Rooted in the ancient Chinese systems of beliefs, influenced by primitive shamanism and observation of natural cycles, Taoism recognises Laozi as its founder and Zhuangzi as one of its most brillant representatives. Early Taoism developed as an original answer to the bitter debates during the philosophically fertile time of the Hundred Schools of Thought, corresponding to the Warring States period. It was a time of seemingly endless warfare and chaos. This turbulent era gave rise to a kind of naturalistic quietism in accordance with the “process” of the universe: Tao. Action through inaction (wei wu wei), the power of emptiness, detachment, receptiveness, spontaneity, the strength of softness, the relativism of human values and the search for a long life, are some of its preferred themes.
Taoism is rooted in the oldest belief systems of China, dating from a time when shamanism and pantheism were prevalent. Elements of primitive Taoist thought include the cyclic progression of seasons, growth and death of sentient beings and their endless generation and questions about the origin of life. Observation of natural processes lead to divination pratices where the operator tries to detect opportunities in natural phenomenons (like crackles made in bones).
The oldest Chinese scripture is said to be the I Ching, a compilation of readings based on sixty-four hexagrams. The hexagrams are combinations of eight trigrams or gua, (collectively called bagua), resulting in sixty-four possible combinations. Laozi was intimately familiar with the I Ching, and the Tao Te Ching shows that he was profoundly inspired by it.
The Earliest Appearance Of Taoism (Huang-Lao Tradition)
The Huang-Lao Tradition(1) flourished after the Magic and Immortality Tradition(2). Later integrated into Daoism, it constitutes an important component of the religious background to the birth of Daoism. The Huang-Lao Tradition is a product of the marriage of Huang-Lao philosophy with the Immortalist(3) practises of the Magic and Immortality Tradition.
Huang-Lao philosophy emerged in the Qi state during the middle of the Warring States period (475-221 BC). It emphasized the cultivation of virtue as advocated by the Yellow Emperor and Laozi. By the early Han dynasty (206 BC – AD 24), the mainstream of Huang-Lao thought concerned itself with the Art of Government(4) and with Yin-Yang studies, but also included Immortalism. During the reign of the Han emperor Wu, the Magicians(5) reinterpreted the Yellow Emperor’s teachings, to the point of completely merging them with Immortalist thought, so that the Immortalist Tradition(6) came to be associated with the Yellow Emperor.
As Huang-Lao philosophy flourished in the Qi state, where the Immortalists were also most active, the two schools developed in the same environment, mutually influenced each other, and finally merged to form the Huang-Lao Tradition. This mutual integration was a long process which took place in three stages.
The first stage occurred when the Han emperor Wu gave exclusive patronage to Confucianism, leading the Huang-Lao and Immortalist schools to come closer together. The second phase occured from the reign of Han emperor Xuan to the end of the Western Han dynasty (AD 24). Emperor Xuan approved of Huang – Lao philosophy, and allowed the Magic and Immortality Tradition to flourish. During the third phase, the two currents merged to form the Huang-Lao Tradition in the reign of emperor Huan of the Eastern Han dynasty (AD 147-167).
During the reigns of emperors Ming and Zhang of the Eastern Han dynasty, the Huang-Lao Tradition had already become popular in the Imperial Court, and by the time of emperor Huan it was recorded in the official histories. In the Story of Wang Huan in the History of the Later Han, it is recorded that emperor Huan (reigned AD 158-167) patronized the Huang-Lao Tradition and ordered the destruction of the old sacrificial halls. After emperor Huan openly recognized the Huang-Lao Tradition, he sent officials twice a year to Laozi’s ancestral shrine at Ku Xian, and to the Yellow Emperor’s Guanlong Hall, marking the final stage of the formation of the Huang-Lao Tradition.
During the reign of emperor Ling, Zhang Jiao, founder of the Supreme Peace Tradition(7), gave himself the title of Great Virtuous Master(8) , affiliated himself to the Huang-Lao Tradition, took disciples and was honoured by the common people.
During the period of integration of Huang-Lao philosophy with the Magic and Immortality Tradition, there was a strong wave effect of magicalized Confucianism, leading the literary school of Esoteric Speculations 9 to stimulate the formation of the Huang-Lao Tradition.
