the search for the elixir of life and the philosopher's stone. By the 5th cent. AD, Taoism was a fully developed religious system with many features adopted from Mahayana Buddhism , offering emotional religious satisfaction to those who found the largely ethical system of Confucianism inadequate. Taoism developed a large pantheon (probably incorporating many local gods), monastic orders, and lay masters. Heading the commonly worshiped deities is the Jade Emperor. Directly under him, ruling from Mt. Tai, is the Emperor of the Eastern Mountain, who weighs merits and faults and assigns reward and punishment in this and future existences. An ecclesiastical hierarchy was founded in the 8th cent., headed by the T'ien Shih [master of heaven]; he claimed succession from Chang Tao-lin, an alchemist of the 2d cent. who was reputed to have discovered the elixir of immortality after receiving magical power from Lao Tzu.

Throughout its history Taoism has provided the basis for many Chinese secret societies; in the 1950s, after the establishment of the Communist regime, Taoism was officially proscribed. Taoism is still practiced to some degree in modern China, as well as in Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Macao and in communities of Chinese who have emigrated.

Philosophical Taoism

The philosophical system stems largely from the Tao-te-ching, a text traditionally ascribed to Lao Tzu but probably written in the mid-3d cent. BC The Tao, in the broadest sense, is the way the universe functions, the path [Chin. tao path] taken by natural events. It is characterized by spontaneous creativity and by regular alternations of phenomena (such as day following night) that proceed without effort. Effortless action may be illustrated by the conduct of water, which unresistingly accepts the lowest level and yet wears away the hardest substance. Human beings, following the Tao, must abjure all striving. The ideal state of being, fully attainable only by mystical contemplation, is simplicity and freedom from desire, comparable to that of an infant or an “uncarved block.”

Taoist political doctrines reflect this quietistic philosophy: the ruler's duty is to impose a minimum of government, while protecting his people from experiencing material wants or strong passions. The social virtues expounded by Confucius were condemned as symptoms of excessive government and disregard of effortless action. Second only to Lao Tzu as an exponent of philosophical Taoism was Chuang-tzu , who wrote brilliant satirical essays. Taoist ideals greatly influenced Chinese literature, painting, and calligraphy. Later Taoism emphasized the techniques [Chin. te power] for realizing the effects flowing from the Tao, especially long life and physical immortality.

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