Taoism - History of the Development of Taoism as a Religion in China

Several findings from the last 15 years offer examples of how basic Taoist concepts such as yin and yang, dragon and tiger in stone-age times, and the fundamentals of Chinese medicine are probably much more ancient than previously thought. Modern archaeology has barely begun in China, but it is following a trend that can be seen in archaeology all over the world. This trend is to push back the dates for early sights much further into the past than originally estimated.

  • Early Neolithic sights in China have turned up dragon and tiger motifs made out of shells or rocks at graves that were also strewn with flowers and hemp. Other burials contained five stones placed with the body. This is symbolism that passed down into early Taoism.
  • In 2003, archaeologists announced preliminary analysis of symbols carved on eight large tortoise shells found in twenty-four Neolithic graves in Jiahu in Henan province. It is possible that these symbols represent the earliest examples of writing, over a thousand years older than cuneiform.
  • The so-called "Ice Man" found intact in the Alps was a Bronze Age hunter who could be positively dated to 5000 years ago. On his body were tattoos of the acupuncture points that could be used to treat the pain of a congenital back defect. This may indicate that acupuncture/moxabustion in some form, was a mature system much earlier that previously surmised.

In Chinese mythology the Queen Mother of the West [Xiwanmu] was one of the most famous of ancient immortals. Xiwanmu was one of the most powerful goddesses of early Taoism. The most famous human encounter with her was that of the Zhou Dynasty King Mu which, according to Chinese mythology, took place in the 8th century B.C. Much later, during the later Han dynasty, the first mass religious movement was centered on the cult of the Queen Mother. This culminated in the Yellow Turban uprising in 184 C.E., one of a long list of Chinese peasant uprisings based on belief that the end of the world was near.

In The Taoist Experience, a 1993 anthology published by the State University of New York Press, Livia Kohn writes:

"(Taoism) is an unknown and enigmatic, yet pervasive and ubiquitous aspect of Chinese, even East Asian, religion and culture. It is a force that has influenced Eastern thinking like few others; it is an organized religion, a philosophy, and also the attitude that individuals have toward their lives and the world."

"There were various precursors to organized Taoism, starting with the ancient philosophers Lao tze (pinyin Laozi), fourth century BCE, and Chuang tze (pinyin Zhuangzi), third century BCE, with their major written texts of Tao Te Ching, (Daodejing) and Chuang tze, (Zhuangzi).   In these texts these philosophers encouraged people to simplify their lives and recover the natural, all-encompassing force that created and maintained the world, which they called Tao" Kohn.

These philosophical texts provided the framework for the later religion and martial arts. "Both the Zhuangzi and the Liezi describe winged beings (yuren) who had transcended the bonds of yin and yang, i.e. existed beyond time and space. They lived on sacred mountains in a numinous realm removed from the world of humans. Both texts describe such beings as shenren, lit. "divine men" (also translated as Holy man, or realized being) using the character shen that usually denotes a god or spirit. Their characteristics are similar to early descriptions of Xian, pin yin, or hsien Wade Giles, - adepts or immortals - beings that have broken the bonds of the phenomenal reality through union with the Tao."  -Taoism and the arts of China

Wang Bi [226-249] in his commentary on the Tao Te Ching, wrote of the Ultimate Truth, the Tao: "We would like to say it does not exist [wu], yet it accomplishes everything. We would like to say it is existence/being there [you], yet we cannot see any form in it."   Tao Te Ching 14  Robinet, p. 85.

Ge Hong [280- ca.343] was the author of the Baopuzi [Master Who Embraces Simplicity] and a Taoist practitioner from southern China who came from a Taoist tradition independent of the Celestial Masters movement. It was later referred to as the Lingbao [numinous treasure] tradition. Ling is the ancient term for a shaman. These family traditions, including but not exclusive to the Ge and Xu families, are an important part of how knowledge from prior generations of Taoist masters was preserved and passed on over great lengths of time. Ge Hong brought an ancient fangshi [magician] tradition that goes back to at least the Han court of Emperor Wu and Cao Cao together with extensive scholarship. He inherited ancient practices from different members of his family and wrote a list of the contents of his teacher's considerable library. This practice was very individualized and secretive.

"He [Ge Hong] is a link in the chain of those who continued and developed the line of correlative thought of the Five Agents school." Robinet p.78

The second major Taoist movement was called Highest Clarity [Shangqing] and was started after Yang Xi received a series of revelations from the sky in 364-370 C.E. Yang was a medium in service to the Xu family prior to receiving these visions.[see Mao Shan] A few decades after the Shangqing revelations Ge Chaofu integrated the Highest Clarity scriptures with Buddhist cosmology and his family's fangshi traditions and called the result Numinous Treasure [lingbao]. The Lingbao tradition was much simpler to practice and so aided the spread of Taoism all over China in the coming centuries. Taoism reached its apex of influence during the Tang dynasty [618-755C.E.] with Highest Clarity at the top.

Historically, Taoism is divided into different periods of the Common Era. The Traditional Period is from the 2nd-12th centuries. There were two early Taoist regional movements that began simultaneously during the second and early third centuries.