Like the Magic and Immortality Tradition, the Huang-Lao Tradition did not have systematic teachings or religious doctrines, nor did it have a religious organization. But it was the predecessor to Daoism; without understanding the Huang-Lao Tradition, it is impossible to come to a full knowledge of the history of Daoism.
Author: Li Gang
Translator: David Palmer
(Courtesy of: Taoism Culture & Information Centre)
Other Historical Developments
I) Han Dynasty (AD 25- 220)
- The Supreme Peace Tradition takes its name from the Book of Supreme Peace . It was founded during the reign of emperor Ling (AD172-178) of the Eastern Han dynasty, by Zhang Jiao, a native of Julu in present-day Hebei. Initially, Zhang Jiao called himself the “Great Virtuous Master”, recognized his sins, affiliated himself to the Huang-Lao Tradition , took disciples, and claimed that his Talismanic Water and Incantations could cure illnesses. Many sick were indeed healed, and so he was believed in by the common people.
- During emperor Shun’s reign in the Eastern Han dynasty (AD 126-144), the “Mighty Commonwealth of the Orthodox Oneness‘ — which was popularly called the “Five Pecks of Rice Tradition‘ — was founded in ancient Sichuan by Zhang Ling, who had originally come from ancient Shandong. According to historical books such as the Biography of Zhang Lu in the Records of the Three Kingdoms, and the Biography of Liu Yan in the History of the Later Han, Zhang Ling came to Sichuan during Emperor Shun’s reign and started to study Dao on Mt. Heming, which is located in Dayi county, Sichuan Province. He wrote Talismanic Books there and spread Daoism among the local people. Because each follower was supposed to offer him five pecks of rice, the government called them “Rice Robbers”.
II) Daoism during the Wei, Jin, and Southern and Northern Dynasties (220-581)
- The Northern Celestial Masters Tradition
- The Southern Celestial Masters Tradition
III) Daoism during the Sui and Tang Dynasties (581-907)
- Flourishing of Daoism and Development of Religious Teachings during the Sui and Tang Dynasties(AD 581-907)
- Tortuous Development of Daoism from the An-Shi Rebellions to the Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms Period
IV) Daoism during the Song and Yuan Dynasties (581-907)
V) Daoism during the Ming and Qing Dynasties
(Courtesy of: Taoism Culture & Information Centre)
From the 1940s to 1982, Taoism was suppressed along with other religions in accordance with Communist Party policy. Much of the Taoist infrastructure was destroyed, monks and priests were sent to labor camps. This intensified during the Cultural Revolution from 1966 to 1976, nearly eradicating most Taoist sites.
Deng Xiaoping eventually restored some religious tolerance beginning in 1982. Since, communist leaders have recognized Taoism as an important traditional religion of China devoted to universal unity and peace and many temples and monasteries have been repaired and re-opened.
There are scholars who argue that Taoism is still a prevalent belief within China itself, estimating that the true number of Taoists worldwide, once Chinese believers are accounted for, may be over one billion, making it the second largest religion of the world; however due to the intertwined nature of Chinese traditional religion and other restrictions, a census on the number of adherents in China is not possible.
Taoism outside China
Modern estimates put the number of Taoists outside of Mainland China at 31,000,000, located predominantly in Taiwan. Around 30,000 Taoists live in North America. The oldest Taoist temple in the United States is Tien Hau Temple in San Francisco, built in 1852. Taoism has had a significant influence world-wide: in many Western societies it can be seen in acupuncture, herbalism, holistic medicine, meditation, martial arts, Feng Shui, and Tai Chi.
People in countries other than China practise the Taoist philosophy in various forms, especially in Vietnam and in Korea. Kouk Sun Do in Korea exemplifies one such variation. The Yao have a written religion based on medieval Chinese Taoism, although in recent years there have been many converts to Christianity and Buddhism. Outside China, they are to be found in Vietnam, Laos and Thailand.
Taoist philosophy has found a large following throughout the world, and several traditional Taoist lineages have set up teaching centers in countries