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Taoism (Daoism) - Definition, Founder, Origin, Beliefs and Practices

Taoism (Daoism) is a Chinese indigenous religion that was formed in 2th century. Based on the ancient Chinese worship of supernatural beings and the theories of Emperor Huangdi and Lao Zi, the Taoism doctrine covers the whole universe and inherited the teachings of the immortals and divination in the Spring and Autumn Period. Taoists take Laozi as the holy person and his book Tao Teh King as the main classic. Although there are other derivative doctrines, Dao is the most fundamental belief of Taoism and it’s believed that Dao is the very beginning of everything. While the only thing goes parallel with Dao is De (morality), which is the benefit, fuction and present of the Tao. Therefore, Taoists must cultivate their morality and virtue and pursue the unity of Dao and De.

What is Tao (Dao)?

Dao originally means the road. In the long historical evolution, its meaning was broadened to Daoli (principle), which conveys the regularity of things. In the late Spring and Autumn Period, Lao Zi first considered the Dao as the origin of the universe and the common of principle. He believed that “everything on the earth originated from Dao and the process was "Dao begets One (nothingness; or reason of being), One begets Two (yin and yang), Two begets Three (Heaven, Earth and Man; or yin, yang and breath qi), Three begets all things. All things carry the characteristics of female and male. And by breathing together, they live in harmony”. In conclusion, Lao Zi believed that Dao was the mixture of everything before the earth and heaven being separated, the universal law that existed among all things and lastly, and it was intangible.

Is Taoism A Religion?

To judge if the Taoism is a religion, we need to understand what a religion is in the first place. Religion is a thought or behavior that teach or guide people to make them have a sense of belonging, and stabilize the society and preserve the culture of a nation. The composition of a religion must have the following six independent conditions.

1. Doctrine: It refers to the views, opinions, disciplines as well as taboos of that religion.

2. Mystery: It's beyond the psychology and science and also the most secret and scared part of the religion.

3. Classics: It's the history, behaviors, teachings and methods of the preceding religious leaders and sages.

4. Ceremony: It's the ritual, procedure and method to communicate between human and god.

5. Ethics: It's the moral norm to restrict the relationship between human and human, and human and god.

6. Organization: It's set to carry out the overall affairs of religion.

While the Taoism has all these traits, therefore, it’s a religion.

Taoism Origin

The origin of the Taoism can be traced back to Yellow Emperor in ancient times. Yellow Emperor, the common ancestor of Chinese civilization, had created all kinds of cultures and was regarded as the Chinese cultural ancestor. It's said that the Yellow Emperor was distressed by his own aging in his late years. In a conversation with an immortal named Fuqiu Gong, he became aware that everything in the universe had a cycle of life and death, and only the immortals could live forever. The idea of pursuing the immortality came to his mind. He went to ask the 120-year-old hermit named Guangchengzi for methods, who told him to maintain a peaceful mind, be quiet and keep cultivating himself. Since then, the Yellow Emperor began to follow the rules and learn Dao from Guangchengzi. Later, to refine pills to save his people, the Yellow Emperor ordered a Ding to be built. When the Ding was about to finish, a yellow dragon came down to earth and took Yellow Emperor to the heaven.

By the time of the Shang Dynasty, the worships of nature in prehistoric times was developed into the belief in heaven and destiny. Whenever something happened, ancient people always seek answers and revelation by divination. While the primitive worship of supernatural things like ghosts and spirits was turned to the ancestor veneration based on blood relationship. Therefore, there were regular sacrificial activities to perform the rituals and the special persons who were engaged in passing messages between spirits and humans. In Shang Dynasty, the country and the society were both controlled by those people. In Zhou Dynasty, the worship of ancestors and the worship of the heaven and earth were equally important.

When performing a sacrificial ritual, the rites and music were extremely important. In Spring and Autumn Period, the rites and music system of previous Zhou Dynasty was broken and it was moved to lower class. In fact, the folk scorers and alchemists inherited those rites and music, which became the rituals of Taoism.