  • One was Zhang Jiao's Taiping Dao which flourished in the east and had hundreds of thousands of followers.
  • The other early sect to appear during this same time period was the communal sect called Wudoumi Dao (Five Pecks of Rice Taoism), also called Orthodox Unity (Zhengyi), Tianshi Dao (Way of the Celestial Masters) or Gui Dao (Ghost Dao). The Zhenyi combined the philosophy of the Taoist sages with the internal practices of the fangshi [court magicians] and the messianic/millenaristic dimensions of popular cults of the time. Successive schools of Taoism continued with the same combination of influences and were usually inspired by new revelations from the sky given to gifted visionaries. [see Wudangshan]

"Taoism as an organized religion began in A.D. 142 with the revelation of the Tao by Taishang laojun, the Highest Venerable Lord, the personification of the Tao, to Zhang Daoling. He became the first Celestial Master and founder of the first organized Taoist school which was called Orthodox Unity. The sixty-fourth Celestial Master resides in Taiwan today… The Celestial Masters, far from being a special and unique movement of the time, were one among many, different mainly in that they did not get quite as deeply involved in political disputes and somehow managed to survive." Kohn

The next historical period is called "Organized Taoism". It lasted from the 5th to the 12th century, and was recorded during the Song dynasty (960-1279 CE). Chinese society collapsed after the fall of the Tang and did not come back until the Song. They resurrected things that had contributed to China's former greatness and Taoism was deemed one of these lost cultural treasures. So Taoism was again respected at the imperial court. During this period the boundaries between Taoist religion, Buddhism, and local cults began to be increasingly blurred.

"New" Taoism started in the 10th century and also continues to the present. It was called Golden Elixir Taoism. It was not a new sect per se, but a new way of applying nei dan practice to daily life. Writers such as Chuan, Po-tang in the 11th century and Li, Tao-chun in the 13th century described a new tradition of individual practice that was informed by Buddhism. The earlier practices of purifying the body and gaining some degree of control over autonomic functions were reinterpreted as a more Buddhist-like idea of purifying the mind. This was absorbed into the later Quanzhen sect and White Lotus sect teachings.

The Taoist Reformation Period lasted from the 12th-14th centuries, but it completely changed everything that came after it. This reformation was started by a monk, whose original name does not come down to us, who moved to Gao Shan. He is said to have had a revelation from Tai Sheng Lao Jun.

He reported that an immortal came down to the mountain and gave him the new name of Tien Hsu and twenty volumes titled,  Prohibitions from the Clouds. The immortal asked this monk to use these as the new textbook for Taoism and to clean up religious Taoism. Tien Hsu came down off of the mountain and (with a referral by Tsui Hao, an official of the Imperial court) he met with the Emperor. The Emperor was receptive to the idea of reforming Taoism and respectfully began the process.

Ever since the Taoist Reformation there has been wave upon wave of entities or groups that had two components:

  1. an individual spiritual practice with different combinations of meditation, chi gung and martial arts and
  2. the parity of the three major religions (Buddhism, Neo-Confucianism and Taoism).

The most prominent group was the White Lotus.

Under the Southern Song many new schools of Taoism sprang up, most important among them being the monastic sect Kuanhsien Tao [lit. The Way of the immortals or divine beings from the Observatory or Monastery] Mainly because they were supported by the Mongol rulers of the Yuan dynasty the Complete Realization sect is the only "reformed" Taoist movement to survive through the 20th century. The Kuanhsien Tao emphasized the integration of the teachings of Confucianism, Buddhism, and Taoism and the practice of inner alchemy.

The Kuanhsien Tao, Quanshen Dao, also called Northern Taoism, is also called Complete Perfection or, the Complete Realization sect. Being a monastic tradition they interacted with the meditative traditions of Chan Buddhism and Neo-Confucianism. Kuan hsien Tao taught mutual respect for all three of these traditions and stressed individual, spiritual, and moral discipline as opposed to liturgical, ritual, or philosophical concerns.

The Baiyun Kuan (White Cloud Monastery) in Beijing is the seat of the Complete Realization sect today The Baiyun Quan originally housed the Ming dynasty woodblock edition of the Taoist Canon which formed the basis for all modern reprints. This compilation is the source of all contemporary research into the religion of Taoism, and the deities worshipped at the Baiyun Quan remain the patriarchs of the modern scholarly tradition.

Also in China today, the Lung-mien (Dragon's Gate) is a sect is a sect of Kuan hsien Tao. The Lung-mien sect survives and is of interest because Dong, Hai-chuan, the founder of Pa Kua Chang, was a member. The circle walking practice still found in Pa Kua schools around the world comes from the Lung-mien sect. Master Ni, Hua Ching has brought traditions related to these Taoist sects, passed down through his family, to America and interpreted them for Western audiences through his many books, videos and public appearances.

  • Today the Zhengyi sect still exists in Taiwan. This is known as Southern Taoism and is popular in Fujian and Taiwan. It has been derided as "popular" Taoism and dismissed by intellectuals because Wudoumi traditions claim that they trace back to Zhang Daoling but the lineage is not clear past the historical Zhang ling's grandson, Zhang Lu. Zhang ling's great grandson may have started the Celestial Master's headquarters at Lung Hu shan but the issue is not clear and the source of much debate and controversy.

In Taiwan, Japan, and California the I Kuan Tao, while not claiming to be a Taoist sect at all, carries on teachings similar to other reformed Taoist sects. The I Kuan Tao recognizes all twelve world religions as equal. In the past the I Kuan Tao was closely connected to the internal martial arts on Taiwan even though it was illegal there until 1987.[It still is illegal in mainland China] The I Kuan Tao on Taiwan was mostly known through the work of the famous Pa Kua and Hsing-i master Wang, Shu Jin. Immortals whose cults continue into the present day in China and Taiwan are Master Red Pine (Chisongzi) and Wang Ziqiao.


Kirkland, Russell "The Taoist Tradition: A Historical Outline" (Athens, University of Georgia Press)

Kohn, Livia The Taoist Experience (State University of New York Press, 1993)

Stephen Little with Shawn Eichman   Taoism and the Arts of China

(Art Institute of Chicago) 2000

Robinette, Isabelle Taoism Growth of a Religion, (Stanford University Press 1997)


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