From the middle and late period of the Warring States Period (275 - 221 B.C) to the reign of Emperor Wu (140 - 87 B.C) of the Han Dynasty, there were a lot of incidents of seeking immortality like King Wei and Xuan of Qi State, King Zhao of Yan State, Qin Shi Huang, and Emperor Wu of Han Dynasty all sent sorcerers to find the medicines of immortality. There were many famous sorcerers like Song Wuji, Zheng Baoqiao, Zhou Yan, Xu Fu, Lu Sheng and others. In the middle and late Eastern Han Dynasty, those immortal beliefs were succeeded by the Taoists.

Who is the Founder of Taoism

As mentioned before, Dao originated from Yellow Emperor. The Taoist school as a philosophy was created by Lao Zi, while the Taoism as a religion was founded by Zhang Daoling.

Lao Zi (571 - 471 B.C), also named as Li Er, came from Kuxian (today's Luyi county of Henan province) in the Spring and Autumn Period. He is regarded as the founder of Taoist school and the Taoism philosophy. His book Tao Teh King was the pioneering work of Taoist culture and core classic of Taoism.

Zhang Daoling (34 - 156) is the founder of the Taoism and the first generation of Taoism master. He was from Fengyi (current Fengxian of Jiangsu province) in Eastern Han Dynasty. In his early years, Zhang Daoling mastered a lot of Taoism classics including the Tao Teh King and decided to cultivate himself to save people. He used to spread his ideas in Mount Qingcheng, Mount Longhu and many other places and gradually created the Taoism religion. At that time, people who wanted to be a disciple must offer Five Dous (about 37.5kg) of Grain. Therefore, the Taoism back them was also called "Five-Dou-Grain Taoism". Zhang Daoling himself was regarded as the Ancestral Celestial Master and he also wrote the Laozi Xiang'er Zhu to better apply Lao Zi's thinking.

Basic Taoist Beliefs

1.Imitation of Nature - The Harmonious Ecological Ethics between Human and Nature

Lao Zi said that the Dao matters, heaven matters, earth matters, so does people, and that in the four most important areas, people was one of them. This clearly shows that Lao Zi believed that human beings and everything else on the earth are equal and his Taoism school also believed that people should imitate the heaven, earth and the nature. The principle of imitation of nature revealed the characteristics of the whole universe and the endless law. While Zhuang Zi (another Taoism master) wrote in his work of Zhuang Zi that the heaven and the earth coexist with me (humans). Therefore, to imitate the nature, human beings must be inactive. It's not asking people to do absolutely nothing, but to make them not to do too much to change nature.

2.The Unity of Heaven and Humans - Harmonious Relationship between Man and Nature

The nature of the "Dao" not only lies in the harmony of ecological nature, but in the harmonious relationship between humans and the universe. It believes that only by following the principles and laws of the nature can the human beings be accepted by the nature. Between the natural principle and human principle, the latter can be sacrificed for the former one so as to maintain a balance between human and universe.

3.Attain the Ultimate Emptiness and Maintain the Absolute Tranquility - Live Beyond the Body and Mind

Taoism claims that an individual's natural existence and spiritual freedom should be above all external attachments and people should step out of their plight and break free from the material constraint and pursue individual liberation and free life. Lao Zi proposed that people return to the innocence. He believed that humans need to communicate with nature, restrain them from and beyond the material desires, keep their tranquil, free and pure mind from the worldly joys and sorrows, and maintain their own nature all the time. While from Zhuang Zi's point of view, the most important things in human life is freedom, and the morality, secular values, fame, fortune, laws and disciplines are just hings bind and enslave people. He believed that people should pursue a frugal life style and be content and happy with where they are.

4.Govern by Non-interference - Socio Ecological Viewpoint

Lao Zi believed that humans were abstracted from earth, earth from heaven, heaven from Dao, Dao from nature, and that everything can be done by doing nothing. Simply put, the basic ideas of the ruling by non-inference are letting nature do the magic and not acting arbitrarily. The first part means that the rulers must rule by following the natural principle and let people to cultivate, develop and improve themselves. While the government's role is to provide a favorable environment and help people to act freely. The idea society of Lao Zi is a harmonious world with no exploitation and oppression and develops according to the laws of the nature. In such world, people are not disturbed, there is no suspicion, contradiction or conflict among people. Everyone are free and equal in managing their own affairs and the entire society is peaceful and harmonious.

9 Taoist Teachings Used in Daily Life

1. Be frugal and restrain from extravagance.

2. Be generous and tolerating.

3. Keep a low profile and be silent.

4. Be modest even when you achieved a lot.

5. Be respectful even when you are in a superior position.

6. Do not act actively for fame, position or money.

7. Render good for evil.

8. Free yourself from the external attachments like position, fame and money.

9. Not moved by official honour or disgrace.

Taoist Practices

Static Exercise and Qigong

As the first step for Taoism practice, the static exercise (one branch of Qigong practice) emphasizes how to strengthen people’s physical fitness, prevent and cure diseases, and develop potentials by adjusting their breath, physical activity, consciousness and mind.

Martial Arts

According to the Chinese martial art historian Tang Hao, the Wudang martial arts, which belongs to the Tai Chi Quan, was exclusive to Taoist disciples. Therefore, practicing Tai Chi is a great way to understand the Taoism ideas.

Life nourishment Through Diet

First of all, the traditional dietetic therapy is evolved from the Taoist theory of health. In fact, many famous medical experts in Chinese history were also Taoists. They believe that one can try to cure disease through dietetic therapy first and if it don’t work, medicine can be used. Secondly, the alchemy was commonly used in Taoism. It’s also used in making food and make sure the food have the exactly taste and effect as expected. Lastly, Taoists believe people should eat multiple times a day and have less food at each meal, people should not eat until they are hungry and drink until they are thirsty, people need to be happy when having food, and they must clean their mouth and teeth after meal.

Living by Nature

Although living by nature isn’t suitable for modern times, the idea is good-intended. Modern people need to respect the nature and make better choice when it comes to nature and profits.


The worshiping rituals used in the Taoism are also used in daily life. Just like offering sacrifice to a god or spirit in Taoism, Chinese people also offer sacrifice to their ancestors and deceased ones. They often prepare incense, hell money and food when they pay visits to tombs of their loved ones. Qingming Festival is a special holiday for Chinese people to perform such rituals.

Holy Lands of Taoism in China

Mount Huashan near Xian City

Mt. Hua is situated in Huayin County of Weinan City, about 120 kilometers from Xi’an. It is rich in  history and culture, and there is an abundance of interesting sights, especially the dangerous cliff. Most of the cliffs are almost vertical to the ground and there is no natural path to the top of the mountain. Those who have admired the magnificence of Mt. Hua all marveled at its incredible beauty. Taoist Temples and pavilions were built on rocks on the mountain. Sometimes the buildings appear to be hanging in the air. If you dare, come and walk on the wooden plank!

Mount Qingcheng near Chengdu City

Located in southwest Dujiangyan city, Sichuan province, about 68km from Chengdu. Mount Qingcheng is one of the origins of the Chinese Taoism. It is divided into front mountain and rear mountain. The front mountain has beautiful scenery and many cultural relics while the rear mountain is mysterious and primitive. As one of the origins of Taoism, it's said that Zhang Daoling from Eastern Han Dynasty used to secluded here. Therefore, centered with the Tianshi Cave, Qingcheng Mountain has over 10 Taoism temples and caves like Jianfu Palace, Shangqing Palace, Zushi Hall, Yuanming Palace, Laojun Attire and more.

Mount Wudang near Wuhan City

The Mount Wudang is located in Shiyan city, Hubei province. It’s the home to a famous complex of Taoist temples and monasteries. Wudang Mountains are renowned for the practice of martial arts and Taoism as the Taoist counterpart to the Shaolin Monastery,[1] which is affiliated with Chinese Chán Buddhism. These Kungfus become very popular nowadays. Besides, the mountain is also famous for its magnificent buildings like Xuanyue Gate, Mozhen Well, Zixiao Palace and many more.

Experience Taoism Culture with Lilysun China Tours

Mt.Hua Day Tour with Foot Massage  2 Days Classic Chengdu Tour

Mt.Hua Day Tour with Foot Massage 2 Days Classic Chengdu Tour